Michael Green writes: “In St. Louis there is a railroad switchyard. One particular switch begins with just the thinnest piece of steel to direct a train away from one main track to another. If you were to follow those two tracks, however, you would find that one ends in San Francisco, the other in New York. Sin is like that. Just a small deviation from God’s standards can place us far afield from our intended destination”.
This is the sneaky nature of sin; it looks so harmless on the surface. We think: it won’t hurt anyone else, I’m sure God won’t mind, it’s really for the best. These are just some of the ways in which we as Christians often justify doing things which we know are contrary to God’s Word and ways. Sadly, it was no different in Ezra’s day. God had brought the Jews back to their own land, He had ended their exile, He had helped them to restore worship. They had rebuilt and dedicated God’s temple. God’s good hands now provided them with fresh provisions, people and prosperity. Yet despite all this, God’s people and the leadership once again turned away from God, to follow their own sinful hearts. This was the situation which confronted Ezra as he arrived in Jerusalem. He was shocked and horrified to see how far God’s people had fallen, and how close they were to destruction. However, Ezra loved God and the people. So before doing anything, he sought God’s direction in prayer, and interceded for the people, calling on them to return to God and he would return to them. Hopefully soon we will be able to return to church services. What will characterize our response to God when our exile has ended? Will we turn away from him when this crisis is over, or we will turn back to God through Confession of Our Sins, acknowledging God’s Compassion towards us through our acts of contrition? Will our lives reflect Ezra’s Prayer?
1. Confession vs. 6-7
As we’ve already said, sin will never stay secret. It will eventually, come to light and, when it does, it will affect and infect everything it touches. 57 years earlier, God’s people had rebuilt his temple and restored worship. But over time, they had begun to drift from God’s Word. The beginning of chapter 9 gives us the reason for Ezra’s prayer. The leaders of Israel bring to his attention that not only the people, but more specifically, the religious leaders, are flagrantly breaking God’s law by associating themselves with the people of the land. For Ezra says “they had taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and the officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness vs.2”. Ezra must’ve been speechless! It’s bad enough when the people are deserting God, however the spiritual leaders of the nation are setting a sinful example. Ezra is devastated, because it was these very same sins, the breaking of God’s holy law, which landed Israel in exile in the first place. Ezra rips his garments and pulls out his beard to indicate to all those around him how terrible sin is before God.
How Ezra deals with the situation is a great example for us to follow. He fell on his knees with his hands spread out “to the Lord my God and prayed: “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today. Ezra does not stand aloof from the people, he prays for them, associating himself with the sinners. He demonstrates stands with the people of Israel because they are God's covenant community. As God’s covenant community, the sins of the few, affect the many. Ezra lists all of the sins that brought the people of Israel to this point. He takes responsibility for the sins of their forefathers as well. True confession can only take place within the community of God when there is a radical change of heart. The people of God must be willing to confess their sins and to accept the consequences the sin had brought upon them. They needed to take responsibility for their actions. God’s forgiveness can only come when there is a radical recognition of the condition and consequence of sin. In Ezra’s confession, we also see a prefiguring of Christ’s baptism for sin at the Jordan and His acceptance of the people’s guilt, even though the guilt is not His own. The act of confession naturally leads to forgiveness and to God’s compassion, as we see in the next section.
2. Compassion vs 8-9
The confession of sin always leads to the compassion of God. Ezra continues his prayer: “But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage…He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem vs 8-9.” Ezra uses four images in his prayer to demonstrate the compassion of God towards Israel.
Firstly, God has preserved a “remnant vs. 8b” of his people. The word remnant carries with it the idea of a piece of rope or cloth has been kept aside for some special purpose. Wiersbe says, “Throughout Jewish history, even when the nation turned from God, He always preserved a remnant that remained faithful to Him from that remnant, He made a new beginning.” Within the nation of Israel, there was always the true spiritual Israel. Luther and Calvin fleshed this idea of a remnant and related it within our church community to the concept of the visible and the invisible church. There will always be those within our churches who love and serve the Lord, and there will always be those members whose hearts remain unchanged by Jesus.
Secondly, Ezra speaks of God providing “a firm place in his sanctuary vs. 8b” - the imagery here was of the tent peg or a nail pounded into the wall of the Temple Sanctuary. This demonstrated the concept of stability and safety. God had given the Jews a foothold in the land, had chosen once more to show his favour upon them. This favour was seen with the officials and the King of Persia. God blessed them more abundantly, but again, as we see in this prayer, the people have chosen to go their own way. Therefore, God had to chastise them with no rain and poor crops, as seen in the book of Haggai 2. All those who come to the Lord in prayer, and obey his Word, will always find a secure place, a firm hold and blessings.
Thirdly, Ezra uses the image of God giving “light to our eyes vs. 8c”. This term carries the concept of being revived, having new life, and coming back from the dead. Nearly all the exilic prophets spoke of the Israelites in captivity as being dead. Ezra praises God for breathing new life into the people of Israel by bringing them back into their land. Through the repentance of sin, God breathes new life into us. He fills us with His Spirit anew, so we may go out and serve him in the world.
The final picture used by Ezra is of God giving the Israelites “a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.vs.9b” through bringing them safely back into the land and giving them favour with the Persian authorities. God had softened the hearts of these powerful Persian kings, who were favourably disposed towards God's people. Though these kings were powerful, God in his sovereignty used them to fulfil his purposes. God is in control of all things. Prayer confession leads to compassion and, when we ponder the greatness of the grace of God, it must lead us to solid action.
3. Contrition vs 10-15
In Ezra's prayer, he has confessed the nation’s sin before God, he expressed God's compassion towards them, even though they have been disobedient, and now he demands of the nation they must turn from their wicked ways and follow God. This is only possible through heartfelt contrition for what has happened as a “result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have given us a remnant like this. Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.”
The compassion of God, which has been so gloriously displayed in bringing them out of exile, would not be tarnished by the people’s sins. Ezra is ashamed - God has been so gracious to the nation of Israel - yet they have chosen once again to be disobedient and go their own ways. And worst of all, the chief officials from the land are the greatest perpetrators. They are meant to lead God's people to greater covenant obedience, but they themselves are breaking this covenant and leading others to do the same. This passage was often used by the nationalist government to justify apartheid, and was one of the theological justifications for the mixed marriages act. This text is not against mixed marriages of different races, it is about a spiritual issue. What Ezra is speaking out against is Apostasy and idolatry. In these mixed marriages, the Israelites would be led away from worshipping God and into pagan practices. The people were worshiping foreign gods. The context is the same in the New Testament when Jesus says believers must not be unevenly yoked. Christians are not to marry unbelievers because, more often than not, they will be led away from God. This is the heart of Ezra's prayer; by breaking God's laws they are inviting his judgement. They must put away their foreign wives and foreign husbands and return to the Lord. Confession must always lead to action.
It is no use asking God to forgive our sins if we simply go back and do them again and again and again. When our hearts are changed and we have felt the compassion of God, it will spur us on to action to that we may follow God and leave our sins behind. So too we are called to come to God in confession to experience God's compassion in prayer, so that it may lead to contrition and to the right action. Let us not be like Israel and abandon God, but rather let us turn to him in prayer, and feel the warmth of His face shine upon us.
As we come to the end of our Ezra series, we can take some final messages from today’s passage:
First, we should always remember God’s calling on our lives. Jesus said in the New Testament that we should be in the world but not of the world. In John’s first letter, believers are reminded to detach themselves from the love of the world. The same is true of this passage in Ezra. The people in Ezra’s day were not setting themselves apart, they were mixing their worldly lives with their spiritual lives. As followers of Christ, we are meant to be separate but part of this world. We live in the world, we work, play, interact with others, yet God is calling us to obey his commands, to seek our pleasures in things which are pleasing to Him, to seek his kingdom first. The whole emphasis of the gospel and of the lives of the early Christians was to show how different followers of Christ were. We are supposed to be different to the norm, different from the pack. We are supposed to be counter-cultural, to spread the love of God while challenging injustices. To care about the world, while not being of it.
Second, each day brings temptations to sin. As in our opening story, at first it might not seem like a big deal – the tracks might look like they are going in the same direction for a while, yet eventually we will find ourselves at an unwanted destination. Other times, we sin with eyes wide open. We know that we are acting against God’s will, yet we still do it. We are faced with opposing desires every day: the desire to live a holy and God-honouring life, and the desire to give in to sinfulness. Fortunately, the power of the Holy Spirit is within us, giving us insight, wisdom and strength to follow God’s way.
Lastly, Ezra also made it clear where responsibility for sinfulness lies: with each person. We live in a time when there is a tendency to justify all sort of behaviour. Genetics, hereditary traits, upbringing, environment, peer pressure and even God are blamed for sin. As Ezra shows us in his prayer, confession is the first step. Take responsibility for yourself and your actions before God. Ask for forgiveness and God’s blessings will follow. God’s mercy and grace are what keeps us going. We might feel like each day brings insurmountable challenges and opposition to our faith, yet there is an unending supply of God’s grace to see us through, to strengthen us and give us supernatural peace.
Let us confess our sins, trust in God’s compassion and turn back to God with contrite hearts. Charles Spurgeon used to say, “That it was the strength of our prayers, not the length of our prayers, that was important, and he was right. When you pray from a burdened heart, with a mind that’s saturated with God’s Word, then God will hear and answer.” Let us pray.
In preparation for this morning’s sermon there were many illustrations that came to mind. Some personal stories and some that I have heard. My sporting career came particularly to mind when thinking of the power of the tongue. In a cricket match I had the ability to talk a batsman out before he had even faced a ball. Through a series of very un-Christian chirps I could get into the batsmen’s head and throw him off his game completely. In the same manner I had the ability to hype my team mates up and build up their confidence. The manner in which I spoke and the words which I used could have two completely different effects on the people around me.
But for this morning’s illustration and introduction I would like to tell you about something that happened to me more recently. It was something that happened just last week and involved a rebuke that really opened my eyes to the power of the tongue. There were a number of us sitting around in the dining room after lunch on campus and a few of us began talking on a specific topic. The topic was one that I am quite passionate about. In that moment I let my passion get the better of me and spoke very passionately without even taking into consideration who was around me. In the days to follow a friend of mine sent me a message asking if we could meet and chat about what had been said after lunch. What followed truly humbled me and reminded me of what the true power of the tongue is. His rebuke was gentle but firm. As he sat with me, he reminded me of what was said between the few of us in the conversation. He then reminded me of the importance of taking into consideration not only those who are sitting in our presence but also those who may be listening to the conversation. You see what you say does not only affect those in your presence but the tongue can and does affect all those who can hear what you are saying. Especially if they do not know the context of what is being said. When we are speaking we never know who might be listening and the effect our words might have on their lives. Positive or negative.
