Summary: the Jews returned to their homeland in three waves and began to rebuild their city. but why rebuild the altar before the temple, or the city walls? because there focus was on putting God first!
I’m going to spend a bit of time talking about some of Ezra chapter 3.
About 70 years before the events in this chapter, Judah was invaded by the Babylonian Empire and the people exiled. God had let this happen because they had turned their backs on him. Since then the Babylonian Empire had collapsed, and Persia were the new World power. Under King Cyrus of Persia, two prophecies were fulfilled. Even though he may not have known God personally, he was used to bring about God’s plan. In Jeremiah 25:11 and 29:10 it speaks about a remnant of Judah returning after 70 years, and in Isaiah 44:28 and 45:1-13 it says how God would use King Cyrus to bring this about.
Cyrus opened the way for Jews to return to their homeland and they did so in three waves. About 50,000 Jews returned, led by a man named Zerubbabel then about 80 years later, about 2000 men and their families returned with Ezra, who was a priest. The final group that is recorded as returning, were only a small group, and they were led be Nehemiah.
Chapter three is about the first wave of returnees, after they had returned and begun to settle into the area and started up some of the practises set out by the Law of Moses.
So let’s read it…
Their aim was to reclaim the land for God, and so they began to rebuild Jerusalem. – starting with the altar, then the temple, then in Nehemiah they rebuilt the city walls. In this passage, they rebuild the altar on its original foundation.
But why build the altar before the temple or the walls?
An altar, according to the Collins dictionary, is used for sacred purposes in a place of worship.
Therefore, as God’s people they are saying that their worship was not restricted to a building. They had spent 70 years away from their land, but they had still worshipped God, without confining it to just one or two places. They brought God out into the open, showing the locals their faith. We do this ourselves. Without having a building of our own, in a way means that we have to be more open about who we are in the community. And we also live out our faith in the open, in work and school and on the giveaways, and wherever we go. We take the place of worship with us as we live our life following God’s will.
Building the altar before the temple or the city walls shows the intentions of those who returned at this time.
1. The altar signifies that the people acknowledged their need for God, they repented and sacrificed and worshipped, which seems to me to be a good place to start.
2. Then the temple showed physically who they were, what they were about, and that God was their focus.
3. Then the walls show their need for strength – defence and protection.
And this has significance for us too.
1. We need to repent and give up our lives to Christ.
2. Our bodies become a temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells, as we try to live a Christ-like life to show that God is our focus and to show who we are in Christ. In 1 Corinthians chapter 6, Paul says “19Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20you were bought at a price.”
3. And thirdly, our strength and protection is in God, and also in meeting as a church, being one in God.
And we cannot be a temple to God if we do not allow his Spirit access our life through sacrifice and openness.
Isaiah 66:2 says "I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts, who tremble at my word.” In Ezra 3, the Jews came in an attitude of repentance and humility. They opened themselves up to God, and that enabled God to use them. We should do the same. "I will bless those who have humble and contrite hearts, who tremble at my word.”
The Jews came back to where they had begun, and built on top of the foundations of old. It is important for us to come back to what we know; which for us is Jesus Christ.
But we need to remember that we can’t return to the way things were, we can only go forward. Like Tim’s song, Re-digging the Wells says about not wanting to mimic what was, and not wanting what is second-hand, but choosing to move forward and look for what God is doing now. It’s easy to get stuck in the past, if you are going through a difficult time, because you look to what was, and want it back. But Jesus is doing a good work in you, which will come to completion because you have built your life on a solid foundation.