Monday, December 2, 2013

Series Post #1: Having a Backbone

                        Today I begin a 5-part series titled The Book of Ezra: Lessons for the Church Corporate and Individual, which I have written for the Old Testament Exposition course I am enrolled in at Moody Theological Seminary. 
                         What appears here is just the tip of the iceberg of all that could, and still needs, to be said regarding the individual and community inner-and-outworkings of being the church. I pray this series will bless, unsettle, assure, encourage and point each of us to the One who is the author and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ. 
               Ezra 3:2-3: “Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices.”
            The Israelites start out strong in the Book of Ezra. In chapter one they are freed by King Cyrus in 538 BC to return to Jerusalem. But not only that, he tells them they can rebuild the temple, aided by the locals who are to donate resources for the rebuilding. In addition, Cyrus returns all of the articles taken from the temple by Nebuchadnezzar when he sacked Jerusalem approximately 50 years before. The Israelites make the approximately 800 mile journey from Babylon safely, and are now beginning to rebuild. And the text says they did this “despite their fear of the people around them.”
            What were the Israelites afraid of? According to John MacArthur in his study Bible, “the settlers who had come to occupy the land during the 70 years of Israel’s absence were deportees brought in from other countries by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. These inhabitants saw the Jews as a threat and quickly wanted to undermine their allegiance to God” (which we see again in 4:1-2).
            But the Israelites rightly ignored them and went about their business.
            One of the issues Ezra will have to deal with, as we’ll see later, is a lack of holiness in the people. But thus far, we see a holy standard being unabashedly met by the Israelites. They stood their ground, knowing from previous experience that once a crack forms in holy obedience, the whole edifice comes crashing down.
            So what or who, as Christians, are we afraid of as we set out to be re-built on the foundation of Jesus Christ? Do we find that we are authentic and praiseworthy of God in our intimate Bible study group, but can’t defend the honor of our Lord when someone attaches His name to an expletive? Do we pray over the condition of a disturbed and at times appalling world and then let our kids attend R-rated films that sexualize women and turn the Lord’s name into a cuss word? Do we pray over our food on a daily basis but not when we are in “mixed company?” Do we allow people to freely state their opinions and life passions but remain silent about ours out of a fear of offending? Essentially, do we talk and act differently with Christians than we do with non-Christians?
             If we answered yes, we are operating out of a fear of others and not a fear of God. It took a decree from King Artaxerxes to stop the Israelites in their tracks. We have nothing even remotely similar in our circumstances to silence us and yet we pull out our blankie and begin sucking our thumb the minute we’re not with like-minded people. Why is it that, as Christians, we allow everyone but ourselves to have freedom of speech and conviction?
             A day may come when that freedom is gone, as has been the case in places that have never experienced freedom of speech or religion. Notice what persecution does in the Bible: it actually grows Christianity (Acts, specifically Acts 8, Philippians 1:12). Notice the kinds of Christians it breeds in communist or other dictatorial countries: Christians who are willing to die or be imprisoned for simply owning a Bible. Christianity under prosecution and persecution tends to thrive. It tends to unleash the conviction in people.
            A Feb. 4 2013 National Review Online article states that in China, “The number of persecution cases increased in 2012, the seventh consecutive year where there’s been an uptick. But despite that persecution, Christianity is thriving in China, winning more and more converts.”
              Or how about this from the Christian Freedom International website:
“Kim Il-Sung-ism, named after the late dictator who passed away in December 2011, is the only acceptable religion in North Korea; all other religions, particularly Christianity, are strictly forbidden. Thousands of North Korean believers have lost their lives from severe persecution or the harsh conditions of prison or work camps.”
And we, in an as yet free country, “struggle” with simply being Christian among those who aren’t? What, I ask myself on a daily basis, is my problem?
The Israelites understood the saying, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”  They were not about to jeopardize the rebuilding of the temple, and thus, their personal, family and community life out of a fear of the non-believers surrounding them. The Scripture says they built the altar and made sacrifices to the Lord. What would that look like for us?

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