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Repentance Brings Seasons Of Refreshing

  By Rich Carmicheal

    Scripture: Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 8- 9

    "…[The Lord] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9).

    "Or do you show contempt for the riches of His kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?" (Rom. 2:4).

    "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord…" (Acts 3:19).

    Repentance is a gift from the Lord. His desire for us is not that we wallow or perish in our sins, but that we repent of our sins and experience abundant spiritual life. His kindness leads us toward repentance. This is true on an individual level and on a corporate level.

    In the last two issues of the Herald I have had the privilege of sharing several truths from Ezra and Nehemiah. This month I call your attention once again to these books and some of the truths embedded in them regarding the gift of repentance. As you read through this article, I encourage you to consider any personal repentance needed in your own life, as well as in your family, church and nation.

God’s People Return and Rebuild

    In the first eight chapters of Ezra, good things are happening for God’s people. The book begins by sharing how God moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to issue a proclamation for the Jews in exile to return to Judah and rebuild the temple. This was in fulfillment of God’s promise of restoration spoken through Jeremiah: "‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill My gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’" (Jer. 29:10-11). The exiles did indeed return, and with the help of the Lord, they overcame opposition and rebuilt the altar and the temple. Chapter six records the celebration of the dedication of the temple and the celebration of the Passover.

    In chapter seven, Ezra enters the story. He comes full of zeal for the Law of God and with the favor of the king and God upon him: "…Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him. …Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel" (Ezra 7:6, 10). He also came full of faith and courage as he had trusted God for a safe passage, without any military escort, for those traveling with him and all of their possessions, including sacred articles for the temple.

The Great Consequences of Sin

    Though such good things are happening to this point, an abrupt change occurs in chapter nine. Ezra learns that "The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices…. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness" (Ezra 9:1-2). Ezra’s reaction was severe: "When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness…" (Ezra 9:3-4).

    God had called His people to be separate from the peoples around them. He did not want the people to intermarry because He knew that the interaction with the foreign peoples would bring corruption and impurity, and would rob the Israelites of the physical and spiritual well-being He desired for them (Ezra 9:10-12). He also knew that such marriages would turn their hearts to other gods, and decrease their devotion to God (Neh. 13:26-27; 1 Kgs. 11:4, 6). He also had it on His heart all along for His people to be set apart in order to become a source of light and blessing to other nations. By intermingling with the neighboring peoples, God’s people were compromising their calling and influence.

    Unfortunately, the same can be said for much of the Church today. We are called to be "in the world" not "of the world" (John 17:14-15), but in too many cases the Church has become "of the world." For example, many sins (such as greed, materialism, gossip, immorality, pride, etc.) are just as prevalent in the Church as they are in the world. Much of the Church has lost her distinction as God’s holy people, set apart for His purposes, called to serve as light and salt in the world. She has become worldly and has allowed worldliness to enter her.

    Sin, of course, has great consequences. Ezra, well aware of this, with his tunic and cloak torn, fell on his knees with his hands spread out to the Lord and prayed, "O my God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to You, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our forefathers until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we…have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation…" (Ezra 9:6-7). He knew that sin had led God’s people into captivity, and that if now, in this season of return and restoration, God’s people again embraced sin, they could lose everything God had on His heart for them: "What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, You have punished us less than our sins have deserved and have given us a remnant like this. Shall we again break Your commands and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would You not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor?" (Ezra 9:13-14).

    What compounded the remorse in Ezra’s heart was his awareness of how gracious God had been to His people. He had punished them less than they deserved, and in His grace He had shown kindness toward them and granted them new life to rebuild (Ezra 9:9). For the people of God to once again embrace sin would be an affront to the grace of God. Ezra knew that the well-being of God’s people and His plans and purposes for them were at stake.

    Have you ever been as upset as Ezra over sin and its consequences? Do you grieve over the loss of the influence of the Church (or maybe your own life) because of the impact of sin? Can you identify with this cry to the Church: "…Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up" (James 4:8-10)?

There Is Still Hope!

    As Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of men, women and children gathered around him, and they too wept bitterly (Ezra 10:1). In the midst of this, something wonderful happened. A man named Shecaniah said to Ezra, "We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it" (Ezra 10:2-4).

    "But in spite of this, there is still hope…." What a pivotal statement! There is still hope because God is a God of hope, a God of forgiveness, a God of grace, a God of patience, a God of mercy and a God of love. He is eager for us to turn from our sins and toward Him. If the Jews in Ezra’s day could have such hope, how much greater is our hope in Christ! As the Apostle John shares, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

    Ezra did rise up and lead the people to confession and repentance. Their sin was great, and took some time to untangle, but they were faithful to honor and respond to God’s commands (see Ezra 10:10-44).

