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After King Cyrus had made the proclamation for the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple, we are given a detailed listing of those who answered God’s call to go.  In Ezra chapter 2, we find just who was first to raise their hand and return to their homeland after nearly seventy years of captivity in Babylon.

Ezra 2:2 gives us the names of some leading men, but, interestingly, Ezra names the laity before he names the clergy in two instances in this account.  We can understand just how important the common people are in God’s plan for building and rebuilding his kingdom by recognizing this purposeful arrangement of facts.  This emphasis on the usefulness and important work of common men is one of the main themes of both Ezra and Nehemiah.

In verses 2-35 we are told the names of the common people.  In verses 36-58 we are given the names of the clergy including the priests, Levites, singers, sons of the gatekeepers, the temple servants, and the sons of Solomon’s servants.

Notice that only the sons of the gatekeepers and the sons of Solomon’s servants are mentioned.  The reason for this is because in captivity there was no gate to keep and no Jewish king to serve.  Those who had done these jobs prior to the exile had died and only their sons were alive to carry on their work when they finally returned to their homeland.

Lastly, in verses 59-63 we are told the names of those who returned but could not prove their ancestry as belonging to Israel.  The sons of Barzillai were mentioned in particular as having intermarried and traded their Jewish names for a foreign title.  Because of this reason they were not found in the genealogies and were excluded from the priesthood and partaking of the holy food.

The lot of these men should serve as a warning to we who are ever tempted to trade our identity in Christ for that which the world offers.  The stakes are higher yet for us, because the record that keeps our names is the Lamb’s Book of Life and the consequences of not being found therein are eternal exclusion from the Lord’s table.

Lastly, in Ezra 2 we are told that the first things many of these families did when they came to the ruins of the house of God in Jerusalem was give offerings of gold, silver, and priestly garments.  With their personal generosity and willingness, they proved that they were serious about their commitment to serve the Lord and build His kingdom.  Let us learn to do the same.

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turns

The book of Ezra opens with a heathen king fulfilling prophesy spoken by God’s prophet 150 years prior.  Cyrus had just been appointed king over Persia.  The Jews were living in exile as captives in Babylon which was under Persian rule.  They had been there for almost 70 years because of their disobedience to God.  Jeremiah had prophesied that their captivity would only last 70 years and Isaiah had prophesied that a man named Cyrus would be responsible for the rebuilding of his temple.

“In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing.” ~Ezra 1:1

The ultimate reason this king released the Jews and sent them home is found in verse number one: “…that the word of the Lord might be fulfilled…”  God, in order to accomplish his own purposes for his special people, “…stirred up the spirit…” of a king who didn’t even know or worship him as God.  God directed this man’s heart and he did exactly what God ordained.  Proverbs 21:1 says, “The hearts of kings are in the hand of the Lord, and, like the rivulets of water, he turneth them which way soever he will.”  Matthew Henry says, “It is said of Cyrus that he knew not God, nor how to serve him; but God knew him, and how to serve himself by him.  God governs the world by his influences on the spirits of men, and, whatever good is done at anytime, it is God that stirs up the spirit to do it, puts thoughts into the mind, gives to he understanding to form a right judgement, and directs the will which way he pleases.  Whatever good offices therefore are, at any time, done for the church of God, he must have the glory of them.”  

King Cyrus wasted no time freeing the Jews.  In his very first year as king, he made this proclamation throughout his entire kingdom:

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” ~Ezra 1:2-4

There is something to be said of a man who does right, right away.  When we are put into a position of authority or influence, righting wrongs and doing justice ought always to be first on our list.  One cannot make new plans or start new endeavors in any new context lest he first tie up the loose ends that the last guy left hanging.  Cyrus shows good leadership by attending to these exiles as his first priority when he is appointed king.

King Cyrus not only sends God’s people home, he tells them to rebuild the temple and commands everyone in his kingdom to give those going back to Jerusalem the materials to do it!  He commands everyone in his kingdom to give the Jews their silver, gold, goods, beasts, and offerings!

Imagine this now.  You’re living in a foreign land with no rights.  You are a prisoner of war.  Your people have been there held captive for nearly 70 years.  A new leader comes to power and he not only sends you home, he makes his own citizens give you all their valuables so you can rebuild your place of worship when you get there.  This kind of thing just doesn’t happen.  God is the only one who can orchestrate a deliverance like that.

