2 Timothy 3 v 12…
"…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…"
The Bible says, if you are a Christian, if you chose to live your life following Jesus as your king, then you will be persecuted. And one of the ways that persecution comes is in the form of opposition. People trying to stop us living Christian lives, or stop us telling other people about Christ.
This evening we're going to look at Ezra 4, a chapter that is all about opposition. And we're going to look at what the Bible tells us to do when we face it. Following God means facing opposition.
So far the book of Ezra has been about promises kept and parties thrown.
Back in chapter 1 God moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to let the Israelites go back to the Promised Land.
God had kept his word. He had kept his people safe in Babylon and now he was bringing them back, just as he said he would.
And they didn't come back empty handed. Not only were their neighbours commanded to provide them with silver and gold, but king Cyrus gave them all the articles that had been taken from the temple.
Then in chapter 2 we had that wonderful list of all the names of the people who returned. All the people whom God had preserved and who still had faith in him.
And last week in chapter 3 the people build the altar. For the first time in 70 years they began making the sacrifices again. For the first time in 70 years their sins could be dealt with. And so, 3 vv 10-11…
"When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the LORD, as prescribed by David king of Israel. With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: "He is good; his love to Israel endures forever." And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid."
Promises kept and parties thrown. That's been Ezra so far.
But now, in chapter 4, there's a change. 4 vv 1-2a…
"When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the LORD, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families..."
Suddenly, we are told, there are enemies. But what the enemies say, is probably not what we expect. Look at v2…
"...they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, "Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here."
What's going on? Why, when they heard that the temple was being built, did the enemies of Judah and Benjamin turn up with their spades and their shovels and offer to help? Were they lying? Did they say they worshipped the God of the Bible, but didn't really? No, I don't think they were lying.
So was this revival? Had they been enemies, but God transformed their hearts and shown them the truth and now they really wanted to be part of God's people? Well, no I don't think that's what's going on here either. The clue to what is going on is the name, 'Esarhaddon king of Assyria'. What we see in vv 1-3 is…
Opposition that Flatters, vv 1-3
About 200 years before Erza 4, God's people, the 12 tribes of Israel had split in two. Do you remember? In the North you had 10 tribes that kept the name Israel. And in the south the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin became known as the kingdom of Judah.
And the Northern Kingdom and its kings turned away from God. They kept on rejecting God until finally in 722 B.C. God sent the Assyrians to come and wipe them out. The Assyrians attacked and destroyed the towns and cities of Israel, and anyone that survived was deported. And then other people from other nations that the Assyrians had conquered were imported. In 2 Kings 17 it says this…
"The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns."
That was Assyrian policy. They gave the land of Israel in the North, sometimes called Samaria after its capital city, to other people. But the relocation didn't go well. And the king of Assyria decided that the reason things weren't going well was because the new land owners had upset the local gods. So they found a priest from among the people of Israel that had been deported, and sent him back to teach the people how to worship the LORD, the God of Israel.
It sounds great doesn't it? All the foreigners being taught how to worship God! But it wasn't great. In 2 Kings 17 we go on to read this...
"Nevertheless, each national group made its own gods in the several towns where they settled, and set them up in the shrines the people of Samaria had made at the high places..."
"They worshiped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought..."
"Even while these people were worshiping the LORD, they were serving their idols. To this day their children and grandchildren continue to do as their fathers did."
Do you see? In Ezra 4 when the people from the surrounding nations come to Zerubbabel and the heads of the families, in v2, and say...
"Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here."
They're not lying. They did worship the LORD, the God of Israel, but they also worshipped Adrammelech and Anammelech the gods of Sepharvaim, and Marduc the god of Babylon, and all the other gods they brought with them.
And so Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the heads of the families of Israel says in v3b...
"You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us."
One of the most dangerous kind of lie, is the half truth. And one of the most subtle forms of opposition, is flattery.
If you were here a couple of months ago you might remember some Mormons who visited us one evening service.
It was great to have them here. And after the service I spoke to them, and the first thing they said to me is, "We're Christians as well." "We worship the same God as you." "We're on the same team."
Last week I met Gayles in town and she said, "Oh, I just spoke to a Christian on the street, he gave me this." It was from the Jehovah Witnesses. And they said the same thing. We're Christians. We worship the God of the Bible, just like you.
And at first it sounds good, and it sounds encouraging, doesn't it? But it's not true. They might call themselves Christians, and say that they believe the Bible just like us, but they don't.
The Mormons (or the Latter Day Saints as they're sometimes called) they call themselves Christians but they teach that that God was once human, but he progressed to become God. They call Jesus the Son of God, but they don't believe that he is God, or part of the Trinity.
And Jehovah Witnesses (or the Watchtower Society as they're sometimes called) They call themselves Christians but they teach that Jesus was created by God. He used to be an archangel called Michael, but God promoted him to become his son.
That's not what the Bible says.
Sometimes the opposition that we face is opposition that flatters. Some enemies pose as friends. And so sometimes the right thing for us to do is exactly what they did in v3. To say, "We will have nothing to do with you."
At times we'll face opposition that flatters, at other times we'll face...
Opposition that Hates, vv 4-5
Once Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the families reject the offer of help, the enemies show their true colours, vv 4-5...
"Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They hired counselors to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia."
