Posts Tagged 'Ezra'

EZRA/NEHEMIAH, Part 14

Revive Us Again!

Nehemiah 8

For people who don’t find history interesting, Nehemiah chapters 8—11 are a refreshing change of pace. The first 7 chapters of Nehemiah’s book are two parts history with one part of intrigue. Very often, the following 4 chapters are referred to “revival chapters,” because they contain all the elements of a genuine spiritual revival. Students of revivals throughout Church history will readily recognize the four elements:

  • A renewed and sincere interest in the Word of God and a return to expositional preaching;
  • A conviction of sin under the ministry of the Word of God;
  • Fasting, prayer, confession of sin, and heightened awareness of God’s justice and mercy;
  • A commitment to learn and follow the will of God.

When these four things are present in a church, then we might say that church is in a state of revival. Add verse 10 into the mix, and we not only have a revival, but a truly satisfied congregation:

…the joy of the LORD is your strength.

The setting of chapter 8 is found in the last verse of chapter 7:

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns…

Let’s look at what happened when the people of Judah had finally settled in their towns. It all began with the Preacher.

1. The Preacher, 8:1

They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel.

We haven’t heard from Ezra in a long time; it had been years since the end of his book and the beginning of Nehemiah’s. But Ezra hadn’t been idle during those years. While he may not have been directly involved in Nehemiah’s reconstruction efforts, he was very much involved in his own reconstruction efforts. Scholars generally agree that Ezra had already been teaching the Scriptures to the people of Judah; he was “reconstructing” the Law of God in their hearts. This was important because the generation now living in Jerusalem had no exposure to the Temple, the festivals, or most of the aspects of the religious life of their parents and grandparents; they had to be taught, and Ezra did just that.

It was not accident or coincidence that the people asked Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses. Their hearts were ready for more of God and ripe for a move of God.

2. The Place of Meeting, 8:3, 4

It’s hard enough for a modern preacher find a congregation that can pay attention to the Word of God for a mere one hour Sunday morning, but here, Ezra read the Word of the Lord all day, and the people listened!

Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. (verse 4a)

So we have recorded for us the first time a pulpit was used in the ministry of God’s Word. It wasn’t the Baptists that invented it, it was the people of Ezra’s day. It was a special elevated platform (the Hebrew means “tower”) built specifically for this purpose, about 300 feet from the Temple grounds.

To most people, a 40 minute sermon seems like an eternity, but the people who had gathered to hear Ezra had been in captivity all their lives; they heard stories about the old days when God moved during the ministry of His Word; they had a taste of His Word and they were hungry for more.

3. The Listeners, 8:2—3; 5—6

A. They were many but not all, verse 2

the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.

Notice who was there to hear the Word: those who could understand it. This tells us a couple of things. First, from the perspectives of Ezra and Nehemiah, some preparations must have been made. Ezra had prepared their hearts for more through his ministry. Perhaps they made arrangements for babies and children to be looked after so as to keep distractions down to a minimum. But also, not every citizen was there; some didn’t show up for “whatever” reason. Maybe they had better things to do that morning, like wash their cars or plant their gardens. The point is, a true revival of faith is brought about when faithful followers of Christ have an interest and show up.

Second, the people that cared enough to show up that day already had an understanding of Scriptures. They didn’t need to be taught more; they didn’t need to be convinced to listen to Ezra. They understood what God wanted of them because they understood the Scriptures.

These things help us understand the nature of a true revival. It starts, not with an evangelist and praise band; it begins with individual believers who are already sold out to God; who are already in His Word and devoted to studying it. To those, revival comes.

B. They listened, verse 3

And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

This verse is quite remarkable for two reasons. First, the people, who already had an understanding of Scriptures because they knew them, listened “attentively” as Ezra read it. They knew it, they could probably recite it, yet they still listened “attentively.” They paid strict attention as they heard the Word being read. This is really astonishing. Very often, we Christians, who are so familiar with the Bible, have the bad habit of skipping over the verses or stories we think we know so well. They were more interested in the book than the preacher; they sought the message, not the man.

The other reason this verse is so remarkable is the fact that the those who gathered to hear the Word read, stayed and listened “from daybreak till noon .” Imagine that! For some 5 hours or longer, the faithful stood and listened as Ezra read the Scriptures. Talk about devotion and reverence. They were really interested; they had been held in exile for 70 years, finally they’re out and they can’t get enough of the Word of God!

C. They were reverent, verse 5

and as he opened it, the people all stood up.

They didn’t have padded pews to sit on. They stood up as Ezra read the Word for 5 hours. They stood up; a sign of reverence and obedience. These people, as a show of their high regard for the Scriptures and of their devotion to its admonitions, “stood up.” No wonder revival came to these people; they were ready for it every way.

