April 16, 2023

Set Your Heart to Live God's Word (Ezra 7:7-10)

Preacher: Bryce Morgan Series: Our Bible Reading Plan (2022-2023) Topic: One Truth: Your Word is Truth Scripture: Ezra 7:7–10

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Children's Lesson (click here) 

I. Ancient Examples

All throughout the New Testament (NT), we find references to individuals in the Old Testament (OT). Sometimes they are simply mentioned as part of a title (as when Jesus is called the “son of David”, or refers to the Law of Moses). Sometimes, an OT individual is simply used as part of a reference (as when Jesus compares the “lilies of the field” to Solomon's glorious, royal attire).

But at other times, OT characters are presented as examples, examples from whom we can learn. In Matthew 12, for example, David is presented as as an example in regard to prioritizing sacred things. In James 2, Rahab is presented as an example in regard to good works. Three chapters later, in James 5, Job is referenced in regard to endurance, and Elijah in regard to prayer. Lot is presented as such in terms of his righteousness in the midst of the ungodly in 2 Peter 2. And Abraham, who is mentioned almost 70 times in the NT, is often pointed to as an example of... faith. In fact, the author of Hebrews devotes an entire chapter (chp. 11) to various individuals from the OT (16 are explicitly named) who are presented as examples of faith.

Of course, one chapter later (in Hebrews 12), we also read about Esau (the son of Isaac and brother of Jacob), who is presented as an example of what not to do in regard to unholiness. Similarly, Balaam from the the book of Numbers is talked about in regard to wrongdoing in 2 Peter 2, and the Israelites are referenced in regard to idolatry in 1 Corinthians 10. So in the NT, God does in fact use the stories and examples of OT individuals to help us grow as believers.

But what about Ezra, a man not mentioned in the NT, but who is central to the very book we focused on last week in Our Bible Reading Plan? What might God want to teach us through Ezra's example? Let's try to answer that question by looking together at Ezra 7:7-10.


II. The Passage: “The Good Hand of His God was on Him” (7:7-10)

Turn over or navigate to that passage. Listen as I read, starting in Ezra 7:7...

And there went up also to Jerusalem, in the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king, some of the people of Israel, and some of the priests and Levites, the singers and gatekeepers, and the temple servants. [8] And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. [9] For on the first day of the first month he began to go up from Babylonia, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, for the good hand of his God was on him. [10] For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.

Okay. Let's make sure we know where we are here in terms of biblical history. Many of you remember how, at the end of 2 Kings, the southern kingdom of Judah was taken into exile, and Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, by the Babylonians in 586 BC.

Well, guess what? Just as Babylon had defeated Judah, they themselves were defeated by the Persians almost fifty years later in 539 BC. As we learned in Ezra 1, the victorious Persian king Cyrus soon let about 50,000 Jews return to Israel in 537 BC, and that Jewish contingent wasted no time in rebuilding the altar in Jerusalem, and eventually the entire Temple by 516 BC. Ezra, who we meet for the first time here in chapter 7, did not return to Jerusalem until almost sixty year after that. So the text I just read takes place around 458 BC.

Now, when we read a passage like this, when read about people with names like Artaxerxes and places like Babylonia, when we read about returning Jews, and distinct classes like “Levites” and “singers” and “gatekeepers” and “temple servants”, when we read about this world and these events in this time (almost 2500 years ago), it isn't always easy to relate then to now, and them to us; especially someone like Ezra.

As we learn from verse 1 of this chapter, Ezra was a direct descendant of Aaron's son Eleazar (yes, that Aaron, the brother of Moses). That lineage meant Ezra was a Jewish priest. So again, beyond worshiping the same God as Ezra, how might a Jewish priest living almost 2500 years ago be relevant for you today?