Do you think some of the people returning went only to get the goods?  Do some today build and plant churches only to build their own kingdoms on the heels of others’ giving?  You bet.

Nevertheless, some leaders rose up from among the Jews to direct the people returning to Jerusalem.  The text says “…everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem…” went.

Who went?

Everyone whose spirit God had stirred up to go. 

The origin of a man’s action or inaction is always found in God’s purpose and direction for him, without which we would never choose right.  Proverbs 20:24 says, “A man’s steps are from the Lord; how then can man understand his way?”  

King Cyrus also returned valuable items that the previous king (Nebuchadnezzar) had taken from the Jews when he conquered them.  He had them count the goods returned and he sent them home.

God used a godless man to restore his people; to show mercy to his people.  Despite their rebellion and sin against him, God forgave.  They had endured 70 years of consequences for their disobedience, but God was faithful to completely forgive and restore them after he disciplined them.

We serve a God who overflows with mercy and abounds in love toward us.  He is able to turn the hearts of kings and stir the spirits of men to do that which he calls.  We serve a God who is altogether sovereign.  Take comfort.  He is in complete control of every last circumstance.

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article

This is a response to William Nicholson’s article on abstinence from alcohol printed in the May 15, 2018 edition of the Herald-Standard.

Dear Pastor,

In response to your recent article concerning consumption of alcohol by Christian people, I have a few thoughts I would like you, and anyone who has read your commentary, to kindly consider.

While I do appreciate your willingness to share your beliefs and concerns, and I am thankful for your service to the Lord and His people in our community, I fear that some of the things you have purposed are your personal preferences and opinions rather than the truth of what God’s Word teaches on these matters.  That is why I felt it necessary to offer a few ideas that might shed some more light on this subject for the readers.

Let me just begin by acknowledging where we agree.  Of course our culture is full of those who would push the idea that anything and everything is acceptable and that no one can judge.  The Bible tells us that as Christians, we are only to judge the church and those who belong to it, not those who are in the world.  With that, we must make judgements about all things daily that we might know how to live, how to work, and how to rightly please Our Lord.

Still, the error of our culture in this area must not dictate counter-error from us.  The practical living out of the Christian life is summed up in one word: balance.  Many times when we see an abuse or a problem of any nature wreaking havoc upon our brothers and sisters, we react to the pain and the problem by swinging all the way to the opposite side of the pendulum.  Extremes tend to cause even more problems, firstly, because they are no more Biblical than the other extreme, and secondly, because we end up failing to carry the load of man-made rules that we are trying to place upon everyone else.  Not only that, but we miss the forest for the trees when we mistake rule-following for self-control.

Asceticism is not the fruit of a well-lived Christian life.  Self-control is the ultimate fruit of a well-lived Christian life.  This is true as it pertains to recreation of any kind – including, but certainly not limited to alcohol consumption.

You give many reasons to avoid drunkenness and the lack of self-control regarding alcohol, but none for those of us who possess self-control and balance and do not stumble in this area.  You pose a number of questions to which I would like to reply.

  1. “Does my drinking help or does it hinder the Gospel?” This is a great question.  You are right in saying we ought to ask it, but you are incorrect in assuming the answer is always that it hinders.   Does playing baseball help the Gospel?  Does my taking a vacation help the Gospel?  Does going out to eat help the Gospel?  Does riding my motorcycle help the Gospel?  Does running a race help the Gospel?  Does going to church help the Gospel?  Does preaching the Gospel help the Gospel?

The answers to these questions are the same for each and every question including yours when we are surrendered to Christ wholly.  The answer is, all of these things help spread the Gospel and make disciples if we use them for God’s glory and not our own.

I have watched in utter speechless awe as my husband sat in a bar speaking candidly with several young men about purity, responsibility, and avoiding the snares of pornography, extramarital sex, and true godly manhood with beer in hand.  Was he drunk?  No.  Was he purposeful and led of God to be in that place at the time ministering to people he would not otherwise have reached?  Absolutely.

You see, every single thing we do must be done with self-control, balance, and the Gospel at the forefront or NONE of it furthers God’s Kingdom.  Not church.  Not preaching.  Not giving.  Not abstaining.  Nothing honors God that is not done with a right heart, an attitude of love and grace, and the Holy Spirit’s leading on our lives.

That said, I have been to many a church who were saying and doing all the right religious things only to find that they cared nothing for God’s people or his gospel when the rubber met the road and it was going to cost them something to do justice.

