Ezra 3 ends on such a high note. The people rise up, even though they are afraid, and lay the foundation of the temple. The work is underway. The people are rejoicing. Some are shouting for joy and others are shouting with tears as they experience God in this moment, praising him as God is making it possible to return to him. When you get going with God and get going forward in the work, you would want and hope that it would be smooth sailing. But that is not going to be the case for these people who have sacrificed so much to return to Jerusalem and begin work on building the temple. Instead, we are going to see the rise of the resistance. So in this lesson we are going to talk about resistance to doing the work of the Lord and how we can handle times of resistance.
Hidden Resistance (4:1-3)
The first picture of resistance may not seem like resistance at all. A bunch of people in the land come to Zerubbabel and the heads of the families asking to help build the temple because they also seek and worship the same God. Sounds good to have more help building the temple. But notice the response of Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the heads of the families in verse 3. They tell them that they have no part in this work. We alone will build to the Lord. Why would they reject the help of the surrounding people? This is an important question because as we go through Ezra and Nehemiah we are going to see times when the surrounding people are helping and times when they are not allowed to help. So what is going on?
There are a couple of clues given to us in the text to help us understand this response. First, the narrator gives us the clear picture of the problem. Verse 1 says that these people are enemies of Judah and Benjamin. I think this is important to observe. What these people are saying is not truthful. They are not really here to help. They are actually enemies. Second, what these people say to the heads of Judah and Benjamin is telling. Look again at what they say in verse 2. They say that they have been sacrificing to God ever since the time when the king of Assyrian brought these people here. Now this might sound like a positive attribute. But if we go back into the scriptures we will see that this is a negative declaration that helps the people know that they are enemies and cannot be allowed into the work.
You may remember that 2 Kings 17:24-41 we see the king of Assyrian removing the northern nation, Israel, from the land and moving other people from other nations into this land. These people were given directions on fearing the Lord (17:28). But it does not lead the people to worship God in the way he wanted. Verses 33-34 reads, “So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away. To this day they do according to the former manner. They do not fear the LORD, and they do not follow the statutes or the rules or the law or the commandment that the LORD commanded the children of Jacob, whom he named Israel.” (2 Kings 17:33-34 ESV) Noticed that the problem with these people is clearly stated. They seem to fear the Lord but they really do not. They just added the Lord to their worship and serving of other gods. So they are not really for the Lord, but look the part. They are enemies of the Lord and of the work.
We need to see that there are going to be those who will look the part and say the right things, but are actually enemies of the work. The apostle Paul gave warnings about those among the flock who would be wolves (Acts 20:29). Paul warned to avoid those who cause divisions and create obstacles (Romans 16:17). Paul warned about people who were enemies of the cross of Christ (Philippians 3:18) and warned the Thessalonians to keep away from and take note of those who do not walk as Paul instructed (2 Thessalonians 3:6-14). The point is that just because someone says they want to join in the work does not mean that they should. We have to watch out for enemies who want to look like sheep, but are actually wolves looking to harm and destroy the flock.
Discouraging Resistance (4:4-5)
The second way these people were experiencing resistance from doing the work was through discouragement and fear. Notice in verse 4 that the people then discouraged the people from doing the work and made them afraid to build. They did everything they could to frustrate the plans of the people to build the temple. You can imagine what the discouragement would look like as they tried to thwart their plans to build. You cannot do this. You do not have enough money or resources. The work is too great. The work will be too hard. The work will never succeed. You might as well quit while you are ahead. There are all kinds of ways that people can hurl discouragement so that people are demoralized and stop doing the work. Plant seeds of doubt and fear into the people and watch their fervor wane. This is what the surrounding people are doing. Notice in verse 5 that we are told that this discouragement and fear did not go on for a couple of days or for a few weeks. To continue to the reign of Darius means that this discouragement was going on for 16 years. The people will experience 16 years of other people making them afraid, making them discouraged, and frustrating their plans.
Government Resistance (4:6-22)
The third way these people experienced resistance was from their own government. There is an interesting way that God shows us this truth. In verse 6 we are time warping forward 50 years to the reign of Ahasuerus (Xerxes). Notice that the enemies send accusations against the people of Judah and Jerusalem. In verse 7 we time warp forward further 20 more years to see the accusations that were written under King Artaxerxes of Persia. The enemies send a letter to King Artaxerxes declaring that if these people finish the work, “They will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be impaired (4:13). Further, they are called “A rebellious city, hurtful to kings and provinces, and that sedition was stirred up in it from old. That is why this city was laid waste” (4:15).
