God, Help Us Obey

Ezra 10

Well, good morning, Saylorville! If you’ve brought a copy of Scripture with you, you can turn to the very last chapter in the book of Ezra as we conclude our series, God, Help Us! I trust it’s been a good series for you. Ezra, chapter 10.

We just got done singing, “We have no other King but Jesus, Lord of all.” Great to sing… maybe harder to live, because I think we live in a day where we’ve been thrown many kings and, not just Jesus, as Lord. That was also the problem in Jerusalem in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

About a year or so ago, a friend of mine, Keith Carlson, a member of our church, told me about his multiple trips that he had taken to Romania. If you know anything about the history of Romania, you might remember that it was part of the Balkan states that were satellite countries in the former Soviet Union. In 1989, everything started falling apart. Romania was one of those countries. It was ruled by a ruthless dictator by the name of Nikolai Ceausescu, a murderer who hated believers. If you were a believer in Romania during those 40 years, it was a very dangerous place to live. My friend, Keith, told me the Romanians had a word for the serious hearted Christians, a word that originated during the reign of terror of Nikolai Ceausescu. It was the word “Poca?it?ii” (pocka-eat-see) meaning Repenters. They called themselves the Repenters. There were also so-called Christians in Romania that were just cultural Christians, much as cultural Christians would be today in the United States. But they were calling Christians to be “Poca?it?ii,” Repenters, the singular being “Poka’it.” A Poka’it was one who believed that life as a Christian should be an ongoing life of repentance, and that an ongoing life of repentance was actually essential to the Christian life. Remember what Jesus said to the Ephesians in Revelation chapter two? He said,

Revelation 2:5 ”Therefore, remember from where you have fallen, and repent…” (Remember that he was talking to Christians) and do the deeds you did at first…”

So Saylorville Church and those of you who are visiting with this on this Memorial weekend, we must be Poca?it?ii, Repenters, willing to repent, to obey and keep on obeying for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Just the other day, my wife and I were on a ministry vacation in California. I had spoken at a marriage retreat, and I also did three podcasts with Ray Comfort of Living Waters Ministry. Ray Comfort is a name many of you may know. He’s a very colorful, charismatic evangelist, apologist and author, well-known for his beach evangelism and such. He actually endorsed my book, so they asked me if I would come onto their podcast. It was a great privilege, but I have to be honest with you. I have never been super drawn to Ray Comfort’s style of ministry. It’s very confrontational, and yet if you’ve watched it, it’s also very entertaining and very powerful! I thought the man to be kind of quirky myself. I’d met him about ten years ago, and I had lunch with him. It was kind of an awkward time, and I I terribly misjudged him! Last week, I spent some time with the man. I got a firsthand opportunity to witness his character, his authority in the word of God and his passion for souls.

But as we sat down to do the very first podcast, he sat next to me and said, “So Pat, have you seen…” (now they had my book in front of them. They’d all read it and actually studied it, which was sort of scary because I’d forgotten parts of it myself!) and he looked at me and he says, “Hey, have you watched my film “The Fool, The Banana Man”?” And I looked at him and I said, “Uh… no, I haven’t.” It’s like the most popular one they’ve ever done. Frankly in the moment I was thinking, “What does that have to do with MY book? This is about ME right now! You know that… Right?” I didn’t say that to him, but I thought, “This is completely off subject!” Later on that day, I watched the film, then I realized why he’d asked me if I had watched the film, because if you know anything about the book I wrote, the subtitle was “Cultivating Humility After Humiliation.” I saw from that film that this man, having been horribly humiliated by his own words, rather than running from his humiliation, embraced it. He embraced it with atheists and agnostics, and the result was the gospel went forth in extraordinary ways, which is what happens when we’re truly repenters, truly humble. By the way, I repented then, and I let him know. I’m a Ray Comfort fan now.

If you’re a Christian, you’ll never move forward in your walk with God, break sinful habits or lifestyles that are not pleasing to God unless you repent and learn to continually repent. If you’re not a Christian, you’ll never get to heaven apart from repentance. Jesus said,

[Luke 13:3b (ESV), ”“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”]

Have you ever read that? Genuine repentance leads to ongoing obedience, which is the proof that your repentance is real.