  1. “Does my drinking alcohol help other Christians grow closer to the Lord and are the lost more likely to trust Christ by knowing that I use alcohol?”

I believe I answered this in part under your first question’s answer, but I will just add that I don’t really think the world is looking for a certain kind of Christian in their search for truth. They’re looking for a certain kind of human. One who loves, cares, reaches out to them, and isn’t afraid to talk about hard things. One that looks like Jesus. Not one of us have it all figured out. All we have is the Word. It matters very little what you say you believe when the actions and lack of action toward those who don’t or are struggling to believe those things is absent. I’ve known many man who had pristine and near perfect doctrine who cared little to nothing for God’s children.

  1. Does drinking help a Christ to abstain from all appearance of evil? Is drinking allowing us to obey the admonition that we are always to be sober-minded?

Alcohol, according to the Bible, is NOT innately evil.  It is what people choose to do with it that makes it evil or good.  It is not what goes into a man that causes sin, but what comes out.  Music is not innately evil.  Competition is not innately evil.  Work is not innately evil.  Sex is not innately evil.  God created ALL THINGS for good and to be enjoyed in honor and glory to HIM.  What if we took the abstinence approach with music?  With work?  With sex?  No one would be allowed to do anything even within the parameters of scripture!!!  There’s a word for that heresy.  It is called asceticism and it is a works-based religion.  It is not Christianity.  We serve a God of diversity and grace.

  1. What benefit can drinking possibly bring to Christian maturity or to one’s testimony?

To that end I ask again, what benefit can baseball bring?  What benefit can vacation bring?  What benefit can church bring?  What benefit can any activity under the sun bring to our Christian maturity or testimony?  The answer is obvious.  All things bring glory to God and grow us if we do them in obedience, honor, and surrender to His Word.  Jesus did not forbid alcohol.  In fact, he turned water into wine for the whole wedding and all in attendance!  Doubtless he drank with the wedding guests!  God created this world for us to enjoy.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with relaxing and recreation in self-controlled, balanced ways as a Christian.

You are right in saying that abstaining from alcohol does not prove one is saved or assure that one is an obedient and faithful Christian.  We must know ourselves and our weaknesses well enough to know what we personally must avoid and what we may partake of.  But those things, unless the scripture forbids, are our personal choices to make.  As a pastor, placing this restriction on all people and calling it what is best is to miss the freedom Christ gave us for all things in moderation.  Worse, it simply is not Biblical.

Lastly, I rarely drink alcohol at all, but I personally believe that teaching Christians that the most godly thing to do is to abstain entirely is unfortunate and leads to legalism and self-righteousness.  If we want to address THE issue in the church, let’s talk about self-control, legalism, and self-righteousness.

Here is my Biblical study on the subject:

Habbakuk 2:15 – I included this one because I think it is important to note what is going on in this scenario in regards to insobriety.  Here, the implication is clearly that such a person is using alcohol or drugs in order to carry out strictly evil intentions, abuse against others through manipulation.

Eccl 10:16-20 – The context in this passage referred to rulers or leaders of the land.  The implications seem to point to the fact that (especially) people in authority ought not to be ruled by their appetites for food or drink.  Food, drink and merriment are to be taken only after the daily work, services, and duties are exhausted.  In other words, eat and drink at the proper time; do not be rules by appetites and allow them to infringe upon your call or work.  The author tells us that the purpose of wine is to “gladden life” or “make merry.”

Matthew Henry says this: “When the subordinate magistrates are more in care to discharge their trusts than to gratify their appetites; when they eat in due season, that is when they have dispatched their business, and got them an appetite…Though wine makes merry, makes glad the life, but money is the measure of all things and answers all things.  Though wine make merry, it will not be a house for us, nor a bed, nor clothing, nor provisions and portions for children…Some refer this to rulers; it is ill with the people when they give up themselves to luxury and riot, feasting and making merry, not only because their business is neglected, but because money must be had to answer all these things, and, in order to that, the people squeezed by heavy taxes.”

Luke 12:41-48 seems to point to this same leadership principle of working diligently at the proper time and eating and drinking at the proper time.  There is a faithlessness displayed regarding rulers who abuse and misuse their authority evidenced by abuse of food and drink at the expense of their work and others’ well-being.

