Building up Without Compromise or Fear
In our last chapter we looked at the various stages that the Jews went through as they returned from captivity and began the process of "rebuilding." Briefly, the first three stages were:
Stage 1 – Beginnings – Ezra 3:1-13
We see that despite hostile surroundings, they begin to build in the proper order – God's house first. God was the One who permitted their return (Jeremiah's prophecy of seventy years of exile completed – Jeremiah 25:9-13). They rebuilt the altar of sacrifice, without which, the priests could not offer sacrifices, which were the central part of their religion. There was much else to do but this was the correct starting point.
Stage 2 – Opposition – Ezra 4:1-24
Of course, their return and work were noticed by their neighbor, the Samaritans who were Jews also, but ones who had been carried off by the Assyrians and assimilated by various pagan nations. These had also wandered back to their former lands in Northern Israel but brought with them their pagan gods, worship, and lifestyle. Seeing the temple and its worship restored, they wanted to participate as long lost kin, and claimed this right. They were rebuffed by the exiles for the following reasons:
- Pagan worship was polytheistic (many gods) and forbidden by God.
- It featured one's own personal gods. For example, the gods of your land (each city had a version of the god of Baal).
- They held to powerful gods found only in one's region and considered the God of the temple of the Jews in Jerusalem as one of these.
The Samaritans wanted to participate and, thus, infiltrate their neighbors through marriage and the mixing of their religions. The Jews of Jerusalem refused their cooperation knowing that this is what led to the destruction of the temple and their exile in the first place. Sensing the revival of a powerful deity as a future threat, their northern neighbors opposed the building psychologically, politically, and militarily.
Stage 3 – Renewal – Ezra 5:1-17
God's prophets helped the people stand firm in their work and commitment to build. The Jews learned the difference between a knock-down and a knock-out. They realized that what God has sent them to do was worth fighting for.
In this chapter we'll review stages four and 5 in the Jewish effort to rebuild their temple, their nation and their lives as the chosen people of God.
Stage 4 – Completion – Ezra 6:1-22
Chapter 6 in Ezra's account details the tremendous turn of events that occurred once the people put their faith in God.
- The King finds the original decree granting permission for the rebuilding of the temple during the reign of Cyrus (vs. 1-5).
- The present king Darius rescinds his previous orders and permits the building to go on (vs. 6-7).
- The king also instructs that the money for the rebuilding is to come from the taxes paid by the people of the region. This means that the enemies of the Jews will now be underwriting the rebuilding of the temple with their own tax money (vs. 8-10).
- The king adds a promise to the decree which imposes the death penalty for anyone interfering with the work or opposing his law (vs. 11). This guaranteed the safety of those working on the project.
- Finally, Dairus praises and permits the worship of the God of the Jews (vs. 12). This was important because it legitimized the Jewish religion in the empire and protected its practice.
- Ezra says that the work on the temple was completed in the sixth year of Darius' reign – about twenty years after it was begun (vs. 13-15).
- The project wasn't completed, however, until the temple began to function as the central place of worship.
- In verses 16-22 we see the people gathering animals for sacrifice, organizing the priests and Levites for their service, and celebrating the feast of the Passover.
- The people are full of joy and thanksgiving as they acknowledge how God has not only worked in their lives, but in the lives of the powerful kings and officials to bring about this day.
The nation enjoys a mountaintop experience because they have achieved the completion of their project, but this is not necessarily the end of the process – you and I know that life, especially life in God's kingdom, doesn't work like that.
There's still another stage in God's process.
Stage 5 – Maintenance – Nehemiah 13:4-31
The word "maintenance doesn't sound very noble, spiritual, or lofty – especially as a last point in Almighty God's process, but I couldn't find a better word to describe what happens after completion. Once you've created, built, birthed, or purchased something – you have to maintain it. It's as simple as that. This is true because in this fallen and sinful world things, whether they be temples, religions, or people deteriorate, and therefore need to be maintained.
We see this phenomenon work in the story of the rebuilding of the temple and restoration of worship in Jerusalem. The people completed their task and rejoiced on the mountain top for a while, but it soon became evident that their temple as well as their faith would require serious maintenance.