The Restoration of God’s Word

    We have another glimpse of Ezra and a call to repentance in the book of Nehemiah. In the first portion of this book, God has enabled His people to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. In chapter eight, the people assembled and told Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses. He did so and read it aloud to them from daybreak till noon. Ezra stood on a wooden platform as he read, and he and the people showed great reverence for God and His Word: "Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground" (Neh. 8:5-6).

    O for such reverence for the Word of God today! We need devotion to the public and private reading of God’s Word. We need to study to show ourselves approved as those who correctly handle the Word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). We need strong preachers who will take to heart the Apostle Paul’s exhortation: "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Tim. 4:2). We need strong teaching that builds up the body of Christ and leads others to repentance. The Word of God needs to be central in churches, homes and individual lives! What a wonderful gift the Lord gave to the Jews rebuilding Jerusalem as He sent Ezra, a man devoted to God’s Word. Along with restoring the altar, the temple and the wall, the Lord sent Ezra to help restore His Word to His people.

The Response to God’s Word: Rejoicing and Repentance

    As the people listened to the words of the Law, they grieved and wept (Neh. 8:9- 10). Perhaps one of the main reasons for this is because they realized how far they had drifted from the Lord and His desires for them. The leaders, however, encouraged the people not to mourn or weep, but to celebrate. Nehemiah, for instance, told the people to "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength" (Neh. 8:10). The people then "went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them" (Neh. 8:12).

    Even though the restoration of the Word of God may bring great conviction as it reveals our shortcomings and sins, it is a gift when the Lord shares His Word with us. Consider, for example, Jesus’ hard message to the church at Laodicea recorded in Revelation 3:14-22. He uncovered the fact that the church was lukewarm and "wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked" (v. 17). And yet, He shared His word with them not to condemn or destroy them, but to call them to repentance. His strong words were based in His love for the church and His desire for them to enjoy fellowship with Him: "Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with Me" (vv. 19-20).

    While there is reason to be joyful and thankful when God shares a word of correction into our lives and churches, there is at the same time the need to "be earnest and repent." Following the celebration of the restoration of the Law of God recorded in the eighth chapter of Nehemiah, God’s people assembled and "confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a fourth of the day, and spent another fourth in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God" (Neh. 9:1-3). They blessed and praised the Lord for His faithfulness, forgiveness, graciousness, compassion, patience and love, while confessing the sins of their forefathers as well as their own sins (Neh. 9:5-37). They also acknowledged that because of these sins, they were facing hardship and not enjoying the abundant blessings God intended for them (Neh. 9:32-37).

    That day the people were deeply stirred and repented of sin and turned their lives toward the Lord. They were very serious about this and made "a binding agreement, putting it in writing," and the leaders, Levites and priests affixed their seals to it (Neh. 9:38). They committed that day "to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our God" (Neh. 10:29). They promised not to intermarry with the peoples around them; they promised to honor the Sabbath; they promised to be faithful in offerings, firstfruits, tithes, and other contributions; and they promised to not neglect the house of God (Neh. 10:30-39). God’s work in their lives, and their response to Him and His Word, led to a great time of celebration and dedication: "…on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away" (Neh. 12:43).

Seasons of Refreshing

    God does indeed call His people to repentance so that times of refreshing may come from Him (Acts 3:19). Perhaps He is calling you to repentance or your church to repentance. If so, this is, on one hand, reason for rejoicing since He rebukes and disciplines those He loves (Rev. 3:19). It is also, on the other hand, a time to respond to Him in all earnestness and sincerity. Sin is not to be treated lightly. God calls us to be a holy people, set apart for Him and His purposes. We are to become "blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation" so that we might shine like stars in the universe and hold out the word of life (Phil. 2:15-16). We are to get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, slander, malice, sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, unwholesome talk, hypocrisy, prayerlessness, pride, selfishness, etc., and put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness and love.

    God is eager and faithful to bless those who confess sin and turn from it toward Him. Perhaps you recall Henry Blackaby’s description in last month’s Herald about the revival that started in Saskatoon, Canada in 1970 and had such a great impact on thousands of lives in Canada and beyond. You may also recall that the revival started when two deacons, who had been at odds with one another, came under conviction and met at the front of the church and wept and repented and restored their relationship. What great work may the Lord have in mind for your life, your family, your church or your community that may be sparked by your confession of sin and your repentance?