When God Builds the House (Part 1 – Ezra 5-6)

FPCNorwayEzra: Building the House of God, Sermons

So, who has the ultimate authority to build the church?—The King of kings! Jesus Christ has all the authority in heaven and on earth, and by that same authority he commissions us to make disciples. This is an authority that no earthly ruler may usurp, because Christ has willed that he build his house through his redeemed people.

When God Builds the House

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
February 2, 2020

When God breaks into the life of the church, ministry moves forward and the work gets done. What we need more than anything today is for God to rend the heavens and visit his people with a fresh wave of courage and zeal for the work of building Christ’s church. My heart longs for it!

My heart longs to see the ministers in this land preach the whole counsel of God. My heart longs to see churches reformed by the Word. My heart longs to see God raise up a new generation of preachers and church planters to bring the message of the gospel to every fjord and fjell in Norway. My heart longs for it!

The people are starving, and they don’t even know it. The vast majority are without hope and without God. And then there are those Christians who live hours away and have no access to a church that faithfully preaches the Bible. They are like the lady who messaged me this week and said that she couldn’t remember the last time she was able to hear the Bible preached in person.

We need God to visit us again.

In the days of Ezra, God’s people needed a fresh visit too. As we turn to Ezra 5-6, we see God’s people resume their commission to build the temple in Jerusalem—the house of the God of Israel. The work has been stopped for almost sixteen years. Now, what happened to get them back to work? The answer is, God!

God came down. He broke the silence of an entire generation. He came down and brought the work to completion. According to God’s promise in Jeremiah, seventy years after the temple was destroyed, it was raised again (Jer. 29:10). In the final analysis, it is God who builds the house, and when God builds the house, his people prosper.

Over the next two Lord’s Days, we are going to look at Ezra 5-6 and unpack the means by which God builds the house, and the result that comes from it. We will see how much we need God for our work to be successful, and how important it is that we hear from God if we want to see him do a fresh work in our midst.

So, how does God build his house?

God Builds the House by Giving His People the Authority to Build It

The principle question in Ezra 5 is: By whose authority do the elders of Israel build the house of God? Recall that in chapter 4, God’s people are completely cowed and stifled in their work. In fact, Ezra 4:24 says that the work had actually stopped, and it ceased until the second year of the reign of king Darius. But now, after sixteen years, the building begins anew.

As it so often happens, no sooner do God’s people get back to work, than they are also confronted by immediate opposition. Tattenai, the governor, questions the elders of Israel and says,

Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure? —Ezra 5:3

Tattenai is asking the elders of Israel if they have any authority to build this house of God. ‘Who gave you the right to build this temple?’ We are left at this moment with the question of whether or not the work will stop again. However, God is with his people. He is watching over them. The text says that “the eye of God” was on his people and they continued to build until a report should reach king Darius (5:5).

So Tattenai and his associates send a letter to Darius. They want to know if there is any legitimate authority behind the work of God’s people. They want to know who these people are and by whose authority they are rebuilding the house that is in Jerusalem (5:9-10). So, they ask Darius to make a search of the archives to find the answer (5:24).

The elders of Israel said that they are building by the decree of the God of heaven and earth (5:11). The reason that they have to rebuild the temple is that their forefathers angered the God of heaven, and he gave them into the hands of the king of Babylon (5:12). However, they go on to say that King Cyrus made a decree that the house of God should be rebuilt (5:13-16).

Darius makes a search of the archives and he finds that the elders of Israel are telling the truth. Moreover, he makes an astonishing statement about God in his response. He also gives a sobering warning. King Darius says,

“May the God who has caused his name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who shall put out a hand to alter this, or to destroy this house of God that is in Jerusalem. I Darius make a decree; let it be done with all diligence.” —Ezra 6:12

King Darius recognizes that it was God who caused his name to dwell in Jerusalem. Moreover, he utters a solemn warning when he says, ‘May God overthrow anyone who destroys or even puts out a hand to alter the work.’ The God of heaven and earth caused his name to dwell in Israel and Darius’ pronouncement is confirmed in Ezra 6:14 where we are told that the temple is completed by the decree of God (6:14).

