Looking back into our past at church history, it is often easier to see individuals who have come before us as larger than life. So, for example, we could tell countless stories about men like Luther and Spurgeon, beginning one after another with the preface, “Did you hear the one about …” and the like. But these men were simply that – men. And they faced challenges greater than themselves. To say it another way, these men faced challenges so great that they could in no way deal with them on their own. So, it would make sense that if we could discover what was a secret for overcoming great challenges for them, we might apply it to our own lives and circumstances as well. So what was their secret? Where was their focus?
I answer that question from one of these men mentioned – Martin Luther. In the midst of the Reformation, he had broken away from the Catholic Church. He had come (so it seemed) against 1,300 years of church history, and was forced to stand before the emperor and defend his views. And even after being spared his life before the emperor, the challenge of reforming the teaching and practices of the church had to be overwhelming. It is one thing to settle something in your own mind, it is another to communicate it, and it is quite another to have others understand and then to put into practice the numerous implications that come from it. So what did he see as that which would lead this Reformation. Luther answered, “The Word will do this thing.” 1
As we look at Ezra 7-10 and Nehemiah 8-10 this morning, we will see that this has been God’s plan for accomplishing his purposes throughout history. We see this as God’s purpose was clearly to only to build a temple, but to build a people for himself.
Chapter 7 begins “Now after this” which translates in history as sixty years later. The temple had been rebuilt in 516 BC and now Ezra is sent to the people to teach them the word in 458 BC. And these chapters are filled with Ezra reading, teaching, and commanding the word of God, the people’s sins being exposed, them confessing, and repenting for their sins. And there is much that we need to learn from this encounter of God’s people with God’s Word here. So, let’s note a few things from these chapters this morning about the word of God, what it demands from us, and what should be our response to it.
First, in looking at these chapters in which the Word is central in building God’s people, we see that …
God’s word is a conforming standard for our lives
The word of God is central in these chapters. Several times the people are described as those who tremble at the word (Ezra (9:4, 10:3, 10:9). And Ezra is clearly a man of the word.
We see in Ezra 7:6 that Ezra comes to the people because, “He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD the God of Israel had given” and “Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). We see the same thing in Nehemiah 8 as Ezra reads the law from early morning until midday (Nehemiah 8:3) and had others give the meaning of the text (Nehemiah 8:7-8).
And this does not occur without response. In Ezra 9:1-2 the people approach Ezra to tell him that they had committed sins by intermarrying with those who were not worshippers of the Lord. Similarly, in Nehemiah 8:14 and Nehemiah 9, they confess their sins and repent as they see that their lives and practices do not conform to the word.
So, this is a reminder to us that God’s word is a conforming standard for our lives. It is the standard for our thoughts and behavior. Thus we need to be constantly exposed to the word, both in our private reading as well as hearing the preaching of the word. But we also need to allow the word to have its effect in your life. Give yourself the time before the word to allow it to expose where you are not in conformity to it. Give yourself time to hold the word close and to let it do its cutting work.
You need to take the word and hold it close to you and let it absorb all of your desires to disobey until you surrender and obey to it. The word is not without power. And to say that the word of God can have no effect on you would be to border on blasphemy, for it is powerful, living, and active, and able to judge the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). Rather, our problem is that we often do not give ourselves time before the word to allow it to show us our lives. There might not be many of us who have seriously taken up Ezra’s mission to “study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules” (Ezra 7:10).
How do you know what is true? You will only know as you know the word. How do you know what God’s will is on a number of matters? You will know as you know the word. How do you advise others in directions, actions, and thoughts that you know are right? You can only be sure of this as you know you are speaking that which is from the word. So, resolve to take up the mission of Ezra according to Ezra 7:10.
And as we read the word we see what is demanded of us. One of those things is holiness. The world will reveal sin in our lives, which leads to see what is demanded from the word in the lives of believers.
As God’s people, we’re to live separate from the world
The problem that the word exposed was that there was intermarriage between the Israelites and those of other cultures who worshiped other gods. Now, be sure to see that the problem was not interracial marriage, but that it was marriage with pagans – with those who did not worship the God of Israel. The word of God revealed this to the people, showing them they are to be separate from the world.
Ezra 9:1-2 tells us, “After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, ‘The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations … so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands.’” Thus, we clearly see a call for holiness, a call to be set apart.
Now this does not mean that we are not to be among the lost, for we must if we are to carry out the great commission. It does mean, however, that we are not to pursue marriage with one who is not a believer (however if you already are married to a non-believer refer to 1 Peter 3 and 1 Corinthians 7). It also means that we are not to carry out the sins that we see being committed by the world. We are to live differently, for only then will we stand out as God’s chosen people.
We also see that repentance is a right response to the word
So, the word is taught, it shows us how we must live, and it reveals our sins. So what are we to do in response to that? We are to repent. We are to confess that we’ve sinned (agree with God that he is right and we are wrong) and turn from our sin.
