The hand of the Lord

hand-174031_640Ezra 7:6: this Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD, the God of Israel, had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him.

The hand of the Lord made the difference in the life of Ezra. He has uncommon favour with the pagan king of Babylon, so that he was assisted to bring to pass what was in his heart, which was helping to restore the right order of life, according to the word of God, to Israel; after decades in which they were in exile and now returning to their land (Ezra 7:10-12, Nehemiah 8:4-8, 13-18).

To the level that God has called you to bring changes on the earth, the hand of the Lord will be upon you to get it done, regardless of the opposition. Ezra had the love of the law of the Lord at heart and over years he had studied and lived by it and developed a passion to communicate the truth and instituting in Israel the ways of the Lord. He was on assignment for God and he had his total backing.

That was what he has been doing over years in Babylon and gained a reputation for being an excellent handler of the law, and a communicator of the heart of God to the people.

So after years of being faithful, he was rewarded with the hand of the Lord upon him to be part of the rebuilding of Israel when they returned to the land.

Ezra was not known for building the temple, that was the Job of Zerubbabel (Zechariah 4:6), neither was he known for building the wall of Jerusalem, which was the call of God on Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:8) which he fulfilled. Both of them (Zerubbabel and Nehemiah) had the testimony that the hand of God was with them, that the grace of God marked their effort to carry out the divine mandate of the restoration of the nation.

They were both part of the restoration move of God at that time and so was Ezra. But his was more of the building the culture of the word of God in the life of the people. He was the leading teaching priest in his time. His was not a flamboyant ministry, he did not have political office, neither did he have an army, but he had the word of God and the willingness and the ability to teach people leading them to please God, among others so that the whole of the people will word as one. He was zealous about helping the people not to be disloyal to God of their ancestors, because of which they were judged by God and their cities left to rot.

Paul, intending to leave a legacy of the word of God, the word of truth in his generation, told Timothy: the words you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit it to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2Timothy 2:2). While Jesus was leaving the earth he gave the commission of teaching to his disciples. He said that they need to make disciples of all nations through teaching them his word (Matthew 28:19-20).

The apostles showed that they took those words of Jesus to heart, when later as the numbers of the disciples swelled, and there arose problems concerning the serving of food, they recommitted themselves to the Ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). Ezra was likewise committed to the ministry of the word.

Ezra ascribes the favour he has to the hand of God. He did not say:  I am so good, I am irresistible, I am the bomb, and I am the man. He knew it was not about him, he was just a tool in the hand of God, and God was making things happen for him so that he can use him in a special way in Jerusalem, to help get the people back to the ways of God through the teaching of the scriptures. The hand of God upon him was to ensure that he fulfil the plans of God through him for the nation of Israel. Years earlier, the hand of God was likewise upon Joseph to achieve his purpose for the children of Israel (Genesis 37, 39-50).

Joseph’s story has a bitter beginning but a sweet ending. He found himself in hard times at the age of seventeen when he was sold as slave to Egypt by his brothers. But when he became a slave he decided to be the best slave Potiphar, an Egyptian official, has ever had. He had the culture of doing his best in every assignment he is given in whatever situation.

Though he still does not know if the will of God is being served by his being slave yet he was fully faithful to God, refusing to commit fornication with his master’s wife and because of that, she lied against him and he found himself in prison and it seems the worst has happened.

But when he became the Prime Minster in Israel, the famine all over the world drove his family to Egypt and through his influence, they were preserved the nation of Israel (still a clan then) where they stayed for hundreds of year (and became a nation), in fulfilment of the plan of God which he revealed years earlier to Abraham, their ancient father.

It is easy to see the hand of God in the good things, e.g. Joseph coming from prison to be leader of all Egypt, but until we can see the hand of God in the seemingly bad things (e.g. Joseph’s imprisonment and sale as slave), we do not have a full understanding of the love of God and how all things work together for us who love God (Romans 8:28), and her called according to his purpose. God’s hand was upon Joseph because of his great purpose for his life, working in the good and the not-so-good event to bring him to an expected (blissful) end (Jeremiah 29:11). Joseph died in a full old age as a satisfied man, in the turbulence of his youth, he understand that it was the hand of God working, and thank God that he was imprisoned, thanked God that he was sold as slave, without which he would not be prime minister in Egypt. He lost some things. He lost years in the relationship with his sibling; which were remained the same, but it was well worth it in the context of the overall plan of God.

Later he summarised his life story in the following words: the Lord caused me to come ahead of you (children of Israel) to preserve you. The good, the good, the bad and the ugly was ultimately worked for good. Joseph recognised the operation of the mighty hand of God in his life’s journey.

So what the children for Israel thought they did to their brother motivated by hate, selling him as slave, was to sell him as slave was termed by Joseph with the benefit of hindsight as the operation of the hand of God. He said to them later on, what you meant for evil, God turned it out for good.

In both the pleasant and the not so pleasant things, he recognised that the hand of God guided him in a grand scale plan in his own mind, far beyond what Joseph could have planned for himself. The hand of God can move the pieces of our lives with such dexterity that at the end we can say: checkmate. In the end we win.

