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Friday, May 21, 2010

Continual Building - Part II

On the fourteenth day of the first month, the exiles celebrated the Passover. All the priests and Levites had purified themselves – all, no exceptions. They were all ritually clean. The Levites slaughtered the Passover Lamb for the exiles, their brother priests, and themselves. Then the Israelites who had returned from exile, along with everyone who had removed themselves from the defilements of the nations to join them and seek God, the God of Israel, at the Passover. With great joy they celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days. God had plunged them into a sea of joy; he had changed the mind of the king of Assyria to back them in rebuilding the Temple of God, the God of Israel. (Ezra 6:19-22)


The Temple of God is finally finished.  The people who had returned to Jerusalem would celebrate – and not in some small fashion – they would throw a huge celebration, complete with animal sacrifice, exuberant praise, and all the ritual they could muster. Yet, even though the sacrifices were many, they did not match what had once been offered by Solomon at the completion of the original Temple in Jerusalem. According to the scriptural account of the first dedication of the Temple, Solomon and the entire congregation of Israel sacrificed so many sheep and cattle that no one could keep track of the numbers offered (2 Chr. 5:6). Another account of the sacrifices that continued during that first dedication service revealed that 22,000 bulls and 120,000 sheep were offered (2 Chr. 7:5) - and that was just the bulls and the sheep!


At the first dedication, God honored his people by showing his great favor toward their offerings and praise as he sent lightning from heaven to consume the sacrifices, filling the Temple with his glory. The glory of God was so powerful that the priests could not stand to worship – they fell on their knees, bowed to God, and worshipped thankfully in his presence (2 Chr. 7:1-3).  Wow!  What a service that would be!  Not being able to stand in the presence of our God because his presence was so evident!

They offered the sin offering – twelve male goats – one for each tribe. This consisted of the offering being killed before the altar and its blood being placed on the horns of the altar. The fat of this offering was then burned. The flesh and the skin of the animal were then removed from the Temple, and burned outside. The purpose of the offering was to “cover over” any actions on the part of the people that were done unconsciously. It was not for deliberate rebellion against God. The one making this offering would usually lay his hands on the head of the ram and designate it as a substitution offering.
This celebration we see at the "re-dedication" of the Temple paled in comparison to the first, right down to the glory of God filling the Temple. There is no account here of the glory inhabiting the rebuilt Temple as it had during the time of Solomon. Ten tribes of Israel remained in exile. The two tribes that had returned could only offer sacrifices on their behalf, hoping for the best for their brothers and sisters still in distant lands. They offered the sin offering – twelve he-goats – one for each tribe of Israel. Then they set up the orders of priests who would attend to the work of “running” the Temple on a daily basis. Theirs would be the work of keeping the candles trimmed, oil in the lamps, sacrifices offered. As all seemed to be in order, they now “party” in God’s courts.
Nisan was considered to be the first month of the year for the Jew. It was a time of feasts and celebrations each year. Passover served as a reminder of all that God had done in delivering them from Egypt and would also carry meaning to these exiles upon their return to their homeland. The Feast of Unleavened Bread was a memorial of the very quick exodus from Egypt – they were instructed by God to make bread without leaven, not allowing time for the bread to rise, as their exit was to be quick and without encumbrances.

It is also important to note that all the priests and Levites were involved in this time of celebration – all had made themselves ceremonially clean. Even those who had previously been unable to prove their lineage when leaving their exile were now involved in the worship and celebration of these great feasts. The emphasis shifted from “lineage” to their commitment to their God. Those who would commit to the work were honored to be a participant in the celebration.

Passover was kept in the month of April and began on the fourteenth day of the month. Unleavened Bread began one day into the Passover week. The feasts were always viewed as times of memorial – remembering all God had provided for them. Every male Jew would have been expected to celebrate these feasts – but they would have to make themselves ceremonially clean prior to participating. Each person who came to celebrate the feasts was to come with an offering – no one was to show up empty handed. The offerings would be offered during the seven days that they ate the unleavened bread. They began and ended the feast with a Sabbath – a day of rest. Their focus or attention of spirit and mind was to be on God, not the work they would perform with their hands.

We have a great responsibility to acknowledge the goodness of our God in making provision for us. These men were to “bring as they could manage” – with an emphasis on giving as generously as their God had given to them. The blessings of God in their lives were physical, spiritual, and emotional. The offerings were to reflect the grace of God in bestowing these great gifts. 

We are each "restored" temples - having been restored by the work of the cross and the rebuilding of our character by the work of the skilled craftsman, the Holy Spirit.  As we end our look into this book of Ezra today, let us remember that the enemy of our soul repeatedly resists this rebuilding work.  As the various stages of spiritual renewal take place in our lives, let us offer what we have in our hands - God never asks for more than that.  He looks for us to bring our talents, our abilities, and our willingness to him.  He does the rest.  Some of us think we have nothing to bring in service to our king - indeed, we have more than we imagine.  Open your heart to his work of restoration, your hands to his works of service, and see the tremendous work of his Spirit in your life.  The filling of the Temple with the presence of our God awaits!