In the 16th and 17th centuries, a group of English Protestant Christians called Puritans sought to purify the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices, maintaining the Church of England which had not been fully reformed and reclaimed it for God’s holy purposes. The puritans in England have contributed much to English Congregationalism, where our church’s domination arose. The Puritans feared God and understood his holiness, and they were aware of our failings as humans. The Puritans also contributed many writings about confessions of our sins and its accompanying repentance that spring from a high view of God and an awe of his holiness. What the Puritans tried to do in English Reformation, is like what Ezra did for the returned Israelites from exile.
Last week we learned about Ezra sorrow and confession because of the unfaithfulness of Israel. In response to his public prayer contrasting God’s faithfulness with Israel’s habitual unfaithfulness, many people within the Jewish community joined him in mourning their sins. Their brokenness before God became the first step in restoring the community of God to its calling as God’s people.
1) People join in a demonstration of sorrow over Israel’s sin
Ezra chapter 10 verse 1 records that “While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly.” Ezra was troubled because certain Jews had married women from the pagan cultures of the area. He saw these marriages as a breach of Israel’s covenant to remain separate and holy unto God. He lied down and faced down before God’s Temple in an outer court as a public prayer and confession. So men, women and children too gathered together and wept together.
People cry out loud because of guilt and sorrow for sins committed against God’s Word. Ezra’s weeping brought others to the point of sorrow. His action motivated people around as a leader to make a significant stand. And it is the standard behaviour of repentance that starts with the sorrow of our sins. Again and again, I see people come to Christ in tears. They were crying when the Holy Spirit has awakened them of their sins. Their tears before repentance were the first step of transformation; this is what we called regeneration by the Spirit.
After that, in verse 2 onward, Shecaniah stepped up as the spokesman for those gathering at the temple court. He acknowledged the misdeeds of the minority by breaking God’s covenant and marrying foreign women from a pagan background. He also saw hope for Israel. To make a new covenant before God so that they might be free from the bondage of sin. So Schecaniah offered a plan to send away all these pagan women and their children by divorce. He said this is to be done “in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. 4 Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.” (Ezra 10:3b-4)
According to Deuteronomy chapter 7, intermarriage to pagans was strictly forbidden “3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4) Suppose the priests and Levites had intermarried with pagan women. In that case, it could be compared today to a Christian marrying a devil worshiper. It was a big taboo in the covenant society of Israel, even if there were only 113 cases of approximately 29,000 families. Ezra’s strong act was very difficult for some people. Still, it was necessary to preserve Israel as a nation committed to God, to prevent the families to be like the Northern Kingdom before the exile, who had lost their spiritual identity through intermarriage with Gentiles. Their pagan spouses had caused the people to worship idols. Foreign women were married contrary to the law of God in the Old Testament time. They live in sin with their foreign wives by worshipping and bowing down to idols of their wives’ pagan religions. So Ezra did not want this to happen again to the exiles from the southern kingdom of Judah.
Nevertheless, we are living in the 21st century, under the Ending time in between Christ’s resurrection and His return. Someone might ask, does this marriage law still apply to us today? Well, first thing first, the majority of us are not Jewish. However, the issue of intermarriage with non-believers or with worshipers of other faith applies to us in principle. For example, suppose you, a Christian, marry a Buddhist or a Muslim person. In that case, you and your children might have to follow their tradition or attend their religious festivals, including pagan worships, or not going to church so that you can watch football games or to shopping centres on Sundays instead of worshiping God. So many times that I heard Christians, even some committed Christians, have been drifting away from their church lives or no longer serving God as their priority in their lives after they met or married non-believing spouses, or spouses with other faiths. The non-believing partner has become thorns and chokes up their spiritual life; they no longer read the Bible or pray or go to church as often because of the negative influence from mingling with the non-religious or pagan partner. And it is a very sad thing. If the non-believing partner seeks the Lord and come to Sunday Worship, it was good, but it is not that often; most of the time is the other way around. The non-Christian drags the Christian believer away from God. And Ezra was trying to stop this kind of intermarriage with non-believers culture among the returned exiles who have just finished rebuilding the Temple and started over their religious lives to the LORD again in Jerusalem. But we need to remember that this does not mean we should reject non-Christian friends or friends with different religious believes. If we only keep Christian friends, we will never be able to effectively bring the gospel to the world. Rather, Ezra only ask us to not marry them. We are not trying to be discriminatory or exclusive like an elite social club, but we aim to be holy and wise in choosing a fellow Christian as spouse for life that can honour God and Jesus. Missionary dating does not work. So many times, I saw wise people wait until the admirer become a Christian, before start dating them, and because Jesus is in their relationship as their master and wonderful councillor, both remain their faith and aim for Christian marriage that glorifies God. Their relationship is build upon the love of Christ, and following the wisdom from the Scripture as a guideline for life.
