How Do You React to Sin?
A religious scholar made a list of all the sins in the Bible. It came to be about 640 different sins. When a friend heard about this, he called all excited. He asked the scholar, “please send me the list as soon as you can.” “Why do you need the list of sins so quickly?” The friend replied, “so I can get started on the ones I missed.”
This of course is not the proper reaction to sin. Sin is serious. It separates man from His God (Is. 59:1-2) and it’s wages are death (Rom. 6:23). Just how should we react to sin? How should we react to the sins of others? Should we just overlook them and mind our own business?
Ezra the priest and scribe, gives ten proper reactions to the discovery of the sins of his brethren. Before we explore those, it would be good to get a background on the text. When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem to set the Temple service in order, he discovered the Jews were involved in taking wives form among the heathen nations. Solomon’s many marriages to pagan wives led to his downfall and that of the united Kingdom of Israel. Ezra fasted for a day and prays a prayer of confession over the sins of his fellow Jews. In this prayer he reminds us of the history of this particular sin. Although there were many sins, such as idolatry, which led to the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, Ezra calls this sin: “abominations”, “impurity”, “evil deeds”, “iniquities’ “trespass”, etc. Before this sin can spread throughout the rest of the remnant of the Jews and bring back the wrath of God, Ezra calls for a revival not to inter-marrying with certain nations around them (Ex. 34:11-16; Deut. 7:1-5; 1 Kings 1:1-11; Neh. 13:23-28; Mal. 2:11-13ff). The issue with this law was not prejudice against foreigners, but it was designed to the influence of pagan worship brought into Israel through these mixed marriages. Even worse, according to the prophet Malachi some of these men were divorcing their wives in order to marry heathen women (Mal. 2:10–16).
Ezra’s contemporary, Nehemiah, warned “did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? Yet among many nations there was no king like him, who was beloved of his God; and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless pagan women caused even him to sin” (Neh. 13:26).
Proper Response to Sin Among Brethren
1) Point Sin Out
Ezra had other leaders among the Jews inform him of a serious sin in the land. Ezra recounts this event, “when these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass” (9:1,2). Notice it was leadership exposing the sins of other leaders. Far too often fellow-leaders tend to overlook or cover up the misdeeds of their colleagues.
He has arrived four months prior to this conversation. Learning that this problem existed among the leaders of the land who should have known better and taught the people the truth of the matter, but are here setting a bad example. It turns out that was not just an issue with one or two, but over a hundred men were guilty. In recent years Americans have been polled as to the importance of character among leaders, they do not think this too be much of an issue. However, Ezra and God consider it a very serious matter. Those who desire to be elders and deacons in the church are held to the very highest of moral qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1f).
2) Mourn Over Sin
How about a fireman who responded to a report of a house on fire by saying, “it will burn itself out soon”? How about a policeman who arrives at the scene of a robbery, shakes his head and says, “Boys will be boys”? How does Ezra respond? He does not ignore the situation by saying, “Well, God wants people to be happy.” In his own words Ezra explains how he reacted to this bad news, “so when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished” (9:3). In the New International Version is uses “appalled” instead of “astonished.” The Hebrew word means “to be shocked, horrified, astonished, desolate.” According to verse four this reaction prevailed for several hours. A distinctive feature of a genuine Christian is that he is sorrowful over sin, both his sins and the sins of others. However, I am not going to pull out my hair. I do not have enough left as it is. Consider the reaction of Lot who lived in the wicked city of Sodom (2 Pet. 2:7-8).
3) Respect the Word of God
What is the next logical step after the discovery of sin. Obviously, Ezra and the leaders turned to the scriptures and reminded themselves and others of God’s will. “Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel assembled to me, because of the transgression of those who had been carried away captive, and I sat astonished until the evening sacrifice” (9:4). They did not turn to the wisdom of men to come up with a way to minimize the sin or place the blame on their wives or on the culture or upon God. True respect for God’s Law is seen in turning to it even if the news from God is bad.
“At the evening sacrifice I arose from my fasting; and having torn my garment and my robe, I fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God” (9:5). Ezra made his prayer at the time of the evening offering. This would have been around three o’clock in the afternoon. The time for the priests to offer the evening sacrifice which was to be done every day at that time (Num. 28:1–4). It was also a time for the people assembled there to pray (Acts 3:1; Ps. 55:17; Dan. 6:10). This was a perfect time for Erza to begin his prayer of intercession for the guilty. This prayer is akin to the other great prayers of confession found in Nehemiah 9 and Daniel 9. It is not as long a prayer as the others but the length of a prayer is not as important as the strength of the prayer.
5) Shame and Humiliation over Sin
“And I said: ‘O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens” (9:6). Ezra begins the prayer with humility over the shamefulness of their sins. Peter wrote, “humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you at the proper time,” (1 Peter 5:6, HCSB; also see James 4:10). Perhaps, sins continue in the lives of men today because we lack a shameful abhorrence for wickedness. Jeremiah, speaking the words of the Lord, wrote, “were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? No! They were not at all ashamed, Nor did they know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; In the time of their punishment They shall be cast down,” (Jer. 8:12).
6) Our Sin is Great, But God’s Grace is Greater
Although Ezra does not minimize the dangers of sin, he does point out that no matter how shameful the sin, God’s grace is greater “Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been very guilty, …And now for a little while grace has been shown from the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant to escape…” (9:7-9). Note the words that Ezra used in his prayer to denote sin: unclean, filthiness, uncleanness, abominations.
7) Cite God’s Law Against Sin
Even though those guilty of this particular sin should have known the scriptures, Ezra quotes from Deuteronomy chapter seven in his prayer concerning the commandment they have been violating (9:10-12). He was not doing this for the benefit of God, but the sinners. Instead of influencing their pagan wives to turn to the true God, it was more likely the wives would influence their Jewish husbands to abandon God. Remember, if you marry a child of the devil, you can expect trouble with your father-in-law.
8) Recognize God’s Mercy
He acknowledges that God has show them mercy in giving them less than their sins deserve. “And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, since You our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us such deliverance as this” (9:13).
9) Recognize God’s Right to Punish Us for Sin
Ezra points out that God’s wrath toward their wickedness is just. “And should we again break Your commandments, and join in marriage with the people committing these abominations? Would You not be angry with us until You had consumed us, so that there would be no remnant or survivor?” (9:14).
10) Confess Sin Before God
Finally, comes confession of sins. “O Lord God of Israel, You are righteous, for we are left as a remnant, as it is this day. Here we are before You, in our guilt, though no one can stand before You because of this!” (9:15). Notice Ezra’s identification with the people. Confession is good for the soul. And all of us are in need of confessing (cf. Luke 18:13; 1 John 1:8-10).
How we respond to sin determines not only our future but that of others. J. C. Ryle said, “Christ is never fully valued, until sin is clearly seen” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], on Luke 20:9-19, p. 326).
– Daniel R. Vess