New Altar, New Foundation
Topic: English Passage: Ezra 3:1-13
Today, we continue our study in the book of Ezra, and I invite you to turn with me to Ezra chapter 3. Ezra chapter 3.
The Jews were expelled from the land by Babylon, but now they have been given authorization return by Cyrus, King of Persia. Over 42,000 people went back, and they took with them the instruments and vessels of the Temple which Nebuchadnezzar had taken about 50 years prior. The people have been registered. They have documentation indicating what family or tribe they are from, and those that do not have proper documentation will be verified by the priests. Beyond the people and the Temple vessels, they are also coming with additional gold and silver which are necessary to reestablish their homes and to rebuild the Temple.
Let’s pick up the story in chapter 3. Ezra chapter 3—I am going to read all 13 verses. Ezra chapter 13.
 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 priests, and Zerubbabel the son 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.
 Now in the second year after their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak made a beginning, together with the rest of their kinsmen, the priests and the Levites and all who had come to Jerusalem from the captivity. They appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upward, to supervise the work of the house of the Lord.  And Jeshua with his sons and his brothers, and Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah, together supervised the workmen in the house of God, along with the sons of Henadad and the Levites, their sons and brothers.
 And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel.  And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.
 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy,  so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.
Every project—big or little—has to start somewhere. The plan of God is moving forward for the Israelites who returned, and once they get back to Jerusalem and settle into their homes, the first phases of their work are to rebuild the altar and to lay the foundation for the temple. Those are the two projects chapter 3 tells us about.
As we work our way through this account, we aren’t just going to see what happened; we are also going to see some important and helpful lessons regarding how it is that the work of God moves forward. What are some important ingredients for getting this work done?
And in the opening verse of the chapter, we see our first important aspect of the work, which is unity. Unity. Look again at verse 1—When the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in the towns, the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem. That is to say, they were marked by unity.
In the Old Testament Jewish calendar, the seventh month of the year was called Tishri, and it took place in what is today September and October. The Jews followed a lunar calendar, so it’s offset from ours. The seventh month was the start of a rainy season, and it was the month that included the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles.
The Feast of Booths was one of the three pilgrimage feasts where all the men were supposed to travel to Jerusalem. So, this was a very special celebration for the people who had returned. This was something that had not been celebrated, or that was even possible, in the last 70 years. But finally, the people came together to celebrate and to worship. And they come to the city God has chosen for them. They gather in Jerusalem.
And again, as the end of the verse says: the people gathered as one man. Unity can be a wonderful thing to see and to experience. There’s a power and a strength that unity brings. In the Tower of Babel, the people’s unity was working against the instruction of God, but here, we see unity for something that pleases and honors God. They travelled together from Babylon, and now they gather together in Jerusalem.
You can imagine how difficult the task would be if the people were not united. Maybe you’ve seen that in projects at school or at work or in the planning of family events. If the people don’t have a united mind to accomplish a common objective, it becomes very difficult to move forward with any energy or productive progress.
For us, as part of the New Testament church, unity is an important aspect of our work, and it’s also part of what God wants to accomplish in us. In Jesus’ High Priestly prayer of John 17, He says in verses 22 and 23—The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.
Jesus cares about His people living in unity. Spiritually and eternally, we have been united in Christ, and now, practically, that unity is to be expressed and enhanced by the way we live. According to Jesus, unity is a testimony to the world about who Jesus really is about the love of God. Or unity is a result of the unity within the Trinity, and it is a reflection of it. One day, we will all be perfectly united, but until then, for the glory of God, we should be diligent to preserve and portray the unity we have.
There are a number of passages in the New Testament that speak about unity, but one I want to mention specifically is found in Philippians chapter 1, verse 27. The Apostle Paul says this—Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.
Lord willing, we’ll be talking about the opponents to the work, next week, but when that comes, what an important and valuable thing it will be if the people are united. And the same is true for you and for me.
We aren’t called by God to build a building—at least not in the same way the Jews were called—but we are called to live for the glory of God and to proclaim His excellencies to those who will hear. God does not intend for us to do that alone. There will be opposition. There will be difficulty. But to the degree that you are connected with others in that common purpose, you will be helped to move forward. You’re not alone in the work of Christ, so don’t live like you are. Talk to someone. Connect with them. Have a meal together. Unity is such an important element in moving forward in the task God has given us.
Well, as we come to verse 2, we see a second component of God’s work, and that is leadership. Good work needs unity, and it needs leadership. Look at verse 2—Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel the son 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.
Jeshua is the religious leader. He is a priest. Zerubbabel is a civic leader. He is actually in the line of David, although he is not a king. Notice the verb used of them and their families. They arose. They got up.
Everybody else was excited, but until this point, no one had taken the initiative. That is something very important that leaders provide. They take the first steps. They get the ball rolling. A good leader isn’t just someone who likes to give orders; it is someone who, first of all, is willing to do the work himself, and, second of all, he understands what it is that needs to be done first. In other words, a good leader is marked by initiative, but also by priorities. It is wisdom to know when and how to act.
