Ezra the Scribe

This Ezra went up from Babylon: and he was a ready scribe in the law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given; and the king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the LORD his God upon him (Ezra 7:6).

Ezra proves to be a pivotal person in the history of Israel.

Ezra is a priest descended from Aaron through Zadok (cf. Ezra 7:1-5), but that is not touted as his claim to fame. Instead, it is his role as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” which is prominently featured in his career (Ezra 7:6). He devoted his life to studying the Law of the LORD so that he could teach it to his fellow Israelites (Ezra 7:10); it was for this purpose that Artaxerxes king of Persia sent him to Jerusalem (cf. Ezra 7:11-28). The community of returned exiles recognizes this authority granted to Ezra and proves willing to change their behavior on account of his teachings and pleadings (cf. Ezra 9:1-10:44). The Israelites are listening to and heeding the message of the Law of Moses as read and taught by Ezra the scribe (cf. also Nehemiah 8:1-8). What is astounding is that such is the first recorded instance of such behavior since the days of Joshua; Ezra is the first person described in the Old Testament as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses.” How can that be?

Does this mean that there were no scribes skilled in the Law of Moses before Ezra? This is unlikely; there probably were some such scribes in Israel before the exile. For whatever reason they did not gain sufficient prominence to be noted in the text. They also were likely in the minority; even though God commanded the Levites to continually read the Law before the kings of the land (Deuteronomy 17:18-20) and before all the people at the Feast of Booths every seven years (Deuteronomy 31:10-13), the prophets condemned the priests for their negligence in teaching the people (e.g. Hosea 4:4-10). If priests were reading the Law, it certainly was not being reflected in the behavior of the kings or the people!

Perhaps because the Law was not being read as it should, or perhaps for other reasons, the prophets feature prominently in the days between Joshua and Ezra. God speaks directly to the kings and to the people through the prophets; the prophets were held in somewhat high esteem even though the people often did not heed their messages. God spoke through the prophets throughout the days of the kings, through the exile, and even after some of the people returned to the land. But even then there is a difference: certain questions are put aside until a priest should arrive with Urim and Thummim (cf. Ezra 2:63). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah exhort the people to finish the (second) Temple in 520 BCE; Malachi prophesies to the people at some point afterward. Otherwise we have no other recorded messages from any prophets at this time; by the second century BCE there is admission that there are no prophets in the land.

Ezra stands at this major juncture in Israelite history. The hand of the LORD is upon him in his diligence in studying the Law of Moses to teach the people. He is often reckoned to be the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles and Ezra; if he himself did not write them, someone very much like him or associated with him did. As such, he is one of the final “prophets” of the Old Testament period, yet one whose authority is vested in his understanding and explanation of the Law of Moses. From this point on the prophets fade; in their place come the lawyers and the scribes. Such figures feature prominently in the Gospels; Jesus chides and condemns them for their hypocrisy, their arrogance, and their inconsistencies, but never denigrates the profession itself or considers it unnecessary or unworthy (cf. Matthew 23:1-35). In fact, Jesus and the Apostles validate the role of the text and its interpreters; they are filled with the Holy Spirit, can prophesy, and yet their arguments and discussions throughout are based on texts and the proper interpretation of those texts. Consider any of the messages of the prophets by the “word of the LORD” compared to, say, Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:14-36, or even Paul in Acts 17:16-32. Texts and their interpretation feature much more prominently than they did during the days of the kings.

Ezra’s example should provide us with encouragement today. We also live during a time when there is no prophet in the land (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10). We have not been granted new revelation since the end of the first century, and we have no reason to expect any new revelation until the Lord returns (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Jude 1:3). Yet, as with Israel in the fifth century BCE, so with us today: it is not as if God has left us without guidance or a way forward. We have the revelations regarding God and His purposes for mankind in the Bible; we can set our hearts to seek to know the will of God as revealed through Jesus Christ and His Apostles (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16-17). We do not need a prophet to tell us the will of God for us today; we have that will already revealed in the Scriptures. It has been sufficient, is sufficient, and will continue to be sufficient to equip God’s people to conform to the image of Jesus to the glory and honor of God the Father until Jesus returns in triumph. It is for us to learn from the Good Book and seek to live what it says.

It is good to learn the message of the Bible, to seek to properly interpret it, and then put it into practice in life. Let us, like Ezra, set our hearts to understand the will of God, always seeking His wisdom and guidance, so that the hand of God may be upon us for good and that we may live so as to give glory to His name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Letter and the Spirit

Not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory (2 Corinthians 3:6b-9).

One of the marvels of Paul’s writings is the way he is able to powerfully construct his arguments, and those skills are on display as he writes to the Corinthians. 2 Corinthians seems to indicate that the Corinthians are being influenced by a group of Jewish believers who are attempting to discredit Paul. Having declared that the Corinthians themselves are living “letters of Christ,” sufficient testimony in and of themselves of the work that Paul does in the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:1-3), and that Paul would not dream of imagining that he is sufficient of himself, but that his sufficiency is in God through Christ (2 Corinthians 3:4-6b), he then moves on to show the insufficiencies and challenges of the basis of the arguments of the “Judaizers.” It is something he will do as well in the Roman and Galatian letters; it is a hallmark of Paul’s theology and writings. In 2 Corinthians 3:6c-11, he makes this argument with contrasting images: the letter (of stone) and the (ministry of the) Spirit.

