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Feb 07, 2016

Building Walls for a Boundless MInistry

Building Walls for a Boundless MInistry

Passage: Ezra 7:1-10:44

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: The Story

Category: Old Testament

Keywords: barriers, boundaries, god's blessing, heart, protection, walls


Walls are a part of life. Some are very necessary. Some are counterproductive and destructive. This massage looks at both the internal and external walls that God's people must deal with if we are to be a people upon whom "the gracious hand of God" rests, as it did with Ezra.


Building Walls for a Boundless Ministry

The Story

Nehemiah & Malachi

INTRO:  A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with an esteemed brother in Christ about the whole concept of “ministry without walls.”  He was advocating very strongly for the whole body of Christ in a community to live out cooperative connections that would enableministry without walls.” 

Being one who is a city-church kind of guy…always wanting the people of God to work together for the kingdom of God as much as possible… I was wholeheartedly in favor of his idea until…he happened to mention embracing a particular group I would consider a cult.  These folks call themselves “Christians” but, based on their theology, they clearly hold to a number of important deviations from orthodox Christianity. But that’s not really my point this morning.

That sort of visceral mental barrier I have in my thinking about the boundaries that I think separate the true Christian church from Christian cults and heresies was now causing me to wonder about the validity of “ministry without walls.”  I had run head-on into one of those theological walls I’ve constructed in my own mind that says, “Wowa, fella!  Slow down for just a moment and think about this.  Is this really what Jesus had in mind when He talked about “being one” as He and the Father are one?” (Jn. 17)

All of us have walls and boundaries of various kinds in our lives

  • Most of us have actually paid lots of money over the years for “walls”…OR we are paying on a monthly basis for “walls.” We call them houses or apartments. Most of us don’t exactly want to do away with those walls…especially in the middle of a Spokane winter.  Truth is, some walls can be very helpful (like the ones around your house…or bedroom and bathroom…or bank account… or business.  Clearly there is a place for physical walls that promote safety.
  • But all of us have built some relational walls
    • Some have really high, isolating walls that keep people at a “safe” distance.
    • We all exercise different levels of communication with different people that either put up walls or take them down.
    • We all should have different levels of human touch depending on whether someone is a family member or not, a spouse, a friend, a member of the opposite sex or a stranger.
    • We have different emotional walls—levels of emotional transparency that we hope protect us somewhat from emotional pain or danger.
    • And we all need spiritual wallsbelief systems (theologies) as well as spiritual practices that protect us from error or lies or partial truths or spiritual attacks while enabling us to cultivate healthy spiritual experiences.

The point is, we all need walls AND we all probably all need to break some walls down.  We all need to learn how to have proper “boundaries” and how to shed unnecessarily divisive or destructive walls.  And being body, soul and spirit, we need to learn how to do that physically, emotionally, relationally and spiritually.  And that is precisely what today’s part of The Story is about.

We’re in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Malachi today, the last historical and prophetic books of the O.T.  It’s 400-500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.  The first wave of Jewish exiles has returned from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple.  Now the second and third waves are about to leave Persia and resettle back in the Promised Land in and around Jerusalem. 

            The key players in that period of Israel’s history are people like the priest, Ezra, and the public official, NehemiahHaggai, Zechariah and Malachi…all prophets….delivered important messages during this period as well.  They are all going to experience the importance of building the right kinds of walls in life—the kind that protect people but don’t isolate them from the life God has for them. 

            We pick up the story of God working with His people in Ezra 7.  It’s about half a century after the first exiles had returned in 538 B.C. under the leadership of Zerubbabel.  That return had resulted, as we saw last week, in the rebuilding of the Temple.  It wasn’t without its challenges.  For 6 years the project was resisted by the resident Samaritans—Jews who had intermarried with the conquering Assyrians decades before.  For another 10 the work was stopped altogether.  So it had taken more than 16 years to just get that one important project of rebuilding the Temple done. 

APP:  It’s good to keep in mind that not only was Rome not built in a day; God’s work—ministries, churches and families in the 21st century aren’t built in a day either.  Patience is a divine virtue, one we all need God’s help to grow up into. 

