Trust the Word of God and Trust the Power of God
1. Biblical Theology
I went through many years of theological training without picking up the basic ideas of Biblical Theology. I had been ordained for 17 years, before the light began to dawn. It came about in 1987, when I was Vicar of St Jude's Carlton in Melbourne, Australia. I had organised a teaching week for the church, arranged to do Bible studies on Isaiah 40-55, and also invited Peter Jensen, then of Principal Moore College, to give five talks on ‘The God who saves'. Midway through the week, after hearing one of my Bible studies on Isaiah, Peter asked me if I had ever studied Biblical Theology. I confessed my ignorance, received a three-hour tutorial, and then went to my study to rewrite my remaining talks on Isaiah! This showed that I had been among the many who have been ‘foolish and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.'
Since then, I have tried to make up for lost time, and read and studied as much as I have been able. Now I am Principal of Ridley College in Melbourne, and here I teach Theology. I have tried to integrate Biblical Theology into the Theology course, by tackling each subject of Theology from the perspective of Biblical Theology, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology. By this method we learn to use the Bible in theology, and to apply what we learn to life and ministry in the church and in the world. We also teach a course in Biblical Theology, and try to include this perspective in our study of Old and New Testament.
2. Ezra and Nehemiah
I try to study and teach one new Bible book a year [new to me, that is!], and for 2004 I chose Ezra and Nehemiah. I spent a month working on these books, then preached them each week in College Chapel, and also used them when speaking or preaching at conferences and missionary conventions. They are a delight! And at least the people hearing me have not been able to say that they have heard it all before! Some have heard series in leadership from Nehemiah, but no one has claimed to have heard a series on Ezra! I have been so enriched by these books, and hope that they have been a source of growth and edification for others. Early in my ministry I began files on every book of the Bible (I should have done so when I was a theological student or before), and now add material and references to them whenever possible.
I am involved in training preachers and speaking at conferences for preachers, and I have been very encouraged to discover the role of Expository Preaching in the early church, for example in John Chrysostom, which was then rediscovered at the Reformation by Zwingli, Luther and Calvin, and was such a strong feature of Reformed and Puritan ministry . It has been a joy to see expository preaching renewed and rediscovered in the 20th Century by such preachers as Martin Lloyd Jones, John Stott, Willie Still, and Dick Lucas. Both Expository Preaching and Biblical Theology are devices to help us to hear the full message of the Bible. Expository Preaching enables us to hear the full message of the Bible in its literary context, and Biblical Theology enables us to hear the full message of the Bible in its unfolding theology.
One journal article that I have found especially illuminating is by Richard Gaffin, in which he points out that it was Geerhardus Vos who in modern times brought together Reformed Theology and Biblical Theology, thus uncovering the flow as well as the shape of the theology of the Bible .
Ezra Chapter One
1. Its place in the bible
Ezra chapter one marks a crucial moment in Old Testament history, and therefore in the unfolding revelation of God in the Scriptures. While God has fulfilled his promises to Abraham of a people and a land when he brings them out of Egypt, through the wilderness and into the land, their blessing, security and rest in the land are insecure, because this security in the land depends on their obedience to the instructions of God. If they obey, they will be blessed; if they do not obey, they will suffer God's curse.
And both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28-30 contain the alternatives of blessing and curse, and also the Gospel promise that if they disobey God, receive his curse, and are scattered into exile among the nations, even then God's purpose will be revealed in the promise of forgiveness, return, and reformation . In the succeeding books of the Bible, we can see this promised curse being worked out, as the people continue to disobey God. The exile of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, is then followed by the exile of the Southern Kingdom to Babylon. This downward movement is clearly seen in both Samuel/Kings and Chronicles. However both Kings and Chronicles end with signs of God's grace: Kings ends with the story of the generous treatment of King Jehoiachin in exile in Babylon, and Chronicles ends with the rise of Cyrus and the reminder of the promise through Jeremiah, words that are repeated at the beginning of Ezra.
So Chronicles 36 includes both the reason for the exile (‘they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD became so great that here was no remedy' v. 16), but also the promise of return in the last two verses. Ezra 1 then begins the narrative of that return, which fulfils the promise of God made in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (see Nehemiah 1:8,9), marks the events which led to the return from exile to Jerusalem, but also begins to show that all God's promises do not reach their fulfilment within the Old Testament, as the OT ends without all that God promised being fulfilled.
