And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, “The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.” – Ezra 9:10-12 ESV
As far as Ezra was concerned, all the people could say was, “Guilty as charged.” They had clearly violated God’s command. It was right there in black and white. God had told them when they first took possession of the land He had promised them that they were NOT to intermarry with the people living in the land. But hundreds of years later, even after having just spent 70 years in captivity for their many violations of God’s laws, the people had broken this command once again. And there was nothing they could say. No amount of rationalizing or justifying could change the fact that they had disobeyed God. It was not just that they had intermarried with non-Jews, it was the dangerous spiritual outcome of their decision to do so. God had warned them, “You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4 NLT). Obviously, there was far more going on here than Jews and non-Jews being tied in wedlock. It was all about allegiance to God. The banned marriages had resulted in exactly what God had warned would happen: Forsaking of God and His ways.
There is no doubt that this was a different context than the one in which we live. But there are some fascinating parallels and some important lessons we can learn from this story. It was the apostle John who wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16 ESV). As believers, we live in a constant state of tension. We are to resist and reject the things of this world and yet we are called to live among and love those who make up this world. We are called to remain distinct and different, set apart from the influences of this fallen world; while at the same time sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with all those who live in the world. Jesus prayed for us, saying, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:15-17 ESV). We are not of this world. Yet we have been called to live in it and yet not become part of it. We must constantly walk the fine line between being those who influence and those who are being influenced. Our job is to be salt and light. Yet there are many believers today that seem to think that it is impossible to love while maintaining our saltiness and refraining from keeping our lights hidden. There is a growing sentiment that we must love others by loving what they love – regardless of whether those things are offensive to God or not. There is also a growing movement toward assimilation and acceptance of the culture. We are becoming increasingly “married” to the ways of this world – all in an attempt to love them. But Jesus, while loving the lost, never lowered His standards or compromised His convictions. He loved while demanding change. He would embrace and welcome sinners, all the while demanding, “Go and sin no more.” His mission was a transformation of the heart. He loved so that He could redeem and restore. At no point did He embrace the sins of those He came to save. As He did with the woman at the well, He exposed their sin. “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true” (John 4:17-18 ESV).
So what shall we say? Are we guilty of compromise? In our efforts to be relevant and relational, have we confused tolerance with love, diminishing the holiness of God? Have we lost our saltiness and hidden our lights under a basket, all in order to “love” the lost? For many of us, the acceptance of this world is far more important to us than the approval of God. We want to be thought of as tolerant, progressive, inclusive, and always in keeping with the times. But some things never change. We have been called to live lives that are set apart and distinct from the world. We are to live in the world while remaining apart from its influences. We are to love the lost while never accepting or approving of their sin. No one said that would be easy. No one said we would find a ready reception if we lived that way. In fact, we were told that the world would hate us. We would be called intolerant and inflexible. We would be accused of everything from radicalism to irrationalism. But the greatest expression of our love for the lost is our desire to tell them the truth – about God, their own sin, and the one and only source of salvation: Jesus Christ.