Remember, in the beginning of the book, Chapters 1-6, a large group of Jews migrated from Babylon back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. About 50,000 people returned.
In Ezra chapter 6.5 (Esther) their existence was threatened, but God saved the people through the pleading of Esther and the decree of Mordecai - and those 50K Jews in Jerusalem, plus all those throughout the 127 provinces of Persia, were spared by the gracious hand of God.
Last week, David took us through the intro to the Scribe, Ezra and his ministry of restoring worship at the temple. In chapters 7-8 another 3k(ish) people go to Jerusalem with Ezra to re-establish worship of Yahweh.
While offerings were made, THAT was not the extent of worship!
1 Samuel 15:22 CSB
Then Samuel said: Does the Lord take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? Look: to obey is better than sacrifice, to pay attention is better than the fat of rams.
To go through the motions of worship, to go through the motions of “church” can be a good thing, but ONLY if it is paired with a heart/life of obedience. Certainly there is nothing wrong with sacrifices! Certainly there is nothing wrong with attending a public worship gathering! However, to do either, devoid of obedience to God, is simply empty religion, not true worship.
When we reach chapters 9-10 we are going to find out how the no-longer-exiles chose to handle the reality that some of them had NOT been obedient - and had even adopted a lifestyle of disobedience.
WHEN CONFRONTED by the reality of our sin, how will we react?
Though the first group to return faced opposition, they DID rebuild the temple. However, it seems that about 80 years later, there was a need for Ezra to arrive on the scene and teach them the Torah and help them re-establish the sacrifices, festivals and other practices prescribed in the law of Moses.
The ministry of Ezra was to study, obey and teach the Word of Yahweh (the Torah at this time). David reminded us that this is the calling of every generation of God-followers, including the church - you and me!
The CHALLENGE with choosing to make this our life ambition, is that God’s Word has a way of revealing things in our lives that are not aligned with God’s heart.
Hebrews 4:12 NLT
For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.
As we wrap up the book of Ezra, we find that is exactly the case. The law of Yahweh, the Word of God, had revealed that there was something not right. Let’s read starting in chapter 9:
Ezra 9:1–2 CSB
After these things had been done, the leaders approached me and said, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the surrounding peoples whose detestable practices are like those of the Canaanites, Hethites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites. Indeed, the Israelite men have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed has become mixed with the surrounding peoples. The leaders and officials have taken the lead in this unfaithfulness!”
Here we go… “after these things” - meaning, some time had passed.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 4: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job 1. The Offense of Mixed Marriages (9:1–6a)
1–2 Ezra had reached Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month (7:9). The measures dealing with intermarriage were announced on the seventeenth day of the ninth month (cf. 10:8 with 10:9), or four and a half months after his arrival.
So, after months of following God’s law in regards to sacrifices, purity and such, and after hearing the teaching of Ezra the scribe, some of the people were “getting it”. Some of the leaders approached Ezra with a concern: there is a group that has NOT been faithful to the law of God - they married foreign wives.
So what’s wrong with that? To understand, we ought to go back to the law and I think you will see the concern:
Deuteronomy 7:1–6 CSB
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess, and he drives out many nations before you—the Hethites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you—and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you and you defeat them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy. You must not intermarry with them, and you must not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, because they will turn your sons away from me to worship other gods. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will swiftly destroy you. Instead, this is what you are to do to them: tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, cut down their Asherah poles, and burn their carved images. For you are a holy people belonging to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be his own possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth.
The concern that God has was that they would turn away to “worship other gods”. They were meant to be a “holy people”.
Notice the list of seven nations in Deuteronomy is included in the Ezra passage with a few additions: Ammonites, Moabites and Egyptians.
The Lexham Bible Dictionary Patriarchal Period
Genesis 19 records that following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s daughters attempt to preserve their family lineage by engaging in sexual relations with their father. Both daughters conceive and give birth to the eponymous ancestors of the Moabite and Ammonite cultures.
The Lexham Bible Dictionary The Monarchy and Following Periods
Solomon was ensnared by Ammonite gods (1 Kgs 11:1, 11:5, 11:7, 11:33)
Solomon lost the kingdom, and it was divided because he choose to marry foreign wives and worship their gods. The gods of the same people groups named in Ezra.
