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Free to Celebrate
Spring Quarter: God Frees and Redeems
Unit 1: Liberating Passover
Sunday school lesson for the week of March 20, 2022
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Ezra 6:13-22; Leviticus 23:4-8
“The people of Israel – the priests, the Levites, and the rest of the exiles – celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy.” Ezra 6:16
- To realize God’s providential care in the life of His people.
- To recognize the importance of both the outer expressions of our faith and the inner spiritual life.
- To recognize the need to walk in God’s renewing love as we seek the Lord in all of life.
In order to best grasp the message in our text we will examine the historical and theological background that inspired Ezra. Understanding who the characters are in our text helps us grasp the manner in which God used others to care for the community of faith. The historical/theological background is helpful in understanding why it was important for the Jewish people to rebuild Jerusalem and their temple and why it was especially important for them to renew their faith through obedience to the Law. We will then explore Israel’s need to give shape and order to the rebuilding and reestablishment of temple worship. Finally, we will explore the grand purpose behind the return of the exiles and their rebuilding of both the outer structures of their faith and their inner spiritual/moral life.
The Author: Ezra
Ezra was born around 504 BC. The final remnant of Israel, Judah, had fallen 82 years earlier to Babylon. The city walls of Jerusalem were destroyed along with the temple. Thus, Ezra was born in exile in Babylon. It is difficult for us to grasp the depth of despair felt by the exiled Jewish people. The one reality that united them was their common faith in one God, and nothing represented and embodied that faith like the temple in Jerusalem. Thus, when the temple fell and the people were scattered, their entire sense of identity was almost demolished. However, God had promised he would always save his people and that a remnant would remain that one day would restore Israel. Ezra was born in a time of despair, but lived in a time of renewed hope.
Ezra was a scribe. A scribe copied the sacred text from one scroll to another, going through a painstaking process to ensure not one letter was altered. The repetition of copying the scrolls, especially the Mosaic Law, made them scholars of the Law. The scribes were highly respected and were among the religious leaders of the Jewish people, along with the priests and Levites.
Ezra would later gain permission from Artaxerxes, king of Persia (which later overtook Babylon), to return to his homeland. Former Persian kings Cyrus and Darius allowed remnants to return to reconstruct the walls of Jerusalem and the temple. Ezra was allowed to return for the purpose of reestablishing the covenant-life of Israel as it pertained to obedience to the Mosaic Law. Naturally, with the people scattered and no formal place of worship existing, the people of Israel had grown lax in keeping the Law of Moses. Remaining true to the Law was synonymous with being true to the Covenant. Ezra was to bring renewal and order as the temple was rebuilt and dedicated. This was no easy task. Many of those left during the exile had intermarried, which violated the Mosaic Law. Ezra would ask them to dissolve these marriages. The purpose of the prohibition against intermarriage was more concerned with idolatry than the mixing of bloodlines. Jewish men had married women of other lands for years. However, those women were to follow the God of their Israelite husbands. In Ezra’s time, the Jewish men had allowed the introduction of foreign gods into their homes and lives. Ezra was not so much concerned with the purity of their bloodline as he was the purity of their faith. Granted, this distinction was not as clear in Ezra’s day as it is to those of us looking backward upon Jewish history. Intermarriage was only one issue of many that Ezra would confront in reestablishing the covenant life of Israel.
Kings of Persia
Cyrus: Cyrus conquered Babylon and liberated the Jews from the harsher life Babylon had inflicted upon them. Cyrus was a God-fearer. That is, a Gentile person who recognized or revered the God of Israel. Cyrus allowed Israel to return home and rebuild their temple. He even released many of the treasures that were stolen from the temple by Babylon into the hands of the returning Israelites. Some even perceived Cyrus as a messianic type of person. Though certainly not the Messiah, Cyrus was highly respected by the Jewish people. Cyrus’ decree was a liberating document for Israel. Jewish history lets it be known that God moved Cyrus to liberate and empower the Jewish people.
Darius: Darius I followed Cyrus as king of Persia. The book of Ezra can become confusing for historians. Ezra did not always write in chronological order. However, for purposes of our text, it is important to note that the rebuilding of the temple was halted for almost 20 years after Cyrus allowed its rebuilding. The building project begins again under Darius.
Not all wanted the temple rebuilt. Many had lived without the temple and without the guidance of the Mosaic Law. They had constructed lifestyles more independent of the life Ezra envisioned. They were resistant to becoming obedient to the Law of Moses. Some who remembered the former temple did not perceive the reconstruction as coming close to the grandeur of the original, and thus, complained. Morale dropped and some abandoned the task of rebuilding. There were also groups determined to physically thwart the rebuilding. However, under Darius, the reconstruction continued after the 18-20-year lapse.