As God's people have been scattered, so God begins to gather them. This gathering of the people of God will be further achieved in the gathering of the nations to faith in Jesus Christ, and finally in the gathering of the elect by the angels at the return of Christ. So Ezra 1 is a great moment of hope in the Bible: God has scattered his people in judgement and wrath, and now begins to gather them in his mercy. Ezra and Nehemiah are an account of the work of God in bringing his people back from Babylon, of his attempts to reform his people, of his gracious work among them, and of their continued sins against him. Sadly, the people of God are still in a mess as the book of Nehemiah ends in chapter 13. A Biblical Theology of the failure of the religion of Moses, even re-invigorated by Ezra, leads us to hope for God's gracious work through Christ for us, and through his Spirit in us.
2. Its Narrative Shape
As we have seen, the chapter begins with the repetition and expansion of the last verses of 2 Chronicles, which place the events in the reign of King Cyrus (judgment and hope are both present in that name: judgement because there is no King in Judah, and hope because of the prophecies of return), and show that Cyrus' actions fulfil God's word and promise. Cyrus' proclamation are given in vv. 2-4, and then we have how these words were accomplished in the actions of the heads of families of Judah in getting ready to return v.5, the actions of their neighbours in giving gifts to aid their return, v.6, and actions of King Cyrus returning the temple vessels, so that the exiles can take them back to Jerusalem, and eventually use them in the rebuilt temple.
Key phrases and words in the chapter include ‘the first year of King Cyrus'; ‘the word of the LORD'; ‘the LORD stirred up the spirit' used of God's action within Cyrus in v. 1, and of God's work among the heads of families in v. 5; the actions people with achieve God's plan [of Cyrus, the heads of families, the neighbours, and Mithredath and Sheshbazzar); and the repeated references to the temple or house of God (vv. 2, 3, 4,5,7) and to the vessels of the house of God (vv. 7-11).
As I preached two sermons on Ezra 1, this first sermon focuses mainly on verses 1- 5, and the second sermon focussed on verses 6-11. In this latter sermon I followed the temple vessels through their idolatrous abuse by Belshazzar in Daniel 5, to their return to Jerusalem, and the rebuilding of the temple as ‘a visible sign of the Christ to come', in Calvin's fine phrase, later fulfilled in Christ and his cross-work (John 2 and Hebrews).
3. What it is not about
It is not about a general sense of hope for people in trouble. For it is not about any nation, but about the people of God, that ‘priestly kingdom and holy nation' (Exodus 19:6). We must stick with particularity of God's choice of Abraham's true descendants. The inheritors of this story are the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ.
It is not a promise that God will return all refugees to their homeland. While there is evidence in the Bible that God allocates particular lands to particular peoples (e.g. Deuteronomy 2:20-22, Acts 17:26), there is no promise that he will ensure that refugees today will return to their homelands. (Though helping refugees who want to return home is no doubt a good work, and very worthwhile).
It is not about the need to provide gold and silver vessels for Christian liturgy. The temple of God in the New Testament is the person of God, and the people of God (1 Corinthians 6:19, and 3:16). It is not about God's willingness to restore and forgive the individual believer. Most books of the Bible are addressed to the people of God, rather than to individual believers. This is how we should interpret and preach them. This is obvious when Paul addresses his letters to ‘the saints'. Even when he addresses his letters to Timothy, they are lessons for the church (Philemon is the exception!). We should understand Luke's greeting to Theophilus to be a literary convention, rather than an exclusive address. So the main concern of the Bible is not how the individual lives his or her Christian life, but is the corporate life of the people of God.
It is not about believers following their hunches about what God plans to do in their lives. We should not confuse the sure words of Biblical prophets who have stood in the council of God, like Jeremiah (Jeremiah 23: 22), and our words, which even if inspired, need to be tested (1 Corinthians 14:29).
4. What it is about
Ezra and Nehemiah are of obvious significance to the people of God today:
- The believers, the people of God in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah are our ancestors in the faith. Both books are keenly aware of the connections between their ancestors and themselves: as we have been grafted into the people of God, the people of God in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah become our ancestors, and their ancestors become ours as well. The unity of the people of God is a key to Biblical Theology . Their story is our history.
- The exile was a time when the sins of the people of God had been punished, and the return from exile marks their new beginning. They have been through death and resurrection (see Ezekiel 37). This theme of death and resurrection is complementary to the idea that it is the ‘good figs' (Jeremiah 24) who are taken off into exile and then brought back, or that there is a remnant saved by grace (Romans 11:1-6). We too are shaped by the judgement of sin and offer of forgiveness in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. So we too are God's people by grace.
