Weapons Of Mass Discouragement (Ezra 4:1-5:5)

What would you say is the devil’s most effective weapon?

The story is told about an old demon who was planning to retire. He put up for auction all the weapons which he had accumulated over the years. They ranged from envy to laziness to gossip to lust.

Off to one side lay a harmless looking instrument labeled “Discouragement.” 

It was priced far above the rest.

When a junior demon asked about the weapon, the old demon said, “Many people have been able to resist attacks from my other weapons, but as soon as I deployed ‘discouragement,’ they would fall into the trap, and it would be easy to defeat them,” he explained.

Is discouragement really that powerful a weapon? Ask Elijah.

In an incredible spiritual showdown on Mount Carmel, Elijah embarrassed, then put to death, 400 false prophets of Baal.

Queen Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah. He reacted by running for his life. At one point “he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” (First Kings 19:4).

Later, while hiding in a cave, he complained, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life” (First Kings 19:10).

After this bout with discouragement, Elijah did very little, except anoint Elisha to take his place.

So, yes, discouragement is a powerful weapon against the servant of God.

The first wave of exiles who returned to Jerusalem had rebuilt the altar of the Lord and established daily and annual sacrifices. They were keeping the seven calendar feasts of the Lord. They had laid the foundation for the Temple.

Then we read in verse four of chapter four, “the people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building.”

Drop down to verse twenty-four:

Ezra 4:24  Thus the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem ceased, and it was discontinued until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

Discouragement was the primary weapon that halted them in their building.

You and I are “are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22). We are also, individually, a building project of Jesus’ as He works each day to complete what He has begun in us.

Discouragement is a key weapon that will be used against us to bring building to a halt. If we’re not careful, it could end our usefulness as servants of Jesus.

I’ll organize my comments around two points: #1 Discouragement Should Come As No Surprise To You, and #2 Discouragement Will Keep Coming As A Strategy Against You.

#1 – Discouragement Should Come As No Surprise To You (4:1-5 & 24 – 5:1-5)

It was Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in a 1789 letter, that “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Death isn’t really certain – not for a person in Christ. When Jesus comes for His church, He will resurrect the dead, then living believers will be raptured – without ever dying.

“Discouragement and taxes” is certain.

Ezra 4:1  Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the LORD God of Israel,
Ezra 4:2  they came to Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers’ houses, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”
Ezra 4:3  But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel said to them, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the LORD God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”

After the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians, and the Jews were carried off, foreigners settled in the land. It was common to acknowledge that each nation had its own local deities. After settling in the land, they added the God of Israel as another one of their many gods. They were pagan idolators. Compromise with them would only mean contamination.

It reminds me of the admonition of the apostle Paul that we not become “unequally yoked” with nonbelievers” (Second Corinthians 6:14).

We are definitely to be among nonbelievers, sharing Jesus. But we should not enter into partnerships with them, e.g., marriage.

Nothing will cause you more discouragement than being unequally yoked.

Ezra 4:4  Then the people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building,

The returnees had a lot to be encouraged about:

God was for them; they had God’s Word to guide them.

The king of Persia was for them; they had the government’s word to guard them.

All the more reason to think discouragement would be so effective a strategy.

There’s a passage in the New Testament that declares people are ensnared by the devil, describing them as “having been taken captive by him to do his will” (Second Timothy 2:26).

They aren’t possessed; they’re influenced to oppose the things of God, and the people of God. They become the major delivery system for the weapon of discouragement.

Ever wonder why you have so much drama at work? The nonbelievers there are being influenced to discourage you. Sadly, sometimes, so are some believers.

Ezra 4:5  and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.

The word “counselors” is variously translated as “bribed officials” or “propagandists.” The enemies started a campaign against the returnees, using all the men and means that were at their disposal to discourage the building.

Drop down to the last verse of chapter four – verse twenty-four.

Ezra 4:24  Thus the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem ceased, and it was discontinued until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

The weapon of discouragement struck a debilitating blow to the building of the Temple.

The work “ceased” for the next fifteen years.

Like Elijah, the Jews had experienced a spiritual high – only to be victimized by discouragement.

I’ll admit that some people are less susceptible to discouragement than others. But it is not something anyone can avoid. That is to again say, discouragement is coming.

It’s coming, but discouragement can be overcome. Chapter five picks-up the story at the end of the fifteen year work stoppage.

Ezra 5:1  Then the prophet Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophets, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them.
Several books ought to be read in conjunction with Ezra:

Nehemiah and Esther are the books of history about this period of restoration.
Haggai and Zechariah and Malachi are the books of prophecy about this period of restoration.

At the end of verse twenty-four of chapter four the writer jumped ahead fifteen years to when Darius was king of Persia. That is exactly where Haggai begins:

Haggai 1:1  In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, saying,
Haggai 1:2  “Thus speaks the LORD of hosts, saying: ‘This people says, “The time has not come, the time that the LORD’s house should be built.” ‘ ”
Haggai 1:3  Then the word of the LORD came by Haggai the prophet, saying,
Haggai 1:4  “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?”
Haggai 1:5  Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: “Consider your ways!
Haggai 1:6  “You have sown much, and bring in little; You eat, but do not have enough; You drink, but you are not filled with drink; You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; And he who earns wages, Earns wages to put into a bag with holes.”
Haggai 1:7  Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Consider your ways!
Haggai 1:8  Go up to the mountains and bring wood and build the temple, that I may take pleasure in it and be glorified,” says the LORD.

One of the goals of the devil, in using discouragement, is to get you to quit serving the Lord. It’s pretty clear from this prophecy that discouragement is no excuse to slow down, or to quit, building for the Lord.
I hear all the time about believers in Christ who no longer attend any fellowship because of some discouragement they suffered at a church. To paraphrase Haggai’s words, they “dwell in [their] paneled houses,” giving no thought to the fact they are living stones meant to be part of building the Lord’s precious church on earth.

Ezra 5:2  So Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to build the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them, helping them.

Just like that, they returned to the work. It is attributed to the Word of God as spoken through the prophets.

Listen – when you are discouraged, and especially if you are thinking about quitting, and withdrawing to your house, or some cave like Elijah, you have no permission from God. You are out of His will.

