Tri-City Chinese Baptist Church

English Worship, March 24 2024

March 24, 2024: Message: There is an ‘Eye’ in Free | Scripture: Ezra 5:3-17 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy

Worship Songs: His Mercy Is More | I am Not My Own | Praise To The Lord

Full Manuscript


If able, please stand with me as I read to you from Ezra 5:3-17.  TWoL: 3 At the same time Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and their associates came to them and spoke to them thus: “Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?” 4 They also asked them this: “What are the names of the men who are building this building?” 5 But the eye of their God was on the elders of the Jews, and they did not stop them until the report should reach Darius and then an answer be returned by letter concerning it.

6 This is a copy of the letter that Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and his associates, the governors who were in the province Beyond the River, sent to Darius the king. 7 They sent him a report, in which was written as follows: “To Darius the king, all peace. 8 Be it known to the king that we went to the province of Judah, to the house of the great God. It is being built with huge stones, and timber is laid in the walls. This work goes on diligently and prospers in their hands. 9 Then we asked those elders and spoke to them thus: ‘Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?’ 10 We also asked them their names, for your information, that we might write down the names of their leaders. 11 And this was their reply to us: ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished. 12 But because our fathers had angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house and carried away the people to Babylonia. 13 However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, Cyrus the king made a decree that this house of God should be rebuilt. 14 And the gold and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple that was in Jerusalem and brought into the temple of Babylon, these Cyrus the king took out of the temple of Babylon, and they were delivered to one whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom he had made governor; 15 and he said to him, “Take these vessels, go and put them in the temple that is in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be rebuilt on its site.” 16 Then this Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and from that time until now it has been in building, and it is not yet finished.’ 17 Therefore, if it seems good to the king, let search be made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by Cyrus the king for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem. And let the king send us his pleasure in this matter.”

For 38 years, from 1854 to 1892, Charles Haddon Spurgeon pastored the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.  Many people know about how prolific his ministry was.  He is called, rightly so, the prince of preachers because of his incredible ability to exposit and declare the Word.  He led a congregation of nearly 6,000 people every Sunday, which was an incredible number for a single church back then.  And many, even to this day and within our own congregation, myself included, regard his words for their lasting impact and wisdom.

Yet what many people don’t know about Spurgeon was the amount of criticism he faced early in his ministry.  They were many and loud.  One such critic accused him of being something other than a servant of God—insinuating that he was of the devil.  Others prophesied that he would be like a rocket that would climb high and then drop out of sight.  And still others said they doubted Spurgeon’s conversion because he was too young and inexperienced to be trusted.  They claimed him to be awfully deceptive—that he speaks some truth, but will, eventually, leave his ministry—that he and his congregants, though captivated by his abilities, were being fatally deluded—that his ministry could not provide any lasting profit.  It’s really quite incredible how wrong, jealous, and blind people can be. 

Yet, more incredible than their wrongness was how Spurgeon responded to these falsehoods.  “Though I grew accustomed to falsehood and spite.  The stings at last caused me no more pain than if I had been made of iron.  No real harm has come to any of us who have run the gauntlet of abuse; not even a bruise remains.”  In other words, “their criticisms and their slanders were of no true consequence to me.”

And do you know why he was able to respond this way?  It was, I think, because he knew, eventually, God would prove and vindicate himself as long as Spurgeon kept on—as long as this Prince of Preachers simply did the work.  And how is it that we might be free and live freely from the criticisms and slanders of the world—of their jealousies and lies—of our need to prove ourselves to them, or even to us?  We’re called to do the work.  Do the work and let God prove himself because only he can.