On the contrary, because of the unwise decision of the Israelites who mingled with pagan Gentiles, so in verse 5 onward, under the suggestion of Shecaniah, the leaders of three different groups of Jews took an oath to execute the command to send the foreign women away. They were now bound by oath for the covenant renewal, while Ezra went to one of the temple rooms and fasted for the sin of his people. In Jewish culture, fasting and refrain from food is a sign of mourning and repentance. Ezra was doing it on behalf of his people. Following Ezra’s earnest prayer, the people confessed their sin to God. Then they asked for direction in restoring their relationship with God. True repentance does not end with words of confession. We don’t serve God with lip service. Repentance always accompanies actions to change our attitudes and behaviours away from sin. When we sin and are genuinely sorry, we confess it to God, ask for His forgiveness, and accept His grace and mercy. Then, as an act of thankfulness for your forgiveness, make the needed corrections.
2) The nation assembled to confront the intermarriage issue
After all the oaths made by the leaders and fasting of Ezra, they called all the exiles to assemble in Jerusalem; if anyone failed to appear within three days, they would lose their property, namely losing their inheritance in the Promised land, and be expelled from the assembly of God’s people. They sit in the square in front of the Temple, and it was raining. And a command is issued in verse 10, “Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. 11 Now honour the LORD, the God of your ancestors, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.”
And everyone in the assembly responded to Ezra’s call to keep themselves holy from other pagan people.
The believers from the exile have confessed their sins to God in Ezra’s days. But today after Jesus has came to earth, all our sins are forgiven. Jesus’ death cleansed us from all sin. But why do we then still confess our sins? Confession is more than appropriating Christ’s forgiveness for what we have done wrong. Confession agrees with God that our thoughts, words and deeds are wrong and contrary to his will. It is recommitting ourselves to do his will and renouncing any acts of disobedience. We do not have to confess sins that were previously confessed. Confession involves turning away from all known sin and asking God for fresh power to live for him.
The most important part of confession is the change of our attitudes toward sins and turn back to God. A drunken person no longer drinks, a wife abuser no longer hit his spouse, a womaniser no longer sleeps around, a thief finds a job and earns honest money, a liar, or a scammer no longer lies but be honest to people around him. Jesus can change our lives around, and he transforms us with a new identity through his words and by his Holy Spirit. All we need is the heart of obedience to God’s Word and the will to submit our lives to follow Christ. Our communion service is for this very purpose to remind ourselves that we are saved through Christ’s blood of forgiveness of sins; our public prayers of confession is also made from time to time to help us renew our hearts to follow God, turning away from sin and ask for God’s favour and forgiveness. We are a renewed people, made holy to God, in remembrance of Christ’s death for us on the Cross. It is a continual process throughout our lives to be renewed day by day so that we will be more like Jesus in our thoughts, words and deeds, because we failed to do so in our human nature, and constantly asking God’s forgiveness through our repentance and confession of sins so that we will be washed clean. And sin no more.
As it is written in 1 John 1:8-9, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
3) Ezra appointed a commission to investigate the cases
But in Israel’s case, to send away their pagan wives and family cannot be done in a single day, so Ezra selected the family heads of each family and clans, and they sat down to investigates. From verse 18-44, the book listed all the families among the exiles who have transgressed the law and being unfaithful to God by marrying foreign and pagan wives.
The book of Ezra opens with God’s Temple in ruins and the people of Judah captive in Babylon. Ezra tells a story of the return of God’s people, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the restoration of the sacrificial worship system. Similarly, our God is able to restore and rebuild the lives of people today. No one is so far away from God that he cannot be restored. God can restore everyone to be holy. Repentance is all that is required. No matter how far we have strayed or how long it has been since we have worshipped God, he is able to restore our relationship to him and rebuild our lives.
Therefore, if you have any issues or sins that you feel guilty about it, do not worry. Confess them to Jesus, make the change today, and let Jesus restore your relationship with God, rebuilding your lives to be his people. The aim is to receive God’s call of repentance so that our father in heaven will be your holy God, and we will be His holy people through the washing of our sins by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And by the Power of Jesus’ salvation, the Holy Spirit will himself renews us and regenerates us into a new, spiritual people for God. I pray that all of us will keep ourselves holy for God under the guidance of the Spirit. Let us build up one another and encourage one another to be faithful to God. Let us ask God for all these good things. (Pray)
- What are the challenges and influences you might get if you marry non-believers?
- What is repentance by definition? Is there anything that you want to repent of? If yes, confess it to God in your heart.
- If we see other Christian fail or sin, what can we do as his brother or sister in Christ?