Ezra Lesson 5 - Opportunity Equals Opposition
Where there is opportunity to advance the kingdom of God, there will surely be opposition. Jesus promised that when He said that all who desire to live Godly in this world will face persecution. Are you facing opposition today because of your faith? Take heart . . . it's a sign you're doing the right thing.
OPPORTUNITY = OPPOSITION
For the last several weeks, I’ve been meeting on Wednesday morning with two men who accepted Christ as their personal Savior sometime in the last 3 months or so. We meet at Chick-Fil-A. It’s fitting to meet at a place that’s closed on Sunday, because the founder and owner is a believer. There in the back corner we read, pray and talk about the Christian life. One of these men is a software guru, and the other guy is a CPA. While their professions are very different, they have discovered one thing they have in common – they both ride motorcycles – and they both have said it is their goal to get me on one of them. Apparently they don’t know my wife. One of them brought me this article last week – as a way to further motivate my thinking about motorcycles.
This was actually written by a motorcycle drivin’ pastor from New Jersey:
The Christian life is an adventure and challenge filled journey; it is very much like riding a motorcycle. (It gets deeper). A life of Christian faith has a lot in common with the experience of riding a motorcycle. They’re both invigorating, full of surprises and people sometimes look at you kinda funny for doing it. You go against the grain; there are risks; and you feel alive. You have to maintain your machine and bring the right equipment. Oh, and just like riding a motorcycle, you can get some bugs in your teeth being a Christian. There are also safer places to be! It is a challenge, adventure and a wonderful journey.
It’s so clear now – God wants me to buy a Harley . . . well maybe not!
I do think, however, that some of these phrases about the Christian life are great – “people look at you kinda funny for living it . . . there are surprises . . . you go against the grain . . . and sometimes you get bugs in your teeth . . . and there are safer places to be.
So far, our study in Ezra has recorded for us a safe journey for the Israelite. So far it’s been a smooth ride.
They were captives in the land of foreign kings – for 70 years they had been paying the consequences of their disobedience to God.
But Ezra opens his book with the record of a miracle – God has turned the heart of King Cyrus, and a proclamation has been given that the people of Israel can return to Jerusalem to begin rebuilding their temple and their beloved city.
Fifty thousand people sign on in faith and dedicate themselves to restore their nation's worship system for the glory of God.
Everything is working out beautifully! In chapter 3 they rebuild the altar and resume sacrifices – they begin the restoration process of the temple which had been destroyed – and they even pour the foundation.
A celebration erupts as they shout hallelujah to God, so loudly that their sound was heard far away.
Evidently the sound of their praising God reaches the ears of their enemies. . .and the children of Israel are about to experience bugs in their teeth. The smooth ride is about to end.
Let’s rejoin our study of what happened next at chapter 4, verse 1.
4:1 Now when the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the people of the exile were building a temple to the Lord God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ households, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we, like you, seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us up here.”
This sounds great doesn’t it? Volunteer help just showed up! And these people worship God too! That’s what you and I would initially think if Ezra had not let us know with the very first verse that they were not friends. He’s letting us know at the very beginning that these people aren’t even nice – in fact, they are enemies of God.
3 But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of fathers’ households of Israel said to them, “You have nothing in common with us in building a house to our God; but we ourselves will together build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia has commanded us.”
You need to understand that this offer to help was nothing less than the subtle threat of infiltration! And it would have required an ungodly alliance.
But wait a second – these Samaritans said (v. 2) “we seek your God; and we have been sacrificing to Him.”
Let me show you the real story of what they had been doing.
READ 2 Kings 17:27-33
27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying, “Take there one of the priests whom you carried away into exile, and let him go and live there; and let him teach them the custom of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away into exile from Samaria came and lived at Bethel, and taught them how they should fear the Lord. 29 But every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the houses of the high places which the people of Samaria had made, every nation in their cities in which they lived. 30 And the men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, 31 and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech the gods of Sepharvaim. 32 They also feared the Lord and appointed from among themselves priests of the high places, who acted for them in the houses of the high places. 33 They feared the Lord and served their own gods according to the custom of the nations from among whom they had been carried away into exile.
Want a good description of America? There it is! They feared the Lord and served their own gods.
They paid lip service to God – they showed some level of respect – they printed on their currency, “In God we Trust,” They went to war and then talked of sending their prayers to a God they didn’t want mentioned any other time.
Our nation resembles the Samaritans more than it does the Israelites.
And what of the modern church – has it been infiltrated with a philosophy of life other than radical commitment to Jesus Christ?
Here’s a short list of descriptions – try them on for size:
Anonymity is acceptable.
