A Call to Rebuild
Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
When we sense there is something God wants us to do, getting started can be the hardest part. This is especially the case when we’re rebuilding something that’s broken. In this passage, we see the actual work of rebuilding get started; so let’s rise and build together.
Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Derek Kidner
We’re still in recent memory of the New Year, and one of the reasons the New Year is powerful is because it marks a new beginning. Before it, we often may sense there are things in our lives we should change. But sometimes the hardest part of building something is getting started. Perhaps that’s especially the case when something is broken; there you have the added dimension of dealing with the brokenness. In the book of Nehemiah, which we’ve just begun studying on Sundays, we saw last week that rebuilding begins with prayer. This week, now, we’re going to see the actual work of rebuilding begin. And today, as we gather for worship again, we are beginning our own sort of rebuilding. So Let us rise up and rebuild, because the good hand of God is upon us. Let us rise up and rebuild in the face of opposition. And let us rise up and rebuild together.
Because the good hand of God is upon us
Our passage today begins with the story of Nehemiah’s interaction with King Artaxerxes. We’re told the month and year in which this occurred, and it is 4 months after Nehemiah began praying in chapter 1. There’s a word in there for us about not growing weary in prayer: You keep praying and faithfully living the life God assigned you; God will bring the opportunity. 4 months later God brought an opportunity to Nehemiah while Nehemiah was faithfully carrying out his role as cupbearer to the king. That means what it sounds like: He brought the guy his cup. That probably sounds like no big deal to us, but it meant he spent a lot of time with the king. By no means an equal, he was nonetheless close to the king. In this case he was close enough to the king that the king noticed he was distraught.
When the king noticed this, Nehemiah says in verse 2 he was very afraid. If you’re the cupbearer, your job isn’t to be all emotional around the king, so being spotted as distraught could have evoked the king’s wrath. Perhaps Nehemiah was also afraid because he realized this was his opportunity to request being sent to Judah to rebuild the city. That would have been a bold request, because years earlier, King Artaxerxes had actually issued an order forbidding the returned exiles from rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. Opponents of the rebuilding had told him that if the city were rebuilt, it would stop paying tribute to him. So Nehemiah will be essentially asking him to take that risk and reverse course by allowing him to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it.
Nonetheless, though he was very afraid, he speaks to the king and tells him the cause of his sorrow. The king then asks in verse 4 what he’s requesting, and Nehemiah prays to the God of heaven, verse 4 tells us. That’s interesting, right? Typically when you’re asked a question, you talk to the person who asked you the question. Here the king asks him a question, and instead of talking to the king, he talks to God. Why? Because Nehemiah knows for as powerful as the king is, there’s a king more powerful than he. For as high and exalted as this king is, there’s a God who sits above him in heaven, and so Nehemiah talks to that King before he talks to this mere mortal king. He then proceeds to make his request to go along with a request for supplies, and after some back and forth, Nehemiah summarizes in verse 8: “And the king granted me what I asked, for the good hand of my God was upon me.”
Now God is a spirit, so His hand is something different from our bodily hands. But as we do much of what we do with our hands, the hand of God is meant to indicate the power or activity of God. This was upon Nehemiah, only more specifically, it was the good hand of God upon him. There are other places in the Bible where we read that God’s hand was heavy upon a person or even upon a whole city. In other words, the hand of God was upon them for judgment. Here, however, the hand of God was upon Nehemiah for good. Nehemiah had prayed in chapter 1 for God to give him mercy in the sight of the king, and God answered his prayer by doing just that. The good hand of his God was upon him, and therefore he was able to rebuild. Though the king and his prior decision may have been a scary obstacle, this story shows us that it was no obstacle for the good hand of God.
And God has continued to keep His good hand upon His people to enable them to build. We have the benefit today not only of this story, but of thousands of years of church history, and even 5 years of our own history. I’ve just started my Bible-in-a-year plan again and my plan has me in Acts, and I was reminded of how the church in Acts was only 120 people from one ethnic group, but look at it today: 1 billion adherents spread across every inhabited continent. Citylight Center City was 40 people in 2015, and only about 15 of them are still here, but now it’s 102 people. 2020 was a hard year for churches everywhere: Meeting together is one of the most basic things we do, and we couldn’t do it for about half of 2020. The unity of churches was challenged by that, as well as by racial and political divisions that both became more visible and, in some cases, intensified in 2020. And yet we’re still here. The LORD has not taken His good hand from us, and it remains upon us today.
