There is a design that goes beyond our own design. Although our church does have a theme for each year, we try to tap into the overall design and purpose of God rather than just focus on our own immediate concerns. We are trying to plug ourselves into God's overall will for us here and in the world.
For example, we know God has put us here to train others in the discipling ministry even though many will not stay here long term. We are satisfied with God using us in His overall kingdom building. Nehemiah was like this. He had a kingdom building concept. He was willing to travel far away and sacrifice his wealth and security for a lonely group of people far from his home. It was not easy for him as an outsider getting involved in this distant community. I want you to think of Nehemiah as a faithful man of God who managed his household well. He excelled at what he did. In my understanding he was, though no verses testify to this specifically, a figure of Christ who would straighten out God's household. Acts 3:21 speak of Christ in this way,
"Jesus, the Christ ...Whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time."
Nehemiah was sent to fix up or restore the city of Jerusalem. No doubt there was a greater mission implied, the establishing of God's reign in the city of Jerusalem. Christ was sent from the Father to prepare the heavenly Jerusalem. Christ's work was done in such a way that it would last forever. Revelation 21:1-4 says,
"And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away."
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We will see the same thoroughness in Nehemiah's work and service. God is interested in building His kingdom on earth. He wants to build it through us. We typically lack this vision He has for us. We are concerned that the children get a good education and job. This is of course good. But sometimes we lack the devotion to develop godly families. We only give them enough dose of church through Sunday School hoping they don't get into trouble and get a good education and a good job. We just want to get by comfortably. God sent Jesus into the world to bring us one big step further. He wanted us to get eternal life, a life known for its enduring as well as its righteous character. He has called us to join Him in His kingdom building work. Application Let me ask you. Are you thinking about what God wants to do in your life or mostly focusing on what you want in life?
God often uses people and situations, good or bad, to shape us. He wants us to be more effective and blessed. He wants us to be blessed so that we can pass these blessings on to others. This generation generally has no moral backbone and therefore lacks these blessings. Our desires and emotions lead us rather than biblical principles. We live by convenience not properness. We might not be deliberately being disobedient but just out of lack of concern or zealousness, we tend to go by our circumstances. But when you think of it, pressures on our lives really bring greater blessing than lack of pressure. I use a bread machine at home quite regularly. It is I the bread maker that decides which ingredients are going to go into the pot. I force them to mix with the aid of the machine. Because I mix certain things in the mix, I can predict the outcome. Of course I need to pay special attention to the balance of ingredients. But there is also the pressure of the pan, time and heat. I want a certain result so I go after a certain controllable environment to bring this result about.
Christian living is better described as Christian discipleship. The word disciple is closely related to discipline. There is the life of constraints that develop a greater likeness like our Master in our lifestyle and talk. But today's generation is repulsed from these constraints. They live in the premise that freedom and happiness comes from doing what they desire not the desire of another. Many of us probably believe that 'freedom of choice' is a right of life.
We read earlier of a great revival. But times have gone on when we reach this last chapter of Nehemiah. In Nehemiah 13 we find Nehemiah returning after a long absence. I think everyone had appreciated what Nehemiah had done for the people. God was greatly working in their midst during this time. They got back control of the city. They built up the defense walls. They actually ruled the city. The priesthood was restored to its proper roles. The people were taught God's Word and began to carry out commands that were long hidden in antiquity.
They were a people of shame and misery and later became a people that had much to celebrate. But when Nehemiah returned, we find that he discovered that they as a people were already making serious compromises to their faith. Yes, one could look at it as a freedom of choice. They had their own lives to live. But Nehemiah saw these individual improper choices as ones that greatly impacted the whole community. Nehemiah came on very strong restoring things back to normal. We see a zealousness, almost a madness, in making things normal. I think of Jesus in the temple ripping up the money changer tables when I see Nehemiah here.