In other words, come to church and we’ll leave you alone – just clock in with us – don’t change, grow, repent, reform – we just want to add you to our membership. And the motto of this infiltrated church is, “If you’ll attend, we won’t offend.”
Here’s another one:
Worship is a one day a week event.
It isn’t a practice – a discipline – a passion – a lifestyle –it’s one hour a week for God and the remaining 167 hours for me.
The church is a building.
The truth is, the church building is a base of operation – the church happens to be you! Tomorrow Colonial will be in a thousand different places. One of the problems I have with church signs, including ours, is that they imply that this geographical location is Colonial Baptist Church – it isn’t. It just happens to gather here.
Another symptom of infiltration is: Somebody else can serve.
Another: Tipping on Sunday can replace stewardship.
Systematic, prayerful investment is replaced by a casual tip.
Another: Edification focuses on my needs rather than God's commands.
For the average Christian, the word edification refers to how he feels. If he feel good after a service, he says, “I was really edified.” Ladies and gentlemen, edification has nothing to do with how you feel; it has everything to do with how you live.
In fact, an edifying service may make you feel absolutely miserable – overwhelmed by your sinfulness, to the point of repentance.
Edification takes place when we conform our will to God’s.
Think about the music we just sang - we just sang some profound lyrics that demanded total sellout to God – complete, radical commitment to Jesus Christ.
Did we hear what we just sang?
President Franklin Roosevelt was so weary of the mindless small talk of White House receptions. Wondering if anyone was really engaging in any real conversation, he conducted an experiment. At the next White House gathering, as he shook hands with the dignitaries and guests who were passing him in the reception line, he quietly said to each person, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” And the people would smile back and say things like, “You’re doing a great job,” or even, “How lovely!” Only one person really heard him – a visiting foreign diplomat who responded back quietly, “I’m sure she had it coming.”
This morning, are we really listening? Will it make any difference??
One more: Experience matters more than theology.
In other words, the Bible is a nice guideline – but don’t take it so seriously. Whatever you do – whatever you believe – whatever you’ve experienced is right for you.
You can almost hear the Samaritans in Ezra 4:2b saying, “Listen, just loosen up – we’ll help you build – what do you mean, you have nothing in common with us? We’ve added Jehovah to our list of gods – don’t be so intolerant of our religion – it works for us!"
Zerubbabel and the other leaders knew the truth – the one and only true and living God demanded exclusive worship. He wasn’t to be added to anybody’s list of gods – He was the list.
Zerubbabel and the others knew that was actually a battle over doctrine – God had already said to them: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me!” That was the command of God. Period.
Maybe you’ve heard about an anonymous financier who has rented billboard space – I believe in Florida. Black billboards – with white letters – short messages and then underneath is the name God. I read several of them in an article recently, and the one that struck me in light of this passage was the one that said, "What part of Thou Shalt Not do you not understand?"
Those who claim to worship God can worship only God.
In this battle of theology, the Israelites won. They thought critically, and they would not compromise and create an ungodly alliance.
The Israelites avoided disaster, because they saw through the temptation of an ungodly compromise. If only the church would learn today that we also are not to attempt to do the work of God with the help of people who do not know God.
Listen to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the New Testament paraphrases with powerful words the text from I Corinthians 6:14-15. Don’t become partners with those who reject God. How can you make a partnership out of right and wrong? That’s not partnership; that’s war. Is light best friends with dark? Does Christ go strolling with the Devil?
Be careful – be discerning.
Now notice what the enemies do next.
v. 4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and frightened them from building, 5 and hired counselors against them to frustrate their counsel all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.
In other words, the building stopped – for some 15 years, it stopped.
Zerubbabel and the leaders were successful against the threat of infiltration, but they gave up under the constant barrage of unjust accusations.
Let me put it another way – they could handle the doctrinal issues with victory – they could not handle the emotional issues with victory.
Have you discovered that the enemy usually attacks along those lines?
For some, impure doctrine is their downfall. They don’t know the scripture – they are tossed about by every wind of doctrine – vulnerable to false teachers and religious fads – never growing – always needy – not able to think critically, doctrinally, theologically.
For others, doctrine is solid; but their emotions become their downfall. Unable to stand the pain of ridicule, rejection, discouragement, isolation, ridicule, trial, disappointment – they curl up and keep their faith a secret – unable to stand.
By the way – as we’ll study later, Nehemiah was built that way as well. He, without any thought or trouble withstood the temptations of compromise and ungodly alliances. He was strong doctrinally – yet when he was personally accused of having wrong motives, he went to his knees in prayer – begging God for strength to carry on.
Verses 6-23 are not in chronological order – what Ezra does is summarize decades of disappointment.