The first group that returned from exile seemed to understand this idea of separation. In Ezra chapter 4, when the enemies of the Jews wanted to help, the Jews said they needed to remain separate from them, and that there was no place for them. However, we find in chapter 9, some of the next generation married foreign wives.
It is not racist or supremacist, either. We should note that the predominant meaning and purpose of the command to not inter marry was to avoid religious adultery - to keep the Jews from worshipping the gods of the other nations. Notice the genealogy of Christ and the inclusion of non-Jews.
Just in case you missed it, let’s check out another passage in the Torah:
Deuteronomy 12:29–32 CSB
“When the Lord your God annihilates the nations before you, which you are entering to take possession of, and you drive them out and live in their land, be careful not to be ensnared by their ways after they have been destroyed before you. Do not inquire about their gods, asking, ‘How did these nations worship their gods? I’ll also do the same.’ You must not do the same to the Lord your God, because they practice every detestable act, which the Lord hates, for their gods. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Be careful to do everything I command you; do not add anything to it or take anything away from it.
Ezra chapter 2 lists about 29,818 people (Nehemiah 31k) and then says 42,360 people returned. The 30k would have most likely been just the number of men over age 12. That means there were about 12k women and children. While this may seem insignificant, This may have been a factor as to why some of the Jews might intermarry, and it is very possible that some could not find Jewish women to marry!
However, the issue is not just that they had disobeyed the law, but they they had broken their marriage relationship (covenant) with God.
This mixing of worldly gods with the true worship and obedience to Yahweh is THE original garden conflict and the same tension that faces every Jesus-follower, including you and me.
The problem has been identified. So what should the people do? There are 2 reactions to this acknowledgement of sin. One action is exemplified by the actions of Ezra, the other is enacted by the people, as initiated by the leaders:
Ezra 9:3–15 CSB
When I heard this report, I tore my tunic and robe, pulled out some of the hair from my head and beard, and sat down devastated. Everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me, because of the unfaithfulness of the exiles, while I sat devastated until the evening offering. At the evening offering, I got up from my time of humiliation, with my tunic and robe torn. Then I fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God. And I said: My God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face toward you, my God, because our iniquities are higher than our heads and our guilt is as high as the heavens. Our guilt has been terrible from the days of our ancestors until the present. Because of our iniquities we have been handed over, along with our kings and priests, to the surrounding kings, and to the sword, captivity, plundering, and open shame, as it is today. But now, for a brief moment, grace has come from the Lord our God to preserve a remnant for us and give us a stake in his holy place. Even in our slavery, God has given us a little relief and light to our eyes. Though we are slaves, our God has not abandoned us in our slavery. He has extended grace to us in the presence of the Persian kings, giving us relief, so that we can rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem. Now, our God, what can we say in light of this? For we have abandoned the commands you gave through your servants the prophets, saying, “The land you are entering to possess is an impure land. The surrounding peoples have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness by their impurity and detestable practices. So do not give your daughters to their sons in marriage or take their daughters for your sons. Never pursue their welfare or prosperity, so that you will be strong, eat the good things of the land, and leave it as an inheritance to your sons forever.” After all that has happened to us because of our evil deeds and terrible guilt—though you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserve and have allowed us to survive—should we break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit these detestable practices? Wouldn’t you become so angry with us that you would destroy us, leaving neither remnant nor survivor? Lord God of Israel, you are righteous, for we survive as a remnant today. Here we are before you with our guilt, though no one can stand in your presence because of this.
When we are in sin, often the last place we want to go is to God. One of the reasons is the shame that we feel. Like Peter denying Jesus, we want to run and hide because of our shame. Like Adam in the garden, we want to hide from God because of our shame. Yet we are reminded that God knows our sin, he knows our shame and he wants us to approach him, like the prodigal son, and like Ezra, in spite of our shame.
In the midst of exile they have relief. Though they are slaves they have been freed to worship God. Though conquered and almost wiped out, God has kept a remnant. He has kept his promises even though Israel did not keep theirs.
