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Ezra 3:1-3 • The Important First Step

“Now when the seventh month came, and the sons of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem. Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brothers the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brothers arose and 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. So they set up the altar on its foundation, for they were terrified because of the peoples of the lands; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, burnt offerings morning and evening.”
    —Ezra 3:1-3 (NASB)

Once upon a time it was the practice of Christians to so intensely study Scripture in order to provide the guidelines of how to build and operate a church that it became an entire field of study called “ecclesiology”. In fact, when a scholar pursued their own personal study to formerly document Christian faiths and beliefs in what came to be commonly termed “Systematic Theology”, it was quite rare if a chapter exclusively devoted to ecclesiology was not present. And yet it seems that Christian bookstores and websites are dominated far more by works extolling methodologies and programs developed from disciplines outside those strictly derived from biblical models.

The “altar of the God of Israel” is the place where sin offerings were made. In other words, the crucial first step in the Old Testament mirrored the same first step in the New Testament: it begins with a return to the work of the cross; it begins by focusing on sin and repentance. The very same thing which occurs in Ezra’s account of the return of Israel in his time occurs in Peter’s time at the very birth of the church.

“Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'”
    —Acts 2:37-38 (NASB)

Today’s proposed methodologies seem preoccupied with how to first fill up the building, make visitors feel comfortable enough to keep returning to the building, and eventually hoping they somehow “absorb” what it means to be a Christian. If it does not begin with the cross however, it is not merely unbiblical, but working against the very goals it purports to achieve. Every legitimate revival in history has been characterized by a sincere return to the cross and the Word. Anything lacking those fundamental activities is not an ecclesiology that will build a church but merely a building.