This leads me to my first point.
A Controlled Tongue (vs. 1-2)
James opens chapter 3 with a sharp yet sincere warning and exhortation for teachers to control the tongue. In chapter 1 James has already brought to light that the control of one’s tongue is one of the tests of true religion. James 1 verse 26 says “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” Now he opens with a statement that alarms most, if not all, teachers and preachers of the word. And I would say a warning that many should take to heart.
James 3 verse 1 says “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Firstly I would like to look at the term “teacher”. In the early church there were still hints of Jewish customs and traditions that often infiltrated the customs and traditions of the early Christians. In the Jewish custom the Rabbi or teacher was considered a very honourable position. The title rabbi meant “my great one” and those who held the position were given the greatest of respect. A person’s duty to help a rabbi even exceeded the duty of helping your own parents. It is said that if a rabbi, a father and a mother were captured by an enemy, it was your duty to ensure that the rabbi was ransomed first. It was considered a great honour to take a rabbi in and provide for all his needs.
This type of thinking had more than likely infiltrated the thinking of Christian teachers and the prestige the position would bring them seemed most attractive. James does not intend to dissuade those who are gifted and called to the ministry or even scare them off pursuing a role as a teacher. But what James was and is doing in this letter is reminding all those who do seek to be teachers that they “will be judged more strictly.” The significance of a teaching ministry means that the Lord will judge and scrutinize those in the position of a teacher especially carefully. It is often forgotten the great responsibility that comes along with being a teacher of God’s Holy Word. It is assumed that as a teacher of the Word of God they should have a full knowledge of the Word for God’s people and are therefore obligated to not only deliver it clearly but obey it in every aspect of their lives.
James in verse 2 in no fewer words reminds teachers that their lives are to match what they preach. Put differently ‘practice what you preach’. Verse 2 says “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” It is without any doubt that there never has been and never will be any one person, except for Jesus Christ, that is without sin. To stumble means to sin and James tells us that we all stumble. Stumble is written in the present tense and suggests that it is a repeated stumbling, it happens again and again. It is important to note that not only do we repeatedly sin but we do so in many ways. We all sin many times and in many ways over and over again. No one can claim innocence as it is written in 1 John 1 verse 8 to 10 “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.”
The tongue is such a powerful weapon that James states that if any person can control their tongue they are in fact perfect. In being able to control your tongue you are able to keep your whole body in check. When one can perfectly control their tongue there is a sense of spiritual maturity that all should aspire to; especially those whom are preachers and teachers of God’s Word. This is by no means an easy task and is not something that will happen overnight but as teachers we are to be held accountable for what we say because it will direct our lives and the lives of those we seek to minister to.
As small as the tongue is it can have far reaching effects and when it is properly controlled can be of great usefulness in building up all those around us. This leads me to my second point.
A Tame Tongue (vs. 3-8)
James now uses three very apt analogies to illustrate the power of a tame tongue even though it is such a small part of the human body. James 3 versus 3 to 5 says “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” The first two analogies portray the usefulness of a small yet vital item in controlling something that is much larger than itself. The third analogy graphically demonstrates the potentially destructive power of something that at its beginning may seem insignificant.
The first analogy is of a horse, it is a massive and powerful animal some weighing up to 500 kilograms. They are said to able to carry 20 percent and up of their own body weight and can pull almost triple their own body weight. Not only that a horse is able to run at ridiculous speeds for an animal of its size. Yet when you put a bit into a horse’s mouth even a child is able to move the horse in any which direction they so please. Now although horse riding might not be so common to us today James’s use of the word “we” in verse 3 indicates that this was something his readers would have been quite familiar with. They knew by common experience how a small bit could be used to harness the power of a strong animal. The tongue rests in the human mouth much as the bit is in the horse’s mouth. In both cases a small thing moves and controls a large body.
He then moves on to the second analogy which is the example of a ship. James here observes the ability of the one controlling the ship’s rudder to direct its path even in the middle of a storm. I often watch the TV series ‘Deadliest Catch’ which follows crab fisherman as they explore the oceans in search of their next big catch. The boats face tremendous storms and huge waves yet as long as the captains are in control of their ships and can direct them they are able to safely navigate their way across the ocean. Yet if anything happens to their rudder they are left at the mercy of the sea and are thrown about and tossed around by the ocean. The tongue is like the rudder of a ship. Just as a small part of the ship is able to turn the entire ship, so the tongue has a great influence on the entire person and the direction in which they are going. What we do often follows what we say. Our spoken words and internal words or thoughts direct our actions.
Both these analogies point to the ability of such a small part of the body to both control and direct the body. The third analogy now points to the great damage that the tongue can do. The tongue is like a spark of fire in the woods. In Cape Town we have witnessed the devastation that can be caused by a fire. Recently Australia was ravaged by a fire that destroyed houses and left forests in ashes. These fires only needed a small spark to start. A mere spark of an ill-spoken word can produce a firestorm that annihilates everything it touches.
This analogy leads directly into verse 6 which says “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” The tongue contains and conveys all the worlds’ wickedness. It is party to every evil there is and it actively forces its evil into our lives. We see here that the tongue has more destructive power than a bomb. A bombs power is physical and material. The tongue however has the ability to cause spiritual and eternal damage.
James now points to our inability to tame our own tongue. In verse 7 and 8 James says “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” The tongue is restless, unstable and liable to break out at any time. At best it can be described as a half-tamed beats. As humans we can subdue or tame almost every kind of animal but we cannot subdue or tame our own tongue. It runs wild at the best of times. Now it is important to remember that James is by no means saying that the tongue is untameable. James here says that “no human being can tame the tongue.” This is so that when the tongue is tamed we can only but admit that it was done by the mercy of God, with the assistance of God and by the grace of God. Since the tongue is the key to holy living we need to turn to the examples of our holy Lord and Saviour and through his mercy and grace make every effort to follow in his footsteps. Our own efforts will always fall short. But when we rely on the complete work of Christ and trust not in our own ability but in the ability of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts only then can our tongues be tamed.
The tamed tongue has the awesome power for good. It can proclaim the life changing message of salvation. But this is only possible when we are consistent in what we say and how we live. This leads me to my third point.
A Consistent Tongue (vs. 9-12)
James in verses 9 to 12 now points to how hopelessly inconsistent the tongue is. Yet in so doing highlights how vital it is to be consistent in our speech and praise. James in verses 9 to 12 says “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” Many Jewish Christians preserved the beautiful old Hebrew custom of saying “blessed be he” after each utterance of God’s name so that their worship times were continually punctuated by choruses of praise. Yet the same people with the blessings still on their lips would leave worship and curse their fellow brothers and sisters who angered them.
It is one of the saddest realities and greatest inconsistencies of the Christian life that with the same mouth we sing praises to our mighty Lord and Saviour, we curse the very thing that is made in His image. We sing songs praising His mighty Name and follow it by cursing His very image bearers.
In Mark 12 verse 28 to 31 we read of what Jesus considered to be one of His greatest commands. It says “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.””
To affirm devotion to God and then hate a fellow human being made in God’s image goes against this very command. It is contrary to everything that the Scriptures teach us and goes completely against Christ’s command to love one another as he first loved us. James further emphasizes how completely inconsistent it is to praise the Lord and curse our fellow brothers and sisters with a list of examples. Imagine leaning over a fresh water spring to take a drink of water and instead of fresh water you get salt water. Or going to pick figs from a fig tree and instead finding olives and in the same light going to a grape vine and finding figs. In the same way we cannot dive into the ocean thinking that if we take a sip it will be the same as drinking a bottle of Valpre.
Praising God and then cursing His image bearers is a complete contradiction and cannot go together.
Therefore brothers and sisters I would like to conclude my sermon this morning with an exhortation and plea to each one of you. It is easy to forget the power of the words we utter to one another. In our speech we have both the ability to destroy or to build one another up. We have the ability encourage and motivate those around us to achieve great things. We can turn a bad day into a day that will never be forgotten. We can turn a moment of loneliness into a friendship that will last forever. A simple word of gratitude can encourage and make a person feel like a million bucks. A simple hello and thank you has the ability to make a person feel appreciated and valued.
So brothers and sisters I do exhort you today to be consistent in your speech. Use your words to point all those who may hear you speak to the one true living God. In the same manner in which you praise God use your tongue to build up all those around you. Be so controlled in your speech that anybody that hears you speak and anybody you speak to can do nothing but see the evidence of Christ in your life. Rely on the Holy Spirit to tame your tongue so that the very words you speak leave people wanting to know more about the mighty God you serve.
Finally brothers and sisters let the words of your mouth be evident in the life you live. Let your life and your speech be in complete harmony with the Gospel. Love one another and love God in word and deed.
“Sovereign in the mountain air. Sovereign on the ocean floor. With me in the calm, with me in the storm. Sovereign in my greatest joy. Sovereign in my deepest cry. With me in the dark, with me at the dawn. In your everlasting arms, all the pieces of my life. From beginning to the end, I can trust you. In your never-failing love, you work everything for good. God whatever comes my way, I will trust you. All my hopes, all I need held in your hands. All my life, all of me held in your hands. All my fears, all my dreams held in your hands. All my hopes, all I need Held in your hands. In your everlasting arms all the pieces of my life. From beginning to the end…God whatever comes our way we will trust you.”
We can trust God no matter what comes our way. As Chris Tomlin sings, we can trust our lives into God’s almighty hands. The last time we saw the inside of Trinity, the virus was on our doorstep, now slowly, things are returning to a new normal. I say new normal, because we, like God people in exile, are returning to a very different world. Nevertheless, God is still sovereign. He held the Exiles in his hands, and he holds us in those same almighty hands. The PowerPoint shows us God’s sovereignty over history, not just of Israel, but of the whole world. The Prophets proclaimed the Exile would end. In 538 BC Cyrus king of Persia fulfilled God’s Word, the Jews returned home, laid the foundation of the temple, so the restoration of worship could begin anew. Sadly, all was not well, opposition began to swell, and God’s people gave up. But all hope was not lost! God raised up Darius King of Persia, and the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to protect the people, provide the power needed to finish the temple in 516 BC. God’s care is constant - even though 57 years have elapsed since the Godly dedication of the temple. Our passage opens with the Lord still at work. He raises up King Artaxerxes 1 and Ezra, the scribe, to fulfil his Word, reform worship, reinstate his law and call the people back to covenant faithfulness in 458 BC. As we come today to our next sermon in our series “Rebuilding God’s Community”, Ezra prepares to depart with the second group of exiles. We see that everything is in God’s good hands, according to his good plan, through His Deliverance and His Diligence towards all believers.