I’ve been thinking about this Ezra series. Several weeks ago I preached from Ezra 3. After every single service, the steps to the stage were lined up with individuals praying, confessing and weeping [over their sin]. Many of you out there who didn’t go forward were thinking, ‘I should have gone forward.’ My question now is, is it ongoing? Is it real? If you’re going to be a Poka’it, if you’re going to be a Repenter, you need to be an ongoing repenter. Jesus, after all, said,

John 15:16, ”You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide (remain)…” it should last, it should keep going.

Look at Pharaoh and Esau [in the Old Testament] and Judas in the New Testament. What do they all have in common? They all felt bad. They all wept. They all had sorrow. Not one of them really repented. That might describe some of you here. In fact, it probably does!

Here’s some background for those of you who’ve not been with us in the book of Ezra. The children of Israel have come back in a series of three separate waves after 70 years of captivity in Babylon because of their disobedience. The first wave of 50,000 Jews came back to Jerusalem through Zerubbabel. They resurrected the altar, laid the foundation for the temple and it was a time of great excitement and joy for the young people, but the old people were complaining. Remember that? 60 years later, Ezra shows up in the second wave with about 1500. The temple is pretty much established, but his purpose in being there was as a priest, as a scribe, as a student of the Word of God, as a doer of the Word, was to reestablish the spiritual atmosphere and status of God’s people. But… there was a real problem. We saw in chapter 9 (with much thanks to Pastor Jason last week) that there were Israelites intermingling with the foreigners, with the pagan, idol worshiping foreign women. We’re told in chapter 9 verse 2, ‘The holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands.’

[Ezra 9:1-2, “After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.”]

That’s a scary thing, because a holy race was supposed to produce the Holy One, right?!
Luke chapter 1 talks about in verse 35, when the angel announced to Mary, you’re going to give birth to the Holy One.

[Luke 1:35, “And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”]

The holy race couldn’t afford to be corrupted, so this is really, really serious. As we were told last week, this was a call to repentance and obedience that involved drastic measures to be taken. I’m going to read this passage in a moment that I can remember reading as a brand new Christian thinking ‘Oh, my goodness! I can’t believe you’re calling them to do this, God!’ I’m guessing some of you have had a similar experience. So, Saylorville Church, God has called us to repentance… (God, help us to repent! Amen?) and to demonstrate that repentance with ongoing obedience. With that, Ezra, chapter 10.

“1 While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly. 2 And Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, of the sons of Elam, addressed Ezra: “We have broken faith with our God and have married (Remember that word married? I’ll come back to it.) women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. 3 Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away (underline that word, because I’m going to come back to that too) these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my Lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law. 4 Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.” 5 Then Ezra arose and made the leading priests and Levites and all Israel take an oath that they would do as had been said. So they took the oath.
6 Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib, where he spent the night, neither eating bread nor drinking water, for he was mourning (because of… look at the word) the faithlessness of the exiles. 7 And a proclamation was made throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the returned exiles that they should assemble at Jerusalem, 8 and that if anyone did not come within three days, by order of the officials and the elders all his property should be forfeited, and he himself banned from the congregation of the exiles. (We’re getting really serious here!)
9 Then all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days.
(This would be December 19th, 458 BC, for you number geeks.)
It was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. And all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. 10 And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. 11 Now then make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” 12 Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, “It is so; we must do as you have said. 13 But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for we have greatly transgressed in this matter. 14 Let our officials stand for the whole assembly. Let all in our cities who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every city, until the fierce wrath of our God over this matter is turned away from us.” (Only four of them disagreed, by the way, with all this. This proves, by the way, that the Baptist Church existed before the New Testament (Just kidding!) There’s always somebody who’s got to be against the leadership.) 15 Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite supported them.
16 Then the returned exiles did so. Ezra the priest selected men, heads of fathers’ houses, according to their fathers’ houses, each of them designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to examine the matter; 17 and by the first day of the first month (three months later) had come to the end of all the men who had married foreign women.”