D. They responded, verse 6

They people responded in two stunning ways:

…and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!”

When the crowd shouted, “Amen! Amen!,” they were basically shouting to Ezra, “We’re with you! We’re with you!” And the fact that they repeated it twice shows how intense the feeling was behind their affirmation.

Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

Their second response was to “bow down.” This phrase occurs only a handful of times in the Old Testament and it’s an undignified posture. These people got down on all fours, with their foreheads on the ground in humble, reverential worship of God.

From the posture, they “worshiped” God. They responded to the demands of the Word by assuming a humbling position and offering God the adoration of their hearts. They yielded completely to the Scriptures with all their being.

4. The preacher

A. He blessed the Lord, verse 6

Ezra praised the LORD

Literally, Ezra the preacher began by “blessing the Lord.” He recognized God as “the great God,” far greater than himself or his ideas. The message of God was great; Ezra was merely a messenger. To “bless” the Lord means to make God smile. When we bless the Lord, we make God happy.

B. He stuck to the Book and spoke clearly, verse 8

They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

It seems as though several preachers read and interpreted the Scriptures that day in addition to Ezra. Some scholars think Ezra was the “head reader” and the Levites were assigned by him to paraphrase the Hebrew into the language of the exiles. Some of those born in exile may not have had a good understanding of the Hebrew language, so Ezra made sure that he did whatever was necessary to make the plain meaning of the Word clear, and the people understood.

Ezra and the Levites made the Law of God clear, they did not teach their own ideas. They simply enabled the people to grasp what was being read: the Book of the Law. They did no engage in silly histrionics in trying to make it more interesting. How different from today’s church, where all manner worldly methods are employed in “preaching the Word.”

As R.L. Stevenson correctly observed: “The Bible should be read as freshly as a book, not dreamingly as the Bible.”

Ezra and the Levites were not song-and-dance men, they were not entertainers. Their job was to make the people understand the Word of God. For the preacher, it is not enough simply to read a verse or two and tell humorous stories. It’s not enough for the people in the pews to simply hear the Word. They must use their reasoning minds to understand it; to grasp intelligently the mind of God.

We have to admire Ezra as much as we admire Nehemiah, for he was faithfully adhering to the prophet Jeremiah’s admonition:

Let the prophets who have dreams tell their dreams, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain?” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:28)

5. The effect of the Word

A. They wept, verse 9

For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

This was the first response of the people to the Word of God. They were filled with sorrow because of a consciousness that the Law of God had been broken. The powerful exposition of God’s Word will always bring about a deep conviction of sin. Notice, it wasn’t a hymn or worship chorus that brought about the tears, it was the preaching (exposition) of the Word of God. This is what brings about revival in a person’s heart. Revival is not an emotional gimmick, but a conviction of the heart caused by an honest exposition of God’s Word, not a manipulation of it.

This kind of sorrow is not a kind of self-centered remorse, but a genuine sadness of knowing how far from God’s ideal you have fallen and how much you have offended Him. But this kind or sorrow is not meant to last long:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)

B. They rejoiced, verse 12

Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

When the Ezra and Nehemiah saw the people weeping, they said something that may sound odd at first, but was actually very wise:

This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” (verse 9)

This revival among the people was NOT about the people; it was about God. The day during which the Word was read was a holy day to God; it was set apart for HIM, not THEM. Had the people continued in their weeping and mourning, the day would have degenerated into a wishy-washy self-centered celebration of emotionalism, and that is not what a revival is for. The religious leaders forced the people to get a grip on their emotions and to remember Whose day this was.

Then they told the people what they should be doing:

Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (verse 10)

Repentance was to be followed by celebration. God’s Word, at first, may cause sadness and conviction and it may cause a heart to melt or break, but that’s not the end it! The end-goal of godly conviction must always be rejoicing and celebration in the Lord. Or, another way to look at it: mourning because of sin must always precede the joy of salvation.

C. They ministered to those in their midst in need, verse 10

Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared.

The beautiful words at the end of verse 10 have formed the basis of many sermons: The joy of the Lord is your strength. Now you know the context. Repentance, followed by joy leads to service, which leads to the ability to tap into God’s strength. This is how believers look after each other. Those who have share with those who don’t have, in the strength of the Lord. True revival will lead to needs within the community of faith being met.