We're given no explanation for their action. There's no reason given to help us understand why they want to discourage the people and make them afraid and frustrate their plans. As far as we know, they simply hate God's people.
And the truth is, some people hate Christianity.
This week I Googled the phrase. 'Why Christianity is false' In half a second Google found 32,400,000 results.
Here are the titles of the first 6 of those websites. 1) 10 Reasons why Christianity is wrong 2) How I figured out Christianity is not real 3) 40 problems with Christianity 4) Common lies that Christians tell that are absolutely false
5) Top 10 ways to know that Christianity is false 6) 20 reasons to abandon Christianity.
I don't know why those websites have been written. I don't know why those people wanted to take time to create a website to pour out their hatred against Christianity. I can only imagine that some of them may have suffered at the hands of people who called themselves Christians, or suffered things done to them in the name of Christianity. I don't know. I don't know why some people hate Christianity.
But we shouldn't be surprised. 1 John 3 v 13...
"Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you."
If you follow Christ, then you follow a persecuted king. We read earlier in John 15 where Jesus said,
"'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me they will persecute you also."
Some people hate Christians. And sometimes the opposition we will face is opposition that hates. If it hasn't happened to you yet, that's great, but it will.
So how should we respond? What should we do when the world hates us? Jesus tells us in Matthew 5...
"I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."
God loves those who hate him. He still gives them life to enjoy, even when they despise and deny him. He doesn't love that they hate him, but he still loves them, and so must we. We must chose to love those who chose to hate us. And that leads us onto the final thing we see in Ezra 4 and that is...
Opposition that Persists, vv 6-23
In v6 the chapter changes. Suddenly we jump forward to the king who came after Darius, who was called Xerxes. And again we're told that during his reign the opposition to the people of Judah and Jerusalem persists.
And then in v7 we jump forward again to the king after Xerxes, who was called Artaxerxes. And again we're told that the opposition persists. First of all we're told of a letter written to the king by Bishlam and Mithredath and Tabeel and their associates. And then in vv 8-23 we're told in detail about another letter, this time written by Rehu and Shimshai, vv9-10...
"...together with the rest of their associates--the judges and officials over the men from Tripolis, Persia, Erech and Babylon, the Elamites of Susa, and the other people whom the great and honourable Ashurbanipal deported and settled in the city of Samaria and elsewhere in Trans-Euphrates."
They all write to king Artaxerxes urging him to intervene and stop the Jews rebuilding Jerusalem. The questions is, why does the writer of Ezra suddenly jump forward to give us this snapshot of the opposition that the people of Judah and Jerusalem would face for the next 100 or so years? Why does he take the time to stress the fact that following God means facing opposition that persists?
Well, I'm not entirely sure, but I think that part of the reason is to show us that Opposition that Persists...is normal.
The angry nations, the enemies of Judah and Benjamin that we met in v1, they weren't unusual, they weren't the exception to the rule, they were the rule. Christians facing opposition isn't strange, it's normal.
It seems strange to us because we live in the Western world, in the 21st Century. But in actual fact it is us and our situation that is strange. For most Christians around the world, and for most of history, Christians and Christianity has faced opposition. Opposition that persists is normal. Again and again and again the Bible tells us that we can and we should expect to face opposition in our lives.
Opposition that flatters, from enemies who pretend to be friends. Opposition that hates, from those who, no matter how well we treat them or how much we love them, still chose to hate us. And opposition that persists, year after year after year.
The sobering message of Ezra 4 is that following God means facing opposition.
So what should we do? What should Christians do when they face opposition that persists? Firstly, we should...
Never give up
In Acts chapter 5 the apostles are arrested for telling people about Jesus. This is what it says, v40...
"They [that is the religious leaders called the Sanhedrin] called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go."
The apostles were beaten up and ordered to keep silent. And then we read this in the next verse, vv 41-42...
"The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ."
The sad news in Ezra 4 is that when we get to the end of the chapter in v24 we discover that the opposition worked.
For the next 15 years no more work was done on the temple. But the right response when we face opposition is to never give up. Secondly...
Remember that God wins
Opposition can be serious and costly. Never giving up obeying God and telling people about Jesus sometimes comes at a high price. Sometimes it even means being ready to die for your faith. Thousand of Christians around the world die every year for following God. But we need to remember, even then, that God always wins. His plans never fail. In fact very often it's through opposition and persecution that God brings about his plans. Even when we face the harshest opposition, god is still at work. And we get just a glimpse of that in Ezra 4.
Look at v21. King Artaxerxes orders the work to stop, it says, "so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order."
Well the amazing thing is, some years later Artaxerxes did order Jerusalem to be rebuilt! In fact it is king Artaxerxes who in chapter 7 sends Ezra to restore worship in the temple. And it's king Artaxerxes in Nehemiah 2 who sends Nehemiah to build the walls.
No opposition can stop God's plans. So when we face opposition we need to remember that God wins.
And finally, when we face opposition, the Bible tells us that we need to...\
Fix your eyes on heaven.
In Matt 5, Jesus says these familiar words...
"Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven..."
Choosing to follow God means that at times you and I will face opposition. Opposition that flatters. Opposition that hates. And opposition that persists. Let's pray that when those times come God would help us to respond in a way that pleases him.