So let’s rise and rebuild. Let’s rebuild by gathering for worship again, addressing one another in song, praying together, hearing God’s Word together, and taking the Lord’s Supper together. Let’s rebuild by faithfully praying for one another. Let’s rebuild by caring for the poor and marginalized among us who are once again disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Let’s rebuild by dealing with racial and political divisions instead of ignoring them. That’s an area that 2020 didn’t so much break as expose. Race especially has been broken in this country since its founding, and Philadelphia is a case in point, not an exception. There are generations of pain and conflict there to rebuild from if Jesus’ church is going to be truly united across racial lines. Let’s rebuild by dealing with the sins this past year exposed by repenting ourselves and lovingly confronting one another when we see one another going astray. Let’s rebuild by getting the gospel back out into our neighborhoods where for many of our neighbors it hasn’t been heard in years, if ever.
Does that all seem impossible to you right now? A church gathering for worship, praying for and loving one another, caring for the poor, united across racial lines, holy in its conduct, actually speaking the words of the gospel to their neighbors? Kinda like it would seem impossible for a cupbearer to get a king to reverse his decision and run the risk of letting one of his subordinated cities rebuild itself? That’s what the good hand of God can do, and that good hand of God is still upon us. So let’s persist in prayer and be faithful in the role God has given us, trusting His good hand to open the opportunity for us to rebuild, as He did for Nehemiah.
In the face of opposition
Facing the king was a challenge of course, and a scary one. He had opposed the rebuilding efforts previously, but one of the ways God deals with opposition to His purposes is He changes the opponents. That’s what he does with Artaxerxes: He now goes from opponent of the rebuilding to ally. Nonetheless, sometimes the Lord allows the opposition to remain, and calls us to press on in the face of it, knowing His good hand is still upon us. That’s what we encounter next in the story. Nehemiah rolls up in verse 9 with letters from the king and an army. Nonetheless, there were two men in verse 10 who this displeased greatly: Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite. The thing that displeased them in particular was that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.
Now why would that bother them? Generations ago, the Jewish people lived in the land of Israel, of which Jerusalem is a part. However, they were conquered and forcibly exiled from their land over a period of a couple hundred years. During that time, the land, which now came to be known as the province Beyond the River, was resettled by non-Israelites, such as Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the Ammonite, two men we know from extrabiblical sources wielded a lot of power in the province at the time. So if you’ve become powerful and accumulated land because the people who used to live in that land were exiled, what don’t you want them doing? Coming back and rebuilding their cities. Thus, they oppose the rebuilding effort when they hear of it.
There is even some evidence that the Jewish people in the land were compromising with them. The next set of verses detail how Nehemiah secretly inspected the situation in Jerusalem, telling no one what he was doing, not even his fellow Jews. Knowing there is opposition from people in power, Nehemiah is being wise. But why not at least rally the Jews? It’s probably because he knew there was a risk that they would actually be more loyal to Sanballat and Tobiah than to him. We’re going to see later in the book that they were compromising their faithfulness. So there’s opposition from outside the community, but there’s also at least a tacit threat of opposition from within.
Nonetheless, once Nehemiah does his secret scouting work, he gathers the people and calls them to rebuild the wall in verse 17. Then he tells them about how the hand of God has been upon him for good, and about the king’s order for him. Having now heard that the God of heaven was with them, and even that the king had authorized this work, the people agree: Let us rise up and build, they say. And they strengthen their hands for the good work. So again, sometimes God changes people, but then immediately afterwards we see persistent opposition again. In verse 19 we read that they jeered at us and despised us and said, “What is this you are doing, are you rebelling against the king?” And then once again, because Nehemiah knows God’s hand is upon him, he’s able to say in response, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.” Sounds exclusive, right? But it’s important that Nehemiah actually clarify who is part of God’s people and who isn’t, and their claiming to be doesn’t make it so. If I tried to say I was part of amnesty international, but I came out in support of an immigration ban, they would appropriately say, “You have no portion with us.” It’s a big part of why we practice church membership today. In Nehemiah’s case, he’s saying it to say, “This is God’s land, and He intends for His people to dwell on it. You can’t stop us.”
Any time we try to rebuild, we will face similar kinds of opposition: From within, and from without. The opposition from within can often be the most discouraging. Have you ever had the experience where the Spirit really moves you to take a step of faith? You expect the world to oppose that, but how deflating is it when you tell other Christians and they oppose it? “Hey, I think I’m going to read through the whole Bible in 2021.” “Well, don’t become a legalist about it.” “Hey I’ve been thinking I want to try to share the gospel with my co-workers.” “Well, just don’t get pushy and judgmental.” “Hey, we should regather for worship.” “I don’t know; that sounds like a lot of work.” I’m thankful to report that I haven’t experienced much of that from you all, but if you do, don’t let it stop you. The good hand of God is upon you; let’s keep rebuilding even if we face opposition from within.