The Word of the Lord, read and taught faithfully, will bring about a revival in the hearts of those who hear it IF they are seeking more of the Lord. The Word of the Lord will convict of sin, which will lead to repentance, ending in joy. This idea of “joy” was one reason why John wrote his first letter:

We write this to make our joy (or your) complete. (1 John 1:4)

God does not want any believer to be miserable, He doesn’t want you to have a little bit of fun. God wants His people to have a whole lot of fun around His word and in service to Him. Studying the Word of God and listening to its exposition ought to bring an abundance of joy into your life. If it doesn’t, there is a problem in your life that you need to face up to. Something is seriously wrong with a Christian who has no interest in God’s Word; no interest in reading it, studying it, hearing it preached, and no interest in Christian fellowship. Those are the things that must precede any revival.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

EZRA/NEHEMIAH, Part 3

Ezra: The Man

Between chapters 6 and 7, there is a period of some 60 years during which we have no record of any event that may have happened in Palestine. Historians think that Zephaniah 1:9—14 and the prophecy of Malachi belong to this period. The events in the book of Esther belong to this silent period, as well.

The first six chapters of the book of Ezra tell of the first 50,000 Jews who left Babylon to return home, led by Ezra. The Jews had gone into captivity 70 years earlier because they continually rebelled against God and fell into idolatry. The cure for their idolatry was a forced vacation in Babylon. God truly gave them the “desire of their hearts.” These Jews wanted to worship false gods, so Yahweh gave them what wanted so much: to live among heathens and pagans.

There was a second wave of Jews that returned home, also under Ezra’s leadership. In the last four chapters, we meet the man Ezra. He wrote the whole book, but the first seven chapters are all about the remnant’s return home, the revivals, the reconstruction and so on. Chapters 7—10 tell the story of the second return under Ezra and the reformation led by Ezra. They tell the personal story of this man Ezra.

We may learn a lot about the kind of people God uses to do His work. When it comes to the character and life of this man Ezra, let’s consider the following points:

1. His preparation, 7:10

Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel. (Ezra 7:10)

God may call a person to His service, but how that person gets ready to work for God is entirely up to him.

To human beings belong the plans of the heart, but from the LORD comes the proper answer of the tongue. (Proverbs 16:1)

Ezra had prepared his heart for the day he would and his people would return to Jerusalem. Ezra had faith; he knew that day was coming because He had faith in God and His Word.

We hear a lot about “revivals” these days. The fact is, when one person determines in his heart to seek God, to study the Word, to obey it and teach it, then a revival has already begun! A person’s heart must first be right with God before his life can be of any use to God. What did Ezra study? All he had were the books of Moses (the first five books of the Old Testament) and Joshua. No wonder Ezra was the man God chose to lead his people home! Look at what he was reading; look at the examples he had to follow. Ezra not only studied the Word of God, but he did what it said. Anybody can study the Bible, but it takes a committed, determined believer with the right heart to obey it.

The beautiful thing about the Bible is that when a person studies it, they can’t keep it to themselves. Ezra couldn’t; he taught what he had learned. This is what the Word of God does to a believer; it makes him want to share it with others. Preparations for service belong to man—he has to put forth the effort to study the Bible, to prepare both his heart and his mind to do the work of God—but the revelation of God’s Word comes from God Himself.

Ezra couldn’t have done what he did without the hours of preparation he spent. Modern Christians wonder why they live such impotent lives. They wonder why the Lord never seems to choose them for some great work. Maybe it’s because they aren’t ready for God to use them because they are ill-prepared because they have never seriously studied the Word of God.

2. His qualifications, 7:6

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.

Because Ezra was faithful in his preparations while living in Babylon, an invisible and powerful force was behind him. Remember, Ezra spent years in preparation for something he had no proof was going to happen. He simply believed God was going to allow His people to go home and he wanted to be the one leading the way. Ezra was so devoted to his God that his king was completely taken with him! Imagine the irony: a godless king so impressed with a godly man that he gave that godly man whatever he wanted!

There are some Christians who think God will simply use any believer; that because God is “no respecter of persons” that means in God’s eyes all Christians are the same. Not so! God has always been jealous of the character and qualifications of those who serve Him in positions of leadership. Consider Moses; he was no schlump. He was highly educated and perfectly suited to deliver his people notwithstanding what he thought of himself. Consider Paul; he was no theological lightweight. God needed a man who could put into words the doctrines and theology of the Christian faith; Paul was perfectly suited to do just that.

Are you ready to work for the Lord? Do you know what your particular gift or talent is? Are you honing your ability to share the Word with the lost? You say, “Ezra was a special case.” Ezra was not a special case! He was just a man, a priest without place to practice his profession, who wanted to do the best job he could for his God. He had no guarantee that he would even live long enough to lead his people back home. Ezra wanted to be ready with his call came.