Ezra 5:3  At the same time Tattenai the governor of the region beyond the River and Shethar-Boznai and their companions came to them and spoke thus to them: “Who has commanded you to build this temple and finish this wall?”
Ezra 5:4  Then, accordingly, we told them the names of the men who were constructing this building.
Ezra 5:5  But the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, so that they could not make them cease till a report could go to Darius. Then a written answer was returned concerning this matter.

The enemies of Israel wanted to know the names of those working on the Temple. It was a more sinister threat.

Regardless, this time, discouragement was ineffective. Make note of that: Discouragement need not be effective. It can be avoided, not just overcome. There are probably many ways to avoid it. The one highlighted in this situation is knowing you are in God’s will, doing God’s work. The encouragement of the Holy Spirit cancels out discouragement.

The best words I can quote regarding discouragement are those of Jesus on the night before He died on the Cross. It’s a profound understatement to say that His disciples were discouraged:

One of them turned-out to be a traitor.

Their mission, for all they could see, had failed.

Their own lives were in danger

Do you remember Jesus’ words to them? They are words to us, too. He said,

John 14:1  “Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me.
John 14:2  In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.
John 14:3  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.
John 14:4  And where I go you know, and the way you know.”

Your heart needs to believe those words of Jesus. The more you do, the less you will be troubled by discouragement.

#2 – Discouragement Will Keep Coming As A Strategy Against You (4:6-23)

You’re familiar with what is called flash-forward:

In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge experiences a flash forward, as the ghost of Christmas future takes him to see what his life (and death) will be like if he does not change his selfish ways.

In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, there is a flash forward scene of nuclear destruction, that the characters in the present day are working to prevent.

We skipped verses six through twenty-three in chapter four because they are a flash-forward.

They give a broad overview of resistance to the work of rebuilding the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, through the reigns of several Persian kings, extending into the days of Nehemiah.

Why did Ezra use this literary device? I can suggest one reason: It establishes that discouragement is always coming.

Ezra 4:6  In the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
Ezra 4:7  In the days of Artaxerxes also, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabel, and the rest of their companions wrote to Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the letter was written in Aramaic script, and translated into the Aramaic language.

The enemies made good their threats to expose the returnees to those higher-up in the government.

You’ve heard the expression that begins, “Tough times don’t last.” Well, they do. Or, at least, they can. We’ve been taught to think that God will end our tough time as soon as we learn a lesson, or do something spiritual. That thought will only set you up for further discouragement.

Ezra 4:8  Rehum the commander and Shimshai the scribe wrote a letter against Jerusalem to King Artaxerxes in this fashion:
Ezra 4:9  From Rehum the commander, Shimshai the scribe, and the rest of their companions – representatives of the Dinaites, the Apharsathchites, the Tarpelites, the people of Persia and Erech and Babylon and Shushan, the Dehavites, the Elamites,
Ezra 4:10  and the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Osnapper took captive and settled in the cities of Samaria and the remainder beyond the River – and so forth.

Ever feel like everyone is against you? They might be.

Ezra 4:11  (This is a copy of the letter that they sent him) To King Artaxerxes from your servants, the men of the region beyond the River, and so forth:
Ezra 4:12  Let it be known to the king that the Jews who came up from you have come to us at Jerusalem, and are building the rebellious and evil city, and are finishing its walls and repairing the foundations.
Ezra 4:13  Let it now be known to the king that, if this city is built and the walls completed, they will not pay tax, tribute, or custom, and the king’s treasury will be diminished.

Remember that nonbelievers are taken captive by the devil. One of his titles is the Accuser. When you’re falsely accused, he is the source.

Ezra 4:14  Now because we receive support from the palace, it was not proper for us to see the king’s dishonor; therefore we have sent and informed the king,
Ezra 4:15  that search may be made in the book of the records of your fathers. And you will find in the book of the records and know that this city is a rebellious city, harmful to kings and provinces, and that they have incited sedition within the city in former times, for which cause this city was destroyed.

Why was Jerusalem destroyed? It was destroyed as a discipline from God for the rebellion of His people against Him – not against other earthly kings. These guys had no idea Who they were dealing with.

Ezra 4:16  We inform the king that if this city is rebuilt and its walls are completed, the result will be that you will have no dominion beyond the River.
Ezra 4:17  The king sent an answer: To Rehum the commander, to Shimshai the scribe, to the rest of their companions who dwell in Samaria, and to the remainder beyond the River: Peace, and so forth.
Ezra 4:18  The letter which you sent to us has been clearly read before me.
Ezra 4:19  And I gave the command, and a search has been made, and it was found that this city in former times has revolted against kings, and rebellion and sedition have been fostered in it.
Ezra 4:20  There have also been mighty kings over Jerusalem, who have ruled over all the region beyond the River; and tax, tribute, and custom were paid to them.
Ezra 4:21  Now give the command to make these men cease, that this city may not be built until the command is given by me.
Ezra 4:22  Take heed now that you do not fail to do this. Why should damage increase to the hurt of the kings?

By this point, the Temple had been rebuilt. Only the walls surrounding Jerusalem still lay in ruin.

The king said, “until the command is given by me.” That left hope, which would be realized when this same king gave permission to his servant, Nehemiah, to return and build the walls.

Ezra 4:23  Now when the copy of King Artaxerxes’ letter was read before Rehum, Shimshai the scribe, and their companions, they went up in haste to Jerusalem against the Jews, and by force of arms made them cease.

This time the returnees did not cave in to discouragement. They stopped building the walls because they were good citizens.

I’m guessing a lot of us are discouraged on some level. Learn from Elijah and don’t cave-in to it.

“Let not your heart be troubled.” Those words are first a comfort, but second, a command – meaning it is something you can obey.

Set your heart on the things above; and things that are future.

Temple Tantrum (Ezra 3:1-13)

You can perform an unclaimed property search on the California State Controller’s website.

I searched on Wednesday, and was surprised to find a result. I have an accounts receivable credit of $7.99 reported by Microsoft Corporation.

I decided not to claim it; I’ll save it right there for the next recession.

