A Reflection on the Need for Strong Biblical and Theological Foundations, based on the book of Ezra

(adapted from an article by Canon Dr John Chew in the TTC Trumpet)

During the time of Ezra and Nehemiah there were many things to be done among the people of God. There were repairs to be done to the walls of the city with all the planning, mobilizing and fund-raising. On the other hand, prevailing pragmatism and self-interests led to compromises. The Sabbath curfew was adjusted; seeking acceptance in a pluralistic situation led to mixed-marriages; worship was not properly observed. How should one choose to respond? Then as now, result-oriented activities like building, programmes and fund-raising etc., are always easier to evoke response. But the real need then was probably more in the "reconstruction" of the hearts and minds of the Jews to be the holy people of God. Such reconstruction may take one or more generations.

While it is true that both kinds of rebuilding have their respective importance and necessity, educationally I think it should not be too difficult for those who are called to leadership to know which is more basic. But alas! Then as now, it is more attractive to do the immediate and practical. The tragedy is that the reconstruction of fundamentals is usually regarded as academic, impractical and time-wasting. In face of the growing pressure from outside and inside the church to be action- and result-oriented there is no guarantee that those who know the difference will choose the more important. Not a few Christians come to church and cell-group today with the mindset that all they need and want are the practical and action-oriented courses. They want to be told or given the "know how", with manuals or programs for action. The time of study, worship, fellowship and community tasks, discipline and formation are considered joyless burdens or diversions.

It is noteworthy that the one quality singled out about Ezra, against the backdrop of the urgent and important needs of his time, is that "Ezra... set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel" (Ezra 7:10). We can learn four lessons from Ezra.

The Need for Time-Space Withdrawal

It was providential that before his return to and ministry in Jerusalem Ezra was away from the scene in Persia. He had the time-space to prepare himself for the task. Moses too was taken away from Egypt to be in the desert for forty years before going into action. Christians should treasure the "withdrawal" they have at times for learning and unlearning, reflection, re-orientation, formation of the "little habits of life and humble servanthood", and maturing through worship, communal responsibilities and the laying of foundations. It is precarious for leaders-to-be to plunge into the popular or traditional modes of ministry without going through this process. They must guard this time-space and trust that the Lord is in control of things "out there" even without them.

The Need for Heart-Mind Study

Ezra studied by setting his mind to it. The mind is the seat of the will, that is, the heart, which stirs one up to action. Without it, it would not be "study". The heart without the mind in study runs the danger of being subjective, emotional, and uncritical in its acceptance of "whoever speaks loudest". One should never be afraid of using the mind biblically, as it is God-given and created. What Luke says about Jesus, "when the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem" (Lk 9:51) illustrates this point. Far from using too much mind, the tragedy of our time is probably that the serious, consistent, vigorous and courageous use of the mind-heart in study (or in anything else) is absent.

The Need to Embody

Ezra was called to teach the Word of God to the Israelites in Jerusalem against the spiritual problems of the time. Before he could become a credible teacher, Ezra must first be a practitioner of what he preached. Within the cell group, the time spent in studying the Word, the community life, outreach, worship and learning together, will provide opportunities for you to know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, as you strive to practice what you study. For most of us it will be a very humbling experience. We are called primarily to ministers of the Gospel, not activists but disciplined servants. Don't worry, Biblical and pastoral training and formation will not make you a lesser Christian or evangelist or worship leader. It is in fact foundational and will make you a better and more permanent one. A life imaging Christ because our hearts and minds are stirred by the diligent study of the Word will be the most effective channel for God to work through to touch those under our charge and beyond.

And Then to Teach

The order of study-practice-teach is most essential for those handling the Word of God. Too many today impatiently want to be teachers and leaders but are not prepared to be formed through the discipline of study and practice first. While this is understandable in an age which expects immediate results and practical usefulness, the danger is that the Word of God will lose its credibility and power before the world because of our lives' unattractiveness. The Word of God is inseparable from life; it has to be embodied (Mt 23:1-12; 1Cor 4:8-10). No amount of eloquence and rhetoric alone will see you through a lifetime of ministry.

In the state of confusion and the frenzy of activities, Ezra was able to exercise a discerning, effective and powerful ministry of the Word. He even "wasted" some thirteen years before he ministered the Word again (after the arrival of Nehemiah). While Nehemiah's activities and programmes were definitely important, without doubt it was Ezra's pastoral ministry which enabled the Jews to rediscover their identity and purpose as the covenantal people of God.

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