Spurgeon demonstrates for us what freedom in and with God looks like, and it looks like freedom from concerning yourself with the worries, criticisms, and slanders of the world.  It looks like freedom from concerning yourself with yourself and knowing that he shall give you enough in himself.  Our responsibility, in the meantime, is to simply do the work that he sets before us, and our text tells us how to do it—how to work and find freedom from the strife that we and others place upon us, and it begins with (being) …

1) Be Humble in Anticipation; Selfless in Delay

If it isn’t clear to you, yet, the question I want to deal with today from our passage is what it means to have freedom.  It’s a question we come back to repeatedly not because I want to affirm our freedom, but because it always comes back to the sovereignty of God.  In fact, I believe that we cannot be free unless God is sovereign.

What do I mean by this?  Well, let’s consider our text, and I’ll be handling the verses somewhat out of order, so bear with me.  But this, our first point, is couched in verses 3-4 and 6-10, wherein these Samaritans named Tattenai and Shethar-bozenai see the Jews rebuilding their temple—they’ve started back up again after fifteen years of pausing their building project—and these Samaritans are not happy about it, or, at least, there’s an inference that they think these Jews are doing something that they shouldn’t be doing. 

Their words insinuate a lack of authority on the part of the Jews.  When they say, “who gave you a decree to build this house,” part of the implicit answer is, “We, Tattenai, and Shethar-bozenai and his associates did not decree it.  So, who did?”  In other words, because “I or these other people” didn’t say you could build the house, and because I didn’t hear of someone else authorizing it, how dare you? 

To add to it, there’s an element of jealousy, envy, insecurity, and feelings of threat in their confrontation.  Look at their words that explain their concerns in verse 8: “Be it known that we went to the province of Judah, to the house of [I think they’re saying sarcastically] the great God.  It is being built with huge stones, and timber (expensive, strong wood from Lebanon) is laid in the walls.  [More than this,] the work goes on diligently and prospers in their hands.” 

Let me put it this way, the Samaritans are appeasing, firstly, to the Persian sentiment that the king—Darius in this case—was divine.  So, for the Jews to be building this temple to their God was a direct violation against the divine status of the Persian throne.  What the Jews are doing is blasphemous—treasonous—condemnable by you, king Darius.  They’re mocking you, do you want to make an example of them? 

Furthermore, the temple was an imposing presence on the land.  It had huge stones and strong, thick, high-quality timber—meaning it could be used as a fortress of sorts if the Jews ever decided to rebel.  And, here’s the kicker, the Jews wouldn’t relent in building it—not even for the governor of the land—not even as inquiry was made to the king.  They’re not scared off by these men.  They’re stubborn in the task, and their stubbornness is making them stronger, more confident, more prosperous and established in the land, so much so that the Samaritans are threatened—threatened that they’ll be driven out, impoverished, made to look, feel, and, possibly, become weak in comparison. 

And there’s a character lesson in this for us, isn’t there?  Who among these two are we most likely to resemble?  Do we usually look like the Jews in this situation who just keep on going, put their heads down, accept what comes, and offer no complaint about their accusers?  Or do we resemble, more often than not, the Samaritans?  Do we compare ourselves to others who we think don’t deserve the prosperity, the strength, the ability to do what they are doing—those who shouldn’t have the authority or right?  Do we complain when others get something or succeed in what we think we deserve?

Most of you in this room know the name Billy Graham, I hope.  For those of you who don’t know who Billy Graham is, he was this world-renowned evangelist—he would sell out stadiums of forty, fifty thousand people, and thousands upon thousands would come to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through his crusades.  In fact, there was this period in 1957 where Billy Graham went to New York and preached in Madison Square Garden—maybe the most famous arena in the world—and he preached there to a sold-out crowd not once, but every day for sixteen weeks straight.  That’s 112 sermons.  To put it into perspective, I’ve been here three years.  I’ve preached only a little more than that. 

But what some of you may not know is that what helped burst Billy Graham onto the scene was that media—newspapers at the time—instructed their writers to “puff Graham,” which means that whenever his events were covered by news outlets, he was to get as much coverage, as much positive spin, as much exposure as possible.  And the Lord, in his kindness and providence, made him the biggest name in evangelicalism—maybe even the world—at that time. 