Artaxerxes: It was Artaxerxes who commissioned Ezra to reestablish civil order among the Israelites. Again, the Israelites consisted of those who had remained in Judah after the fall to Babylon and those who returned under Cyrus and Darius. Ordering the religious life of the Jewish people was a vital facet of establishing a new social order.
Haggai and Zacharia: As new life sprouted from the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and the temple, the role of the prophets emerged with their challenging messages. Remember, prophets were not future-tellers (though often they did gain a glimpse into God’s redemptive future); they were those who called Israel to account for their relationship with God and the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law was the plumb line the prophet used to measure the obedience or disobedience of God’s people. The presence of these two prophets reminded the people that structures alone were not sufficient for a vital faith and obedient life. They once more needed to hear the prophetic word of God calling them to a higher obedient life of blessing. The prophets challenged and also encouraged the people as they were once again becoming the people of God in the world.
The Historical/Theological Context
Again, Ezra did not always write in chronological order. However, the historical context of the book is not difficult to grasp. The temple was destroyed in 586/87 B.C. by Babylon. Judah was the last vestige of the nation of Israel. The northern Kingdom of Samaria had fallen to the Assyrian Empire. Later the powerful empire of Babylon arose and conquered the Assyrians and overtook the small nation of Judah. Some of the Jewish people remained in Judah under Babylonian control, whereas others were taken into exile. The concept of separating a nation was understood as an effective means of assuring they never again would rise to power. Those left behind in Judah began to remarry and neglect the Mosaic Law. Those in exile also intermarried and began adopting the culture of their captors.
However, there always remained a faithful remnant of Israel believing that God would one day restore their nation. The Jewish people in exile, over the years, created homes and later businesses and trades. Consequently, not all returned when Cyrus decreed they could return to their homeland. The Jewish people were separated and scattered with little to unite them and give them identity. Ezekiel’s (who prophesied just prior to the fall of the temple and the days following) vision of the dry bones in the valley serves as a great picture of Israel during this time. The bones were scattered, bleached and lifeless until God’s Spirit moved upon them.
Eventually, the Persian Empire conquered Babylon. Their kings were far kinder to the Israelites. Some of their kings even respected, or perhaps revered the God of Israel. Cyrus was perhaps the most respected and received the greater affection of the Jewish people. It is important to note that the Persian kings were not concerned with giving Israel autonomy. Israel was to remain a part of the Persian Empire. However, kings like Cyrus believed in granting them a sense of identity and happiness within the realm. They did so for other conquered peoples as well.
As the people began to reconstruct the walls of Jerusalem and the temple (read Nehemiah), the people once again began to sense a unity and purpose. The reconstruction was not always easy and was not without conflict. However, under the preaching of Zechariah and Haggai and the administration of Governor Nehemiah, the reconstruction continued to completion. Nehemiah was an Israelite appointed as governor over the area formerly known as Judah.
The ministry of Ezra and the prophetic ministries of the prophets complimented each other. Both reminded the people that rebuilding the “structures of faith” was not enough to become the vibrant people of God in the world. They needed an inner spiritual life! Ezra in particular would call the people to renew their faith in God, in God’s covenant, and to the Mosaic Law. Ezra was a strict disciplinarian in relation to the Mosaic Law. However, he must be understood in his time and culture. Israel had grown very lax in their obedience. Many of the young were altogether unfamiliar with their history as a covenant people. Ezra would call them to return to the holy life God intended. In many cases this would involve drastic, and even painful change.
The historical context reminds us that faith is a vital and serious facet of life. As a matter of fact, it isn’t just a part of our life, it is our life! We are often tempted to equate our spiritual life with the outer structures of faith. We can recite our ritual without thought. We can sing without considering the message of the hymns and songs. We can recite our prayers rote. Faith has everything to do with the heart and will. We may not always possess an emotional feeling related to our faith. Often, our faith involves a choice of the heart, an act of the will. Ezra isn’t calling Israel to stand back and admire their new temple. He is calling them to choose to follow God in their heart and allowing that choice to become evident in their lives.
Ezra also must ensure that renewing the faith of God’s people must not become one, stationary experience. Faith is a journey, a walk with God. Maintaining faith is vital and necessary. Consequently, Ezra will work to reestablish the structures, order, rites and rituals necessary for faith to flourish in the future.