The man Ezra, after whom this book of Ezra is named, doesn’t even appear in the book until chapter 7.  So let’s pick it up where he enters the story.  Ezra 7:1ff

1After these things, during the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of …[well, you get the idea]— this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given.

It’s usually not academicians who lead the way in spiritual revivals.  But God rarely does the same thing twice.  And He really doesn’t care whether he chooses a pipe-fitter or a professor to do his work.  But He does go after people who aren’t afraid of work or change or a challenge. 

            So this occasion God chooses a Bible professor of all people!  The text continues (7:6b):

The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.

Here God is cluing us in that there was a reason why Ezra had such amazing favor with the primary political leader of the day, Artaxerxes, king of Persia:  God’s hand was on Ezra! 

APP:  You know, if you every have a genie…or an angel…come up to you and offer you just one wish, this is the thing you want to wish for—that God’s hand will be on you.  Don’t ask for the lottery.  Don’t wish for endless youth.  Just blurt out, “I want God’s hand to rest on me!” 

            Which naturally leads us to the question, “So what do you have to do to have God place his hand of blessing on you?”  Let’s hold onto that question as we work through this text today.  Because we’re going to see that God actually says 4 times in this chapter that His hand was upon Ezra.  

7:9 tells us that it had taken Ezra 4 months to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem (4x28=112 days).  And now we have the second time God tells us His hand was on Ezra.

He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him. 

But now we get our first clue as to WHY God’s hand was resting on this man.  Vs. 10--

10 For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.

God is always looking for people to place his Hand of blessing on.  And here we learn that God likes to place blessing on those who “devote [his/her]self to the study and observance of His Law and to teaching it to others. 

            I can just hear some of you thinking, “Well that’s a bummer!  I don’t have the gift of teaching.  I don’t know how to really study the Word of God.  I’m not like you, Pastor.  I didn’t get to…nor did I even want to…go to Bible college or seminary.” 

            While it’s true that Ezra was a priest, that priesthood ended with the work of Christ.  And the Apostle Peter tells us in I Peter 2:9 that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ then you are a priest as far as God is concerned. 

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

Notice, in the New Covenant, the New Testament role as believers in Jesus Christ, we are priests, every one of us.  And because we are priests before God and before people (remember, priests represent God to people and people to God), we are to be a declaring people, a people who speak about God and his word to others. 

            This is one of the great and unfortunate results of having this invisible divide between “clergy and laity.”  Teaching like this on Sunday mornings tends to perpetuates the false notion that there is a class of Christian that gets paid to function like a priest—the pastor or preacher…and then there is everyone else who not only doesn’t get paid to teach but really doesn’t have to teach and maybe shouldn’t teach. 

While the New Testament recognizes the gift of teaching and office of pastor and teaching elder, nowhere does it say that my teaching takes YOU off the hook for learning God’s word, obeying God’s word and teaching God’s word. 

            In fact, the writer of Hebrews, in Hebrews 5:12 says this to a bunch of Christ-followers who were delayed and stunted in their spiritual growth. 

“Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” 

            He’s speaking about a failure to learn, a failure to really embrace elementary spiritual truths that had robbed a bunch of God’s people from a role ALL of God’s people should be engaged in—being teachers. 

ILL:  I grew up in a home where my mother was a gifted teacher.  She got her college degree in Early Childhood Education. She raised 5 kids and taught us more things outside of school than most kids learn inside school. When she came to Christ in her 40s, she started teaching the Bible to hundreds of children, high schoolers, college students and adults all over Spokane and Portland for the next 40 years of her life. 

            My Dad, on the other hand, didn’t have the gift of teaching.  Oh, he eventually led a few groups.  But he wasn’t a very good teacher…not in the formal sense of the word.  But he taught people all day.  He taught us, his 5 children, from the Word of God virtually every day…and some days he even used words to do so! J  Every day his life spoke to us of the Word of God because he lived out the character of Christ. 

God is looking for people…His children…who He can place his hand on and bless.  And the kind of person whom he can bless is someone who does just what Ezra did:

  • Studies the Word of God.
  • Obeys the Word of God.
  • Teaches others to do the same thing with the Word of God.

