“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
It’s 2018! Another new year is upon us. In some ways it feels like a fresh start, or a new beginning. Many people like to make a new year’s resolution, setting goals for what they would like to accomplish over the next 12 months. Some of the most common resolutions are:
- To get in shape
- To spend less and save more
- To get organized
- To start a new hobby
- To learn a new language
- To spend more time with family
- To travel
Those are all worthwhile goals, but sometimes it proves difficult to follow through. Last year I made a resolution to spend more time reading (not just in preparing for lessons, but just for fun, or because the book looks interesting). So I pulled a stack of books from my shelves. There was theology, ethics, history, even a little fiction. They were books I had been meaning to get to but just haven’t had the time. One of volumes still had the receipt tucked away under the cover from when I bought it, back in 2001. I told myself, if I can get through several in a month, by the end of the year I will have read the whole pile. Well, I wish I could say I made it, but the stack of books turned out to be a little too high. However, I did read more, and that was a good thing.
I liked what someone posted on Facebook last week:
“Today is the first blank page of a 365 page book. Write a good one.”
It’s a great reminder that we get to choose how we’re going to use each day. When we wake up in the morning, it’s like we’ve turned to the next page, and as soon as we roll out of bed, we start writing. Who will I spend time with? What are activities I’m going to pursue? How will I use the time God has given me? If we don’t pause to consider what really matters in life, it is too easy to let time slip away from us. There are so many urgent things that demand our attention we may never get around to the really important things, unless we make them a priority.
In our passage this morning, we read about a resolution made by one man for how he wanted to spend his life. It was not the start of a new year, but it was a new beginning for his people. For more than seventy years, the people of Israel had lived as exiles in Babylon. They were a conquered people, carried far away from their homeland, longing to return. Many died in captivity and never made it back home. Others were born in captivity, and they had only heard stories about the land God had given to their ancestors as an inheritance. Eventually, the day they had been anxiously awaiting arrived. They were granted permission to return home.
The first group made the journey in 538 BC. If they could have flown across the desert in an airplane, it would have been a 500 mile flight. But instead, they would have followed the Euphrates Rivers, making it a 900 mile hike. There were about 50,000 people, just a fraction of those who had been carried away, but it was a start, and when they arrived they began the difficult work of rebuilding.
A second group departed from Babylon in 458 BC under the leadership of Ezra. Priests, Levites, temple servants were among those who went with him. He realized there was more work to be done than rebuilding homes and cities. They needed to rebuild their faith and worship of the Lord.
That’s where we read about his resolution. Ezra 7:10 tells us, “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.”
That is a great example for all of God’s people, in every age. One of the most important resolutions we can make is to grow in our walk with God, and in order for that to happen we must be devoted to God’s Word.
The passage challenges us, first of all, to study God’s Word.
That was part of Ezra’s resolution. In verse 6 we learn a little bit about his background. We are told he “…was a scribe, skilled in the law of Moses…” That was a title for someone who could read and write, who may have served as a secretary, managing important documents or keeping a record of events. Over time, the word came to refer to religious leaders in Israel who copied and interpreted the Bible. Ezra was probably a scribe in both senses of the word.
As he traveled towards Jerusalem, he was carrying something very precious: a set of sacred scrolls. This was not merely a record of Israel’s history… It was not simply a code of ethics handed down by his ancestors… This was the Word of God. As far as Ezra was concerned, there was nothing more valuable, among all the luggage the people of Israel carried back with them to their homeland, than what was written on these scrolls. Without the message it contained, it would be impossible to ever truly rebuild.
Verse 10 tells us, “Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord.” Why? Because he understood that God has revealed himself to us through Scripture. As we spend time reading the Bible we grow in our knowledge of God, and learn his ways. It’s like any relationship. If you spend time with someone, in conversation, listening to their voice, getting to know the things that are important to them, your friendship will grow. –And if we spend time listening to God, our relationship with him will also grow.
