By Randy Sawyer
One of the most notable figures in Jewish history is the Old Testament scribe Ezra. According to Rabbinic tradition, Ezra was responsible for the development of the Great Synagogue, the synod of Jewish scholars credited with compiling much of the Old Testament canon. These learned men, under Ezra’s leadership, formulated patterns of worship utilized in local synagogues, patterns later followed to a great degree by the early church.
Among the positive examples bequeathed to the New Testament church by Ezra is an expository philosophy of preaching. Israel was not submissive to God’s Word during the period between Moses and Ezra. Bright spots, such as Josiah’s reform, were the exception. Many of God’s priests failed in their assignment to read and teach His Word. The people often failed what teaching they did receive. The culmination was the Babylonian exile.
After the exilic period, God initiated their restoration by leading them back to Zion. When 50,000 immigrants under Zerubbabel’s leadership repopulated a portion of the land, God used Ezra to call His people to revival. The instrument through which God issued the call was the preaching of Ezra. Just as God prepared and commissioned Moses to be the law-giver of the first exodus, He prepared and commissioned Ezra to be the law-restorer for the second exodus.
Ezra’s qualifications suited him for the task. He had an impressive ancestry (Ezra 7:1-5); he had advanced training (Ezra 7:6); he had position among both Israel’s and Persia’s aristocracy (Ezra 7:6); he had permission from the king of Persia sanctioning his mission (Ezra 7:6); he had leadership and organizational skills (Neh.8:1-10). But these were not his most important qualifications. God selected Ezra because of his personal commitment to study, live and teach God’s Word.
According to Ezra 7:10, Ezra set his heart toward the goal of Bible exposition. Heart is used by the Hebrews to denote the center of human life. That he set his heart implies a commitment that is both deep and long-term. Thus, Ezra directed the core of his being constantly toward the task of knowing, doing and explaining the Word.
Commitment to Studying the Word
Ezra’s commitment was to learn God’s Word (Ezra 7:10). The Bible does not preserve for us the record of Ezra spending long, arduous hours laboring in the Word. But that is obviously the case. He is called a ready scribe. Such a designation could not be achieved without persistent scholarship. Through the years he became a man with a resolve to study. The desire no doubt grew as he learned more about God’s will and Word.
This calls to mind Paul’s instructions to another preacher, Timothy. The apostle encouraged his protégé to give attention to reading (1 Timothy 4:12-16), to study as a workman (2 Timothy 2:15), and to reward generously those who labor faithfully in the Word (1 Timothy 5:17). The nature and character of God’s Word demands that it be handled correctly, and rightly dividing the Wordclearly requires diligent labor.
Commitment to Living Out the Word
Ezra’s commitment also included living out the Word (Ezra 7:10). He was not satisfied to be well informed. In the difficult situations that lay ahead, Ezra proved to be a man committed to living out the ethical and theological principles he learned from his study.
Furthermore, he expected those to whom he expounded the Word to do the same. Living out the Word proved to be painful for many, requiring them to sever pagan relationships (Ezra 9-10). Both in actions and attitudes, words and deeds, Ezra demanded holiness of himself, as well as the people of God.
Commitment to Teaching the Word
Ezra’s commitment also involved teaching the Word (Ezra 7:10). A quick glance at Nehemiah 8:8 shows Ezra and his associates some years later, publicly reading and explaining the Word. The KJV says they read distinctly and gave the sense thereof. By reading distinctly we understand that they took great pains to achieve exact pronunciation, intonation and phrasing. They placed a high priority on the public reading of the Word.
The practice of reading scripture publicly continued in the New Testament, first in synagogue worship and later in the churches. The epistles were sent as circular letters to be read for all the churches. Of course, with the printing press not yet invented, public reading was extremely important. However, reading scripture has remained an essential element of worship throughout the centuries.
After the public reading of God’s Word, Ezra and his associates gave the sense thereof. In other words, they expounded the recited text. This seems to be the preaching pattern throughout scripture. Luke records how Jesus expounded the Word (Luke 4:16-21; 24:27). The Greek word translated expound is diermeneuo, which means to unfold the meaning of what is saidor to explain.
In Acts 17:2-3 we read that Paul’s ministry of the Word also included explanation. In Thessalonica he opened…the scriptures, meaning, he thoroughly explained their meaning. In listing the requirements of a pastor, Paul includes an ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). There have been many attempts made to draw distinctions between preaching and teaching, but in scripture they overlap. Preachers are teachers.
Balancing the Commitments
Ezra’s ministry clearly serves as an example for preachers of each successive generation. A life committed to the study of the Word demands focus, concentration and discipline. A life committed to living out the Word requires integrity, sincerity and consistency. A life committed to teaching the Word involves understanding, creativity and passion. In maintaining a balance in each of these commitment areas, many shortcomings are prevented. When there is a healthy balance, study is saved from unreality, conduct from uncertainty, and teaching from hypocrisy and shallowness.
Reprinted by permission from Contact Magazine.