Ezra 7:10—For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.

This is one reason EVERYONE who is a follower of Jesus needs to be continually studying God’s word. 

  • Get into BSF.
  • Get into a Bible Study.
  • Get into the Word on your own.

That’s one sure way to invite God’s hand on your life.

BUT, it can’t stop there.  We must also devote ourselves to the DOING of God’s word, “observing” it.  This is why I try to always give you some time to listen to God’s Spirit and opportunities to carry out what God is encouraging you to DO with His truth on any given Sunday morning. 

Studying the Word of God without obeying it leads some ugly stuff

  • You’ll get immune to the power of God’s word.
  • You’ll get deaf to the voice of the Spirit.
  • You’ll get headstrong and heart-weak.
  • You’ll get proud about what you KNOW while being powerless about what you DO.

But…when we practice the Word of God, we will automatically want to teach it (both by example and by word) to anyone we truly love and care about.  A Spirit-infused encounter with the Word of God is like that. 

ILL:  It’s like having a triple-shot latte on the way to work and downing a Monster drink every 2 hours throughout the day.  J  You’re bound to behave differently if you pump that stuff into your veins all day…just like we’re bound to live differently if we pump the Word of God into our hearts and minds regularly.  

            Consistently, the people I have known in my life who had the greatest impact in teaching me about Christ and the Christian life were people of The Book.  Some of them were janitors and some of them were PhDs.  Some were old and some were young.  But they all had a love for and immersion in the Word of God in common.  ALL!

APP:  So what’s your NEXT GOOD STEP with God’s Word?

The rest of chapter 7 is a letter from King Artaxerxes to Ezra.  At the same time, it’s really a letter to anyone who tries to mess with Ezra.  Here are some of the instructions the king gives in this little not-so-personal letter.

  • 13—It’s a letter of emancipation for any Israelite living in captivity. They are all free to return to their homeland.
  • 14—It’s a spiritual search warrant that tells Ezra to find out what is going on spiritually in Israel.
  • 15—It’s a royal blank check signed by the king himself, instructing other government officials all over that part of the world to provide resources.
  • 24—It’s a declaration of tax exemption for Ezra and any of the people who were serving God at the temple. (Don’t tell the IRS but this is where even our current tax code got the practice of “clergy exemptions”.  Ever since the beginning of the income tax, clergy have been able to “opt out” of Social Security as well as claim a “housing deduction” that keeps what we spend on housing non-taxable for income purposes.  Like I said, DON’T tell the IRS the Bible had anything to do with that! J)
  • 25—It gave Ezra authority to make judicial appointments in Israel.
  • 26—Just for added punch, it ended with a little “P.S.” “Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.”  This letter had some teeth!  J

This chapter 7 ends with these words:  27 Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honor to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way 28 and who has extended his good favor to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.

Here are clearly 3 signs that “the hand of the Lord” may be on someone or some project:

  • People around and over them will provide the permission needed to move forward.
  • God will provide the provision to accomplish the task. It may come from the people of God or it may come from some unexpected quarters. 

There is a third sign of God’s favor given in the next chapter, chapter 8.  It’s PROTECTION.  Here’s how it came to Ezra and Co.

21 There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. 22 I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” 23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.

Now skip to vs. 31--31 On the twelfth day of the first month we set out from the Ahava Canal to go to Jerusalem. The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way. 32 So we arrived in Jerusalem, where we rested three days.

Permission…provision…protection.  God has a way of providing those things when His hand is upon us.  That’s why being people of God on whom God can place his hand of blessing is worth striving after. 


