Setting Up Ezra + Nehemiah

As we move further into the Book of Ezra, and several of our ladies are also in the Nehemiah Bible study, a few of you reached out for a better understanding of the historical context of these two closely related books. Therefore, I want to use this brief post to help orient you.

First, the people of Judah are in a state of political and geographical exile. Due to their unfaithfulness to God, and after various warnings from the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, the majority of the Kingdom of Judah was attacked and carried into captivity by the Babylonians under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar. The process of exile happened in various phases and is detailed in 2 Kings 24-25. As a result, spiritually speaking, the exiles from the Kingdom of Judah are a people under the control of foreign gods in Babylon; they are separated from the presence, rule, reign, and blessings of the God of Israel. Due to their exile, the land of Judah/Canaan will undergo a 70 year period of Sabbath Rest, which has symbolic significance as it relates to the concept of redemption.

Second, the Babylonians were conquered by the Medo-Persian empire, shifting Judah’s captors from Babylon to Persia. This reality is described in Daniel 5-6:5. Judah’s remaining time in the Persian empire is described in the remainder of the Book of Daniel and in the books of Esther and Nehemiah. ‘The events in Ezra-Nehemiah take place from the beginning of the Persian Empire with the conquest of Cyrus the Great over Babylonia through the reigns of the Persian emperors Darius and Artaxerxes.’1

Third, King Cyrus, the king of the Persian empire, ‘freed the peoples who had been taken into exile in Babylonia and allowed them to keep their customs and religious identities. As a political and military leader, he was concerned about the stability of his empire, loyalty from subject peoples, and economic resources.’2 This reality, and the sovereign plan of God, is what informed his decision to encourage the people of Judah to return to Judah to rebuild the House of God and to give them all the resources needed to accomplish that task. In fact, as Isaiah prophesied in chapter 44, verse 28, the Persian King Cyrus had sent exiles led by Zerubbabel back to Jerusalem in 538 b.c. (Persia had defeated Babylon in 539.)

Fourth, ‘the people of Judah who returned from exile in Babylonia went to the westernmost outpost of the Persian Empire, an area bordering Egypt, Phoenicia, and Cyprus, to establish a community with limited autonomy but loyal to Persia. Accordingly, the people of Judah were subject to the Persian authorities and were heavily taxed. Judah was part of the province called Beyond the River, the Persian satrapy to the west of the Euphrates River that included Samaria and Judah.’ 3 This event showed forth the faithfulness of God to discipline, humble, and ultimately restore His people in light of His everlasting covenant that He made with their father Abraham. (Gen.12:1-3; chapters 15-17 & Leviticus 26:27-39) In particular, considering the Leviticus 26 passage, this restoration of Judah is symbolic of a ‘second planting’ of God’s seed, following a period of allowing His field to lay fallow for 70 years. (Some scholars refer to this as a ‘second exodus’, a starting over from the previous generation of God’s people who came out of captivity from Egypt.)4

Fifth, and finally, the period of Ezra-Nehemiah & the ‘Egyptian Captivity’ serves to demonstrate a primary point:

That God Graciously & Sovereignly works in impossible scenarios to return His people to His Place (Temple/Land), under His rule and blessing.

There can be periods when it seems like the kingdoms of the world are winning, whether personally, corporately, or geo-politically. But as we consider Ezra-Nehemiah, God shows us that He is sovereign over both the nations and our salvation.

1. Noss, P.A., & Thomas, K. J. (2005). A Handbook on Ezra and Nehemiah. (P. Clarke, S. Brown, L. Dorn, & D. Slager, Eds.) (p. 10). New York: United Bible Societies.
2. Ibid., p. 11
3. Ibid., p. 11
4. Breneman, M. (1993). Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (electronic ed., Vol. 10, pp. 50–51). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

#ULTIMATE: Sacraments, Signs for our Search

Sacraments? What is a sacrament? And most importantly, why do the sacraments matter? The Westminster shorter catechism says a sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, the promises of the new covenant are represented, sealed and applied to all believers.

