When God Builds the House (Part 3 – Ezra 5-6)

FPCNorwayEzra: Building the House of God, Sermons

When God builds the house, his people prosper. But the kind of prosperity that we speak of is not as the world defines it, or as prosperity preachers preach it. Nor is the kind of obedience that I speak of the kind that merits God’s favor. But what we see in Ezra 6 is a picture of God’s blessings when his people obey. This is a biblical pattern that leads to prosperity. Jesus calls it joy in John 15, and joy is what we find in Ezra 6.

When God Builds the House

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
February 16, 2020

When God builds the house, his people prosper. We have looked at Ezra 5-6 over these last three weeks. The major emphasis in this text is that God is one who builds his house. Moreover, God builds his house through the means of the prophets who preach his word, earthly rulers who support it, and, as we will see today, his people who obey it. God’s people flourish and prosper when these things come together, and that is what we so desperately need today.

Before we begin, I must give two qualifications:

First, a word about what I do not mean by prosperity.

Prosperity has become a dirty word because of those false teachers who have perverted the gospel into a magic formula for acquiring health and wealth. They turn Christianity into witchcraft, teaching that if you do x, y or z, God will give you everything you want. But God is no genie in a bottle to be manipulated into doing what you want him to do.

Now, it is true that the Christian life is a life that overflows with supernatural prosperity. Paul exclaims in Ephesians, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). God gives every good and imaginable blessing to his people. Jesus came that we might have an abundant life (John 10:10).

However, we should not equate Christian prosperity as the world defines prosperity. Jesus also said that it is the one who loses his life that will find it (Matt. 10:39). He says that we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him (Matt. 16:24). Paul says that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).

So, when I use the word prosperity, I am not talking about worldly, temporal health and wealth.

Second, a word about what I do not mean by obedience.

Obedience has also become a dirty word because of the persuasive influence of religious legalism. This view teaches that religion is a set of rules that you follow. Follow those rules and you will please God. This view of religion is as old as the hills. Man has been trying to justify himself all the way back to the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:12).

The problem with this view is that no man is righteous—no not one (Rom. 3:10). James says that everyone who keeps the whole law but fails even at one point is guilty of all of it (Jas. 2:10). And so, Jesus came to do what we could not do (Rom. 8:3). Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). God’s blessings come to us by faith in him (Gal. 3:9, 14).

However, some Christians have moved to the opposite extreme of legalism and taught that because Jesus fulfilled the law, we don’t have to follow any rules. But this couldn’t be farther from biblical Christianity. Yes, Jesus delivers us from the guilt of failing to do the law. But, as Paul so clearly tells us in Galatians 5:13, we are not to use our freedom as an opportunity for sin.

In a similar way, Peter tells us to be holy in all our conduct (1 Pet. 1:15). He tells us to be diligent to confirm our calling and election by supplementing our faith with godly living (2 Pet. 2:5-10). Moreover, he exhorts us to grow in grace (2 Pet. 3:18). Likewise, Jesus says that to abide in his joy is to keep his commandments (John 15:10).

So, what is the path of true prosperity? Biblical Christianity is a life of faith that strives to obey God out of thankfulness for what Jesus has already done for us. The freedom that we have in Christ is not a license to ignore his commandments. But we don’t obey to merit favor, we obey out of thankfulness for the grace of God that is lavished on us. As we shall see, even our ability to believe and obey is a gift of grace. Therefore, Biblical Christians practice grace-based obedience. This is the path of true prosperity, and it is opened to us by the grace of Christ from beginning to end. This is all the work of God.

Therefore, when God builds the house, his people prosper. But the kind of prosperity that we speak of is not as the world defines it, or as prosperity preachers preach it. Nor is the kind of obedience that I speak of the kind that merits God’s favor. But what we see in Ezra 6 is a picture of God’s blessings when his people obey. This is a biblical pattern that leads to prosperity. Jesus calls it joy in John 15, and joy is what we find in Ezra 6.

So, our question this morning concerns what kind of obedience leads to prosperity for God’s people as they build the temple in Jerusalem.

1. They listen to the Prophets (6:13-15)

God breaks the silence and awakens his people through the prophets. In chapter 5, Haggai and Zechariah come on the scene. We know from their books (e.g. Haggai, Zechariah) that they are calling God’s people to repentance for their financial and moral misadventures. Miraculously, God’s people repent, and they get back to work.