This reiterates God’s holiness and purity in the face of Israel’s sin, and makes it very clear that God is NOT the one to blame for what happened. In fact, Israel deserved to be wiped out for their previous sin, and instead God allowed them to survive. God never abandoned Israel, Israel abandoned God. They have nobody to blame but themselves.
Not only does he admit what they did, he quotes the law they violated, the punishment they deserve. He acknowledges that they have not been punished as much as they deserve. Though God has shown mercy to them over and over, Ezra does not presume entitlement for that mercy to continue when they keep violating the same commands over and over.
He ends by declaring that God has the right to wipe them out, that God has the right to punish them.
Then we read that not only was Ezra praying, but a LARGE group of people also wept/mourned.
Ezra 10:1 CSB
While Ezra prayed and confessed, weeping and falling facedown before the house of God, an extremely large assembly of Israelite men, women, and children gathered around him. The people also wept bitterly.
This was a prayer of confession. There was no repentance yet… there was simply the acknowledgement of sin, specific sin in opposition to God’s Word, punishment deserved and that God would be right in punishing them.
The focus of this passage is not on the Law. The focus is not on the foreign wives and children. The focus of this passage is on confession and repentance.
The Hebrew word for “repent” means to turn back or return. שׁוב
The Greek word for “repent” means the change one’s mind, which is a Greek way to say to change one’s being or “mind and purpose” μετανοέω
REPENTANCE A change of attitude and action from sin toward obedience to God. The concept of repentance differs slightly in the Hebrew and Greek minds, but an emphasis upon right behavior is consistent throughout. ~ Lexham Bible Dictionary
The leaders knew that they did what was wrong in God’s eyes. They knew they deserved punishment for what they did. They also understood the grace of God and the power of confession and repentance.
Ezra 10:2 CSB
Then Shecaniah son of Jehiel, an Elamite, responded to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the surrounding peoples, but there is still hope for Israel in spite of this.
Repentance starts with confession. I think it is awesome that Ezra led by example here. He did not go all prophet on them and rip out their beards and scream at them - he fell on his face before Yahweh and prayed for the people. (This is a Moses moment).
Though we start with confession, repentance means to change direction, and that requires action. It’s one thing to realize you are going the wrong way, it’s another to stop the car, turn it around, and start moving in the right direction.
Ezra 10:3–4 CSB
Therefore, let’s make a covenant before our God to send away all the foreign wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the command of our God. Let it be done according to the law. Get up, for this matter is your responsibility, and we support you. Be strong and take action!”
Notice that it was the leaders that approached Ezra, the leaders came up with a solution and the leaders encouraged Ezra to enforce it.
Ezra 10:5–17 CSB
Then Ezra got up and made the leading priests, Levites, and all Israel take an oath to do what had been said; so they took the oath. Ezra then went from the house of God and walked to the chamber of Jehohanan son of Eliashib, where he spent the night. He did not eat food or drink water, because he was mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles. They circulated a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem that all the exiles should gather at Jerusalem. Whoever did not come within three days would forfeit all his possessions, according to the decision of the leaders and elders, and would be excluded from the assembly of the exiles. So all the men of Judah and Benjamin gathered in Jerusalem within the three days. On the twentieth day of the ninth month, all the people sat in the square at the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. Then the priest Ezra stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful by marrying foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Therefore, make a confession to the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the surrounding peoples and your foreign wives.” Then all the assembly responded loudly, “Yes, we will do as you say! But there are many people, and it is the rainy season. We don’t have the stamina to stay out in the open. This isn’t something that can be done in a day or two, for we have rebelled terribly in this matter. Let our leaders represent the entire assembly. Then let all those in our towns who have married foreign women come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of each town, in order to avert the fierce anger of our God concerning this matter.” Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, with Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite supporting them. The exiles did what had been proposed. The priest Ezra selected men who were family heads, all identified by name, to represent their ancestral families. They convened on the first day of the tenth month to investigate the matter, and by the first day of the first month they had dealt with all the men who had married foreign women.
They made a covenant and they followed through! Yeah!!!! I think verse 11 gives us a really good picture of what is taking place:
Ezra 10:11 CSB
Therefore, make a confession to the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the surrounding peoples and your foreign wives.”