  • Permission: what do we have permission to do in this city to build the “temple” of God…the church?  Pretty much anything.  We’ve gotten permission to be in more buildings and blocks than we have people ready and willing to serve.  We have been given permission …better yet, we’ve been asked…to bring the Word of God and the people of God into this part of our community. 
  • Provision: as a church, we’ve got the blessing of being “non-taxable” in this ministry.  Unlike a business, we don’t get taxed by the IRS on what you give.  And as I mentioned last week and will cover in more detail next week at our Annual Celebration Sunday, God has blessed this little church in amazing ways that have enabled us to bless so many other ministries and people in amazing ways.
  • Protection: God doesn’t always protect us from persecution or ridicule or suffering or harm.  Just look to Jesus and you’ll see that.  But even when we may not experience protection from persecution in this world, God’s good hand on us is always protecting our hearts.  He’s always pouring out more grace that will move us closer to him the more others try to tear us away from Him. 

The rest of the book of Ezra and the whole book of Nehemiah really address the issue we started with today in talking about walls and boundaries.  Ezra ends with a story about the failure of God’s people to build healthy walls round their hearts and lives.  The book of Nehemiah highlights the necessity and importance of building healthy physical walls around the people of God.  Let’s look briefly at both.

Ezra 9-10 tells us that, despite rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, a problem had developed that revealed that God’s people had failed to construct an appropriate wall in their hearts.  It all centered around marriage

            Remember last week’s passage in Ezra 4 when Zerubbabel and the first wave of exiles arrived back in Jerusalem?  They got an “offer” of help from the Samaritans who were already living there. The text tells us that they were actually “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” who came to Zerubbabel and offered their services in rebuilding the Temple, probably so they could infiltrate the project, wear down the builders at close range and perhaps sabotage the whole project. 

            Zerubbabel saw right through it.  He knew these were people who had conquered their land 70 years before and gone on to obviously conquer the hearts and lives of the Jews who were left behind who intermarried with them.  The result was people who really didn’t have a zeal for God and who had mixed their pagan religion with Judaism.  Had they really been serious about following God, they would probably have tried to rebuild the Temple long before this.  They had the appearance of spirituality without the power.  So Zerubbabel rejected them…and they returned the favor.  Thus began much of the “bad blood” between Jews and half-Jew Samaritans. 

            Fast-forward 60 years to Ezra 9 & 10.  The Jews who had returned from captivity had intermarried again.  The very sin they criticized in the Samaritans was the very thing they ended up doing themselves.  It wasn’t a matter of racial prejudice; it was an issue of spiritual fidelity.  To marry someone outside of the people of God was to insure that your children and grandchildren would eventually wander from the truth and go after other gods. 

APP:  Here’s an example of an Old Testament principle (don’t marry someone outside of God’s family) carrying over into the N.T2 Cor. 6:14 says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”  That doesn’t just apply to marriage but it most certainly does apply to marriage.  God’s people, whether under the Old Covenant of the Mosaic Law or the New Covenant of grace in Jesus Christ, are not to bind themselves to unbelievers in ways that will influence us to drift from Christ. 

            But, the solution put forward in Ezra’s day for God’s people is clearly not what New Testament believers are called to do.  They were told to “put away” any pagan, non-Jewish, non-God-fearing spouses and children.  They were essentially to divorce them and send them back to their pagan families (assuming they had not really embraced Yahweh or Judaism).  .

            But the N.T. presents a different solution for any Christ-follower who finds themselves “unequally yoked” whether you became a Christian and your spouse isn’t one yet OR you disobeyed the command not to become “unequally yoked” and now are regretting the difficult reality of that choice. 

Paul tells us in I Cor. 7 that, if you find yourself married to an unbelieving spouse, a non-Christ-follower, you are called by God to remain with that spouse as long as they will remain with you in the hopes that your relationship with Christ will draw them to Him as well and lead to their salvation. Many of us have seen that come to pass in the lives of unequally yoked couples…but usually after many, many years, often difficult years for the believing spouse.  On the other hand, I cannot remember a single case where a believer divorced their unbelieving spouse and that unbeliever later came to faith in Jesus. 

So here is the important point for all of us: 

As God’s people, we must learn to build the right kinds of walls around our hearts and personal lives that enable us to be blessed by God and to therefore bless others.  God’s people were failing dismally in the area of their choice of spouses, and Ezra knew that the nation would self-destruct from the inside unless things changed.  No amount of physical walls and standing armies could make up for failing to build the right spiritual and moral walls around hearts and homes.