We’ll stop there. Now while you have an English Bible (and you can trust it if it’s a good translation), the original language often helps us to interpret hard passages, and this is one of those cases in a couple of things. The text might help you understand why this draconian type of legislation, to send away your wives, divorce your wives and your kids. What’s going on here?! In verse two, you see where he says,

Ezra 10:2, “We have broken faith with our God…”

That’s a strong statement! In fact, in Ezra 9:2, the word “faithlessness” is used. The Hebrew word for “faithlessness” conveys the idea of “abandoning the faith.” Here’s the point. These foreign women (not Jews who had come into these Jewish men’s lives), had not only corrupted or threatened to corrupt the bloodline that would lead to Messiah, but really the entire spiritual fabric of the nation! In verse 2, I told you to take note of the word “married.” (This is really interesting!) This is not the normal word for “marriage,” and it might be a key to understanding what looks so draconian here, so drastic. This word “married” means “we have given a home.” That’s what the Hebrew word means. It’s like saying, “We’re shacking up.” Is anybody here living together? Join these people. Now, in verse 3 you see the phrase “put away.” That literally means “to bring out.” This is not the normal word for “divorce” in Hebrew either. The word “divorce” is only used a handful of times in the Old Testament. The principal passage is Deuteronomy 24 where Moses legislates divorce. That’s not the word here. This is a different word, and here’s the point. While they were living together (and bearing children, mind you!) these marriages were not legit. This might be one of the greatest biblical arguments for the ceremony of marriage!

Whenever I perform marriages, by the way, I’ll sign the legal document along with the witnesses. Frequently, the couple and I will be around a table, and I’ll whisper, ‘Congratulations! The State of Iowa now recognizes you as husband and wife! It’s real, and about five minutes, I’m going to declare before GOD that you are husband and wife!’ We recognize those legal things, and Jesus told us in essence to do so.

I want you to look at verse nine again. I want you to see what Ezra, the writer, says.

Ezra 10:9, ”And all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain.”

Great writers have the ability to create imagery. Would you agree? Ezra is one of them. Can’t you just picture the people outdoors shivering in the rain?

My wife and I were on this ministry vacation in beautiful Newport Beach, California by the ocean. The high was 62 degrees the entire time, and it rained constantly, just kind of a drizzle.
If that’s what you’re picturing, get it out of your mind! In fact, the Hebrew word for “rain” in this passage uses what we call a plurality or plural of intensity. In other words, it was coming down in buckets! That’s how much it was raining. It was a miserable situation! They’re called to do something drastic, [and to add to it] it’s just miserable outside! They start saying, ‘Man, wait! This is going to take us some time to sift through this!” That takes us to verse 18 to the rest of the chapter (and you’ll thank me for not reading it!) It’s a list of violators, those that they discovered throughout the months who had taken in these foreign wives, and now needed to separate, to divorce them, to send them away… but this is where it’s even more interesting! This is a big list, but there are fewer than 100 names on the list. That’s less than 1% of the entire population! Not everybody in all Israel was marrying foreign women, but because 27 out of the 100 were leaders like Levites… (and because a little leaven leavens the whole… what?… lump) Bang! Drastic measures had to be taken! Those who were ferreted out and discovered were told you’ve got to do something big time here! Let these women and their children go. And then… the book just ends.

It just ends! There’s no Hallmark bow. The Bible almost never does that. Now, the Bible is a reality book. (Right?) We who are true believers in Jesus Christ have a great ending to look forward to! (Amen?) But until then, life presents itself with lots of ups and downs, highs and lows, some of our own sinful doing and some just because we live in a sin-cursed world. (Can I get an ‘Amen’?) And some of these endings are really anti-climactic, like this one.

By the way, Ezra ends this way, a lot of people think, because in the Jewish mind, Ezra and Nehemiah were one book. They say, ‘Well, that’s the reason why it’s so anti-climactic.’ Not really, because when you read the end of Nehemiah, that book is anti-climactic too!