All believers who, like Ezra, take their faith seriously, study the Word, practice the Word, and live in readiness to serve Him, have the unseen Hand of God with them. You will live a life of excellence, as Ezra did, when you finally decide to put God first. If you dither and play games with God and do your own thing, you will never experience the fullness of God’s power, anointing, or blessing.

3. His Provisions, 7:21, 22

Now I, King Artaxerxes, decree that all the treasurers of Trans-Euphrates are to provide with diligence whatever Ezra the priest, the teacher of the Law of the God of heaven, may ask of you— up to a hundred talents of silver, a hundred cors of wheat, a hundred baths of wine, a hundred baths of olive oil, and salt without limit.

What a remarkable couple of verses! Artaxerxes, who had his own religion and his own god, was so impressed with Ezra that he made sure Ezra had everything he needed to get his people home in style. Ezra had prepared his heart, and God supplied his needs through the unlikeliest of sources. In other words, for the modern believer, if you do your part, God will do His part. God never sends His workers out ill-prepared. When you’ve done all you can do to prepare your heart for service, God comes through for you in ways unimagined.

Why do we fear stepping out in faith and working for the Lord so much? Do we think we are not good enough? Not smart enough? When you prepare you heart to work for God, you are automatically qualified to work for Him! And God doesn’t send you out like an orphan to engage in the greatest work of all. There is no greater work a Christian can be engaged in than that of sharing the Gospel and the love of Jesus with the lost. You bet God will make sure you have the “supplies” you need to get the job done.

4. His commission, 7:25

And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them.

If you have the Word in you, you will become God’s messenger.

For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. (Malachi 2:7)

Ezra’s commission came from God, but Artaxerxes articulated it to him. Sometimes that happens; God is sovereign and will use a variety of ways to call a believer into service for Him. But any believer who has God’s wisdom in his heart will, necessarily, will recognize that call when it comes and will become a messenger of the Lord.

This heathen king gave Ezra quite a task to perform! Were you in Ezra’s shoes, how would you feel? Would you be quaking in those shoes? Or would you be ready, willing, and able to perform that task? The fact is, if the Church of Jesus Christ is to gain any ground in winning those who don’t know Him, His Word must be clearly taught by those who know it and have experienced His presence and power in their own lives.

Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. (Romans 10:17)

The thing that stirs up a sinners heart are not the thoughts and opinions of a mere man, but the Word of God; how will they hear the Word of God unless those who possess it give it to them?

And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15)

You, who know the Word have a responsibility to share it.

5. His Single-Mindedness, 8:21, 22

There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.”

The normal thing for a person to do is to ask for help when they need it. Ezra, as he was about lead his people across the dangerous Palestinian wasteland, looked at the throngs of men, women, and children, and realized he needed help! But what did he do? Did he ask the king? No, he did not, because had he asked for help, he would shown the king that he really didn’t trust God after all. Ezra had to practice what he preached.

A great many Christians today say all the right things. They can quote all the good Bible verses, they know the proper cliched sayings, but when the rubber hits the road, they don’t really trust Him; they turn to the world for advice, counsel, and help. Ezra, though, was not like that. Now, Ezra was human, though, and we get the impression that the thought did cross his mind, but he dismissed it because to ask for help after proclaiming his faith would have embarrassed him. What did Ezra do instead? He called for a fast. Instead of tucking-tail and crawling back to the king, he knew to Whom he had to turn.

Do you? What is the first thing YOU do when you are faced with a challenge? Do you “call for a fast?” Do you shut the door, get on your knees, and get ready to have a serious conversation with God? Or do you betray your faith and your God by begging the world for help? These are serious questions for people who claim to be serous about their faith. God wants people who are serious; He wants single-minded servants who will trust in Him.

6. His Offense, 9:2—3

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.” When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled.

Ezra was hurt and offended because his people had, once again, disobeyed the Lord. What kind of people could be exiled for 70 years and still not get it? This intermarrying was a clear violation of God’s Law:

Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons… (Deuteronomy 7:3)

The offense was against God, but their contempt for God’s Word offended him. When a believer is full of that Word; when a believer is in love with God and completely devoted to God’s Word, whenever anybody goes against that Word, it offends them. True believers are hurt and offended for God when they are around those who live rebelliously and recklessly.

The depth of our sorrow over the sins of others will be according to the depth and reality of our devotion to the cause of God. The Church needs more people like Ezra, who are righteously angered by sin. We need more people like Jeremiah:

Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. (Jeremiah 8:21)

Jesus Christ was like that. The sin around Him caused Him to weep. Does it cause you to weep?

7. His Success, 10:12; 19

The whole assembly responded with a loud voice: “You are right! We must do as you say.”