Now, my question is, “why Billy Graham?”  I’ve listened to his preaching.  I’ve watched his crusades.  His ministry was a spectacle, yes.  But when you take away the spectacle and listen to his preaching—the words he says, the depth of his message, and even the method in which he delivers the message—I know preachers living today who are far better than him in these things but receive far less attention and following than they probably deserve when you compare them to Billy Graham.  When you make it about something other than God.

And this is what the Samaritans had done.  Why should these Jews prosper where they, the Samaritans, did not?  Why should the Jews benefit and receive the favour of the king when they, the Samaritans, have not?  Well, let me answer simply: it’s because God is God, and these Samaritans didn’t know God.  They didn’t know his ways.  And like the Samaritans, when we lack humility, comparing ourselves with others, thinking we deserve what others are getting, complaining in our spirit, it shows we, too, don’t really know God. 

It shows that we do not believe in the sovereignty of God—that God gives—he distributes HIS gifts according to HIS good pleasure and not ours.  That he is for HIS glory and not ours.  That he is for HIS name and HIS purposes, and HE alone decides how our choices—our freedoms—will coincide with making HIS name and HIS purposes great.  God will always be more free than we are.

Yet, what does the Bible say is the other purpose for HIS doing all of these things?  Why does God pursue, so ardently, HIS own glory?  He does it not only to proclaim HIS majesty, but in making much of his own glory, he ensures your good (Rom 8:28).  And if you do not see or know why it is good for you—if you do not understand why some receive while you do not, he doesn’t say, “well, too bad.”  He doesn’t tell you to be discontented—he doesn’t tell you to wish you were someone or something else.  No, he says put your head down for now, do the work that he’s given you to do, regardless of how successful or gifted you are in doing it, and anticipate with humility, in selflessness, that one day he will show you why. 

Now, perhaps, that’s not sufficient for you.  Perhaps, you’re still discontented, and if that’s the case, then allow me to also say this: perhaps, one of the reasons he is withholding from you today is simply because he knows the nature of your heart.  He can see that you’re like the Samaritan and not like the Jew.  He can see that when you pray for greater ability to do something, it’s not actually because you want to help others or glorify his name.  Rather, it’s because you simply like to feel important.  It’s because you’d like to be the one who’s worshipped.  It’s because you desire to look great to yourself and to those who you think should be looking up to you.  

And when we come face-to-face with this realization—when we realize we’re just making it about ourselves—we need to be ready and willing to, first, repent, and then to say, “thank you, Lord—thank you for not giving me the desires of my sin—thank you for not giving me what you gave to that man or woman—thank you because I know if you gave it to me, it wouldn’t have been for your glory.  I’m sorry for taking the things you’ve given me and making it about myself.  Thank you for teaching me to find contentment in you.” 

See, true freedom begins with acknowledging that God is God and that we are not.  True freedom is knowing that God proves himself when, for all our comparisons, he and his ways are greater than ours, even when we don’t know it.  So, then, whether he’s given you much or little, keep on with what you have.  Do the work humbly and let God prove himself because he will, and on that day, he intends to reveal to you the fullness his glory.

2) Be Honest in Testimony; Courageous in Adversity

Look, now, at vv. 11 to 17.  What is immensely shocking about these verses is how truthful Israel is before its adversaries, knowing both from their common sense and from their past experiences (both theirs and their predecessors) what could happen to them.  These are not people to be trifled with.  They mean business, and sometimes they mean to carry out that business with violence and force.  It’s possible that some of them may start disappearing in the night.  It’s possible that all of them disappear over night. 

Yet, look at their words as they speak to the Samaritans: “We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth.”  “Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?  Who are you?” asks the Samaritans.  And instead of starting with Cyrus, who they bring up much later, they say, God decreed it, and we are his—we work not because of the king—not because of you—but because of God.  What audacity, honesty, and courage!  They could have said so many other things to make the situation more favourable for themselves, but they start with the God-honest truth by starting with God. 