His Deliverance vs 13-16,19
“In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him 21:1” these words written by King Solomon in Proverbs centuries earlier teach us God is always in constant control of the affairs of men and nations. Nowhere is this more evident than in God dealing with the Jewish Exiles. God first uses King Cyrus, then Darius, and now Artaxerxes 1 to accomplish his purposes. During the Exodus, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but here, during the Exile, God softened the heart of king Artaxerxes 1 to allow Ezra and his people to return home. For the King says: “I decree that any of the Israelites in my kingdom, including priests and Levites, who volunteer to go to Jerusalem with you, may go. You are sent by the king and his seven advisers to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God, which is in your hand. Moreover, you are to take with you the silver and gold that the king and his advisers have freely given to the God of Israel, whose dwelling is in Jerusalem, together with all the silver and gold you may obtain from the province of Babylon, as well as the freewill offerings of the people and priests for the temple of their God in Jerusalem… Deliver to the God of Jerusalem all the articles entrusted to you for worship in the temple of your God vs.13-16,19”.
So once again through this royal edict, God provides his deliverance for his people. God’s deliverance may take various forms and different shapes over the centuries, but one truth remains the same - He is always the God who saves those who believe. In this official letter, Artaxerxes gave the Jews the privilege and the permission to leave Babylon, and to return with Ezra to Jerusalem to join the remnant in rebuilding the city walls. It was the rebuilding of the city’s walls, and not the temple, which caused the original opposition and trials, which the first group of Jewish exiles faced. This was the reason that work was halted on the temple and the spiritual restoration of God’s people slowed. We remember that in 537 BC, after the first wave of Jewish refugees about 50,000 of them returned to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel’s leadership to rebuild the temple. Now in 458 BC, a second group of exiles returns. Approximately 1500 men, including women and children, come with Ezra, the new governor of Judah and Jerusalem, with the purpose of restoring the walls and gates, and bringing spiritual renewal to the people.
There is a tendency in the church today, when we want to embark on new ministries, to ask where are we going to get the funds to do this work. But a wise minister once said, if we worry about the money, Ministry will never happen, but if we focus on the ministry, God will always provide the money. All of this reminds us, as the Prophet Haggai wrote, ‘“the silver is mine and the gold is mine”, declares the Lord Almighty’. If God is in it, he will provide for it. This is what he was teaching Ezra and the people by the opening of the royal treasury and providing money to buy the sacrifices needed to be offered at the temple in Jerusalem. The King instructed all these things be delivered to the temple. Sometimes God’s deliverance is physical, sometimes it is spiritual, and sometimes, both work together for his glory and worship.
His Diligence vs. 20-28
Many believers tend to have the view of God that once he’s accomplished the big things, the particulars are our responsibility. This is not how God works. He is involved, in both the big and the small parts of history. Not only does God deliver Ezra and his people, but he also provides diligently for all their needs along the way in order to accomplish his purpose and plan. God’s diligence towards not only Israel, but all believers, is seen in his attention to detail, his directive and ultimately this shows the power of his divinity.
First, his attention to detail. King Artaxerxes instructed both Ezra and his officials throughout the Babylonian Empire: “And anything else needed for the temple of your God that you are responsible to supply, you may provide from the royal treasury. Now I, King Artaxerxes, decree that all the treasurers of Trans-Euphrates are to provide with diligence whatever Ezra the priest, the teacher of the Law of the God of heaven, may ask of you…Whatever the God of heaven has prescribed, let it be done with diligence for the temple of the God of heaven. Why should his wrath fall on the realm of the king and of his sons vs 20-21,23?”. God provides in abundance, more than we could ever need. Not only does he send everything for worship with Ezra and the people, he also provides for the journey along the way, and for sustenance when they arrive in Jerusalem. So, the work of national and spiritual restoration can begin immediately. God is a God of the details, he cares intimately for our lives, and for everything that we will need.
Second his directive. The King instructs and authorises Ezra to do everything “In accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them. Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment vs 25-26.” Ezra is not only made governor of Judah, leader of the Exiles, but the King is so impressed with this priest scribe, that he is given civil authority over the region of the trans-Euphrates. He even gives them the right to inflict capital punishment. Because Ezra was devoted to God’s word and the law as the centre of his life and ministry, God made the King favourably disposed to Ezra. God’s word is powerful indeed! God’s law the truest form of justice, the reference to it being in Ezra’s hand may refer to the high regard which the king viewed God’s word, even if he did not believe all of it. Do we have the same regard, for God’s Word, do we realise that it will always accomplish his will, that his directives are true? What God says, God always does, because He works all things for our good.
Last his divinity. Ezra boldly proclaims “Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favour to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me vs 27-28”. What other response can there be to all God has done throughout history, but to praise and worship his mighty name? This is the first occurrence of the first-person narrative in the book of Ezra. Now we see the scribe speaking in his own words. He praises the Lord for his sovereign moving of the king’s heart to cooperate with God’s plans. Ezra sees in these events the proof of God’s mercy and his covenant of love towards all believers. Ezra took no credit for these magnificent accomplishments - it is all the result of the good hand of God. It is because our lives as believers are in God’s good hands, that we can trust him no matter what. When he calls, we answer; when he tells us to go, we move; when asked to stay, we wait. Ezra, in obedience to God, doesn’t waste a single moment but assembles the chief men of the tribes, gathers the people who felt moved to travel to Jerusalem, and they set out at once. Trusting God to protect them along the way, provide for their needs, so that when they arrive in Jerusalem, there praise will be powerful evidence of God’s divine control over everything.
I have heard many people say that they either don’t read the Old Testament or that they don’t understand it. One of the main obstacles seems to be a difficulty in understanding how the ancient history of the Old Testament translates into messages and meaning for today. Here there are three points to encourage us from our passage.
Firstly, let’s take a moment to get to know Ezra. From Jewish tradition and the Bible, we see that Ezra was devoted to God, to the study of God’s Word and to turn what was written into action. Ezra prepared his heart; he obeyed the Word and he applied the teachings to his daily life. He also desired to teach the scriptures and studied God’s Word so that he could share it with others. What an example for us to follow!
Secondly, although we can appreciate the remarkable pagan piety shown by the King, we should also wonder what prompted it. The devoted Jewish Exiles must have lived such godly lives, that it had a powerful influence on the Persian kings. Many of the Exiles held positions in the Persian court and Ezra was given wide-ranging powers in the king’s edict. Christians today still have a role to play in public and political life. Christians are called to respect the claims of the state, to engage in public and political life when called to do so, to pray for those in leadership positions and in government.
Thirdly, in the king’s letter, he refers to the “God of Heaven” four times. As a pagan king, we might have expected him to refer to the God of the Jews, yet it seems like he has some notion of God’s power and control over the course of history. God’s power over history and our destinies is still in place. God created each of us with a spiritual dimension. We see so many souls searching for meaning in the modern world, trying to find fulfilment in relationships, wealth, addictions or personal achievements. Others try to find meaning in horoscopes, vague concepts of ‘the universe’ or fortune-telling, always seeking some assurance of their spiritual destiny. The Christian has complete assurance. We can look back to the Old Testament through to the New Testament and to our lives today and see God’s hand at work throughout history. Our experience of God through Jesus Christ isn’t some vague notion or feeling, it is a true, living relationship. We can follow God’s purpose through the Bible, we can trust the Holy Spirit to lead us, we can find comfort and encouragement in prayer. As Christians, we know where our eternal home is and what our spiritual destiny leads to.
Michael P. Green tells the story of a museum guide who would take his tour group to a darkened room, shine a light on a mass of string, color, and apparent chaos and ask the group, “What do you think this is?” “I don’t know,” was the inevitable reply. He would then say, “Stand over there and watch.” As the group moved over to the other side of the room, he would turn on a spotlight. It was instantly apparent that the mass of jumbled colored string seen just a moment earlier was in fact an enormous tapestry—from the back side. The real work had to be seen from a different perspective to understand what the artist was creating. So, it is with God and his ways. We often look at them and ask questions such as “Why?” and “How?” not because there is no purpose in what God is doing, but because we are on the wrong side of eternity to be able to have the perspective that would enable us to see the order and pattern to God’s work.
Godly Dedication – Ezra 6:13-22
This week we once again resume our series, “Rebuilding God’s Community.” Thus far in the series we’ve seen the Exile Ended and thereafter we saw Restoring Worship through the rebuilding of the Temple foundation. This morning we progress in the story of Ezra and see the Temple fully rebuilt and dedicated to God. This is chapter highlights God’s faithfulness or dedication to his people and their dedication to him. This two way godly dedication is illustrated in three different ways, Physical Dedication, Spiritual Dedication and finally a Promise-Filled Dedication.
God’s dedication was huge deal since His people faced considerable opposition throughout chapters 3-6 as they settled back into their land. Two weeks ago, we learned that they were able to soundly lay the Temple foundation. Still, it was anything but smooth sailing from then onward. Foreign governors such as Tattenai successfully conspired against Israel and halted the rebuilding effort for years. He claimed and successfully convinced Artaxerxes in a letter to that should he allow the Temple to be completed the Jews would stage a rebellion and refuse to pay their taxes. This made things tough later on even as Darius came into power, because they still faced possible extermination while his decree stood during Darius’ reign. However, despite the danger and continued opposition God was merciful to them. He opened the way for them to inform Darius of Cyrus’ decree stored in the Royal Records. And Darius, much like Cyrus, didn’t just allow the work to resume, but actually supported the rebuilding of the Temple. God was dedicated to His people and their good. He’d returned them to their land, returned himself to them and they reflected this godly dedication by returning themselves to him.
Physical Dedication (vv.13-15)
13 Then, because of the decree King Darius had sent, Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates, and Shethar-Bozenai and their associates carried it out with diligence. 14 So the elders of the Jews continued to build and prosper under the preaching of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah, a descendant of Iddo. They finished building the temple according to the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia. 15 The temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.
Having a physical place to worship God became significant throughout Israel’s history, from the time of Abraham, a land of rest, filled with God’s presence and blessing was anticipated. The promised land took a while to get to, yet God was with His people wherever they went. He dwelt in pillars of cloud and fire as he led people to this land of promise. On the way there He gloriously and powerfully descended upon mount Sinai in a terrible storm cloud. And while there he commissioned some of His people to build a place so he could permanently dwell with His people. First came the Tabernacle, and much later Solomon built the Temple as a greater permanent place for God to indwell after it was dedicated. The story that followed was one of good godly kings, many horribly wicked kings and an ever-worsening problem with idolatry. These led to the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, in the latter one the Temple and the city of Jerusalem were completely destroyed. In the minds of the nation this no doubt caused them to question the power of the God of Israel. Yet in that time he inspired books to encourage them and remind them of his faithfulness and dedication. That very dedication led to a much-needed exile for Israel’s chastisement and God’s glory in having them return to Him wholeheartedly. Ezra shows us that the exiles eventually returned to the land as according to the promise in Deuteronomy 30.
