I take it we all find it frustrating when people just tick the boxes of whatever it is they’re doing. Pay lip service, but their heart is not in it.
Someone at work. They turn up, they do the hours, but the moment their not being observed they’re at half pace.
Memories of school PE. The frustration of half a rugby team who want to win this thing, playing with team mates who have to be there.
Box-ticking lip-service is especially ugly when it comes to Christians.
We have the externals of our religion. We build lovely church buildings, and church halls if we’re lucky. We turn up on a Sunday, and we worship together. But it easily becomes little more than that. Whereas God wants us to have our heart in it. He wants our worship to shape the people we are, to the core of our being. He wants it to shape the way we live.
We’re continuing our journey through the book of Ezra. In fact today, over half way through the book, we finally meet the man himself. Ezra himself comes on the scene.
The book of Ezra is about God rebuilding his people. They’d been unfaithful to God and worshipped other gods, so he’d sent them into exile in Babylon. But God was still at work behind the scenes. The Babylonian empire was conquered by Persia, and the Persians told the Israelites they could go home and rebuild their temple.
That was part 1 of the book. Last week we read Ezra chapter 6. The temple was finished and a great celebration took place. But that’s not the end of the book. God hasn’t finished with his people.
Chapter 7 verse 1 starts with the words, “After these things”. The story carries on. But what may not be obvious is that there’s a 60 year gap between the end of chapter 6 and the start of chapter 7. A full 80 years have passed since Cyrus issued his decree in chapter 1. Ezra probably wasn’t even born when Ezra 1 happened.
And what we get in the second half of the book is a second return from exile. Much smaller than the first, but history repeats itself. We get a group come back, bringing treasures. We get a royal letter. They offer sacrifices when they reach Jerusalem. And then they meet opposition that must be overcome.
But this second cycle is different. Ezra chapters 1 to 6 was all about God’s people building the temple. Ezra chapters 7 to 10 are all about God reforming his people’s lives.
And you need both to be the worshipping people of God. We don’t need a temple because we have Jesus, but we need the structures of our religion. God wanted to restore true worship, and to do that they had to rebuild the temple and God had to rebuild the people.
So Ezra chapters 7 to 10 are all about how you get true worship that is not just external. Not just ticking boxes, giving lip-service.
Ezra had some tough work to do, as we’ll see in the coming weeks. So Ezra the man is being commended to the readers of this book. It’s important that they welcome Ezra, respect him, and above all receive his ministry. So in chapter 7 we’re being shown his credentials. Shown why Ezra is exactly the kind of teacher they need.
And as we look at this, we’ll find that he’s exactly the kind of teacher we need too.
Here, then, are three reasons why Ezra is the ideal teacher.
Number 1, he’s a real priest.
In the New Testament, we’re all priests. In the Old Testament, the priests were the members of the tribe of Levi descended from Aaron. The priests’ main job was to offer sacrifices. They had quite a few other jobs too, and one major one was to be teachers of the law. Leviticus chapter 10, verse 11, if you want a reference.
As Ezra is introduced, we’re given a long line of his ancestors. He traces back to Aaron himself, so he’s a proper priest. What’s more, hits line includes a number of well-known priests from significant high points in Israel’s history. His pedigree is not in doubt. He’s a priest, from the pinnacle of the priestly line.
If you’re buying a puppy, you may or may not care that it’s of a particular breed. But if you do, you may well want to verify that it’s 100% whatever it is. So you get a certificate that goes back three generations, five if you’re willing to pay an extra £13. Your dog’s ancestors were verified Labradors. So your dog is a pedigree Labrador.
Well, Aaron is not a pedigree Labrador. He’s a pedigree priest. His ancestry doesn’t just go back 5 generations; it goes right back to Aaron himself.
Sometimes you need to check out someone’s credentials, their qualifications to do the job. If you start at a new job, they may ask for photocopies of your exam certificates, to prove you have the qualifications you put on your CV. After the plane crash that sadly killed footballer Emiliano Sala, questions were asked about the pilot. Was he carrying for a fee, and if so did he have the necessary qualifications.