This is a glaring and astounding thing for me, personally, because I’m so often timid about sharing my Christian testimony with unbelieving friends, family, and strangers, and not just because of how I think they’ll receive it but because of how I think I’ll look in their eyes.  So, what will I do?  I’ll spin the truth.  Have you heard the phrase, “all lawyers are liars?”  Well, I’m going to be very honest, lying is partly why I had any clients at all as a lawyer.  Now, I didn’t lie in such a way where I could be disciplined by our ethics commission, but I would always frame the truth of the situation in such a way that made it sound like everything I had done and everything that was happening in my clients’ cases was for their good.  I’d do this knowing full well, if I just turned the words a little bit to the left or right, they’d see it’s not going so well, and I always made sure to cast myself in a favourable light. 

And you know what’s even crazier?  This kind of practice was encouraged.  Encouraged by our firm’s partners.  Encouraged by other lawyers in other firms.  Encouraged even by my own professors in law school.  And I imagine that such a practice isn’t only encouraged in the legal profession.  In fact, I imagine that this is something that we, Christians, living in North America know something about very well in our own testimony and witness both with non-believers and with believers.  We spin the truth to make ourselves look better. 

See, our sin makes us masters of spin.  James, in his New Testament book, says that the tongue is like fire—staining the whole body—causing a world of injustice and unrighteousness—setting the entire course of life aflame—and such a thing comes from and belongs in hell.  But that’s the effect of the tongue.  You can see its fire.  You know it’s there.  It doesn’t take much for you to know when it’s burning because it causes a real, piercing pain that sets off your receptors and warns you to flee! 

But what is the nature of the tongue?  I imagine it’s something like carbon monoxide.  Your ability to use it in these seemingly innocuous, inconspicuous, practiced ways of turning the truth, just a little bit, to suit your well-being and to preserve your image and life.  Doing so is like this noxious gas coming upon you in your sleep, invading your senses without your being able to detect it, poisoning your lungs, replacing the oxygen in your blood, until you can’t awake from your sleep—until it’s too late for your senses, your lungs, your brain, and even your heart to stop it. 

You know, church, if we’re not careful, we might become so accustomed to using our tongues like this—of spinning the truth in a way that benefits us—that one day we’ll wake up to our world on fire, or worse yet, we’ll simply not wake up at all.  When we practice dishonesty and truth-spinning to make ourselves feel safer or to save ourselves from shame, we slowly become so dazed and dizzy from our own lying and cowardice that we become our own adversaries—our own worst enemies.  

So often I find myself not saying the gospel to someone, or in accountability with other Christians, telling them a half truth—or a side truth—or maybe a lesser sin that hides a greater sin not because someone’s laid their hand on me or because I’ve been threatened, but because I’ve put it in my own head that I need to hide this truth for my own image—because it’s better for me to save face than to suffer their wrath.  In the case of an unbeliever, it’s better for me to be liked, than to say that they’re destined for hell.  In the case of a believer, it’s better for them to see me as a stable, imperfect saint rather than as a full-fledged sinner.

How messed up is that?  Is this what freedom is?  Because I don’t want any part of it, and yet I find myself participating in its hypocrisy all the time—struggling to be honest—struggling to be courageous in the face of adversity that has shown itself to be a smaller threat to me than myself. 

Brothers and sisters, the Bible is clear, if we’re too frightened to be honest now with man, then there’s no way that we’ll be honest when we stand before God, and on that day, he won’t just listen to our words.  No, he’ll look into our hearts and find us wanting.  What Israel shows us here—their testimony before these adversaries who have not actually done anything threatening or violent—is a freedom of conscience before God—a courageous confidence that we can be honest now without fear because God delights in an honest and pure heart, and he gives peace to it, even when it threatens your image, even when it threatens your comfort, even when it threatens your life.  True freedom only belongs to those who can speak the truth in God.  Freedom elsewhere is a façade!