Here's how: if you read 1 Peter 2 last week as one of our scheduled readings, then you would have been reminded twice that followers of Christ, that Christians, are described as a “priest-hood” before God. There is one High Priest: Jesus. But through his priestly, sacrificial, atoning work on the cross, he has (Revelation 1:6) “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father”. After centuries of confusion, this teaching (generally known as 'the priesthood of all believers') was recovered in the 16th century by the Reformer Martin Luther, who, on the basis of the NT, opposed the Roman Catholic distinction between priests and the laity (i.e., the people).

Today, God also wants us to guard ourselves from unbiblical distinctions. For example, because I'm standing up here teaching you God's word, I'm not somehow more of a priest than you. We may have different gifts, but we share one calling as “priests of God and of Christ” (Revelation 20:6). Therefore, we should ask this morning, “What can Ezra, our fellow priest, teach us about our priesthood? About being a faithful priest?” Do you desire to be a faithful priest?

While there are many things revealed in this chapter and in this passage (and in this book!), let me suggest that our main text includes two especially important ideas: first, we learn here something about Ezra's heart, and second, we learn here something about God's hand.


1. Something About Ezra's Heart

The first description we get of Ezra is actually a verse earlier in verse 6: “...He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD, the God of Israel, had given...”. We find a similar description just after our main text in verse 11... “Ezra the priest, the scribe, a man learned in matters of the commandments of the LORD and his statutes for Israel...”. So about half of the times Ezra is mentioned in Ezra-Nehemiah, he is referred to as a “scribe” or “the scribe”. At the very least, this meant that Ezra could read and write, and used these skills in some official or semi-official capacity. But in this context, his description as a scribe certainly means that Ezra could read and even write copies of God's law, the law given by God to Israel through Moses, after their deliverance from Egypt. But please notice how our main text, verses 7-10 (specifically, verse 10), expands on Ezra's relationship with “the Law of [YHWH]”. But we can't miss the clarification the writer gives us her regarding that relationship.

Before he was (v. 6) “skilled” in what God had revealed, before he was (v. 11) “learned” in the words of God, we read in verse 10 that “Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”

Notice first, in light of that verse (v. 10), that God is telling us something about the “heart” of this priest. God used this man, and a book of the Bible bears his name, because of, ultimately, something about his heart. Having talked in February and March about the story of King David, this note about Ezra's heart is not surprising, is it? God cares deeply about our hearts, and Scripture highlights the heart, over and over. What do we learn here about Ezra's heart? We learn that it was “set”; that is, it was fixed, committed, dedicated to what God had revealed to Israel. God had not only revealed himself through this Law, but also, in it, the pathway his people should walk if they wanted to live. Undoubtedly, Ezra believed this, deeply.

A second truth to emphasize here regarding the heart of our fellow priest is that his heart was not simply “set” on “the Law of the LORD”, but specifically, it was committed “to study the Law... and do it, and to teach” it. We don't read here that Ezra simply committed to the law in a mental way, or merely in a practical way, or just vocationally. No. He set his heart to live God's word; to live it out, fully, in every part of his life. That's what a faithful priest does. When you think about the work of a Jewish priest, your mind might immediately go to the duties of the Temple. But in Israel, in addition to being intercessors in the Tent or Temple, the priests were also those who announced God's word (Deuteronomy 31:9-13), those who taught God's people (Deuteronomy 33:10), and those who blessed God's people (Numbers 6:22). And that's the very thing Ezra, from the heart, is set on doing as he return to the Promised Land. Now...


2. Something About God's Hand

I simply want to point out something emphasized in this chapter, in case you missed it. Look at and think about the connection between verse 10 and verse 9. That first word of verse 10 is a clue... “for”. That's telling us that (in some way) verse 9 is happening as a consequence of verse 10. God's “good hand” was upon Ezra... “for Ezra had set his heart to study... do... and... teach”. Do you see that? And a note about God's good hand is also included in verses 6 and 28.