1. Confess, 2. Do God’s will. - Confession and repentance. Pretty simple and so very powerful.
It took time, a couple of months, but they followed through (Ezra 10:16-17) and did what they promised. I am sure that was very emotional for those people. I am also sure it was much easier for those who did NOT marry foreign wives to agree to the plan!
We often think about and talk about sin in terms of behavior. Sin is bad behavior. Behavioral issues stem from heart issues. Treating behavior begins with treating the heart. While there are some practical (and helpful!) methods to address behavior immediately and directly, true repentance is deeper than a surface change in behavior. It comes from the healing and transformation of the heart.
Luke 6:45 CSB
A good person produces good out of the good stored up in his heart. An evil person produces evil out of the evil stored up in his heart, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.
Our hearts and minds are a like a tree, and our words and actions are the fruit of that tree.
Matthew 7:17–20 CSB
In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.
Galatians 5:22–23 CSB
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things.
Because our hearts and minds are corrupted by sin and the gods of this world, we must be transformed by the Holy Spirit if we are ever to produce good fruit.
Romans 12:2 CSB
Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
In light of this illustration, repentance is like pruning. When there is a bad or diseased part of a tree it needs to be cut off so the tree can be healthy and produce fruit. Sure, pruning is painful but the results are wonderful.
There is no commandment for Jesus-followers to not marry people from other countries. Christianity is actually the most ethnically diverse religion in the world!
However, there is a command for Jesus-followers to remain pure and unstained from the world.
There is a need for a radical separation from the gods of this world and an equally radical commitment to trust and obedience to the ways of Yahweh - the God of the heavens.
James 1:27 CSB
Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
UNSTAINED means removing, tearing away, from among us the things that have become gods to us: money, power, sex, pornography, status, rank, education, possessions, social media, approval, etc...
This is no subtle act. The Jews needed to send away their foreign wives and children! How painful would that act be?
Ephesians 4:17–24 CSB
Therefore, I say this and testify in the Lord: You should no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thoughts. They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them and because of the hardness of their hearts. They became callous and gave themselves over to promiscuity for the practice of every kind of impurity with a desire for more and more. But that is not how you came to know Christ, assuming you heard about him and were taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus, to take off your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires, to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth.
The sin had to be removed, regardless of the pain it might cause, and the new life, the one Jesus died for us to have, needs to be the one we embrace. This requires confession and repentance.
1 John 1:9 CSB
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
2 Corinthians 7:10 NLT
For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.
While we do not always think of them this way, confession and repentance are also acts of worship! So as the people confessed their sins and changed their lives to be in line with God’s Word, they were continuing their worship.
I want to thank everyone for their prayers over the past month as Laura and I battled COVID-19. We are here today because of the gracious hand of God and thank you for your part in lifting our names before the Lord. I expect my full recovery to take a while yet, but God has done some amazing work in my body and I am so blessed to be able to be here and preach with David.
There is no medical reason why I would be hit harder than anyone else with the virus. It reaffirmed in me the knowledge that God is sovereign and I am not.
My struggle began with 10 days of fever and headaches. And, when combined with the lack of oxygen, pain in my chest and inability to breath freely, it made for some really rough times.
At one point I had some words with God. I was not sure if he wanted me to stay on this earth or to take me home. I was OK with either, but it made me think of life, my life, and what I had accomplished. My mind immediately raced back to a quote I used to hear all the time at Bible College:
“only one life ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last”
Can I just say, that is a horribly American, works-based statement and really should not be a quote we hold on to. That saying leaves behind the implication that it is our activity for God that will be eternal.
I started thinking of what “I have done for Christ”. Then it struck me, it is not what I have done, but what Christ has done. I reflected on my life and thought about the meta-narrative of scripture and realized that it is not what I do FOR Christ, but how I live WITH Christ that matters most.
The God of the Bible has been clearly communicating that He is more interested in relationship than mere activity. It is possible to DO many things FOR God, but not even really KNOW God. God’s commands to Adam in the garden were designed to teach Adam to trust him and enjoy being with him.
