February 4, 2024: Message: Coming Home | Scripture: Ezra 2 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Worship Songs: Behold Our God | O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer
If able, please stand as I read to you from Ezra 2. TWoL: 1 Now these were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town. 2 They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, and Baanah. The number of the men of the people of Israel: 3 the sons of Parosh, 2,172. 4 The sons of Shephatiah, 372. 5 The sons of Arah, 775. 6 The sons of Pahath-moab, namely the sons of Jeshua and Joab, 2,812. 7 The sons of Elam, 1,254. 8 The sons of Zattu, 945. 9 The sons of Zaccai, 760. 10 The sons of Bani, 642. 11 The sons of Bebai, 623. 12 The sons of Azgad, 1,222. 13 The sons of Adonikam, 666. 14 The sons of Bigvai, 2,056. 15 The sons of Adin, 454. 16 The sons of Ater, namely of Hezekiah, 98. 17 The sons of Bezai, 323. 18 The sons of Jorah, 112. 19 The sons of Hashum, 223. 20 The sons of Gibbar, 95. 21 The sons of Bethlehem, 123. 22 The men of Netophah, 56. 23 The men of Anathoth, 128. 24 The sons of Azmaveth, 42. 25 The sons of Kiriath-arim, Chephirah, and Beeroth, 743. 26 The sons of Ramah and Geba, 621. 27 The men of Michmas, 122. 28 The men of Bethel and Ai, 223. 29 The sons of Nebo, 52. 30 The sons of Magbish, 156. 31 The sons of the other Elam, 1,254. 32 The sons of Harim, 320. 33 The sons of Lod, Hadid, and Ono, 725. 34 The sons of Jericho, 345. 35 The sons of Senaah, 3,630. 36 The priests: the sons of Jedaiah, of the house of Jeshua, 973. 37 The sons of Immer, 1,052. 38 The sons of Pashhur, 1,247. 39 The sons of Harim, 1,017. 40 The Levites: the sons of Jeshua and Kadmiel, of the sons of Hodaviah, 74. 41 The singers: the sons of Asaph, 128. 42 The sons of the gatekeepers: the sons of Shallum, the sons of Ater, the sons of Talmon, the sons of Akkub, the sons of Hatita, and the sons of Shobai, in all 139. 43 The temple servants: the sons of Ziha, the sons of Hasupha, the sons of Tabbaoth, 44 the sons of Keros, the sons of Siaha, the sons of Padon, 45 the sons of Lebanah, the sons of Hagabah, the sons of Akkub, 46 the sons of Hagab, the sons of Shamlai, the sons of Hanan, 47 the sons of Giddel, the sons of Gahar, the sons of Reaiah, 48 the sons of Rezin, the sons of Nekoda, the sons of Gazzam, 49 the sons of Uzza, the sons of Paseah, the sons of Besai, 50 the sons of Asnah, the sons of Meunim, the sons of Nephisim, 51 the sons of Bakbuk, the sons of Hakupha, the sons of Harhur, 52 the sons of Bazluth, the sons of Mehida, the sons of Harsha, 53 the sons of Barkos, the sons of Sisera, the sons of Temah, 54 the sons of Neziah, and the sons of Hatipha. 55 The sons of Solomon’s servants: the sons of Sotai, the sons of Hassophereth, the sons of Peruda, 56 the sons of Jaalah, the sons of Darkon, the sons of Giddel, 57 the sons of Shephatiah, the sons of Hattil, the sons of Pochereth-hazzebaim, and the sons of Ami. 58 All the temple servants and the sons of Solomon’s servants were 392. 59 The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addan, and Immer, though they could not prove their fathers’ houses or their descent, whether they belonged to Israel: 60 the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, and the sons of Nekoda, 652. 61 Also, of the sons of the priests: the sons of Habaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, and the sons of Barzillai (who had taken a wife from the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite, and was called by their name). 62 These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but they were not found there, and so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. 63 The governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim. 64 The whole assembly together was 42,360, 65 besides their male and female servants, of whom there were 7,337, and they had 200 male and female singers. 66 Their horses were 736, their mules were 245, 67 their camels were 435, and their donkeys were 6,720. 68 Some of the heads of families, when they came to the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem, made freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site. 69 According to their ability they gave to the treasury of the work 61,000 darics1 of gold, 5,000 minas2 of silver, and 100 priests’ garments. 70 Now the priests, the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the temple servants lived in their towns, and all the rest of Israel3 in their towns.
