Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
Any time you talk about rebuilding a community, you have traditionalists who want to keep everything the same and revolutionaries who want to rip up everything. When rebuilding the church however, we’re not after traditionalism or revolution: We’re after reformation.
Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Derek Kidner
We’re continuing our series in the book of Nehemiah this morning, and rebuilding is the big theme, first the rebuilding of the wall, and now more of a focus on a rebuilding of the people. Any time you try to rebuild a community, there are roughly two groups of people who naturally respond in opposite ways: There are revolutionaries, and there are traditionalists. Revolutionaries want to blow the whole thing up and start from scratch. Traditionalists want to preserve everything. In the passage of Nehemiah at which we are looking today, we don’t find revolution or traditionalism; we find reformation. Reformation believes that there is some good in the tradition, so it isn’t revolutionary. Nehemiah doesn’t annihilate Israel. Rather, we’re going to see him and the other leaders go back to the foundations of Israel, back to the sources, back to the very standard of goodness, and then use that to critique and change present practice, no matter how traditional it is. Therefore, it’s not traditionalist either. As we are always in the process of rebuilding our church, we can’t rip up the foundation, but neither can we rest on what we’ve always done. Rebuilding requires reformation. How do we do it? It’s hard, but simple: Study the Word, and do the Word.
Study the Word
The foundation of God’s people, our source document, is the Bible. So if you want to get back to the sources, you have to study the Word. Our text begins with the heads of the fathers’ houses of all the people coming together with the priests, Levites, and Ezra the scribe, to study the words of the Law. Where the day before all the people of Israel had assembled as one man and the teaching officers had read from the book of the Law aloud, then given the sense, so that the people understood the reading, now there’s a smaller group that returns the following day to study the words of the Law themselves. The teaching officers are there, but then there are also heads of father’s houses, which in this context likely means not merely the heads of an immediate family, but the heads of clans, perhaps grandfathers and greater grandfathers.
In the way God set up Israel as a nation, instruction about his law was meant to be led and overseen by the teaching officers, but it was not meant to end with them. Listen to these words from Deuteronomy 6, spoken by Moses, a teaching officer, to the people of Israel: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut 6:6-7). The heads of the father’s houses come to study the words of the Law because they are taking responsibility to continue teaching these words to their clans, probably by teaching the heads of individual households in their clans, who would then teach their wives and children.
This shows us the appropriateness of Bible study by even non-church officers. A common tactic of spiritually abusive leaders is to keep the people they lead from reading anything, but especially from reading the words of the Bible. We can think of the medieval Roman Catholic church that literally prohibited Bible reading by non-priests and kept the church’s copy of the Bible locked up. We can think of slave owners in America who used the Bible selectively to justify their practice of slavery while prohibiting their slaves from reading it themselves, because they knew there were verses in there that condemned manstealing, and in fact, when slaves started reading it, reformation ensued in the form of abolition. God set it up that way. Even in a context like this one where there may have only been a copy or two of the Book of the Law in an entire community, Ezra didn’t lock it up and keep it to himself. Though he and the other officers led the study, other non-officers came to him to study, not ultimately to study the words of the officers, but to study the words of the book itself, the source.
So how would we do that today? We have to look at the New Testament to see how God has structured His church after the coming of Christ. When we do, we find there is one teaching office set up in perpetuity for the church, which goes by the name pastor, elder, or overseer. We also find that God still charges husbands and fathers with a unique responsibility to teach the Word to their wives and children. 1 Corinthians 14:35 instructs women that if they want to learn, they should ask their husbands, implying that a husband will be able to teach them. Ephesians 6:4 specifically commands Fathers to bring their children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Does that mean women can’t study the Bible? No; we have a Bible study going on right now at Citylight made up of both men and women. In fact, 1 Timothy 2:11 commands a woman to learn, but it adds that she is to learn with all submissiveness. Ladies, not only can you learn what the words of the Bible mean, you ought to learn what the words of the Bible mean, AND you ought to do so in submission to your pastors, and if you’re married, in submission to your husband.
