What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: The People as a Whole

Posted by R. Fowler White

When reformation comes to the congregations of God’s church, what does that reformation look like? To put it differently, when God renews and revives His church, what does that renewal and revival look like? Would we recognize it if it happened in our congregations? Would you recognize it if it happened in your family? In you personally? Historically, we think of the Reformation in the 16th century. We think of an extraordinary sovereign work of God through His King according to His Word to His own glory, manifested in increased holiness and decreased worldliness in thought, word, and deed among God’s church and usually in increased civic righteousness (restraint of evil) among non-Christians through increased fear of God in their hearts. So, what will reformation look like if and when God brings it to us today? As a framework for answering that question, let’s consider what reformation looked like when it came to the OT church in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s day. We can analyze what happened from various valid angles, so consider first what the people as a whole did when reformation came to the OT church.

They took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture. Strikingly, we are not told that Ezra summoned the people. Instead we’re told (8:1) that on the 1st day of the 7th month, all the people (almost 50,000) gathered as one man. We’re told (8:4) that the people made the wood platform from which Ezra read Scripture, the Book of the Law of Moses. We’re told (8:13) that on the 2nd day of the 7th month, the family heads came together to Ezra. The people took the initiative. And then what? They submitted themselves to be discipled under their leaders. The people told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book (8:1). The people remained in their places as the Levites helped them to understand (8:7), and the family heads came together to Ezra to study and to find out what God required of them (8:13-14).

Having taken this initiative, the congregation’s discipleship produced certain fruit. They were united. Notice how many times throughout this passage we’re told that “all the people” or words to that effect did this or that. No fewer than 10 times, the solidarity of the people is highlighted (8:1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 17). They were also zealous, eager, passionate, hungry, thirsty for God and His will as revealed in Scripture (8:2, 3, 7, 12, 13, 16). They were worshipful too (8:6, 17-18). We read more about this in Neh 9, where the people confess their own sins and also the iniquities of their fathers. But notice in Neh 8 that they wept over their sins as they heard the words of the Law read and taught (8:9). The people were so exercised by the conviction of their sins that the leaders, especially the Levites, had to calm all the people down (8:10, 11). Having turned from their sins, the people also celebrated their God (8:6). They were instructed to celebrate, and they did it (8:10, 12). And how did they celebrate? Just as God had prescribed: they kept the Festival of Booths, the Festival of Ingathering, signifying their identity as pilgrims living in temporary housing with God their Provider but anticipating their permanent home with Him in the Garden Land (8:13-17). Representing faithful pilgrims from all nations, this Festival testified to the congregation of God’s presence with them on the way to the beauty and bounty of a restored Eden, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence, and they rejoiced in God and delighted in His presence.

When reformation came to the OT church, the congregation took the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture; they submitted to discipleship under their leaders’ stewardship; they were united, zealous, and worshipful disciples of their Lord; they wept over their sins; they celebrated their God. Having just celebrated another Reformation Day, let’s ask: are we seeing congregations taking the initiative to learn God’s will as revealed in Scripture? Have we and our fellow members submitted ourselves to be discipled under the stewardship of our leaders? Are we united, zealous, and worshipful as Christ’s disciples? Do we weep over our sins? Do we worship our God as He prescribes? This is what reformation looked like in the OT church when God brought it to the congregation as a whole. Next, God willing, we’ll consider what family heads and officers did.