They all gave their hands in pledge to put away their wives, and for their guilt they each presented a ram from the flock as a guilt offering.

Wow! Pleasing God became more important to Ezra’s people than pleasing themselves. Their relationship with God became more important than their relationship with their wives. Their salvation was more important than their marriages. What is important to you? Is pleasing your family, or other people, more important to you than pleasing God?

This incident tells us how prayer changes things. Thanks to the earnest prayer of Ezra, God’s will prevailed and that resulted in the spiritual uplifiting of all the people. It may well be that some of those “foreign” wives were very dear to those men. But sin is sin and wrong is wrong. And the only way to change people’s sinful and wrong behavior is through the power of prayer. Ezra didn’t send these people to lawyers or counselors. His people came to the correct conclusion on their own through Ezra’s example and prayer.

The secret of Ezra’s success is really no secret at all. It is within the grasp of every Christian if he would but reach out and lay hold of it. Success in serving the Lord is simply a whole-hearted loyalty to God’s Word and work. So many of us are frustrated in walk with Christ because we’re not really all that devoted to Him. May our faith never be a convenience. May our faith be as necessary to us as the air we breathe.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

EZRA/NEHEMIAH, Part 2

THE KEY OF SUCCESS

(IN THE LORD’S WORK)

Ezra 6:14

So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo. They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia.

This verse may be taken to be the key to success, insofar as the remnant was concerned. Servants and maids, masters and mistresses, priests and laymen, in all close to 50,000 exiles eventually accepted the offer of Cyrus to leave their captivity and journey from Babylon to Jerusalem.

It was a long and perilous trek through sometimes hostile, always unfriendly terrain, yet this remnant considered themselves blessed to be able to return home and engage in the work of rebuilding. Really, these people were involved in the greatest work of all: the work of the Lord.

God’s work takes many forms; sometimes it may be in the form of preaching a sermon or teaching a Bible class. Other times the work of Lord may look a lot like physical labor, like laying brick upon brick . The Lord’s work is doing whatever He tells you to do in order to fulfill His will and purpose(s) for your life. For this remnant, God’s will was for them to rebuild the City of David. This they did with great joy.

1. The work, 1:3

Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem.

The primary task of the remnant was not to rebuild their homes, although in time they would. The house they were commissioned to build was for the honor of Yahweh; it was to be a testimony to His Holy Name. This was to be God’s House, it was His will, and yet it was Cyrus’ command. Sometimes God’s work may not look like God’s work to you; it may come from unexpected sources or be prompted by unlikely circumstances.

But if you are a believer, it is your solemn duty to do the work God has commissioned you to do, in whatever form it may take. God’s work for you may take a surprising form, but if it is to His glory, do it. God’s work for you may be not be what you expect, but it it is His will, then pour your heart and soul into it. God’s work for you may be the very last thing you think you are capable of doing, but if it honors the Lord, then put your hand to that plow and don’t look back. Every believer should be engaged in building a house of testimony for God.

2. The beginning, 3:3

And they set the altar upon his bases; for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries: and they offered burnt offerings thereon unto the LORD, even burnt offerings morning and evening.

Notice the very first thing they they worked on: the altar. This work began in “the seventh month” (3:1), one of the most sacred months of the Jewish year. The first day of this month, Tishri, is Rosh Hashanah, the “new year.” Ten days after that is the Day of Atonement, then the Feast of Tabernacles. So you can see, Tishri was an important month; the perfect month to start a great work for God!

During their 70 year sojourn in Babylon, the Jews had no way to worship as they should; there was no temple, no altar. Instead, they were surrounded by dozens of Babylonian temples to a variety of deities. No wonder the people, as soon as they were set free, went straight for the altar to repair it.

The altar is the only acceptable place for God’s work to begin, whatever it may be. The altar must be given its true place in the house of God’s Church if it is to be built up and established. What is the altar of God’s Church? It’s not the doctrines of man. It’s not a church constitution or a book of denominational polity. The altar of the Church is the altar of Cross, and the Cross must be the basis of any work we do for God. All our work must be built upon the Cross, not upon our wisdom or talents or ideas and goals. Any attempted work for God is in vain and will come to nothing if it is not built on the Cross of Christ.

Notice what the people did once the they repaired the altar. They did not hold a “grand opening” or congratulate each other for a job well done. They immediately held a great worship service. This worship service was not some carefully crafted and orchestrated liturgical event, it was a spontaneous outburst of praise to God because the people were filled with joy and thanksgiving. The Church can take a lesson from this faithful remnant, because this is the kind of worship that results from when God’s people work His will.