I realized that I want to make sure my life is focused more on knowing Jesus than just doing things for him.
David reminded us last week that we share what we are passionate about. I want to be passionate about knowing God, obeying God and sharing God with others, like Ezra. The things I “do” will flow out of that, but the focus must be on my relationship with God. Activity must flow from the relationship.
That means that when I sin, I need to understand the way it breaks my relationship with others and with God. I need to confess and repent, not because I have a command to obey, but because I have broken relationships to mend.
True worship is not just our activity, it also involves relationships. Jesus taught this on his sermon on the mount:
Matthew 5:23–24 CSB
So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
When we sin, we break our relationship with others and with God. We have been reminded that God is concerned that we remain unstained from the world, that we do not allow the gods of this world to be gods we worship. What “gods” have you been worshipping?
These can come from all areas of life, and in some cases even begin innocently but become twisted into addictions and idols which rule over our lives, and for which we destroy ourselves and those around us as a literal sacrifice - a perversion of our worship that is meant only for Yahweh.
That list refers generally to behavior and lifestyle, but they’re all different areas of life that become corrupted by even deeper motives and desires, the seeds of sin that come from the heart. I think most sinful behavior can be traced back to a handful of sinful conditions, or “diseases” of the heart:
What sins of the heart have you struggled with?
IF we are to offer TRUE worship, then we must be willing to take our shame to God, to confess what we have done against him and others, and then CHANGE our minds and actions to line up with God’s heart and word.
We no longer offer animal sacrifices as part of our worship, Jesus put an end to that and fulfilled the Jew’s end of their covenant, on behalf of all humans forever. Because of this, because of God’s grace and His grace alone, we have been reconciled to God, and our salvation is NOT a result of our worship. Rather, it is in response to salvation, and from within the depths of God’s mercy that we offer our humble worship to God.
Romans 12:1–2 CSB
Therefore, brothers and sisters, in view of the mercies of God, I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God; this is your true worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.
I am calling you today, to embrace the life of worship by confessing and repenting, here and now, of what the Holy Spirit is showing you. Right where you are, in your living room, in your seat in this building, or up front here at the edge of the stage, will you get on your knees and humble yourself before God?
We are calling you to the altar, to confess and repent, again not with a physical sacrifice at a physical altar (we don’t have an altar!), but rather at the altar of your own heart and mind. That said, sometimes a physical action as simple as kneeling, or even just bowing our heads as we often do to pray, can be a way to intentionally make our outward actions reflect and reinforce our inner intentions. It’s not that God hears us better when we close our eyes and bow our heads, it’s that it helps us focus our intentions towards him in that moment. When Ezra pulled his hair out, it was an outward action that revealed the agony, shame, and humility of his heart.
Will you commit your heart and your life to be enslaved, not to sin but to righteousness? For those of us who place our faith in Christ, and call him king and lord, let us live not as gluttons of grace, but as living sacrifices, individually and as the body of Christ, continually growing and becoming more sanctified and fruitful, by the will of the Father, in the name of Jesus, through the work of the Spirit.
The topic of sin and repentance in the life of a Christian is one of the primary topics of the book of Romans. It’s hard to choose just one verse or passage, but chapter 6 seems particularly relevant.
Romans 6 CSB
1 What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply? 2 Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of his resurrection. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be rendered powerless so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, 7 since a person who has died is freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him, 9 because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over him. 10 For the death he died, he died to sin once for all time; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires. 13 And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. 14 For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under the law but under grace. 15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? Absolutely not! 16 Don’t you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of that one you obey—either of sin leading to death or of obedience leading to righteousness? 17 But thank God that, although you used to be slaves of sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching to which you were handed over, 18 and having been set free from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. 19 I am using a human analogy because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you offered the parts of yourselves as slaves to impurity, and to greater and greater lawlessness, so now offer them as slaves to righteousness, which results in sanctification. 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness. 21 So what fruit was produced then from the things you are now ashamed of? The outcome of those things is death. 22 But now, since you have been set free from sin and have become enslaved to God, you have your fruit, which results in sanctification—and the outcome is eternal life! 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.