by Al Maxey
Issue #755 -------
September 18, 2018
Learned men are the cisterns of
knowledge, not the fountainheads.
James Northcote [1746-1831]
William Penn (1644-1718), an English nobleman, author, philosopher, and noted Quaker, who is credited with founding the colonial province of Pennsylvania, observed, "There is something nearer to us than Scriptures, to wit, the Word in the heart from which all Scriptures come." While some might wish to take exception to this perception of inspiration, as it pertains to the sacred writings of our Judeo-Christian heritage (citing 2 Timothy 3:16 as a "proof-text," to which one could then counter with James 1:21), Penn is nevertheless quite right, in my view, to emphasize the human element in the production and proclamation of God's message to mankind. We may even go further by suggesting that mankind's understanding of that divine message may well be facilitated, at least in part, by God-appointed, Spirit-led, and Jesus-focused human guides. Some argue that there is no need or place for such persons; that we each have the ability within us to fully grasp the intent of the Scriptures without the aid of others. After all, they will declare, "Scripture says what it means, and means what it says." Thus, they reason, why risk muddling the message by inserting mere men into the equation as "mediators of interpretation" between Mind and minds?
To provide a bit of background for what follows, this current reflective study was somewhat motivated by a recent exchange I had on Facebook with an individual from Texas. The topic of discussion was hermeneutics: how do we approach the Scriptures, and is there an accepted methodology for understanding the eternal truths our God seeks to impart to us ... and is CENI (with the "law of silence" and the "law of expediency" thrown in for good measure) that preferred (i.e., "divinely decreed") methodology, as some insist? Further, what role, if any, do admittedly fallible men play in this interpretive process? In other words, if men are naturally prone to error (as we all are), why should we place trust in any one man, or group of men, to interpret the sacred writings for us?! Would we not be placing our trust in a flawed person or group, not to mention that he/they might also be using a flawed process (hermeneutic)? These are serious questions. They are also valid questions, and they were raised, in somewhat different wording, in my discussion with the above mentioned individual from Texas. He wrote, "A thought: when we read about the Law being read by the priest or by the elders, we don't read where they interpreted it or dissected it or correlated it, they simply read it to the people, who in turn were supposed to apply it as they heard it. This was later done in the synagogues as well. The problem, which Jesus alludes to, is when a class of people took the raw law as it was and refined it and made rules from the rules for the rest of the people. Is it possible that our habit of topical studies and tearing apart and reassembling of scriptures to derive a point has done more damage than good for unity in the Kingdom? We have looked past the point - Jesus the Savior - and focused on the points that we highlight, and then we use these select points against one another." This brother went on to point out that religious leaders, even at their best, are still very flawed and fallible people, thus it could be potentially dangerous, spiritually speaking, to place full trust in their interpretations. He wrote, "We need to know that we are fallible and can be mistaken, even when we believe we are correct. My father was a preacher, but many times he was a better preacher than he was a Christian."
I find myself in almost total agreement with what this brother is stating (I'll note the exception in a moment). It is a very perceptive statement, and he has most certainly identified some of the key factors in both the breakdown of unity within the Body of Christ and the gross lack of understanding of some of the central truths our Lord has long sought to convey to His people. It is most certainly one of the failings of human nature in general that far too many people give far too much weight to their own perceptions, even to the point of wanting to impose them upon others as equivalent to divine precepts, and punishing those who dare to differ with them. It is this that, in great part, has led over the centuries to the rise of endless warring sects and factions, each of which are thoroughly convinced that they, and they alone, are correct in all matters pertaining to the understanding and application of Ultimate Truth, and that they are commissioned by God Himself to "deal with" those who don't eagerly embrace their personal and/or party perceptions, preferences, precepts, patterns and practices. The reality is: none of us have it "all figured out." Each of us, if the truth were to be shown (and one day it will), are most likely wrong more often than we are right with respect to our understanding and application of eternal truths and principles. So it is the height of sectarian arrogance for any person or group to regard themselves, and present themselves to those around them, as THE "one true" embodiment and representation of TRUTH. Such party pride is pathetic, and, frankly, far too prevalent. For any group of disciples to declare themselves to be the "ONLY One True Church" (which I saw a Church of Christ congregation assert on their Facebook page yesterday) is a disgusting denominational display unworthy of the Name they profess to represent. In truth, all they really display is pathological pride.
