The Lord's Day Evening
February 17, 2008
“Worship — The Goal of Missions”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now if you have your Bible with you or one in a pew just in front of you, turn with me to the book of Ezra, and the third chapter, and we're going to read down through verse 7. Before we do so, let's look to God in prayer. Let us pray.
Lord our God, we thank You for Your holy word given by inspiration of God, profitable for doctrine, and reproof and correction, and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. Grant, O Lord, Your rich blessing now as we read Your word. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
This is God's holy and inerrant word:
“When the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in the towns, the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem. Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priest, and Zerubbabel the sons of Shealtiel with his kinsmen, and they built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, burnt offerings morning and evening. And they kept the Feast of Booths, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the rule, as each day required, and after that the regular burnt offerings, the offerings at the new moon and at all the appointed feasts of the Lord, and the offerings of everyone who made a freewill offering to the Lord. From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord. But the foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid. So they gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the grant that they had from Cyrus king of Persia.”
Thus far God's holy and inerrant word.
Now the people of God have returned home to Jerusalem. Cyrus has issued his decree. It's the year 538 B.C. They have been in exile, most of them, for fifty years; some of them for seventy years. Some of them have never lived in Jerusalem. They had been born in exile. They had never seen Jerusalem, never seen the temple, never seen the altar of burnt offering that we're going to look at tonight. They've come home–mothers, fathers, grandparents–Daniel, Ezekiel. Ezekiel would have been in his eighties when he returned. It would take four months, according to some. It would take four months to make the journey back to Jerusalem. Men, women, children… the aged and perhaps infirmed, on carts pulled by oxen…making the slow trek back to Jerusalem.
What did they do when they arrived? Imagine it for a minute. They had no homes to live in. Some, no doubt, would look up relatives. You can imagine that scene: a knock on the door… “We used to live here sixty years ago, and you and I are kith and kin. Can you house me and my eighteen children?” and variations on that theme.
We are only given little glimpses here in Ezra. Some settled in Jerusalem. Many of course settled in towns. They are referred to in the closing verse of chapter 2 and the opening verse of chapter 3 — towns in and around Jerusalem, presumably.
It's the seventh month. “When the seventh month came….” Does that mean that they had been back for six months already, and now it's the seventh month? No, not really. The meaning is that when they arrived back, shortly afterwards (we don't know how long, it could have been as little as a few weeks) it was the seventh month. The seventh month in the Hebrew calendar, the month of Tishrei–September, late middle September, middle October–is the most important month in the Hebrew calendar for the worship of God in the liturgy of the temple.
All kinds of festivals occur during the seventh month. Hashanah, the New Year, occurs in the seventh month. You may say, ‘Why does the new year begin in the seventh month?’ Well, you know we talk about the school year beginning for you in August or something, and it's that kind of thing. The Feast of Trumpets occurred in the seventh month; Yom Kippur on the tenth day of the seventh month, the Day of AtonementFeast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths.
They’d been back a few weeks, perhaps. Barely enough time to find somewhere to live, let alone find employment and work, and to make plans and preparations for the future — all of which would be perfectly understandable — and they gather. They must have talked about it on the way back, that as soon as it was possible at the beginning of the seventh month, because the seventh month is going to be so important we don't want to miss it, we’ll gather as one man in Jerusalem.
You can imagine them on the temple mount. The temple of course is in ruins — charred remains of the stones that once formed the structure and edifice of the temple lie on the ground…moss, grass, weeds probably growing after fifty or sixty years in decline and neglect. But there is something of an altar there. We’ll come back to that. It's been built by the people who remained in Jerusalem. It's not the proper altar, and that altar is probably just torn down. And the proper altar is built in its proper place. There had grown, during that period of the exile, worship in Jerusalem [Jeremiah speaks about it to some extent]. The Samaritans were involved in it. It would have been syncretistic, and not according to the word of God.
So why are they gathering on the holy mount in Jerusalem? To worship God. To worship God.
This is Missions Week. This is the beginning of the week of missions. Missions is not the ultimate goal: Worship is the ultimate goal. There is missions in order that men and women might be brought to the feet of Christ to worship Him. When this age is over and done, when countless millions of redeemed men and women fall on their faces before God, missions will be no more. But worship will be forever. Worship is the fuel and the goal of missions.
“Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee. Let the nations be glad and sing for joy.”
That's the ultimate goal. That's why we have missions among Jews and Gentiles, and tongues and peoples, and languages and tribes. These folk have gathered, you see, with one aim, with one purpose, with one thing on their mind. It's the most important thing for them, before their homes (at least for now…you will see it change in a little while). But for now their motivation and intention is clear and purposeful. They've gathered as one man to worship God, to reinstate the worship of God that has been in dissolution and dereliction in the holy city of Jerusalem. Let's look at it together under three headings.