Sometimes people have the wrong idea as they approach the Bible. They think of it as an encyclopedia, filled with all kinds of information, and yet no very exciting to read. But that’s not how we should approach the Bible. Think of it as a love letter from God. Imagine a young man who is serving overseas in the military. He has been away from home for a long time. One day he receives a letter from his wife and family. He tears open the envelope, eager the message inside. He hangs on every word. He is excited to hear what’s going on back home. Even the smallest details warm his heart. It’s not something he rushes through, and then tosses aside. He reads it over and over, because he loves her, and that fact that she has taken the time to write, expressing her affection for him is very humbling. How much more should we cherish God’s Word? It is also a love letter, demonstrating the depths of his affection for us. How could we ever grow tired of this message? How could anyone consider it dull or boring? It ought to be our delight to study God’s Word.
There are several principles that ought to guide us as in this endeavor.
Allow the Holy Spirit to give insight and understanding. 1 Corinthians 2:14 tells us, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” I need more than my own intellect to make sense of what I’m reading. I need humble heart, listening for God’s voice. Expect him to challenge you, and show you areas of your life where he wants to work.
Come with a hunger for God. 1 Peter 2:2–3 “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” When you meet someone has just recently come to know Christ as Savior, they are often so excited to learn about God. They are hearing these things for the first time, and can’t get enough. But over time, if we’re not careful, we may start to think that we’ve come to lose that initial enthusiasm, thinking that we have it all figured out. But it doesn’t matter how many years we have known the Lord, we are still growing. Even if we’ve read a passage a million times, there is always something God wants to show us.
Be careful to handle the Bible correctly. Pay attention to the context. Look for the meaning of a passage, instead of trying to read into it something that isn’t there. That’s called “proof texting,” when a person searches for a verse to prove their point and ignores what it’s really saying. But the Bible says, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:14–15) Or as the KJV puts it, “rightly dividing the word of truth.” The picture is of a worker out in the field, plowing straight lines, rather than zig zagging from one side to the other. One author writes,
“Maybe you have heard the tale of the man who made the habit of randomly opening the Bible to a couple of passages in the Bible each morning for some insight and direction for this day. He would just let the Bible fall open where it would and aimlessly place his finger on a line of text. One particular day his finger fell on the line ‘Judas departed, and went and hanged himself.’ He flipped a little further in the Bible and placed his finger on another line which read ‘Go, and do thou likewise’” (https://dailygoodies.wordpress.com/2010/05/02/the-golden-rules-of-bible-study/)
Does context matter? It sure does. We need to be careful to handle God’s Word correctly.
Our passage also challenges us to obey God’s Word.
Again, Ezra 7:10 tells us, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord and to practice it…”
As the people made the journey from Babylon back to their homeland, they remembered how they gotten there. Before the exile, Ezra’s people had abandoned the Law of Moses, and fell into idolatry. They didn’t want to obey God, but chose to follow along with the nations that surrounded them. God sent the prophets to warm them, but they refused to listen. As a result, they ended up in exile. Now that they were given a new start, they hoped things would be different this time around. They knew what the Lord expected of them, and understood His commands, but that wasn’t enough. They needed to obey God if they were going to experience his blessing in their lives.
Ezra had made up his mind that he was going to follow the Lord, and maybe his example would inspire others to do the same. As a leader of Israel, it was important that he not only talk the talk, he had to walk the walk. That meant putting his faith into practice. It wouldn’t be easy. They would be surrounded by other nations who did not share their faith or worship their God, and they would be would be tempted to compromise their convictions.
We are called to do the same, today. A person may have been grown up in church, and sat through countless sermons. They might know the words to all the hymns, and be able to quote Scripture. But what good is it, if we don’t live out our faith? God calls us to live in obedience to His Word.
Psalm 1:1–2 tells us, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night.”
One of the most frustrating things as a parent is when you correct your child and they answer, “Well the kids at school do it…”
“Hey, it’s not nice to call your brother stupid, you know you’re not supposed to talk like that.”
“Well Suzie called someone stupid at recess today and she didn’t get in trouble.”
“I don’t care what Suzie said at school, this is our house and our rules. You’re my child and I expect you to obey.”