I’ll tell you one thing that’s not anti-climactic. When genuine repentance produces ongoing obedience in a believer’s life, that’s not anti-climactic. You know what that is? That’s beautiful! That requires two things. This is where we’re going to spend the balance of our time this morning… two things. separation and perseverance.

Separating from sin is never easy, but it’s essential. Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 18? He said, ‘Look, if your hand offends you, cut it off. If your foot offends you, cut it off. If your eye offends you… what? Pluck it out.’

[Matthew 18:8, “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”]

In other words, get radical about your sin! Don’t pussy foot around with your sins! Look at verse 3. They made the foreign women and their children go. Even in Bible times, when divorcing, the children went with the mother… every time. Even if their marriages were not legit, this was a radical call for separation, (wasn’t it?) and yet, it was essential lest the entire nation of Israel become impacted by the leaders who had succumbed to this sin.

I have a similar illustration from Holmes Baptist Church, the church I formerly pastored. I had the joy of leading a guy from Texas to Christ along with his family. He had moved up to Iowa, met a gal, got married and had a kid. Then we lead him to Jesus and he was going on big time for Jesus! But he got a conscience, which happens when you come to Jesus. (Amen?) Why was he in Iowa from Texas? He was fleeing from his parole officer! I think he was actually fleeing bail. There was an arrest warrant out for him, and so he came and talked to me about it. He said, “I feel like I need to go back and make this right.” And I said, “Man, that’s going to be hard! You’re going to leave your family and do that?” He said, “I need to,” and he did! He spent the rest of his time in prison finishing out his sentence.

What part of your life, right now, is keeping you from being a Poka’it, a Repenter? What sacrifice of separation do you need to make toward radical obedience? The hand, (the things you’re touching) the foot, (the places you go) the eye, (the things you look at)… I think in our generation, the most idolatrous things that we have embraced are materialism and gross sexual deviance. We need to run from these things! But whether it’s something large or small, be a Repenter… Amen?! Separate from that sin!

Secondly, Persevering.
Persevering through the consequences of sin is always hard, but God’s grace (if you do it right) is always stronger.

When the Reformers outlined salvation, they never talked about eternal security. They may have believed in eternal security, but they never used that terminology. They used the term “perseverance.” They talked about the perseverance of the saints through thick and thin, through recovery from confession, repentance and the forsaking of sin and all the consequences that come along with it. When those who know Jesus persevere, that’s a beautiful thing when it happens! You can choose your sins, but you can’t choose your… (What?) you can’t choose your consequences. That’s a true statement.

These Jews had chosen some terrible sins and they had terrible consequences! But I want you to hear this. To the repentant child of God, there is grace, not only to help you endure your consequences, but much more importantly, to glorify God through it all! That’s what makes it beautiful! When someone repents of their sin, suffers the consequences and walks in obedience. That’s a beautiful thing!

Stop making it all about yourself! As a pastor counseling people, discipling people, we can become so myopic.. ‘What about ME? What about MY…?’ Stop making it about yourself! I know it’s natural to do so, though.

My wife and I did a marriage conference while we were out in California. One of our verses from when we got married is Isaiah 61:3, which says (beautifully), ‘God will give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and a garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.’
Isn’t that beautiful?

[Isaiah 61:3 (ESV), “…to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;”]

Here’s the problem. It’s so beautiful, but that’s the only thing we focus on in that passage. We make it all about ME! ‘Oh God, it’s going to give ME beauty for my ashes! He’s going to give ME the oil of joy for my mourning! You’re going to give ME a garment of praise for my spirit in heaven!’ Why? ‘Because it’s all about ME!’ You would never say that, but that’s the way we act sometimes. Here’s what the rest of the verse says, ‘that we may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord! God has done something and… now, wait for it… That HE may be glorified!

[Isaiah 61:3b, “…that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that HE may be glorified.”]

Have you ever read that? The reason God does anything in your life or in mine is to bring honor and glory to Himself! And yeah, we do get beauty, we do get joy, we do get praise, and it’s all a good thing! But we’ve got to understand why we’re going through this, and if we have the kind of attitude that gives God the glory… it’s a beautiful thing!