- The focus of Ezra and Nehemiah is on the welfare of the people of God, This is a useful corrective to our focus on individual salvation. We too should be concerned about the welfare of the people of God, the bride of Christ, the temple of God's Holy Spirit. Most of the Bible books are addressed to churches, or are about the welfare of churches, the people of God. Ezra and Nehemiah demonstrate this concern and this passion. At Ridley we are training workers for Gospel ministry and future leaders for churches. Our academic work is a means to an end, and that end is usefulness to God in ministry. Our students need a passion for the welfare of God's people, and a firm conviction that God will persist with his people, despite our many failings, as God persisted with the people of God in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
SERMON - Trust the Word of God and trust the power of God
[Preached on 17 February 2004, to open the Ridley College year, and also to begin a Chapel sermon series on Ezra and Nehemiah. Bible reading: Ezra 1.]
What I want you to learn from Ezra chapter 1 is a very simple message, a very straightforward message. It is this, when God's people are in a mess, trust the Word of God, and trust the power of God. When God's people are in a mess, trust the Word of God, and trust the power of God.
Beginning with the Application
There are many different ways of bringing out the implications of a text for a congregation . The most conventional way is to explain the text, and then apply it at the end of the sermon. It is also possible to apply on the way through the sermon, with a section of text explained and then applied. It is also possible to begin with the application, and that is what I have done in this sermon. The advantages of this method are obvious:
- It provides clarity about the meaning of the text and the sermon
- It gives a clear unity to the sermon
- The relevance of the application provides motivation for paying attention to the text and listening to the sermon
- The restatement of the application at the end of the sermon need not be so extended as the point has already been made, so it can have a more dramatic and succinct ending.
(I think that book of Revelation is structured this way, with the application found in chapter 2 and 3, and briefly restated in chapter 22). However it is important to vary sermons in this as in other ways, as it would lose its impact if done in every sermon.
I have the great good fortune to be a natural pessimist so I can start every sermon on a gloomy note!
And its true isn't it, good things are happening around Melbourne and around Victoria and around Australia and around the world, but you would still have to say, overall, God's people are in a bit of a pickle if not a total mess at present.
A very old friend of the college came to see me yesterday and he asked, "Why isn't Ridley producing people who are effective in working class and welfare class ministry?" It is a great question isn't it? He said Ridley graduates do well in the middle class areas of Melbourne but "where is the great work that Ridley graduates are doing among young people in working class and welfare class suburbs of Melbourne?" You would have to say that area of our life is not in good shape, you would have to say wouldn't you that public profile of Christian believers and of the churches in the West is not very good. There is lots of hypocrisy, lots of scandal. You would have to say of the church in the West, that it is marked by heresy, apathy, legalism and hypocrisy. I'm afraid it is also true in many parts of the church in the 2/3rds world as well.
You could think of the failure of the church, the mess the people of God are in, as the failure of the church. That's right, we have lost our birth right, we have lost our sense of purpose, we have become inward looking, we have failed to bring God's love to the world.
But if the church has failed, if there is a failure of the church, there is also the triumph of the world. That is, secularism as a way of life seems to have triumphed in the West and if people do turn to religion, it seems to be uniformly to wrong religions. But if the church has failed and the world has triumphed in corrupting or destroying or marginalising the church, then we have to see in all of this, not only the failure of the church and the triumph of the world but the judgement of God. If you look at the letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 you will see that the closure of a church marks the judgement of God.
Now you may not feel the mess very deeply, but I keep on meeting people who do feel the mess very deeply. I keep on meeting ministers who are profoundly discouraged by the gap between what they profess and their congregations profess and the reality of the life of the congregation. That's a mess. And I keep on meeting lay people who say "I am frustrated out of my brain with my local church, it is not going anywhere, I am thinking of leaving if I can find a better church", I say, "Best of luck, here is a list, you can start here and do your best." People do feel that some how the church isn't functioning as well as it should, or to put the case more dramatically in my language, the people of God are in a mess. Which is why I find the book of Ezra such a great book, because in chapter 1, we find the people of God in a mess. They are of course, as you will remember, in exile in Babylon; they have been taken to Babylon and they are in exile well away from their land, the temple has been destroyed and they are under the judgement of God. Feel the force and impact of the first few words of Ezra.
