Encouraged and Led by God's Champions

In this lesson, Mike describes the main leaders who seemed to make the rebuilding process a great work of faith and courage against great odds eventually glorifying God.
Class by:

Let's review a little of what's happened so far so we don't get lost in the historical details of our series.

1. The Exile – 587 B.C.

  • The small kingdom of Judah is overthrown by the Babylonian army and most of the leaders and citizens awaiting in Jerusalem are taken into captivity and returned to Babylon.
  • They are there for approximately 70 years and during their exile they multiply in number and prosper.
  • In the meantime, the Babylonian king is conquered by the Medes and Persians and a new king is established.

2. The Return – 538 B.C.

  • During the reign of the new Persian king, Cyrus, a law or edict is passed that permits the Jews in captivity to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their homes, temple, and city.
  • This process takes approximately 100 years and includes a series of leaders who each had a hand in the rebuilding and the re-establishment of Jerusalem and its temple and its society.

A. Sheshbazzar (Means – a prince of Judah) 538 B.C.

  • Some scholars think this is another name for Zerubbabel, but the common opinion is that he was the one that Cyrus made governor of Judah (Ezra 5:14).
  • The king originally entrusted the temple vessels to this man for return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1:8).
  • He was in the first wave of those who returned and was responsible for laying the foundation to the temple but didn't complete it (Ezra 5:16).
  • He was also the "governor" who did not permit certain families to participate in the sacrifice until their ancestry could be proven. (Ezra 2:63).

B. Zerubbabel – (Means – seed of Babylon) 516 B.C.

  • Descendent of former king of Judah (Jehoiachin).
  • He was part of the original group that came with Sheshbazzar (who may have been his uncle).
  • He helped in the laying of the foundation of the temple which was stopped for a while because of opposition from local enemies.
  • In 520 B.C. he and Jeshua began the work of the temple again, and this time completed it (Ezra 6:15).
  • Haggai refers to him as governor (Haggai 2:21) of Judah, a post he may have held after Sheshbazzar.

C. Jeshua (Joshua) (Means – the Lord is salvation) 516 B.C.

  • Ezra and Nehemiah refer to this person as Jeshua, and the prophets Haggai and Zechariah call him Joshua, but it's the same person.
  • He served as High Priest during the restoration of the city and temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:36).
  • He built the altar and renewed the offering of sacrifices as the beginning of worship in Jerusalem, the temple wasn't built yet. (Ezra 3:3-5).
  • Zechariah refers to him in messianic terms as the "branch" (Zechariah 7:12).

D. Haggai (Means – festival) – 538 B.C. arrived – 520 B.C. begins prophecy

  • He was a prophet who spoke to the leaders of the restoration effort.
  • Since he is first mentioned by Ezra in the period of 520 B.C. it is supposed that he came back to Jerusalem as a child in the first group around 537 B.C. and grew up during the work of the restoration.
  • If this is correct, he would have witnessed firsthand how the work of rebuilding the temple was opposed and eventually stopped as the people turned their attention to rebuilding their personal homes and businesses.
  • His book contains four prophecies that included:
    • A rebuke to the people for having abandoned the rebuilding of the temple.
    • A word of comfort for the people who mourned the loss of the original temple and its splendor.
    • A teaching about ritual purity showing how the new temple will remove the "uncleanness" left by the desertion of the old temple. He establishes spiritual legitimacy of the new.
    • A promise to Zerubbabel that he would be kept safe despite problems and disturbances in the Persian empire which he relied on to do his work.

E. Zechariah (Means – Remember God) 520 B.C. - begins prophecy

  • Zechariah was the other prophet of this time period who, like Haggai, is believed to have arrived with the first group and grown up as the rebuilding was begun.
  • Both he and Haggai were relatively young men who served as God's prophets during a critical time in their nation's history.
  • His many prophecies occur between 520-518 B.C. as the temple is being rebuilt.
    • They include a series of visions that promote the idea that the rebuilding of the temple and those who serve there are part of God's plan to eventually bring the Messiah and salvation to the world.

F. Ezra (Means – to help) - 457 B.C.

  • Ezra was sent to Jerusalem by the Persian king Artaxerxes I in 458-457 B.C.
    • This was now roughly 80 years after the first wave of Jews had returned.
    • During this time the physical rebuilding of the city and the temple have been completed and a regular worship has been reinstated.
  • His task as an expert teacher of the Law is to enforce universal observance of Jewish Law and appoint qualified people to serve at the temple.
  • In his book we note that he brings with him not only priests and Levites to serve, but also brings gifts from the king and the people to provide support for the worship and teaching taking place at the temple.
  • Ezra probably returned to Babylon to report to the king concerning his mission.
  • In 444 B.C. we see him back in Jerusalem again, this time for the dedication of the newly built wall around the city completed by Nehemiah.
  • In Nehemiah 12:36 we read that Nehemiah led one procession around the walls and Ezra led a second group as they dedicated the wall together.