The people are being asked to trust Ezra to teach them the faith. It’s going to be costly to put Ezra’s teaching into practice. So they need to know his pedigree, his qualifications.
That’s number 1: He’s a real priest.
Reason number 2: He’s a devoted student.
After giving us his pedigree in verses 1-6, we’re told this, verse 6: “He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given.” He knew his Bible.
Incidentally, let’s just notice in passing the view of the Bible here. The Bible, or more precisely the first 5 books of it, may be described in two ways, and both are accurate. It’s the Law of Moses. Each book of the Bible was written by a particular person, in this case Moses.
But equally, it’s given by God. And in verse 10, it’s the “law of the Lord”. God has given this book to his people, to speak through it. The Holy Spirit ensured that what the human author wrote was exactly what he wanted.
It’s written by people, but still the word of God for his people.
But back to the point: Ezra is a devoted student of that law. He was well versed in it, verse 6. Then verse 10 tells us why: “For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”
Three stages. First, he’d devoted himself to study. The Bible has been described as a book in which an elephant can swim but a little child can paddle. It’s not hard to read or understand. God wants each and every Christian to read it, and to hear his voice loud and clear. But it is also a deep book, that repays careful and detailed study.
Second, he lived it. Verse 10: “study and observance”. The Bible is not a museum piece to be studied for its own sake. It’s not an academic book to debate your views on, and to write papers. Don’t get me wrong: Detailed Bible study is good, and some people give years to doing it, but the purpose of study is to observe it.
And note the order. Those of us who teach the word of God must never become professionals. It’s a word to live out, before it’s a word to pass on.
Then third, he taught it. He devoted himself to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.
Ezra worked hard. He was a devoted student. Which meant that when he taught it was worth listening to. It was the fruit of hard study. It had been tested in his own life.
When I was at school, I’d done a piece of work with which my maths teacher was pleased. He complimented me, saying I had a good brain. I was a little unsure what to say, and didn’t want to sound boastful, so I replied that I’d just worked hard. My teachers liked to make me think, so he did: He pointed out that I clearly wanted to be modest. If I’d left it that I had a good brain, I’d have given the credit to God, but by saying it was down to my hard work I’d actually taken the credit myself. The modesty didn’t work.
Ezra was both. He had the pedigree. He was a real priest. He had good breeding. But he also worked hard.
Number 2: He’s a devoted student.
Then reason number 3: He had a royal prerogative. Royal prerogative.
Look at the second half of verse 6: “The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.”
There’s two sides to that, and we see it play out in the letter that starts at verse 11.
The first way to look at this is that the king granted everything Ezra asked. The king sends him, loads him up with money, asks him to teach the law of God, and gets him to appoint assistants.
Ezra’s not just going on his own mission. He goes with the full authority of the king of Persia. He’s on a royal mission.
But then, second, this happened because the hand of God was on him. A number of things about this letter are extraordinary. A huge amount of silver and gold. Generous tax relief. And the king of Persia wanting to ensure that the laws of the God of Israel get taught. Not just the laws of the Medes and Persians, which you’d expect, but the laws of Ezra’s God. And God’s law is to be enforced, too. Verse 26: “Whoever does not obey the law of your God and the law of the king must surely be punished by death, banishment, confiscation of property, or imprisonment.” The strictest civil penalties for those who do not obey God’s laws.
Ezra is bowled over. This could be nothing other than the hand of God. Verse 27: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honour to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favour to me before the king and his advisors and all the king’s powerful officials. Because the hand of the Lord my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.”
Two kings have sent Ezra to Jerusalem: The king of Persia, and the king of heaven and earth.
Which means the Israelites in Jerusalem should welcome Ezra and listen to him. In the Persian empire, they should do as the king says. And in God’s kingdom, it’s clear God has sent Ezra.
This week, I got to lead morning worship at Trinity. I’m very aware when I’m in a school that I’m a visitor, there by invitation. The head and the governors are in charge. So I work very carefully with them, to make sure that they are happy with the input I bring to their school. You see, it matters that the children, the parents, the teachers are comfortable and enjoy me going in. Which means they need to know that I’m there because the head has invited me.
