I recently read a passage from the book of Ezra that has begun to make an incredible impact in my heart. This passage is a great example of how easily the faithful can be dismayed when faced with intense discouragement and persecution and how necessary it is to receive encouragement from the Lord in order to keep the faith.
Chapter 3 of Ezra chronicles the attempt to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem after the nation of Judah returned from exile. It begins with hopeful hearts and joyful songs as the people build the foundation of temple. They “sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, ‘For He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.'”(3:11) But in the midst of the shouts of praise, another voice could be heard. This voice is that of “the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house (temple)” who “wept aloud when they saw the foundations of this house being laid.” There are those within the church who will not rejoice when God is doing a “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19). Instead, they will tell about how good things used to be and how the current situation is ineffective, or inefficient, or irreverent. They live for the glory of the past, rather than for the glory of God IN the past, present, and future.
Grumbling from within, however, is only the beginning. Chapter 4 tells us that the outlying people of the land, “the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” (4:1) came to “help” but quickly turned and “discouraged the people of Judah and made them afraid to build and bribed counselors (city officials) against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus, king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius, king of Persia (about 20 years!).” (4:4-5) Can you imagine 20 years of frustrated attempts to do that which God has called you to? This is a reminder that the world will not love us or support us in our desire to go hard after God. Jesus said that if the world hated him, they would do the same to his disciples (John 15:18), and I don’t think it is a stretch to say that he was speaking about us today as well. We should expect this sort of persecution. When your church wants to expand it’s facility, expect neighbors to lobby against it. When you speak to someone you meet about Jesus, expect to be brushed off, put down, or scoffed at. When a a young woman expresses a desire to raise a large family and stay home to care for them, expect persecution. We expect these things because we are not of the world. We are sojourners, wanderers, and aliens, strangers in a strange land. This world is not our home and we should not expect to be treated as though we belong here. But under this sort of opposition, we easily conform. It’s easier to try and look like the world, by denying our true nature, than it is to live in the light of the gospel and be ridiculed for it. This is what the people of Judah were dealing with, and for 20 years, they lived in fear of the earthly consequences of obedience to their Heavenly Father.
But beyond the outlying community, the persecution persisted. This time in the form of political pressure. Chapter 4 continues and records that the adversaries of Judah brought their case before the king, convincing him that the building of the temple would subvert his authority and the Jews would no longer serve him. It says in verse 22 that king Artaxerxes made a decree that the people of Judah “be made to cease, and that this city not be rebuilt, until a decree is made by me.” This decree was never made. It was not made because the king did not want his power and authority challenged. It was not made, because the government of the day did not share a reverence for the God of Israel. Nor does our government today. Our allegiance lies not with this country, or any other. It lies with the Lord. Our Power is above every power on earth, and no earthly kingdom wants to be overshadowed. We may live in an age of relative religious comfort in the west, but it will not always be so. And while we are thankful for the freedoms we have, we understand them to be given by God not by laws or wars or politicians.
We will face persecution, opposition, and discouragement; the question for us then is, “where does our hope lie?” Who is our source of encouragement. Chapter 5 of Ezra provides the answer for the people of Judah and the example for us to follow. “The prophets, Haggai and Zechariah… prophesied to the Jews… in the name of the God of Israel who was over them. Then (the Jews)… arose and began to rebuild the house of God… and the prophets of God were with them, supporting them” (5:1-2) They Jews needed to be reminded of who was in charge. They needed the encouragement that came in the name of the Lord to build their courage and stir up their hearts for the work of the ministry. We need this same encouragement. We need this same reminder. That in the face of opposition from within, from the world, or from the kingdoms of the world, we must remain steadfast and faithful to the calling to which we have been called, namely to go and make disciples, to tell of the good news of the gospel, and to shine our light before all men that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is is heaven. Our hope is in the Lord, our Savior and King. He is in control. He will lift us up.