Let me put it in an illustration that may help. When I was in 9th grade I played basketball for my school. Lots of guys wanted access to the coaches and an all-access pass to the basketball equipment. Lots of guys wanted to be able to get into the gym during the school lunch hour to shoot and practice. Here’s the deal, you needed a sign to represent that you were one of the 12 guys on the team; that sign was the jersey. The jersey was the symbol we used to discern between who was not on the team and who had all the privileges on being on that team.

The sacraments are the jerseys for the believers. Galatians 3:27 says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The sign of water, bread, and wine are the signs Christ has instituted for us. In Matthew 4 and 26, Jesus institutes these sacraments.

Think about it? What do we all need? We all need a bath and we all need to eat and drink! It doesn’t matter what your ethnic, economic, political, or gender identity is, we all need these things. Jesus, when he institutes, only two, baptism and the Lord’s supper, he is intentionally discipling us by giving these sacraments as a reminder of the promise of Him and the privileges we have as believers.

Why do the sacraments matter? The sacraments matter because they are only effective by our faith in the person and work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in them. When we have a baptism, or when we come to the table and believe we can receive these things by our performance or work, then, we miss out on the sacraments and believe a false gospel. The true, Christ-centered gospel, should point us away from ourselves and more and more towards God’s graciousness, steadfast love and provision for His children. The sacraments matter because they point us to grace! May the grace of God point us to Jesus and the privileges we have as co-heirs with Him, as we have the privilege to participate in the sacraments on a weekly basis.

The sacraments also matter because they are not instituted individually. Jesus wasn’t alone when he instituted these sacraments; he was with the family of God. The sacraments matter too because it takes us to our need for community. You were created for community and the sacraments bring us into a communal call for the children of God. We worship God together and the sacraments are an element in worship that we do together to draw us to Christ and the grace of God.

The sacraments matter missionally too. When we participate in these sacraments it moves us towards those who have not submitted to God and trust in the work of Christ. Missionally-focused-sacrament-partakers makes us love and welcome those who don’t know God. I don’t want my neighbor to go hungry, thirsty, or without a bath, right? In Matthew 25 Jesus says when we feed and give the needy a drink, we feed and drink our Savior. We are truly understanding the sacraments, when we have a heart for our neighbors and living missionally for our community and city. The sacraments give us a reminder too that it’s not on us to save our non-believing friends and neighbors; it is only through the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ, and faith in Him alone that saves!

May we be a church that looks up to the love of God and the power of the Spirit and look across to our neighbors because we are a sacramental community! #ULTIMATE

Worship and the Word

Scripture teaches us many things about how to worship, where to worship, when to worship and why to worship. However, I would argue that the most important thing it teaches us is Who we worship. Psalm 29:2 says “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.” Revelation 4:11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” What are some ways we can practically use the Word to worship the Hero of the Bible?

Read. In order to know God, you have to know what He says. Psalm 119:7 “I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws.” Setting aside time to hear what God is saying to us is key to our worship. The more we learn what He says, who He is and what He desires, the better we can worship.

Ruminate. This word means literally to “chew the cud.” Scripture teaches us we need to think over and meditate on the Word. Psalm 119:48 says “I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees.” After reading through passages, we can meditate on them as we go throughout our day.

Respond. How can we respond to what we have read and mediated? First, we can pray it back to Him. The Psalms are filled with examples of psalmists reminding God of His words and past faithfulness. Next, we can share it with others. Psalm 105:1-2 says, “Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts.” Finally, we can sing it back to him. We will spend eternity singing our praise back to Jesus for who He is and what He’s done. Revelation tells us that Heaven will be about worshipping the One scripture points us to.

“8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “ ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’who was, and is, and is to come.” 9 Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
It’s all about Him.

