Finishing the Work
Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
The focus of the book of Nehemiah thus far has been on rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. In this passage the wall rebuilding project is finished, but there is still more work to do. How do we finish well when it always seems like there is more to do?
Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, Thomas Brooks
Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Derek Kidner
I enjoy reading, and I have a number of things in which I am interested. So I often find myself reading multiple books at once. One way I’ve tried to rein that in is by forcing myself to finish every book I start. Just a couple weeks ago, I finally finished the last book I had begun in 2020. It felt great. The work was finished. But, now I’ve got my reading list for 2021 to get to. That’s a common experience in life, right? We finish something only to realize now there’s something new to do. In the book of Nehemiah, the big project thus far has been rebuilding the wall, and in the passage at which we’re looking today, they finish it! And yet, we’ll see there is still more work to do. So in a world like that, this passage teaches us to how to finish rebuilding, and it gives us four ways to do so: Don’t get distracted, don’t get scared, don’t cut corners, and get to the people.
Don’t get distracted
Our passage begins with a character now familiar to any of you who have been with us through Nehemiah thus far: Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem, powerful men in the province in which Jerusalem was located who didn’t want the Jews cutting into their power by rebuilding their city. They’ve tried going over the head of the builders to get the work shut down by the Persian government, they’ve tried insulting the builders, they’ve tried to violently attack the builders, and none of it has worked. So, what do they do now? They try to distract the builders, and especially their leader, Nehemiah. In verse 2 we read that they wrote to Nehemiah asking him to come to a meeting with them. But Nehemiah responds in verse 3 that he’s doing a great work, which probably means a large or time-consuming work, and therefore it wouldn’t be right for him to come down from the work to meet with them. He didn’t owe them that, and he had more important things to do. Verse 4 tells us they kept coming at him with this request, and he answered them in the same manner.
Satan’s plan A for opposing the building of Jesus’ church is to stop people from entering it in the first place, or, in other words, to stop them from becoming Christians. But if you’ve become a Christian, there isn’t much more Satan can do to you. Your salvation is secure; God Himself has promised to keep you to the end. His plan A failed, so he moves on to plan B, as Sanballat and the others do here, and the first part of plan B we see in this passage is to distract you. When you become a Christian, you are enlisted in the building project Jesus is leading, to build His church by calling all the nations of the earth to worship Christ, discipling them toward maturity, and leading them until they reach their heavenly home. Every Christian has a part to play in that according to their unique gifts and the lives God has assigned them, and it only works as each part is working properly.
But Satan wants you to come off that wall. So he distracts you. One of the things he uses can be, as it is here, other people recruiting you to their cause. There are all kinds of causes out there today that are marketing themselves to you to win your allegiance, political parties or ideologies perhaps being the most obvious in the USA currently. Sometimes their motives aren’t even nefarious like Sanballat and the others’ seem to be here, and sometimes there may be overlap between their cause and the cause of Christ, but if the leaders of it can’t even be clear that their work is in Jesus’ name, you can be sure the cause isn’t Christ’s. So, if you find yourself so engrossed in one of these causes that you feel a greater kinship with the people in it than you do with the members of your own church, you can be sure Satan is trying to pull you off the wall. If you find you have time for that cause, but no time to pray, assemble for worship, or encourage a fellow Christian in their faith, you’re off the wall. If you find you’re willing to win others to that cause, but afraid to call someone to repent and trust Christ, you’re off the wall. So you have to learn how to say, “Thanks but no thanks; I am doing a great work and I cannot come down,” even if in some cases it means saying no to good things. And of course, beyond causes, there is the constant allurement of our world to devote more of our time and energy to building our net worth, taking the best trips, being entertained, and climbing the social ladder. Not all bad, but things about which we must also know when to say, “Thanks but no thanks; I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” Don’t get distracted. And don’t get scared.
Don’t get scared
Another device Satan uses in plan B is what we see next in the passage: False accusations. Verse 5 says Sanballat sends an open letter making the accusations, so that anyone and everyone can hear them. In it he claims the rumor is already out: The Jews are rebuilding the wall because they intend to rebel, and Nehemiah wants to be their king. Nehemiah is really just concerned for his power, according to Sanballat, and the king is going to catch wind of it, so now he seems to be offering help in verse 7: Let’s talk about it; you’re about to be in big trouble, and I can help you. Nehemiah’s response is simple: Yeah none of that is true. Do people sometimes rebuild cities in order to rebel against the king? Yes. Is that what I’m doing? No. He sees the real reason for this open letter in verse 9: They wanted to frighten them in hope that they would not finish rebuilding. They wanted them to think, “You guys are doing something wrong, everyone knows it, and the king is about to find out.”
