Explore: God commands obedience

• The Explore the Bible lesson for Jan. 4 focuses on Ezra 7:1-10.

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• The Explore the Bible lesson for Jan. 4 focuses on Ezra 7:1-10.

When people think of political families in the United States, one of the first names recalled is the Kennedy family. Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. had big political aspirations. At the beginning of World War II, he was serving as the American ambassador to Great Britain. However, his own political career quickly came to an end due to his belief the Americans and British were facing a lost cause in the Nazis.

During the battle of Britain, when the British were under constant bombardment by the Germans, he declared democracy was finished in Britain, and he believed this to be true of America as well. History proved this perspective to be shortsighted and even foolish, and his personal political dreams thereafter came to naught.

The leadership of Ezra

Sometimes leaders are born. Sometimes leaders are made. And sometimes they are a little bit of both. As we have seen previously in the book of Ezra, earlier groups already had returned from Babylon to Jerusalem. They rebuilt the temple and reinstated worship, the sacrificial system and the Jewish holy days. However, there is a gap of silence of more than 50 years between the end of Ezra 6 and the beginning of chapter 7, where Ezra first appears on the scene.

The first verses of Ezra 7 establish Ezra as a direct descendant of Aaron, Moses’ brother, the chief priest. Although the ancestry here is representative rather than complete, this priestly lineage uniquely qualified him as a leader in the return from exile to Jerusalem, where his ministry brought spiritual renewal to the Jewish people.

“The hand of the Lord his God was on him” (v. 6), and so Ezra found favor with a religiously tolerant Persian government. In fact, King Artaxerxes not only permitted him to return to Jerusalem, but also provided generously for his journey and for his community’s observance of their faith practices. And so, together with other Israelite priests, Levites, musicians, gatekeepers and temple servants, Ezra undertook the 900-mile journey to Jerusalem in 458 B.C.

In the heat of the summer, it would have been an enormously difficult task to lead a group of about 6,000 people (an estimate based on the number of families mentioned in Ezra 8) over such a great distance. We have seen from the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt that God’s people have a tendency toward complaining and unfaithfulness during a long journey. In this crucible, we see the greatness of Ezra’s leadership.

Useful in service to God

Ezra’s leadership was both born and made. Ezra’s leadership clearly is attributed to the hand of God upon his life (vv. 6, 9). Yet Scripture also attributes his leadership to his faithfulness to study, obey and teach God’s word (v. 10). While not all of us aspire to Ezra’s leadership status, we all want to be useful in the service of God’s kingdom.

In this way, Ezra provides an example for each of us to follow. Are we committed to learning God’s word through faithful study and reflection? Can we apply God’s word to our lives in a way that we obediently can do what it says? And do we have the preparation and courage to teach God’s word to others? By studying, obeying and teaching God’s word, we can put ourselves into the best position to utilize the gifts and talents God has given us to make a significant impact in the kingdom of God.

Although Joseph Kennedy did not live up to his own political aspirations, under his tutelage his son, John F. Kennedy, eventually would make it to the highest office in the land. JFK made a name for himself as president of the United States during an extremely tumultuous time in American history, with major challenges on both foreign and domestic fronts.

America found itself at one of the key turning points of the Cold War in the Cuban Missile Crisis. While John F. Kennedy had inherited the Kennedy name, his wisdom and execution allowed him to avert a worldwide crisis—war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

‘Not to utter words, but to live by them’

Like Ezra, John F. Kennedy was a leader who was both born and made. Ezra met with success as a leader because “the gracious hand of his God was on him” (v. 9), and because Ezra devoted himself to not only study God’s word, but also to obey it and to teach it to others. James instructs all believers to do likewise, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22). John F. Kennedy captures this leadership quality of Ezra as he declared, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Like the Kennedys, Ezra is a figure who forever will be known as a great leader. Although the book of Ezra transitions abruptly into Nehemiah, the legacy of Ezra looms large in Jewish tradition. Ancient rabbinic teachings even claim Ezra would have been worthy of receiving the Torah if Moses had not come before him. He is worthy of imitation.

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). Ezra not only studied God’s word, but also put it into practice, and his leadership changed the future of God’s people in Jerusalem.

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