What Reformation Looked Like in the OT Church: Family Heads and Officers

Posted by R. Fowler White

Since we’ve just completed our 2020 remembrance of Reformation Day, it’s timely to reflect on what reformation looked like when it came to the OT church in Nehemiah’s and Ezra’s day. Having looked at reformation’s effect on the people as a whole in Nehemiah 8, we should also consider its effect on family heads and church officers. Here we’re focused on those who were husbands and fathers, chief stewards of households (including stewards of God’s church), required to be holy as He is holy and to expend themselves for the good of those in their charge and care. So, when reformation came to the OT church, what was the evidence and fruit of its impact on family heads and officers?

Look first at two observations about family heads. The text tells us that they took the initiative to seek out the teaching ministry available to them. According to 8:13, these chief stewards came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. Public worship in congregation had reemerged as a non-negotiable (8:1-12). Yet public worship was only the beginning of their stewardship of their families’ discipleship. We’re told here that these family heads sought opportunities to be taught in addition to public gatherings for worship. The family heads were also obedient to what they were taught. As narrated in 8:14-18, they did what they had found written in the Law that the LORD had commanded. Note that, when they were directed to celebrate the Festival of Booths, they went out and built those booths and lived in them, each on their roofs and in their courts (8:16). We underestimate the significance of this activity unless we recognize that these family heads took the knowledge of Scripture that they had gained and spread it throughout the families in their clans. We may even say that Neh 8:14-18 is a picture of Deut 6:6-8 being lived out as a key means to and fruit of reformation among them: whether sitting, walking, lying down, or getting up, families rehearsed among themselves what God required of them.[i]

Consider also what church officers did when reformation came to the OT church. We remind ourselves that the priests and the Levites, along with Ezra and Nehemiah, were models of what the people should become, namely, a holy nation of priests. So, what happened among OT church officers when reformation took place? In general, the officers applied their abilities to the congregation’s need for teaching. We read how Ezra, Nehemiah, and the 13 Levites who stood on the podium with Ezra helped the people to understand the Law. In addition, those officers kept watch over the congregation’s response to the teaching ministry. Notice two details in Nehemiah 8. First, the officers discipled the congregation to do what God required. In 8:9, we read of how Nehemiah … and Ezra … and the Levites [spoke] to all the people. In 8:13, we’re told that the priests and the Levites were with the family heads, and together they all came to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law. In other words, the officers came alongside the family heads for Bible study. Second, the officers consoled the people in their repentance. When reformation came to the people, they trembled at God’s warnings, suffered deep sorrow for their sins, and determined to turn away from their sins—and the officers knew all this. Seeing the people’s repentance, the officers spoke “words of assurance of pardon” to them (8:10-11): Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. And so the Levites calmed all the people (8:11). They reminded the people of the truth expressed in Neh 9:17, You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.

When reformation came to the OT church, family heads took the lead to seek out teaching, and they were obedient to what they were taught. Church officers applied their abilities to the congregation’s need for teaching, discipling them to do what God required and keeping watch over their response to that teaching. In this light, we have to ask ourselves, has reformation come to our congregations? We who have entered publicly into solemn covenant with God and His church have testified that God has begun a good work of reformation in us. As we read the story of Nehemiah and Ezra, we’re again constrained to ask if we, as officers, family heads, and members of God’s church, see evidence and fruit of His reforming work in us and among us. In the days of Nehemiah and Ezra, the OT church saw that evidence and fruit. Do we?

[i][i] D. Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale OT Commentaries, 1979), 108.