Yesterday, we mentioned that it's important to "roll up our sleeves" and work for the Lord. Today, let's start to look at how we can honor God with our work. Ezra is going to be our example here, as we look at chapter 8 of the book bearing his name.
Ezra stepped out in faith here, both in his organization of the leaders and people who were willing to make this journey, and in his determination to make the trip without an armed escort. Ezra actually had thousands of people who were putting their faith on the line with him, by venturing out into a desert infested with robbers and animals - with no protection. Usually a caravan of this sort would enjoy the protection of an armed guard. It was one thing to ask the king's permission to lead a group of people back to Jerusalem. It was quite another to actually convince volunteers to the difficult task. Once again, a group of people was facing giving up the comfort of what they knew - what was familiar - and making the move to an uncertain future in Israel.
Let's take the chapter a bit out of order, shall we? The first portion is a list of names that made more sense to me once I read the second portion. (Grin) Ezra had no small task in trying to organize a pilgrimage of (what turned out to be) around five thousand people. This included women and children. And they were facing a trek of about nine hundred miles across that desert we mentioned before!
Can we use our imaginations? What would we feel like if we were contemplating a trip of that magnitude. Oh, and forget about riding a camel or donkey or horse -- no campers or RV's, either. Just your feet. A pack on your back, or your goods on a cart pulled by oxen if you were fortunate. Dry. Dusty. Tiring. Dangerous.
This group actually started out on the first day of the first month, back in chapter seven. But they paused for three days at a canal, and took stock of their situation. Ezra was dismayed to realize that there were no Levites present in the group. Why was this a problem? If we recall from our previous studies, these were they who were descendants of Levi. There were divisions of duties: the high priest, the ordinary priests, and the Levites who cared for the service of the sanctuary.
Ezra's problem was that Levites were needed to free up the priests to do their work. And perhaps that was part of the problem - maybe no Levites had joined the caravan because they not only knew it was a hard trip, but they knew they'd have the "low man on the totem pole" tasks to do. But in spite of the lack of "glamor" in their tasks, these men were essential to the people's worship of God.
What was Ezra to do? He honored God by trusting Him to raise up godly and qualified leaders (and ordinary people, too) for the work. Let's see what happened: he selected nine men (two of whom were called "teachers" and sent them to talk to Iddo, the leader of a nearby group of Levi's descendants. And he briefed them on what to say . . .
So I summoned Eliezer, Ariel, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Jarib, Elnathan, Nathan, Zechariah and Meshullam, who were leaders, and Joiarib and Elnathan, who were men of learning, 17 and I ordered them to go to Iddo, the leader in Kasiphia. I told them what to say to Iddo and his fellow Levites, the temple servants in Kasiphia, so that they might bring attendants to us for the house of our God. (Ezra 8:16-17)Now let's see what kind of results these men had; did they have good success? Were they persuasive?
18 Because the gracious hand of our God was on us, they brought us Sherebiah, a capable man, from the descendants of Mahli son of Levi, the son of Israel, and Sherebiah’s sons and brothers, 18 in all; 19 and Hashabiah, together with Jeshaiah from the descendants of Merari, and his brothers and nephews, 20 in all. 20 They also brought 220 of the temple servants—a body that David and the officials had established to assist the Levites. All were registered by name. (v 18-20)They were blessed by the Lord to bring back thirty-eight men, and over two hundred temple servants were convinced to accompany the returning exiles. These families had very short notice to pack up and go!
It's inspiring to see Ezra's response. He was an humble man, and was grateful for the men who joined the journey "because of the gracious hand of our God upon us." He obviously recognized that God had put it in the hearts of His people to be willing to serve, even if the tasks were not flashy or glamorous.
Even today, God's work requires workers as well as leaders. Too many leaders? Not enough workers? Too many workers? All of the parts of the body of Christ are valuable and necessary. If we are believers in Christ, we are part of His body, the church. We have a ministry, whether it's a leadership role or a worker role -- all are important. Every part of the body of Christ is significant!
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. (Romans 12:4-6a)
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)I expect that we all will easily agree on that one. This next one? You may not agree with me, but I believe (and we've studied it before) that the top level leaders in the Lord's work should be men. (Yeah, I know, hopelessly old-fashioned and all of that.) Here in Ezra, the list numbers the men and calls them the heads of the households. Ezra knew the structure of society in his day; he knew that if he directed the appeal to the heads of the families, they would bring their family groups with them. Kinda different from what some churches want to do today - they will send the buses out after the kiddos and overlook the husbands and dads who truly need what the church has to offer!
I base my opinion on several familiar verses: I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1. And also on Ephesians 5, where husbands are to be the heads of their families.
Now, let's get one thing straight.
This does NOT mean that in the church, the deacons or elders lord it over or patronize the women of the congregation. It does NOT mean that women are second class. It does NOT mean that husbands can bark orders to their wives and children.
Instead, men should be servants as Christ set an example for them. They should be self-sacrificing, and utilize the Bible to learn their true roles:
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.5 In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, (I Peter 1:1-5a)
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:25-28)Leadership that honors God? That means elders who are accountable to the Lord for how they direct the church. That means husbands who will answer to God for the spiritual direction of their families.
When we keep these principles in mind, we can trust God to raise up godly leaders as Ezra did. (And He will bring people for the work, as well.) We will, when we work and honor God, find leaders who are godly in character, and who are also qualified by gifts and by training. Look back at the men that Ezra sent to recruit leaders and workers: they were called "leaders" and "men of learning." One of the men who answered the Lord's call was called a "man of insight." Ezra wasn't threatened by these guys -- he was grateful that the Lord had called out godly, qualified workers.
In the same way, our churches need godly leaders, qualified for the office of pastor or elder or deacon, both by their gifts and their training. When we read in I Timothy and again in Titus, we read of mainly character traits, except for the one "able to teach," which assumes both a gift for teaching and the training to be effective. No man will constantly, perfectly match all of those high standards in those verses, but at the same time, we need to make certain that we don't elevate leaders who glaringly, hugely lack any of those qualities.
God will bless work that honors Him. He will raise up godly leaders and workers, too.