Last week, we considered the sovereignty of God—how he is in control of all things for his name’s sake—how he is faithful to himself, but this week, we’re considering the other side of the coin. How God is faithful to his people in his faithfulness to himself—Ezra 1 highlights the God who orchestrates history, and Ezra 2 highlights the people who are preserved by his orchestrations—by his graciousness—by his faithfulness.
That’s what our passage is about. It’s about the faithfulness of God, and it’s about the faithfulness of God specifically to his people. Yet, even in that faithfulness there are equal parts happiness and sadness to it. There are equal parts in Ezra 2 to find celebration and to heed its warning, and as the people of God, now, we’re meant to observe this tension so that we might reflect greater faithfulness to him in our own lives. As God has been faithful to you, so too are you to reciprocate and be faithful to Him.
The preposition “to” is important. He isn’t merely faithful to anyone and everyone, rather he is faithful to you, specifically. And you aren’t called, in response, only to be faithful to anyone, but your heart, your eyes, your life—you’re to be faithful to Him, in Him, for Him. He has set his delight upon you. Make your life about Him because he won’t have less than that from you, and do it, firstly, …
1) By Passing on Your Faith
From verses 1 to 67, we’re given a lot of names—names of people and places, and it’s not always clear which names are names of people and which are of places, but what is certain is that names are included here—names that are important to or affiliated with the nation of Judah. The list itself is actually meticulously organized and sophisticated for a people who did not have tools like we have today, such as computers, word and excel processing, copy and paste, drag and drop, etc.
We can see a great example of this in vv. 21-35. Each section of the list distinguishes something: leaders, families, priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, temple servants, servants of Solomon, and Sojourners—those who couldn’t prove their ancestry to a person or place in Judah—and in verses 21-35 we’re given a list of cities and the number of people who originate from those cities within Judah.
And when we read them, they seem like random places don’t they? But I found out in my studies this week that the places, themselves, are organized in a geographical order where cities in the south are named first, moving to the north, then the northwest, to the northeast, then the southwest and southeast, which is actually quite incredible because it tells us that the writer of this book isn’t only administratively and organizationally comprehensive, but he’s also a master of geography and topology.
Now, this may seem like nothing to us. We, today, are so spoiled. We can turn on our phones, search ‘ancient nation of Judah,’ and have thousands of maps and lists in front of us within moments. But I hope we don’t apply our world to that of the author of Ezra because for him to take the time to do this with the limited resources that he had doesn’t only point us to his genius. It points us to the depth of his love for this place—a place that was a part of everything he and his people were.
That he might make a record like this tells us that Judah wasn’t just land. No, every bit of it—every square inch held significance to him. And this list, which we can read in a matter of minutes on a Sunday morning must have taken him an incredible amount of time—time that couldn’t have been measured only in his constructing of the list but its product was probably the result of an entire life of training so that he might be able to do this for us one day—to provide us these details.
He loved his land. He loved his people. He dug into their histories. He prepared the maps and studied the geography. He did it with what I see as clear, undistracted passion. He was riveted in his meticulous intentionality to do his best work in a systematic way.