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia. What has happened to the Kings of Israel and Kings of Judah? Why are we being dated by a pagan King? Has false religion won the day? Well it looks like it. Cyrus as you might know was the King of Elam, and then conquered Persia, and then Assyria, and finally conquered Babylon in 539 BC, and although he is described here as the King Cyrus of Persia this is the first year of his reign in Babylon. He was one of the great heroes of the ancient world. But the naming of King Cyrus warns us that there is no King in Jerusalem. God's great promise that a descendant of David would sit his throne in Jerusalem has collapsed. The people of God have failed, that the world has triumphed, and the judgement of God is seen clearly in the midst of the people of God. There is no King, God's rule has been suspended, or has failed.
But not only is there no king in Jerusalem, but the temple has been destroyed. Notice how often the edict of Cyrus includes the reference to the house of God at Jerusalem in Judah end of verse 2; end of verse 3, to rebuild the house of the Lord; end of verse 4, for the house of God in Jerusalem, and in verse 5 the people got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. Not only was there no descendant of David reigning in Jerusalem in the place which God had chosen, but there was no temple, no house of God. What had been lost when the temple was destroyed? The promise of God in the words of the covenant, the presence of God on the mercy seat, the forgiveness of God in the offering of sacrifices, and fellowship with God through the participation in those sacrifices. Jerusalem was the place which God had said that he would ‘make his name to live there'. It was of that dwelling place that God had said, ‘make me a sanctuary that I may live among my people.'
But where is Jerusalem? Where is the temple? Destroyed. Where are the priests? In Babylon. Where are the vessels? In Babylon. Where are the people of God? In exile in Babylon. This is the people of God at rock bottom in the Old Testament isn't it! The failure of the Church; and the triumph of the world; and the judgement of God. Just turn back to the last chapter of 2 Chronicles and you will see explained very clearly why it happened. 2 Chronicles 36, 15, The Lord, the God of our ancestors said persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But what happened? They kept mocking the messengers of God, despising His Words, scoffing at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy. Don't just think of the people of God and exile because of the failure of a political system or of a triumph of the King of Babylon. No it was because the wrath of the Lord was so great that there was no remedy for it. The people ignored the Word of God through prophets, and so they met the wrath of God.
Preaching the Land Today
In this sermon I do not deal with the controversial issue of what we should do with the OT promises about the promised land. I do this in a later sermon in the series, as I am frequently asked questions about this issue when I preach from the OT. In order to show a Biblical Theology of the land, I usually point to Hebrews 11:8-16 (backed up by 1 Peter 1:4), and show that even in the OT the land was understood to be a pale reflection of ‘a better country, that is a heavenly one', and a sign of ‘the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God' (Hebrews 11:16, 10). So while we might think that the OT is largely concerned with real estate, true believers like Abraham (Hebrews 11: 13 ‘all of these died in faith, without having received what was promised') looked beyond the land to what the land represented. This idea is also expressed in terms of Jerusalem in Galatians 4, Hebrews 12, and Revelation 21, 22.
When God's people are in a mess what should they do? I love those words of the Sri Lankan theologian D. T. Niles that ‘Hope lies amidst the ruins of our expectations'. What should we do when God's people are in a mess? What should we do when they are saying in the words in Ezekiel 37, Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost and we are cut off?
Well the answer is trust the Word of God. Ezra 1:1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia in order that the Word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord set up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout his kingdom and also a written edict declaring his policy of repatriation. So why do people return? Answer, it is that the Word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled. It is because God's words never fail. It is because God's words never fall to the ground. It is because all the promises of God are fulfilled by a faithful God.
Why haven't we heard more about Jesus? - The role AND MESSAGE of the Old Testament
Let me outline and explain my viewpoint on this subject. I realise that it is a matter of great debate within the Biblical Theology movement.
The first argument is from the New Testament's use of the Old Testament. From 2 Timothy 3: 16-18, I find that there are at least two Christian ‘uses' of the Old Testament.
- The Old Testament's message is that of ‘salvation through faith in Christ Jesus'.
- The Old Testament books are inspired, and are therefore ‘useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness'. Of course we should expect to find the Gospel of Christ in the Old Testament. However it is not ‘moralising' to find material in the Old Testament for ‘teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness'.
We find this dual use clearly exemplified in Hebrews, where Moses, for example, is both a person in Salvation History, with a clear and distinct role (Hebrews 3), and also an example of faith, among many others (Hebrews 11). Similarly in Hebrews 13:5, the author uses a quotation from Joshua 1, with God's promise, "I will never leave you or forsake you', and applies it to all believers. This dual use is also found in 1 Peter, where the Old Testament words, ‘by his wounds yo have been healed' from Isaiah 53 are applied to Christ in 2:24. However in 3:10-12, the words of Psalm 34 are applied directly to believers. If the New Testament uses the Old Testament in both of these ways, then it cannot be wrong for us to do the same. To put it positively, our use of the OT should reflect the way in which the NT uses it.
