Christians have a tendency to overlook the value of the Old Testament because we assume we don’t need to understand it. We live on this side of the incarnation. “This side of the cross.” Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. There’s not much we can learn from an ancient faith steeped in a sacrificial system we no longer need.
RE-starting in Ezra 3 is all about understanding the book of Leviticus! The passage at hand begs the question – “If remaking the altar was how Joshua and Zerubbabel began again, what happened at that altar, day after day, year after year?” Let’s take a look at some of the details. What message might Ezra have for you and me today? I’ll summarize some of the background information as we go but feel free to download the following resource:
Marking a Manuscript?
Do you know how to mark-up a manuscript? In my last post you’ll find a link for downloading your own clean copy of Ezra chapter 3. In this post I’ll show you mine, which is marked up all over (I mark things up electronically using the Noteability app). I’ve broken the chapter into three paragraphs and titled those sections. Ezra 3 is packed with references to the Jewish worship calendar and the daily priestly duties at the altar (see the background information for helpful details). Bear in mind that in 536 B.C. there was no temple. Only the footprint. It would be a little like showing up at your church on Sunday, but with no walls, no atrium and no fellowship hall. Just the foundations shorn to the ground. No roof, no pews (or padded designer theatre seats) no sound system, lights or smoke machines! Just a small scrap of platform where the stage used to be and maybe a charred table where the communion elements might have sat. Joshua restarts everything by remaking only the altar and restarting their worship calendar!
The Altar First (vv 1-6)
1) Who are the principle leaders – why are they leading the efforts to Re-start (see background information)?
2) Ordinarily, celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles would happen at a fully functioning temple and would require a lot of equipment and formality. Joshua is pulling this off with nothing but the altar in place (compare this to the Feast of Tabernacles celebrated when Solomon first built and dedicated the temple cf. 1 Kings 8). Why go ahead with the celebration without a temple?
3) The seventh month seems like an odd time to restart your worship calendar. The Feast of Tabernacles commemorated Israel’s wilderness experience following the Exodus. They lived in tents and ate the food Yahweh provided (manna and quail). They knew Yahweh was with them because he too dwelt with them in the tabernacle those 40 years. Why might this timing make sense to a people returning to their homeland from a 70 year exile?
4) The exiles’ Re-start was further complicated by the presence of people who didn’t welcome their return. Have you ever noticed how starting and re-starting things can bring a cascade of unforeseen challenges? How do you cope with resistance and set-backs when life already feels halting and fragile?
The Temple Next (vv 7-9)
5) What is the rationale for restarting the sacrificial functions at the altar seven months before starting to rebuild the temple? Why would the altar seem a more important starting point than the temple (which created structure for the sacrificial system)?
6) There are two streams of leadership and supervision – the civic office of Zerubbabel (royal descendant here functioning as a governor) and the priestly structure of Joshua and the rest of the Levites. How do these reflect the varying needs of a people restarting their homeland identity?
Mixed Reviews (vv 10-13)
7) The dedication of the temple’s reconstruction is an incredible occasion! The younger generation who had been born just before or any time since the temple’s destruction, knew nothing of Solomon’s temple except what they’d been told about it growing up. It seems they easily affirmed God’s goodness and love toward Israel (v 13). What might they be thinking and feeling during this special celebration? What would fill them with joy and hope?
8) The older generation – especially the priests and Levites were not thinking about the future. They were still lamenting the past. Was this appropriate? Why or why not?
Twenty years further into the future,
Israel was just about to complete the rebuilding of the temple in 516 B.C. What many suspected when the foundations were laid came true in their view of the remade temple. “This is just not what it once was.” The prophet Haggai has a firm but gracious word for God’s people:
(Hag 2:1-9 NIV) 1 On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: 2 “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them,3 ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?4 But now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Be strong, Joshua son of Jozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. 5 ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’ 6 “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. 7 I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory, ‘ says the LORD Almighty. 8 ‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty. 9 ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace, ‘ declares the LORD Almighty.”
I believe Ezra 3 shows us at least two challenges these Exiles have for you and me today. I’ve labeled them and written a few process questions you can select from to journal about or discuss with your small group.
The Tension between Lament and Remaking.
1-Think of an area of your life, the life of the Church, or our culture that is in decline, disrepair or abandonment. As you wrestle with exactly what is broken and account for what has been lost, what is your posture toward God and your future? Are you plagued by fears? Depressed? Stuck in lament only? Lament is appropriate when loss must be faced. It’s a disservice to what was valued to not mourn. But lament cannot be your only approach. Share with your group one place of renewal you long for. What is your posture toward it currently?
2- Is there an area of growth, improvement or reform that you feel energized by the Holy Spirit to work towards? Perhaps you’re like the younger generation coming out of exile who didn’t know what the former glory was like. Your posture is more open to the future. You are eager to do the work. Share with the group one way you are experiencing growth and blessing in spite of the brokenness around you. How is your creativity being tapped into? What gifts and skills can the Holy Spirit evoke in you as you move forward? What are your hopes focused on and how can you talk about them with others?
The Tension between the Altar and the Sanctuary.
1- Jesus is the fulfillment of the entire Old Covenant sacrificial system. He came as the incarnate Word. He was our great high priest as well as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It’s tempting to say we just don’t need to understand the temple and the altar. But Jewish believers knew what the altar meant (see the article on altar on the last pages of the resource document). It was the place where God would accept sacrifice for sin. It was the place where first-fruits of each year’s harvest would be offered to God. It was were the morning and evening sacrifices were given for the sin of the people. How do you understand the idea of Altar today in your relationship with Jesus? Of course Jesus died for our sins. But you, personally and daily, how do you account for that? Do you have a place and a space where you regularly meet Jesus and abide in him (John 15)? Share with your group or process in your journal. When you look at the altar of your spiritual life, is it in good working order? Are you meeting God and bringing your sin to him in confession? What are your “thank offerings” like? What do you give God in the time you set apart to be with him?
2- What kind of communal worship life do you have with other believers? If the altar is a representation of your personal worship what does sanctuary with others look like? Your church building might not be lying in ruins, but is it a healthy place to worship God? What are the weekly, monthly and yearly rhythms like – do they rival the rich spiritual and tangible corporate life of our Old Testament forebears? Without bashing, how do you feel about the corporate worship and witness of your church? What impact of salt and light does your church or fellowship make on others? How is your church handling our culture’s current crisis of reconciliation and justice? What fears or attitudes might be holding you back? Are you freely lending your gifts and resources to the body of Christ?
So that was RE-start 01 and 02. The exiles show us the way forward from painful devastation. Their powerful starting point focused on the very heart of their worship life with Yahweh. Remake the altar first – that’s the place where sinners bring their lives and their gifts to a God of grace who delights to meet them there.
We’ll post another RE- moment next week. Blessings and Peace.