What are we to learn from this chapter? I think we are to see that Nehemiah's return visit was a sign of God's grace. It was pressure. It was difficult. One could even use the word 'force.' But God was trying to bring back what was good in their lives. If we are immature, we will not easily accept these restoration projects planned from the outside in our lives. We will revolt over them. But really, we need God's work of discipline in our lives to preserve what is good. Otherwise we will fall into great sin and decay as Nehemiah warned the people in 13:26,
"Did not Solomon king of Israel sin regarding these things? Yet among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless the foreign women caused even him to sin."
Four times the words 'Remember me" are used in this chapter. Each time they capture the difficult and unpleasant time it was for Nehemiah to be that pressure that God used to help rescue the people. Each "Remember" prayer brought him to God asking to bring His divine grace into an otherwise very unpleasant task. I want you to join with me in training ourselves to look at these four shaping events as positive ones where God was encouraging the people to choose the best rather than tolerating the worst. We will naturally resist this shaping but it is best for us. God our Father is the model parent who brings the best into His childrens' lives even though it is difficult.
We firstly find that there had been a compromise among individuals that impacted the whole temple worship. It started as a small kind gesture. The high priest, Eliashib, was appointed in charge over the chambers of the house of God. They were used for storage of grain offerings, frankincense, utensils, tithes of grain, wine and oil for the Levites, singers and the gatekeepers. Now it just so happened that there was a very influential person named Tobiah who was related to Eliashib and who somehow got permission to stay in one of these very large storage rooms.
All of a sudden, you have this big guy move into the storage room and make it his home! He has the best of foods, wine, oil and utensils. It is like a rat having his home in a corn silo. What do you think would happen to all those volunteer offerings once this news was heard? If you knew your volunteer offerings would go into a storage room managed by a very powerful man other than God had appointed, you would have very little trust in your offerings to be well used. You would only give so that your conscience only squeaked a little.
This of course brought further decay to the temple service. Nehemiah had done a lot of restoration in temple worship including Levites, priests, gatekeepers and singers. He restored their livelihood which depended wholly on the tithes of the people. We shouldn't be surprised that the whole system broke down because the Levites and others were not getting their portion of the tithe. They had to return to the field to care for their families. It says that Nehemiah first noted that Tobiah had taken a room by permission of the high priest and then noted the broken down priestly system. We do not know if Tobiah had planned for the collapse of the priestly system or whether he was just greedy for food and power, in this case the two were closely connected. It doesn't really matter except that sin in the house of God will always cause the breakdown of worship. Compromise with the allocation of space and resources of what belongs to God will result in the disturbance of our worship and service.
Nehemiah was incensed. He was probably wondering why no one else did anything about it. He went and threw Tobiah and his things out. He then gave an order to clean the rooms and to restore them to their proper usage. Having done this, he restored the tithing system and again posted the Levites, singers, etc. back to their original places. Furthermore, to assure corruption didn't again occur, he appointed others, representatives of different groups, to be in charge of the storerooms and distribution of tithes. Eliashib lost his appointment. Eliashib was still related to Tobiah. After Nehemiah returned home, he saw that a thorough change was needed. The system worked okay; God commanded it. The problem is that compromise of a principle hurt the whole area of worship and service.
Application it is hard for any church to stand up to a leader who has compromised. But if we have done wrong, please, it is your duty to bring it before the elders. The compromise was only for one room, but it affected the whole service. Financial matters are always touchy. It is not legalistic to go by legal laws. Legalism is the manipulation of laws to get what a person wants. We must be very careful to go by the principles revealed in God's Word. Compromises always hurt. Obedience preserves what is good. Nehemiah knew it was very difficult to step against this Tobiah who happened to be related to most of the influential people in the city. But he did what was right and all profited from it.
Verses 13:15-22 mentions the second event in which Nehemiah brought the pressure upon the community where it was acting unfaithful. Each area exposed was an area of disobedience. In this case was a general secularization of the sabbath. The Jews were not to do any work, buying or trading on the sabbath. For the Jew the sabbath was from Friday evening to Saturday evening. In verse 15 we find numerous violations listed.
