Ezra 1:1-10:44 Key Verse 7:6
“This Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him”
Today we would like to think about how we can successfully carry out the Lord's will in our own generation despite all the challenges we have in this post-modern era. We know that all problems have solutions. No challenge is too great to meet; no challenge is without a remedy.
What challenge then did Ezra have? How did he meet the challenge?
Part I. The challenge (Babylonianism) What challenge did Ezra face? We find an answer to this question in Ezra 7:6a, "This Ezra came up from Babylon." Geographically, Babylon was located to the north. Yet, this verse says, "This Ezra came up from Babylon". Although Jerusalem was "down" to the south, spiritually, she was located "up" above, existing on a "higher" level than Babylon. Babylon then represents the anti-thesis of what Jerusalem presents. In the first seven chapters of 2 Chronicles, Ezra showed the glory of Jerusalem, that is, the Lord's glory filling the Lord's temple (2 Ch 5:14). Babylon symbolizes the opposite of the holy Zion. Revelation 18:2 expresses the abominable nature of Babylon in this way: "With a mighty voice he shouted: ‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great! She has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird.’ " Here the "bird" is symbolic of Satan. Satan is the father of lies. Referring to the work of the devil (also known as Satan), Jesus says in John 10:10, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy..." The challenge Ezra had consisted of the height the Israelites had reached minus the lowest bottom they had gone down to after the seventy years of Babylonian captivity. According to Ezra 1:3, Cyrus encouraged any Jews who were willing to go back to Judah and build a priestly nation. The records indicate that only a small fraction of people participated in the venture. Although millions of Jews resided in Babylon, only forty thousand plus went back to Judah. Among those who went back, the challenges existed mostly inside of them. The Jews were greatly influenced by Babylon during the seventy years of captivity. God's will for them was for each of them to rise to God's level. God desired each of the Israelites to be a prophet. As God called the Israelites as a priestly nation, each of them was called to rise to the holiness of God. [cf. Exo 19:5-6; 20:18-21; Deu 5:23-27] But what did they become? They fell victim to the lures of idols. They were then evicted to a foreign land. How did they fare in the foreign land? They assimilated into the heathen culture. That is why the absolute majority of them chose not to return. But what about the returnees? A good way to measure the depths of their entanglement into the world is to see the leaders. In regard to the world that made it into the lives of the core of the Israelites, Ezra 9:1-2 read, "After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, ‘The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levities, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.’ " The Lord established the marriage between a believing husband and a believing wife as the instrument to produce godly offspring. However, the Israelites in the day of Ezra, even the leaders, abandoned God's ideal, that is, marriage between a believing couple. God designed marriage to fulfill God's purpose, that is, to populate the universe with godly children. But the leadership of Ezra's day ran afoul of the Lord's will.
The challenges Ezra had then included: will the leadership be able to rid themselves of the spirit of compromise? Are they willing to eradicate the fruit of their compromise, even to the point of excommunicating unbelieving wives and the children these women produced? To send out an unbelieving wife is like cutting off one's own finger or arm; it is like performing an open heart surgery, cutting off a diseased part. Will the leadership be able to reform even to that point? Children from the marriage between a Jewish father and an unbelieving mother had to be sent away. Will Ezra be able to conduct the reformation even to the point of sending them out?
In Abraham’s case, when the Lord God commanded him to send away Ishmael, what did Abraham do? Genesis 21:14 reads, “Early the next morning Abraham … sent her off with the boy.” The expression, "Early the next morning," indicates that although he must have shed many tears, he did not hesitate: he took a decisive action. Will the leaders be courageous enough to follow Abraham's example?
In our generation, one of God's institutions that the devil attacks ever so heavily and persistently is the godly marriage. There are many different kinds of marriage. But the only marriage that God is pleased with is between a truly believing man and a truly believing woman. How much is this ministry willing to uphold this model? There has been so much misunderstanding about "marriage by faith." What is marriage by faith? Marriage by faith means marriage between a believing man and a believing woman; it is the marriage that pleases God. The decision to marry rests on each person, but the couple are required to choose a marriage partner from among those who believe in the Lord. And if any single man or woman professes his or her faith, that faith must prove genuine. And what is faith? Among other points, a man of faith confesses that Jesus is the Lord and Savior. Thus both a believing man and a believing woman coming to marriage make a firm commitment to the Lord, that they would dedicate the marriage to serve the Lord.
Part II. The Momentum
How did Ezra meet the challenges? How was he able to stand up against this ‘Babylonianism’? Much can be said about this, such as his prayer, his spirit of repentance, his enthusiasm to serve the Lord, and much more.
But primarily in view of the words of the author, we can find two points: 1) Ezra had a clear sense of identity; and 2) Ezra was well versed with the Law of Moses.
First, identity. In Ezra 7:1-6 the author establishes his family record, tracing its root all the way back to Aaron the chief priest. There are a total of sixteen generations between Ezra and Aaron. His family line resembles a tree whose roots go down 160 feet deep below the surface. Aaron lived about 14 centuries before Christ. Ezra lived about 4 centuries before Christ. So between Aaron and Ezra about 10 centuries passed, a total of about 1000 years. The Lord nurtured the spiritual root of Ezra for one thousand years. Then came the Babylonian captivity which lasted for 70 years. Figuratively speaking, Ezra coming out of Babylon is like a tall red tree in the Sequoia National Park. A lot of trees there are very old, as old as 2200 years. Every once in a while due to lightning, fire breaks out and burns up hundreds of acres of land. The small trees burn down to nothing. But the tall trees come out intact. Ezra, who came out of Babylon, reminds us of Isaiah 6:13, which reads, "And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land." Ezra, who had a clear sense of identity as a royal priesthood, reminds us of a tree planted by the stream of living water, for the Lord allowed chief priests to enter the Most Holy Place which is God's dwelling place. Ezra kept the family records not just on a peace of paper but in his heart. What kept him going was not just the biological connection with his spiritual ancestry, but the spiritual awareness of his spiritual root. It was this awareness that helped Ezra keep his "identity" as a man of God. Owing to this sense of identity, he rejected to identify himself with that which is heathen. Since he had a deep root in the Lord, he had sufficient power and strength to resist the wickedness of the Babylonianism.