Paul expresses the same truth in 1 Corinthians 10:1:13, which include both a Christological interpretation of the supernatural manna and the water of the wilderness wanderings, and also a practical application for believers about how their lives should be challenged and changed by the record of other events of the wilderness wanderings, such as God's judgement on idolatry and sexual immorality, and on putting God to the test, and complaining. Paul twice uses the language of ‘example' to explain his use to the OT. In v. 6 we read, ‘these things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did', and in v. 11, ‘these things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.' It is theologically appropriate for the NT writers to address us using the OT, because we are inheritors of OT promises, the true descendants of Abraham as we trust the promises of God; we are part of the one new humanity reconciled in one body through the cross of Christ, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel (Galatians 3, Ephesians 2 and 3).
So the first argument for using the OT to apply to our Christian lives comes from the practice of the NT. The second argument asserts the same truth, by means of a theological argument. This argument concerns what we mean by ‘salvation through faith in Christ Jesus', or ‘the Gospel', or the ‘Christ-centred nature of Scripture'. My argument here is those statements are useful for describing the heart or centre of the meaning of Scripture, a useful theological shorthand to ensure that we do not miss the heart of God's revelation. Here is the irreducible minimum of the Gospel, faith in Christ Jesus.
However, it is not the only question worth asking. We might also ask, ‘What is the full revelation of God in the Bible?' or ‘What is all the truth that God has revealed?' or ‘What does the Gospel achieve in the life of the people of God?' And the answer to these questions includes how we know God our heavenly Father, how we should live as the people of God, how God transforms us by his power, what kind of people God is making us, and how God works in the world in his creation of it and in his sovereign power. To make the same point in a slightly different way, the Gospel not only makes us believers in Christ, but also shows us who God is, how to trust our heavenly Father, how to live as the people of God, and the shape of our Christian lives. This sermon is the first of two sermons on Ezra 1. In this first sermon, I focus on verses 1-6, and the application is on how believers in those had nothing to hang onto other than the word and power of God, and that God can revive a dead church under judgement. In the second sermon on Ezra 1, I focussed on verses 6-11, and also picked up the repeated references to the temple/house of God in vv. 2,3,4,5. I applied the temple and the temple vessels as signs of the Christ to come, and used the ‘shadow - substance' language of Colossians 2:17, and the arguments of Hebrews, to show that the temple was ‘the visible sign of the Christ to come' (Calvin), or ‘a dry run for the incarnation' (Adam). So the two sermons together met the two purposes of the OT scripture outlined in 2 Timothy 3, pointing to salvation through faith in Christ, and training people in righteousness. I think it is a mistake to make the same application of every OT sermon, as it dulls the hearers, does not do justice to the gift of God of the OT, and misses its intended impact in our lives. The Old Testament, like the new, trains us in righteousness, that we might be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Let's look at Jeremiah chapter 51 and you will find there the prophecy of Jeremiah which is probably referred to in Ezra 1:1. Jeremiah has of course prophesied the exile and here he is prophesying the return from the exile. Thus says the Lord "I am going to stir up a destructive wind against Babylon, I'll send winnowers to Babylon and they shall winnow her, they shall empty her land and they come against her every side on the day of trouble." Look at verse 5; Israel and Judah have not been forsaken by their God, the Lord of hosts though their land is full of guilt before the Holy One of Israel. And here is the warning to flee from Babylon, verse 6, Flee from the midst of Babylon, save your lives each of you do not perish because of her guilt for this is the time of the Lord's vengeance he is repaying her what is due. Babylon was a golden cup in the Lords hand, that is, God was using Babylon making all the earth drunken. The nations drank of her wine, so the nations went mad. But now with the rise of Cyrus, whom God has raised up, Babylon has fallen, has shattered, wait for her, bring balm for her wound, perhaps she may be healed. Or verse 11, the Lord has stood up the spirit of the Kings of the Medes, because his purposes for using Babylon is to destroy it. For that is the vengeance of the Lord. Vengeance for his temple. Raise the standard against the walls of Babylon.