I know to some of you who may be newer to Christianity or the Bible this may sound strange or even oppressive; and maybe it still sounds that way to a few of you who have been around for a while. If that’s you, you certainly aren’t alone, and I or whoever invited you would love to talk with you more about whatever concerns this concept raises. For now I’ll just say this: We Christians worship a God who became human and in human form, willingly took on the position of one who had to submit, who because He did, was then exalted and glorified. So we trust that if He is the one telling us to submit in some way, it must be glorious, and that as we submit to Him ultimately, He will never oppress us. Back to the text, though: Ladies, study the Word in submission to your pastors and your husband if you have one. Listen to them, encourage them, respect them.
Men, do you see the responsibility this places on you? Especially if you’re a husband or a father, you should be beating down my door trying to learn the words of this book, because you are responsible to teach it to your wife and kids. And even if you’re single or you don’t have kids, unless you’ve got a special calling to singleness from God which is glorious in its own right, you should aspire to marriage and fatherhood, and start studying now. Michael and I are committed to teaching the Word to every member of this church, including your wife if she’s a member, and your kids if they become members, but we can’t teach them the Word in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise. That would be weird, right? You wake up in the morning and bam, there we are; that’s weird. No, your wife wakes up in the morning and bam, there you are. If God wanted your wife to have a different husband, He’d have given her one. If He wanted your kids to have a different dad, He’d have given them one. Sometimes I wish my wife and kids had a godlier husband and dad, but they don’t. They have me. And I don’t get to quit just because some days I feel like I’m no good at it; neither do you. That’s not serving them or God. You want your family to have a godlier husband or dad? Train yourself for godliness. You want them to learn the Word? Come study it, so you can teach it to them.
That’s what the heads of clans do in verse 13. And as they get into it, verse 14 tells us they found something written that didn’t match their current practice. They find that in the feast of the seventh month, the people should dwell in booths. Booths is not really a good translation; we hear booths, we think of something you used to sit at in restaurants back when we were allowed to eat in them. “Tents” is a better word. There was a feast of tents that took place in the seventh month, which apparently the Israelites of Nehemiah’s day still observed, only without actually dwelling in the tents. So what do they do? They teach the results of their study, telling the people to get the necessary materials to make tents, and then the people make the tents, and celebrate the feast of tents in their tents. So the second part of reformation is not only studying the Word, but doing the Word.
Do the Word
In verse 16 we read that the people went out and brought them and made tents for themselves, each on their roof, and then throughout the city of Jerusalem. It’s not clear at this point who’s actually living in the city of Jerusalem, but the tents get set up all over the city so that the people coming to the city from the surrounding towns would have a place to stay. A bit of background on the feast of tents: In the Jewish calendar, the seventh month was at the end of the year, and this feast was meant to be a week-long celebration of the food God provided through the harvest over the past year. They were to rejoice greatly for those seven days, offer sacrifices to the LORD, dwell in tents, and end on the eighth day with an assembly. Why the tents, though? In Leviticus 23, God explains that they are to dwell in tents as a way or remembering that they lived in tents for 40 years in the wilderness, between the time God rescued them from captivity in Egypt and brought them into the promised land, of which Jerusalem was a part. So in a time when they were celebrating the blessings of the promised land, they were to do so while dwelling in tents, to remember that they weren’t always in this promised land, and were only there now by the grace of God.
It is fitting, then, that upon returning to the promised land, the assembly once again dwells in tents for the feast, as verse 17 puts it. The tents were once again to remind them of their former captivity, and now returned to the land, they have all the more reason to make very great rejoicing as verse 17 goes on to say, and as was commanded as part of the feast. Verse 17 also adds that the feast had not been celebrated in this way since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun, the man who first led Israel into the promised land. What that tells us is they basically got into the promised land, celebrated the feast in tents, then kept the feast going, but dropped the tents. You see what that implies? It implies they forgot that they used to dwell in tents. They started to feel at home and entitled in the land God had given them by grace, and what do you know? They then turned from Him, and He removed them from the land. Now back in the land from captivity once again by God’s grace, the heads of father’s houses do what they can to ensure that doesn’t happen again. Verse 18 goes on to tell us that every day of the feast Ezra read from the Book of the Law. In the Law this was only required every seventh year at the Feast of Tents. We can’t be sure that this was the seventh year, but probably it was, or perhaps Ezra did it simply because they hadn’t celebrated the feast in tents for so long, this was a way of finally doing what had been left undone all those other 7th years. They kept the feast seven days, and did the solemn assembly on the 8th, and our passage concludes with these words: “according to the rule.” In other words, they observed the feast according to the manner of the word of Scripture they had studied. They did the Word.