So, yes. What the brother from Texas wrote does indeed address a reality of the religious landscape that many either don't see, or won't see. There most certainly is, and always has been, "a class of people" who search the sacred writings seeking to discover rules and regulations which, if followed scrupulously (they avow), may merit the divine favor. And, of course, those patterns and precepts they have inferred by their "infallible insight" are then deemed the very terms and conditions of fellowship and salvation, and must be imposed on all others, with those who differ being shunned and shamed as "godless apostates." In their search of Scripture for the way to truth and life, they failed to discern the Way, the Truth, and the Life that these very Scriptures sought to reveal to them. They were looking for LAW, and in so doing failed to see the LORD. Their quest for a "right" religion blinded them to the righteous Redeemer. Their hermeneutic failed them, for it was designed to guide them in finding a pattern, rather than finding the PERSON of our Lord Jesus, who said to these misguided religionists, "You search the Scriptures, because you think that IN THEM you have eternal life; yet it is these that bear witness OF ME; and you are unwilling to come TO ME, that you may have life" (John 5:39-40). Our Lord's most scathing rebukes were leveled at such legalists and religious patternists. He called them hypocritical, pretentious, blind guides and white-washed tombs full of corruption; gnat-straining, camel-swallowing sons of hell (Matthew 23), and declared that they were transgressors of God's eternal truths due to their love for their own traditions, which caused them to worship the Lord in vain, "teaching as doctrines the precepts of men" (Matthew 15:3-9). There have always been such "guides" and "interpreters," and we should indeed take care not to give any theological weight to their understandings and pontifications. The brother from Texas rightly identifies this legitimate concern, and I applaud his insight. Jesus had little use, and even less patience, for such people, and neither should we!
The basic expectation of the Creator for His creation, and particularly for mankind, is really rather simple: to be receptors and reflectors of His own nature in their daily interactions with the world and its inhabitants. "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God ... for God is love!" (1 John 4:7-8). "God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world" (1 John 4:16-17). When asked what God wanted of us, Jesus simply stated: Love God; love each other!! The apostle Paul even went so far as to say that loving God and one another was the fulfillment of ALL law (Romans 13:8-10). It is the "royal law," declares the brother of our Lord (James 2:8), and he notes that if one is following it, "you are doing well." It is exactly what God is looking for. Men tend to emphasize religion, with its many ceremonies and rituals, which they insist must be performed precisely "according to the pattern" (although they can't seem to agree on just what that pattern actually is). God, on the other hand, is not all that concerned with religion and its inevitable religiosity; rather, He is desirous of an intimate relationship with His people, one in which love is evidenced in all aspects of that relationship with Him and the people around us. When love truly abides within us, we will be more just, fair, compassionate, merciful, kind, patient, etc. "Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? ... He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:7-8).
