The leadership style of Ezra
Ezra was a scribe. We often think of scribes as those working behind the scenes in dusty, dimly lit rooms, diligently copying and recopying ancient manuscripts. However, Ezra was more than that. After all, he does have a book of the Bible named after him. What made Ezra so special? Even though he was a scribe, he also stood tall as a great leader of God’s people during a critical period in their history—when Judah was in Babylonian captivity, with their nation, city, and temple in ruins. This period would also become one of their most glorious because, through the intervention of God, they were given the opportunity to return home and rebuild their nation, city, and temple. It would be hard work. The people would be required to make great sacrifices in finances, abilities, and resources. And most importantly, the rebuilding would take faith! Such times require leaders of faith. Ezra proved to be such a leader.
Israel, both before and during their captivity, had neglected God and forgotten the importance of obedience to God. They needed someone to remind them of God and to return to His ways. They needed to learn how to accomplish God’s will for their lives. They needed a determined leader who would lead them back to His will and worship in order that when God lifted the captivity, they would know this redeeming God and be ready to build a new life out of the ruins of Jerusalem. Such a leader was Ezra.
“Now Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the LORD , obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10) .1 Four words here describe Ezra as a man of action; “deter-mined,” “study,” “obey,” and “teach.” These four words describe what Ezra did with God’s Law; as a scribe, he had worked closely with the Scriptures throughout his life. He knew his Bible well, and he understood its importance, especially when trying to lead God’s people.
One who studied God’s law
Let’s begin our study with the second word, “study.” Ezra was determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord. The Hebrew word translated “study” carries the idea of “going some-where frequently or regularly.” It is descriptive of searching for something and similar to what Paul encouraged Timothy to do: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker that does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, NIV). Christian leaders need to study the Bible time and time again and approach it habitually. They need to sift through it, asking questions and finding answers. Without that intimate knowledge of God’s Word, one cannot possibly know the law of the Lord or appreciate the way of Christ. If we do not know the way, how can we lead other people?
One who obeyed the law
Another word used to describe Ezra’s serious understanding of the Word of God is that he “obeyed” the law of the Lord. From Eden to Eden restored, one of the basic and central expectations of God from His people is obedience to His Word. It means “to do” or “to accomplish” God’s will, fulfilling that which has been asked or commanded.
Speaking to disobedient King Saul, the prophet Samuel chided him, “ ‘Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD?’ ” (1 Sam. 15:22, MEV). Samuel answered his own question: “To obey is better than sacrifice” (v. 22). One reason why God prefers obedience to sacrifice is that the former is the response of the heart, and the latter can be accomplished by money. For a person of means, “to sacrifice” might not be much of a sacrifice; he can purchase that sacrifice. Consider the widow and her two mites. She gave all that she had, and the Lord took note of her giving and called it a true and acceptable sacrifice. Rich people normally do not give all that they have. However, when it comes to obedience, God expects everyone to make the same commitment to His law; that is, to strive to joyfully and completely fulfill all that He expects.
Obedience means to follow God’s way by following His laws. For the Christian, it is not only about reaching our destination but also about doing it the right way. How you go about reaching your goal not only means arriving at your destination but also includes how you follow the rules of the road while you are on your way. After all, you will still live with the circumstances of what you do even if you make it home. If you are driving a car, you can reach your destination even if you speed; but if you get a ticket for speeding, you must pay the price for it. God wants everyone to get to heaven— but on His terms.
One who taught the law
A third word that describes the relationship of Ezra to the law is that he was committed to “teach” the law. In other words, Ezra, as a leader, found that one of the principal duties in spiritual leadership is a willingness to teach the law to his people. Jesus encouraged His disciples to “ ‘know the truth’ ” and experience its liberating force (John 8:32). One way the truth leads us to be free is when we share its beauty and legitimacy with others. And if we know the truth, we are also responsible for sharing it with others. The Hebrew word translated “teach” used in this verse in Ezra comes from a primitive root that means “to goad.” A farmer would lead his cattle by goading them; that is, by prodding them with a pointed stick. This rod supplied the incentive for the cattle to learn from the farmer. Similarly, the Christian teacher needs to goad, or motivate, his or her flock and urge them to follow Christ. We certainly should not poke them with a sharp stick, but we should be ready to instruct, correct, and rebuke them from the Bible with kindness, humility, and love.
Unfortunately, most Christian leaders try to start with the third of these action words that describe Ezra and his leadership. They want to start with teaching without first studying and obeying God’s Word. But if a leader personally does not study the Bible or follow God’s will, how can he or she then teach others? How can we teach the law to others without first experiencing its blessings and truth ourselves, leading not only by words but by example? If we have studied God’s Word and obeyed it—and there-fore know it is real—how can we not keep it ourselves?
One of determination
The most important action words concerning Ezra and his leadership is the first one mentioned in the Ezra passage. Ezra 7:10 begins with the affirmation that God’s chosen leader “had determined in his heart.” Other translations render this word as “devoted” or “prepared his heart.” Regardless of how the word is rendered, the idea is to give oneself wholeheartedly to an endeavor such as leadership and, thus, to be “determined.”
This Christian idea of determination is like the devotion of a person who has so much faith in God and His Word that the person’s faith is set in concrete and cannot be changed. Because Ezra was devoted, he was firmly established in his faith concerning the truth of God’s law and fully committed to following God’s way. In so doing, he could lead others along the same path. Ezra was determined to help Israel get back to the land of promise, away from the land of bondage. Ezra’s determination was Israel’s motivation. Ezra was determined to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. Ezra’s determination inspired God’s people to attempt the incredible and achieve the impossible.
Today, Christian leaders need to have this same kind of determination. We see such determination in Jesus: “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51, NIV). Whatever happened in His ministry—His teachings, miracles, rejections, betrayals—His mind was set to reach Jerusalem. The Cross was the distant milepost He should reach. Although He would encounter different people and problems and have opportunities to preach, teach, and heal, Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem. Even though He knew full well that He was going to His own crucifixion and death, Jesus made a straight course to Jerusalem.
And Jesus expects His followers to have the same determination and follow and serve Him. Luke speaks of a few who had given Jesus excuses when He asked them to follow Him. Jesus finally said, “ ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God’ ” (Luke 9:62, NIV). If we are going to plow a field, we have to look forward in order to plow a straight line. If we look back, our furrow will be crooked. If a person chooses to follow Jesus, he must keep his eyes on Christ so that he will leave behind a straight path.
Ezra set an example for his people to follow. He was determined. He was given to the study of God’s Word. He was a disciple of obedience. He taught God’s Word and His way to His people. Can our ministry be like that of Ezra?
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1 Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture verses in this article are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.