The "maintenance" part of the process is described by Nehemiah in the 13th chapter of his book. Once the temple was rebuilt and worship began there remained one task – the rebuilding of the protective wall around the city.
Nehemiah, a cup bearer to the king, is sent by God to complete this task and follows the same process that Zerubbabel and others had experienced with the rebuilding of the temple.
- An enthusiastic beginning as God works in the heart of the king allowing Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the wall.
- Opposition from enemies who threaten them.
- Renewal as Nehemiah rallied the people to work on.
- Completion of the wall with the ensuing parade and celebration.
Nehemiah returned to Babylon to take up his former position with the king but soon he heard that things began to deteriorate back in Jerusalem. This is where the maintenance part of the process kicked in.
In Nehemiah chapter 13 we get a glimpse of what was going on:
A certain priest permitted one of his pagan relatives to use a storeroom in the temple as a personal residence. Of course, that a pagan actually lived in the temple courts, defiled the temple itself.
The people stopped providing support for the work of the ministry in the temple. As a result, the Levites no longer served at the temple and returned to their homes and family.
A lack of presence at the temple produced a lack of commitment in keeping the Sabbath. People worked on the Sabbath. There was buying and selling in the temple area even on the Sabbath because there were no Levites to guard the gates.
Even the priests who were charged with leadership, began to violate the law by marrying foreign wives. This was a dangerous first step back into idolatry which had caused their previous 70 years of forced exile.
In this we see a common failing of human nature repeatedly played out in the pages of the Bible: People learn, people grow, people forget, people regress.
Nehemiah knew this and returned in order to do maintenance work on God's people:
- He removed the intruder from the temple and restored its purity.
- He reinstated the offerings to support the temple and its workers.
- He assigned Levites to keep stricter controls in order to enforce Sabbath regulations.
- He rebuked the priests for their actions and made them swear not to give their children in marriage to foreigners.
God's process always includes maintenance – for the temple then and for the church today. In every generation there are those who are tasked with maintaining the work and people of God. In the Old Testament the job usually fell to the prophets. In the New Testament God at times uses elders, but usually evangelists are called to admonish, encourage, and rebuke the church in order to maintain its purity and process.
I've tried to show you that in serving the Lord, especially when you rise up to build something (a church, a relationship, a new ministry, or a new life) there is usually a process.
It helps when you know what stage you're in when things start to happen.
Another point about the process – it's not necessarily a straight line from beginning to maintenance. Sometimes opposition forces you back to begin all over again. Sometimes renewal is followed by several periods of opposition before completion happens. Unfortunately, the process is not always obvious or tidy.
Finally, try to remember some of the lessons taught by the process experienced by Ezra, Nehemiah, and the people who rebuilt Jerusalem and its temple:
Lesson 1 – You don't usually meet opposition until you disturb or threaten the status quo. Unbelievers don't like it when God's people build.
Lesson 2 – Your enemies won't always play "fair." Bad things happen to people who are trying to do good. Someone will use your past mistakes to accuse you in the present. Others will misrepresent your intentions (they will say that you think you're the only one going to heaven, etc.).
Lesson 3 – If you can't work or move forward, wait patiently on the Lord. There's a big difference between waiting and quitting. After all, it's God's process, not yours – He controls the timing.
Lesson 4 – God is always working even if you're not. The Jews had twenty years of downtime in their process. God was preparing them to learn a great lesson. As a result of God's work, when Haggai preached to them, they were ready to respond in two short weeks.
Lesson 5 – God can and does provide for you no matter where you are in the process. He is just as interested in the beginning as in the end and every step in between. Even when they didn't work, God provided protection and care for the Jews.
Lesson 6 – You might die! The officials took note of the names of those who would be first to be executed if things didn't work out. Your service might cause your death – or death of your energy, or opportunities, or savings account, etc. It's important to count the cost before you start the process.
Lesson 7 – Don't be surprised that "maintenance" is always part of the process. So many people become discouraged because their service to a perfect God is not perfect. This is why God has always provided a maintenance manual for His people and His projects.
If you keep the process in mind and remember some of the lessons that we've learned from Ezra and Nehemiah's experience – you will better be able to finish what God has set in your hearts to build or rebuild, and you will work to His glory!