Recently we have been working our way through the books of Ezra and Nehemiah during our family worship time. Something that has really stuck out to us is how these two Old Testament books illustrate what the New Testament consistently speaks of regarding the church. These books record two of the returns of the people of Israel from captivity to Jerusalem. In Ezra they are working at rebuilding the temple and in Nehemiah they were rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. By way of illustration and application of principles there are many elements that parallel the work of the ministry in the local church.
The work of the Lord is truly accomplished because His people are focused in on His Word. This is most obviously seen in the ministry of Ezra: For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel (Ezra 7:10). The work of the Lord never truly goes forward without this focus. It may seem to be flourishing or growing, but if the Word is not central in that supposed flourishing and growth it is a mirage that will not last in eternity.
The work of the Lord is inseparable from prayer. When Nehemiah heard of the disrepair of Jerusalem the first thing He did was pray (Nehemiah 1:6, 11) and throughout the book Nehemiah is praying. When he was facing a powerful king and needed his favor to carry out God’s work Nehemiah prayed (Nehemiah 2:4). The work of the Lord in and through the church is also inseparable from prayer. The example of the early church was that they were continually devoted to prayer (Acts 2:42).
The work of the Lord is furthered by godly leadership. There is an unmistakable role that godly leadership had with the people of Israel rebuilding the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. Ezra directed their attention to the Word. Nehemiah was a man of prayer and was burdened to see God’s work accomplished. The prophets encouraged and exhorted the people to restart the temple rebuilding (Ezra 5:1). Their leadership in these areas was essential for God to be glorified as the work went forward. How does this parallel with the church? God has ordained that local assembles have a plurality of elders who are to fill the role of this godly leadership (Acts 14:23; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Hebrews 13:17). One of the most important things that a godly membership at a local church can do is pray for their leadership to be growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ so that they might genuinely lead the church forward in the work of the Lord. I know that the elders at TBC covet your daily prayers.
The work of the Lord requires all of God’s people to take part. There could be many places to turn in these books to see that it was all of God’s people working together to see the work of God accomplished, but there is a chapter that strikingly illustrates this. At first it may seem like a chapter that is good to skim to get to “the good stuff.” But if we do that with any of the Bible we will be missing out on a God ordained point. Among other things, Nehemiah 3 drives this point home: The work of the Lord requires all of God’s people to take part. Why do I say that? Well, read the chapter with that in mind and it will be unmistakable. There are at least 14 groups of people and 32 individuals that are specifically referenced as doing the work of the Lord. One person is zealously doing the work of the Lord (Nehemiah 3:20). Several times is refers to individuals repairing the wall of Jerusalem that is right in front of their home. One group is specifically said to repair more than one section (Nehemiah 3:27). Much more could be said, but do you see the point? God’s people were seeing His work furthered because among other things they were working together. Back in Ezra 3:1 it speaks of them working together as “one man.” Clearly preserving the unity of the Spirit is aided by an on mission people of God serving together. Does the New Testament teach this as well? Certainly, the classic text on this is found in Ephesians 4.
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Do you see how doing the work of the ministry is linked with becoming mature in Christ? This kind of unified on mission growth as a church is essential to our individual sanctification and to the magnification of God’s glory among us.
The work of the Lord is carried out in the context of a sin cursed world. That is obvious given the fact that the reason the temple and the walls had to be rebuilt was because of the sins of Israel before the time of captivity (See 2 Chronicles 36). But it is also evident within the books themselves. In other words, right when the people of God were carryout out the work of the ministry they still had to deal with their sin in the midst of this: For example, intermarriage with the nations (Ezra 9) and usury of one another (Nehemiah 5). There is no doubt that the work of the Lord in the local church is carried out in the context of a sin cursed world. Not only is there sin around us, but there is sin in us (Romans 7:18; Galatians 5:16-17). And yet, God amazingly still carries forth His purposes in and through us as we respond to His Spirit’s conviction, repent, and pursue transformation.
The work of the Lord is often hindered and challenged by opposition. Just read through Ezra and Nehemiah and it will not take long to notice that there were adversaries. My copy of the Scriptures has this heading over chapter 4 of Ezra: “Adversaries Hinder the Work.” In fact, in Ezra 4:17-24 the work is stopped and not resumed until later as recorded in Ezra 5:1ff. In Nehemiah 4 we learn of more opposition. There it was ridicule and intimidation. I have come to expect that whenever God is doing something for His glory Satan is going to be doing everything He can to detract from the glory of God in the church. Part of the price to pay as an on mission church is that Satan is aware and concerned that God’s work might advance. Stay focused on the things of the world as a church and Satan will be glad to see the church undue itself. Focused on the things of God? Opposition will come, but so will the remarkable privilege and awareness of God’s power at work in you.
Many things are different from the times of Ezra and Nehemiah and our times in the church age, but there are many parallels. We still fight the flesh and Satanic opposition. We still desperately need to be Word centered and dependent upon God through prayer. Godly leadership and unified ministry from God’s people are still essential for the work of the ministry to go forward. And most importantly we still have the same God who delights in enabling His people to find their greatest good in His own glory as they live for Him rather than this world. And yet, there is something that we have that outdoes anything that the Israelites of Ezra and Nehemiah’s day had: We have the full revelation of God’s plan of redemption. We now know in full color who that temple was pointing forward to. We now can worship God anywhere and everywhere in fullness because we have the Spirit of God indwelling us. No longer do God’s people pray toward Jerusalem they pray anywhere and everywhere in the name of Jesus by the power of the Spirit who indwells them. May we as the church see God pour out His blessing on us as we His people seek to further the work of God here in and through The Bible Church.