I saw a story yesterday that a California Congressman introduced a new bill that would prohibit the sale, distribution, and use of glue traps to deal with mice and rats. Regardless of how you feel about glue traps, you at least have to wonder if something like that is worthy of the time and money we give to Congress. Is that really what we should be focused on right now?
Well, Jeshua and Zerubbabel know what needs to be done first. They step up to rebuild the altar. This is the stone altar where animals would be sacrificed.
From what we can tell, there was an altar in use at that time, but it was no longer an altar dedicated to the one, true God. It was being used by the foreigners who had come in after the Assyrians and Babylonians took control of the land. Even if the altar was being used to worship Yahweh, He was only one of the many other gods the people worshiped.
Jeshua the priest, and Zerubbabel the leader, understood that the people’s first priority was worship. They needed to honor the Law that had been given to them—the law of Moses.
And this is something that very easily relates to leadership in the church today. The leaders in a local church are the pastors, also known as the elders. And the pastors’ responsibility is to feed the sheep, to teach the word of God. That’s why Paul charged Timothy—Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season. This is the non-negotiable aspect of biblical leadership—point people to, and help them obey, the word of God. That’s the responsibility of an elder, and it is the responsibility of a husband and a father. You bring the word of God.
And just like with Israel, the priority and the motive behind everything is worship. That’s the overarching goal of your life and of the church. We are here to worship God. The specific mission of the church is to disciple and to evangelize, but the purpose of those objectives is worship. When we evangelize, we are taking people who do not know God, and we are calling them to worship Him through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In discipleship, we are helping one another worship better. Everything points back to worship. John Piper once said that evangelism, or missions, exists because worship does not. We want people to know Christ, not because we’re earning points or making a name for ourselves, but because we want God to be worshiped.
You need to let that sink into your everyday life. Worship is not just a Sunday thing. Every thing you do, from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep is supposed to be an act of worship.
We don’t need another sacrifice to be acceptable to God; Christ has been offered once for all time. But that doesn’t’ mean we don’t worship God anymore or make any sacrifices in gratitude to Him. What we give now, though, is a living sacfrice. Romans 12:2 says—Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
The church of Christ is to be united in a life of worship. And that’s what united this generation of Israelites to. Unity, apart from the instruction of God, is, at best, meaningless, and at worst, dangerous.
Restoring the altar of God was about restoring true worship and restoring obedience to the Law of God. It was also what enabled the people to call out to God when they needed help. God would not accept them without the appropriate worship which He had already laid out in the Law of Moses.
So, verse 3 continues—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.
The altar was a priority because the people knew there would be opposition. So, they wanted to ensure that their relationship with God was right.
The Feast of Booths, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, was a week when the people did not live in their own homes but lived in booths, or tents, they made for themselves out of branches. It was a reminder of their time in the wilderness, when God provided for them and protected them. If you want to read more about it, you can read Leviticus 23.
The Feast of Booths was also the time of the year when Solomon’s Temple was dedicated, and you can read that in 1 Kings 8. Knowing their history, and knowing the word of God, the people would have understood that significance. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, but here they are beginning to build a new one. The harvest had just finished, and so the people had many reminders of God’s provision as they praised Him.
With a new altar in place, this season of praise, however, comes with a certain frustration. Something is missing. The work isn’t done yet.
Look with me, one more time, at verse 6—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.
Here’s a third important component of doing God’s work—perspective. Perspective. If we want to do God’s work well, we need unity, we need leaders who provide initiative and priorities, but we also need a proper perspective. Yes, we can and should celebrate good things that have happened, but the work is not done.
There’s a somber note, even as the people are celebrating. The foundation of the Temple has not yet been laid. There is a reason to celebrate, but the work isn’t done. There’s still more to do.
We’ll come back to this lesson one more time at the end. But for now, let’s then move on to the next phase of the construction. The altar is built, but now they need to work on the rest of the Temple. How do they move forward on that?
Verse 7 continues—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.
Remember all the gold and silver the people were given when they left Babylon? Here’s part of how it was spent. And the same thing happened when the Temple of Solomon was built. Tyre and Sidon were to the north of Israel, and both cities were along the coast of the Mediterranean. So, the best way to transport the lumber was along the shore in a boat.
Now, construction for the Temple doesn’t begin until about 5 months later, in the second month of the year, and that makes sense because the rainy season was now over. Let’s continue reading in verses 8 and 9.
Now in the second year after their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak made a beginning, together with the rest of their kinsmen, the priests and the Levites and all who had come to Jerusalem from the captivity. They appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upward, to supervise the work of the house of the Lord.  And Jeshua with his sons and his brothers, and Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah, together supervised the workmen in the house of God, along with the sons of Henadad and the Levites, their sons and brothers.