This is what the Israelites did. In Ezra 10 we read that the people come to Ezra and tell him that they have done wrong and long to covenant to live differently. Ezra tells them in verse 11, “Now then make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” Again we read in Nehemiah 9:2-3, “And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the book o f the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the LORD their God.”
This is the right response of the Christian to the word as it reveals sin in his or her life. Thus, we do not study our bibles merely to learn mentally but to be convicted and shaped in our hearts so that we might be conformed to the image of Christ.
Thus, this is our right response today. Are you dating a non-Christian? Well, this morning you’ve been reminded from the word that such is the mixing of holy and unholy. Therefore, you must repent. Break it off. If you are engaged to a non-Christian, break it off. The bible simply does not allow us to enter into that kind of relationship with one whose allegiance is utterly against our God. Do you know someone who’s walking such a road? Confront him or her. Do not sit idly by and allow your brother or sister to walk in sin.
I’m praying that we might foster an atmosphere among us at CCC where we are vulnerable before each other, confess our sins, and confront one another on sin so that ultimately we might pray for one another, aid one another, and care for one another that we might be marked by holiness and repentance. One of the demands of the reality that you cannot live holy alone is that you become vulnerable to others in the community of faith.
Finally, we see that being righteous before God is possible because of Jesus Christ
Throughout these chapters we read of God’s demand for perfect righteousness and his righteous judgment of sin. In Ezra 9:15 the people declare, “O LORD the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this. Again, in chapter 10, they confess their sins “until the fierce wrath of God over this matter is turned away from [them]” (Ezra 10:14). We read of the same righteousness and righteous judgment in Nehemiah 9:8 and 9:33 as they people declare, “Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly.” So, clearly we worship a just and righteous God who righteously judges his creation, a creation who is utterly tainted in sinful rebellion.
So, what is our hope?
Well, we also read throughout these chapters that God is gracious and merciful. We see this clearly in Nehemiah 9:28 and 31.
So, which is it, is God a judge who must judge righteously, not overlooking sin but judging it? Or, is God a God who longs to be gracious and pardon men of their sins, showing them mercy? Well, the answer is that he is both, without compromising either.
“But,” we might say, “if God decides to be gracious and forgive my sins, then by necessity he must decide not to be righteous in his judgment, for my sins would then have to be judged.” The answer is that God has made a way to justify you from your sins and to remain just in that forgiveness. And the answer is in Jesus Christ. Romans 3:25-26 says, “God put forward [Jesus] as a propitiation [i.e. one who would appease his wrath for sin] by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
So the reason we have hope of appearing righteous before the throne of God is because God has judged our sins in Christ. He became sin for us, received God’s wrath, died on the cross, and rose from the dead so that as we repent of our sins and place our faith in him we might receive his perfect righteousness to our account before God. Thus, there will be no people in heaven who are pretty good. You will either be utterly unrighteous in your sin or perfectly righteous, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, achieved on your behalf. Therefore, if you have not believed, remember John 3:36: “He who believes has eternal life, but he who does not believe shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
If you have not placed faith in Christ, God’s wrath will judge you, manifesting itself in eternity in hell. But if you have placed your faith in Christ, then know that you stand perfectly righteous before God and strive to live according to his word as a new creation in him.
So, for those of us who are believers, let me close by asking you a few questions, as we did last week.
1. Are you constantly striving to know God’s word and to allow it the time to shape your heart? Has your exposure to the word been completely eliminated from your life, become simply a reading exercise, or become something that is considered to be outside of the essential aspect of your days? Your holiness will be in direct parallel to your contemplative exposure to the word. And do not excuse contemplative, meditative exposure to the word from your life simply because you have many Christian and theological conversations. Rather, ask yourself if you’re exposing yourself to the word and allowing it to reveal sin in your life?
2. Do you turn people to God’s word in your conversation with them? I will guarantee you that unless you can answer number 1 with a “yes” then number 2 will be greatly difficult to answer, “yes.”
3. What sins this morning are weighing on your heart? As you have been sitting there this morning what has come to mind? Maybe in hearing that we are to be separate from the world, it’s hit you how many things you’re doing that the bible condemns. The Israelites responded in confession and repentance, for they knew their sins were a mockery of who God had called them to be. May we respond in confession and repentance today as well.
4. Have you declared with the covenant community (the church, the local church) to live according to the word? The Israelites responded to the demands of the word confessing sin, repenting, and covenanting together to live according to the word. This is remarkably similar to our practice of signing the church covenant as we join this church. Have you done that – at this church or another? If not, you are giving away a great opportunity to be held accountable by God’s church. I know that it takes great humility to make that commitment and to submit to others to watch over your life. However, you must ask yourself, “Is holding on to my sin worth losing my life?”
5. Is Satan tempting you to despair as one who has no hope? If so, then we will close with a song that is a reminder that our righteousness from God is just. In fact, God would be unjust not to pardon those for whom his Son has died. God will honor the death of his Son for his church. Therefore, let us close singing of our hope this morning in singing, “It is well.”
It indeed is well with us because of the cross, that which makes God both the just judge and the justifier of his church. Amen.