Treading wine presses
Gathering and delivery of grain, wine, gapes, figs and other things.
Selling of the foods and because of this buying foods.
Because of their own weaknesses, outsiders came from Tyre and other places to sell their select goods in Jerusalem. They not only came to Judah to do this but also to Jerusalem itself (16). Nobody wanted to miss out on the imported fish brought from the sea.
Again, we can look at Nehemiah who rebuked them and shut the gates on the sabbath as a legalist. It looked like he was only caring for certain laws. I am sure there were sick people who could benefit from certain goods being sold in the market. They had not freezers and refrigerators. But Nehemiah lived by the fear of God; this is different from the spirit of the manipulating legalist. Notice his reprimand in verse 18,
"Did not your fathers do the same so that our God brought on us, and on this city, all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath."
If it merely is the doing of one thing against the preference of others, then we see that it doesn't really matter. We can say everyone should have the freedom of choice. You don't have to buy anything on the sabbath. But if others want to, should they not be able? Nehemiah knew the issue was a spiritual issue. God was in on this deal. God's wrath was on them because of their sin. They have an example of their fathers and all the trouble they had because of their sin.
Nehemiah's prayer again reminds us of the difficulty he had in confronting this issue. It was not easy for him to face those that were making money on the sabbath. It was not easy to convince the people not to buy fresh food on the sabbath. He needed God's great compassion and love in his heart to do these things rightly.
I believe the truest sense of the sabbath has been fulfilled by those who have believed in Christ. We have entered the final rest of Christ. Our lives depend on Christ not our good works. But there is the temptation to live for this world. There is the temptation to strive for excellence for yourself rather than for God. Along the way you will face the decisions that will cut into your time with God. Will you join in the frivolous partying of the world or maintain that closeness with God. This age is now a rest where we excel in kingdom building. We do it at home and in our personal lives. We do it at work and with our neighbors. We are concerned for God's kingdom and passing on His great love.
The third confrontation has to do with the decay of the family. Nehemiah again came on strong. He did it not just because there was a law on the books but because obedience to that law affected the way God would deal with them as a people. The biggest problem is that many of us live our lives as if God is not really there. So God's instructions are important but not that important. For example, we can say that it is wrong for a Christian to marry a non-Christian from this verse or later on in the NT. II Cor 6:14-18 says,
"Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, "I WILL DWELL IN THEM AND WALK AMONG THEM; AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. "Therefore, COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE," says the Lord. "AND DO NOT TOUCH WHAT IS UNCLEAN; And I will welcome you. "And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me," Says the Lord Almighty."
Now you might take this commandment seriously until you meet up with this delightful person at work. After a bit of sharing, you see yourselves as possible marriage mates. You the Christian is hoping that one day you will find that the other person is a Christian. Or you think, "If not, he or she is such good person that this person would accept Christ if he knew a bit more." In fact, the compromise has already happened because you have shared many things with that person but not your clear witness to Christ. You didn't want to offend the person. I suppose we just do not realize how much God is displeased at our willingness to consider marriage with non-believers. God really is concerned for our welfare.
Nehemiah's great zeal comes out as we see him contending with these parents, cursing them, striking some of them and even pulling out their hair. Lastly he made them swear that they will not give their children in marriage to, in this case, non-Jews. The reason is again clear that he is not just a vicious Law keeper of the laws that he had set up. Not at all. He knew the welfare of the people depended on the protection of their faith. Once we are tolerant for another faith in our family, then our faith is compromised. We will not be part of kingdom building if our family is divided. Much anguish will come from such marriages.
Application There is the direct warning for us not to marry an unbeliever. I would go a step further in spirit with this teaching and say that we should find mates who have a common heart and vision that you have. Some people get married on the other side of the baptism tank. Yes, we can be happy that they were baptized so you can marry them. But we should be very careful for we know not of the real heart of this one under these circumstances.