The enemies now use the government to put a stop to the work that they are doing. During two different reigns, these enemies used the government as a way to threaten the people from doing the work. Those enemies were successful in bringing the government against them. In verse 21 the king makes a decree to stop the work and that the city is not to be rebuilt unless the king himself makes a decree to do so. The law is given that the people must stop. The government of Persia now stands in their way from completing the work.
Forceful Resistance (4:23-24)
The final picture of resistance in this chapter is forceful resistance. Look at verses 23-24 where we read that when these enemies got the letter back from the king, they did not just tell the workers to stop. The scripture says that they forcibly stopped them. The NET reads that they used armed force to stop them. The NASB reads that they stopped them by military force. Please consider that it even came down to physically stopping the people from doing the work. Thus, the chapter ends by returning to the present moment, back in 536 BC, when the work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and remained stopped for the next 16 years.
So what is the message of this chapter to us and what are we supposed to learn? First, let us talk about why this chapter runs forward, describing the events that will happen for the next 100 years. Why does the text leave the present situation and describe the future resistance that will arise under different kings? The point is clear and very important. There will always be opposition. Opposition to the work of the Lord will exist in every generation. We need to know this because we can fall into the trap of thinking that we can wait to do the work when it is an easier time. We can think that we should stop because there is so much resistance. Maybe things will get easier later. So we just need to wait. But God is telling us an important truth. There will always be opposition to the work. If we wait for the work to get easier, then that time is never going to come. Jesus made the same point to his disciples. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). We should not expect a different response from the world than the response Jesus received. There will always be opposition to the work. We cannot allow the opposition to stop us from doing the work.
Second, we learn that opposition does not mean that God has abandoned us. Think about what God is doing at this moment in time. God wanted his temple built. We read in Ezra 1 that he moved the heart of Cyrus to make the decree to go to Jerusalem to build the temple. We also read in Ezra 1 that God moved the heart of the people to go back to do the work. The rise of the resistance does not mean that God is not with his people. The rise of the resistance does not mean that the people are wrong for doing the work and should stop. We must not interpret opposition to the work to mean that we should stop. God is allowing these roadblocks to test their faith. In every generation there are going to times when we experience hidden resistance, discouraging resistance, governmental resistance, and forceful resistance. These are key tests of our faith to see if we will continue to work for the Lord or not. We are going to have resistance from the inside and from the outside. Almost two years ago at the outbreak of Covid, our county health official held a press conference telling all churches and synagogues to close. It was a fearful time, not knowing about Covid, and feeling the pressure from our county agency. But we did not close. Then a church in Tampa met and law enforcement came in, stopped the church, and arrested the preacher, taking him to prison. I do not know about you, but I was afraid. But we did not stop meeting. I asked some of you to be ready to bail me out of prison. God allows opposition and resistance to test our faith. God put difficulties in the life of Israel while they were in the wilderness. We will also have great difficulties in our journey with God. But we cannot give up. We cannot stop doing the work. We cannot quit. We cannot wait for a more convenient season. No matter the kind of resistance, we must carry out the work of the Lord, just as we see the apostles of Jesus doing in the scriptures.
Finally, how do we deal with discouragement and resistance? Just because we are to continue the work when we face resistance does not mean continuing forward is easy. We most frequently face the first two ways of resistance that we learned about in this lesson: hidden resistance and discouraging resistance. So how do we deal with discouraging resistance and wolves in sheep’s clothing? Do not lose sight of the goal and continue to exercise faith in our Lord. The goal of these people was to build the temple at God’s command so that God could be in relationship with his people. But the people lost sight of the goal and so the work stopped. Discouragement grabbed hold of them and stopped building the temple. We can never forget why we are here and what we are called to do. People are going to discourage us directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly.
I have been discouraged so many times in this work. There are so many times that I have wanted to give up. I have wanted to give up the work completely. I have wanted to give up the work here. I wanted to just not bother anymore because discouragement can be so overwhelming. The work is so much. There is only one reason I do not quit and I want it to be the same reason you never quit. Though this is a difficult work, this is the work God has given us to do. The work is to give your life for the Lord, sacrificing for him, serving others, reaching the lost, and pouring out your life and soul on his altar. The call is to be a living sacrifice for him. There is not a secondary calling. There is not different calling that allows us to be with our Lord for eternity. There is no plan B. It is either give it all or walk away. There is no middle ground. The call has always been to take up your cross and follow him. When discouraged, do not lose sight of the goal. We are going to be with the Lord for eternity and it is going to be paradise where our tears will be wiped away. The perfect Comforter will comfort us for all eternity. Hold your faith, do not be overwhelmed with discouragement, and do the work God has called you to work.