God’s dedication to the needs of His people was and is great, since their dependence always brings Him joy and glory. Isaiah 65:24 depicts their ongoing dependence as part of the unimaginably glorious setting of the New Heavens and New Earth. God’s dedication never changes and neither does His people’s dependence on Him. One of their greatest needs upon their return to Israel was a tangible place to worship God as a community. In v.13-14 he displays His dedicated provision through decrees and resources from Persian kings and even turning opposition into support for rebuilding the Temple. All the while their spiritual need for godly preaching and teaching was also met, as v.14 tells us, the elders and people prospered under the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah as the Temple was rebuilt.
Our situation is very much a mirror to what the newly returned exiles experienced. We long to return to our church building, the physical place of corporate worship. The lockdown has been hard without it, however, God has provided for our needs. Spiritually God has provided our needs through the faithful ministry of his word every Sunday during this lockdown. God’s also prepared platforms like YouTube and WhatsApp for His Church’s use, to feed and encouraged the faith of all believers during even a global pandemic. Physically God has provided more than what we need with fibre at the church and receiving the blessing of a motorised main gate. Our dependence and his dedicated provision must continue to bring him glory and praise from our hearts and lips.
Spiritual Dedication (vv.16-18)
16 Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. 17 For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel, twelve male goats, one for each of the tribes of Israel. 18 And they installed the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their groups for the service of God at Jerusalem, according to what is written in the Book of Moses.
God’s people must be dedicated to him as a reflection of His own dedication. Spiritual Dedication is a matter of the heart, reflected in action even though it’s impossible to ever repay God for His unceasing goodness to us both now and in eternity one day. Speaking of the heart, dedication is a really solemn sounding word in English, not that it’s wrong, however, there’s more to it than that. Verse 16 presents another way of thinking to us when it comes to godly dedication in that Israel celebrates the dedication of the Temple with joy. Both sacrifices and installing the priestly order for worship in the Temple are included in this joyful celebration.
Joy is a vital part of our Spiritual Dedication to God; for Israel this was expressed with many animal sacrifices, displaying God’s mercy according to Israel’s sacrificial system. Likewise our dedication to God today should be joyful, because he provided His Son Jesus to be the one perfect sacrifice the rest of the sacrificial system pointed to. God permanently dealt with our sin and saved us through Jesus’ death on the cross. God has provided His global Church family with people who faithfully preach the gospel of Christ. He’s given us and many other churches faithful ministers like Douglas who carry out their calling to preach Christ to God’s people regularly. He’s given us the Holy Spirit who lives in us as a seal on those he’s saved. The Spirit leads our lives, makes Scripture clear and enable us to live according to it. In his great faithfulness God makes sure that we remain in Christ, through whom the character, power and promises of God are revealed and in whom He carries us to eternity for the praise of his glorious grace.
Promise-Filled Dedication (vv.19-22)
19 On the fourteenth day of the first month, the exiles celebrated the Passover. 20 The priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean. The Levites slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles, for their relatives the priests and for themselves. 21 So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbours in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel. 22 For seven days they celebrated with joy the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria so that he assisted them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.
God is fully dedicated to keeping all his promises. All for the glory of His name He kept his promise to bring Israel out of exile. The Passover celebration was then appropriately mentioned right after the dedication of the Temple. The appropriateness was because the exile was similar Israel’s captivity in Egypt and the Exodus. The major difference was that Israel has instead become like Egypt, nevertheless, God faithfully delivered them from their idolatry through the exile. Deliverance from exile is specifically promised in Deuteronomy 30, the chapters before 30 speak of rebellion punished by exile. Chapter 30 itself is full of hope for restoration, promises of purification and renewal of their dedication to Him. Verse 21 beautifully illustrates God this exact promise fulfilled as some Israelites completely separate themselves from Gentile practices to seek God wholeheartedly. In His great mercy God even makes the king of Assyria favourable enough to support rebuilding the Temple. This very same king’s predecessor exiled the Northern kingdom of Israel. But now he was an instrument of blessing to the returned exiles of the Southern kingdom.
The Passover, especially after the exile, is a beautiful picture of what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross. The Lamb of God died in our place to perfectly and permanently deliver us from our sin and idolatry. The moment we believed in Him as our Lord God and Saviour he saved us into a new and holy way of living, fully dedicated to God who kept his promise to save us from our sins. This is clear in Romans 6(:1-14) where our call to worship came from, where Paul tells us we’ve been set free to a new life with Christ, a life in which we’re dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
We serve an indescribably good and glorious God who is dedicated to us for His glory’s sake. God provides for us physically, digitally and above all spiritually. During the toughness of the lockdown he is building and rebuilding His community. In our case he physically blessed our church with constant feeding from God’s word and physical blessings. Remember and thank God’s for His dedication, for he laid Christ as our sure foundation on which to build His Church. Joyfully reflect God’s dedication with thanksgiving for every blessing and good thing He’s given to each of us. Rejoice especially in His greatest gifts to us His Son, the Spirit, and His Word. Never forget the never-ending mercies of God we depend on each and every day.
Warren Wiersbe writes in his Introduction to the Book of Ezra: ‘“Thank God He gives us difficult things to do!” said Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest. The first time I read that statement, I shook my head in disagreement, but I was young and inexperienced then, and it seemed smarter to do the easy things that made me look successful. However, I’ve lived long enough to understand the wisdom of Chambers’ statement. I’ve learned that when God tells us to do difficult things, it’s because He wants us to grow. Unlike modern-day press agents and spin doctors, God doesn’t manufacture synthetic heroes; He grows the real thing. “The hero was a big man,” wrote Daniel Boorstin; “the celebrity is a big name.” In God’s Hall of Heroes are the names of nearly 50,000 Jews who in 538 BC left captivity in Babylon for responsibility in Jerusalem. God had called them back home to do a difficult job: to rebuild the temple and the city and restore the Jewish community in their own land. This noble venture involved a four months’ journey plus a great deal of faith, courage, and sacrifice; and even after they arrived in the Holy City, life didn’t get any easier. But as you read the inspired record, you can see the providential leading of the Lord from start to finish; and “if God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31)’”.
Not much has changed in 2500 years - what was true for Jewish believers in Ezra’s time, is still true for believers today. God is calling us to exhibit the same kind of faith, trust and courage the returning exiles had. When we look at the state of our country and our church, we are tempted to say, ‘this virus has locked us down, stopped our ministry, ended our fellowship as believers, because we cannot meet together.’ We may feel like we are in exile, with no light at the end of the tunnel and no hope in sight. However, the book of Ezra reminds us not to give up hope. Even in their darkest time as exiles, God was still faithful to his people. His purposes and plans, His preparation and provision, is much greater than we could ever imagine. As we embark on our new series “Rebuilding God’s Community”, we see how God’s Providence and Provision are already in place for those who are faithful. For very soon, our lockdown exile will end and we will come together to worship God in the same space.
1. God’s Providence vs. 1-4
God’s purposes and plans can never been distorted, diverted, or derailed by sin, Satan, or what world governments do. God’s Word tells us, God both knows and makes everything work according to His specific design. This is called God’s Providence, which is His foreknowledge and control over the events of nature, history, and humanity, to fulfil His desired objective. Nowhere in the Bible is this more evident than in God’s treatment of Israel, before, during and after the exile. God’s people have been in captivity in Babylon since the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and God’s temple by King Nebuchadnezzar almost 70 years before. They have been desperately waiting for God’s Word to be fulfilled. Ezra tells us this happened: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: “‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.’”
The book of Ezra is one of the most stunning and powerful examples of God’s Word through prophecy, being converted into history. God’s people are in Babylon, because of their stubborn, sinful and rebellious hearts. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah the prophet, had declared this would take place, because the people had rejected God. However, they also proclaimed that in the midst of despair, God would still come and comfort his people and bring them home. Isaiah said this would happen through a pagan king, named Cyrus; Jeremiah declared the people would be in exile for 70 years. So as Cyrus came to power, God’s word spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled “when seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and for fall my good promise to bring you back to this place 29:10.” The most important lessons we learn in these opening verses of Ezra, is that God’s Word can be trusted, His promises will be fulfilled, He does not and will not forget His people. Their long night of exile is over and the bright dawn of freedom is about to begin.
Nothing can stop God’s faithfulness, nothing can stop His purposes, and nothing can overturn His plans. Through Cyrus’s proclamation, we see God fulfilling His purposes and plans, the restoration of His people to the land. We see that He is the God of history, bringing all things together, perfectly, and according to His timetable. He is the God of creation, He made this world and everything in it, and so He cares what happens to it. Lastly, He is the God of humanity. He decides when nations will rise and fall, He overrules and directs all the events of the world, according to His plan and the purpose of His will. For it is God alone who has the last word in all things; neither princes, kings, governments nor any human power can stop His providential purposes from being achieved.
2. God’s Provision vs. 5-8
God’s grace will not call us, where his presence will not sustain us and his power not provide for us. God’s providence opened the heart of King Cyrus to let the exiles return home. Yet our Lord does not leave his people empty-handed, God’s preparation and provision makes it possible that His people do not return home empty-handed, they will not only survive, but they will thrive. Ezra says once Cyrus’s proclamation had gone out across his empire: “Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbours assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings. Moreover, King Cyrus brought out the articles belonging to the temple of the Lord, which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and had placed in the temple of his god. Cyrus king of Persia had them brought by Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah (vs. 5-8). God’s Spirit not only stirred the heart of Cyrus to let God’s people go, but this very same Spirit stirred the hearts of the Jewish remnant to want to return home. What this tells us is God must first prepare our hearts, through His Spirit, before He can provide for our hands.
What we notice is that even though their exile had ended only a faithful remnant, who had received God’s spirit, and responded to God’s call willing to return home. Only those people “whose heart God had moved were prepared to go.” What this tells us is, in the work of God’s kingdom, it is always God himself who takes the initiative in moving our hearts and our lives in the direction of His plans. Those Jews, who responded positively, did so in spite of great obstacles, for they knew there would be sacrifice and hardship involved when they were obedient to God’s call on their life. This was no Sunday stroll or holiday walk, this was a 1500 km journey, through dangerous territory, and at the end were ruined towns, a devastated city and demolished temple. But because God had moved their hearts, his people were willing to go. Warren Wiersbe says, “the same God who ordains the end (the rebuilding of the temple) also ordains the means to the end, in this case, are people willing to go to Judah and work.”