I also would encourage the parents to be like Nehemiah a bit more. I do not man that we should go hitting non-Christians that might come home with our older children, but that we should exercise more authority as parents in whom our children see or not. If your child dates a non-Christian, then why should you permit it? She likes him. She might say it is nothing until one day she elopes and off she goes. It is clear that God expects us to guide our children through the process of finding a mate. You no doubt are like me in having heard and seen many wreckless marriages. I will also challenge you young people. Many of your parents are upstairs. They do not hear what I am saying. But I challenge you out of your faithfulness to God and to His design for you, don't' even contemplate a dating relationship with a non-Christian. Even a great king like Solomon was rebuked terribly because of this sin.
Lastly in verse 30-31 we find the fourth event where Nehemiah restored everything to its design. I marvel at Nehemiah's faithfulness in not leaving any stone upturned. He made sure everything was working right. He had the priests purified. He made sure everyone was doing his job. He made sure there would be wood for the sacrifices. If I had a nice ball of bread being mixed, would I mind if someone dropped one small drop of poison in it? I wouldn't eat a bite of it. The other day I banged a bottle on a corelle bowl. It splattered into small fragments. We had to throw some dishes of food away. Why? Well, we thought we got all the pieces out, but we couldn't be sure.
There is a price of impurity no matter where it is in our lives. We might think it as inconsequential, but it is not. I Peter 4:17 says,
"For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?"
We are wise if we have the discipline to work through each area of our lives searching for God to cleanse us, not just from the stain of sin but also from its presence in our hearts. We will need to change the way we live, talk and make decisions. Psalm 139:23-24 says,
"Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way."
Every sinful way is a hurtful way. We often do not have the willpower to make those decisive needful changes in our lives. This reminds me of the man whose limb was caught under a tree. His choice was simple. Being out in the woods by himself. Either he would sever the limb and go to rescue or die a slow death. He cut his way to freedom.
We need to understand the kingdom building vision that the Lord wants us to share with Him. We have been taught to compromise and tolerate sin. This makes us ineffective. We do not use this word compromise because it is too guilt laden. We use the word choices and freedom to do what we want. However, we often have not really thought through the cost of our decisions. Because we have compromised in different areas of our lives, our faithful Father in heaven will through different means like Nehemiah challenge us to do what is right. Maybe He will make us move. Maybe He will do this through a loss of job. Maybe he will do it by shutting the gates. Close up your opportunities. Maybe He will do it by contending with you and even striking you. Maybe He will do it by changing those things around you.
God, if He is your father, pledges to discipline us for your good. If we see God like Nehemiah, we should know that it is not just that God is angry because you have violated His principles of life, but that the consequences of doing it on you and others will be disastrous. He wants you to turn to His loving truth. He wants you to trust Him rather than get bitter.
But He wants something more I believe. As I look at this people, I found that they started going back to their evil ways after Nehemiah left. I would wish that we would bring God's truth right inside our hearts. We can act immaturely all our lives with a strike here and there. But God's intent is that you grow up. Growing up as a Christian means that you take His truth an treasure it within your heart. So even if your circumstances change, you move home, you wrestle with difficult decisions, you will be faithful.
I think of my son, Daniel, who is now wearing a cast around his broken leg. He needed the support for six weeks so that his bone could heal properly. This protected him from extra pain as well as guided the healing process. But are we going to keep him in the cast all his life? It will protect his leg. It makes his leg stronger. Anyone who gets banged by his cast knows what I mean. The muscle gets weak when he doesn't use his leg. God wants us to treasure His principles - like the bone. So that at the proper time we can have real healing and take off that cast.
You might have got upset with the way Nehemiah pushed himself into the life of the Israelite community. But if we take an honest look, the things that were worth keeping were the very things he protected, built up and guarded. Many people are living in a spirit of despair. They have no hope. They don't believe there is anything better than just moping around. God's desire is that we become Kingdom builders.
Biblical Foundations for Freedom