At Citylight we are part of the Reformed tradition of Christianity, so named because it grew out of an effort to reform the church of the 1500s. One of the mottos of the Protestant reformation was ad fontes, back to the sources, which we’ve seen happening here. They studied the words of the Law and called the church to do them, even though in some cases it had been over 1000 years since they had, just like in this story. It wasn’t that there was nothing good present in the past 1500 years of church history, but they didn’t let the good be the enemy of the perfect. The name “Puritan” even was even given to a group within the church of England that wanted to continue reforming it, to continue “purifying it,” and they were right to want that. Another Latin motto of the reformation was semper reformanda, always reforming, and it’s a call that continues to us today. We’re always trying to reform here; over the past year we changed the way we do church discipline and the way we take the Lord’s Supper to try to conform better to the words of Scripture. We expect there to be more ways we need to reform; let’s study the Word together, find what they are, and do them, never letting the good be the enemy of the perfect.
On more of an individual level, take baptism as an example: I often hear exactly these issues when talking to people about the command to get baptized. “I believe in Jesus; why should I have to get baptized?” It’s an understandable question, but the answer is simple: Because the words of this book command it: Acts 2:38 – “Repent and be baptized.” “But my parents are really great Christians and they had me baptized as an infant”; great, but do the words of this book actually call that baptism? Don’t let the good be the enemy of the perfect. If you haven’t been baptized since your conversion to Christ, have you really studied the words of Scripture on this? I mean, don’t do it because I’m telling you to; do it because God tells you to in Scripture. But if He does, you should do it, even if you’ve been a Christian for years already. One of the biggest hinderances to reformation is this idea that it’s too late. But as along as we are alive, it’s never too late to repent. Whether baptism or some other command, whether for us as a church or for any of us as individuals, never let “but we or I have been doing this for so long” stop you from doing the right thing now.
On the surface it’s totally irrational: “I’ve been disobeying or neglecting God’s Word for a while now, so at this point I might as well keep doing it.” In what other area of life would that sound like a good idea? “I’ve always bought products that don’t work, so now if I hear a product is defective, I try to go buy it.” That’s insane, right? Not only is it insane, it’s unnecessary. You can change. But you can’t change yourself. Insane as it is, there is a reason we tend to do disobey God over and over again. There is a reason we avoid studying the actual words of His law to find out what they actually mean, and that even when we do find them, we often don’t do them: It’s what the Bible calls sin, and it is so baked into our nature that left to ourselves, we’ll just keep doing it over and over again. We’ll rest on tradition, or we’ll be so frantic to rip everything up that we’ll rip up God’s Word too. The only way for us to really reform is for us first to die, and be brought to life again as something new, someone new, and you can’t do that to yourself.
So God, instead of annihilating humanity or leaving us as we were, became human, and started a new humanity. At a young age Jesus’ parents found Him in the temple, studying the words of the Law, and He grew to be the ultimate doer of the Word. Not only did He do what it commanded; He suffered what it required for our disobedience when He died on the cross. He then rose from the dead in a new body, never to die again, so that whoever believes in Him would be forgiven of their sins and made new in Him: Neither annihilated or left the same, but reformed, reborn, and ultimately, resurrected. He knew you couldn’t do the Word, so He did it for you. And today He knows you still can’t do it, so He’s come to live in you. He is humanity reformed, the perfect one. He’s the foundation we must never rip up, the source to which we must always return, and we have a full and sufficient revelation of Him in the words of this Book. There’s a lot of buzz online these days about “deconstructing” or “decolonizing” the faith, and if that means cleansing your faith of cultural or political compromise and reforming it according to the words of Scripture, more power to you. But I heard Ekemini Uwan, a Christian author here in Philly, say recently, “Some of y’all are about to decolonize your way out of the faith.” That’s what we don’t want. Once we have Him, we need no revolution.
But we do need more of Him. Don’t let the good be the enemy of the perfect. Study the actual words and find the actual meaning; they may be hard at times, but they will ultimately only give you more of Jesus. Men, you can study this Word and teach it to your families, because when you wake up in the morning, it’s not just you there. The Spirit of Jesus is there with you. And whoever you are, His Spirit in you can do this Word. However long you’ve been sinning, however long you’ve forgotten God, turn today, do His Word, and may we, His people, be always reforming.