I. The priority of worship.
First of all, the priority of worship. It's the first thing they did. The Bible…you know, they must have shown some concern for their physical well being when they returned, and I would love to know exactly what they did. And wouldn't you like to know what they did? What were the circumstances like? But the Bible shows no interest in that whatsoever, because the one fundamental important thing was that they gathered together as soon as it was possible for them to gather, in time for this important seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. They gathered as one man in Jerusalem to worship God.
We’re told in verse 3 that “fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands.” There was opposition, and that opposition is going to grow. You can imagine some of the tensions. The peoples of the lands is a euphemism for partly those Jews who remained in Jerusalem who had lost touch with Judaism, had lost touch with their religion, but it also includes others — folk from places like Ashdod and Samaria and Moab and Edom. You remember in Nehemiah's time several generations later — you remember the picture? In Nehemiah's time they've got a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. There's opposition. But despite the opposition and despite the fact that there was a certain sense of fear… You can imagine the hostility! How would the people who had lived in Jerusalem during the exile think of those who were returning to Jerusalem? They would see them as refugees.
Do you remember the long lines after Katrina? You remember some of the tensions, some of the hostilities? We don't even want to think about it. Even within our own hearts, perhaps. Well, multiply that. All of a sudden there are 43,000-45,000, maybe more, suddenly landing in the city of Jerusalem. And there were tensions, and there were difficulties, but the one thing that is on their mind — the priority that is on their mind — is the worship of God. It's the worship of God. It's the most important thing. There is nothing more important than the worship of God.
II. The regulation of worship.
But secondly, the regulation of worship. The priority of worship, and now the regulation of worship. Did you notice in verse 2 that as they begin to build the altar of the God of Israel, they do so “as it is written in the Law of Moses”? And then again, in verse 4, they keep the Feast of Booths, “as it is written.” And they offer these various offerings “according to the rule as each day required.” Isn't that astonishing, from one point of view? These people, many of whom had never worshiped, perhaps, in Jerusalem…they had been born in exile, they’d never seen a burnt offering. They’d heard about it. Priests in exile had spoken about it, kept the faith alive, spoke about the Torah and the regulations of Torah. But they were adamant, you see, that the worship of God should be worship by the book. There should be worship according to the rules that God has laid down in His word.
You might be willing to forgive them had they sought now to align themselves with the peoples of the land, with the Samaritans, with the folk from Ashdod and Moab and Edom and elsewhere, who had introduced all kinds of other things into the worship of God. They had built, apparently, some kind of altar on the holy mount, but it wasn't according to the commandment of God. And they built their own altar.
Now the altar of burnt offering stood of course outside of the temple structure itself. Before the two pillars there would be this huge edifice. It was, depending on how you measure a cubit…it was somewhere between thirty and forty feet wide, and about twenty feet high in the air. It was a square raised twenty feet into the air, with a ramp leading upwards on which the priest would stand and rake the ashes, and ensure that the offering was burnt according to the rules. And they placed this altar, using stones as Moses had commanded in the Torah — in the first five books of the Old Testament. It was worship as God had commanded, as God had laid down in His word.
You might think that that's just an Old Testament principle, but it is equally a New Testament principle. And Paul, in the second chapter of Colossians, for example, when folk are introducing worship that is according to some ‘given to them by angels’… Paul addresses that issue and refers to it is as man worship, as will worship; as worship that is according to the dictates and rules of men, rather than the dictates and rules of God.
It was so very important for our Puritan forebears here in this country. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men.” I don't have a right to impose on the conscience of another something that God hasn't specifically laid down in His word. That's why it's important. Otherwise, what you have is tyranny; otherwise, what you have is oppression. And so, when we worship God we do so according to that which He hath laid down in His word, and we sing His word, and we read His word, and we pray His word, and we preach His word, and we celebrate that word in visible form in baptism and in the Lord's Supper. No more, no less. Worship according to the book. Worship according to that which is written down.
The priority of worship, the regulation of worship, and then, thirdly, the focus of worship.
III. The focus of worship.
The focus of worship. You notice in verse 4:
“And they kept the Feast of Booths, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the rule, as each day required….”
Some of you were here on Wednesday evening. It is breathtaking, the segue from Wednesday evening in Numbers 29 to the third chapter of Ezra, because it is exactly the same issue…exactly the same issue! Had you been here on Wednesday evening, you’d have heard Ligon talking about the offerings that were to be offered during the Feast of Tabernacles, and during the seventh month.
My wife…I made her…I made her count how many offerings were offered during the seventh month…how many burnt offerings were offered on the altar of sacrifice during the seventh month, according to Numbers 29. It is 219, according to Rosemary. Two hundred nineteen.
