While James takes a look back at some of the gentle reformers of church history, like J.G. Vos, I thought I would reach back a bit further and look at some Old Testament examples of reform and reformers. There are many such examples from which we can find great encouragement and instruction. Today, we’ll take a brief look at Ezra and the heart of his ministry.
Ezra ministered at a time of great crisis in the ancient church, when a strong, godly leader was needed. To my mind, two things stand out as the core elements of his ministry, and were the heart of the reform and revival that took place under his leadership.
The first was his love for God’s Word and his ministry of it, which is described in a very specific sequence in Ezra 7:10 – “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.”
The Old Testament is known for piling up verbs which we are sometimes apt to take as synonymous repetition (e.g. “to keep and do the statutes and commandments of the Lord”). Yet each verb has its own thrust, and the lesson often lies in the sequence. In this case, the progression of seek, do and teach is important.
Ezra began with his own diligent study of the Scriptures, followed by his own personal practice of them, which provided a foundation for teaching others. It’s important to get this sequence right; if any element is out of order or missing, the ministry of the word will be jeopardized.
Without diligent, personal study there is nothing fresh to apply or proclaim. Without striving to personally apply the Word and grow in sanctity, proclamation will lack the fire of conviction. To focus on teaching alone, without conviction or practice behind it, is to substitute the form of the message for its substance. But this sequence – seek, do and teach – is a powerful one. I have no doubt that it is what made Ezra such a useful tool in the hands of God.
The second focal point of Ezra’s ministry was certainly prayer. I am humbled – literally leveled in my spirit – every time I read Ezra’s prayer in Ezra 9:6-15. The passion of it pours off the page as he confesses the guilt of the nation and pleads so earnestly for forgiveness and revival. You can tell that his prayer was a true motion of the soul, and what followed upon it was nothing less than national repentance and a national covenant, illustrating how “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (Jas 5:16).
These two priorities are seen again in Acts 6:4 among the apostles, “…but we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” Ezra’s example, carried on by the apostles, is still the only pathway of gentle reformation.