            Proverbs 25:28 states it clearly when it says, Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.”  People without proper Spirit-led boundaries in their lives will find themselves overrun by marauding, destructive forces.  That can happen in any area of our lives. But each of us usually have two or three where it is particularly dangerous.


  • Marriage: any healthy man or woman knows that you must set healthy walls around your marriage relationship if you are not to shipwreck your marriage on the rocks of temptation. 
    • Spouses with healthy walls know that you don’t talk with friends of the opposite sex about your marriage problems, challenges or disappointments. To do that is to invite disaster.
    • Spouses with healthy walls know that you must protect your weekly schedule in such a way that you get good, quality time with your spouse on a regular basis.
    • Spouses with healthy walls know that there are certain things they must continually guard against in their private lives—things like pornography, or soap operas, or romance novels or movies that build unrealistic expectations or unhealthy thoughts.
  • Work
  • Food
  • Church
  • Entertainment: TV, internet, movies, news feeds, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  • Potentially addictive substances

There is an excellent book entitled Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud & John Townsend.  If you’re allowing other people to be continual “boundary-busters” in your life, you need to get this book and get into a study group that will help you and others put the right walls back into your lives.

Last point of application here.  After Ezra dealt with the problems of God’s people having lives that lacked protective walls around their hearts and homes, Nehemiah, King Artaxerxes’ cup bearer, realizes that the next major step in the protection and preservation of God’s people back in the Promised Land is the rebuilding of the walls around Jerusalem.  They had lain utterly destroyed for the past 95 years. 

All the hard work of rebuilding the spiritual foundations, the Temple, could be easily destroyed by any invading army from any half-powerful nation.  God’s people needed physical boundaries, physical walls, that would enable them to protect and preserve the spiritual advances for which they had worked so hard.

Since we spent 4 months just last year this time studying Nehemiah in-depth, I’m not going to go over that book today.  But I do want us to think about the one over-arching reality of the book of Nehemiah:  there is a place for building of physical walls that protect what God is doing with His people. 

That may sound to some of you who have known me for a few years like I’m contradicting one of my longstanding beliefs that I’ve voiced many times from the pulpit, namely that physical structures shouldn’t determine spiritual outcomes.

  • A prison cell can grow a person more than a cathedral.
  • A tin-roofed chapel in the sticks can contain just as much or more spiritual life than a mega-church

But if I am going to be true to all of God’s word, physical places have been important to the advancement of God’s family.   

God’s people in this world have always been present in the world in physical ways

  • We inhabit bodies through which we live out the life of God in this world.
  • God’s people had a Temple in Jerusalema walled city to which people were invited to come and see the glory of God and find safety.
  • God’s people have had churches that met in people’s homes…or in chapels…or catacombs…or in church buildings…or cathedrals…or even on mega-church campuses. Occasionally, for short periods of time, God’s people have met in forests and fields, in natural amphitheaters and bowls.  But that has been the exception.  Being physical beings as well as spiritual, we need, as much as possible, some physical spaces and places that are relatively safe, places that provide shelter from both the elements and the evil that has filled cities and streets for as long as mankind has been on the earth.  

APP:  For 8 years now we’ve been experiencing God’s good and gracious work among us in a part of the city that frankly isn’t very hospitable to the people of God.  We’ve been shining the light of Christ in some of the darker corners of our city. 

            And in the past 6 months, God seems to be clearly directing us back to the physical area where we first began.  We’ve looked at building after building from Division to Maple and from the freeway to the river.  Yet God has repeatedly pointed us back to the same 4 or 5 blocks near where we first started. 

            I don’t think that is an accident.  I don’t think it is just chance that we are currently negotiating not one but two “places”, 2 locations, 2 buildings that are feet from each other and in the same block as the Mosaic Community Bike Shop we launched last fall. 

            God is up to something.  And He seems to be inviting us to join him. 

            Will you?  Will you be part of this new “building”?  Will you be part of constructing “spiritual safe space” in our city?  Will you be part of rebuilding the foundation of spiritual work in our city, of rebuilding “walls” that will be a blessing to many?