Why? Because his work was meant to be a reflection of God’s meticulous intentionality over the people recorded on that page. Our author didn’t want simply to show us that God was and is faithful. He wanted to show us the precision of God’s faithfulness in calling—electing—these people. His covenant was with them. His continuing love and protection were over them. And if this scribe was to communicate that covenantal love and protection, he would do it rightly, precisely, and intentionally. He’d do it so that whoever read this record would know this was their land, these were its people, and God ensured it all.
God’s continuous intentionality is the point here. That he might choose these people, keep them, and guide them against all their rebellion and all their rejection of him in the past. He pursued them relentlessly, and the scribe desires to teach his audience about that relentless pursuit—to cultivate and nurture them in knowing who this God is and the incredible nature of his faithfulness. He’s trying to pass down what he knows, and what he has seen, so that these things might not be forgotten, and so that God might be rightly praised.
The problem, of course, as we saw in Matthew, this past year, is that the leaders of Israel don’t humble themselves, and they don’t seek to disciple their people in their love for their God. No, instead, they treat God’s grace and favour like it is something that they deserved. They hardened their hearts. They considered God subservient to them and not the other way around. No prophet, no priest, not even the meticulous intentionality of this scribe could change the true nature of their hearts.
So, what does God do? He sends his best prophet, his greatest priest, his most intentionally meticulous teacher—not just to teach and record the word, but who is, himself, the Word. And he does all that so that he might display just how continuously faithful he is. That even when his people—when we became our most obnoxious, spiritually bankrupt selves—God sent Jesus to display the depth of Christ’s love for his Father and for us, his people, even to the point of dying upon a tree. He does this so that if we repent of our sin and believe in him, we might not only receive the promise of his continued faithfulness but receive the fruit of that faithfulness in eternity with him.
This is what we get from lists in the Bible—we get the gospel. We get the continuity of God’s faithfulness borne out in the lives of real men and women. And these lists aren’t given to us simply to marvel at the sovereign work of God through broken, wicked people like us, but to jolt us into a faithfulness of our own to carry out his mission in the world. See, I imagine that if we were challenged, most of us wouldn’t be able to name our relatives beyond three or four generations—some of us might be able to do five. But did you know that it was commonplace in ancient near east cultures to be able to name up to 40 generations of their predecessors?
This idea of continuity and preservation has been lost on generations like mine both because of the neglect of previous generations to develop and disciple us and because my particular generation has grown staggeringly selfish. But the Bible speaks against this kind of neglect and selfishness—it calls us to be bold in our intentionality to each generation not because we think we have so much to offer BUT because we have a faithful God who calls us, keeps us, and guides us until the day he calls us home—that God sustains us, and if he is sustaining us, he means to use us in displaying him wherever we are and to whomever is with us.
The prevailing wisdom of this first point is not only to see the meticulous nature of the scribe in showing the faithfulness of God, but to be moved by his meticulousness so that you might develop your own passion—your own zeal—to pass on your own faith to those who come after you.
Dare I say that those who do not seek to pass on their faith and magnify God’s sovereign grace in your life are those who have not truly grasped the gospel—that someone came into your life, maybe it was God, himself, through his Spirit, maybe it was a family member, maybe a friend, maybe a pastor, maybe a complete stranger—that God used him or her to love you enough to call you out of deadness into life—out of sin into the righteousness of Christ—out of darkness into light—out of hell and into eternal joy—this is not something to keep to yourself.
Whatever the means of your salvation, recognize that it comes not from what you deserve but from a God who has been sovereign throughout all time so that one day your name might be included in the Book of Life. Our historian—our scribe—our Christ, he was and is meticulously intentional to write your name in it, and he doesn’t do so that you might be the only one. No, his intentionality with you is so that you might go out and continue his intentionality with others. That you might be meticulously zealous in doing so. God has been faithful in choosing you, so be faithful in passing on his gospel love and joy to others.