Once God has prepared our hearts to do His work, He can now prepare our hands to receive His provision. For God had not only delivered His people from Babylon, but He made provision for their return. He made sure all the costs for the journey were covered, so that when they settled in Jerusalem, they would not only survive but thrive. This mirrors God’s provision during the exodus: “The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians 12:35-36”. God not only provided physical provision, but spiritual as well. God had given them provision, now He gave them objects of praise, and a prince. For Cyrus released all the objects of worship, which have been taken by his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar, 70 years earlier. So that God’s people, when they returned to the land, could reinstate their worship according to His design in a rebuilt temple. But God has one more thing to give his people: “Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah,” is the Persian name of Zerubbalel the governor of Judah. God kept his word for Zerubbalel; was the grandson of King Jehoiakim a direct descendant of David, which leads us to Christ our true king. God, had prepared his people’s hearts, provided for them, spiritually, physically and politically. There exile had ended, the time of restoration for God’s people seem to be at hand.
It might seem odd to be turning to an Old Testament book for our new series. What comfort is there for us in today’s text?
Well, firstly, we learn about God’s faithfulness. When we go through our own personal times of exile, when we feel lost and alone and uncertain about what the future holds, it is easy to allow doubts to creep into our hearts. In these times Satan is especially active. He whispers in our ears that we have been forgotten and he tempts us to look to our circumstances and not to God. Yet, as in the time of Ezra, we can trust God to be faithful to his promises and not to forget his people. God is rebuilding his churches, even in this time of isolation, quarantine and COVID-19. When it feels like everything else has failed, we can be comforted by the integrity and power of God and His Word.
Secondly, God’s sovereignty over history. In the opening verses of Ezra, we might be surprised to find a pagan king, like Cyrus, issuing a proclamation which would set the wheels in motion to rebuild God’s community. Cyrus himself need not have known that it was God stirring his spirit and his thoughts. God was directing events. This teaches us to see history and current events from a divine perspective. We might look at the world around us and feel abandoned, yet God is working out his judgements and purposes in all things.
Thirdly, God’s provision can be seen in how he cares for his people. God delivered his people from Babylon, provided all the costs for the journey and the settlement in Jerusalem as well. One of God’s names in the Bible is Jehovah Jireh – the God who provides. How is this truth relevant to our lives today? Here are three ways:
God’s providential care for the world he created. As Christians, we believe God created the world and he keeps it going. Through all the processes and complex structures of nature, God provides all that is needed for life.
DL Moody said that “God does not call the equipped, he equips the called.” When God calls us to a special task or purpose, he provides what is necessary to complete the work. Be it tools, materials or man-power. We can look at how God provides helpers or workers for various church events, for example the Holiday Club or the Fete.
Lastly, God provided a Saviour in the gift of his own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. When we follow Christ, we are provided with life, instead of eternal damnation. We are given grace, peace, hope for each day. We are given power to overcome temptation, strength to overcome our weakness and the true knowledge of living faith.
Jeremy Taylor was a 17th century English cleric who was severely persecuted for his faith. But though his house was plundered, his family left destitute, his property confiscated, he continued to count the blessings he could not lose. He wrote: “They have not taken away my merry countenance, my cheerful spirit, and a good conscience; they have left me with the providence of God, and all his promises ... my hopes of Heaven, and my charity to them, too, and still I sleep and digest, I eat and drink, I read and meditate. And he that hath so many causes of joy, and so great should never choose to sit down upon his little handful of thorns.”
We have travelled a long way with Paul through his letter to the Ephesians. As we said at the beginning of our journey, when Paul wrote this letter, he was languishing in a prison in Rome. He would have every right to focus on his own problems and affairs, but just like Jeremy Taylor, Paul refuses to focus on his dire situation. Rather he counts his blessings and encourages his fellow believers. Over the past few months, we have seen how doctrine and duty, saving and serving grace operates. We have learned how to put on our defence against the darkness. As we come to our final sermon our series, “The Riches of God’s Grace,” Paul has one final encouragement to give us and the Ephesians by sending us A Believers Blessing and A Beautiful Benediction.
1. A Believers Blessing vs. 21-22
Two weeks ago, we read about the armour of God. Paul had also told the Ephesians to pray diligently and with perseverance. He asks them to also pray for him “that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains vs. 19-20a. Paul closes his letter with some final words of encouragement and a blessing for all believers. He tells the Ephesians he is sending them a messenger. “Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you vs. 21-22”. Paul knows that the Ephesians will be worried about him, for the last time he saw them was when the elders met him on the beach at Miletus. He had planted the church and lived among the people. People knew his character, conviction and his absolute commitment to Christ and to the cause of the gospel. So he sends Tychicus who has been a faithful gospel companion and fellow minister with Paul on his gospel journeys. We see his name doesn’t only appear in this letter, but in many of Paul’s other letters, for example Titus and Timothy.
His purposes in sending him to the Ephesians are twofold. Tychicus is to bring them news about Paul’s condition and what he is going through in prison in Rome. And more importantly, Paul is sending one of his best ministers to help this church, to serve them and to explain to them any parts of this letter which they might have trouble understanding, and also to look after them as a faithful minister. Following the example set by Christ, Paul is sending out ministers and disciples he has trained to serve other churches and to spread the news of the gospel. Paul wants to create deeper bonds with the Ephesians. He wants them to grow in their Christian faith and to come to a deeper understanding. In both the ancient and modern church, the three ways of forming deeper bonds are prayer, correspondence and visits. Paul has said he’s praying for the Ephesians and requested that they keep him in their prayers. Even though we are part of Trinity, we still need to pray for other churches and ministers. We need to pray that the Bible will be proclaimed faithfully and that people will come to know Christ.
Letters and messengers were the only ways of keeping in touch with other believers and churches in Paul’s day. Today we are privileged to be able to communicate with believers near and far with our telephones, cellphones, WhatsApp, YouTube videos and online meetings. We have to inform one another of the issues or struggles in our lives. That way we are better able to hold each other up in prayer and to hold each other accountable. An unknown writer stated that we should: “Practice openness and accountability. This is the one thing we desperately need the most, and the one thing we most resist. We need support. Some things in life are just too hard to do on your own. We need people to come along side of us and encourage us. Whether you are dieting, or exercising, or trying to change a bad habit in your life—we all need people in our lives to support us, encourage us, and to ask us some hard questions about whether we are really following through on our commitment to change.”
The third way is visiting. Paul has sent Tychicus to visit a far-off church. Although we cannot physically visit other believers or other churches at the moment, we can still seek to maintain our Christian communities through reaching out to others with prayer and open communication. However, when we do once again visit other churches with family or on holiday, instead of criticizing them, we should seek to be a blessing. We should seek to build bonds with other Christians and churches, as long as the basis for our unity is firmly based and grounded on the Word of God and the love of Christ. Paul sent Tychicus to be a brotherly blessing to the Ephesians and God is calling on us to be brotherly and sisterly blessings to our fellow Christians and all that we meet.
2. A Beautiful Benediction vs. 23-24
The beginning of Ephesians started with a greeting of blessing. Paul said: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ 1:2.” He ends his letter with a similar benediction. Although at first glance this may appear to be just a normal benediction, the type we hear every week in church, this final greeting actually contains three statements which are half prayer and half wishes. It also brings together all the major points of Paul’s letter and reminds the believers to hold to the teachings he has expounded in the earlier chapters.
The First prayer-wish is “Peace to the brothers and sisters vs. 23a.” Paul has preached on unity and how to live peacefully in human relationships. Even though we should have no expectation of a peace treaty with the devil and keep our armour firmly fastened, we should seek peace with fellow believers. In Christ, there should be no division between believers, because we are part of the same body. The peace which Paul speaks about here is Shalom, or well-being. It comes from being set free from our former lives and being reconciled to Christ. This peace should be lived out in our relationship with God and others.
The Second prayer-wish is “love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ vs. 23b.” Paul tells us, God has shown His love for us through election, by calling a people out of the darkness and into the light, through the work of Christ on the cross and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit’s as the source of this powerful life-giving love. He has sketched for us the expression of this love, through us and in us, in chapters 3-5 in this letter. Paul has also made it plainly clear that faith is not something which is naturally inherent to people, for we are all spiritually dead and insensitive to God. Our default setting is sin. But praise be to God for He has given us faith, through raising us from death, redeeming us from a sinful prison, setting us free and adopting us as co-heirs with Christ into His family.
The Third prayer-wish is a blessing for the whole church. Paul closes by saying: “Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love vs. 24.” This statement characterises his readers and all believers in terms of their love for Christ. God’s grace to us is incomparable, as a response we should worship God completely and live out the love of Christ in our lives. Even when the world tempts us to doubt the goodness, love, and grace of God, we have to stand fast and hold on to the love of Christ. When we truly grasp the magnitude of the riches of God’s grace and the reason for Christ’s death on the cross, we come to a point of response. When Christ’s love is received, it is met with an answering love, which is incorruptible, cannot die, and will last for eternity.
There are four words here that Paul has included in his benediction and of which we should take note: peace, love, faith, and grace. The two that stand out are peace and grace. Peace has been a major theme of this letter. Peace in the sense of reconciliation with God and one another is the great achievement of Christ. Our sermon series has focussed on “The Riches of God’s Grace” to the church. Grace is the way and the reason why this has been done. Paul’s wish in this letter was that these believers would be a family of brothers and sisters in Christ. He says this family goes beyond age, race, class, and sex. His final wish is that members of this family may live in harmony, peace and love with Jesus Christ and with one another.
Throughout this letter, we have traced the theme of “The Riches of God’s Grace” seen through our doctrine and duty, our riches and responsibilities in Christ. We have been taken to the heights of spiritual ecstasy and to the lows of human depravity. Also the need for the gospel to be proclaimed to every heart. This gospel brings peace, love, unity, faith, and grace. For the head of the church has always been Christ, is Christ, and will forever be Christ. Until He returns to make His church complete and has taken us home to be with him.
At the moment we may be facing extraordinary challenges, worries, anxieties and pressures. We might be feeling isolated, burdened, heavy-laden and depressed. Yet, these final words of Ephesians give us both a blueprint for how to keep in touch with other believers and encouragement for every day. The gospel is our eternal hope, a blessing in difficult times, and a strong boat in the midst of the storm. When you feel things are becoming too much, turn your eyes towards Jesus, the one who said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls 11:28”.
Paul’s beautiful benediction is not only a summary of the entire book of Ephesians, but also a prayer for our Christian life and commitment to following Christ. So, church – arise! Put on your armour, stand firm and follow Christ, our Captain, Lord, and Victor. May Paul’s opening and closing words be the cry of our hearts today: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ... Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love.
Romans chapter 8 is all about salvation, and it’s one of the most stunning passages in the Bible that deals with salvation. I can only stand in awe of how God inspired and somehow squeezed such rich doctrine into only 39 verses. As we come to God’s Word this morning, our focus will be verses 31-39. However, to understand the final few verses, we must understand what came before. We receive a hint to this: since Paul began v.31 with this question “What then shall we say in response to these things,” he expected every person in the church of Rome to know what has been spoken about so far. And so, we have to understand what Romans 8 is all about. It neatly divides into three sections.