 

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Proclaiming a fast

plateEzra 8:21: Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek of him a straight way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.

How do you proclaim a fast? Should you proclaim a fast? Is it right to ask that a whole congregation fast all at once?

As far as Ezra was concerned proclaiming a fast was as a means of seeking God, a sign of humility and an expression of neediness.

By eating the forbidden fruit the first family showed their pride and rejection of the rule of God. I am talking about Adam and Eve.

In fasting, there is the expression of humility and dependence on God; conversely, eating the fruit (by Adam and Eve) signified independence from God.

Ezra was going to seek God for a straight way, the right way, for a safe journey, and that journey represented a new responsibility for him (Ezra 7:1-8:32).

He was the leader of a delegation that was taking valuables from Babylon back to Israel. It was a new chapter in his life, where he was changing location, going to a new place. He believed he needed help in this time of his transition. And he sought it through fasting and prayer.

He refused to lean on the arm of flesh (Jeremiah 17:5) by asking the king to supply security personnel, determined to lean on the everlasting arm. This means fasting is not “nothing”; it is big deal for those who want to have a walk with God, those who depend on God. It is the rejection of human strength to take on the strength of God.

Ezra called for fast, and there was no dissenting voice in the camp, as much as we know, meaning that they all saw the necessity for such a fast, believed enough in the leadership of Ezra and saw things from his perspective, having gained his vision.

Queen Esther also called for a fast. We do not know the length of the fast embarked upon by Ezra and his people but for Esther, it was three days and night of no eating or drinking, what you can call an absolute fast.

It was a time of a “national” emergency. Someone had gone to the king and moved him toward the destruction of all the Jews in the land at a particular date. If that had taken place, it means that there would be no Jesus Christ to come and save the world, if the nation that was to produce him, have all been wiped out, the plan of God for the earth was in serious jeopardy.

To stop this satanic agenda, Mordecai made a call to Esther that she needed to get to the king as a queen, for him to change his mind. But the problem is: you only approach the king without invitation, on the pain of death; hence Esther’s call for a fast. She called for an intense fast. The whole Jews in the capital city were to go without food or water for three days (night and day); they needed a rescue from God as the date determined to have them wiped out by the enemy of Israel drew near. And there was a reversal of fortune on that day for them. The nation was saved.

In Nineveh, the king called for a fast (Jonah 3). It was also in the face of impending danger to the nation. There was no fasting-sacrifice too much because the danger they faced just like Israel in a foreign land was that of being wiped out.  So they fasted for their own good. They decided to express their need for salvation from their impending doom through a fast, and the prophesied evil was averted.

In the New Testament one example of corporate fasting that we see was done by the leadership team of the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). Who decided to separate themselves not because they were in mortal danger but as an expression of corporate hunger for the presence of God?

Another place where corporate fasting was mentioned it was as part of the arrangement for ordaining elders, leaders in the churches that Paul and Barnabas founded (Acts 14:23). In fasting, they sought to invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit in a corporate setting, to help the people to carry on the work of leadership in that place. Remember that it was during a time of fasting that the Holy Spirit was invoked (in Antioch) and he said Paul and Barnabas should be set apart for a new role and they were thus energised for it.

However, Jesus seemed to condone the lack of fasting of his disciples as opposed to the practice of the Pharisees, and the disciples of John (Luke 5:33-35). Though he himself went without food for forty days and forty nights at the beginning of his ministry, it seemed he had a lax attitude towards fasting when it comes to his disciples. When people criticised his disciples for not fasting, He defended them saying: “they don’t need to.”

He criticised the prevailing manner of fasting at that time (Matthew 6:16-18). Then, fasting had become a part of public relations for the religious. Jesus described some people as hypocrites, who were fond of looking sad and making a scene of themselves when they fast to show how deeply religious they are, they seek to gain attention of the people when they fast so that they would be seen as really spiritual.

Jesus said that is what they are seeking (human attention) is what they will get and nothing more. They should not expect God to account to them any blessing because of the fast. That means that going without food without the right attitude delivers no spiritual value.

So throughout the time he (Jesus) was with the disciples, he taught the people on faith, and on following Him unflinchingly. He wanted them to focus on him.

When he spoke on why his disciples do not need to fast, he said it was because they don’t need to fast when he is with them. When with them, they have no need since he is all they need. But when he leaves, he said they will fast. It means fasting is a decision they will make when He is no longer with them in the flesh.

The occasions in the book of acts when the leadership of the church fasted happened based on what Jesus said that his disciples will fast when he is no longer with them.

Back to the original question of the validity or otherwise of congregational fasting; I don’t believe there is any hard and fast rule to it. Remember that the bible says that anyone who eats does so unto the Lord and anyone who does not eat, does not eat to the Lord (Romans 14:3-8). What that means is that the one who fasts (and in this case, the congregation who fast) should make sure it is focused on the Lord and the one who don’t, should still maintain an attitude of devotion to God.

Whatever the case, there is the biblical promise for reward of fasting; there is a release of new vision, new commission in fasting. There is renewal of spiritual strength in fasting, there is the denying, stifling the works of the flesh in fasting to release the spirit.