Now think about why God's people were needing to return to Israel. Because they had been... exiled. And they had been exiled as a consequence of their... unfaithfulness to God and their covenant disobedience. So it shouldn't be surprising that God is blessing a man who loves his law and wants to teach it the people, so that they will obey their covenant. As this chapter and this book confirm, a man with this heart is the man for whom God will provide, and open doors, and prepare the way; that's the man for whom God will move, even moving the heart of a king.


III. In Our Priesthood

Okay. Let's pull this together in regard to our priesthood. As I pointed out earlier, if you are a genuine Christian, then God's word identifies you as a priest. Every believer is, no exceptions. And though we still offer up sacrifices (albeit, sacrifices of praise, of doing good (Hebrews 13), and the daily “living sacrifice” of ourselves (Rom. 12)), as we just learned, God's priests also announce, teach, and bless. So how does Ezra set an example for us here? By not only setting his heart on God's word, but also setting his heart to study it, do it, and teach it. That is absolutely critical in terms of faithfulness as God's priest. Or to put that in more general terms, this is absolutely critical in terms of walking in a manner worthy of our gospel calling.

Please carefully and prayerfully think about this idea in terms of your own life. What kind of grip does the word of God have on your heart? Do you find it merely interesting... or captivating? Is it uplifting... or also upending, yet deeply satisfying? Is it comforting... but also convicting? Is it good... or is it glorious! To be clear, I'm not asking how often you read the Bible, or how many verses you've memorized, or how high you would score on a Bible knowledge quiz. I believe that this morning God simply wants you to look at the relationship of your heart to His word; because that's where it all starts. It is possible to be intellectually committed to the Bible, and yet, your heart simply isn't in it. Ezra serves as a good reminder to us that God wants us to 'set our hearts' to fully embrace his word. I think this is what Paul meant when he encouraged the Colossian believers to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly...” (Colossians 3:16).

But as we talked about, when Ezra set his heart on what God had revealed, it was specifically set on three areas: study, obedience, and teaching. Does that reflect your heart commitment to God's word? At different times, in different ways, I think all of us struggle to keep these together.

  • For example, sometimes we seem to set our hearts to study, but deep down, we aren't as committed to actually obeying what we study. Knowledge with know-how. When that happens, theological information can become an idol.

  • At other times, we seem to set our hearts to do God's word (i.e., to be moral; to be active in some kind of service), but we aren't as committed to being regularly guided in that by God's voice in the word. When that happens, ministry itself can become an idol.

  • Still, at other times, we seem to set our hearts to teach God's word (i.e., to share it, to explain it, to post it, to text it, to encourage or counsel with it, etc.), but deep down, we aren't as committed to personally feeding ourselves with the word, in order to walk in its light. When that happens, the affirmation, the praise of others, can become an idol.

But remember this example: “Ezra had set his heart to study... and to do... and to teach...”. Okay. So does the NT really affirm these three things for Christian priests like us? Absolutely. Listen to the fuller context of the verse I shared only moments ago. This is Colossians 3:16–17...

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. [17] And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. [of course, that order is study, teach, do]

Brothers and sisters, that's describing someone who has set his or her heart to live God's word. On this One Truth Sunday, let's commit ourselves to doing just that. In just a moment, in light of this passage, would you talk with God about your heart and his word? Please remember this, and remind each other of this, our hope this morning is not in Ezra's example. Our hope is in another man who knew the word, did the word, and taught the word... and did all of these things perfectly. Our hope is in Jesus; in Christ crucified and raised to life, as we celebrated last week; and every week! And you can be sure of this: God's good hand was on him. And when we come to Jesus Christ as our only hope, we can be sure God's good hand will be on us. And by His grace and Spirit's power, inasmuch as we set our hearts as Ezra did... to study, do, and teach God's word, God himself will be going ahead of us to prepare the way. He will grant us favor. How do I know this? Because he wants to “fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (2 Thess. 1:11). And that very word give us this assurance, that we can “[abound] in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58).


other sermons in this series