“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.”
We’re do-it-yourself people. We love checklists, bullet points, and guidelines. We love to hear that with the right materials, resources, and training, we can build it ourselves. We love having concrete goals to attain. Of course, I’m not talking about home renovation – I’m talking about American Christians.
Unfortunately, within evangelical culture, we typically make our faith all about us and what we can do instead of Jesus and what he already did. Sure, we pay lip service to the idea, but that’s just background info, right? Jesus died on the cross and was from the dead, great; now tell me what I need to be doing! This is the form that most of our church services and sermon series take: it’s all about what you need to do now. The focus is taken off Jesus and put on you.
This is perhaps the chief failing of evangelical culture, which has brought about a whole lot of other detrimental side effects. I don’t need to be told all the stuff I’m doing wrong and need to get right; I need to hear the Gospel again and again because the Good News, not motivational speeches from a preacher, are what really give me the energy and drive to seek spiritual growth.
In this passage in Ezra, the exiled people of Judah return to Jerusalem, where they rebuild the destroyed Temple. And they throw a great celebration here – not at the end, when it’s all finished, but when the foundation is laid. This is a very important distinction with big implications for us, too.
The completed Temple ought to be a beautiful and conspicuous building – there’s lots of gold and decoration, and plenty of shiny things (outlined in Ezra 2.68-69) that go inside of it. But it all rests on the foundation that is laid beneath it all. Without the foundation, everything built on top of it will collapse.
Before the exile to Babylon, the people of Judah had abandoned their God and built their lives on themselves. And rightly, they were judged for it. Their descendants (and even some people who had grown up in Jerusalem, returning from exile) had learned their lesson. They were determined to follow God’s commands and put him first. The laying of the foundation in Ezra 3 isn’t just one step in rebuilding the Temple – it’s heavy in symbolism.
Now, the people have chosen to make the Lord their foundation. They celebrate because they know that God will bless them if they build everything else – literally and metaphorically speaking – atop his foundation.
What this means for us as Christians is that too often we’ve built our spiritual lives on a very shaky foundation – ourselves, our accomplishments, and what we can do and achieve. And often, we crash. There are an unprecedented number of people leaving the evangelical church because they’ve been hurt – and often crushed – by the demands and burdens of the culture within. Both within American culture and church culture, we are told in all sorts of subtle and overt ways to construct the “house” of our life upon our own impressive accomplishments. And when something goes wrong, it all collapses.
The tragedy of this is that God never intended it to work this way. Jesus sets us free from basing our self-value and self-worth on ourselves and what we do – no matter whether it’s our “secular” life in fields like our work or love relationships, or our “spiritual” life of church involvement and Christian behavior. When we make Jesus the foundation of everything else we “build,” we recognize that all of our other spiritual growth isn’t really about us, because Jesus has already secured our identity. Our spiritual growth and spiritual gifting aren’t really about building ourselves up, but building up and serving others.
This crucial distinction transforms the way we understand spiritual growth. Our natural perspective as American Christians is to see spiritual growth as being all about ourselves and our own betterment, when it’s really about serving other people. As Tullian Tchivijian memorably put it, God doesn’t need your “good works” – but your neighbor does. The “temple” that we as Christians are building is not a moment to ourselves and our accomplishments, but a collective effort that is much bigger than any single Christian’s personal spiritual growth. This passage from Ephesians sums up what it’s really about:
“For through [Jesus] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in te Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Ephesians 2.18-22
Atop the firm foundation of Jesus and the reality that It Is Finished, God is indeed building something – but it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, rest on any one believer. The church that God is building is much bigger than any one of us, which is great news because it takes the pressure off of us as individuals to carry the weight of the whole building. How many people have wandered away from the faith, who might’ve been saved if they had heard this message instead of another fix-it-yourself sermon?
Like the returning exiles in Jerusalem, we have good reason to rejoice because the foundation has been laid: Jesus lived the perfection that we never could, and has met all of God’s demands for righteousness that we never can. And when we rest upon the Good News that It Is Finished, God can use us for the work of building on top of that foundation. This is the beautiful paradox of the Gospel: that when we take our eyes off of ourselves and our accomplishments, we are finally ready to get to work.