Here, again, we see the value of good leadership. It wasn’t as if they just told the people, “Do whatever you want until the work is finished.” No, they put people in charge of the work. Zerubbabel and Jeshua are the main leaders, but they also appointed others to supervise what was happening. It says that in verse 8 and in verse 9.
Supervisors usually get a bad reputation in our culture because people don’t like to have someone watching over what they do. But we need to admit that good work usually requires some kind of oversight. And I think that’s especially true when we’re dealing with construction. Just ask Bruno or Derek or anyone else who works in that field. It’s a lot better to have a team work on a project, and someone has to provide supervision.
Yesterday, I put a load of laundry into the washer, and I pulled out a little tray in the front where the soap goes, and I put some soap in there. Then I started the washer and walked away. But when I came back about 2 minutes later, I realized that I had never pushed the little tray of soap back into the machine. If I had left it like that, the machine would have done the load without adding soap. I didn’t mean to leave the soap out, but that’s what happened, and I was glad I caught my mistake.
Well, supervision is important because some people don’t do their job, but it’s also important because people make unintentional mistakes. Supervision provides a second set of eyes on the work. Good leadership also provides motivation and unity. Do you think these supervisors just said, “Look, here’s a copy of the Law of Moses. Just read it for yourself and give me a call when you’re done”? No, they would have been there watching to work move forward.
I assume they weren’t micromanaging, and I assume they weren’t leading from a distance. They were there making sure all the workers had everything they needed to be successful. And if they did their job right, the worked move forward and people felt good about what was happening. That’s what good leadership does, good supervision.
Well, the day finally came when the foundation of the Temple was complete, and this is where our study ends for today. The altar is complete and the foundation is in place. And the people respond with great joy. Look at verse 10 to the end of the chapter.
And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the directions of David king of Israel.  And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.  But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy,  so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.
This was a thunderous celebration. The priests are in their Levitical clothing. The trumpets are blowing. The cymbals are clashing. And a choir of men is singing as loud as they can. Why? Because they were remembering the goodness and the faithfulness of God. God had shown them His steadfast love, or in the NASB, His lovingkindness. The Hebrew word is chesed, and it’s a word that points to a faithful, loyal covenant-keeping love. God had been faithful to His word.
But, do you remember the third word I gave you? The third ingredient for the work of God to move forward? It was perspective. Perspective.
The Israelites had good reason to celebrate. But again, there was a somber note in what was going on. There is a strong element of joy, but there is also an element of dissatisfaction or incompleteness. The younger men are celebrating; they are so pleased with what God has allowed them to do. But the older men, probably over 70 years old, were weeping. Why? Because they could remember the glory of the Temple in the time of Solomon.
That beautiful, glorious Temple had been stripped and broken down because of Israel’s disobedience. Maybe they wept because remembering the old Temple reminded them of their sin. It could have been the sorrow of repentance. But I think it was something else. I think it was the awareness that there is still a lot more work that needs to be done.
There is something about age that tempers the unrestricted joy of the young, isn’t there? And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I think it’s part of wisdom. We see little kids celebrating a birthday party with cake and presents, and we’re happy for them, but we also know that the party is going to end. The celebration has to end.
Or a young couple gets married, and they are in love; they are all smiling. And the older couples smile along with them. It’s a day of celebration. But those who have been married longer know that marriage is work. A wedding is the start of journey. And there will be ups, and there will be downs, right?
I’m not trying to be a pessimist. But I think the lesson here is that we do not want to be whimsical optimists either. There is a time to laugh and a time to celebrate. But there will also be times to cry and to lament. That’s part of this life.
And as the church of Christ, we should celebrate the things we see God doing. People come to the faith. People grow in their walk. Amazing things happen. But none of that ever means we get to sit back and be done with the work, right? That’s an important perspective to keep in mind. There is still work to do. The job isn’t finished.
We don’t get to sit back and say, “Well, our church did amazing things for kids 40 years ago. Wasn’t that amazing! Our church had this or that ministry last summer, and it was great. Let’s see those photos again.” You don’t get to say, “I remember that conference I went to 10 years ago. That was amazing! I learned so much!” And then do nothing else.
It’s good to celebrate what God has done, but that never means we’re done working. We always have more work to do, right? We always have more room to grow, no matter how old we get. A proper perspective knows that the standard is Christ. The standard is heaven. And as individuals and as a church, we fall short, don’t we?
The Apostle Paul said that his goal was to present everyone mature in Christ. No matter how much the people under his care grew, his work wasn’t done until the people looked like Jesus.
Do you look like Jesus yet? Do your kids look like Jesus? Does the person sitting next to you look like Jesus? Does your neighbor at home or at work look like Jesus? No. None of us do. So, there’s more work to do. And God will help us to keep moving forward. Christ will give us the victory.
So, as 1 Corinthians 15:58 says—Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
Ezra 3 ends with the Israelites ready to move forward with God’s plan. Opposition is coming, but they are ready to move forward and get this Temple done. Why? Because their desire is that the presence of God would dwell among them once again. May we have that same heart as we move forward for the glory of Christ.