The message of God to mankind is really very simple. Even Jesus stated, "My yoke is easy, and My load is light" (Matthew 11:30). At the close of the first century, the aged apostle John, with decades of personal experience, emphatically declared, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3). Jesus said there were only TWO -- Love HIM, and love THEM. Yet, this is a challenge that will consume the remainder of your days on this earth!! His load is light, but it will prove to be one of the hardest things you have ever done ... and, you will never live long enough to do it perfectly in every case. We will always fall short. For these challenges to our faith and resolve, God has provided instruction in His written revelation, and a "flesh and blood" example in the person of Jesus (divine love with skin on), and Spirit-filled human guides to help us when we are confused and conflicted as we face these daily challenges. Yes, these men and women are flawed; yes, they too are challenged, and they too have faltered and failed at times. That, in fact, is part of what makes them adept at the task for which they have been called. They've been there; they know what we are facing. The best counselor and guide is the one who has struggled with, and even been battered by, the very things with which the people before him/her are struggling. No life-guide is perfect; if one thinks he/she is, then that person is thereby unfit for the task. God has called imperfect men to guide imperfect men, but He has provided the Holy Spirit as the LIGHT to lead the way in these interactions with one another. When we let HIM lead, the path will become clear; when we elevate ourselves to this position, we typically end up (as do those we seek to guide) on some alternate path that takes us farther from our desired destination.
The point I'm trying to make is this: God's expectations are not complicated. It is summed up in the word LOVE. Living life as a reflection of His nature, however, when our own natures too frequently seek to assert themselves, can lead to great discouragement and even despair. It is at times like these (and they occur daily) that we need guidance, both from above and from our fellow life-travelers. I firmly believe our loving God has provided such guides throughout human history, the greatest of which, of course, is Jesus Himself -- "He the great Example is, and Pattern for me" [taken from the hymn "Where He Leads I'll Follow," written by William A. Ogden in 1885]. Yes, I understand, as some will quickly interject at this point, that the Scriptures themselves provide such guidance as well. That is very true. It is also true that these sacred writings can at times be very difficult to understand. Even the apostle Peter stated that in the writings of "our beloved brother Paul," there "are some things hard to understand" (2 Peter 3:15-16). There is much in these writings that deals with the application of the divine principles pertaining to the precept "Love God and Love One Another," and these, for various reasons, can be, at times, confusing to the uninformed or spiritually immature. Thus, guides are vital as we each grow in our understanding and application of these guiding principles. This requires a degree of perception on the part of the one doing the guiding, which I believe comes from the leading of the Holy Spirit. This guide (minister, priest, apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, shepherd, disciple, etc.) must do more than just read the Scriptures, he must also do a fair amount of explaining of what is being read. It is here that one's hermeneutic comes into play, and the importance of this approach cannot be stressed enough (I have dealt with this in great depth in my writings over the years, and these may be found on my web site).
It is at this point, therefore, that I would disagree somewhat with the following statement by this brother from Texas, who wrote: "When we read about the Law being read by the priest or by the elders, we don't read where they interpreted it or dissected it or correlated it, they simply read it to the people, who in turn were supposed to apply it as they heard it." This sounds too much like: "It says what it means, and means what it says." That may sound good, but it is far too simplistic. If this were true, then Peter should not have had any difficulty with what Paul had written in his letters. Right? And what about the case of the eunuch from Ethiopia? When Philip encountered him, this man was in his chariot reading from the prophet Isaiah (Acts 8:28). So, Philip asked him, "Do you understand what you are reading?" (vs. 30). The eunuch replied, "Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?" (vs. 31). Philip became that Spirit-led guide, "and beginning from this Scripture he preached JESUS to him!" (vs. 35). Philip didn't try to impose various religious rituals and rules and regulations on this man. He didn't talk about "the music issue," or fellowship halls and kitchens, or Sunday Schools and Children's Homes. He preached JESUS -- the very thing Jesus sought to emphasize to the religionists in John 5:39-40, who were searching the Scriptures and missing Jesus. The point of this example, however, as it pertains to this present study, is that the eunuch was indeed reading the Scriptures, but he needed guidance in understanding what he was reading. God provided that guidance in the form of another mere man; flawed, yes, but a bit further along in his spiritual maturity and understanding. And this God-provided, Spirit-guided man did indeed "interpret" the Scriptures for this seeker who was having difficulty in his grasp of the text. No matter how many times the eunuch read and reread the text, he just wasn't "getting it." He needed help.