G. Nehemiah (Means – God comforts) 445 B.C.

  • Nehemiah is probably the most familiar character because his book reads like an historical narrative.
  • He is a cupbearer (like a consultant) to the Persian king Artaxerxes and is given permission to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the protective wall around the city.
  • He is named governor in 445 B.C. and sent along supplies to complete the task.
  • Despite fierce opposition he completes the building of the wall in 52 days.
  • He returns to Babylon after this but is forced to come back in order to resolve disputes and make needed reforms.
  • Nehemiah along with Ezra tried not only to reestablish proper worship, but also worked to establish order in the rebuilt Jewish society of that day.

These are the main characters who we read about in the period of the rebuilding of the city, temple, and walls of Jerusalem.

They are also key leaders whose lives and actions teach us much about leadership today.

I. Key Leaders Bring Something Special to the Table

God stirred up many people among the Jews when the return to Jerusalem was first being prepared. But certain ones among the Jews were chosen, by a succession of pagan kings, to actually lead the effort to rebuild because each of these men brought something special to the table – certain qualities that were obvious even to those who were not Jews and were not followers of their God.

These pagan kings, Cyrus, Artaxerxes, and Darius saw something special in these men that transcended culture, position, and religion. As leaders themselves, they recognized the special qualities that these Jewish men had that would enable them to carry out this task. As we read about each of these leaders in Ezra, Nehemiah and the prophets, we catch a glimpse of what these ancient kings first saw in them.

In the rest of the lesson, I'd like to share some of these with you.

A. Sheshbazzar – Trustworthiness

He's not mentioned often but in Ezra 1:8 we see the kings treasurer count out a fortune in temple vessels into his care. He is the one who is responsible for not only the vessels, but also the money given to start rebuilding and relocation of the people, as well as to serve as governor.

We don't know if he had political influence, talent at organizing, personal wealth, or knowledge of the Scriptures as a teacher. All we know is that he was worthy of the king's trust and apparently also had the people's confidence, because they accepted him as leader.

The first ingredient in any new venture, any project that requires faith and sacrifice from people – is confidence in the leadership. You may have a dream and an action plan. You may be able to make convincing, well documented presentations, but in the end, people make their decisions about what you dream based on who you are in reality.

The king was moved by God to free the Jews and send them home, but the plan only went into action when He found a man He could trust.

B. Zerubbabel - Perseverance

We have more detail about Nehemiah building the wall around Jerusalem, but the true building feat belongs to Zerubbabel. He may have come with Sheshbazzar as a boy and participated in the general rebuilding of the city and the laying of the basic foundation of the temple.

In time, he took a leadership role in this and was the focus of attack when he refused to allow the neighboring peoples to help build the temple. Political pressure eventually stopped the work for over a decade. However, Zerubbabel was encouraged to continue despite political pressure and eventually completed the building of the temple four years later.

A true leader's keenest insight is that no matter what the task, there will always be obstacles. Zerubbabel's "task" could not have been more inspiring – rebuilding the temple where God dwells – talk about motivation! He was sure that his project was right, good, noble, and the will of God. But he faced opposition from his neighbors, apathy from his people, and interference from his political masters.

It was unkind, unfair, unspiritual, and dangerous. Why would God give a leader a task and then allow so many trials and obstacles? Perhaps it was because God is more interested in completing the person than the person completing the task. Paul says in Romans 5:3-4:

"…but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope…"

Zerubbabel was building God's physical temple in Jerusalem, while God was building His spiritual temple in Zerubbabel. Leaders need to understand that followers don't do what leaders say, they do what leaders do. The kings and people provided all the money and resources necessary to rebuild the temple, but in the end, it was Zerubbabel's perseverance that finished the job.

C. Jeshua/Haggai/Zechariah - Vision

I group these men together even if one was a high priest and the others were prophets because they shared the same trait – vision. In Jeshua's care it was the vision of the end at the beginning.

  • He didn't wait until the entire temple was rebuilt, dedicated, and functional before he began to minister.
  • He replaced the central object of his ministry (the altar) and began immediately offering sacrifice and organizing the worship for the people (Ezra 3:1-11).
  • Spiritual vision enables God's leaders to use what they have at hand, even if it is not all that they see with the eye of faith.
  • Vision is what gets us started, perseverance gets us finished.
  • This is why Jeshua and Zerubbabel made a good team.

Haggai and Zechariah's vision had the added element of courage.