Eph 5:18 – Here Paul speaks about being drunk with wine and it leading to debauchery.  I read Sproul’s study notes and this is what he says: “This is more than a prohibition of simple drunkenness.  Paul probably refers to an orgiastic form of worship such as was practiced by the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine.  Worship of Dionysus involved drunken states in which the god was thought to enter the bodies of worshippers, inspiring prophesy and frenzied dancing and music.  Such worship is debauchery.

1 Cor 5:11Gal 5:21, and Rom 13:13 all point to drunkenness and place it together with orgies, sexual immorality, and the like.  This is a state of oblivion and lewdness.
Deut 21:20, Prov 23:21, 1 Tim 3:2 – These passages point to a general lifestyle of over indulgence.  Being a drunkard or a glutton, to me, conveys an identity drawn from gross frequency, daily imbibing, and general lack of self-control in several areas.  I do not believe this fits for someone who has a few beers after the kids are asleep on Friday night.

1 Tim 3:2, 3:11, Titus 1:8, 2:2, 2:12 –  These passages refer to deacons and elders in the church being called to be sober-minded, self-controlled and live godly lives.

1 Thess 5:7, 1 Peter 1:13, 4:7, 5:8, Luke 21:34 – If I were going to disciple someone about sobriety, these would be the passages I would use.  These passages all point to being sober as a means to do good work for the Lord, for the sake of our prayers, and because the devil is preying upon us at all times.  They point to the fact that insobriety will lead to neglect of God (like the rulers’ neglect of duty above) , a lack of vigilance, an unwatchfulness that may leave us open to ungodly suggestion and the danger of not producing spiritual fruit.

I looked up insobriety and the synonyms were excessiveness, exorbitance, immoderacy, immoderation, excess, intemperance.  The antonyms were moderateness, moderation, and temperance.

I have to say that after looking at these things I do feel that there is a definite need for caution in this area – whether it be food or drink – but I am not convinced that the moderate use of alcohol or food is innately sinful or evil.  It all falls under Colossians 1 and 2 as far as I can tell.  Even if we were to strictly adhere to the do not handle, do not taste, do not touch principle that most of the church insists upon, as the writer rightly indicates, doing so has no value in stopping the underlying indulgence of the flesh, and, as Sproul notes, may actually even create its own indulgence by way of pride and legalistic superiority.

He says this:  (Discussing “of no value” in Col 2:23 – The Greek of this verse is very difficult.  It apparently means not only that the ascetic discipline Paul is opposing are worthless, but that they are actively harmful, exciting their own sort of “indulgence of the flesh.”  This is precisely what the Reformers – preeminently Luther – saw themselves up against in the extra-biblical rituals that had emerged in the medieval church.”

In regards to idolatry I definitely believe, again, that caution and moderation are imperative in this area as well as every other.  When I think of idolatry in my own life I think of relationships, hobbies, shopping, food, and alcohol.  While I would not stop serving my husband and children or stop being a consumer or stop eating, I do not feel abstaining from alcohol altogether is key.   There are things I must abstain from altogether in order to be holy and avoid strong temptations.  Absolutely there are.  But this is not one of those areas.  Alcohol does not control my life.  Therefore, when I think of its use, I think of the same neutrality I think of for these other areas.  Can they become idols?  Absolutely.  Depending upon quantity, frequency, and at what expense I intend to partake, they can either be useful or sinful.  Should I eat a cupcake at a birthday party?  Is it healthful for my “temple”?  No.  If I were a perfect person, I may never do such a thing.  But Paul told me everything is permissible – it is the benefit (or lack there-of ) which is contingent upon context.  Wisdom and discernment must be used in all these areas in order to avoid idolatry, overindulgence, and failing to love our brothers who may stumble if we should choose to go public with our liberty.
 

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ezra

I finished the book of Nehemiah over a month ago.  I got on the busy train and it wouldn’t let me off.  I took a little break from my commentary series.  Nevertheless, I am starting into the book of Ezra today.  It feels a little backwards because Ezra and his dealings with the Jewish people came before Nehemiah’s but this is the timing the Lord led me to carry out in my studies.

Ezra was a scribe in the 5th century.  At that time, the Jews were in captivity under King Nebuchadnezzar originally, then King Darius.  Their exile out of Jerusalem and into Babylon was a direct result of their repeated disobedience to God, including gross idolatry.  There are always consequences for our sin.  Always.

Still, the Jews had the promise of God that their captivity would last only 70 years.  The prophet Jeremiah spoke of this time span in Jeremiah 25:12.  Though he was greatly hated, ignored, and persecuted by his own people at the time, Jeremiah’s true words concerning God’s people prove true even to this day.  I feel you, Jer.

