The Hand of Our God was On Us – Ezra 8

“The hand of our God was on us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes by the way.” (Ezra 8:31 ESV)

Ezra chapter 8 records another journey out of Babylon, just as we read in earlier chapters. This is the second wave of returned exiles and they are coming with Ezra himself. Recall that the temple is built and we were recently introduced to the man Ezra, who determined to come to Jerusalem to teach the law of God to God’s people.

Verses 1-14 provide another list, much like the one in chapter 2, reminding us of the importance of one’s heritage as an Israelite in taking part in God’s covenant blessings. Verses 15-20 show us Ezra’s priority in gathering the priests together to serve in the temple. Ezra then calls for a fast and prayer for protection, refusing to ask the king for help, relying solely on God (verses 21-23). The last and longest section of the chapter, verses 24-36, tell us that Ezra delegates the responsibilities of keeping the offering to the priests and that through this journey and return to Jerusalem, God kept them safe from their enemies.

Taken all together, Ezra chapter 8 reveals how determined Ezra was to accomplish his tasks. He prioritized service in the house of God. He wanted to be a good steward with what God gave him. And most of all, he relied upon God’s help to do these things. Three times in this chapter, Ezra says, “the hand of our God was on us.”

We would be pretty accurate to say that the Book of Ezra, in its entirety, is all about the theme of “the hand of our God was on us.” From the stirring of the heart of the kings, to the decrees allowing the Israelites to return, to the blessings along the way and the protection of the enemies, there is no doubt that the Book of Ezra points us to how God sovereignly provides for his people throughout history. Yes, the kings made searches and decrees. Yes, Ezra was determined to teach. Yes, the people came together and finally built the temple. But all of these were secondary causes of their success. The ultimate, or primary cause of success in the story of Ezra is the fact that God’s good hand was upon his people!

Advertisements

The Olivet Discourse 3: The Abomination of Desolation – Matthew 24:15-28

So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand) … Mt 24:15

The Olivet Discourse, the longest of Jesus’s recorded discourses in the synoptic gospels, is prompted by the disciples’ question in light of Jesus’s shocking revelation regarding the destruction of the Jewish temple (24:1-2). “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mt 24:3). Jesus’s response seems to point to two distinct historical events – the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and His yet future second coming.

In verses 4-14 of chapter 24, Jesus describes a series of “non-signs” of His return. I call these “non-signs,” as the events He prophesies do not point specifically to the end of the age, but instead they are warnings that the disciples would not find themselves deceived by the coming of a false messiah. We have seen how these signs – false prophets, wars, famine, earthquakes, tribulation, apostasy, and a lawless faith and frigid love – were fulfilled, and continue to be fulfilled, throughout the history of the church age. But like birth pains that portend the child’s birth, these afflictions and trials will intensify as the consummation of the age approaches. In particular the “apostasy,” and people following after “lawlessness,” will climax with the coming of “the man of lawlessness,” or “Antichrist;” the one who the book of Revelation refers to as “the beast,” who comes to conquer the saints.

In verse 15 Jesus begins to describe the terror of the days prior to His return. Destruction will arrive so quickly that believers ought waste no time in preparing their escape. The imagery of sacrilege that Jesus uses, “the abomination of desolation,” calls to mind Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians chapter 2: “For that day will not come, unless … the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” Matthew also calls us to discerningly read the book of Daniel – in particular Daniel 9:27 and 12:9-11.

This week, read Matthew 24, Daniel 7:19-28, chapters 9 & 12, and Revelation 13:1-10. Try to read them without any presupposed end-time position; as you do, make notes as to what they reveal to you about the “the beast,” and in particular the “abomination of desolation.”

The Olivet Discourse 2: Apostasy and Mission – Matthew 24:1-14

The Olivet Discourse, named for the mountain where Jesus taught his disciples, is Jesus’s answer to His disciples’ question regarding the destruction of the Jewish temple and the end of the age (24:1-3). As the consummate prophet, Jesus answered using a common prophetic practice called “foreshortening,” where there is both a near and a far application to His predictive prophecy. In His answer, beginning in chapter 24 verse 4, Jesus seems to describe signs that would accompany two distinct historical events – the destruction of Jerusalem (which would be fulfilled in A.D. 70) and His yet future second coming.