Just reading the Scriptures isn't always enough. Sometimes it is; but often it is not. There are times when we all need help, and God provides that help; many times this takes the form of fellow disciples who are farther down the road of spiritual enlightenment. Are they perfect? No; not even close. But they may be perfect at that moment for the task of helping another in that particular circumstance. I can't help but think of the Old Testament example of Ezra as he returned to Jerusalem with the Torah after the end of the Babylonian captivity. I really believe it addresses the various aspects of this discussion very well. So, let's consider it a bit more closely in light of the above concerns and considerations.
Ezra is introduced to us as "a scribe skilled in the law of Moses" (Ezra 7:6), and also a priest, as well as a scribe, "learned in the words of the commandments of the Lord and His statutes to Israel" (Ezra 7:11; cf. vs. 12, 21). He was a direct descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses (Ezra 7:1-5). "In Jewish tradition Ezra was uniformly described as a 'scribe' who was especially versed in the Torah," who also "held a high position in the administration of the royal court" of Artaxerxes [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 264]. There has long been a question among scholars as to whether this was Artaxerxes I Longimanus (465-424 B.C.) or Artaxerxes II Mnemon (404-358 B.C.). If it was under the former he served, then his return to Jerusalem from the land of captivity would have been in the year 458 B.C. If, however, he served under the latter, then his return to Jerusalem would have been in the year 398 B.C. This is a fairly significant difference (60 years) historically, but one that does not really bear greatly on the truths and principles conveyed in the events we'll be examining. Most scholars, by the way, accept the year 458 B.C. as the most likely time of Ezra's return to Jerusalem. Upon Ezra's return, he saw the deplorable spiritual state the Israelites were in, and he instituted some major reforms, chief among them the demand that the people put away their foreign wives (Ezra 9-10). This is an extremely difficult and controversial action, and I have dealt with it in some depth in Reflections #85: "The Mixed Marriages of Israel and the Painful Reforms of Ezra." Therefore, we won't get into it here. It appears that Ezra may have returned to the court of Artaxerxes for about a dozen years or so after this, and that he returned again to Jerusalem with Nehemiah around the year 444 B.C. It was soon after this that the events under consideration in this Reflections occurred.
Although there are many traditions associated with Ezra, he is perhaps best remembered as a brilliant textual scholar and prominent postexilic leader of the people of Israel. "Ezra was representative of those in Babylonia whose concern was for the nation's sacred heritage and writings. He was a diligent student of the law, a leading figure in the new order of scribes which had grown up during the Exile. ... He demonstrated outstanding leadership qualities, unbounded energy, and intense faith. ... However, Ezra's supreme work lay in his abilities as teacher, historian, critic, and linguist. ... He gave determination and stubbornness to Judaism which made it able to resist the inroads of Hellenism. He was passionate and emotional, but always exhibited strong faith in God. ... As a religious leader, Ezra has a unique place in Jewish tradition, being often described as the true founder of Judaism, the second founder of the Jewish State, or the founder of the Great Synagogue. His work in renewing the spiritual power and vitality of Israel was indeed significant" [Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 584]. "Ezra's greatest contribution was his teaching, establishing, and implementing 'the book of the law of the Lord' among the Jews. Ezra evidenced strong theology. He believed in the sovereignty of God. ... He believed in the sacredness and practicality of the Scriptures; he read them to his people and insisted that their teachings be carried out. He was a person of prayer. He was a preacher: he used a pulpit (Nehemiah 8:4); he publicly read the Scriptures; and he helped to interpret them to his congregation. The value of the contributions of Ezra to the Jews is immeasurable. What he did probably saved them from disintegration. His efforts helped guarantee the ethnic and theological continuance of the descendants of Abraham. He might not have been the father of Judaism, but he contributed greatly to saving the Jews' identity as a people of God" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 466].