And in an age with all sorts of media, accusations like this are hurled at “The Church” or “Christians” all the time. Christians hate gay people, Christians who talk about race are just Marxists trying to push a political agenda, they’re anti-science, they’re intolerant, it’s a white man’s religion, Christians oppose abortion because they want to oppress women. Now some of that has been true of Christians, and there’s a healthy impulse in many of us in this church at least to hear such criticisms and say, “Ok; I need to hear that and really examine myself. I know I’m a sinner, so I want to see if there’s something for me to repent of there.” That’s right and good, but sometimes the accusations simply aren’t true. And if we let them all land heavily on us as though they are true, it will scare us away from building Jesus’ church. We’ll begin to subtly believe, “Yeah building Jesus’ church, all this talk of heaven, hell, faith, obedience, it’s just a power play,” and our hands will drop from the work.
Have people used the name of Jesus to do terrible things and does that still happen today? Absolutely. Are we capable of such things? Absolutely; we need to fight like crazy against them and be brutally honest when we’ve done them. Is our church’s existence a mere power play dressed in religious garb? Absolutely not. Do we hate gay people? No. Are we closet Marxists? No. Are we just trying to push a political agenda? No. Do we talk about hell and engage in church discipline because we hate people? No. In fact, with that one in particular most of us have to really work hard to make ourselves do those things because we realize it would be unloving for us not to do them, even though doing them frankly scares us. There’s a time to receive such criticism, examine ourselves, and repent. There’s a time to respond to such criticism, to give a defense for the hope that is in us with gentleness and respect, especially if you see it leading others astray. But we also need to learn the time to just ignore it. That’s what Nehemiah does here. He doesn’t let their accusations scare him into quitting, he doesn’t try to disprove their accusations. He just says, “Guys, that’s not what we’re doing,” he prays for God to strengthen him, and he moves on. If the accusations you’re hearing are just false, if they’re coming from people who are looking for any reason to hate Jesus and hate you, don’t let those people scare you. Ignore it, pray, and keep rebuilding.
Don’t cut corners
Continuing plan B, Satan’s next device is to tempt us to cut corners. Here he uses fear again, but it’s more of a panic. His hope is that if he can get us to panic, he can get us to disobey God’s law. So in verse 10 we read of this guy Shemaiah who tries to get Nehemiah to flee to the temple for asylum from people coming to kill him. There’s the panic: People are coming to kill you! You better do something! You’ll be safe in the temple! Maybe, but there are two problems with that, and so Nehemiah replies in verse 11: “Should such a man as I run away?” There’s problem #1: Nehemiah is not just a private citizen. He’s what older theologians called a “public person”: He’s the governor of Jerusalem. Back in chapter 4, he had prepared the people for battle and said if the enemy comes, they’ll blow the trumpets, gather together, and their God will fight for them. Now violence comes, and what’s he going to do, run from it? Not blow the trumpet, not gather the people, not let their God fight for them? No; such a man as he cannot run away in such a time.
Then he says next in verse 11, “And what man such as I could go into the temple and live?” Nehemiah’s not a priest, and under the law of Moses, a non-priest couldn’t just up and enter the temple whenever. The decision for Nehemiah is fairly simple, then: “I will not go in.” Nehemiah realizes in verse 13 that Shemaiah was hired so that Nehemiah would panic and sin, and then they could give him a bad name in order to taunt him. God’s law in this case might seem insignificant: If people were really coming to kill Nehemiah, surely God wouldn’t mind if Nehemiah disobeyed this relatively minor command, right? God’s not a jerk, is He? No, but God is God, and Nehemiah realizes there is never a good reason to disobey Him. There are no corners of what God commands that are worth cutting. And if you do, Satan will use that to discredit you in the eyes of others.