There was a second result pertaining not to me, but to my dad. He died with Farmers Insurance owing him $0.61 from a court deposit.

It’s always nice to receive unexpected money.

Just ask John Helinski. This is from a 2015 article:

For three years, John Helinski’s home was a cardboard box at a Tampa Bay bus stop.

The 62-year-old had all of his personal identification stolen – so struggled to apply for a place at a homeless shelter.

But when a police officer and his case manger looked into his past, they found a forgotten bank account with money and enough social security benefits to buy his own house.

I mention all this because we’re going to highlight untapped spiritual resources in today’s Bible study.

We’re told in the New Testament that God has “blessed us with all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3); and that God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (Second Peter 1:3). It prompted one commentator to say, “If you find one single blessing with which God might bless us today, with which He has not already blessed us, then what He told Paul was not true, because he said, ‘All.’ ”

If that’s true – and it is – why do we who are in Christ often do life in our own strength, as if we don’t know spiritual resources are available?

The return of the exiles to Jerusalem can help us answer that question. The first thing they did upon their was build an altar to the Lord.

It will suggest to us that we have an altar from which all of our promised spiritual resources are guaranteed.

I’ll organize my comments around two questions: #1 Do You Know That You Have An Altar?, and #2 Do You Show That You Have An Altar?

#1 – Do You Know That You Have An Altar? (v1-7)

Whether you prefer Les Stroud, a.k.a., Survivorman, or Bear Grylls – survival skills shows are popular.

42,360 returning exiles found themselves in a survival situation:

Jerusalem was in ruins.

The returnees had an abundance of livestock, and lots and lots of money.

There was no army, and there were no walls or gates to protect the city from the hostiles around it.

Les Stroud… Bear Grylls – What is the first order of business? I think they would say “build the walls for protection.” Sounds smart.

The Jews “built the altar” (v2). Sounds dumb; but it was spiritually brilliant. If this endeavor was going to succeed, it would be by depending upon God. Building the altar first was a bold declaration that they intended to put God first.

With God on their side there was no need for physical walls. He would be their shield.

Let’s say your family was going through a rough patch. Do you think it would be smart to continue to be involved with the church, or to put that on hold while you spend more time together in recreation? Put God first.

Ezra 3:1 And when the seventh month had come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem.

The seventh month, Tishri, began with the blowing of trumpets on the first day of the month. The Day of Atonement followed on the tenth day; and the Feast of Tabernacles on the fifteenth through the twenty-first. It was a good season to begin their rebuilding in earnest.

“They gathered as one man” is a great compliment. Unity is something we have already, by virtue of being in Christ. We maintain it by yielding to God’s authority, to His earthly authority over us, and to one another, in love.

Ezra 3:2  Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brethren, arose and built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God.

To start with the altar, when so much else could have logically been put ahead of it, is an incredible show of faith. They were, in a sense, putting God to the test. They’d put Him first, trusting He would come through for them.

Before we move on, notice they referred to Moses as “the man of God.” There were a lot of titles they could have given him – Prophet, Law-Giver, Deliverer. They chose the simplest, and it is the most profound because it emphasizes his dependence upon God.

Ezra 3:3  Though fear had come upon them because of the people of those countries, they set the altar on its bases; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and evening burnt offerings.

You might think that your fear indicates a lack of faith. Not always. What indicates a lack of faith is disobedience and surrendering to your fear.

God didn’t take away their fear. Instead they struggled against it, growing in faith as they did.

Ezra 3:4  They also kept the Feast of Tabernacles, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings in the number required by ordinance for each day.
Ezra 3:5  Afterwards they offered the regular burnt offering, and those for New Moons and for all the appointed feasts of the LORD that were consecrated, and those of everyone who willingly offered a freewill offering to the LORD.

They immersed themselves in their religious calendar with its daily and monthly rites and rituals, and their feasts. It must have been beyond exciting to establish worship after 70 years of exile.

We don’t have a prescribed calendar. Some denominations do follow an arbitrary calendar; that’s OK, I guess. I’d rather have the freedom we have in Christ to be led by His Spirit.

Ezra 3:6  From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD, although the foundation of the temple of the LORD had not been laid.

They did what was prescribed in God’s Word.

Any and every time you hear or read God’s Word it has the power to teach you, to reprove you, to correct you, and to train you in righteousness (First Timothy 3:16). If you’re not in Christ, it is the power of God unto salvation.

Upon encountering the Word of God, you might therefore ask yourself, “Am I saved?”

If you are, then ask, “What was I taught? How was I reproved? Where was I corrected? What training did I receive in righteousness?”

Ezra 3:7  They also gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre to bring cedar logs from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the permission which they had from Cyrus king of Persia.

Sidon and Tyre were their closest Home Depot (or Lowes). They started gathering the building materials they would need.

First things first is always a good principle. Emphasize the basics. In our case, that means prayer, the Word, fellowship in the local church, and revealing Jesus to other through your witness.

They had the government on their side. That’s going to change, but either way, their task never changed.

You’ve waited long enough for me to explain what it means that you have an altar. I’ll let the writer to the Hebrew believers tell you:

Hebrews 13:10  We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.

Let me quickly give you the context for that statement. The Hebrew believers were being persecuted by their Jewish relatives and friends, and pressured to give up Jesus and return to the Temple with its sacrifices.

The writer to the Hebrew believers throughout the letter shows that the Temple and its sacrifices are cancelled out now that Jesus has fulfilled all of its symbolism. It was a shadow; He is the substance.

“We have an altar” first means that the whole Temple system is to be abandoned.

But what, or who, is our altar?

Some suggest it’s the Cross.

Some suggest it’s the communion table.

Others say it is Jesus Himself.

Our altar is Jesus – but in a much fuller way than we sometimes realize. It is Jesus and everything He did, and does, for us. It is the totality of being in Christ – His substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf, the forgiveness of our sins, our salvation, the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit, our on-going sanctification, our future glorification, and our eternal life with God in Heaven.

It is every promise that He has made to you. It is every word He has given us in the Bible. It is the church on earth as His dwelling place. It is the Gospel we share with others.

Let me again quote from the apostles, Paul and Peter. They said God has “blessed us with all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3); and that God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (Second Peter 1:3).

