There is nothing more exciting for a true believer than to look back in the scriptures and see how prophecy was fulfilled. It gives credence to God and His witness. One of the most exciting fulfillments of prophecy recorded the Old Testament is that of the Jews leaving Babylon and returning to rebuild Jerusalem. This was to fulfill the words of Jeremiah the prophet:
When the seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29:10)
What a wonderful time to live in! The Babylonian captivity was about to end and Abraham’s offspring were about to go to their homeland and rebuild the temple. This is what they had longed for, hoped for, and waited for.
You would think that the response to the call by King Cyrus to “go up to Jerusalem in Judah and rebuild the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem” would have been overwhelming.1 However, it wasn’t at all. Although they were in a foreign land, with foreign customs and gods, many did not want to leave. According to the ancient historian Josephus they had become quite prosperous in Babylon and most of them did not like the idea of leaving and beginning all over again — in fact they loathed it.
Although some did return, the majority did not. They had grown comfortable in Babylon, in spite of the many commandments from their God not to mix with other cultures. They had become successful in business, owned property, accumulated possessions, some amassing great wealth. Why, when they were beginning to do so well in society, did God want them to up and leave? Did He really mean to leave everything? Even family members, if they were unwilling to come? All they had to return to was a desolate wasteland full of wild animals and rubble. Surely He did not expect them to abandon all they had gained for that!? How would people view their God if they were so irrational as to suddenly leave their jobs, possessions, friends, and family to return to Jerusalem? What kind of witness would that be?
These questions must have reverberated in many of the minds that heard the call. Therefore, many Jews decided to stay in Babylon. This was no time to leave. Perhaps they would be able to make Babylon into a better place. Perhaps they could influence their society politically and financially and change things for the better.
Oddly enough, upon reading this intriguing story in the Bible, we find that God actually did want them to leave. It is what God had predestined for them to do. No one today would actually argue that it was not God’s will that the Jews in Babylon leave everything and return to rebuild Jerusalem.
So, how is this ancient story in the Bible relevant today? Part of the answer lies in the response of those who did leave Babylon. In Ezra 1:5 it says, “...everyone whose heart was stirred by God.” These were the ones who responded to the call. Something was awakened in their hearts by the prophet to return to Jerusalem after seventy years. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear and obey. It is what many had lived their lives in anticipation of. They did not want to settle for a comfortable life in Babylon. They knew God wanted more than that. These people set their face like flint to return and rebuild. It was like another exodus.
The stirring of the heart to go rebuild can be compared to the stirring of the heart to hear Christ’s message and follow Him — setting one’s face like flint to rebuild the Kingdom and not look back. Looking at the gospel of Christ, it is not difficult to see the parallel between His call to leave everything to follow Him and what God called the Jews in Babylon to do. Many of the Jews in Babylon thought it was unreasonable to expect them to leave everything behind, even unwilling family members, and many people today think the same way about Christ’s call to forsake everything, including unwilling family members, to follow Him.
It is very similar in America today to how it was in Babylon: people are quite comfortable in their living conditions, careers, schools, and social circles. They’ve accumulated property and possessions. Many are doing “quite well” in the world today. But what if the call came from God to abandon all that, follow Christ, and build His kingdom? Would their hearts be stirred to obey? Or would they rather stay and live out their days in Babylon?
To build up His kingdom and to build up the world are two entirely different things. In fact, Christ said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”2 In fact, the world is an entirely different kingdom and is ruled by a different king.
Then the devil, taking Him up on a high mountain, showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said to Him, “All this authority I will give You, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish.” (Luke 4:5-6)
We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 John 5:19)
We also know that anyone who is of the truth hears His voice and follows Him.3 Anyone who is unable to hear His voice is still under the sway of the ruler of this world. If someone wants to follow Him and build up the Kingdom of God, then he must change kingdoms and allegiances. He must leave Babylon (the world) in order to build up Jerusalem (His kingdom).
For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son. (Colossians 1:13)
I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (John 17:15-16)
If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)
The gospel of Jesus Christ called men to leave everything behind and follow Him. They could not stay where they were and build — they had to get up and come after Him. They could have no other allegiances. The response by those first disciples when they heard His message validates this:
And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him. (Matthew 4:19-22)
Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10:28-30)
The first disciples did not think it was unreasonable for Him to expect them to leave everything, even family, and follow Him. In addition, Christ did not think it unusual that they did this, nor did He say it was unnecessary when Peter exclaimed that they had left everything to follow Him. This was the normal response to His gospel.
These first disciples had to face the same hardships that those who left Babylon did; they had to leave behind those who weren’t stirred in their heart.4 They had to leave behind parents, children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters — whoever was not stirred to go and build what God was building.5
Even Abraham, the first one God called, had to leave behind his family, his country, and his father’s house and go to the land God would show him.6 He left one place and went to another place. He was called out by the same voice:
And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely. (Revelation 22:17)
The word come denotes motion from one place to another.7 The very same essential requirement that Abraham had when he was called by God is present in all the Gospels — movement from one place to another. The first step in obeying the gospel is to leave one place in order to go to another place — a new place and environment. When a person is born again he receives a brand new heart and is immersed into the brand new culture of the Body of Christ — he does not remain in the culture of the world.
Abraham had to leave his land,8 turn his back on his previous life, and obey what God was calling him to do. He had to do this before God could show him all the other things he would do through him.9 Abraham did not shrink back even though he was commanded to leave his life in this world behind him, turning his back on his family and friends and the world he had known. He said his farewells, kissed his loved ones good-bye forever, and placed his life in the hands and care of the One who spoke to him saying, “Leave your life, your family and friends, your job and security. Trust me and I will take care of you.”10 Those who are Abraham’s seed will have Abraham’s faith and will do what Abraham did.11