So though the people had not obeyed the Word of God through the prophets it is the word of a prophet, which will bring them salvation. It is the fulfilment of God's word through Jeremiah, which will lead to Cyrus' decision to return the people from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. You might think back to Isaiah 45 verse 1, thus says the Lord to his anointed Cyrus, or Deuteronomy chapter 30, from your exile to the ends of the world, there I will gather you and bring you back. So why are the people returning? The plain answer is the Word of God. It is by trusting the Word of God that they will again find their land, rebuild their temple and find their identity again in the place of Gods choosing.
Why was it written?
It helps to be clear about how we place ourselves in Biblical narratives. The original audience of a letter is the people to whom it was written, for example the believers at Corinth. However with a Biblical narrative there are, so to speak, two ‘original audiences': the first is those people described in the narrative, e.g. Joshua and the people of God in his day, or the disciples, Nicodemus, the woman at the well. These are the people to whom the words of the narrative are spoken. The second original audience is those for whom the words were recorded or written. It is a simple but clear distinction, and a very useful one for preachers. For when the words are written, they are already in the process of being re-used for later believers, and we are more like those original readers than we are like those original hearers. Why was Ezra 1 written? It was not written for the people described in Ezra 1 at the time. It was written for later generations of God's people, and possible for any of the believers described in Ezra 1 who were still alive, to remind them of how God had worked, how God had fulfilled his promises. So a useful rule for preaching narrative is to put ourselves in the sandals for those for whom the words were written, not those to whom they were spoken. So rather than putting ourselves in the sandals of the disciples, we should put ourselves in the place of those for whom the Gospels were written. This works as much in the Gospels and Acts, as it does in the narrative books of the OT.
But those of you who know the book of Jeremiah might also know that knowing the true Word of God was quite difficult in Jeremiah's day. If you read through Jeremiah 23 you will find the majority of prophets were lying prophets. The majority of people who pretended to speak for God, weren't speaking for God, they hadn't listened to God, not like Jeremiah. So when God's people are in a mess. It is very important to trust the true Word of God and not a deceptive word of God, not a false word of God, not a word of a lying prophet.
The True Word of God
I put this in order to signal to people that we should not treat our own spiritual hunches as having the same theological weight as the words of Jeremiah. A Biblical Theology of Old Testament prophets will save us from this mistake.
When God's people are in a mess, trust the Word of God and trust the power of God. Notice what God does to Cyrus in Ezra 1:1 The Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus in Persia so that he sent a herald throughout the kingdom and also the written edict declaring his plan to return the people. Well look at verse 5, The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin and all the priests and Levites, everyone who's spirit God had stirred. You see, what happens is that God's plan, God's stirring of Cyrus led to Cyrus' policy of repatriating all the peoples captured by the Babylonians. It is an extraordinary powerful example of God using an unbeliever to achieve his purpose. You should never think to yourself ‘I am not good enough for God to use'. Because God can even use Cyrus for his good purposes. Here is a wonderful quotation from Cyrus: ‘Let all the gods who I have brought to their cities pray daily to Bel and Nabu for lengths of days'. Cyrus' plan is to back as many horses as possible; he wouldn't do very well in Melbourne Cup. But what he wants to do is to send everybody back to their place so that they will have their own temple and their own gods in the right place to pray to his gods. With all those gods on side he thinks he must win the day. That is the trouble with being a polytheist believing in many gods. You have to get them all onside, we only have to worry about one God! If you are a polytheist you have to actually get every god on side and that is exactly what Cyrus is doing. Well what happens, the power of God achieves the Word of God or you might put it this way, the Word of God works. What God promises he fulfils. So the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus, that is he stirred up that unbeliever and he also stirred up his own people. That was a miracle too. To go up and rebuilt the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. Everyone whose spirit God had stirred, verse 5.