All means all. “We have an altar” means you have all of Heaven’s resources to draw from. Otherwise, on your way home to Heaven, you’ll live as if you’re homeless not knowing you have a full account to draw from.

#2 – Do You Show That You Have An Altar? (v8-13)

The homeless man we mentioned earlier – he didn’t show that he had resources he could have drawn from because he didn’t know about them.

Richard Leroy Walters, who died in 2009, was a homeless man who left an estate worth $4mil. In his case, he knew he had the money, but chose to live as if he did not.

While we might admire Walters, it’s not a good example for a believer in Christ. We should not live as if we had few resources, but ought to tap into all of them, and show it.

Ezra 3:8  Now in the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and the rest of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all those who had come out of the captivity to Jerusalem, began work and appointed the Levites from twenty years old and above to oversee the work of the house of the LORD.

A year had passed since the returnees first arrived. A lot of planning took place during that year.

God is orderly. That doesn’t discount the miraculous or the spontaneous, but it does encourage us to do all things decently and in order. Spontaneity itself is not more spiritual.

Levites were chosen, and probably trained, to serve as on-site building inspectors. I’m intrigued by their age. Some were as young as twenty.

Youth does not always mean immaturity. Some who have been in Christ for decades remain immature for one reason or another, while younger believers can be solid and settled. Life-experience is important, but the lack of it doesn’t mean a person can’t be used by God.

Ezra 3:9  Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers, Kadmiel with his sons, and the sons of Judah, arose as one to oversee those working on the house of God: the sons of Henadad with their sons and their brethren the Levites.

When I was in sales a million years ago, one of the motivational mantras we used was, “Plan your work, then work your plan.” Trite, but effective. The returnees had a plan, and they worked together as one man to accomplish it.

Ezra 3:10  When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel.
Ezra 3:11  And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: “For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.” Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.
The “foundation” wasn’t much; but the returnees looked beyond it to the finished work.

Trumpets, cymbals, responsive singing. They celebrated by worshipping the Lord for His eternal goodness and mercy.

While worship is so much more than instruments and singing, it’s a privilege to sing to the Lord. He sings over us (Zephaniah 3:17). We ought to sing unto Him.

Ezra 3:12  But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes… [Stop there for a moment].

Solomons Temple had been magnificent. Opulent. Extravagant. This second Temple – it was going to be plain and basic. It was was built on a smaller scale and with much fewer resources.

Also, Solomon’s temple had housed the Ark of the Covenant, which was no longer in Israel’s possession. And at the first Temple’s dedication, the altar had been lit by fire from Heaven, and the Temple had been filled with the glory of God. That wasn’t going to happen in the second Temple.

The prophet Haggai would rebuke these old timers, and he predicted a greater spiritual glory for the Second Temple. It’s glory would be that Jesus would visit it at His first coming.

Ezra 3:12  But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy,
Ezra 3:13  so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off.
Joy drowned-out the joy-less. Joy is a great weapon in our witness:

We have the joy of His salvation (Psalm 51:12).

The joy of the Lord is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10).

The fruit of the Spirit is joy (Galatians 5:22).

We rejoice with a joy inexpressible (First Peter 1:8).

Are you joyful, or joyless? Since joy is a fruit of the Spirit, you can be joyful.

And that brings us to showing your altar. If knowing your altar is the realization that “all” Heaven’s resources are in your account; then showing it is withdrawing them when they are called for.

There’s a word we use to describe this: it’s the word appropriate.

One commentator said, “Appropriation does not necessarily mean to gain something new, but to set aside for our practical possession something that already belongs to us.”

“All spiritual blessings” and “everything that pertains to life and godliness” already belongs to you. It belonged to you the very moment you were born-again. It belongs to you after you’ve walked with Jesus for decades.

Once you know what is yours, your need will cause you to draw from it. Here is a great quote:

Life is meant to bring a succession of discoveries of our need of Christ, and with every such discovery the way is opened for a new inflow of the supply. This is the explanation of so much that we cannot otherwise understand – this plunging of us into new tests where only a fresh supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ will meet our need. And as our need is met, as we prove the sufficiency of Christ to meet our inward need, so there can be a new showing forth of His glory through us.

Appropriation of spiritual resources requires waiting. After we know our resources and become aware of our need, then we must give Jesus the necessary time to work the appropriation into our everyday walk.

When the prophet Habakkuk was troubled by God’s prophecy of the exile in Babylon, he waited, saying, “I will stand my watch and set myself on the rampart, and watch to see what He will say to me, and what I will answer when I am corrected” (2:1). Not sure how long he waited. In the end, he appropriated joy, exclaiming, “Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, And the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, And there be no herd in the stalls – Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation” (3:17-18).

Don’t build walls when what you need is going to be provided as you wait upon the Lord.

Endure by faith in what God has promised, and show the world you have an altar.

When Jews Come Marching Home Again…Hurrah! Hurrah! (Ezra 2:1-70)

Building contractors have notoriously bad reputations. I think it’s a case of a few bad apples spoiling the whole bunch. Nevertheless, too many of us have a horror story to tell.

You should probably watch The Money Pit before hiring a contractor. I haven’t seen it in a while, but it’s rated PG, so I think I’m on safe ground.

It stars Tom Hanks and Shelley Long as a couple who buy a house badly needing remodeling. It’s a million dollar distress sale mansion on the market for a mere $200,000.00.

From the moment they take possession of the house, it begins to hilariously fall apart. At one point, there’s no hot water for bathing, so Tom Hanks is forced to boil water on the stove to fill the upstairs bathtub. It triggers an electrical fire that destroys the kitchen. Hanks’ clothing is burned, and he is singed, but he manages to bring the water upstairs. When he pours it, the tub crashes through the ceiling.

The contractor keeps insisting the remodel will take two weeks, well into it taking months. Hanks dubs the project “the money pit.”

He has the opposite problem in Sleepless in Seattle. In that film, he is the contractor – and he’s a good one – whose client is constantly changing her mind about the remodel.

Then, in arguably his greatest acting performance – as Ray Peterson in The Burbs – he ends up blowing-up his neighbor’s house.