The question is do you trust the sovereignty of God to prove himself faithful to his Word as you do the work—as you live the gospel by speaking the truth, courageously as a testimony to his greater, honest work in your life, even to people who might hate or revile you—even to people who you want to like you?  Because God shall prove himself true—whether or not you are true to him, yet it is only those who are true to him who shall know the sweetness of his freedom.  I pray that you might know it today—that you do the work of being courageously honest in adversity, and, I promise, God will not forsake you.  In fact, not only do I promise it, but so does the Bible as we consider our third point:

3) Be Hopeful in Posture; Faithful in Duty

How is it that we can be humble when everyone else is doing better than us, and it seems God’s forgotten us?  How is it that we can be honest in our testimony and courageous in adversity?  Verse 5 gives us the answer.  It’s because the eye of God is on those who do his will.  It’s on those who do the work.  So faithful, so hopeful, so full of the Spirit, Mind, and Disposition of God were these Israelites having heard the prophesies of Haggai and Zechariah that nothing could stop them in it!  God was upon them not only to warn them of his presence, if they were to stop or waver in their work, but he was upon them, more so, to satisfy them, to enliven them, to increase their joy, to provide them with his help. 

Why weren’t they complaining: “God why have you sent these adversaries upon us?  Why aren’t our circumstances better?”  Because God was upon them and was enough for them.  Why weren’t they incoherent or wavering in their testimony, even though they faced death?  Because God was upon them and had become something for them to live by, even if it cost them their lives. 

Church, when God falls upon us our posture in the task he’s set before us changes from despair to hope—from unbelief in its value to an infinite faith that this is of God because God is with me.  The elders of the Jews saw this—that God was upon them, and it made them hopeful.  It made them faithful because they knew God was for them and not against them—that he would protect them and that he was guiding them.  This is freedom—knowing that God is for us and not against us. 

Yet, the Bible has more to say about this to us, specifically—those of us who confess to be Christians—because who is it that God is now for?  Who does God now stand with?  Is it just Israel?  Is it just Judah?  Is it just those who built the temple in Jerusalem?  No, he stands with and is for all those whom he gave up his own Son to save.  Romans 8 says he, that is God, gave Jesus up for us all. 

So what?  Why is that different now, for us, than it was for them in Ezra’s day?  Well, even when we complain that we don’t get what we deserve, Jesus was completely humble for us.  Even when we were deeply selfish, Jesus was selfless for us.  Even when we were dishonest, Jesus was honest for us.  Even when we, ourselves, were the adversary, Jesus was courageous for us.  And even when we looked to ourselves for our salvation and thought all our endeavours were meaningless apart from how we benefitted from them, Jesus lived in hope and faith for us. 

And you know what all that culminated in for us?  It culminated in the cross—that cursed tree where he shed his blood and bore the wrath of God for you and for me—for us.   He did this so that as we do the work, now—as we go out into the world and accomplish the task that he’s given us in the gospel—we need not wait for him to prove himself anymore.  He has revealed, for us, the greatness of his glory in Christ.

In Christ, we’ve received all we could ever want or need.  In Christ, our greatest adversaries in the devil and our sin have been crushed underneath his feet.  In Christ, our despair and doubt have been taken away, and we’ve been filled, instead, with an eternal hope and a perfecting faith.  In Christ, we’ve received the Spirit of God who’s come upon us to help us in the work against our own unbelief and to live in us as we live for him. 

Freedom is this: it’s having the sovereign eye of God upon us, in us, and with us to accomplish and give us all that we could never accomplish or afford on our own, and he has done it for us in Jesus Christ.  So, do the work— walk in holiness, declare the gospel, repent of your sins, and see that God has already proved himself in all of it. 

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