They kept the Feast of Booths… they kept the Feast of Tabernacles. Children loved the Feast of Booths. It's like camping out on the lawn overnight. You know, you erect a tent and hope for good weather, and you sleep out in the garden, in the yard, overnight. Children love it — parents are not so thrilled! They would erect these makeshift booths, these tents. They hadn't done it…some of them had never done it…they certainly hadn't done it in two generations. And all of a sudden they’re remembering once again that God had laid down that they should keep the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Booths.
Now what is so specific? What is so important? What is the focus of the Feast of Booths? Well, two things.
1. One, and this isn't difficult to imagine–of course it was to commemorate the haste with which they had left Egypt. It was to remember the time they were in the wilderness and they were wholly dependent upon the Lord. They had just come back from exile. They had left Egypt. Now they've left Babylon, but they have come back to Jerusalem and they haven't got homes to live in. And they’re living in booths. What a staggering way, what a breathtaking way to remind the people of God that they’re pilgrims. That they’re pilgrims! God has sent them into exile for two generations, and the first thing they do when they come back is they live in tents to remind themselves that they’re pilgrims; that they’re just passing through; that here they have no continuing city, but they seek one which is to come whose builder and maker is God.
They were to depend on the Lord. They were to depend on God's providence. They were to depend on God's provision for the future, just as they had to during the time of Moses and Aaron. The future may have looked grim and uncertain, but as they slept in those booths, and no doubt seeing the stars above Jerusalem, they would be reminded of the God who made the stars and was able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or even think. It reminded them, first of all that they were pilgrims.
2. But I want you to turn with me now to the prophecy of Zachariah. It's the penultimate book of the Old Testament…Zachariah, Malachi, and that ends the Old Testament. So, Zachariah 14, and the final chapter of Zachariah.
Zachariah of course is a prophet in the same time period as Ezra and Nehemiah. He's a post-exile prophet. At the end of Zachariah 14 — the context is somewhat complicated, and we won't have time to go into all of the context — but I just want to lift one verse, because Zachariah refers to the Feast of Booths, the Feast of Tabernacles, and he gives it a new twist. He gives it a new meaning. It was there before, but Zachariah is bringing it out now. Turn to Zachariah 14, and then in verse 16. Let me tell you that this final chapter is a depiction of the Day of Judgment. It's a picture of heaven and hell. It's a picture of those who are the Lord's people and those who are not the Lord's people. And in verse 16:
“Then everyone who survives [survives the judgment, survives the Last Judgment] of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths.”
Now there are some, of course, who think this will be literally true in Jerusalem one day. That Jesus will return and there will be a keeping of the Feast of Booths in Jerusalem. I don't think that is what Zachariah is saying.
I think Zachariah is speaking metaphorically here, and he is using the language of the Feast of Booths, he's using that language to depict something that was significant about the Feast of Booths. When did the Feast of Booths occur? After harvest. After ingathering. After the ingathering, they would celebrate the Feast of Booths. And at the end of Zachariah, Zachariah is saying there is going to be a final ingathering. And he uses the language of Egypt. There are those who are going to come from Egypt — the inveterate enemy of Israel, you understand. There are those who are going to come from Egypt, and they’re going to come up to Jerusalem and they’re going to keep the Feast of Booths. They are going to be part of the pilgrim people of God.
Now do you see what it's saying? It's all about missions. It's about the nations of the world being gathered in to celebrate, along with the people of God in Jerusalem, to worship Him. And so this Feast of Booths was not only a reminder of their pilgrim status, it was also a reminder that as pilgrims they would gather one day before the throne of God, and there would be peoples of every tribe and every tongue and every nation — from north and south and east and west — in answer to the request of the Father to the Son: “Ask of Me, and I will give You the uttermost parts of the world for Your inheritance.”
As they gathered in Jerusalem in that seventh month, sacrificing over two hundred bulls and lambs and offering all kinds of daily and evening offerings, they were reminding themselves that they were a people in need of God's forgiveness, in need of atonement, in need of the forgiveness of sins; that the problem lay within themselves, and the solution to their problem lay outside of themselves in the provision of atonement: an atonement that could never come, of course, from these bulls and these lambs, and could ultimately only come through the Lord Jesus. Because it's only by the shedding of His blood that forgiveness will come.
But it was also a reminder that they were to gather together one day not just as Jews, but Jews and Gentiles, redeemed by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone…from every tribe, and every tongue, and every nation of the world.
May God bless His word to us, and the Mission Conference that now lies before us.
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You for Your word. We ask You now to write it upon our hearts. We are pilgrim people on our way to the new Jerusalem, saved by grace alone through faith alone, and the shed blood of Christ alone. Now bless us, we pray, and we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Please stand, receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.