By a further twist of providence, God turns the heart of the pagan king to support his decree. So, God’s prophets are preaching the word of God and his people, and even pagan kings like Darius, obey. And so, God’s people prosper, and the temple is rebuilt. We read in verse 14,

And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia; and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king. —Ezra 6:14-15

The people of God are prospering under the prophets. But this prosperity does not simply come by hearing their words. There were so many times in Israel’s history when they heard the prophets, but completely ignored what they said. They heard them, but they refused to listen. They did not obey. They brought ruin upon themselves because of it. In fact, this is why God removed them from the promised land in the first place (cf. Deut. 28:15-68). But in Ezra 5-6, they listen and obey. 

Looking back on my childhood, there were so many times when my father told me to do one thing and I did the opposite. Without fail, those were the times that I suffered the most. But when I did listen, things generally went rather well. Now, God is our greater Father, and he knows what is best. Listen to God, and life goes well—even under the weight of your cross.

Similarly, God continues to speak to us today by pastors who preach the Holy Scriptures. When pastors preach the Bible, and God’s people listen, the church flourishes and prospers—even when there is external persecution and affliction. But, refusing to listen to God’s Word leads to great harm. The writer of Hebrews says,

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the Word of God to you… Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. —Hebrews 13:7, 17

Rejecting the Word of God, as taught by Godly leaders, is no advantage to you. To use Paul’s words, those who reject God’s ways pierce themselves with many pangs (see 1 Tim. 6:2-3, 10). But in Ezra 6, God’s people prosper because they listen and obey.

2. They Worship by the Word (Ezra 6:16-18)

God tells us how he is to be worshipped. We are not free to worship him however we would like. That is called idolatry. So, worship leadership is not a creativity contest. Rather, God regulates his worship by his Word. For example, in Exodus we find the repeated phrase that everything was done “as the Lord had commanded Moses” (cf. Exod. 39:1, 5, 7, 21, 26, 29, 31; 40:19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29).

In the Old Testament, whenever God’s people worshiped God rightly, they did so, “as the Lord had commanded Moses.” So, this phrase continues in Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua (Num. 8:22; 29:40; Deut. 34:9; Joshua 11:15). And here in Ezra 6:18, this principle is followed again: “as it is written in the Book of Moses.” God’s people worship by the Word.

And the people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. They offered at the dedication of this house of God 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel 12 male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. And they set the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their divisions, for the service of God at Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book of Moses. —Ezra 6:16-18

Worship by the Word is known as the “regulative principle.” This principle is rooted in the second commandment (Exod. 20:4). God is a jealous God and his people are not to worship him like the surrounding nations worship their gods. For example, in Deuteronomy 32:46, Moses commands God’s people to be careful to obey all of his words, and that they must command their children to obey all of them, too. 

They are never allowed to say, ‘This worship is getting a little old and stiff. We need get creative and find a fresh and relevant way to worship God.’ No, that is idolatry. They must obey all of God’s words and command their children to do the same. 

Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus commands his disciples to teach their disciples to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20). Therefore, in Acts 2, we see the disciples devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). The New Testament has much to say about how the church worships God. This goes beyond the scope of Ezra 5-6, but I will give you something by way of a summary.

Simply put, New Testament worship is regulated by the Word of God just as much as it was in the Old Testament—though sadly it is not always practiced. Worship is regulated by the Word of God in five ways. Worship is regulated when we (1) preach the Word, (2) read the Word (3), sing the Word (4) pray the Word, and (5) see the Word (in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

This is why we preach passage by passage, and book by book, through the Bible. This is why we read from the Old and New Testaments every Lord’s Day. This is why we sing God’s Word in the Psalter. This is why our prayers are informed by Scripture. And this is why we see God’s visible words, as Augustine put it, when we practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

God’s worship is regulated by his Word, and when we worship by the Word, we prosper.

3. They Remember the Covenant (6:19-20)

It has been seventy years since God’s people kept the Passover in Jerusalem. Now what’s the big deal? The Passover was such a big deal that God gave them a new calendar and put the Passover in the heart of the first month (Exod. 12:1). Why? The Passover celebrates God’s great act of salvation when he delivered Israel out the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exod. 20:2). Moreover, it was by this event that God establishes himself as Israel’s covenant God (Deut. 5:3). So, the Passover is God’s covenant meal his people are commanded to celebrate every year. And after seventy years, God’s people return to this covenant meal and God gives them great joy.

