A conversation on rebuilding relationship with God
Today we are continuing our walk through the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.These books can feel disappointing when read, but in the disappointment there is potential for change. In seeing and feeling the disappointing moment there is hope in Jesus. These narratives point towards the need for Jesus, the Messiah.
Last week we talked through the first six chapters of Ezra. The narrative of Zerubbabel being sent back to Jerusalem out of exile to rebuild the temple as was promised and predicted by the prophets.
Then the Samaritans come to Zerubbabel and say “we have been worshiping your God and would like to help.”
And this moment, that could be construed as a moment of holiness, was a moment that led to deepening division and prejudice that, until Jesus, was immovable.
Jesus saw value in the Samaritan woman. Jesus used a Samaritan as the illustrator of what it is to be a good neighbor.
The second half of Ezra, chapters 7–10, are complicated and ugly and hard to resolve and abrupt and clunky and, frankly, kind of a downer.
But. When we fully sit in the mess of what happens in the second half of Ezra it can give us real perspective to who Jesus is and perspective to what He did. Again, remember Jesus’ interaction with people. Many people of his time were very familiar with these old testament writings.
Is Ezra pointing at Jesus? Probably not. Is Ezra pointing at the need for Jesus? Absolutely.
Think about atrocities that humanity has committed.
Not just things in the past or things you can find in a book. Recent history. Things you know of. Things you have seen. Not something somewhere else. Something you know has been atrocious.
In what ways has humanity validated atrocity?
How has humanity responded historically to atrocity?
Let that conversation continue forever. Don’t let it resolve. Let yourself be continually drawn back into it. Let it open the door for perpetual self evaluation and internal change. May we never be individuals and in turn, a church community, that is willing to validate atrocity for any reason. Let us be people who speak out against atrocity wherever we see it. Because that’s the heart of God. His heart is firmly planted in justice and He is constantly advocating for those who have had atrocities committed against them.
Today as we walk into the second half of Ezra, which is the story of Ezra coming back to Jerusalem, out of exile, to restore the connection of the people to the Torah, which is the teachings of God
And in this mess there is a moment of addressing failure with a failure.
So much of scripture points at the reality that God calls his people to pursue internal change that leads to external action, and in that order.
Jesus’ interaction with the pharisees in Matthew 23 shows just how much God cares about this concept.
Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. — Matthew 23:26
If someone would ask Jesus, “Which matters most, the internal or the external?”, Jesus would probably say, “What’s inside matters the most, and from that what you do externally holds just as much weight.”
In the same vein as the moment when He’s asked what the greatest commandment is, and he responds with a double answer. It’s not supposed to be either/or, it’s meant to be both/and.
The foundation is a clean inside. It’s important that the clean inside leads to a transformed outside. That’s the indicator of a clean inside.
So much atrocity has been committed in human history in the name of God or by people who claim to follow Jesus. Even the “lesser atrocities”, though I’m not sure that’s a proper label for them.
If I care only about the outside appearance but don’t have an internal reality of Christ, I could easily justify using injustice or committing atrocities to further my goal.
I might even have the best intentions but still miss it completely. That happened over and over in scripture and Ezra is one of those narratives. I have time and time again had the best intentions but still messed things up.
We need greater perspective than just what we can see in front of us. The people of Ezra needed greater perspective than just what they could see in front of them.
How can a person whole heartedly be trying to do the will of God and completely miss the will of God?
Between chapters 6 and 7, 50 years have passed.
Zerrubbabel came and rebuilt the temple. Ezra is coming to restore the Torah — restore the teachings of God to Jerusalem. And in doing so, the writings, unsubtly to the ancient Jewish readers of this text, set up Ezra as a new Moses
We get into the new testament and see that the writer of Hebrews points to Jesus as being greater than Moses.
“Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory. — Hebrews 3:5–6
The recurring theme in the Gospels is that Jesus is not just a new Moses, but rather is the “Greater than Moses” figure. The messiah.
The people reading this text would have seen the similarities between Moses and Ezra. Compare the writings of Exodus and Ezra and see the many similarities. Timing. Prayers for safety. Appointing judges to administer justice. A similar three-day rest for both men and people groups.
The readers of Ezra would have had a different perspective than me. They would have thought, “Wow, Ezra is just like Moses. Maybe he’s the one we’ve been waiting for.”
Ezra’s story plays out. The temple had been rebuilt. Fifty years had passed. Ezra is sent to bring the Law of God back to Jerusalem and was the perfect person to go as a teacher and expert in the law of Moses.
Ezra see’s the mingling of the Israelites and other people groups and is grieved. He acknowledges God’s past graciousness, but doesn’t expect God to be gracious again moving forward. One of the people comes up with a plan for any people who had married foreign women and had foreign children to send them away, and Ezra agrees that it’s a good plan, one that will make them right with God again. A mass divorce takes place, and women and children are sent away. Holiness was finally achieved. Or so they thought.
That’s the end of Ezra. There is nothing else. Why does it end this way? There are some differing thoughts, but remember back to the beginning of the text and the unrest that is present, and the continually presented need for a messiah all throughout the old testament. Remember how the Israelites treated the Samaritans in this text, and then think about how Jesus treated Samaritans when he interacted with them.
What happens when connection to God is only seen as an external practice and not an internal change?
The last three books in the old testament in chronological order are Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi. Malachi, 100 years after the return from exile, is a letter of challenges of how the Isralelites are living. Didn’t you learn? You’ve gone right back to the failings of your ancestors.
The very thing that Ezra commended in divorcing foreign wives, Malachi calls out as a negative thing.
“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful. — Malachi 2:16
All of this effort to be right with God without any mention of internal change. All of this gross external seeing others as inferior and hopeless. All of these radical external actions to try to make one’s self pleasing to God.
What are the results of seeing connection to God as only being an external practice and not an internal change?
All of this mess and then an abrupt ending. The frustration. This pushes me to what I think is the emotion that Jesus had in Matthew 23.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. — Matthew 23:13–39
We walk on dangerous ground when we thoughtlessly think the characters of scripture are for us to mindlessly emulate.
We walk on dangerous ground when we thoughtlessly think that religious authorities are for us to mindlessly emulate.
We walk on dangerous ground when we think radical external reactions make us pleasing to God.
We walk on dangerous ground when we think doing something ungodly is ok as long as it makes us somehow perceived to be more Godly.
Jesus calls it out.
Ezra came with the hopes and plans of rebuilding the wisdom and understanding of God in Jerusalem. Bringing the Torah back to Jerusalem.
I long to know God. I long for this thing that Ezra was coming back to do. But I need to long for it through the lens of Jesus. The renewing of the Torah from the inside out.
Do an internal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis of your internal being in relationship with Christ.
Take It Deeper Questions
- Read Matthew 23:25–26
- Share your worst restaurant experience.
- Why do people feel pressure to look good to others?
- Why do Christians feel similar pressure?
- What are the issues you have discovered with living life and faith as an external show?
- How does internal transformation affect all of these external pressures?
- How are you focused, challenged and encouraged by Jesus’ words today?