By way of an illustration, what gives you the right to build on a piece of land? Is it not the government? Not only do you have to own or lease the land, but you also have to have permission to build on it. You need a building permit. Furthermore, you can’t just build on it how ever you want. You have to meet codes and regulations. Finally, before you can use the building, the same authorities have to give you the final stamp of approval. 

You need authorization to build even the simplest of buildings. So, what about the church? Beloved God owns the heavens and the earth. And we have an authority on high who has given us the decree to build his church. Therefore, it is not up to a Vladimir Putin in Russia, or a Xi Jinping in China, or an Ali Khamenei in Iran or any other president, government, tyrant or dictator. They have no jurisdiction where the church is concerned.

So, who has that authority? It is Jesus Christ—the King of kings and Lord of Lords. He owns Russia. He owns China. He owns Iran and he owns Norway, and what the King of kings says in Matthew 28 is that, 

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. —Matthew 28:18-20

So, who has the ultimate authority to build the church?—The King of kings! Jesus Christ has all the authority in heaven and on earth, and by that same authority he commissions us to make disciples. This is an authority that no earthly ruler may usurp, because Christ has willed that he build his house through his redeemed people.

In Ezra 5-6, we see that God builds his house by giving his people the authority to build it. That same authority is given to Christ, and by his authority he calls the church to carry out the work by making disciples of all nations. And even as God was with his people in Ezra, so Jesus is always with us today— “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

God Builds the House by the Prophets who Preach His Word

The reason that God’s people achieve success in building the house of God is that God has given his people the authority to build. But now we turn to the means. God works through means to build his house. What do I mean by the term “means”?

God is the first and principle cause of all things, but he accomplishes his work through secondary causes, or means. Last week, we saw an example of that in Genesis 50:20. What Joseph’s brothers meant for evil, God meant for good—to bring about the deliverance of his people. God is the principle cause who works through secondary causes, which in that case was Joseph’s brothers. 

In Ezra 5-6, we see God build his house by the means of (i) the prophets who preach his word, (ii) earthly rulers who support his word, and (iii) God’s people who obey his word. In all three cases, we see God build his house by the ministry of his word. His word is preached, supported and obeyed. 

We will spend the rest of this message looking at this first means: God builds his house by the prophets who preach his word.

Out of the ashes of chapter 4, God raises up two prophets who prophesy in his name (5:1). They are Haggai and Zechariah. And—either for judgment or deliverance—when God’s prophets start to preach, God is going to act. Indeed, every great spiritual movement for God’s people begins with a word from God.[1] So, right off the bat, in verse one, the text says,

Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. Then Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak arose and began to rebuild the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them. —Ezra 5:1-2

God gets the wheels of industry churning. This is powerful, authoritative preaching, and it moves Gods’ people to action all the way up to Zerubbabel the governor and Jeshua the high priest. 

Now what are they saying? God has two indictments against his people. The first is economic, and Haggai addresses the issue. God’s people are dwelling in paneled houses, while his house lies in ruins (Hag. 1:2-4). In other words, God’s people are busy doing DIY’s on their own homes while they spend no time or money building God’s house. Thus, even the priestly sacrifices are unclean, because they allow a ruinous corps to remain in their midst—that is, they allow the unfinished temple to remain in their community while they go about their personal business (Hag. 2:13-14).[2] God’s second indictment comes through Zechariah. Simply put, God’s people have returned to their evil ways and God is calling them to repent (Zech. 1:4-5). 

Therefore, as the prophets begin to preach, it is clear that God’s people have significant economic and moral heart issues that have stalled the work. But God is now drawing his people out of their sinful slumber by the powerful preaching of his word. In both cases, it is God who calls them to action through the means of his prophets.

As we move into the New Testament, we see that the Old Testament prophets are forerunners to New Testament preachers. How so? The prophets had a two-fold ministry. They would ‘foretell’ and ‘forthtell.’ The OT prophets would foretell future events on occasion. However, their main job was to forthtell what God had already spoken. That is, the prophets main work was to exhort God’s people to obey what was already written in the Scriptures. 