(The Burbs has nothing whatsoever to do with the study, but I couldn’t help myself).

Most of you who are in Christ know that individual believers, and believers gathered together, are compared to a building project:

Regarding our individual bodies, we read in 1Corinthians 6:19, “… do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?”

Regarding us as a corporate body, we read in Ephesians 2:22, “… you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

The apostle Paul considered himself and the first century apostles and prophets as subcontractors:

We read in Ephesians 2:20 that we have “been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets…”

We read in 1Corinthians 3:10,  “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation…”

Jesus is most definitely the contractor:

He promised to finish the work He has begun in you, personally; and that work is none other than conforming you into His image.
He has promised to present the church to His Father in Heaven without spot or blemish.

In our text, God’s people were returning to rebuild His Temple. It was a massive building project, requiring stone, mortar, and timber.

But the first thing we encounter isn’t a list of the building supplies. It’s a list of the returnees – it’s a list of the people, God’s people. Sure, they were returning to build; but the real building project was them.

With that in mind, I’ll organize my comments around two points: #1 When Jesus Is Building, You’re Grateful To Serve, and #2 When Jesus Is Building, You’re Glad To Sacrifice.

#1 – When Jesus Is Building, You’re Grateful To Serve (v1-67)

Let me alleviate your fears: I’m not going to read most of the names in these seventy verses. You can relax.

We see ourselves in the text if we look not at individuals, but at the groupings of individuals.

Let me quickly catch us up. Seventy years of Jewish exile in Babylon were ended. King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple, their city, and its walls. Chapter two is the list of those who went in the first of three returns.

Ezra 2:1 Now these are the people of the province who came back from the captivity, of those who had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away to Babylon, and who returned to Jerusalem and Judah, everyone to his own city.

This first wave of returnees – they were pioneers, facing a daunting task.

Pioneering a work for the Lord can be difficult. Let me amend that: It will be difficult.

Many of you were with us meeting at the YMCA for eighteen years. It wasn’t easy; you had to really, really want to come to Calvary Hanford to get past all the discomfort and inconveniences.

You were pioneers. While we are certainly grateful for this facility – you should also be grateful God counted you worthy to pioneer.

Ezra 2:2 Those who came with Zerubbabel were Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, and Baanah…

These men were the leaders of the return.

The Nehemiah in this verse is not the Nehemiah whose book we will read later. It was a common name. Neither is Mordecai the uncle of Esther.

Zerubbabel would be the most prominent of these men. The Temple they built is commonly called by historians Zerubbabel’s Temple.

I shouldn’t speak for him, but don’t think he would have liked it. Determine for yourself to not seek the accolades of men. You serve only to hear Jesus say, “Well done.”

From the end of verse two through verse thirty-five, we get the list of “the number of the men of the people of Israel.”

Through verse twenty, those listed could prove their ancestry.

From verses twenty-one through thirty-five, those listed could prove a claim to property, or residence in a city.

All these could claim, and prove, to be Israelites.

From that we can ask, “Can I claim, and prove, that I am in Christ, and therefore a citizen of Heaven?”

What is the proof? A changed and empowered life on account of being the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

The next grouping of persons are the priests (in verses thirty-six through thirty-nine). In Israel, only Levites that were the direct descendants of Aaron, Israel’s first High Priest, could serve as priests.

All priests were Levites; but not all Levites were priests. The remaining Levites are listed as a group in verse forty. The Levites who weren’t from Aaron assisted the priests in their work.

Two other Temple servants are quickly listed in verses forty-one and forty two: “singers” and “sons of the gatekeepers.”

The Nethinim are listed as a group in verses forty-three through fifty-four.
These were another class of Temple servants. They were descended from men King David had appointed to help the Levites.

Lots of Temple servants, all with various callings, and giftings. It’s the same with us, corporately, as the Temple of God on the earth.

In verses fifty-five through fifty-eight you are introduced to “the sons of Solomon’s servants.” Solomon reigned over a united Israel about four centuries before the events of Ezra. How these sons of his servants remained distinct is unknown, but they were deliberately raised-up from generation to generation to serve the king.

It speaks to us about the need to raise-up the next generation of servants and leaders within the church.

We’ve been blessed here to have younger guys who are capable and competent to minister. They are the best young guys anywhere.

It’s getting to the point that they are not so young anymore. No worries: They are busy raising up even younger guys.

Ezra 2:59  And these were the ones who came up from Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Cherub, Addan, and Immer; but they could not identify their father’s house or their genealogy, whether they were of Israel:
Ezra 2:60  the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, and the sons of Nekoda, six hundred and fifty-two;

Some Jews had no documentation proving any ancestry or claim to property. Nevertheless, they came along – wanting to be a part of what God was doing, no matter their status in the community. They wanted to be with God, and among His people.

God is always moving in our gatherings, even if we don’t see its visible manifestation. A sense of expectation will help us be a part of what He is doing right here, right now.

The next group is in verses sixty-one through sixty-three:

Ezra 2:61 and of the sons of the priests: the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Koz, and the sons of Barzillai, who took a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called by their name. 
Ezra 2:62 These sought their listing among those who were registered by genealogy, but they were not found; therefore they were excluded from the priesthood as defiled. 

These guys claimed to be priests, but they could not prove their ancestry, so they could not serve.

I talked earlier about being sure someone is, in fact, a believer. We could go a step further and ask if they are called by God to serve in a certain capacity. Waiting to confirm God’s gifting isn’t always a bad thing.

Ezra 2:63 And the governor said to them that they should not eat of the most holy things till a priest could consult with the Urim and Thummim.

The “Urim and Thummim” were stones on the High Priest breastplate that, when consulted, revealed the will of God. The Jewish Talmud describes how questions were put to the breastplate, and the stones would light up to spell out the answer. We really aren’t sure how they communicated.

The stones were lost to history while the Jews were in exile. The returnees were hoping they would be found, or returned, so that they might be consulted. They never were.

Aren’t you grateful that you can ‘consult’ with God anytime, anywhere? That you can know His will, and be led by His Spirit?

Next we see slaves and more singers:

Ezra 2:64 The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty, 
Ezra 2:65 besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred and thirty-seven; and they had two hundred men and women singers. 