One extraordinary thing of reading through Ezra and Nehemiah is that the return from Babylon is described rather like the exodus from Egypt, it is a new exodus. The return from exile in Babylon is a new exodus. You might remember the miracles of the first exodus from Egypt, miracles like, the killing of the first born and the river turning to blood and the separating of the seas so the people go through, and then the coming back of the seas so all the Egyptians are killed. But the miracles of the return from exile are rather different. They are not kind of big nature miracles if you like, they are more internal miracles when God changes Cyrus' mind and when God changes the mind of the people of God to make them return. What an interesting contrast. Here are powerful miracles being worked by God to achieve his purpose, miracles within people to change their will, to make them do something they would not otherwise had done. That is how the power of God works in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Some Biblical Theology
I included this section because it helps to explain the significance of the gifts of the neighbours of gold and silver in Ezra 1:6 as an echo of Exodus 12: 35,6, and because I wanted to alert people to expect some patterns of God's actions in the Bible, which contain both similarities and differences. The return from exile is described in the language of the exodus in Isaiah; the plagues on the land of Egypt are types of the plagues on the whole world in Revelation; the destruction of the world by flood is a type of the destruction by fire in 2 Peter 3. If people are alert to some of these patterns, they will then see more clearly the character of God reflected in these repeated actions (mercy, judgement), and also see that the Bible contains not a series of unconnected actions, but a coherent story, that covers both OT and NT. They will also be more able to grasp the ways in which Christ is the climax of the big works of God in salvation history. I develop this theme later in the sermon series. I try to show various aspects of Biblical Theology throughout the sermon series, rather than packing it all into one or every sermon. Ideally it should surface naturally from the text, rather than being imposed on it.
When God's people are in a mess, trust the Word of God, and trust the power of God to achieve his Word.
When I was just a young Christian I was given a book by John Stott called "Christ the Controversialist". Which had a profound effect on me as a young believer and a person thinking about ministry. What John Stott does in the book is to give a number of accounts of the debate that Jesus has with the Pharisees and Sadducees and people of his day and he points out the message the controversy that Jesus had with them. Do you remember the account of Jesus debate with the Sadducees? He not only tells them they are wrong, he tells them why they are wrong, You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. Don't know the Scriptures or the power of God! Interesting isn't it. Because way back in Ezra's day, people have to trust the Word of God and the power of God.
Old Testament and New Testament: One Word of God
I take every opportunity to show the unity of OT and NT, (while also pointing to the development in revelation), because I find that many assume that they have a different message, and therefore the OT is out of date. As I try to show, the people of God are called to faith in the Word of God and in the power of God. This example of Jesus and the Sadducees is particularly useful, because it shows Jesus explaining to them how they should have interpreted the OT. This helps us interpret the OT, and also claims the OT as a Christian book, and Jesus as the definitive interpreter of the OT, and definitive teacher about the reality of God. A Biblical Theology of the Bible as one word of God, is fundamental to preaching the OT .
Now I watch Christians today specialising in one or the other. Either the Word of God, get that right, go to Old Testament, do New Testament, get the Word of God right; or you must know the power of God. But often people who are very good in the Word of God don't seem to have much trust in the power of God to achieve his Word. Isn't that ironic! When actually what the Word of God does is tell you about the power of God as plainly as it can. Then there are others who don't know much about the Word of God but do trust the power of God. Well God has mercy on all of us, despite our ignorance of his Word and of his power. God is a gracious God. Not that there is a kind of theology test at the end, you know, if we haven't got it all right then God doesn't use us. What we need you see, friends, is both a certainty about the true Word of God and also believe that the God who has spoken these words will then use his power. God uses his great power to achieve his great words. God's words work.
Word and Power
I am running a campaign to try to get students and ministers who know their Bibles to avoid the danger of being Evangelical deists, who think they have the book of instructions, and so don't need the power of God. I am also running a campaign to get believers who are very excited about the power of God to read, study, and teach the Bible. I am also here trying to meet the expectations of both ‘moderns' (Is it true?) and ‘postmoderns' (Does it work?). The answer is that God is true, and God does work.
And that is why it is so important and so exciting to be involved in front-line Christian ministry while you're studying, because in a class room you see the Word of God, but you don't often see the power God. You may pray for it to get through an exam you know that might be the power of God but it is rather more exciting to see the power of God in someone's conversion isn't it? That is always such an encouragement. Or seeing a sinner turn away from sin and begin to serve God again and dramatic sign of God's power, or seeing somebody healed or a great answer to prayer which you have been praying for years, and finally God answers their prayer. You see what we have in Ezra chapter 1 is the Word of God through the mouth of Jeremiah and of the power of God. The Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, the Lord stirred up the spirit of the people, the heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred up got up and ready to go and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. And we need to have that certainty about the Word of God the truth of God the trustworthiness of God the faithfulness of God and the power of God to achieve what his Word has promised. The power of God achieves the Word of God or we might put it, the Word of God works. Not only is it true and authoritative and trustworthy, but it works. The word of God will be achieved: the power of God will achieve the word of God.
Some people in churches and some people in ministry are temperamentally unable to face the problems of their church or of their ministry. They are whistling in the dark, unable to think of the fact that their church has entirely lost contact with their local community. They won't face that reality, they think we have a nice little club we like meeting together and they ignore the thousands outside the walls who never come through the door. They don't face the problem, that is not only the problem of the world, but also a problem of the church, but they have been so introverted, so inward looking, so selfish, so self-centred that they have not brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to anybody in their community.