The psalmist urges us not to worry about what everyone else is doing… how the people around you live… don’t follow along or join in with them. Listen to your Heavenly Father. If we are his children, we ought to obey his commands. It should be our delight to please him in all that we do.
In the NT, James tells us “…to be doers of the word, and not hearers only…” (James 1:22) Don’t close the Bible, after finishing your devotions and forget what you’ve read. Ask the Lord to help you put it into practice. Don’t walk out the door on Sunday morning and say, “that was interesting sermon.” Apply what you’ve learned to your life. And that goes for me too. It’s not enough to stand up here and talk about how we should live. I need to demonstrate it through my example.
We can’t do that on our own. It takes more than our own willpower or determination to follow God. We the Holy Spirit to empower us to make the right choices each day, and honoring God with our lives. We have to be transformed from the inside out. When we allow Scripture to touch our hearts we are changed.
Finally, our passage challenges us to share God’s Word.
“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 first several verses in the chapter trace Ezra’s family tree, showing us that he was a direct descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses, the first high priest of Israel. He was from the tribe of Levi, and they had been entrusted with the responsibility of teaching the children of Israel how to worship the Lord. Ezra took that responsibility seriously.
As the people were getting settled back into the land, rebuilding their homes, and their cities, he would be instrumental in rebuilding the faith of the nation. He showed them what it meant to be called the people of God, and how to walk in the ways of the Lord. If you turn over a few pages, we see him doing that in Nehemiah 8:1-2.
“And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding…”
The passage goes on to tell us he taught from morning until midday, and when he was finished the people blessed the Lord and answered “Amen. Amen.” Ezra was in a position to touch the lives of others, not because he was a Levite, but because he knew God. His passion for the Lord was contagious.
God wants to touch lives through his people today, as well. He may not call us to stand in front of a crowd of people and deliver us a message, but we are all able to impact those around us in some way.
- It might be reading the Bible and praying with your children before bed each night.
- Or it could be challenging your grandchildren to live for the Lord.
- Maybe it is encouraging a friend who is struggling.
- Or answering a coworkers questions about your faith.
- It might be setting a godly example for your friends.
- Or witnessing to a neighbor.
You don’t have to be pastor or missionary to share God’s Word. If you love the Lord, He will put you in position to make a difference in the lives of others.
In 1 Thessalonians 1:7–8 the apostle Paul was excited about how the Lord was using believers in one of the churches he had planted. He tells them, “And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.” That’s the kind of impact our church can have in our community. God wants his message to ring out from our lives.
When we were in Bible College, Charity and I attend a little church, tucked away in a neighborhood. Before the worship service, every Sunday, the rang the bell. You don’t hear that very often anymore, but that used to be a common thing. I guess it was a way of announcing to everyone around that God’s people were gathering to praise His name. What if our lives had that affect, ringing out with God’s love and grace? Do you inspire others to praise Jesus? That’s the kind of life I want to live.
This morning we are challenged to follow the example of Ezra. Make it your resolution, as he did, to study… obey… and share God’s Word.
We are starting a plan to read through the Bible. It will be an exciting journey, but it will take commitment. That’s one of benefits of doing it together, as a congregation. We will be able to encourage one another, and discuss what we’ve been reading, spurring one another on. If you fall behind, don’t give up. Jump back in and keep going.
May our study be more than an intellectual pursuit. We need to allow God’s Spirit to apply His Word to our lives. As you read, ask yourself: why is this passage here? Am I being called to respond with a specific action? Are there attitudes that need to change? Are there areas of my life that need to be surrendered to God?
Share the message with someone else. Those who have been entrusted with God’s Word are called to called to carry to others, like Ezra who brought it with him from Babylon. There are people around you who need to hear about God’s love. Tell them. Whether you consider yourself a teacher or not, we can all be a blessing in some way to those around us. Maybe it’s talking to our children about the Lord, or answering the question of a coworker who has been pondering spiritual things, or offering gentle correction to a friend who has been pulled in by bad theology.