2) By Partaking in Intentional Fellowship
A big part of what I love about being Baptist isn’t only the fact that I see it clearly in Scripture, but it helps me fight my natural, sinful inclinations. When I was a kid, I was so competitive that in Bible sword drills (where you raise your Bible’s over your head, and the teacher will yell out a Bible reference, and the first person to find it would win the prize), I would cheat by putting my fingers in between the big sections of the Bible—Law-History, History-Poetry/Wisdom, Poetry/Wisdom-Prophets, Prophets-New Testament—so that I’d have an instant advantage of getting to the section before my classmates.
But as Baptists, we’re called counterculturally to carry out the ideal of Ephesians and Colossians, which tell us to put on the new man. Did you know that when Paul speaks of the new man, he doesn’t mean our individual, isolated identities? He means the new man or the new self in the context of the church as the one new man—the one new body in Christ. We’re to put off our old, individualistic, sinfully selfish selves and put on that which is different and new.
We aren’t to think about ourselves in the context of ourselves anymore. We’re called to think about ourselves in the context of those whom God has placed us in covenant community with—as those whom the Spirit is quite literally knitting our souls together through the unifying bond of the gospel.
And what we see in Ezra 2 is a prototype—a foreshadowing of that kind of unity. These Jews are a collective. Notice, the lists we’re given are people placed in a certain category to show what their function is within the larger community. Leaders, Zerubbabel, Jeshua, etc., are listed first, then the broader community, then the priests, then the Levites, then the temple servants, then the sons of Solomon’s servants, then the undeclared sojourners—each knows his or her place in Judah—what their rights and responsibilities are. And yet, all of these individual parts are counted as one whole in verse 64. This is the whole assembly—all of them integral to the fabric and identity of what Judah is.
And as we’ve already established, they’ve been put together on purpose. None of these individuals are there by mistake, which means that for this grand project of returning from exile to work—all of them have to be united—all of them have to look to and lean upon one another as they collectively look to and lean upon the God who is leading them.
This kind of unity and interdependence is something that we haven’t seen among the Israelites since Joshua. Right? After Joshua, the Judges come because of the sin of the people who are running around like headless chickens, then they ask for a king because they want to be like the nations. But in Joshua, just like here in Ezra, Israel has no judges nor any kings, why? Because God is sufficient for them. .
And the warning we see here is this: God has been faithful in bringing you out of your isolated, sinful circumstances and into the fellowship with others, so be intentional with them. Make your community with them. Partake in fellowship with them because your neglect of one another—your disunity or lack of desire for one another’s holiness and accountability is what will destroy what God’s given you.
If you want proof of this, all you have to do is look at the numbers. Consider the book of Numbers, ch. 1, where, just after two years of having fled from Egypt, the Israelite men over the age of 20 totaled 603,550. Or think of the census under David where 2 Sam 24 and 1 Chron 21 put the number of valiant men—men who could wield a sword—between 1.3 to 1.6 million members.
Yet, what is the number, we’re given here in Ezra 2? “The whole assembly together was 42,360, besides their male and female servants, of whom there were 7,337, and they had 200 male and female singers.” Let’s be generous and say the total number of them—men and women, young and old, sword-bearers and lame—was around 50,000. And we’re meant to understand that this is what happens when people stop looking to each other and their God and start looking to those outside of Israel, start seeking other gods, and compete with one another for a joy that was already theirs from the beginning.
God has given you precisely what you need right here, right now. If he needs to add to our number, he will. If he needs to subtract from our number, he will. But the imperative that we get from a story like this isn’t that our job is to ask for more or to be discontented when we find that there’s less. It’s that God has worked all things to display his faithfulness in our plenty and in our shortage so that in both he might be glorified—so that in both he might prove to be our God and not our slave.
I’ve been in conversations where people will talk to me about how we might increase our number—how we might attract those outside of us and bring them in—how we might attract those inside with us and keep them in. And I don’t know if I’ve ever said it out loud before, but allow me to say it now, numbers aren’t the issue.
