Thursday, October 10, 2019

Taking action

Genuine repentance not only requires that we take ownership of our wrongdoings and sins, but that we take prompt action to correct them. We not only need to admit our sins to God and to others that we have hurt, but we also need to take practical steps to correct our sins.
Often there is no quick resolution.
Sometimes there is no simple correction.
If someone has been killed or injured, obviously that sin cannot be fixed.
Sometimes the problem is complex, and can't be remedied in a simple way.
But these should not be excuses used for not taking action. We should thoughtfully devise a plan to lead us into full obedience to God. Repentance, and taking action to right wrongs, should happen as quickly as is possible in each situation.

And sometimes, like in the tenth chapter of Ezra, it ain't easy! Sometimes our sin results in problems for which no easy solution can be seen. This intermarrying with pagan inhabitants of the land was one of those situations. To allow those in "mixed" marriages to continue in them would seem to condone the behavior, at a time when purity of worship was essential. There are 111 Jewish men listed as guilty of this sin -- since there were over 28,000 who had returned under the leadership of Zerubbabel, this means four tenths of one percent (I hope I'm correct here, I never was all that good at math) were guilty of the sin.  Was Ezra making a mountain out of a molehill? Was he sorrowing about something that wasn't really all that horrific?
Paul gives us a clue in his letter to the Corinthians. He was talking about whether or not to "go easy" or tolerate sin in the New Testament church:
Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? (I Corinthians 5:6)
He must have thought it was super important, for he re-stated it when he wrote to the Galatians about someone who had inserted a false teaching into their church:
“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” (Galatians 5:9)
If they had not confronted the problem, it would have spread even further. Since there were not all that many Jewish exiles who had returned. if this sin had continued, it would have effectively diluted their distinctiveness as God's people. Ezra's words in the ninth chapter indicate that he believed God could (and perhaps would, justifiably) destroy the people. Ezra believed, therefore, that it was necessary to break up these wrongful marriages -- even though God had instituted rules, and had declared His hatred of divorce.  (See Deuteronomy 24 and Malachi 2)  This was not a situation that Ezra took casually: he fasted and prayed before acting on what he knew would be difficult personally for the Jewish men.
To break up the marriages with the women who refused to give up their idols would mean separating fathers from their wives and children. Those individuals would be sent back to their pagan roots, which was not ideal, either. I guess Ezra believed that breaking up the marriages with determined idol worshipers and restoring purity to the Jewish nation was the lesser of the two evils. Either way would be difficult. And painful.
One commentary that I consulted said that to "put away" these wives "according to the law" they referred back to the word of God in Deuteronomy 24. This permits divorce if the husband finds something that brings shame to the man, his family, or the Jewish community (like idolatry). It would not refer to adultery, for that was covered in other verses, and indeed, was punishable by death. So, this had to be something that brought great shame -- and according to the scholars, what could bring greater shame than the breaking of the covenant relationship with God, and incurring His judgment on all of the people?  (Walter Kaiser, Jr., in Hard Sayings of the Old Testament)

Should believers today who find themselves in marriages with unbelievers scamper off to the divorce courts? Certainly not! While the New Testament clearly instructs that a believer should not enter into that relationship, it also clearly says that if the relationship is established, the believer should live in a godly manner. He or she should seek to influence the non-believer by a good testimony for Christ. Many a husband or wife has been brought to a saving knowledge of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, and has begun to live for Him, due to the daily witness of their mate. The non-believer (I Corinthians) is free to leave and then the believer is not bound by the marriage - the only other ground for divorce, I believe from my studies, is the sexual immorality of one of the partners. If you want to check my opinion, which I freely admit could be in error, you can read in Matthew 5 and again in Matthew 19. I think the partner who is harmed has the opportunity to offer reconciliation if the transgressor is repentant. That actually has the opportunity to glorify God more than the breakup of the marriage, but it's a difficult road strewn with many land mines, to be sure.

But here is the way the text applies to our lives today: the Jewish men were pained and it was difficult to separate from their pagan wives and the children. It's also painful to separate ourselves from our sins; it's difficult. Jesus knew this when He said:
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matthew 18:8-9)
Jesus knew that this language would be hard to hear. Some would find it shocking. He talked this way to get us to see how serious sin is, and to see that we must take action to get it out of our lives, even when it is painful, and even when it's difficult. Sometimes, just like in Ezra's day, there are no easy solutions.
Sometimes it's not just painful -- sometimes it's an occasion for a lot of conflict!
Verse fifteen mentions that four men opposed the proposed covenant to divorce the pagan women. But there may have been a lot more vehement discussions than what the verse mentions casually. Ezra may have been the recipient of a lot of hate mail and mean tweets. (Grin) He could have been called insensitive, unloving, intolerant, and self-righteous! Even though he was obeying the Word of God, he may not have been a popular guy!
Some may think that Ezra should not have forced all of the Jews to enter the covenant under the threat of confiscating their property and excluding them from the assembly. Wouldn't he just see people going through the motions? Wouldn't they conform on the outside, but not have a change of heart?
Ahh, we have come right back to repentance, haven't we? I'm guessing that Ezra hoped that every man (even the four who groused about the whole thing) would take action to correct his own sins out of a personal, not a you-made-me-do-it repentance toward God. But Ezra also had to maintain certain standards of biblical righteousness or the whole community would become tainted with sin and idol worship. So he imposed the covenant on everyone.
It's the same today. God's desire for His church is that every single member would correct his or her sin because of true repentance toward Him. But even if some members disagree, it's the duty of the leadership to ask the whole body to abide by godly standards -- if not, the testimony of Christ will be diluted or destroyed.
We can see this in the New Testament where church discipline is discussed. We are to go to that sinner privately at first, just a couple of believers to try to point out the sinner's error. If they refuse to repent once all of the biblical steps are followed, that sinner is to be removed from the fellowship. (Matthew 18, Galatians 6, and I Corinthians 5.) Maintaining the testimony and purity of the church is more important than keeping things quiet!

I know this has been a long post, but I think it's been an important one for the Spirit to teach us with, in the coming days. Jesus said He came to call sinners to repentance, and certainly that is how our Christian life begins. But it's not just something that we feel at the beginning. It's something that should characterize believers all of their lives. Each time that the Spirit convicts us through God's Word of our sins, we should repent. We should be lifelong repenters!
I like this anecdote from Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: forty-odd years ago in Ceausescu's Communist Romania, Christians were ridiculed, and nicknamed "repenters." One pastor began to tell his people, "It's time for the repenters to repent." The people in his congregation entered into a covenant of repentance, and radically changed their behaviors and conversation. Soon people around them began to notice. That whole region was soon ablaze in revival, despite their persecution. The influence of those "repenters" was felt throughout Eastern Europe and the whole world.

Lord, help us to be repenters!

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