According to a good many scholars, "Ezra's story reaches its climax in Nehemiah 8-10" [ibid]. There is clearly much in these three chapters from which we would all benefit greatly by studying more fully. However, that is beyond the scope of this present study. Our chief concern here is the example he and his fellow spiritual leaders provide us in the reading and exposition and interpretation of Scripture. Did he simply suggest they all go "read it for yourselves; after all, it says what it means, and means what it says"? Is that what he did? Or, did he take the time to expound upon what was read so that the people could grasp the intent of the writings? Did he serve as a guide? The answer is provided in Nehemiah 8, and this will be our text for the remainder of this study (specifically verses 8 and 13).
The people of Israel, who had long been in captivity in Babylon, had returned to their homeland in several groups. The rebuilding of the temple, and the repair of the wall around Jerusalem, were huge building projects that involved a great deal of time and effort, nor were they effected without some degree of struggle and opposition. There were also reforms that were needed (we've already mentioned the mixed marriages). One of the problems was that there was little knowledge among the people as to the will of God ... or even the Word of God (the sacred writings). The spiritual side of their heritage had been largely ignored for far too long. It was time (indeed, past time) for this to change, and even the people had come to realize this (at least a great many of them). So, at the beginning of the seventh month, which was an occasion of a great feast (the Feast of Trumpets), "all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel" (Nehemiah 8:1). "It is remarkable that the people ask for instruction. ... they have a yearning after it. They are not contented with their existing condition, but desire better things, and they have an instinctive feeling that to hear God's Word will help them" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 7 - Nehemiah, p. 80]. Their eagerness to hear and learn can't help but bring a smile to the heart and lips of every pastor! Just imagine the joy this must have brought to Ezra. The above source characterizes this as "one of the most affecting scenes depicted in Holy Writ" [ibid, p. 85]. How awesome it is to behold people who truly WANT to hear God's message! "Ezra, at the request of the congregation, read to the assembled people out of the book of the law" [Drs. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 3, part 3, p. 227]. "The public reading of the Scriptures was required by the law to be made every seventh year; but during the long period of the captivity this excellent practice, with many others, had fallen into neglect, till revived on this occasion. That there was a strong and general desire among the returned exiles in Jerusalem to hear the Word of God read to them indicates a greatly improved tone of religious feeling" [Drs. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 349].
It should also not go without notice that this assembly of God's people was not gender exclusive (something not always true in Judaism, nor in Christianity, for that matter). "Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women, and all who could listen with understanding" (Nehemiah 8:2). If one was capable of grasping the message they were welcome to be a part of the gathering. Those who truly perceive the nature and will of God the Father know that He loves His daughters just as much as His sons! He always has (even though religionists, both ancient and modern, both Jewish and Christian, have not always reflected that understanding, acceptance and love). The point is made again in the text in the very next verse: "And Ezra read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand, and all the people were attentive to the book of the law" (vs. 3). Not only was it amazing that the people were the ones who requested the words of God be read to them, but they also stayed in place for approximately six hours (from first light until midday). Such was the hunger and thirst for God's Word: it could not quickly be satisfied. "They hungered for the bread of life; they craved to hear the word of the living God. And when their wish was granted, they showed themselves in real earnest, for they remained six hours eagerly listening as the law was read and expounded ... 'and all the people were attentive'" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 7 - Nehemiah, p. 85].