I got permission to tell this story from my friend, David Cortner, now retired, who was the pastor of Airport Baptist church when I was a student in Bible college. I’d led a couple of people to Christ and had gone out to pastor my first church a couple of years in. I got a call from the person that I led to Christ who was in that church. He said, “Pat, can you believe it?” I said, “Can I believe what?” Our pastor got fired! I said, “He got fired? Why did he get fired?” He goes, “Because he was a thief!” I said, “Are you serious?!” “Yeah,” he replied. “He’d been stealing money from our church!” I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Talk about treachery! But I just told you, David Courtney gave me permission to tell you this story. He was fired, and he went into obscurity for a period of time. Sometime later as I was ironing my shirt, (which is what I did back then. I always wore a pressed shirt when I went to church) I was watching the First Federated Church broadcast (they had a TV thing at the time) when David Cortner walked on the platform! He stood before a mass of people and said, “I’m a thief. I was a pastor of a church around here and I was stealing money from my own people.” I just about burned a hole in my shirt! I was stunned by the admission and the humility of it all! I couldn’t believe it! Then, a few years later, my wife and I went to a conference, and we saw him there. Amongst our own peeps, there he was, but not as a pastor. He was working for a funeral home. I said, “What are you doing here?!” He said, “I just wanted to continue to take in truth.” I could tell he was different. He was humble. His whole demeanor was changed! I said, “David, do you believe you’ll ever be back in ministry?” He said, “Pat, I don’t even pursue that. My desire is just to walk with God, to be faithful to Him, and if He ever wants to use me in some way, that’d be fine.” He waited 10 years. From 1989 to 1999, he just served the Lord in a funeral home. But you know what happened? God was praised, and God was glorified! He endured, by the grace of God, and God resurrected him to pastor a church in New York for 23 years in a godly way! He retired as a man of God! (Amen?!) That’s a beautiful thing!

Now for these Jews, it took three months to sift through every case and make judgments, and it was clear that they were determined to make it happen. Ezra doesn’t describe this, but I like to envision the scene. These men who were broken before God, broken before their wives, broken before their children! The pathos of it all! The separation of families had to be awful! These wives were pagan and ungodly, not followers of God. They had introduced idolatry into their men’s lives. I like to envision the wives were enraged over their husbands having returned to God! Now, they are being sent away! Oh, the separation… the wailing… the awfulness of it all!

One of the hardest things about forgiven sins is the duration and endurance of sin’s consequences. (Can I get an ‘Amen’ to that?) We want the consequences to just go away immediately like sin, because the sin does when we truly confess it. However, if you’re a serious follower of Jesus, don’t make it about yourself. Make it about the glory of God, and God’s grace will help you endure! I know that’s true, because Jesus told us that in…

2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace IS sufficient for you…”

Do you know why he said it is? Because it IS sufficient, and furthermore, when we walk as Repenters, we prove our renewed love of God by our continuance in faithfulness despite the difficulties that result from our sin. And so, “Poca?it?ii,” (Repenters) and “Poka’it,” (Repentant One) may the Lord help you… (and me) to walk in repentance and in ongoing obedience that follows, and give us the grace to that end.

Speaking of grace, did you know it’s by grace that you’re saved through faith? It’s not of your own doings, it’s not of yourselves. It’s a gift from God. It’s not a result of works so that you can’t boast about it.

[“Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV), “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”]

If you don’t boast and you give the glory to God for all of his grace, then you become his work of art, created in Christ Jesus, unto ongoing good works.

[Ephesians 2:10 (ESV), “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”]

Do you know Him? Are you, Poka’it? When was the last time you repented to anybody? That’ll tell you whether you are or are not a Poka’it.

Our father, we love you and bless your name. We thank you for the book of Ezra. We thank you for your help. We thank you for the way in which you have instructed us and guided us and warned us and saved us and instructed us in our walk with you. God help us to be Poca?it?ii, true, ongoing Repenters. And lead us toward ongoing obedience. Why? For all your glory. That’s why! We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.


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