A “slave” was someone who had become indebted in some way and had voluntarily sold themselves into servitude for a period not to exceed seven years in order to repay the debt. Some of them, at the end of the seven years, would desire to remain slaves for life. They were taken to the doorpost of the house, where their ear was pierced and an earring was put in it to identify them as a bondslave.

We are the bondslaves of our Master, Jesus Christ. He has set us free from sin and death; the only reasonable reaction to freedom is to want to serve Him for the rest of our lives.

They had two hundred men and women “singers.” These seem to be in addition to the singers who would serve in the Temple. It has been suggested that they were a kind of choir that sang for the returnees along their arduous journey – a kind of USO for Israel.

Camp life was joyful. Pilgrims were sung to, and sang. It reminds us to celebrate the joy of our salvation along our pilgrim journey home.

The list ends with a nod to their animals:

Ezra 2:66 Their horses were seven hundred and thirty-six, their mules two hundred and forty-five, 
Ezra 2:67 their camels four hundred and thirty-five, and their donkeys six thousand seven hundred and twenty.

These were beasts of burden, provided to lighten the labor of the returnees.

Jesus described our relationship with Him as if we were oxen yoked together, saying His yoke was easy, and His burden light. We can be grateful for such a competent, conquering yokefellow.

Mick Jaggar will “never be your beast of burden,” but Jesus encourages you to cast all your cares upon Him.

Since in the Gospel of John He called Himself our friend, we could say that Jesus is our Bestie of Burden. (See what I did there?).

Of course, the greatest ‘yoke’ Jesus bore was the Cross He carried to Calvary. He bore our sin; He bore our shame. Our ‘burden’ is indeed light – salvation is all of Him.

When it comes to the ongoing spiritual building projects – our lives and the church – any change of plans, any delay, any miscommunication, cannot be the fault of the contractor, or any of His first-century sub-contractors.

No, if there is a problem, it’s us. We tend to blame the Lord, especially when things aren’t going our way. But it can’t be His fault.

In everything, because it’s Jesus Who is building, be we can instead be grateful, and always give thanks.

#2 – When Jesus Is Building, You’re Glad To Sacrifice (v68-70)

It’s been called the “Sunday morning stickup” -the manipulative pressure tactics pastors and churches use to get your money.
That’s not really giving, is it? Your giving ought to be willing, regular, sacrificial, and joyful.

No believer should be treated that way, but we must acknowledge that ministry requires money.

How much, on average, do Americans give to their church each year? In 2017, it was estimated at $818.00. That’s annually. It comes out to $15.75 per week.

I’m not going to guilt you by pointing out you probably spend more than that at Starbucks.

Anyone here work for Starbucks? I will guilt you for buying terrible coffee. Go to a real coffee shop. Better: Learn how to make your own; I’ll help you. It’s not as time consuming as being 25th in the drive thru lane.

Though the work of building for God is essentially spiritual, it always requires physical resources.

I want to say this: If you give to Calvary Hanford, any amount, Thank you. It is appreciated more than you know.

The building project Zerubbabel and the other 42,359 exiles were staring at would require finances. One way God provided was through the sacrificial giving of the people.

Ezra 2:68 Some of the heads of the fathers’ houses, when they came to the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem… [Stop there]

What they came to was a ruin. But it was, to them, the house of the Lord. It still existed in their hearts and minds; they saw its potential to be rebuilt.

It’s one thing for you to give to a specific, physical project; a new building, or a remodel, or some such thing. Most of your giving is intangible. Your giving is building the lives of others, as folks get saved, then grow in the Lord. Each person will be a part of your joy and your crown when Jesus says, “Well done.”

Ezra 2:68 Some of the heads of the fathers’ houses, when they came to the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, offered freely for the house of God, to erect it in its place: 

If churches had an exit poll, one great question would be, “Did you give freely?” We ought to be able to answer, “Yes,” both because we were not coerced into giving, AND because we did give.

Ezra 2:69 According to their ability, they gave to the treasury for the work sixty-one thousand gold drachmas, five thousand minas of silver, and one hundred priestly garments.

It’s hard to be exact, but scholars put the monetary value between a quarter million and $1.3mil.

“According to their ability” is one word in the original, and it’s hard to translate. One version captures what I think is meant, saying they “gave all they could.” They were generous; they looked at their budget, and gave as much as they could.

Any decent financial advisor would have told them it was uncertain times, and they should save as much as they could. They saw the Temple as a worthy spiritual investment.

So here is another good and grace-filled principle for your giving to the on-going building project: Give “freely,” and “all that you can.”

Ezra 2:70 So the priests and the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim, dwelt in their cities, and all Israel in their cities.

The priests and other Temple servants were scattered throughout Judah so that when not serving the Temple on their rotation, they could be available to serve the people in other capacities.

Everyone was in place to build. But, remember, the Lord was also building them.

Whatever they might build outwardly, Jesus would exceed in building them inwardly, if they remained yielded to Him.

I mentioned last week that several Old Testament books record aspects of this return: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

Malachi records what Jesus was building:

Malachi 3:16  Then those who feared the LORD spoke to one another, And the LORD listened and heard them; So a book of remembrance was written before Him For those who fear the LORD And who meditate on His name.
Malachi 3:17  “They shall be Mine,” says the LORD of hosts, “On the day that I make them My jewels. And I will spare them As a man spares his own son who serves him.”

The exiles came back to ruins; but they saw its future in the Lord.

You and I, spiritually speaking, ain’t much to look at. Jesus not only sees our future, He’s promised to get us there – not “practically perfect,” but “actually perfect in every way.”
Spoiler alert: The Money Pit ends with a wedding in front of the restored house.

Our current story will end and our future one begin with us at a wedding in Heaven, leading to a restored creation.

Jesus compared himself to a Bridegroom, and us His bride – that’s how much He loves us.

“Even so, Come Lord Jesus!”

Something In The Way He Moves (Ezra 1:1-11)

Here are the Top Three New Year’s resolutions for 2019:

71% of Americans surveyed resolved to diet or eat healthier.
65% resolved to exercise more.
54% want to lose weight.