But as you may know and as I know very well, facing the problem can lead you to despair. You might want to change a church but getting a church to change is a very different exercise. You might have a great youth group, but making your youth group outward looking is a very difficult exercise indeed. So here it is from Ezra chapter 1, when God's people are in a mess what can we do? Where can we turn? What should we think? What should we pray? When God's people are in a mess trust the Word of God, here it is, trust the Word of God and trust the power of God because the God who has promised will certainly fulfil all his promises in the Lord Jesus Christ. No wonder those early Christian leaders wanted to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word, as we read in Acts 6.
Again I have shown the common theme of OT and NT, that of God's word and God's power. It is here reflected in Acts 6. It also appears in Ezra 7, where Ezra studies, does and teaches the law of Moses (he knows God's words), and is also one on whom ‘the gracious hand of God' rested (God's power).
I remember my last day of school very vividly, for two reasons. One was the headmaster said to me ‘you'll be back next year because you will fail'. That was pretty encouraging, and I thank him for it. I just scraped through and I wasn't back the next year, thank goodness, for I was quite sick of the school and they were sick of me too. The other thing I remember about my last day of school is the visiting old boy, who gave a speech. What he hoped for was that we would have successful lives and that everything would go really well for us for most of our lives, we would be prosperous, and remember the school in our will. But unfortunately life isn't like that, is it? Life isn't always prosperous, and happy. And if a school does a good job it will prepare you for times of adversity as well as prosperity. Well I am trying to do that through Ezra. What I want you to know is that when God's people are in a mess, when your life is in a mess, when your ministry is in a mess, when your youth group has collapsed, when the women's group is corrupt, when the men's group is irrelevant, when the church leadership has lost its way, trust the Word of God and trust the power of God.
We see the truth of God most clearly in Jesus Christ, and we see the power of God most clearly in his mighty death and mighty resurrection. To trust the word and power of God is to trust God's son, our saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.
O gracious God, our heavenly Father, we will trust your Word; we will trust your power, in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
I often use one-volume Bible commentaries when preparing OT narrative, as they are usefully succinct, and usually point to the main themes of the text.On Ezra and Nehemiah, there are some good commentaries. The following were useful for different reasons:
*Allen L. and Laniak T., "Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther", NIBC, Paternoster, 2003: useful comments on the main points of the text, and not so long as to be daunting.
*Brown Raymond, "The Message of Nehemiah", BST IVP, 1998: useful ideas, and pointers to application.*
*Clines, D. J., "Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther", NCBC, Eerdmans, 1984: good value, and a good reading of the text.
*Kidner Derek, "Ezra and Nehemiah", TOTC, IVP, 1979, good value, with typical Kidner clarity and effective use of words.
*McConville J. G., "Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther", DSB, Westminster John Knox Press, 1985: very good material, concisely expressed.
*Packer J. I., "A Passion for Faithfulness - Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah", Crossway Books, 2001: useful reflections on the book of Nehemiah.
*Roberts Mark, "Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther", Mastering the Old Testament Series, Word, 1993: sermonic in style, sometimes useful and sometimes less so.
*Throntveit Mark A., "Ezra-Nehemiah", Interpretation, John Knox Press, 1992: excellent on the big shapes and themes of the blocks of narrative, with chiasms to burn!
*Williamson H. G. M., "Ezra, Nehemiah", Word Biblical Commentary, Word, 1985: a comprehensive and very detailed study of the text and of major critical issues.
Peter Adam, "Speaking God's Words", Regent College Publishing, pp. 109-112, and ‘Preaching and Biblical in Theology, in T. D. Alexander and Brian Rosner, eds, "New Dictionary of Biblical Theology", IVP, pp. 104-111, and ‘Preaching and Pastoral ministry' in Melvin Tinker, ed., "The Anglican Evangelical Crisis", Christian Focus, pp. 124-143.
Richard B. Gaffin, ‘All I didn't know.' Westminster Theological Journal, 3, 1976, pp. 281-299.
Paul A Barker, "The Triumph of Grace in Deuteronomy", Paternoster Press, 2004.
See Peter Adam, "Hearing God's Words", IVP, 2004, chapter four.
See Peter Adam, "Speaking God's Words" pp. 130-115.
See Peter Adam, "Hearing God's Words", chapter four.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature