Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Better than Ezra?

While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly. Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.”
Ezra 10:1-4

It's hard for me to read about Ezra in the Bible without thinking of the band Better than Ezra. I am fairly certain that their name has nothing to do with the Ezra of the Bible but if it does that would be a real challenge. Ezra provides such a strong example for believers to live up to that it would be hard to do much better than he did. Ezra was a man who held God's Word in high regard and dedicated himself to it. Could that be said of you? Ezra 7:10 says, "For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel." He was passionate about keeping God's commands and teaching Israel to do the same. He was sent by the Persian King Artaxerxes to help rebuild the temple and ensure that God's laws and the king's laws were being kept. As soon as Ezra arrives back in Judah some of the leaders come to him to confess that the people have fallen into sin (9:1-4). They have started marrying foreign women from the surrounding nations. Ezra's response to their sin changed everything.

But before we turn to look at Ezra's response we must pause to consider the people's sin. It can be hard to understand from a New Testament perspective and it sounds offensive to post-modern ears to say that marrying foreign women is a sin. It's very important that we read Scripture carefully. The problem wasn't really that these Jewish men were marrying women with a different skin color or language. The Bible isn't against interracial marriage. The problem is that these women didn't worship God. At this time in history only Jews worshiped God. Thus, the Old Testament often uses the term "foreign" in way that is synonymous with idol-worshiper. Still not convinced? It is clear from Scripture that God has no qualm with marrying a foreigner who converts to Judaism. Ruth was a foreign woman as was Rahab. Yet both of them received the Jewish God as their God, both married Jewish men, and both are in the family line of Christ Jesus Himself. The problem wasn't that Jews were marrying Gentiles but that they were marrying idol worshipers. People who worshiped other gods were being brought into the people of Israel. This brought the whole company under the threat of God's judgment. It also brought significant risk that these women would entice their husbands away from worshiping the one true God to worshiping idols. (Even the wise King Solomon fell into this trap.) So then the issue at hand is not interracial marriage but being unequally yoked in marriage with an unbeliever, which the New Testament itself also speaks out against. (2 Cor. 6:14-18)

Ezra's response to their sin is truly instructive. He does not yell in anger. Nor does he call an assembly to quote the Bible to them. Ezra simply mourned over the sin of the people and went before God on their behalf. He mourned because he knew God's judgment could break out against all of Judah. But I believe he also mourned for God because his people were throwing His offer of forgiveness and grace back in His face. Ezra's righteous mourning opened their eyes to the seriousness of their sin. It had such an effect on his people that they not only freely confessed their sin and joined him in mourning over it but they also became willing to put their sin away. Do you mourn over the sin of those around you? Have you ever considered how much of an impact your response to sin can have on those around you? What if your lost friend at work based his opinion of Christianity on your response to sin in the office, would he become a Christian? If your child's future walk with the Lord depended on your response to the sin in music, TV, and the movies that you watch, would you expect her to be a strong believer twenty years from now? The righteous life and righteous response of a few can have a big impact on our society. Even when our world disagrees with us over sin, a righteous response to sin can give them reason to think, to reconsider their beliefs. So today I encourage you to mourn over sin. Mourn over your own sin and the sin of others. Mourn over how our culture celebrates it. Mourn for those who will face judgment apart from the grace available in Jesus. Mourn for our God who deserves all glory yet is all too often met with disrespect and contempt.

For further reading...
  • 1 Cor. 7:12-16- It should be noted that the New Testament doesn't advocate divorcing our unbelieving spouses. This is in part due to the possibility that some of us may have married prior to coming to Christ, but it is also because your marriage to a non-believer doesn't endanger the entire nation like it did for the Old Testament people of God. 
  • 2 Cor. 6:14-18- Christians are specifically instructed, however, not to marry non-believers.
  • Exodus 12:43-49- Part of the Old Testament law that makes provision for foreigners to become a part of the people of God. Circumcision was the sign of God's covenant with His people, so prior to Christ being circumcised was how one entered into that covenant with God and joined His people.

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