I’m good with those; “Let’s make America healthy again.”

Whether you made a resolution or two, if you are in Christ you probably have some inclination to be more ‘spiritual’ in 2019 – whatever that means for you.

That’s good; I have no criticism.

But I will say this: For a believer, it might not be so much about making a resolution for the future as it is about making a return to your past.

The New Testament church in Ephesus substantiates my point. They were solid. Jesus commended them in a letter He dictated in the Revelation, saying, “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary” (2:2-3).

Those are fantastic spiritual accomplishments.

I can see the believers in other churches resolving to, in the future, be as spiritual as their Ephesian brothers and sisters.

That’s not all Jesus said:

Revelation 2:4  Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.
Revelation 2:5  Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place – unless you repent.

While their works were good, what they really needed was to make a return to a former spiritual plateau that they had regressed from.

Do you need to make a return? Do I? It’s a great question to ask as we head into 2019.

We can answer it by taking a look at the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah. They tell the tale of Israel’s return to Jerusalem after seventy years of exile in Babylon.

As the Israelites were getting back to where they once belonged, we will be able to see if we need to return to a spiritual place we have left.

I’ll organize my comments about chapter one around two points: #1 You See What It Is Like To Be Moved By The Word Of God, and #2 You See What It Is Like To Be Moved In Your Worship Of God.

#1 – You See What It Is Like To Be Moved By The Word Of God (v1-4)

While we want to glean personal, devotional insights for our own walk with the Lord, we also want to read and understand these books in their original, historical context.

I say “books,” but I should tell you that many Jewish scholars consider Ezra and Nehemiah to be one book. It’s not a big deal; file it away under “interesting Bible facts.”

We’re picking-up the story in the sixth century BC. Because of their disobedience, God had disciplined His people by raising-up King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and sending him against Jerusalem.

In a series of three invasions, the Babylonians defeated the Jews, and destroyed their Temple, and carried them away as captives.

Enter King Cyrus of Persia, a.k.a., Cyrus the Great. He defeated the Medes, and his empire became known to history as Medo-Persia. Cyrus then easily defeated Babylon, taking the city without a fight.

The Jews in Babylon found themselves under a new government; a tolerant government. In fact,
Cyrus issued a decree so the Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild.

Several Old Testament books are involved:

The historical books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther tell the history of Israel’s return under Medo-Persian rule.

The prophetical books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were written during this same period of time.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tells the history of the remnant that returned to the land to repair and rebuild the city, its walls, and the Temple.

The book of Esther tells the history of those who remained behind, who chose to not return to the land. The events recorded in Esther occur roughly between chapters six and seven of Ezra.

There were a series of three returns to Jerusalem:

Chapters one through six of Ezra describe the first return, led by Sheshbazzar, in 538BC.

Chapters seven through ten describe the second return, led by Ezra, in 458BC.

The Book of Nehemiah records a third group that returned, led by Nehemiah, in 444BC.

It all takes place over about one hundred years. It all began, oddly enough, with God moving the spirit of a nonbeliever:

Ezra 1:1 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying,

God had commanded His people to let the land lie fallow every seventh year. They had refused. Four-hundred ninety years went by, during which they ought to have observed seventy such Sabbaths. Thus the length of their domination by Babylon lasted seventy years.

God told all this to Jeremiah, who recorded it in the book bearing his name. Although captive, they had the comfort of Bible prophecy:

They knew, or they ought to have known, the exact length of their punishment.

They were promised a return to their land.

They were told that their Temple would be rebuilt.

The NKJV says “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus.” Other versions say God “moved” on him. The word has the connotation of being awakened or aroused; of opening the eyes to something.

How did God move King Cyrus of Persia? In a remarkable prophecy, Cyrus was mentioned by name. It’s found in Isaiah 44:28, which says,

Isaiah 44:28 Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure, saying to Jerusalem, “You shall be built,” and to the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid.”’

Isaiah received and wrote those words more than one hundred-fifty years before Cyrus was king of Persia.

A first century historian, Josephus, records that Cyrus was shown these words from Isaiah. It isn’t far fetched to believe it was Daniel who showed them to him.

Before he was even born, the God of Israel had called Cyrus by name; it blew his mind.

I don’t need to tell you that Bible prophecy is able to move people. I was saved as a direct result of being moved by a movie highlighting the prophecies in the Revelation.

Prophecy promotes a readiness that will help keep you from regressing in your walk. And it can certainly inspire you to return to a previous spiritual place – especially in knowing the Lord’s return is imminent.

Plus – look at its effect on the nonbelieving Cyrus. Sure, he was named by Isaiah. But the Word has power to open nonbeliever’s eyes to see that the sinner in need of salvation is them. The Holy Spirit convicts them – just as if they were being named on the pages of the Bible.

Ezra 1:2 Thus says Cyrus king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. 

The “proclamation” of Cyrus is dated at 538BC.

It was pretty cool for a pagan king to credit God with working behind the scenes of human history. I need to tell you, however, that Cyrus was not saved. He acknowledged many ‘god’s,’ and thought of Yahweh as one of them.

God moved the spirit of a pagan king to accomplish His eternal purposes. Theologians call this “providence,” which is defined as, “that continuous activity of God whereby He makes all the events of the physical, mental, and moral phenomena work out His purposes; and that this purpose is nothing short of the original design of God in creation.”

As a footnote, I would add that we do not teach God’s meticulous predetermination, but that in His true Sovereignty, He is able to allow for man’s free will and still accomplish His original design.

With regard to providence and free will, we discover each of the following three things in the Bible:

God sometimes allows man to do as he pleases.

God sometimes keeps a man from doing what in his freedom he would otherwise do.

God always overrules what man does to accomplish His own ends.

God was moving on the spirits of His people as well.

Ezra 1:3 Who is among you of all His people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel (He is God), which is in Jerusalem. 
Ezra 1:4 And whoever is left in any place where he dwells, let the men of his place help him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, besides the freewill offerings for the house of God which is in Jerusalem.

Two words describe the reaction of those moved: Go, and Give.

Some were moved and determined to go. There was work to be done on the site.