"And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose. ... And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people" (Nehemiah 8:4-5, KJV). Although the word "pulpit" is used by the KJV translators, it was not the same type of structure that many of us might think of today. The Hebrew word used here is "migdal," which generally signifies an elevated platform strong enough to hold several people (and we know from the text that there were 13 or 14 additional people on the "pulpit" with Ezra, half on one side and half on the other). We today might refer to this as a "stage." Nevertheless, it was an elevated place from which one could speak to an assembled crowd, a concept still conveyed to most of us by the word "pulpit." Outside a religious setting, such words as "dais," "podium," or "lectern" might be used. When we hear the word "pulpit," however, we tend to think of that location/structure within a church building from where, and behind which, "the preacher preaches" to the assembled "people packing the pews." Hopefully, the message coming from "the persons/parsons in the pulpit" (the "pulpiteer") is drawn from God's Word, and thus is more a message from HIM than THEM. Tragically, that is not always the case. It was on that day long ago, however. It was the law of God the people wanted, and it was the law of God that was delivered. As for the Levites on the platform with Ezra (most texts set the number at 13, although in 1 Esdras the number is given as 14, with the name Azariah being added), they not only provided visible moral support for what Ezra was doing, but may also have served the practical purpose of aiding Ezra in the reading of the law of God (after all, six hours is a long Scripture reading; also verse 8 says "they read from the book"). It is further thought by some scholars (based on the statement in verse 7 that some "explaining of the law to the people" was being made) that these men may have been providing some "running commentary" in some fashion during this time.
This brings us to, and provides the context for, Nehemiah 8:8, which is the text I really want us to consider. "They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read" (NIV). We will notice a few different English versions of this verse in a moment, as there is some scholarly disagreement involved in how best to render the passage, but first notice the way in which the Septuagint phrases this: "They read in the book of the law of God, and Esdras taught and instructed them distinctly in the knowledge of the Lord, and the people understood the law in the reading" [The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English, Hendrickson Publishers, p. 641]. This is the English text provided alongside the Greek text in this edition, and it reflects accurately the fact that two words are used to depict something more than a mere reading is taking place here. Those words are "taught" and "instructed." The first is the Greek term "didasko," which means "to teach or speak in a public assembly; to admonish" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised, p. 98]. The second term is "diastello," which means "to state or explain distinctly and accurately; to admonish, direct, charge, command; to separate and distinguish" [ibid, p. 95]. This completely refutes the view that was expressed by the reader from Texas, who wrote: "When we read about the Law being read by the priest or by the elders, we don't read where they interpreted it or dissected it or correlated it, they simply read it to the people, who in turn were supposed to apply it as they heard it." Yet, the words employed in the Septuagint indicate that they did indeed "separate, distinguish, explain and admonish," all a part of the interpretive process, so that understanding could ensue among the people; an understanding that would not have resulted from a mere reading alone which would have left the people to "get it" as best they could all on their own. Let's notice a few other English translations of the Hebrew text of Nehemiah 8:8 (the NIV has already been provided above):
As all these renderings are examined and compared, a view of what must have occurred that day becomes clear. Ezra, and those who were on the platform assisting him, read from the Scriptures clearly and distinctly ... there may well have been some translating of certain words or phrases ... there was explaining of the text: interpreting the meaning ... there was a responsible expounding of the intent of the text so that the people could not only grasp the message, but grasp the necessary application as well. In short, this was a beautiful example of expository preaching. May we even boldly suggest: an example of "team preaching"?! Matthew Henry (1662-1714) made this astute observation: "Reading is good, and preaching good, but expounding brings the reading and the preaching together, and thus makes the reading all the more intelligible and the preaching all the more convincing" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. Adam Clarke (1760-1832) suggested the same: "As we nowhere find that what is called 'preaching on' or 'expounding' a text was ever in use before that period, we are probably beholden to the Babylonish Captivity for producing, in the hand of Divine Providence, a custom the most excellent and beneficial ever introduced among men" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 782]. He went on to note that "this was the ancient method of expounding the Word of God among the Jews; and this mode is still more necessary for us" ... for it "provides a mental taste and perception of the things which were in the reading: i.e., the letter and the spirit of the text" [ibid]. "That is the right kind of religious service, when the Word of God is read and explained" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: the OT, vol. 1, p. 774].