He summarizes 15 years of a defeated nation – disabled by discouragement!
It is one of Satan’s most powerful tools.
Notice verse 6. Now in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem. (In this one verse he doesn’t give us details, he simply says a letter was written accusing the Jews of unjust things.) Ahasuerus was, by the way, the King who married Esther.
Now here’s another illustration - 7. And in the days of Artaxerxes, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of his colleagues, wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the text of the letter was written in Aramaic and translated from Aramaic. (now Ezra will give us the contents of this particular letter – perhaps because it summarized all of the other letters that had been written earlier. Look down at verse 11. This is the copy of the letter which they sent to him: “To King Artaxerxes: Your servants, the men in the region beyond the River, and now 12 let it be known to the king, that the Jews who came up from you have come to us at Jerusalem; they are rebuilding the rebellious and evil city, and are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. (In this letter they're going to imply four reasons why the King needs to put a stop to the building project of Jerusalem -the first one we just read – Jerusalem is a bad city filled with rebellious people) 13 “Now let it be known to the king, that if that city is rebuilt and the walls are finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and it will damage the revenue of the kings. (2nd reason to stop the building – this city won’t pay you taxes – Oh, King, you’re about to lose money!) 14 “Now because we are in the service of the palace, and it is not fitting for us to see the king’s dishonor, therefore we have sent and informed the king, (oh! 3rd – You, Oh King, are about to lose face - lose honor in the midst of the nations.) 15 so that a search may be made in the record books of your fathers. And you will discover in the record books, and learn that that city is a rebellious city and damaging to kings and provinces, and that they have incited revolt within it in past days; therefore that city was laid waste. 16 “We inform the king that, if that city is rebuilt and the walls finished, as a result you will have no possession in the province beyond the River.” (reason #4 – You will lose power – you won’t control anything beyond the River Euphrates.)
What do you think any king would say after reading that he’s about to lose money, honor and power? “No problem; taxes are too high anyhow – and I’m in the mood to give away some property to a good cause – it’s time I gave something back to the people!” Kings reserve saying those things until election year.
Not a chance! Especially for a king here in verse 7 who has right in the middle of his name the word “Tax” – just a coincidence I’m sure. Well Artaxerxes searches the archives for validation and then issues a decree that the project stop!
Verse 24 just summarizes it all up. Then work on the house of God in Jerusalem ceased, and it was stopped until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.
The king ordered the work to cease – in fact, it’s likely that the Persians came and tore down the work the Jews had already completed – so that when Nehemiah receives the report from his brothers – they were actually describing what the Persians had done to the walls.
It was going so well – then suddenly it all went so bad.
What can we learn from Zerubbabel’s excitement and then discouragement?
1) Advancement attracts attention.
You move an inch in your spiritual walk and somebody will take note – if not the underworld – hey, that believer just made a commitment – pull out the ammunition.
2) Opposition should be our expectation!
Paul wrote to his young son in the faith these words, “They who desire to live godly in Jesus Christ will be persecuted.”
In other words, anybody who makes a commitment to live a godly life just might as well paint a bullseye on his or her face. What I love about that verse is that it doesn’t say, “They who live godly in Jesus Christ will be persecuted” But “They who desire to live godly. . .” You just want to live for Christ – and you get into trouble. 2 Timothy 3:12
Take it from believers thousands of years ago - harassed, threatened, falsely accused! Honestly, it worked! Progress ceased.
Opposition is to be expected!
3) Failure is guaranteed without God.
What would happen 15 years later that would cause the building process to begin – what would encourage discouraged, defeated, disabled Zerubbabel to pick up his tools again?
Among a number of things – it would be the preaching of a prophet named Zechariah.
Zechariah’s message that is rarely viewed from the historical context that we’ve just studied – here’s the verse – “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel saying, “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”
What a gracious God. "Zechariah, go tell poor discouraged Zerubbabel – it isn’t by your might, or your power, or your technique, or your finesse, or your talent – tell him and all the other discouraged believers, “Anything ever built for the kingdom of God is never built by the power of man – it is built by My Spirit says the Lord.”
Hudson Taylor the pioneer missionary to China described the successful Christian life as, “Not a striving to have faith – but a looking off to the One who is Faithful.”
Paul put it this way: If we are faithless, He remains faithful. (2 Timothy 2:13)
Faithful is He who calls you who will also bring it to pass. (I Thess. 5:24)
So, whenever you have been brought to a standstill – remember to still stand.
Even if it means you get a few bugs in your teeth – and you realize, standing for Christ, that there are safer places to be – you still stand – and remember, you live and grow and advance and build . . . not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.
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