3. The enemies, 4:1, 2

When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the LORD, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”

You can be sure that what happened to the remnant when they began to rebuild the House of God and when they offered God shouts of praise and worship will happen to any believer who decides to live a life wholly dedicated to God.

Never forget Peter’s warning:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)

It’s not a question of “if you attract the enemy” it’s “when will he notice you!” The Devil always sets his sights on Christians who are on fire and sold out to Jesus Christ. He has absolutely no interest in “the 75% majority” of Christians who are lazy and lukewarm; he has them right where he wants them and they pose no threat to him or his plans because they never attempt to do anything for God. But if you are a worker; if you are producer for the Kingdom of Heaven, you can be sure that it is just a matter of time before the enemy comes prowling around you.

The remnant stirred up the enemies all around them they worked for God and they came, professing to be their friends and people who loved God as they they did. God’s enemies are nothing if not slick and deceptive. And if you are not alert and if you don’t exercise some God-given discernment, you will be taken in and you will be devoured and spit back out, useless for God.

These enemies of the Jews offered to help them, but of course, their intent was really to destroy them. The child of God will always be destroyed when get in bed with the Devil. You cannot do the work of God with the Devil’s tools. Their work of restoration was a great success and they attracted their enemies. Thank God there were some men of God who had discernment and could see through they schemes of the enemy.

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (2 Corinthians 6:14—15)

When it comes to living and working for the Lord, there can be no compromise! And how the Devil hates believers who know how to stand up to him and stand their ground for Christ. The Devil never lets up his attacks, by the way.

Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. (verses 4, 5)

But the one thing the enemies got wrong was this: they set out to frustrate “their plans.” Rebuilding and restoring the Temple and Jerusalem was never “their plans,” they were God’s plans, and the Devil can never frustrate the plans of God. He will always prevail.

4. Temporary interruption, 4:24

Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

Sometimes, the enemy may win the battle, but he will never win the war! Just as in Ezra’s day, any apparent victory Satan may win is short lived. However, a careful reading of the text tells us just how and why the Lord’s work stopped: it was stopped by a lie. The enemies of the Jews lied about them, lied about their motives, and the king who was allowing the Jews to do their work was duped by all the lies.

Now, put yourself in the place of that faithful remnant. For two generations they had lived in exile. Finally, by the grace and providence of God, they were allowed to return home and rebuild His house, His city, and their lives. For a time, they had success, and they praised God, gave Him the glory and the credit, and all of a sudden, they had to stop the work all because of a lie. How do you suppose these people felt? Had they misinterpreted God’s will? Was God’s Word now untrustworthy? Did His providence mean nothing at all? Was it all a bad joke?

These are questions every single believer asks himself when he hits the proverbial brick wall and can’t seem to go around it or over it. It’s the old story of the human condition: life is never easy. Indeed, a true believer can be living according to the Word of God, doing just as he should be doing to fulfill God’s will for him and still experience seeming defeat at the hands of Satan. When that happens, you probably feel like Job. You definitely feel like the faithful remnant.

But winning a battle is not the same thing as winning the war.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

5. A renewed effort, 5:1, 2

Now Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the prophet, a descendant of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Joshua son of Jozadak set to work to rebuild the house of God in Jerusalem. And the prophets of God were with them, supporting them.

In the face of certain defeat, what did the remnant do? They preached they Word of God and got right back to work. Another revival broke out. When God’s people listen to His Word and trust His Word, they will always move ahead. The trouble with so many so-called Christians today is that they would rather trust what they see and hear, instead of trusting in the Lord. But notice, in this bad and confusing time, the prophets—the preachers—stood up and boldly started proclaiming God’s Word. They didn’t let circumstances stop them. There is a great need today for preachers to stand up and preach the Word of God, not their own ideas. When God’s work comes to an apparent standstill, it’s the Word of God, proclaimed loudly and clearly, that gets the discouraged workers going again. Cheer leading, and other worldly methods of encouragement won’t do it. The only thing that get a discouraged child of God up and working again is a big dose the Word.

This faithful remnant needed to be reminded of that which they knew: Yahweh had saved them out of Babylon so they could serve Him in Jerusalem. It’s hard to remember things like that when circumstances are against you. God bless the prophets and preachers who don’t berate and beat up their flock when the flock strays a bit!

Haggai and Zechariah preached the Word, and it was not preached in vain. Darius, the king who had been duped, saw the light and “providentially” found the decree made by Cyrus that set the Jews free. He immediately set things right by sending a letter to those liars who were trying to stifle the people of God:

Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site. (6:7)

Thanks to the faithful prophets, we read this:

So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo. They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia. (6:14)

Even though we are “more than conquerors,” we are still subject to the foibles of all people. We get frustrated in our work for God. We get discouraged. We get “weary in our well-doing.” The cure for our weakness is a clearer understanding of God’s will and God’s Word. It’s a greater appreciation for God’s grace and His purposes in our lives, both as individuals and as the Body of Christ. It’s a whole-hearted devotion and commitment to those purposes no matter what.

