The set heart of Ezra


The return of the Jews from captivity

For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.”

Ezra 7:10

The Old Testament book of Ezra chronicles the return of Jews to their homeland in Canaan from Babylonian captivity, the first group under the leadership of Zerubbabel in 538 BC, and then later a second group under Ezra the scribe. Ezra in particular called the people, who had lived under secular Babylonian culture for over 70 years, to a renewal of holiness and submission to God’s law.

Ezra was described as “skilled in the Law of Moses” (7:6). And his heart for the people is told to us in 7:10 – “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” What Ezra was returning to accomplish for the Lord and his people consumed him. He set his heart on this. There are three infinitives here to tell us what captured his soul, and what ought to capture ours.

1 To study

It was Ezra’s devotion, first of all, to study the law of the Lord. As a scribe, this was to be expected, to not only reverently copy the manuscripts by hand but to become utterly versed in their content. By the time of Jesus, the scribes (along with the Pharisees and Sadducees) were highly thought of in Israel. And though our Lord regularly railed against the hypocrisy of these groups, Ezra rather supplies us with a noble example.

We live in a time that needs more Ezras, men and women who are not afraid to do the hard work of studying the Bible, who are willing to go deep and tackle theological issues. Unfortunately, our time is more characterized Amos’ prophecy – “’Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘when I will send a famine on the land— not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD'” (Amos 8:11). Has there ever been a time of more opportunity to study God’s Word and less actual biblical understanding?

2 To practice

Ezra’s second passion was to put the truth of God into practice. Indeed, to know God’s word and not obey it was the hypocrisy of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. But Ezra, as an early example, was of more noble character.

All too often, we are content to have an interest in the things of God, but it is superficial. When the commands of Scripture come to us, we choose to obey the ones that don’t shatter our comfort levels; others we ignore or explain away. Study after study shows that professing Christians have no discernable difference with non-believers in areas like divorce, attitudes toward honesty, and sexual behavior. Shouldn’t we be noticably different than the world?

3 To teach

Finally, Ezra had a fervor to teach the Word in Israel. This was a great need as the Jews had been in captivity in a secular society for over 70 years. They would have forgotten much of the statutes and commands of the Law. And just as during the time of the end of the Exodus (Deuteronomy, the “second reading of the Law”), the people needed to hear again from the Lord.

This happened as recorded in Nehemiah 8, where we find that Ezra read from the Law from “monring until midday” (Neh. 8:3), and the people were attentive. Then Ezra and a numbger of the Levites “helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:7-8). In other words, they held Sunday School!

Many believers don’t think of themselves as teachers. But we are all enjoined to teaching, whether it’s our children, younger believers, or even the church at large. The readers of Hebrews were chastised – “though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles” (Heb. 5:12). How many of us feel inadequate to teach because we haven’t done our own study?

Where is your heart set regarding the Bible? I pray that we will be people who are known…for our studying, for our practice, for our teaching.

Preaching depth to a shallow generation, part 1

Deep part 1

It began in late April 1998.  It ended 8 years, 7 months and 28 days later, on Christmas Eve 2006.

It is John Piper’s sermon series on Romans, presented to his church during Sunday services.  225 messages.

Romans is probably my favorite book in the Bible, and I have been listening off and on to this remarkable series, especially his treatment of chapters 5-9.  I have repeatedly been amazed at Piper’s willingness to tackle tough theological issues and go deep into the text, sometimes spending three or four weeks on a particular passage.

But there’s something even more amazing.

His church let him do it.

A generation accustomed to the shallow end

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” –2 Timothy 4:3-4

It’s been well documented that “content” has been in decline all across the spectrum of our culture. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has pointed out in his book The Knowledge Deficit, “Disparagement of factual knowledge as found in books has been a strong current in American thought since the time of Emerson.” (p.9)

Unfortunately, this “disparagement of factual knowledge” is not exclusive to the mainstream; it has also infected the church. The modern church by and large has become a purveyor of practical principles and applications with a few Bible verses tacked on (from whichever translation or paraphrase says it just the right way) to give them credence. Some pastors have come to embrace the cultural disdain for content by discarding even the attempt to teach doctrine from the pulpit.

Thus, my amazement that Piper’s church stuck around for over 8½ years of deep, theological teaching from Romans. Many an elder board would have asked him to “tone it down,” or worse, asked him to leave and then counseled the next pastor to “keep it simple” or “be more practical.”  To be fair, Piper himself addresses this from time to time by intentionally bringing his current text to bear on the practical implications for the Christian life, or by frequently tying it to how it fits with the great “Therefore” of Romans 12. But he never shies from the hard truths of his text, even when there’s not an immediate “application.”

As a result, what we have in this archive of sermons is a true gift to the Church at large. Whether you agree or disagree with Piper’s theology is beside the point.  What he created there was not only a blessing for his congregation, but also a platform of influence to Christians everywhere.

May more pastors have the desire and the courage to go deep and take their flock with them.  And may many more congregations demand it.

[In subsequent parts of this series, I’ll examine the common approaches churches take on this matter, and how God uses his Word in our lives. Stay tuned.]