After this lengthy reading and exposition, we are told that "Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people" (Nehemiah 8:9), urged the people to enjoy this holy day; to eat and drink, and not be grieved. They were the children of God, and this was a cause of great JOY. "Then all the people went away to eat and drink, ... and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them" (Nehemiah 8:12). We are then informed that on the following day, the second day of the month, "the heads of fathers' households of all the people, the priests and the Levites were gathered to Ezra the scribe that they might gain insight into the words of the law" (Nehemiah 8:13, NASB). Again, notice a few other renderings of that final phrase:
Here we find the leaders of the people of God showing that extra measure of desire for spiritual instruction that they might gain even greater spiritual insight into God's Word. "They desired to be further and more deeply instructed in the law by Ezra" [Drs. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 3, part 3, p. 233]. An alternate reading, according to a footnote provided by Adam Clarke, is: "that they might instruct in the words of the law" [Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 781]. Dr. John Gill (1690-1771) concurs: "Heads of tribes and families, priests and Levites, who, though they were instructors of others, needed to be taught themselves, of which they were sensible: and therefore came unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law; some things in it, which, upon reading the day before, they observed had some difficulty in them, and which they did not clearly and thoroughly understand; and therefore applied to Ezra, a ready scribe in the law, for better information, and that they might be better able to teach the people; which was highly commendable in them" [Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. Also in agreement is Matthew Henry (1662-1714): "The next day the chief of them came together again to hear Ezra expound, which they found more delightful and gainful than any worldly pleasure or profit whatsoever. ... Those that understand the Scriptures well will still be desirous to understand them better. Now, the priests and the Levites themselves came with the chief of the people to Ezra, that prince of expositors, to understand the words of the law, or, as it is in the margin, that they might instruct in the words of the law; they came to be taught themselves, that they might be qualified to teach others. ... being more sensible than ever of their own deficiencies and his excellencies, on the second day their humility set them at Ezra's feet, as learners of him. Those that would teach others must themselves receive instruction" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].
Let me conclude with this thought from The Pulpit Commentary: "There is as much need now as ever of the ministerial function. For though indeed we have the Word of God written in our own tongue, in our own homes, and under our own eyes, there remains, and will remain, the important function of expounding the sacred Word. There are words and sentences, chapters and books, 'hard to be understood;' there are now more things than there were then to harmonize; there is the connection between the two Testaments to explain; and there are heights which only some can climb, depths to which only a few can dig, treasures which only 'the ready scribe' can reach, and these it is well to bring forth that all may be enriched. The ministers of Christ, like Ezra and his companions on this eventful day, have a high and noble function!" [vol. 7 - Nehemiah, p. 86]. Let those of us who have been called to expound the Word consider carefully the exhortation of the apostle Paul as he gave this final charge, just prior to his martyrdom, to the young evangelist Timothy: "I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. ... Be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Timothy 4:1-2, 5).
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
I got into Christian apologetics about ten years ago at 19, while I was in the military, which is when I started reading your writings, and then had a bit of a falling away from my faith a couple of years ago after going through some stuff in college. I got into apologetics after struggling with the doctrine of hell, which is when I came across The Maxey-Thrasher Debate on the eternal destiny of the wicked, which actually influenced my soteriology quite a bit at that point in my life. You and I even emailed a little bit ten years ago because I was asking you questions about that stuff. After wrestling with my theology and philosophy for several years, learning a lot along the way, I ended up starting an apologetics club at my secular university to help other Christians with the same struggles I previously had. Anyway, after reading your latest Reflections I just wanted to write and let you know why I still like your thoughts, and why you're one of the only pastors I still enjoy reading! You seem much more humble and honest than most in your exegesis. When it comes to a particular verse or passage or interpretation that is complicated, confusing, or controversial, many pastors become vague in their delivery and/or act like they have a monopoly on the only "correct" interpretation or application. They act like they, and they alone, have all the answers, and a lot of people tend to believe them because they speak with such forceful conviction. You, however, don't even pretend that your exegesis is the only "sound" one and that everyone else is a fool. So, it is refreshing that you are willing to admit when a certain part of the Bible is confusing or controversial. You go deep into the theology, give alternative views (even when you know that by doing so people will call you a "heretic"), give deep insights connecting different parts of the Bible, and don't pretend to have certainty about stuff that you don't. You also seem sincerely sympathetic and aware of many of the struggles Christians deal with when they actually start to dig deep into the Word. Anyway, just wanted to let you know how I feel, and to tell you: Thanks for keeping the Bible interesting to me!!