On the fourteenth day of the first month, the returned exiles kept the Passover. For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves together; all of them were clean. So, they slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the returned exiles, for their fellow priests, and for themselves. It was eaten by the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also by everyone who had joined them and separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel. 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 6:19-22

Imagine what it must have been like to celebrate this memorial meal after seventy years of exile. When they were living in the land of their captors, it had to have been so easy for God’s people to think that God had broken his covenant forever. Think of the questions they must have asked. Was God real? Did he really make a covenant with us? Will he return and save us? Will we ever flourish again? 

But in this Passover meal, which the returned exiles have now kept, God shows his covenant faithfulness, past and present, and it brings them great joy (Ezra 6:22). Indeed, the Passover meal doesn’t just look to the past and present, it also directs our gaze to the future. 

The Passover foreshadows the greater meal that Jesus Christ will institute as a sign of the new covenant, the Lord’s Supper (e.g. Luke 22:20). It is the greater meal, because it commemorates a greater deliverance. In the Old Testament, God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, but all of that was merely a shadow of Christ’s greater deliverance when he saved us from sin and death by his own blood.

Moreover, the Lord’s Supper reminds us that Jesus is building a greater temple—his church (Eph. 2:20). He is the greater prophet, priest, and king. God used prophets, priests, and kings to rebuild the temple in Ezra’s day. But the exiles will fall into sin again. There will be more problems. The prophets don’t have the power to change hearts. The kings won’t have the power to rescue God’s people from their enemies, and the priesthood will continue to devolve back into corruption. 

Jesus is the true prophet, priest and king. And when he returns, he will deliver us from our every foe in heaven and on earth. That is what the Lord’s Supper points us to. As these Old Testament saints celebrate the Passover, they, too, are looking forward to the final deliverance. They are looking forward to their Messiah. And this Messiah is building a greater house in which we will all dwell when our deliverance has come. Jesus says in John 14,

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” —John 14:1-3

Jesus will return and bring us to himself. Beloved, remember where that place is—it is in the presence of God where there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11). That is the true prosperity that awaits God’s people when our Lord comes again, in glory, to judge the quick and the dead and to bring us home.

Can We Really Say that God Builds the House by Our Obedience?

We have now spent three weeks in Ezra 5-6. Next week we will move on and see what comes of the returned exiles. But as we close this message, I would like to pose one final question. We have said that God builds his house through means like the prophets who preach the Word and rulers who support it, but can we really say that God builds the house by our obedience? 

Did you know that your greatest skills and hardest efforts are entirely dependent on God’s grace working in you? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” In a similar way, he tells the Colossians that he toils and struggles in his gospel ministry ‘with all of God’s energy that he powerfully works in him’ (Col. 1:28).

But that was not just true for Paul. Peter tells the church, ‘Let him who serves, serve with the strength that God supplies’ (1 Pet. 4:11). This is because Jesus is building his church through us. In Ephesians 4, Paul says that Jesus gives gifts to us for building up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-11). In that same chapter, he says that when each member does their part, the church is built up in love (Eph. 4:16).

These gifts that Jesus gives to us by the Holy Spirit are for building up the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:7; 14:4; Eph. 4:16). Even our faith itself is a gift. Paul says in Romans 12:3,

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. —Romans 12:3

So, God is building the church through the gifts that he assigns. When the gospel comes, God gives us the faith to believe, and he gives us the power to obey. Again, Paul says, ‘though I worked harder than any, though not I, but the grace of God that is with me’ (1 Cor. 15:10)! God gives us, in the gospel, the power to obey. The 18th century Scottish preacher wrote,

A rigid master was the law,
Demanding brick, denying straw;
But when with gospel-tongue it sings,
It bids me fly, and gives me wings.
—Ralph Erskine[1]

God gives us the power to believe the gospel, and by the gospel we are given the power to serve and obey. Obedience flows from the grace of Christ. He saves, and he strengthens and sanctifies us by his perfect obedience. Christ gives us the wings of an eagle to soar in the heavens and to follow his commands. Ours will always be an imperfect obedience, but his grace is with us.

When we each use our gifts, the whole church is built up in love (Eph. 4:16). When we obey his commandments, we abide in the love and the joy of our Lord together (John 15:10-11)—and that, beloved, is the foretaste of the prosperity that awaits us when our Savior says, ‘Come, enter into the joy of your master’ (Matthew 25:21).

[1] Timothy George, Galatians (vol. 30; The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 384.