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

STUDIES IN ACTS, Part 8

A 1920s religious revival at Fairmont Baptist Church in Covington, AL

Acts 11:19—26

After the martyrdom of Stephen, evangelism among the population in Jerusalem came to screeching halt. In God’s providence, the Christians who were forced to leave Jerusalem brought the Good News to the people in Palestine. Wherever they went, these Christians shared the Gospel and caused the Church to grow. God took an awful event, the death of Stephen, and the subsequent persecution of some members of the Jerusalem church, and turned it into a golden opportunity to enlarge the church through the mission work of the persecuted Christians. These wonderful Greek-speaking Jews who fell in love with Jesus through His teachings returned to their homelands, proclaiming the Gospel to their people.

This section of Acts tells of two movements of the Early church along the Mediterranean Sea. The first was northward from Jerusalem to Antioch in Syria. The Gospel was freely preached and widely embraced in that city. The other movement was southward from Antioch to Jerusalem. The first carried the message of salvation to those in the north, the second carried material blessings from the new converts in Antioch to the the needy believers in Jerusalem.

In the history of Christianity, no other city of the Roman empire, save Jerusalem, played as large a part in the life and fortunes of the Church as Antioch, in Syria. This city was the birthplace of of foreign missions and the home base for Paul’s outreach to the eastern half of the Empire. It was the first place where believers in Jesus Christ were called “Christians.”

Unfortunately, Antioch was was also where the first schism threatened to split the infant church: should these Gentile-Christians submit to certain aspects of the Law, including circumcision.

Antioch also produced some of the greatest thinkers in the church, including Barnabas and Paul in the first century, Ignatius and Theophilus in the second century, Lucian, Theodore, Chrysostom, and many others throughout the third and fourth centuries.

1. Revival

(1) Its origin, verse 19

…the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed…

The Jewish establishment in Jerusalem thought Stephen’s death and their subsequent persecution of some members of “the church” would quash the enthusiasm of the followers of Jesus. They thought wrong! The unregenerate mind always thinks wrong when it comes to thinking about God:

Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee… (Psalm 76:10a, KJV)

The opponents of Christ may scheme ways to kill the Church, but it was Jesus who spoke those unchanging words of victory:

I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)

God always works this way; whenever the Enemy thinks he has the upper hand, God takes that negative and turns it into a positive. He did it for Paul many time;, for example:

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. (Philippians 1:12)

So God took what seemed like a terrible tragedy—the death of Stephen—and turned it into the event that changed the direction the Church was going in. This singularly negative event was the best thing that could have happened to the church in Jerusalem, for it got them out of their pews and onto their feet, carrying the Good News wherever they went.

(2) How it happened, verses 20, 21

Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

There were two things these missionaries had going for them: the Word of God and the Lord’s hand. In other words, these evangelists not only proclaimed the Good News (the Word of God), but there was divine power behind their words (the Lord’s hand).

God’s Word is not like any other written word. No book has the power behind it that God’s Word has. Paul expressed a similar sentiment in 1 Thessalonians 1:5—

…our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.

It’s not the words of the preacher, it’s the Word of God he’s preaching that works with the hand of the Lord. We preach Jesus, and the hand of the Lord works wonders.

For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:9)

A preacher may preach a well-crafted sermon, but if the Word is not in it, there will be no power behind it. A preacher may may preach his opinion energetically, but if his opinion is not grounded in the Word, it’s all bluster that amounts to nothing. A preacher may preach great and soaring doctrines of the Church, but if those doctrines are devoid of the Word of God, he is nothing but noise coming from behind the pulpit. We are laborers with God when we work with God.

(3) The result, verse 21b

…a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

Thanks to the work of these once-persecuted believers from Jerusalem, Antioch soon became the leading center of Christianity. This really is a verse of triumph. Luke, who himself was a Gentile-Christian, may have been on of the early converts.

From verse 19, we get the impression that the initial ministry of the Jewish-Christians among the Jews and Greeks took place in the synagogues of Antioch. But it didn’t take long before this revival broke out of the synagogues, spread throughout the city and beyond, and finally news of it reached Jerusalem. The church leaders in Jerusalem, all of whom were Jewish-Christian, were now faced with a dilemma: what to do with this influx of Gentile believers.