The towering stature of Ezra as a spiritual man reminds us of one missionary in Uganda. He is a fourth generation Christian. We do not need to talk about the hardships and difficulties any missionary has to go through in a place like Uganda. Due to the challenging environments not many foreign missionaries choose to stay in Africa permanently. So far he has been ministering in Uganda for more than a decade. The living conditions may or may not have worsened. But circumstances do not matter. What matters is the strength of the root. His identity as a missionary did not come from organizations. It came from his relationship with Jesus Christ, our high priest. Because of his spiritual root, the spiritual tree of this missionary prospers. After the Purdue International Conference, from the evening of last Sunday (July 27, 2008) to noon of the following Monday (July 28), Dr. John Jun put the missionaries through a missionary seminar. After we finished the Sunday evening program the African directors met together at 11:00 p.m. to pray for Bible Africa and World Campus Mission. Since the program was heavy, I thought our African missionaries would feel heavy hearted. But to my surprise I could see that their faces were all shining. This was particularly true of this missionary. Instead of uttering words of complaints or difficulties, he uttered words of comfort and encouragement. And he was kind to everyone in the meeting.
Let us examine ourselves. The Christians living in this 21 century are more blessed than Ezra, for unlike Ezra we all know that Jesus the high priest of all high priests has come. So we are like a tree which takes its root in a better source than that of Aaron, for Jesus Christ is the source of living water. If Ezra is a descendant of the royal priesthood, we are all the more so than Ezra, for unlike Aaron which is a shadow of the reality to come, Jesus Christ is the reality that has come. Speaking of the origin of the root that sustains our spiritual tree, the Apostle Peter says, "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Pe 2:9-10). No wonder that the early Christians of Peter's day came out victorious despite the winds of persecution.
Our generation comes with different sorts of persecution. Thank God for calling us as a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. May the Lord bless us to keep our godly identity, for this sense of identity will help us overcome the winds of temptations in this generation.
Second, devotion to studying the Bible. While we can compare the sense of identity as the outer frame of a tree such as roots, trunk, branches, or leaves, we can express the word of the Lord as the components that sustain the tree, such as water, sun, or air (oxygen). Let us now think about what Ezra did with the Word of the Lord. "This Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him" (Ezra 7:6). Notice the expression “well versed.” Pay attention to the origin of the Law of Moses, that is, "the Lord", "the God of Israel." The expression "well versed" means "familiar with" or "has mastery of.” When we combine these expressions with the origin of the Law of Moses, we can figure out the level of mastery Ezra achieved, that is, he made himself so well versed with the Law of Moses that he clearly understood who God is and what God is.
Who is God? God is holy; he is a holy person. What is God? God is spirit. How can we meet God who is holy? We can meet God who is holy by studying the holy Scriptures. How can we rise to the level of God who is spirit? We can grow to be a man filled with God's Spirit by studying the Bible, for all scripture is god-breathed. As Ezra "mastered" the Bible, the stream of living water flew within him. In Ezekiel 47:1-10, we see the water flowing from under the south side of the altar with its level steadily rising: ankle-deep, knee-deep, waist-deep, and swim-deep. While this level coincides with the level of the power of God's Spirit, it also corresponds with the level of one's spirituality, so that the deeper one's understanding of the Word of the Lord is the deeper and richer the flow of the Spirit running through his life gets. Such is the spiritual height Ezra attained. The net effect of his mastery of the Bible is the level of intimacy in his relationship with the God of Israel. He understood God in person. No wonder that he was appalled at the depths of corruption that permeated amongst the leaders of the returnees. Ezra's example indicates that we must study the Bible until God's will becomes crystal clear despite the layers of God's creations obscuring it.
In conclusion, we see the greatness of the challenges Ezra had. Yet, as he held onto the identity as a member of a royal priesthood, and by dedicating himself to studying the Living Word of the Lord, he successfully met the challenges of his generation and thereby laid the foundation for the new beginning of a priestly nation among the returnees.
Ezra's example sheds a great light on us, the light with which to overcome the challenges we are faced with: the challenge of materialism, the challenge of intellectualism, the challenge of secular humanism, and much more. One word: This Ezra came up from Babylon _________________________________________________________________ Class Exercise 1. The Book of Ezra begins with ________________________________ and ends with _________________________________. 2. Ezra is a descendant of ___________. 3. Ezra is a prophet, a teacher, and a __________. 4. After the exiles returned from captivity, they offered to the Lord burnt offerings and delivered to the local leaders who had jurisdiction over Jerusalem the king's orders. After these things had been done, _________ came to Ezra and said, "The people of Israel, including _________ and _______, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites.” 5. Only _________ opposed the majority decision to put away foreign wives. Some of the __________ supported __________. 6. While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites--men, women and children--gathered around him. They too ___________. 7. Name two important factors which became instrumental to Ezra successfully leading the reformation. 1) __________________ 2) __________________