From a Reader in Alabama:
Al, please send me your following studies on CD: "The New Covenant Church: Identity - History - Mission," and "A Study of 1st Corinthians: Christian Counsel for a Confused, Conflicted Church." My check is enclosed. Thank you so much for these studies!
From a New Reader in Kigali, Rwanda:
Brother Maxey, I would very much like to be added to your mailing list for Reflections. Thank you. God bless you so much!
From a Reader in Texas:
Thank you, Al, for being willing to take a look at and provide me an assessment of my article "A Paradigm Shift on Salvation." I was on the "baptism saves" side for a long time, until I realized that it wasn't about baptism, but JESUS. We in the Churches of Christ have put ourselves on a pathway to division with others in Christ on this regard. This is one of the things embraced in the book "Muscle and a Shovel" by Michael Shank; a view that has been embraced by many in Churches of Christ as to what makes one a "real" Christian. By the way, you can share this article with your readers if you want to, as I think we all need to be more Christ-centered. God bless you.
I have a copy of this article (in Word format, 23 pages) by this brother (Dwight Haas) that I would be happy to email to anyone who requests it. It is an interesting read, and one that will challenge you to do some thinking and study. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in North Carolina:
Al, I wanted you to know that I just finished reading your latest book "From Ruin to Resurrection." I really liked it. I have been talking about it with others for months (as I was reading it -- I'm a slow reader), and have been able to convince a few folks to rethink their views about the nature of man and the afterlife. I appreciate you, brother! Now, I need to pick up a copy of Edward Fudge's book "The Fire That Consumes."
From a Reader in California:
Dear Al, I find your title "The Nature of Man and His Eternal Destiny" very interesting, and would like to order this two CD collection of your materials on this topic. My check is enclosed to cover the cost of these CDs and the shipping. Thank you! I am also aware of a similar book "Hell: A Final Word" by Edward Fudge that I intend to read. There are also other books of a similar nature that I intend to pursue as time allows.
From an Author in Arizona:
Once again, I am just now getting around to reading your latest Reflections article "Satan's Solicitations of the Savior: A Reflective Study of the Temptations of Jesus" (Reflections #754). Days are just too short, and nights too long! Bless you, Al, for using a whole paragraph at the beginning of your "Readers' Reflections" section to mention me and my weekly column "Reformation Rumblings." As a result, I've received a number of new requests from people to be added to my mailing list. Thank you for that! Your remarks in your article on temptations are graciously received by yours truly. Yes, temptations are as much a part of this earthly life as anything we see and feel. They are a big part of Adam's Fall, and we are part of that Fall as well. Keep up the good writing, brother. Cheers in Jesus!
From a Reader in Mississippi:
Bro. Maxey, you've given us another good discussion in "Satan's Solicitations of the Savior." I believe the temptations of Jesus reveal our best weapon in fighting temptations: our relationship with God. The ease with which Jesus responded with Scripture shows more than memorization, but an intimate knowledge with God. I think we do great disservice to the Word when we see the Bible as something to be memorized so we "know the rules" instead of a personal revelation of God to us where we come to have an intimate conversation with Him. The more our faith draws us to God, the deeper our communion and conversations with God are (and the Bible is a conversation with God, one of many, if we are willing to listen to Him, that He has with us), and the more His Spirit guides us in the faith, and the more we answer with God's Word, not as a rulebook, but as a result of the conversation we have with God and He with us through the Word and through His Spirit.
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