And we still face opposition from without. I know people today don’t like it when Christians in America claim to be persecuted. There are even Christians who say we shouldn’t say that, so opposition from within there too, and the idea is, “Hey look, how bad do Christians really have it in America? Go read Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, which is a history of Christian martyrdom, and then talk about how persecuted we are in America.” And there’s no doubt some truth to that, and some truth to the fact that Christianity has enjoyed a privileged place in America historically and to some extent still does. Nonetheless, mass slaughter at the hands of wicked tyrants isn’t the only form of persecution. In the Bible it’s not even the most common. Here’s what the opposition more often looks like, verse 19: They jeered at us and despised us. You’re telling me that doesn’t happen in America? I defy you to watch a few hours of stand-up comedy and see if evangelical Christians aren’t ridiculed at some point. Now some of that we’ve earned by doing and saying ridiculous things, sometimes the evangelicals they’re ridiculing are people we ourselves would never identify with, but some of it is ridicule for doing and saying things Jesus told us to say and do, and if you can’t see that, if you never feel that, it’s probably because you’ve actually compromised and assimilated into the world.
There is a god of this world who despises the God of heaven, and he will not stop opposing the building of God’s people, because he despises them too. He doesn’t want to give up his land. He will jeer us and despise us and accuse us as we rebuild. He wants you to believe, “Well that’ll never work,” he wants you to believe, “maybe this isn’t a good thing.” But if we are doing things God has clearly told us to do in His Word, let’s stand up to him and say, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build.” And finally, let’s rise up and rebuild together.
We didn’t read all of chapter 3, but it’s obviously valuable to read, because it goes into painstaking detail on how the rebuilding work got going. The painstaking detail is valuable because it shows us a few things: First, a diverse group of God’s people were involved in the rebuilding work. Remember Nehemiah asked the king to let him go to Jerusalem so he could rebuild the walls, but now when we read of the actual rebuilding, Nehemiah’s involved, but he’s more leading it than doing it. There are priests, goldsmiths, rulers, and so forth, each doing their part, often rebuilding the part near where they live. Second, each person has a unique role to play. They aren’t all doing the same things. Third, even though they’re each handling different tasks, they’re all working together on the same overall project.
Over this past year, I rejoice at all the ways I’ve seen a diverse group of people serve to sustain the building of this church. I’ve seen people learn how to operate video cameras, edit audio, lead Citygroups over Zoom, shift discipleship groups to Zoom, deliver meals with no contact, now pray for one another using an app, prepare and preach sermons for the first time, and more. We each have different gifts, but Ephesians tells us that the church grows to maturity when each part is working properly. As we rebuild toward gathering for worship again, praying for and loving one another, caring for the poor, uniting across racial lines, walking in holiness, and actually speaking the words of the gospel to our neighbors, that’s going to take each member of this church doing their part. It’s work that Michael and I are happy to lead as your pastors, but it’s all of our work to do. Are you on the sidelines right now? Are you watching the church work, perhaps even discontent with the product it’s delivering, or are you working with us? Why? You have a part to play, and the good hand of God is upon us.
And you know how we really know the good hand of God is upon us today? Because we have a better leader than Nehemiah. Our leader actually was in the form of the King, but He took on the form of a cupbearer. And in the form of a cupbearer, He appeared before Artaxerxes’ King, the God of heaven. He too was terrified, because the cup He bore was a cup He could pass to no other. The cup He bore was the cup of God’s wrath, and on the cross He drank it in full for us. On the cross the hand of God was heavy upon Him, so that through Him, the good hand of God might be upon us. And then the good hand of God was upon Him again and rose Him up from the dead. Nehemiah got authority from the king of Persia over the land of Jerusalem, but when Jesus rose from the dead, He got authority from the God of heaven over all the earth. So when He went to His doubting disciples, He told them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”
You see, Satan, the god of this world, knows his land is being taken from him. Jesus says to him the words of 2:20: “you have no portion or right or claim on all the earth any longer.” Jesus has said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” and He intends to build it through us. So let’s rise up and rebuild. Satan will oppose us, and the world, as long as it remains under his power, will oppose us. Let’s face them boldly and say, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim to the earth.” The world wants us to think they do: They want us to think Christianity is a dying thing, and that we’ll be on the wrong side of history, but with Jesus as our leader, that can’t be. And the beautiful opportunity we have in a way Nehemiah didn’t, is we can actually invite the world in. Nehemiah said to Sanballat and Tobiah that they had no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem, and we also need to be clear that if you don’t trust Christ, you will not inherit the earth. But you can come in. Jesus Christ has made a way, and whoever comes to Him He will never cast out. So come to Him, and together, under our great leader, let’s use whatever gifts He’s given us together to build up His church.