The first section of Romans 8 is contained in verses 1 through 17, this is where Paul speaks about the Holy Spirit’s work in saving us. In brief terms this is what we are told: that the moment we were saved the Holy Spirit freed us from the laws of sin and death, also through Him we can put our own sinful deeds and desires to death. We’re also is given some of His other names to help us understand what He does. He is the Spirit of Christ, this means He comes from Jesus. He is also the Spirit of Adoption, who proves to believers that we’re the children of God and we’ll inherit all things in eternity with Jesus Christ.
Section 2 is found in verses 18-30, and though it firmly latches onto the previously mentioned doctrine, it mainly speaks about our destiny as believers. We’re told a day will come when the glory of Jesus will be revealed in us. In the meantime, we eagerly wait for Him in this world while enduring suffering. In addition to this, God’s whole creation waits like a woman in labour pains for the day we’ll be glorified with Christ. And in the final bit of vv.18-30, we’re told that God chose each person who would belong to him and who would be glorified with Christ. These doctrines are really beautiful and powerful. However, we still find ourselves in a world that offers very little security and lots of uncertainty. That’s why Paul asks, “What then shall we say in response to these things?” And after this he asks more questions in verses 31-39 for us to understand our steadfast salvation which comes from a steadfast Lord, who is steadfast in His love.
A Steadfast Lord (vv.31-34)
31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
From the get-go Paul asks three compelling questions. I’d like for you to imagine they’re all asked in a courtroom-like setting. Because Paul’s intention is to disprove things which seem to threaten the security of a true believer’s salvation. You’ll see how each question assures the Christian that God has steadfastly saved them through the Death and Resurrection of Christ.
Question number one, “If God is for us who can be against us?” Here we receive a hint telling us God (the judge in the courtroom) has shown favour to us. The proof is that God gave His only Son up to save us. Part two of that proof is another question, Paul asks “why will he not give us all things?” God has already given us the very best thing He could, the Lord Jesus Christ. If He provided our greatest need, justification through Jesus, why wouldn’t He then provide our every other need or make us co-inheritors of universe together with Jesus. God can meet all our needs, they can be spiritual, physical, mental, emotional or anything else. God has given us the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of Adoption, who testifies that we are the sons and daughters of the living God. God is not like a bad father who refuses to provide for his children, nor is he like a good father would who’d do his best to provide. God is a perfect Holy Father who will meet all our needs until we are with him in glory one day.
The second question is “Who can bring a charge against us?” The answer to this is short, sweet and powerful “It is God who justifies,” literally Paul states God is the one who declares people righteous. Just like in a courtroom God is the judge, he declares that we’re not guilty because of Jesus and no one and nothing external can claim our salvation is fake. Jesus said a person’s fruit may prove that they weren’t saved in the first place, however, nothing can prove that salvation is anything but steadfast. God is invested in our salvation; He made a covenant with us by giving the life of His only Son to justify us. He has never and will never go back on His Word. So for his own name’s sake, He won’t condemn us. If he did his salvation would be a failure and God would be an unrighteous judge.
Jesus tells a parable about an unrighteous judge in Luke 18 who brings justice for a widow after she nags him to help her. He used this story to make the point that this is not what God is like, instead He’s perfect and righteous, never delaying justice for us, His chosen people. For all true followers of Christ, the justice of God for us is to make us righteous because He gave Jesus who died in our place and paid for our sin.
Now comes question three: “Who is it that condemns us?” The only possible answer is “No one,” because if God will never call us guilty, then honestly no one can make us guilty. What Paul said so far is already enough, yet he drives the point home saying that not only will God never change His mind, but Jesus is also praying for us. Romans 8:26 says that the Holy Spirit is also praying for us with deep groaning. So, we find ourselves perfectly represented before God the Father by the two other persons of the Triune God. So Jesus and the Spirit are praying for us, but what are they praying for? I’d like to think Jesus in prays for us similarly to how he prayed for Peter in Luke 22:31-32. He prayed for Peter’s faith not to fall apart, rather it should be kept strong in order to strengthen the faith of the other disciples. Likewise, the Spirit prays when we’re weak and don’t know what to pray for. Isn’t it encouraging to know that God wants our faith to be strengthened and to last so that we can help grow others in the faith? And by the prayers of Christ and the Spirit, He will lovingly provide all we need for this to happen.
A Steadfast Love
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The second half of this section is marked by v.35. From this point on everything is about Jesus and God the Father’s steadfast love. Paul carries on asking some questions to assure us that our salvation is steadfast. Question four is “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” And it’s quickly followed up by question five: “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” These questions must be answered together, and Paul does this in an interesting way. He quotes from Psalm 44:22 which says: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” At the end of the Psalm, God’s people cry out for His steadfast love, this is the exact same love of Christ that we cannot be separated from.
Circumstances, opposition and suffering can never change or remove Jesus’ love for us. Instead, the Bible clearly tells us to expect trials and suffering. Being a Christian means people could hate us, constantly make trouble for us, threaten our jobs or even kill us. In fact, we’re given reasons to be glad for suffering. Romans 8:17-18 says that part of salvation is sharing in Christ’s sufferings, so that we’ll share in His glory which will be revealed in us one day.
In response to what suffering Christians go through, God gets Paul to be creative by saying we’re “more than conquerors through him who loved us” or literally super-conquerors, through Jesus who loved us. Like what was mentioned in our call to worship, Jesus overcame the world, so we become super-conquerors like He is. God then convinced Paul that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This conclusion has missed nothing in creation and is absolutely rock solid, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Salvation is so solid that only a member of the Trinity can separate us from the love of Christ. However, the Trinity will never do so, because they’re all in agreement that they will never reverse the believer’s salvation. Remember, our God is a steadfast God who is steadfast in His love for us and so our salvation is steadfast.
It’s important that we remember all these things. That our God is steadfast, and His love is steadfast. Life is overloaded with uncertainty. Planning and preparing are wonderful things to do, even so we can be taken by surprise. God hasn’t given us complete knowledge of the future, but He has given us a completely secure salvation that leads to a completely secure glory in Christ. And should anyone trust in His Son, He will make them irreversibly righteous. If you’ve already believed in His Son, then know your justification cannot be taken away by anyone or anything. Keep believing in Jesus and know that nothing in all creation can separate us from His love. Through His power and love we are super-conquerors, victorious over suffering, death, life, all of creation and all circumstances. Global pandemics and people can never change this steadfast salvation. Let’s read God’s word, pray for each other, grow in faith and assurance of faith. May God’s steadfastness become part of us all, both in our love and our actions toward one another.
As Christians journeying through this world, we are often confronted with evil that suddenly comes out of nowhere and threatens our everyday life. We are often pushed back and afraid when it is something we can’t see clearly or understand. What does God want us to do when we are faced with evil threats? Martin Luther wrote: “(Christians) must be warriors, always equipped with their armour and weapons, and that the lot of a Christian is no leisurely existence, nor one of peace and security; rather he is always on campaign, attacking and defending his positions. . . ‘(you) are in my army and under my flag; see to it that you are on the look-out for the enemy, ready to defend yourselves against his angels, for he is never far away from you.’ As long as you do that, you need have no fear.” Our enemy may be relentless, but our God has not left us defenceless.
As Christians, we are always to be at the ready, standing together as a unified army, clothed in the armour of God; for our adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. At times, our battles come from without; proclaiming and defending the truth of the gospel to a world that does not want to hear it proclaimed. But sometimes our battles come from within our Christian community where we are called to battle against heresy, false teachings, and the compromising of the gospel to conform to this sinful world. As we continue our series “The Riches of God’s Grace” in Ephesians, we have seen how we should behave as Christians within the church. Now Paul turns to another pressing matter, how do we face spiritual dangers. His answer: the grace which God has given us through Christ gives us the power to face our enemies. To stand firm in the victory Christ has won on the cross, Paul says we need to know three things about this battle. We need to understand the Darkness, use our Defences and then our Dependence must be on God. Only then can we hope to stand firm for Christ as the battle rages on.
1. Darkness vs. 10-12
The key to victory in any military campaign is intelligence. Therefore, the intelligence corps in any army is vitally important. In the same way, Paul in these opening verses gives us an intelligence report on our adversary, the Prince of darkness. His report does not focus on the person of the devil, because all of us know who he is and what he does. Instead he focuses on the tools and strategies that the devil chooses to employ against us. Paul tells us to “stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms vs. 11b-12.” The devil's strategy is straightforward; he wants to keep believers away from worshipping God. He does this through lies and deception. He plays on our weaknesses and our pride, and he makes us believe that our way is the best way to accomplish things. He twists the Word of God to suit his purposes. The devil's name means the father of lies; he takes God’s good things and twists them, and in so doing leads us astray from worshipping God. The devil uses our sin and pride to drive a wedge between us and God.
Like any good military commander, the devil has many troops under his command; these minions of Satan do not make themselves openly visible. Rather they work through human agents, using Satan's tools of deception to wreak havoc upon this world. A spiritual battle is being waged in the realm of the heavenlies. We are part of this battle. When we walk each day in victory, in faith, we are doing our part in this epic conflict. Although the devil uses some human agents, knowingly or unknowingly, to further his plans, it is important to remember that our battle is also taking place on a spiritual front. Now, I’m not saying there is a devil behind every bush or that every person who opposes you is working for the devil. No, rather it is important to realise our bigger part in both the physical and spiritual realms. Christ has already defeated our greatest foe. We already walk in victory, and we are called to stand our ground and defend that which has already been won. Knowing how Satan uses these tools and strategies to bring about his plans in the world, is our first line of defence against our adversary.
2. Defence vs. 13-17
Since our enemy is spiritual, we need spiritual weapons and faith to defeat him. Therefore, our Defence against the devil is to “Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground vs. 13a.” The armour of God consists of six pieces. Paul draws his imagery of the armour of God from the equipment which Roman legionaries carried in his day. Every piece of the armour is vitally important, so if we want to stand firm against the devil, we must use every piece.
The First Piece is “Belt of truth buckled around your waist vs. 14a.” Satan is the Prince of lies, therefore, the only way to defeat him is always to speak the truth. The belt held all the pieces of the legionary’s armour together. In the same way, the truth of the gospel integrates all the other pieces of God’s spiritual armour. A man or woman of truth will be able to face whatever Satan can throw at them. However as soon as lies and deception creep into our Christian lives, we are quickly brought down. Just telling a little white lie, or maybe even turning a blind eye to a lie told by someone else. Perhaps gossiping about others, without knowing the truth of the matter. The belt also held the legionary’s sword. Without speaking the truth, we cannot rightly handle the Bible which is the Word of truth.