The people of Israel need to know that Ezra is meant to be there. That the people in charge want him there. That the people in charge want them to listen to him. So they’re carefully shown that Ezra is there with royal prerogative – there with the blessing of the king of Persia, there with the blessing of the king of heaven.
Three reasons why Ezra is the ideal teacher and leader: He’s a real priest, he’s got pedigree. He’s a devoted student, he knows his stuff, he lives his stuff. He has royal prerogative, there on a mission from the king.
Jesus our Teacher
God wants to work on our hearts. He doesn’t just want us to put the externals of our worship in place. He wants our hearts in it. He wants our whole lives to be shaped by his word.
Which we means that we also need a teacher like Ezra.
The question is, where do we find such a teacher?
We can’t go straight to thinking about good and bad teacher today. If you jump to apply the Old Testament to us, and forget that we don’t live in the Old Testament, you’ll either hit the right conclusions by accident, or you’ll go disastrously wrong.
That’s the case here. Lots that’s said about Ezra can’t apply to teachers today. We’re in the New Testament. The Old Testament is an incomplete book. It’s always looking forwards, and whenever you follow its gaze you always hit Jesus.
God wants his word in our hearts and our wills to obey him. Jesus is the one who will do that.
He’s a real priest. The book of Hebrews has a whole chapter to show you that, chapter 7. On the face of it, he’s from the wrong tribe, the tribe of Judah not the tribe of Levi. Hebrews 7 shows you why that doesn’t matter. Instead, Psalm 110 is the part of the Old Testament most frequently quoted in the New, because it speaks of Jesus. “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek”. If you want someone to teach you God’s word who is a real priest, who has the right pedigree, then you need Jesus.
He’s a devoted student. Jesus knew his Bible. At the age of 12 he impressed the teachers in temple with his knowledge. As he taught, the crowds wondered where he got his learning. But more importantly, he lived it before he taught it. He didn’t flinch when the devil tempted him in the wilderness. At his trial, even his enemies couldn’t make any mud stick. The one who taught us to forgive our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
And he has royal prerogative. Sure, there’s no earthly king who’s commissioned Jesus to teach us about God. But the hand of God was on him. God was clearly at work behind the scenes to ensure his plans worked out. And if we have any doubt that God the Father wants us to listen to Jesus, listen to the voice at his baptism. “This is my Son, whom I love.” Then at the transfiguration, the voice comes again, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
God wants our hearts and our wills to be shaped by his word. For that, we need a teacher like Ezra. We need Jesus. A real priest. A devoted student. With royal prerogative.
What’s more, we have something they didn’t. In the New Testament, we are in the age of the Spirit. We don’t just have Jesus in history. He lives in the heart of each and every Christian, to change and transform us from within.
So come to Jesus. Let him teach you.
Jesus himself taught that the whole Bible testifies to him. From Genesis to Revelation, every bit of the Bible will tell you about Jesus. It’s how Jesus tells us to learn from him.
So we need to read it, equipped by the Spirit to understand and live what we find there. Read it at home – use the free Bible notes we supply if that would help. Read it with your children. Come to church where we can look at it together. Join a midweek group and look with others. Come to Jesus.
But don’t just come to study and to learn. The order is the same for us as it is for Ezra. Study. Observe. Teach.
Live out what you read. God often seems to give further light to those who are putting what they already know into practice.
And then pass it on. Share what you’ve learnt with others. It’s the best way to learn. And now we’re in the New Testament, we’re all priests, which means it falls to all of us to share our faith. Share it with those who don’t know Jesus for themselves. Share with other Christians the things you’re discovering for yourself in God’s word.
Lip-service, half-heartedness, box-ticking Christianity is not what God ever intended.
He wants our hearts. Our love. Our devotion.
To achieve that, he sent them Ezra: Priest, scribe, royal delegate.
And to achieve that, he sent us Jesus.
Come to him. Let him teach you in the power of his Spirit.
And to achieve that, he’s also given us each other. That we might be like Ezra, like Jesus, in our own turn.