He has been leading up to this argument in what he has written before. He has already spoken of the Corinthians as a letter written not with ink or on tablets of stone but with the Spirit on their hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3). The argument is also introduced on the basis of Paul having been made competent by God to be a minister of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6a). Everything that follows is an explanation of this idea. What does Paul mean that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life?

The contrast Paul has in mind is between the two covenants: the covenant between God and Israel as indicated in the Law of Moses, and the covenant between God and all mankind through Jesus Christ. The covenant between God and Israel is described as the “ministry of death, carved in letters of stone,” a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:7, 9). Paul makes reference to Moses’ face which shone with the reflected glory of being in the presence of the glory of God (2 Corinthians 3:7; cf. Exodus 34:29-34). He compares that reflected glory with the full glory of God as made evident in the ministry of the Spirit, deemed the “ministry of righteousness,” indicating how much more superior the new is to the old (2 Corinthians 3:7-11). The glory of the new covenant in the Spirit is so superior, in fact, that the glory of the old covenant is now no glory at all, for it is brought to an end, whereas the new is permanent (2 Corinthians 3:7-11).

This is strong language indeed! How can Paul speak of God’s revelation to Israel as death and condemnation? Is this not impious?

Whereas the language is stronger, the substantive message is not much different than what can be found in Romans 7:1-25 and really throughout Romans 1-8. The Law of Moses is the ministry of death and condemnation not because the law itself had some flaw or was wrong; the Law is the ministry of death and condemnation because it declares what is right and wrong and fixes rewards and penalties. If one were to follow the Law perfectly, doing the right and avoiding the wrong, the Law would not condemn. Yet, as Paul has made evident in Romans 3:23, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; therefore, the Law can only declare them to be transgressors. Thus, no one can be justified by works of the law (Romans 3:20). No one– no Jewish person, no Gentile, no one then, no one now– can make the Law their confidence and put their trust in it to be justified. Instead, then as now, we must place our confidence in God who can forgive our transgressions (cf. Galatians 3:11).

The Law, therefore, by declaring right from wrong, exposes our sinfulness. But it, by itself, cannot save or rescue from that sinfulness. Hence, it is a ministry of death and condemnation. It did have its reflected glory, but as a reflection is never as excellent as the reality, neither can the reflected glory be seen as superior or even equal to the actual glory of God in Christ revealed through the Spirit!

The new covenant is described in terms of the ministry of the Spirit. The Spirit is said to give life and to be righteousness (2 Corinthians 3:6, 9). But what does this mean?

Much violence has been done to this passage by people who have taken it out of its context and have distorted it to serve their own ends. It is imagined that the contrast in the passage is between what is written down in Scripture with the promptings of the Spirit, and therefore this passage is cited to justify why sometimes we can ignore the “details” of Scripture in the name of following the Spirit. Thus, any time that a person takes issue with what Scripture has said at one point or another, he or she thinks that on the basis of 2 Corinthians 3 they can subvert that message by claiming the promptings of the Spirit, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”

Paul is not making that kind of contrast, and people who make such an argument are missing part of the delicious irony of the passage. Paul is communicating a message about how the “letter kills” but the “Spirit gives life” by writing it down on papyrus with ink and sending it to believers. Paul is not contrasting what is written from what comes from the Spirit; he would argue that the Spirit has directed what has been written (2 Timothy 3:16-17)!

Paul is contrasting covenants, not the Bible and the Spirit. The new covenant in Christ is superior and of greater glory because the prominent feature of the covenant is not a cold law code that just calls out balls and strikes (right behavior and wrong behavior). Instead, the new covenant features the work of the promised Immanuel, God with us in Christ Jesus, our following after Him and our quest to be conformed to His image (cf. 1 John 2:3-6, Romans 8:29). The Spirit has declared this message through the Apostles; we have the recording of that message in the New Testament. The Spirit places emphasis on manifesting the qualities of the fruit that bears His name and has His role in the sanctification of the believer (Galatians 5:17-24, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Peter 1:2). However the Spirit may work with the believer, we can be sure that He is not going to contradict Himself; He is not going to abandon the message He directed the Apostles and their associates to declare and write (1 John 4:1-6)!

The new covenant provides the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ; the old covenant declared sin. Thus, the ministry of the Spirit in the proclamation of the new covenant provides life; the ministry of the Law of Moses declared death. The letters written on the stone tablets were cold and unfeeling; the Spirit provides the message of eternal life through Jesus and our trust in Him to be the Lord and Shepherd of our souls. Thus Paul speaks rightly, declaring that the letter of the old Law kills, but the Spirit in the revelation of the new covenant gives life. Let us praise God for the hope of life through Jesus, seeking to be conformed to His image, thankful for the revelation of the Spirit and His work with mankind!

Ethan R. Longhenry