The Second Piece is the “Breastplate of righteousness in place vs. 14b.” The breastplate was made up of metal links or chains, which covered the soldier's body from the neck right down to his waist. This symbolises both the righteousness of Christ, which is dwelling in us, and in the life which we live. The devil cannot attack the Christian who is living a godly life through the power of the Holy Spirit. How we live our lives will either fortify us against the devil or give him a foothold. It is when we are at our weakest, the devil will try to deceive us, and make us believe we are not saved. This is when we are to remember that on the cross Jesus paid for our sins and His righteous blood has brought reconciliation and restoration between us and God. Therefore, if the lives we live, do not line up with the truth in Christ, it makes us vulnerable to the devil's attacks.
The Third Piece is “Feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace vs. 15.” Soldiers in the Roman army wore sandals with hob nails in their soles; this allowed them to have a much firmer footing in battle. In the same way, if we are going to hold up under the withering assault of Satan, then we need to be wearing the shoes of the gospel. The gospel of peace, which Jesus bought for us on the cross with God, means we need not fear the attacks of men or Satan. We need to have peace with God, and each other, if we are going to defeat Satan. By wearing the shoes of the gospel, we are also required to take this good news to the world. The victorious Christian life is only possible through the sharing and proclaiming of the life, death and resurrection of our commander-in-chief, Jesus Christ. The book of Isaiah says ‘“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, Your God reigns 52:7 !”’
The Fourth Piece is the “Shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one vs. 16.” The shield was nearly as big and wide as a door, made of wood and covered in tough leather. As the soldier carried it into battle, it protected him from missile weapons, such as spears, flaming arrows and darts. The edges of the shields were constructed in such a way that the soldiers could interlock their shields to create an impenetrable wall, which protected them from all sides as they marched into battle. This implies for us as believers, we are not in the battle alone and therefore need to protect each other. This is not saving faith, but rather a living faith, which means trusting in the promises and power of God. This shield of faith will protect us, when Satan fires his flaming arrows at us. These could be blasphemous thoughts about God, hateful feelings towards others around us, doubt about God's goodness, and the burning desire of sin. Perhaps being tempted not to stand for Biblical truth both inside and outside the church. If we do not recognise these attacks, and deal with them swiftly, they will lead us away from obeying God.
The Fifth Piece is the “Helmet of salvation vs. 17a.” The helmet worn by the Roman soldiers protected them from fatal head wounds. Paul is emphasising the necessity of being a thinking Christian. This implies that we need to be spending time daily delving into God's Word. We need to know the great doctrines of the Bible, in order to protect our minds from all Satan’s schemes. We need to be thinking and wrestling with our faith and putting into to practice in every aspect of our lives. You know the old saying, the battle is won or lost in the mind, and this is so true when it comes to our faith.
We now come, to the Final Piece of the Armour, the “Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God vs. 17b.” The Roman gladius was a short double-edged sword, used by the soldiers in hand to hand combat. It was revolutionary for its time. In the same way, Paul tells us that we are to take up the Word of God as our sword. This is the only piece of the armour which is designed for attack and not defence. Often the best form of defence is a good offence. It is through the proclaiming of God’s Word Satan’s strongholds in this world are demolished and the love of Christ opens people’s hearts to be brought back into a relationship with God. Hebrews makes this point: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart 4:12”. Whereas a physical sword can only become duller over time, the Word of God becomes sharper and clearer the more you use it.
3. Dependence vs. 18-20
The armour of God is held together by dependence on God’s power through prayer. We are called to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people vs. 18.” This means all of our prayers need to be led by the Holy Spirit, allowing him to guide us in glorifying God, confessing our sins, thanking the Lord for the blessings we have received and asking God to help us. So often the prayers of believers are a long list, do this or that, rather than being led by the Spirit. Paul also says we can pray on all occasions, which means that throughout the day we need to be in constant communion with God, not just in our quiet times. We need to be listening to the voice of God, and bringing our petitions before the throne of God. We need to be praying for others, lifting them up before God, praying for those in physical or spiritual need, praying for those who are doing missions work in other countries, praying for our ministers, and all those in leadership positions. Therefore, let us know our enemy, put on God's armour, and stand together through prayer, so that we may walk in Christ’s victory.
St Patrick’s Breastplate so beautifully ties this together. May this become our battle cry: “I arise today, through God's strength to pilot me, God’s might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me, God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me, God’s shield to protect me, God's host to save me from snares of devils, from temptation of vices, from everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and near.”
How many of us were afraid of the dark when we are little? How many of us still are? In an interview, Stephen King, a horror author, was asked about his daily writing routine. He said that he only wrote in the morning. When asked if he ever wrote at night, he replied: “Are you kidding? Not with the stuff I write.” Apparently, even he knows the power of darkness. How many of us have walked through a dark room and tripped over something we did not see? How many times could we have avoided the problem if we had just turned on the light? How many times in our spiritual lives could we have avoided tripping over some obstacle that caused us to stumble, simply by shining the light of Jesus upon it? We have a choice in life, do we walk in the light of the Lord, or do we allow ourselves to walk in darkness?
As we continue with our series “The Riches of God’s Grace,” in Ephesians, we have already seen how God’s grace must radiate out of us, through what we believe and how we behave. Today Paul calls on us afresh to remember to walk in the manner worthy of the grace given to us. Through the cross, Christ our Saviour has made us sons and daughters of the living God. Our lives must demonstrate that the light of the Lord dwells within our hearts. This light will banish the darkness of sin in our own lives. His light shining out of our hearts will also call others to follow Jesus Christ, the light of the world. So, it is imperative, as children of the living God, we must be Walking in the Light and Walking in the Lord.
1. Walking in the Light vs. 8-14
Often we talk about the way a person walks to describe who they are, their emotional state and what they believe. Therefore, as children of God, Paul says we need to be constantly Walking in the Light. Paul begins by reminding us: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord vs. 8-10”. As we look at the world in which we live, we are confronted and depressed by how sinful and dark it is. Hate, violence, abuse, lies and injustice seem to surround us. We watch as men and women are rushing headlong into eternal damnation. Their lives and actions are so devoid of light that they are not only in darkness, but darkness itself.
Before we judge others for their sins, we should remember we too walked in and were darkness, before the light Christ shone into our lives. Yet now through Christ, we are light in the Lord and citizens of the kingdom of light. Therefore, we are called to walk as children of light.
Walking in the light must be evidenced by the fruits of the light. We have turned away from falsehood and deceit, and fallen in love with truth. Our hearts cannot go after that which it sinful, because something inside of us screams ‘this is wrong!’ Our greatest desire must be to worship God and to serve Him with every part of our hearts, minds, and souls. This is what it means to walk as children of light. As Peter says in his first letter: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light 2:9.”
We must be an example of God’s light, as well as expose the fruitless works of darkness. When driving along a stretch of dark highway, we often put our bright lights on to avoid any potential hazards. When we shine our lights on the road, we can see far ahead. That which is invisible, through the power of the light, becomes visible. This is the same reason Paul says to us “everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you vs. 13-14.” Paul is not backing down; he says one of the fundamental tasks of being a Christian is to proclaim the light of the gospel, which drives sin from this world. Not because of our power, but because of Christ’s. Therefore, we are not to turn a blind eye to the sins which surround us. We must expose sin for what it is, including corruption, child abuse, poverty, and social injustice, and I can list a hundred more.
The power of this light is not only seen in exposing sins, but it also brings life. In verse 14, Paul is quoting a Christian hymn which was often used in Biblical times when believers were baptised. This hymn symbolised through the waters of baptism, a person died to their old way of thinking, living, speaking and acting, and was raised to new life in Christ. Therefore, as believers, we are called to hold each other accountable before God. We must not have a judgemental or condemning attitude, but if we see our brother or sister walking into sin, stepping dangerously close to disaster, we are to call them back in love. James tells us: “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins vs. 19-20”.
2. Walking in the Lord vs. 15-21
We have been called to walk as children of the light and to use our light to reflect God’s glory, but we can do none of this if we do not know God’s will for our lives. Walking in the light must naturally lead to consistently walking in the Lord and finding out what His priorities are for our lives. Paul tells us this can be accomplished in two ways.
Firstly, through the Wisdom of the Lord. “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is vs. 15-17.” To walk in wisdom here means to walk carefully or circumspectly. To judge every step we take. To weigh our lives against the wisdom of God and to use this knowledge to plot the purpose and direction of our lives. By spending time in prayer and in God’s work, we are equipped for the good works God has prepared for us. God has allotted all the days of our lives, He has set them before us, and he wants us to use our time wisely, to glorify Him. You know the old saying: Idle hands are the devil’s playground. When we do not know what to do with our time and how to glorify God, we tend to spend time on sinful passions. For example, think how much time one can spend on a cellphone, on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and games, without really accomplishing anything. I’m not saying God does not want us to rest and relax. He clearly tells us in His Word to rest, but there is a huge difference between rest and idleness. We must organise our lives in such a way so we can maximise our productive faith. What we hear preached on a Sunday should not just remain head knowledge, but we should put it into practice in our daily lives. Even during this pandemic, there is still good works to be done, grace to be given, words of encouragement to speak, hope to share. This is grace in action. This is the wisdom of the Lord.
Secondly, through the worship of the Lord. Worship is the climax of walking in the Lord for Paul. He says: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ vs. 18-21.” The only way in which we can worship the Lord is if we are filled with the Holy Spirit. For this is the truest evidence God is at work in our lives. Many of us at Trinity can give intellectual assent to the Christian faith, but it requires the infilling of God’s Spirit which renews and regenerates our hearts to make this faith real. Paul hones in on a particular sin which was as prevalent in his day, as it is in ours. The sin of drunkenness. Now I’m not saying it is wrong to have a beer with friends or a glass of wine with dinner. But what Paul is saying is look at what happens to a person when they’re drunk or under the influence of drugs or other mind-altering substances. People under the influence act differently, talk differently, and perceive the world differently. It even affects the way they walk. In the same way, only when we are filled to overflowing with the Spirit of God, we will act, talk, walk, and perceive the world differently, all in a positive and life-changing way. When we are filled with the Spirit, we will overflow with love, not only for God, but for those around us. We will want to build each other up as believers, not break each other down. Being filled with Spirit has four natural implications for the worship of God and our fellowship with other Christians, which can be seen in this passage.
1. We are to engage in Christian fellowship by “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit.” The spirit of God does not divide believers, but bridges all gaps to bring us together in unity. We are all part of the body and we have to constantly strive to seek unity with other believers.
2. We should “sing and make music from your heart to the Lord”. We have to continually praise and worship God. We have to praise Him in the good times and the bad. In the brightest morning and the darkest night. We stand in awe of this magnificent star-breathing God, and all we can do is worship him.