What do you think represents our shared identity as Christians in the world? Is it our churches and buildings? Is it our ministries? Do you believe we need a call to renewal? How would you articulate that renewal? What needs to occur? Are there facets of our faith you believe we’ve neglected? Can you identify areas of laxity? How can we engage the heart and will more in our journey of faith? What disciplines help ensure that our faith never becomes shallow or lifeless? Like Christians in any age, there are always pressures to divide and weaken us. How do you believe we can remain strong? What are some things we can do to strengthen our unity? Have you ever had to undergo a drastic or painful change for renewal to occur in your life? Can you share the nature of this struggle and the blessing that emerged? Can you share the importance of grace and compassion as we seek renewal and change?
Establishing the Continuation and Flourishing of our Renewal
In verse 18 of Ezra 6, a consecrated order was installed to govern, protect, and strengthen the faith of the Jewish people. This consecrated order was not new to Israel’s life of faith. As a matter of fact, it was a return to their former liturgical life. Liturgy was and is important! Remember, the Old Testament people did not have Old Testament scrolls in their homes. They depended upon the public readings of the ancient writings by the priests and scribes. Consequently, these roles were of extreme importance to the community of faith.
Not only were the people dependent upon these holy offices for the hearing of Scripture, the priests performed vicarious rites regarding the spiritual life of God’s people. They offered the sacrifices in the temple, offered the public prayers, and led the community in participatory prayers, singing, etc. These consecrated offices were required to undergo ritual cleansings and rites of purification in order to perform their sacred tasks. The outer rites reminded them and the people that we worship a holy God, and thus, we should handle these holy tasks with holy hands and hearts. The rituals in the law were given to “separate” these holy acts from the routine tasks of daily life, and especially from the pagan practices of their neighbors. The faith of the Israelites called them to “come out and be separate” from the polytheistic, idolatrous world about them. Thus, their rituals and rites must stand apart. Verse 21 states, “So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it (the Passover lamb), together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the Lord.”
Even today, the Church has established holy requirements for those who handle the sacramental life of the Church. The ordained clergy are set apart, through the laying on of hands. They undergo a very stringent process of education and spiritual examination. Again, these requirements serve the purpose of ensuring these sacraments and rituals point the people to the holiness of God. The sacramental life and the liturgical life of the Church call us to come out from the world and empower us by grace to live in the world.
The liturgical life of the Old Testament people also served to preserve and protect the integrity of the holy acts and duties. The rituals and sacraments that point us toward God are never to be taken lightly. Over the years I have heard people complain regarding the ritual we use in Holy Communion. What many fail to understand is that the ritual ensures every facet necessary to experience the Lord through the sacrament is preserved in the ritual. When people begin to omit or replace the ritual with their own personal statements, we are in danger of lessening important facets of the sacrament such as the invitation, the Scriptures of promise, the prayers of confession, and the blessing of the sacrament itself. Ritual and order are important in the worship of the Lord. They do not have to be lifeless or read in a rote manner. When people understand the beauty and wonder of the sacraments and the importance of preserving their integrity, it enlivens their participation.
Why do you believe God wanted Ezra to ensure the holy offices of the priests and Levites were reestablished after the Exile? What purpose was served in establishing these offices in regard to the spiritual life of Israel? How knowledgeable are you of the importance of the Church’s consecrated and ordained offices? Can you identify the value in reading and participating in the rituals of the Church? Can you imagine what might happen should all order and ritual be removed and replaced only by spontaneous expressions of faith? What do you believe is the value in having individuals set apart for administering the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church? What do you think can be done to increase our understanding of our worship, sacraments, and liturgy regarding their holiness? What do you think can be done to enliven our participation? What can you do to better familiarize yourself with the process the ordained and consecrated servants of the Church must experience?
Uniting God’s People
As stated above, the liturgical life of Israel proclaimed the holiness of God, and God’s desire that they be a holy people. It also preserved the spiritual life of the community as the world about them was in constant transition. It preserved the integrity of the rituals and rites that they might always serve their appointed purpose.
Now, we need to remember the liturgical life of Israel united
them. The rituals and rites performed in the tabernacle, and later the temple, united God’s people in a holy faith. They worshipped the one true God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Our faith was never intended to be a “private faith.” It is true that each of us has our personal experiences with Jesus, and our individual journey in faith is of extreme importance. However, our personal faith exists within a community established by God from the beginning. Our personal faith is experienced, explored, enriched, and tested through our participation in the faith community. In Colossians 1:9 Paul prays that the church might be filled “with the knowledge of God’s will.” In the early years of my faith I diligently desired to know God’s will for my life, as most all of us. We pray, “God, show me your will.” This is an acceptable desire and prayer. However, when we study Paul’s letter more thoroughly we discover a valuable lesson. The Church must understand God’s will for the Church! Then, we are more able to discover God’s will for our life as members and participant’s in the Church. It is the will of God, and our desire to know that will, that unites us. The liturgical life of God’s people is a means of hearing, experiencing, and participating in God’s will for the redeemed community. Thus, we are united in our desire, in our seeking through the expression of God’s will in the liturgy and sacramental life of the Church.