I will close with an excerpt of something I wrote in college. An eye-opening moment where I realized that I was created to worship. And who it was I worshiped.

“Have you ever noticed that when a large group of people sing, suddenly it becomes beautiful. It’s one voice in a wonderful tone that doesn’t require perfect pitch or even a well-trained voice…it simply blends to make something fantastic. As I listened to this song I wondered, “is that how God hears it?”   Sometimes I imagine He only hears one massive, collective, and beautiful voice of all His saints that, though they are all around the globe singing in hundreds of different languages and thousands of different songs, they come together in perfect harmony of His praise.Now all I want to do is listen and sing to the Lord. I feel as though tonight I caught a glimpse of Heaven. The true Heaven where one day, with one voice we will live in constant praise of our Lord. He is who we worship. He is everything.

The Role of God and Spiritual Disciplines in Transformation

Megachurch pastor, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Church, shares a beautiful metaphor for the nature of how change happens in the life of the church and individuals.  In the opening chapter, he shares the process that a good surfer goes through to be able to have a good day on the waves; needless to say, there is a lot of preparation that goes into such a quick and short ride.  Factors such as right board size, waxing of the board, weather reports, shark reports, knowing one’s skill level and much more need to be factored into the day.  Even so, there is one dynamic that not even the best surfers in the world cannot control:  ‘WHEN’ OR ‘IF’ THE WAVES COME! The only thing they CAN do is prepare for its arrival; and when it does, surf.  In much the same, Foster, and others like him (Dallas Willard, Kent Hughes, the Desert Fathers, etc.), are encouraging the body of Christ to put themselves in a place where they can catch the wave of the Spirit’s movement in their lives and churches.  

As we at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church begin our journey of reading Richard F. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline together, I am reminded of one of the key principles of my reformed faith; namely, that all change that occurs in the human psyche, soul, and will for the glory of God is a result of what God is doing by His Spirit.  God is sovereign over all things, including my transformation.  While stating that truth, I realize that it smacks up against our western or human confidence to be able to be in control of ourselves and destiny.  A proclamation of ‘God’s sovereignty’ begs the question, ‘what about man’s role or responsibility?’ Are there things that we can do to be prepared or in a position where the Spirit’s movement will be greeted by receptive hearts?  

Chapter 1 of CoD lays out perfectly, in my humble opinion, not only a reformed view of the mechanical components of this sanctification process, but much of historical Christianity throughout the centuries.  

This basic position states that God moves within time to affect the hearts and minds of people to turn from their rebellion and to depend upon the redemptive work of Jesus Christ via His life, death, and resurrection. 

As a result, coming into this relationship with Christ one quickly learns that it is a connection initiated by God the Father, secured by Jesus His Son, and sealed by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Upon the completion of this relational transaction, the nature of this connection continues in the same vain; the believer continues to be in a state of dependence upon the Triune God to bring about our spiritual growth.  This is a truth that both Jesus and Paul state repeatedly in the bible:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.                                             John 15:5

and then in Paul:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.                         I Corinthians 3:5-7

And yet, despite these clear descriptions, we also read of the role of individual responsibility to pursue ongoing dependence and obedience:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.                             Philippians 2:12-13  

So as we begin this journey of learning about and implementing the means of grace given to the church throughout the centuries, let us keep a few of these principles in mind.  

  1. We need to do so with measured expectations.  Making use of these spiritual disciplines are not a magic pill or a rabbit’s foot; they merely put us in a place where we can wait on the lord to do whatever it is He chooses to do both in and through us.  
  2. Two, and of paramount importance, is that we all keep in mind that the Word of God is the ultimate authority for the Christian life.  Whatever the Lord impresses upon us through these practices needs to be siphoned through His Word.  As our confession states, ‘the Word of God is our only rule of faith and practice.’  With these few caveats in mind, by God’s grace, may we all catch some ‘killer waves’ of the Spirit this summer.