Last Sunday we completed the first section of our current sermon series “Rebuilding the Church”. More than 20 years after their return from Babylonian exile, the first wave of God’s people completed their rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. This new structure, which we commonly refer to as Zerubbabel’s Temple, was the second (following Solomon’s) in Jewish history.
Following the years of reconstruction, these exiles who had returned continued to live and worship in and around Jerusalem and Judah. Despite some efforts to restore it, the city remained dirty and desolate. A large presence of foreigners who had been relocated to the area by conquering nations continued to threaten and oppose the Jews.
The Persian Empire continued to rule over all of Palestine. During the reign of King Ahasuerus (486-465 BC) an evil servant named Haman hatched a plot to eradicate all of the Jews. Thanks to the intervention of Mordecai, his plan was foiled and God’s people were saved. The Jewish celebration of Purim is held to memorialize God’s deliverance of His people from the wicked schemes of Haman. This story is recorded in the book of Esther.
Although they now had a temple, the pagan culture around them continued to influence and dominate their way of life. The Jews living in Jerusalem struggled to maintain purity and fidelity to God and His law. Increasingly they blended in with the world around them, until eventually there was very little difference to be seen.
In 458 BC, a priest and scribe named Ezra returned from Babylon with a second group of Jewish exiles. This was almost 60 years after the temple had been rebuilt, and it is safe to say that most of that generation had already passed away. Ezra came to Jerusalem with a different purpose - to evaluate the spiritual condition of the Jews, to teach and encourage them to follow God’s law, and to renew their tainted religious practices.
I. THE MAN EZRA (Ezra 7:1-10)
Ezra was a direct descendant of Aaron, and thus a Levite of the Aaronic priesthood. While the responsibility of tending to the temple of God had been given to the entire tribe of Levi, only those in the line of Aaron could act as priests. Other Levites served as singers, attendants, guards, or held various other duties. Not all Levites were priests, but all priests were Levites.
Ezra was a scribe - he copied, reproduced, and preserved manuscripts before the advent of the printing press. As he meticulously copied the Law of Moses as written in the Torah, he studied it and learned it well. He became an expert in this area, the foremost authority of his day.
Ezra was favored by God. Throughout his autobiographical narrative he states again and again that "the hand of God" was upon him. Obviously, he felt truly blessed by the LORD. God used Ezra in a mighty way to bring about the spiritual renewal of his people.
Ezra was more than a Biblical scholar… he had a burning desire to teach God’s law to the people and to practice it as it was written and intended. He was burdened that the Jews were not following the ordinances and statutes correctly and was committed to showing them their errors, with the goal of leading them back to proper worship and practice.
II. THE KING'S PROVISION (Ezra 7:11-28)
In keeping with His promise to restore His children from the hands of Babylon, God ordained that another sympathetic Persian king would rise to the throne. Just as Cyrus and Darius had done before, now King Artaxerxes would throw his support behind Jewish people. He decreed that Ezra journey to Jerusalem, and provided him with the people, money, freedom, and authority to reinstate the law of Moses.
Having received the king's blessing, Ezra gathered a congregation of people committed to restoring the tepid religious culture of the day. Funded by the king and the royal treasury, he had sufficient financial resources to support this effort. The king granted Ezra and the Jews with the liberty to practice their religion without excessive government interference. He even gave Ezra the authority to enforce God’s law upon the people.
III. THE PEOPLE GATHER (Ezra 8:1-20)
As he had done when describing Zerubbabel's return, Ezra now records a second list of families - those who were returning to Jerusalem with him as a second wave of exiles. As he recorded the names, he noticed that no Levites had volunteered to come along on the expedition.
There were some priests among the group, but no Levites to attend to all of the other functions of the temple. Although the priests might have been viewed as most prominent in the temple, Ezra knew he could not succeed without the extensive help of the Levites. The temple needed more than just priests, just as the church needs more than just pastors. Realizing their extreme importance, Ezra sent for several Levites and temple servants to go with them on the trip.
IV. A SAFE RETURN (Ezra 8:21-36)
Having received such a generous provision from the king, Ezra was ashamed to ask him for one more thing - an armed escort. The travelers were carrying a large amount of gold and silver, and were worried that they might be ambushed and robbed along the way. Before embarking on their journey, the people prayed and fasted that God would give them a safe trip.
Ezra selected some priests and Levites and distributed the valuables among them. He ask each of them to be responsible for the transport and protection of their share, until such time as they reached their destination. The trek took about 4 months. God was with them every step of the way and they arrived in Jerusalem safely.
Upon their arrival, three things took place. They gave the offering and utensils that they’d brought with them to the priests who were already presiding over the temple in Jerusalem. Then they offered burnt offerings to God. Finally, they delivered the king’s edict to the governors of the region, who then supported them accordingly.
Now that Ezra and his followers had arrived in Jerusalem, it was time for him to begin evaluating the spiritual condition of the people living there. Scripture does not indicate why Ezra felt called to do this… perhaps he had received a report that concerned him and suspected that the Jews in Jerusalem needed some help understanding and properly implementing the Law of Moses. Whatever the reason, he had now arrived and his work was about to begin.
Ezra was not the type of person who could be content with half-hearted or faulty service. He simply couldn’t allow the people of God to remain ignorant of the Jewish ordinances and customs. He was passionately dedicated to observing God’s law properly and fully. He knew that what the people were doing and what they should be doing didn't line up. I’d suspect that his motto was something like this - “If we are going to do this, let’s do it right.”
As I consider his attitude and apply it to us today, it leads me to ask myself... “Do we take obedience to God’s commandments seriously?” We can’t “do church” right if we don’t abide by His commands. Should we actually expect God to accept and be glorified by our willful disobedience and lackluster worship? Should He be pleased when we give Him less than our best? Should He be honored when we live by "our ways" rather than by "His ways"? After all, what good is a new temple when the people within it are not truly committed to God?