I hope you had a good Easter. Our family went up to the top of McClure Pass for the sunrise yesterday. What a great place to sing some songs and to read Matthew 28. It was nice.
Today, we are starting our all-church Bible reading of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. You should have gotten the reading plan in our semi-weekly email on Friday. Basically, it’s a chapter per week except for Sundays when we’ll read two chapters. So today is Ezra 1.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah record some of the last events of Old Testament times. The people of Israel had lived for hundreds of years in the Promised Land before they were conquered by other nations. This was God’s discipline for Israel’s disobedience to God’s commandments.
The people of the northern kingdom of Israel were conquered first, by the Assyrians. The people of the southern kingdom, known as Judah, were spared during that invasion (although it was a close call). But they later were conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BC. At that time, Jerusalem was destroyed – along with the temple and the city walls. And most of the people were carried off into exile.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah record the return of the Israelites from that exile. This is sometimes referred to as Israel’s “postexilic” period. The book of Ezra focuses on the rebuilding of the temple and the renewed focus on the teaching of God’s law to the people, and the book of Nehemiah focuses on the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. The two books are combined in the Hebrew Old Testament. Together, they are kind of like the sequel to what happened in 1-2 Chronicles.
So that’s the context when the story is picked up in Ezra 1 during the reign of Cyrus, king of Persia. King Cyrus invaded and conquered Babylon in about 540 BC and issued an edict in 538 BC – about 50 years after the destruction of Jerusalem – for the rebuilding of the temple. The first six chapters of Ezra cover a span of about 20 years following that edict. (Cyrus is talked about in Isaiah 45. Read it when you get a chance.)
If you haven’t read Ezra 1, read it now. Be prayerful about it. Look for words or ideas or phrases that catch your attention. Spend some time there.
As I prayed through Ezra 1, my eyes settled on the two instances where God was doing some “stirring.” The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus to make his proclamation about the rebuilding of the temple. And God stirred up the leaders of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, as well as the priests and the Levites, to go rebuild the temple.
This was the initiative of God. It wasn’t their idea. Cyrus didn’t dream this up on his own. The leaders of exiled Israel didn’t hatch this plan by themselves. This was God’s doing.
And God had set his sights on Jerusalem and the rubble in that city that once was the temple. This new thing God was doing was focused on the temple – the “house” of the Lord.
I can’t read that without thinking about what we just read in Matthew’s Gospel – more than 500 years after the start of the book of Ezra – when Jesus lamented over Jerusalem and predicted the destruction of the temple – again!
And that made me think about the “temple” of God. Ever since God rescued his people from Egypt, his interactions with his people always had a central meeting point. First, it was the mobile tabernacle that traveled with the people through the wilderness. Then it was the temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem, and Cyrus had rebuilt there. And, finally, the central meeting point was Jesus Christ and his church. (We ought not to read the Old Testament without considering its place in the full story of the gospel.)
In Ezra 1, God was making plans for a rebuilt temple for his people – a new place of worship and holy interaction. This is a God who wants to meet with us. He wants there to be an avenue for us to reach out to him.
And God stirred up the heart of a pagan king, and he stirred up the hearts of some leaders of the faith (who likely were discouraged), to build a holy meeting place. This was God’s original desire – not theirs. This is the God we worship. He takes the initiative.
It was out of that same initiative that sent Jesus to be born in that stable in Bethlehem and to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God and to die on the cross and to rise again. Jesus became the ultimate temple of God. And that temple remains in place in the form of the church.
The apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Paul was writing to the church – a body of believers built by God’s own initiative to carry on the work of Christ until Jesus’ return. God wants his temple to remain holy, to continue to be built up, and to be a place (a people!) where the world can come as it seeks to reach out to God.
So these are the thoughts that I had as I read Ezra 1. It feels kind of like I went far afield – all the way into 1 Corinthians! But I don’t think so. The Old Testament and New are bound together by Christ, and the God who orchestrated the rebuilding of the temple is the same God who sent the Son to build the permanent temple – not a physical building but a physical people.
So what does it mean for me? Today, I feel a kind of sadness in my soul. I’ve felt this since the start of our stay-at-home order. We just had an Easter of no church services. We could spectate services online, but it’s just not the same. The church is still a people of flesh and blood – not usernames. Whether we want to admit it or not, the church in America and across the world is getting a good rattling – a testing. This is how I feel about it. You may feel differently, and I respect that.
These are hard times for the church, for the temple of God. And yet, our future is as secure as it ever has been. We serve the God who stirs up hearts, who has a vision for a holy temple, who sacrificed himself on the cross to make that temple a reality – and to defeat death once and for all.