The temple, its liturgy and worship, its festivals and holy days united God’s people. After the destruction of the temple and the absence of worship, God’s people were quickly becoming uprooted in their faith. They were separated from each other through the exile, and they were beginning to experience what it meant to be separated from all of their expressions of God in their life.
When the more benevolent kings of Persia allowed Israel to return in order to rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem, it was the beginning of their spiritual renewal. Ezra had now arrived to breathe the inner, spiritual life of God into their renewed structures. Not only would God’s people be united around the temple and its worship services, they would be united in their obedience to God’s holy covenant.
Why do you think God called for the rebuilding of the temple? Why do you believe God called Ezra to return? What unique role did Ezra fulfill after the temple was rebuilt? Do you believe our corporate worship unites us? In what manner? Do you believe the sacramental life of the church unites us? How does Holy Communion and Holy Baptism unite God’s people? Why do you believe it is important to live out your faith in the Christian community? Is it possible to value the “structures” in our worship (like creeds, prayers, hymns, etc.) without possessing the inner spiritual life God intends? How can we increase our sense of unity in worship? How can God help our church to enliven our worship through the elements of prayers, hymns, creeds, rituals, etc.?
The Grand Purpose of Renewal and Faith
To seek the Lord
Verse 20 of our text reveals God’s driving purpose behind the rebuilding and the renewal. The walls of Jerusalem, the temple, and the spiritual/moral renewal of Israel are to awaken Israel to their need to continually seek the Lord. Isaiah 55:6 reads, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.” From our beginning in Eden until the full coming of God’s Kingdom, God desires that we seek him. Seeking the Lord involves more than prayer alone. We are called to seek God in our day, in our experiences, and especially in our interpersonal relationships. Worship is an appointed time to separate ourselves from secular life. In worship, seeking the Lord is done more easily because every facet of worship calls upon us to acknowledge God and the Lordship of Jesus. However, acknowledging God’s presence doesn’t end as worship concludes. One of the beautiful aspects of Old Testament Jewish life is their ability to understand their life as it relates to God. From the dropping of the rain to the harvests to triumphs and even in defeat, they sought to understand where God was in their life and what God was doing. We cannot fully grasp the life of Paul in the New Testament without an awareness that he truly sought God’s presence in every facet of his life. Thus, he could write in II Cor. 4:9: “We are persecuted but not abandoned, struck down, but not destroyed.” Paul sought God even in the worst adversity. Few statements express Paul’s belief that God worked in all of our life as Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
The returning exiles struggled to find God in their struggle and loss. They had lost their holy city, their holy temple, and the Mosaic Law was no longer being read. Ezra’s day marked a day of renewal! It was a day when the structures that pointed to God were resurrected and the Law that governed their life was restored. What were they to do afterward? They were to seek the Lord.
There was one final step in order for the Covenant to reach completion in the life of Israel. It had to move from the external into the internal. It had to move from Law to grace and principle. Jeremiah caught a glimpse of that day writing in chapter 32 that the time would arrive when the Covenant would be written upon the heart. Returning Israelites were to start their journey anew toward that inner transformation. That moment would arrive with the gift of Jesus. Jesus stated that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Jesus would move faith, hope, love, and morality from being present only in the external, into the human heart.
The call to seek the Lord continues for those of us on “this side of the resurrection.” We are to seek God in life until the Kingdom of God arrives in all of its glory. That Kingdom is present now in life, moving and touching lives. We capture glimpses of it and taste its sweetness. Yet there is still a day of full redemption coming when tears are wiped away and there is a new heaven and new earth.
How important is it for you to seek the Lord in your life? What are the obstacles you encounter is seeking God in worship and life? Do you find yourself solely dependent upon outer expressions of faith, or are you cultivating your inner spiritual life? Do you believe God’s people need renewal? Can you offer a reason for your answer? What do you believe will be the purpose of such renewal?
Almighty God, we thank you for the expressions of our faith in worship. We thank you for the beauty in life that calls us to seek you and to be thankful. Help us see you both in the beauty of life and the adversity. Renew our hearts with the joy of our salvation. Fill our hearts with the beauty of our faith and hope. Help us to see not only what is, but what is yet to come. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.