Likewise, the New Testament pastor is called to preach the written Word of God. Paul tells Timothy to do his best to present himself as an approved workman, “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Paul goes on to tell Timothy that all of Scripture is inspired by God, and that all of it is useful for building up the man of God for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Paul tells Timothy, and he is telling us, that God’s approved workman is the one who rightly handles and uses God’s inspired, written Word.

Finally, in the face of many people who are abandoning the truth of God’s Word, Paul gives Timothy the preacher’s solemn oath in 2 Timothy 4,

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. —2 Timothy 4:1-5

The way that Timothy would fulfill his ministry is by preaching the whole counsel of God’s written and inspired Word (see also Acts 20:27). And Timothy becomes the model for the preacher’s ministry today. God builds his church by his Word. To this very day, the church is called to action by the preaching of God’s Word. 

What we need more than anything today is for God to raise up such men to preach God’s Word. We must pray for this. We need preachers to preach the whole counsel of God to every tribe and tongue and people. Whenever the church thrives, at the center is the preaching of God’s Word.

By way of another illustration, I love the image of Preikestolen— “Pulpit Rock”—that stunning pulpit-shaped cliff that soars more than 600 meters over the fjord outside Stavanger. What an image for my heart’s desire! Oh, to see the glory of God proclaimed to all of Norway! Oh, to have faithful men preach the gospel in every hill and dale! May it come to pass! May God rend the heavens and visit Norway again!

A Word that Came Down from Heaven

So many people want to hear from God today. They want a special word from the Lord. They want to hear from him directly. Many people are trying to discern God’s voice from visions or dreams or intuitions. And there are many people and so-called spiritual leaders who claim to be prophets, and who claim to have a direct line from God. People are desperate to hear from God.

Indeed, the Christian faith is built on the fact that God does speak. God reveals himself. He communicates directly with his people. But the way that he speaks with his people has changed from ages past to what the Bible now calls, “the last days.” And in these last days we have received a word from heaven that surpasses all prior revelation. We are told what that word is in Hebrews:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. — Hebrews 1:1-2

The writer of Hebrews is telling us that Jesus is the final word. He is the heir of all things. In these last days, which began at Jesus’ first coming and will continue until his second coming, Jesus has given us the final word from heaven. And do you know what that word is? It is the New Testament. 

It is in the New Testament that Jesus’ authorized apostles record his teachings and flesh out the implications for the church. It is here that they show how Jesus fulfills all of the promises of God in the Old Testament and how even Gentiles, like you and me, fit into that plan. The New Testament teaches us how to understand the Old Testament. The New Testament gives us that road to Emmaus experience when Jesus told those disciples how the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms are fulfilled in him (Luke 24:27, 44; cf. 2 Cor. 1:20). Furthermore, it is the New Testament that teaches us that all Scripture matters, and that all Scripture must be preached (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 4:2). 

It is in the written Word of God that we hear the words of God. God came down from heaven and gave us his word through his Son. Jesus gave that word to his authorized apostles. That word is given to us in the New Testament. This is why Paul tells us that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). And now, finally, what does Jesus say about disciple-making in the days of his parting?

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. —Matthew 28:19, 20

Beloved, if you want to hear from God, open up your Bible. Read it. Hear it preached. But read all of it. Expect your pastors to preach all of it. Jesus doesn’t say that disciples only have to observe parts of it. He doesn’t say that disciples can pick and choose the parts they like. Pastors have no right to say, ‘I’ll teach this part, but not that part.’ No, Jesus commands that we observe all of it. 

God’s people prospered under the prophesying of Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 6:14). The temple was rebuilt and there was great joy. How can we expect to prosper if we don’t observe all the words of our Lord in heaven, who came down to speak to us? Christ builds his church, and Christ rules his church, by the scepter of his Word. We close with the words of Calvin,

To sum up, since the church is Christ’s Kingdom, and he reigns by his Word alone, will it not be clear to any man that those are lying words [cf. Jer. 7:4] by which the Kingdom of Christ is imagined to exist apart from his scepter (that is, his most holy Word)? —John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.2.4.[3]

[1] Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary (vol. 12; Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 59.

[2] Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 1746.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; vol.2; The Library of Christian Classics; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1046.