Though the disciples were asking for signs or indicators of the end of the age, Jesus began his response by sharing a cluster of “non-signs;” that is, He spoke of events that the disciples believed might accompany the end of the world, but in fact were not signs specific to the end. Jesus is concerned that His disciples are not misled; when they would see false messiahs, wars, famines, and earthquakes – signs traditionally associated with the latter days – Jesus said, “the end is not yet,” and He warned them that these things marked only “the beginning of the birth pangs” (24:4-8). Like a woman in labor experiences contractions calling her attention to the child she will soon bear, these recurring events continually remind the church of the nearness of the return of Christ. As birth pains increase in frequency and intensity before birth, so these signs may increase in the latter days. But for Christians, as we see these things happening in the world around us, they ought to be no cause for alarm, for we have been told beforehand that they would happen.

Then beginning in verse 9, with the same heart of preparing and warning His disciples, Jesus foretells of the suffering, persecution, and apostasy that will come upon God’s people. As persecution increases, some will abandon the faith to save their skin. Spiritual life will deteriorate in the church as apostasy, betrayal, and hatred run rampant. Yet at the same time there is this one hopeful sign in verse 14, This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” What we see prior to Christ’s return is a growing polarization between good and evil as God’s people increase in power and witness even as persecution intensifies. So brethren, look up, for your redemption draws near!

Ezra Comes to Teach – Ezra 7

For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10 ESV)

The temple was finally finished. The Jews kept the Passover and celebrated God’s faithfulness with joy. After all they had been through as a people, the climax of the story had finally arrived. But, new life had just begun.

Indeed, God delivers his people from all sorts of troubles and bondage. However, the freedom that comes through his salvation is not a freedom from the cares of life, but rather a freedom to glorify God through obedience and a freedom to serve others. We have seen God’s deliverance in the first 6 chapters of Ezra. Now with Ezra himself on the scene, we will see that God’s freed people, in their own land, with the temple in the background, are to live life in light of God’s Word. And God uses Ezra to come to teach, “for Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10)

Lest you think that this role was merely a formality to pay lip service to tradition, you must understand that in teaching the scriptures, Ezra would meet controversy. Derek Thomas previews the chapters that follow Ezra’s arrival: “Ezra is a reformer and Ezra is a preacher, and he’s going to meddle and meddle a great deal in the lives of the people in Jerusalem. He’s going to talk very particularly about marriage and about intermarriage, and it’s all going to get very painful.”

The Word of God rebukes, encourages, and exhorts. It cuts the heart. It is our necessary food and it is also vital for correction. Ezra was entrusted by God to teach it to the people. In fact, his teaching would stand as the authoritative law of the land. The king says, “Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment.” (Ezra 7:26)

Ezra had come to teach the law to God’s people. Through the law, the people would be called to obedience but they would also be reminded of their sin. It was necessary, just as it is now, to look to the law of God and see God’s standard of holiness. But as with all people, the Jews would sin. The law reveals this sin, but only goes so far. For those who hear the law preached and feel convicted under the weight of it, another one of God’s amazing acts was needed – one, ultimate act that perhaps that temple in the background might be pointing the people to time and again.

The Olivet Discourse: Introduction – Matthew 24-25

The Olivet Discourse, named for the location where Jesus delivered it, is recorded in the three synoptic gospels: Mark 13, Luke 21, and our text, Matthew 24-25. This, the longest of Jesus’ discourses, is provoked by a question of the disciples, who were shocked by Jesus’ revelation regarding the destruction of the Jewish temple (24:1-2). For them, as for any Jewish person, the temple was an edifice that would stand until the last days; so when Christ said that the temple would be destroyed, it would be most natural for their thoughts to turn to the end of the age.

“Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Mt 24:3). While this may have been one single question in the minds of the disciples, Jesus seems to give two answers to the two questions: 1) When will the temple be destroyed, and 2) what is the sign of His second coming? Not all interpreters agree upon the idea that Jesus is addressing two questions. A purely future interpretation argues that all of the discourse is yet to take place at some future time, while Preterism teaches that all of it was fulfilled with the judgment of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that Jesus would ignore the disciples’ main question and begin talking about events that would happen thousands of years in the future. However, it is far more unlikely that Jesus’ description of His coming with power and great glory to gather his elect (24:30-31) is a reference to the judgment of Jerusalem. Rather it seems that Jesus is describing two distinct historical events separated from each other by a certain amount of time.

In this discourse Jesus speaks as a genuine and consummate prophet; as such, we should not be surprised to see him utilize the common prophetic practice of “telescoping.” Often prophetic literature contains both a near and a far application to a prophecy. Examples of this phenomenon are found in several Old Testament passages which speak of the two Comings of Christ back to back, as if they were one event. It seems as though this is the best way to understand the Olivet Discourse. In seeking to understand the timing of the events in Matthew 24, the key interpretive question is: At what point in the text does Jesus begin to prophesy about his return?

The Future of Israel – Matthew 23:34-24:3

In chapter 23 of his Gospel, Matthew records the most shocking words that Jesus ever spoke, as He declared seven woes against the Jewish religious leaders of his day. He severely lays on them the blame for the murder of the God-sent Old Testament prophets. Their rejection of God would not end with the murder of these prophets, but it would continue with the crucifixion of their Messiah, the stoning and persecution of leaders in the early church, and the utter rejection of the Gospel message. Jesus concludes in verse 38 with what appears to be a final judgment, “your house is left to you desolate.” Soon there would be a day of reckoning that would come upon these people as a result of their abject rejection of Christ. The suffering that was to come upon them would be so devastating, that their very house of worship would be utterly demolished; in Jesus’ words, “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (24:2).

The severity of this judgment is somewhat softened by the poignant lament, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, … How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” (23:37) as Jesus expressed His deep desire to enfold His people in His arms. But, alas, these people would not have it, and Jesus would leave their fate to their own devices. Judgment, however, is not the final word; Jesus will come again for a repentant people. Jesus leaves us with a hope that one day these rebellious people will repent and express the confession of Psalm 118:26, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (23:39). This seems to point to a future time when the Jewish people will repent and recognize Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah, upon whom they returned evil for good. In the words of the prophet Zechariah (12:10), they will look on … him whom they have pierced, [and] they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn (see Romans 11:25-32). While a future hope for a godless nation may seem unlikely in human estimation, we can trust in our God who sovereignly opens the eyes of His elect and grants them repentance and faith as free gifts of His sovereign grace. “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (Romans 11:1).

The Lord had Made Them Joyful – Ezra 6:13-22

“And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.”  (Ezra 6:22 ESV)

The second half of Ezra chapter 6 records the completion of the temple. After all the Israelites had been through this far – coming out of captivity, receiving back their sacred vessels, making the journey to Judah, building an altar, facing their enemies, ceasing the work, then starting the work again and getting their work verified – finally, “they finished their building by the decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius” (6:14).

As they did when they laid the foundation (as recorded in chapter 3), the Israelites celebrated the work with praise according to biblical prescriptions: led by the priests and Levites, they gave God offerings, they kept the Passover, they feasted, and they worshiped together. Unlike the end of chapter 3, however, we do not see a division among the people, wherein the older generation sobbed while the younger generation celebrated; rather, Ezra records this event in terms of great unity and joy. What seemed to be the difference? Perhaps the difference between the two celebrations was that this time, God himself was recognized as the reason for this grand accomplishment.

Verse 22 sums this up: “the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them . . .” Here is a clear recognition that this was God’s doing. Yes, man used ordinary means – a decree, a letter, a search. But God is the one who turned the king’s heart. God is the one who brought them there. God is the one who made all this happen.

Joy lasts longest when God is its source. Otherwise, joy is bound to dissipate. Even when we rejoice over good things, like the building of the temple, when we don’t recognize that God has provided these things for our good and his glory, we miss out on the bigger picture. The same God who stirs the hearts of pagan kings and works his glorious will to its glorious end will stir our hearts to joy as we fix our minds on him!