2. Barnabas pays a visit

(1) What he was, verse 22

News of this reached the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.

With the salvation of the Samaritans, the conversion of some Gentiles in Caesarea, and now all these new believers in Antioch, the folks back in Jerusalem were concerned that maybe the church was growing too fast and that things may have been getting out of control. In response to the Antioch revival, the Jerusalem church sent a delegation to Antioch to check it out. The man they chose was Barnabas, a Jew from Cyprus, who had an outstanding reputation in the church and appeared to be an all-around good guy. He certainly was a man with a generous spirit:

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:36—37)

He was the perfect man for the job. He must have been extremely friendly and outgoing since he garnered the nickname “Son of Encouragement.” The future of the church depended on what this man would report back. As a result of Barnabas’ response to the revival, it was enabled to continue, with many finding Christ as a result.

(2) What he saw, verse 23a

When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done…

Barnabas was amazed at the grace of God when he saw, not only all the new believers, but also the harmony that existed between Jew and Gentiles within the one Antiochean church. This was a breakthrough of momentous proportions. A man’s inward character determines what he sees. A Roman philosopher cold only see in this religious revival a “vile superstition.” Barnabas saw the manifested grace of God. The proud Athenians saw only their many gods, but Paul saw an entire city given over to the sin of idolatry. Some things can only be “spiritually discerned,” and God’s grace is one of them. Because Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith (verse 24), he recognized immediately God was at work; he didn’t need anybody to tell him. Do you recognize God at work? Can you see the grace of God manifested in a person or situation? If you are full of the Holy Spirit, you will be able to discern the things of God.

(3) What he felt and what he did, verse 23b

(c)  2011 WitzEnd
…he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.

Barnabas certainly live up to his nickname! He immediately began to encourage these new believers in their new faith. Bighearted Barnabas was so sold-out to Jesus that he was “glad” to see anybody serving the Lord, Jew or Gentile! Instead of looking for faults and criticizing this new movement, he gave it his stamp of approval and blessing.

3. Barnabas gets some help

Barnabas was the right man in the right place. He related well to the people living in and around Antioch. He was bilingual, familiar with Greek culture, and may well have been a businessman familiar with that culture of Antioch. But Barnabas needed some help; he couldn’t do it all by himself. While Barnabas was a mighty encourager, the believers needed more than just encouragement. This cosmopolitan, Greek-speaking metropolis needed the talents of an intellectual giant as well as a Spirit-filled encourager.

It had been some ten or more years since Saul, now known as Paul, found the Lord on the road to Damascus, and this was the man Barnabas sought out. We have no record of what Paul did during the intervening years, between the time he left Jerusalem (see Acts 9:20) and when Barnabas found him in Tarsus. From Galatians 1:21—24, we can be sure that Paul was not idle during those years; he continued to preach and minister for Christ in and around his hometown of Tarsus. It is likely during these years that the apostle received the “five lashings” he wrote about in 2 Corinthians 11:24, along with the other afflictions he enumerated in 2 Corinthians 11:23—27. Some scholars think that it was during these years in Tarsus that he began to experience the “loss of all things” for the sake of Christ, maybe even the loss of his family (Philippians 3:8).

Barnabas seemed to always have a “soft spot” for this one-time persecutor of the church. He came to Paul’s support when others doubted his conversion (Acts 9:27) and he recognized that Paul had a ministry among the Gentiles. Together, they worked in Antioch for about a year. These two men, different as night and day in one way, were extremely effective ministers and became lifelong partners in the great work of the Gospel.

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

While there were many converts in and around Antioch, some in the city were not impressed with the work of Barnabas and Paul, and nicknamed this growing group of Jewish and Gentile believers “Christians.” The Greek word, Christianoi, means literally “Christ followers” or “those who belong to Christ,” was a term of derision.

Conclusion

Why are you called a Christian? Originally not a complimentary term, it was used of people who identified completely with Jesus Christ because they patterned their daily lives after His and His teachings. Unfortunately, for many so-called Christians today, that description applies to them only on Sunday. During the other six days of the week, many so-Christians seem to set aside that nickname, living not for Christ, but for their careers, for money, for their families, destroying their marriages with unChrist-like attitudes, ruining their bodies through chemical dependence, and using language that is not glorifying to God in any way.

So, the question, “Why are you called a Christian?” is an intensely personal and important one to consider. It may make you blush. You may not know how to answer it. Zacharius Ursinus answered that question like this in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Question: But why art thou called a Christian?

Answer: Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus am a partaker of his anointing; that so I may confess his name, and present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him: and also that with a free and good conscience I may fight against sin and Satan in this life and afterwards I reign with him eternally, over all creatures.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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