Others were moved and determined to give. There were supplies and support that those who went needed in order to accomplish their task.

Going and giving are definitely signs God has moved you.

It might be helpful to know that, after seventy years, though they were captive, the Jews were comfortable, and prosperous, in their exile. They weren’t slaves; they were savvy businessmen.

Believers tend to get comfortable in the world, and with worldliness. We build houses and homes and careers. Thats OK, but it can lead to a spiritual drowsiness, or slumber, that we need to be aroused from.

I mentioned that Haggai prophesied during this period. He uttered the famous rebuke, used by countless churches to guilt believers into donating to the building fund: “Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, and this temple to lie in ruins?” (1:4).

Going and giving are your decision; you are free to do either, or neither. It’s a matter of your free will.
Are you giving? The New Testament teaching on giving is that it should be willing, regular, sacrificial, and joyous. Yours either is; or it isn’t.

Are you going? In our case, we’d understand that as being a part of building the local church by your serving as one of its members. You either are; or you’re not.

Going and giving – it’s definitely possible to regress from them and therefore need to return.

#2 – You See What It Is Like To Be Moved In Your Worship Of God (v5-11)

God’s sixth-century people responded enthusiastically to His moving:

Ezra 1:5 Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, with all whose spirits God had moved, arose to go up and build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem. 
Ezra 1:6 And all those who were around them encouraged them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with precious things, besides all that was willingly offered.

The Jews in Babylon were mostly from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

(After King Solomon died, Israel split into two kingdoms. The Northern Kingdom, called Israel, and its ten tribes had long before been overrun by the Assyrian Empire as a discipline for their sin).

Priests and Levites are specifically mentioned to remind us that it was to return to worship that God was stirring up His people. You’d need these guys to carry out the daily functions of Temple life.

Ezra 1:7 King Cyrus also brought out the articles of the house of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem and put in the temple of his gods; 
Ezra 1:8 and Cyrus king of Persia brought them out by the hand of Mithredath the treasurer, and counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 

As I mentioned, Cyrus had a tolerant policy towards religion. He allowed conquered peoples to worship their own gods in their own way. He would ask his subjects to call upon their gods to give him favor, and to strengthen the gods of Medo-Persia.

Bible commentators are split over the identity of Sheshbazzar. Some believe it is a Babylonian name for Zerubbabel, while others believe they are two different guys. Zerubbabel will become prominent as the leader of the first return. In fact, the Second Temple that is built is commonly called Zerubbabel’s Temple. I’m inclined to believe they were two individuals.

When a foreign king conquered a people, he raided their Temple and took their idols to show that his gods were stronger than their gods. There were no idols in the Temple at Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar had taken whatever he could get his hands on as spoils. These items were now returned.

Ezra 1:9 This is the number of them: thirty gold platters, one thousand silver platters, twenty-nine knives, 
Ezra 1:10 thirty gold basins, four hundred and ten silver basins of a similar kind, and one thousand other articles. 
Ezra 1:11 All the articles of gold and silver were five thousand four hundred. All these Sheshbazzar took with the captives who were brought from Babylon to Jerusalem.

The articles themselves are not the point. The point is that they were being returned, put back where to where they belonged. They would again be used in worship, rather than simply being on display, or used for secular purposes.

The Israelites returned the “articles of worship.” In the KJV, they are called the “vessels of worship.”

That gives us a point of contact. We are compared to “vessels” in the New Testament – notably in Second Corinthians where Paul says we have God’s “treasure in earthen vessels.”

What are the signs we, as God’s vessels, have returned to worship?

The Temple vessels were carefully identified and inventoried. It reminds us that, on the most basic level, you must be certain you are in Christ – a Christian – who is indeed a member of Jesus Christ’s Temple on the earth.

The Temple vessels would be used only for sacred, never secular, purposes. This speaks to us of our need to remain separated from the world, and worldliness.

In Second Timothy 2:20-21 we read, “But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor. Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work.”

Vessels of honor are those that remain separated. As it is often summarized, “we must be in the world, but not of the world.”

The verses about vessels in Second Timothy remind us that, like the Temple vessels, we are to fulfill our function. We are to find our purpose – our spiritual purpose.

It’s exactly the same idea illustrated by our being a body – Jesus’ body – one the earth. Each member has its place, has our purpose. You read about it in a long passage in First Corinthians 12.

Staying with our vessel illustration – Do you know if you are a platter? Or a knife? Or a basin?

The church is an every-member ministry. You’re enjoined to discover your place in the local church. God has before ordained you to good works, but you are to pursue them, not simply remain passive.

Here, then, are three more questions you can reflect upon:

Are you saved?

Are you remaining separated?

Are you serving the Lord’s earthly Temple, the church?

This dovetails nicely into last Sunday’s message. We discussed the passage in Second Corinthians chapter four that contains the verse, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (v7).

If you missed that message, I highly recommend you read it, or watch it. It expands on the understanding that we live in the very unique church age – that mystery Paul revealed that takes place between the Day of Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts, and the return of Jesus to resurrect the dead in Christ and rapture those of us who are alive and remain.

The apostle Paul has said in Second Corinthians 4:10, we carry, “about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus.” In his letter to the Colossians he wrote something similar, saying that we “fill up in [our] flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church“ (Colossians 1:24).
Here is what those verses tell us about the church age in which we live: Jesus is in Heaven, but we remain on earth and, as His body, it’s as if He never left. Men still afflict Him through us, and in that way we carry about His dying, and “fill up,” or complete, His afflictions.

The church age is an era, a dispensation, in which we, as His vessels, will find ourselves being broken – suffering afflictions – in order for God’s treasure to be revealed as we walk in His resurrection power.

This understanding of the era we are in is foundational to everything else we’ve said today. For one thing, if you aren’t ready for suffering, if you don’t think it’s normal, you’ll be derailed in your journey with Jesus. You’ll quit asking the questions we’ve suggested, and instead waste a lot of time asking “Why me?”

We shouldn’t think of being moved by God as something we are totally passive about. He is always moving on our hearts and minds.

Are part is to be moved; and these questions are a start:

Am I saved?
Am I separated?
Am I serving?
Am I going?
Am I giving?