Not only did God give his prophets the time span of how long the captivity would last, he also told them the very name of the man who would release them from it.  The prophet Isaiah prophesied to God’s people that King Cyrus would free them 150 years before Cyrus even came to power.  I can almost hear them gasp at this revelation.  Isaiah referred to Cyrus as God’s “anointed” and they knew this man was to be outside of Israel and God’s people.  (Isaiah 44-45)  Not only that, but they also had the words of Daniel wherein King Darius (who was then ruling Babylon) had decreed that God’s kingdom would never be destroyed.  (Daniel 6:25-28)

That is where we begin in the book of Ezra.  The book of Ezra was written for the encouragement of God’s people because they were not yet released from exile.  They were still living under Persian rule.  This book served to help them keep the faith and trust that God was continuing to work out his Sovereign, redemptive plans for their ultimate good.  If that’s not something hard to believe when suffering is long and circumstances are unchanging, I don’t know what is.  Ezra is quite a useful and relevant book to study indeed.

There are essentially three separate groups of God’s people returning to their home in Jerusalem from Babylon.  The first we will study in Ezra chapters 1-6, the second in Ezra chapters 7-10, and the third we have already covered in the book of Nehemiah.

It will be exciting to see how God uses a heathen King to accomplish his purposes for the good of his people.  We will see firsthand how the words of Proverbs 21:1 and Matthew Henry are true:

“The hearts of kings are in the hand of the Lord, and, like the rivulets of water, he turneth them which way soever he will.  It is said of Cyrus that he knew not God, nor how to serve him; but God knew him, and how to serve himself by him, Isaiah 45:4.  God governs the world by his influence on the spirits of men, and whatever good is done at any time, it is God that stirs up the spirit to do it, puts thoughts into the mind, gives to the understanding to form a right judgement, and directs the will which way he pleases.  Whatever good offices therefore are, at any time, done for the church of God, he must have the glory of them.” Matthew Henry

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girl

Tomorrow I leave to compete in the Mrs. Pennsylvania America Pageant.  Today I can’t help but spend some time reminiscing.  This whole experience has truly been an unexpected blessing.

We had our last conference call last night and afterward I just sat and thought about how thankful I am to have been a part of this group.  I may or may not have been ugly crying like when the credits run after watching “The Notebook.” From the very beginning, the women I have met and gotten to know have been God’s providential blessing in my life.

When I began this journey back in January, I had just endured one of the worst years of my life.  I had resolved on January 1 to put the past behind me and do all that I possibly could to live in the present, with the help of God, untangle myself from the injurious events of the past year, and, as my husband always says, keep moving forward.  Nearly five months later, I am so thankful to say that participating in the Mrs. Pennsylvania America Pageant has helped me tremendouslyto do just that.

From day one, it was quite unexpected and, frankly, altogether surprising to me that this is my reality.  People don’t do pageants to restore hope in their lives.  Do they?  I don’t really know but I never thought so.  People go to church to restore their hope.  Maybe they go to a pastor or an altar.  But what does someone do when the church, the pastor, and the altar exclude and harshly reject them?  I purpose that that person finds a new community of encouragement.  Mine just happened to be the pageant community.

From the day I met the women involved in this year’s event, I was uplifted.  The first thing I was told by the co-director was that I am a pillar in my community.  That’s not something a stay-at-home homeschooling mom hears every day.  From the very beginning I felt so overwhelmed by the encouragement, positivity, faith, and inspiration of every one of the women I had the privilege of meeting and getting to know that I had no choice but to make good on my resolutions to climb up out of the position of discouraged disillusionment and move forward to the places I am called to go.

All that to say that I am truly so thankful that I participated in this amazing experience.  I have not even stepped onto the stage yet, but I have already received the best prize I could ever be given.  That prize is being part of a community who loves and encourages one another toward greatness.  That prize is friendship and camaraderie.  That prize is inspiration, determination, and drive.  You cannot put a price tag on those things because they are invaluable.  These also just happen to be the very things that I personally am trying to improve upon in the lives of those around me with my own platform: community enrichment.  Thank you, Mrs. Pennsylvania America Class of 2018, for delivering on the premise and promises of this organization.  I am better for having known all of you and I could not be more thankful and excited about this weekend.  I hope you win.  ❤

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