3. We should be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.” Christians filled with the Spirit are thankful and trust God. In fact, many psychologists are studying the positive effects that a life of gratitude has. People who are grateful tend to have improved physical and psychological health. It enhances empathy, promotes sleep and self-esteem. When we are grateful and thankful to God, it makes a massive difference in our lives. Several passages in the Bible speak about rejoicing and practicing thankfulness for all we receive from God. We should not complain and moan about everything which happens; rather we believe God is in control and He will work all things for our good. We must trust if Jesus brought us to it, He will bring us through it, no matter what situation we face. In Philippians, it says: “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again: rejoice. 4:4.” Let our hearts sing new songs of praise to the Lord everyday.
4. We should “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” We have to treat each other with respect, love, and compassion. We should be considerate towards all, knowing no one is greater and all are equal. We should treat fellow-believers in a way which is pleasing to God, even when we get angry or hurt or have disagreements. We should always strive to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Part of respecting others is to do all we can as individuals to keep each other healthy, to stop the spread of this virus, and caring for each other during this pandemic.
Paul reminds us the Christian life is more than we sometimes assume. It’s more than just proclaiming Christ; it’s also walking in the light of the Lord. We are called to live lives which brightly shine in this dark world. It’s not enough to just talk the talk, but everyday we have to walk in a way which is pleasing to God. At the moment, many of us are still stuck inside our homes or complexes. It might feel impossible to truly live life. It feels like our real lives are on hold. We are waiting for 2020 to pass. We are waiting out this storm. We sit inside and complain about how much we miss this or that. Yet, this shouldn’t be the case. Let us open our eyes to the many blessings and opportunities God provides on a daily basis. Rejoice always! My challenge is that we might each find new ways this week to rejoice and to follow God. Maybe it will help you to keep a gratitude diary and thank God for each of the things you are thankful for. Maybe you can reach out to someone in need with material help. Maybe there is someone you can call and pray for. May our lives burn so brightly that everyone will see the light of the Lord blazing with each step we take.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a prisoner in Russia. He was on a program of hard labour and slow salvation. One day he felt like giving up. He felt his life could not make a difference. He sat down on a bench, knowing that when he was spotted by a guard, he would be ordered back to work, when he failed to respond the guard would bludgeon him to death. As he sat waiting, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he lifted his eyes. Next to him sat an old man with a wrinkled, utterly expressionless face. Hunched over, the old man drew a stick through the sand at Solzhenitsyn’s feet, deliberately tracing out the sign of the cross. As Solzhenitsyn stared at the rough outline, his entire perspective shifted. Yet in that moment, he knew that the hope of all mankind was represented by that simple cross - and through its power, anything was possible. Solzhenitsyn slowly got up, picked up his shovel and went back to work - not knowing that his writings on truth and freedom would one day enflame the whole world.
Christ alone gives us the courage to love, live and be light to the world. Christ gives us the strength to face a myriad of trials in our lives. But Christ also expects believers to live holy and honourable lives which bring glory to his name. This is Paul’s point - if we have Christ in us, there is no room left for our former way of thinking, lives, or sins. We must be either for Christ or against him; there can be no middle ground. Christ must have all of us, or none of us. When we become Christians, every part of our lives belongs to him.
We come to our next sermon in our series “The Riches of God’s Grace” given to all faithful followers of Christ. We have seen the benefits of saving grace, now we come to the behaviours connected to serving grace. Paul tells us the power of Christ’s saving love must lead to us to Reflect his glory; we must Refrain from sinful behaviour and Radiate his light and love to all we meet. We must be able to say, and people must see Christ in us: the hope of glory. He is our everything.
1. Love Reflects vs. 1-2
Up to this point in the letter, Paul has been speaking of God’s grace towards believers and His church. In Chapter 4, we were called to walk in a manner worthy of the unifying grace we have received, by reflecting Christ’s loving salvation to those around us. The opening verses of this chapter binds together all Paul has been speaking about. Christ’s sacrificial love on the cross has brought unity, not only within the church, but also within the hearts of believers. So in the light of this great love, Paul says we are to “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God vs. 1-2”.
We have all been in situations where we have heard children using inappropriate language or seen bad behaviour. If we are honest with ourselves, our first reaction is to wonder what kind of example his or her parents are setting for them. Often, their inappropriate behaviour or language is a direct reflection on their parents. In the same way, our behaviour must reflect our Saviour. We are called to be imitators of God. This means that God’s values, God’s thinking; God’s ways must become our ways. Our union with Christ must be reflected in our actions. So for us to be imitators of God, it means that we must reflect His glory, His power, but most of all, Christ in us. In the book of Leviticus, God commands his people: “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy 11:44a.” Our lives must imitate, reflect, or copy the character of God. R.C. Sproul says: “An imitation is a copy based upon an authentic original. The authentic fountainhead, the original source of righteousness is God himself, and God’s people are called to bear witness to the original and to the authentic… As the sons and daughters of God, we are to reflect the character of our parent, our heavenly Father”.
The attitude of our hearts must be reflected in our actions. We know the way a person walks indicates a great deal about his purpose and character. So we are told to walk in love, since Christ loved us first. He demonstrated this love by dying on the cross for our sins. Because of Christ’s loving, sin-bearing sacrifice for us, we must reflect this love in every aspect of our lives and, in so doing, we will show that we are children of God. Love is the fundamental characteristic of the Christian life.
Love Refrains vs. 3-5
Paul has called us to imitate Christ and reflect His saving love in the way we live our lives. Now, he tells us that love doesn’t just tell us what to do, but also what not to do. True faith and love calls us to refrain from former sinful behaviour. Paul is pretty explicit in his warning to us: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 3-4.” Paul is not calling us to sinless perfection, because we will all struggle with sin this side of heaven. But if we claim to love Christ, with all of our heart and mind, then we cannot be involved in our former sins or our former lives. Theoretically, we have left these things behind us. It is interesting that Paul links three very visible sins together. Sexual immorality, greed, and foul language. There is a myriad more sins which we can add here, but these three are specifically named, since they break down the unity in the body of Christ which impairs our witness to the world.
Sexual immorality is defined as any form of sexual behaviour outside the God-given covenant of marriage. Greed is when we want something which belongs to someone else. It is breaking the tenth commandment. Foul or crude language is any language which promotes sinful behaviour and breaks down other people. Paul is very clearly telling us to steer clear of these types of actions.
We don’t follow Biblical laws because of fear, or some rigid sense of tradition. Instead we follow these laws because we love God and we are called to be holy, as He is holy. This seems like an impossible command. Many of us battle temptation every day. We have a swear word at the tip of our tongues when another driver cuts in front of us. Coveting things has never been easier with numerous online shops. How do we continue to fight against our old sins? Remember this, whenever we are faced by the temptation to sin, we should stop and ask ourselves: which is more important, temptation or Jesus? For we cannot claim to love Christ and live in sin. The way to counteract all these temptations is to continuously give praise, worship and honour to God. If our eyes are focussed on Him, they will not be fixated on sin.
Paul tells us that if we claim to be Christians and yet these sins are prevalent, this is the outcome: “No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God vs. 5” This seems to be contradictory to what the Bible has taught us about the love of God and His grace towards us. If a person proclaims Christ, but their lifestyle is characterised by consistent, habitual, repeatable sins, with no effort to turn away from these, the question has to be asked – has this person truly received Jesus into their heart? Do they have saving faith? If I am repeatedly sinning, am I saved? This is what Paul means by being outside the kingdom of God, because that person was never truly in it in the first place. They only thought they were. This sounds harsh to us, but the reality is that profession of faith must be accompanied by concrete action. As Christians, we cannot judge another’s person’s heart, but the Bible tells does us we shall know them by their fruits, in other words, their actions.
Love Radiates vs. 6-8
We have seen that love reflects Christ and refrains from evil. Paul now echoes the words of Jesus – the light from a city on a hill cannot be hidden. It radiates out to all around. In the same way, our love for Christ must radiate out of us and banish the darkness both within and without. Paul says: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light vs. 6-8” There are many preachers today, who in order to get people into their churches, will downplay sin. They will tell you about all the benefits of following Christ, without mentioning the cost of discipleship. They will sell you Jesus as Saviour, but leave out the fact that he needs to be Lord of our lives. If we allow ourselves to be deceived by these preachers, Paul tells us we too face the very real possibility of being judged in the same way they will be. So we are not to partner with them, to walk with them, to listen to them. They are heretics and false prophets.
Instead, we need to listen to the full counsel of God, preached from our pulpit. As we read the Scriptures every day, we must allow it to be the light that exposes the darkness of our hearts. For as our earlier story tells us, because of a simple and powerful cross, all mankind was rescued from darkness. The cross banished the power of sin and its penalty from the world and more importantly from the human heart. Paul does not say that we lived in darkness. Instead, in our former lives, we were darkness. It was the black darkness of our hearts that brought about our just condemnation. However, we are no longer darkness, but we are light in the Lord. Jesus said in Matthew “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven 5:16”. So, we are called to let this light shine out of us. It must radiate out of us, people must see that we are different. For light and darkness cannot exist in our hearts at the same time. Only Jesus, the Lord of light can banish the darkness. Let His light shine into your hearts anew this morning. So that His light may radiate out of our lives and point all we meet to the Lord of light.
When we give our lives to Jesus and allow His light to radiate out of us, our lives change irreversibly. When we give up our old sins, our former lives and our past, there may be consequences. We might have to say goodbye to some former friends, to old habits and to familiar haunts. On the other hand, we find unexpected joys and an eternal hope. We find new friends in church and at Fellowship groups. We find ways of giving back to our community and outreaches. We find new ways of worship and joyous celebration. We find an unlimited treasure chest in the Bible, we find wisdom and answers to the hardest questions. We find peace in our darkest moments. We find that we are saved for a future glory, but also for a new life, right here, right now.
F.B. Meyer writes: “When I was in Tasmania, I was shown a great mountain range on which was a vast lake, fifty-two miles in circumference. The overflow yielded a perennial waterfall of a thousand feet, the force of which was translated into electricity which made light and power cheap for great factories and for domestic needs. It seemed to me, as I thought about it, that the great sheet of water resembled the Love of God, in its longing to help mankind; that the descending waterfall might be taken to illustrate the Incarnation of our Saviour, who was the Sent-One of the Eternal Trinity; and that the electric current, invisible but mighty, was typical of the Holy Spirit, who brings to our hearts the Light and Power of the Divine Nature. The lesson is obvious, that as the manufacturer or the scientist invents machinery to meet the conditions on which alone the electric current can do its work, so must we learn to adapt ourselves to receive and transmit the power and light of God, which comes to us through our union with Jesus.”
Let us live each day, radiating the life, love, and light of Jesus Christ.