Don’t reject congregational fasting, cutting off yourself from the blessing in it. However you should ensure that your faith is not in fasting but in God.

 

A man of the word

woman-reading-bible-op-800x533Ezra 7:10: For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.

Ezra was a man of the word. He lived and breathed the word.  He invested years into the mastery of it, probably in the investigation of the hidden meaning and historical features; and above all, he invested his life into the practice of the word.

Ezra was a quintessential man of the word.  He committed his time to study it, his life to practice it and her talent for communicating it.

Jesus described the kind of man who is great in the kingdom of God as the one who obeys the word and teaches others to do the same (Matthew 5:17-20).

So Ezra qualifies to be called a great man. The psalmist said that your (God) word have I kept in my heart that I may not sin against you (Psalm 119:11). No one can presume to please God without checking out the divine demand in his word.

As a Christian, you are supposed to be a person of a book, the bible. You are to master the book, eat it inside out.

Okay, here is the hard truth: you should cover your eyes in shame if you are five year old as a Christian and have not read it from cover to cover. You should cover your face in shame.

Look at what Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:1-10); he told him that as the teacher in Israel, there was certain things, he was expected to know. In the book of Hebrews, the bible says that when some people ought to be teachers but still needed to be taught the elementary principles of faith, it is a sad situation (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Of Timothy, Paul affirmed that right from his childhood, he had known the Holy Scriptures, which is able to make him wise for salvation which is in Christ Jesus (2Timothy 3:14-17). And there are the Berean Jews who the bible says are noble and take the pain search out the truthfulness of the words of Paul, for themselves, from the scriptures (Acts 17:10-12).

Jesus acknowledged that the Pharisees search the scriptures, you should do nothing less (John 5:29). Or are you not even curious, do you not have any sense of exploration at all? What excuses are you giving yourself to not have finished the bible from cover to cover all these while, or is it just plain laziness? Examine yourself, and shake off yourself from the chains of lethargy when it comes to the 66 books of the bible.

Don’t you want to be taken on the adventure called the bible that starts with the creation dynamics (Genesis) to the future of the world in the book of Revelation? Except you have allowed people to tell you to see the bible in a negative light: as the book of fables, as myths, or blatant lies? Have you been taught to not respect Paul and what he stands for, being responsible for many of the books in the New Testament? Shake off those wrong thinking and embrace the blessing in the word.

As a man of the word Ezra studied, practiced and taught the word of God

Study

Paul told Timothy to give diligence to his study of the word of God (2Timothy 2:14-16) so that when he stands to preach he would accurately divided the word of truth. You cannot give what you don’t have. It is the depth of your meditation on the word that will determine the flow of it from you.

You are called to stand apart as a man who studies God’s word. Every one of us is called to continue in God’s word (John 8:31). To study means to pay more than a cursory attention to the word of God. It means to seek to understand how passages of scriptures relate to each other, and how they relate to the plan of God for your life, for the church and for the ages.

A psalmist prayed that God will open his eyes to behold wondrous things out of His word (Psalm 119:18). In every act of studying the word, we need the illumination of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17, 15:26, 16:12-14). Regardless of your age and exposure in life, God’s word is opened to those who realise that the Holy Spirit is the one who brings the reality of the word to them, who brings out the treasure from the word out to them.

To study means you seek to have a comprehensive view of the word. Through that we would no more be children and tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14-15). We are admonished that in malice we should be novice but in understanding we should be mature (1Corinthians 14:20).

Practice

We are admonished to not be hearers of the word only, thereby deceiving ourselves but we should be doers of the word (James 1:21-25). Jesus brought a strong indictment against the Pharisee, telling the people to do what they say but not follow their example (Matthew 23:1-8).

Here you are teaching about prayer, and you don’t have any prayer life to talk about, here you are teaching about holiness and your holiness level is nose-diving! Examine yourself. Paul said that he pummels his body so that after preaching to others he would be found in error and judged for it (1Corinthians 9:24-27).

Talking about the Jews in the book of Romans, Paul accuses them of claiming to be custodians of the oracles of God, his very words, but neglect to live true to it (Romans 2:19-24).

Note that God is not interested in breeding hypocrites, who hear but don’t do.

Teach

Part of the passion of Ezra is to teach the statues and the ordinances of God in Israel. He has a passion for getting it right and he also wants the people to get things right.

But juxtapose that with the words written by James that everyone should not desire to be teachers because greater judgment is directed to them (James 3:1). Then you will realise that not everyone is called to occupy the position of teacher in the body of Christ, but God does not want us to be so empty-headed that we are not able to offer the simplest defense of the gospel, while we can articulate things that have to do with the our worldly pursuit.

The primary desire to study and practice must be the responsibility of individual Christians. But teaching is another kettle of fish.

It is one of the seven gifts of God as outlined in the book of Romans by Paul (Romans 12:3-8). And one of the ministries set in the church is that of a Teacher (Ephesians 4:10-14). There is a difference between the two (gift of teaching and Ministry of a Teacher), with the latter carrying more authority and scope of expression (combining with a leadership status in the body of Christ as a whole), and the former more localised and limited. The latter obviously also possess the gift of teaching.