  • They were not afraid to both rebuke the people and encourage them to work when this was not a popular thing to do.
  • Both prophets spoke of the future and what the rebuilding would eventually accomplish in God's plan for His people.
  • This was not an easy message at a time where the people were unmotivated, the enemies were threatening, and their support from the king was unsure.
  • It's easy to be a prophet when there is no risk.
  • But men with vision are not afraid to speak God's truth even when it's unpopular or inconvenient.
  • Their vision of God's will and purpose kept the task on its proper course until completion.

Leaders need to have a vision of not only the end and the beginning, they need to see the course set for their followers so that they can lead during every step of the way.

D. Ezra – Credibility

Ezra was a professional scribe (Ezra 7:6). In the Old Testament, scribes were "scholars" who supervised the copying of the Law. His task was to re-establish the professional class of religious workers (magistrates, judges, etc. Ezra 7:25). He was well trained and had great ability, as well as the highest level of judicial authority (he could impose the death penalty Ezra 7:26).

But what gave him utmost credibility as a religious leader was not his knowledge, training, or authority – it was his piety. We don't use this word much anymore, but it's an extremely important spiritual quality – especially for leaders. Piety is respect for the people and things of God. Ezra had the utmost respect for the Word of God and His people.

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.
- Ezra 7:10

It was because of this extreme piety that Ezra had credibility with the king and led the king to grant him such extraordinary power and authority. And Ezra did not disappoint. Once arrived in Jerusalem he set out to organize Jewish society according to God's word. He taught the word, established the religious hierarchy that was to rule the people.

We read of revolutions and rejection of some of the leaders in Jerusalem, but not Ezra. He was accepted by the people, and the Jewish leaders, as well as the king because He had credibility in all of their eyes. He was not only a teacher of the Law, but his deep piety confirmed that he placed no greater burden on anyone than he himself was willing to carry.

In the end, our leaders inspire us to believe in their leadership because their lives offer us a credible witness that they are worthy of our allegiance.

E. Nehemiah - Humility

I could say a lot about Nehemiah and what he brought to the table as a leader:

  1. Organizational skills – the way he organized the actual building of the wall itself, getting all the people involved in one way or another.
  2. Courage – the fact that he didn't allow his enemies' threats to stop him or his mission.
  3. Inspiration – We read the way he encouraged everyone to keep working – even in the darkest hour.
  4. Zeal for the Lord – How he came back and reinstated proper conduct when the people were falling away from the Lord.

But if I were to pick one outstanding characteristic as God's leader, God's champion, it would be his humility. Not many people equate humility with leadership.

We see our leaders as bold, decisive, well-organized, multi-talented, but not usually as humble. This is because we don't understand what spiritual humility is. We sometimes equate humility with shyness, quietness, being self-effacing, softness. A humble person does not crave to be seen, first, right, honored, or praised.

In a spiritual sense a humble person seeks to know and do God's will rather than their own. This effort to know and do God's will creates patience, wisdom, meekness, stillness of spirit – all signs of a person's humble character. You know a leader is humble because he is:

  • Willing to wait on the Lord to know a course of action before beginning.
  • Is more eager to give praise than receive it.
  • Is more aware of his own weakness than that of others.

Nehemiah was this kind of leader, and his humility is evident at the very beginning of his book. After he has the burden for his people placed on his heart and praying fervently to God, confessing his and his people's sins – he does an extraordinary thing – he waits!

Nehemiah 1:1

He prays in the 9th month of "Kislev" and only in the month of "Nisan," nearly 4 months later does God begin to work out his plan. Humility enabled him to wait on the Lord and then step out in faith in approaching the king. It doesn't matter what other skills you bring to the table in serving God, without humility, courage, expertise, or zeal will be wasted. All of God's leaders have to first realize that their leadership is given and directed by God, not themselves. Nehemiah succeeded as a leader not because he brought many leadership skills to the table – He succeeded because his humility enabled him to see how God wanted to use his skills.

Summary / Exhortation

Every person here today who has been called out for leadership in God's kingdom in one way or another needs to remember two things taught to us by the leaders we have studied today:

1. We don't need to have all the gifts mentioned to lead God's people, we simply have to place the talents we do have at God's disposal. So many people do not rise to lead God's people because they're waiting for more experience, more talent, more ability, and their time never comes. But God is able to make a great leader out of those who surrender whatever small abilities they have to His will and purpose.

2. What is missing in the world is not great dreams or missions – it's great leaders. God is always looking for great leaders in order to do great things in the kingdom of God. God is always building His church, always looking for those who will step out to do His work.

The question that begs to be asked today is this: Are the leaders of God's people only to be formed in the pages of Ezra and Nehemiah, or can they be formed in this room?

Remember this: Before the people can ever rise up to build, leaders must first rise up who will be able to inspire them to greatness.