Have you ever noticed that when it comes to rebuilding, after God has issued judgment or brought about calamity—though he offers his people forgiveness, he never removes the difficult circumstances and consequences that they face? Judah doesn’t come back to a beautiful Jerusalem. They come back to rubble, ash, weeds, uncultivated soil. In fact, for the temple, alone, to be rebuilt, it’ll take them over 20 years, and even after that rebuilding, their number won’t be substantially different.
Moreover, it’ll take another 500 years before the people of God find out that the full weight of their consequences would not be borne by them. It would take another 500 years before the struggle and the emptiness of their worship might be refreshed and a new harvest of workers brought in. It would be 500 years before the true, newly defined Israel would be revealed in the coming and covenanting of Christ. The issue isn’t numbers. The issue is a heart submitted to God’s faithful leading whatever the circumstance may be.
And the question that faces us is this: in what ways have we committed ourselves to being faithful to those whom God has brought us into covenant community with now? And how long are we willing to persist in it regardless of our numbers or our influence? Has God not been faithful to bring you in, and are you not now to show your faithfulness to whomever he’s given you—those whom you have—to confess your sins, even the really ugly ones, to each other, to exhort holiness from one another, to die to self and bear up one anothers’ burdens—the ones that require sacrificing personal time and effort—for the sake of lifting each other up, just as God has done for you?
I want to exhort you church through the testimony of one of our members. Since July 2023, Mike Cheang has served as the head of our finance committee, and I remember when he came on—sorry to do this to you Mike, but he complained at times—not just about the large task he’d been given but also about the team—the council—some of its members.
But you know how God’s moved in his life since then? I’ve had a number of conversations with Mike, and I know it’s a desire of his to make our council more cohesive and collegial by being more intentional in getting to know each other on a personal level—sharing victories and struggles before the start of every meeting. And, while his job as our finance head has become more difficult, I’ve seen how he’s taken the challenge to grow himself in his holiness, in his intentionality to die to self, in his desire not to complain—to give thanks in his trials—to serve his brothers and sisters humbly and to draw closer to his God.
This is what intentional, Christ-centered fellowship looks like, and Mike is just one example of how I see many of us doing this already, but church, we can get better at it. We can continue growing in our vulnerability with each other. We can continue seeking out our Lord to be increasingly holy as he is holy, but all of us have to buy in, because all of us have been brought together on purpose by a God who does everything on purpose—we see this in nothing less than in Jesus’ blood, cross, and righteousness.
If he is willing to do that for us, then we have to ask ourselves, what are we willing to do for each other? I hope our answer doesn’t stop with what we think each of us deserve. Rather, I hope our answer is limited only by the depths to which God might seek to display his love towards sinners like us. Make sure your faithfulness to each other is founded on God’s faithfulness, and he will grow us, maybe not in number, but in our love for him and for your brothers and sisters.
3) By Presenting Your Fragrant Offering
I don’t have a lot of time, but in Ezra 2:64-70, what we see is a people who arrive in the place God had promised to bring them, and what is it that awaits them there? It isn’t ease of life. I’ve already said destruction was evident.
But broken or not, hospitable or not, what they expected this place to be or not—all of it could not stop them from worshipping. They worshipped together as they came to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. They served one another as they went back to their towns to rebuild their homes. And they gave, according to their ability, freely so that the Lord might accomplish what he brought them home to accomplish.
And in the same way, church, we are called to present our offerings to God—our voices, our service, our spiritual gifts and talents, and our physical donations—what little we have. We’re called to worship our God wholly and sacrificially—not because he needs anything from us but because it is the means in which he intends to meet with us, to show us his glory, and to remind us of his faithfulness. It is in this that Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 2—that as we do the best that we can, to proclaim and display the ministry of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, even though we are weak and insufficient, God takes pleasure in this. He accepts this because he always accepts his children.
That is what we are, and that is all he calls us to be—to be faithful to him, as he, our heavenly Father, is always faithful to us.