Who are the people of God and who are not? Who worships the Lord and who does not? In our culture, those questions are dangerous. Answering them with any sort of biblical exclusivity will put you in a bad cultural light.
But our culture is not the only one where claiming that not all people are OK with God can make trouble. It caused a problem for the people in the book of Ezra, the people who were rebuilding the temple. But they did not compromise, and that was to the glory of God.
Ezra 4:1-3 – 1 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria who brought us here.” 3 But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of fathers’ houses in Israel said to them, “You have nothing to do with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.”
The story is actually very cool. God had the Persian ruler to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem and again build the temple of the Lord. That is a miracle. When the work began, a group of people who were not for the Jews, a group not really wanting to follow the Lord, came and asked to be allowed to participate in the temple-building work.
The men who wanted to join in the building project were not true followers of the Lord. They were people who thought they could include sacrificing to the God of the Bible along with serving other deities. They were the folks in the early years of the mixed up religion of the Samaritans so far as I can tell.
But the people of God simply told these people no. They let these men know that their religion was not in accord with that of the people of God. They let them know that you don’t just declare yourself to be OK with God and that be true. And the people of God did not compromise, even though that lack of compromise would most certainly hinder their work going forward. IN fact, the lack of compromise caused the king to shut down the building process for a bit before it could start up again.
Here in the 21st century, people would read this story with a few different responses. To some, the thought would be, “How dare you not let someone practice your religion with you? How dare you say that they are not part of the people of God?” That would be the response of a goodly number of those who do not understand the word of God. It would be the response of our age in which we believe that personal autonomy is superior to the word and the ways of God. But the Lord has always been clear in his word that he, not mankind, will determine the way to come to know him and to please him.
Another response would be, “Well, if these folks are useful, they can help you build, keep the government off your back, and maybe they will join up with the true religion. Let’s give them a shot.” This is what I would guess would be the response of many religious folks today. Many who claim to represent the Lord would have no problem compromising in order to see growth. And many would have no problem compromising in the hope that those they let come in and join them in the work would eventually be saved.
But the response of the men of God was an exclusive response. They understood that there was only one way to God, and that way could not be compromised. They understood that no religious act of worship was to be compromised for the pragmatic success of getting a building built or looking good to the local government. They understood that the worship of the Lord is a sacred thing that is only acceptable from the genuine people of God.
Now, consider our age and consider the word of God. There is only one way to God, by his grace through faith in Jesus Christ (cf. John 14:6). Thus, Christians who love the word of God are just as exclusive as were Zerubbabel and the heads of fathers’ houses. And our worship today should not be compromised to impress the local government. We exist to first honor the Lord before we exist to change anything in the community. And we will not honor the Lord by compromising to change the community. Instead, we worship the Lord as he has commanded, we declare that Jesus is the only way to be right with God, and we lovingly urge people, not to join us in our activities in general, but to turn from sin and become part of the people of God by grace through faith in Christ. No, we are not going to be mean to anybody. But we will make it clear that the true worship of the Lord and a true relationship with the Lord is only found in genuine faith in Christ. And we must not give any sort of false picture that would allow others to believe that we believe otherwise.