There are all sorts of temptations toward this. I was talking to a friend recently who was looking to buy a house, and relatives were going to give him a loan to help with the down payment. However, in the loan process, you have to report such things, and sometimes if the bank sees you are getting another loan for the down payment, they won’t give you their loan. So praise God, he reached out to me and asked for counsel: “Hey this is kinda common practice and it’s not like my relatives are going to sue me if I don’t pay them back; what do you think?” And I thought, “Well maybe that is a bit gray,” but it’s gray the way Nehemiah’s situation was: God’s command is clear, but there’s a panic that if I obey it, it won’t go well: In this case, I won’t be able to buy this house. If you are getting a loan to help with a down payment though, and the bank asks, “Are you getting a loan to help with this down payment?” and then you say, “No,” that’s called lying. It’s a violation of the 9th commandment.
If you cut corners like that, what it reveals is that something is more important to you than God, and here’s one reason Satan really wants that to be the case: Say you want to share the gospel with someone or invite them to church; say you even want to disciple someone else who is already a Christian, but they know you to be someone who cuts corners on God’s law. They’re not going to listen to you, because they suspect deep down that you aren’t really talking to them because you love God and you want them to love God. They’ve seen you don’t love God enough to obey Him; why should they assume you’re talking to them now because you love Him? However righteous your cause may be, you will discredit yourself if you cut corners on God’s law. Don’t do it.
Nehemiah doesn’t. He once again turns to God in prayer in verse 14, and then in verse 15 we read that the wall was finished. The book thus far has been about rebuilding the wall, and so now the book ends here. No it doesn’t actually. Though the focus thus far has been on rebuilding the wall, the wall was meant to serve a greater purpose: The people of Jerusalem. So, finally, to finish rebuilding, get to the people.
Get to the people
Back at the very beginning of the book, the report Nehemiah received from Jerusalem was that the people were in great trouble and shame, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire. It was never just about the wall. The wall being broken down was a problem because it left the people in great trouble and shame. So now that the wall is rebuilt, Nehemiah begins rebuilding the people. In the first verse of chapter 7 when the wall was built with the doors, we read that Nehemiah also set up gatekeepers, singers, and Levites, which were the priests. He then appoints other leaders for the people, leaders who are exceptionally faithful and God-fearing. In verse 4 he then points out that the city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been built. The long census which follows, which we didn’t read, is there to help address this problem. It’s there to identify who should actually live there, and to get the city reinhabited with the people who God called to worship Him there.
So also when we build the church, there’s what we might call “wall” work and people work. Both are essential; Nehemiah does both, but the one is meant to serve the other. The wall is there for the people, not the people for the wall. Things like running the livestream, the slides, setting up chairs, managing church finances: That’s wall work, but it serves people in their worship of God. Things like membership classes, applications, and interviews, and a church discipline process are wall work. We try to do those things well at Citylight, but the work of admonishing the idle, encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, and being patient with them all is more important than the process. Both matter; we must not neglect either, but one is meant to serve the other.
I’ll sometimes have the experience here where someone wants to serve in the church and they ask me how they can do so. And of course, we have plenty of wall work, and the people work won’t get done if the wall work doesn’t. But you know what probably the most important things you can do to build up the church are once you join it? Spend devoted time in prayer for your pastors, your fellow church members, our neighborhood, city, and world. Get together with another member, ask them how they’re doing, read Scripture with them, and pray with them. Welcome someone who’s new to the church into your home (once we’re allowed to do that again; maybe invite them on a hike or something in the meantime). Get to know your neighbor and figure out a way to make their life more joyful. Share the good news of Jesus with them.
That’s the kind of building work Jesus has called us into for the rest of our lives. I know I said finish rebuilding, but the work is never really finished until Jesus calls us home. Nehemiah finished the wall, but there was still more work to do. Nonetheless, there has been progress since Nehemiah’s time. The work is closer to completion now than it was then. In fact, one of the seven things Jesus said while He was on the cross was these three simple words: “It is finished.” When it came time for Jesus to go to Jerusalem and be crucified, one of His own disciples, Peter, tried to convince him not to go. But Jesus recognized who was really behind that device, and said, “Get behind me, Satan.” He didn’t get distracted.
In his ministry, all kinds of false accusations were uttered against Him. He didn’t get scared. At his trial, those false accusations became official charges. He didn’t say a word to defend Himself. And He was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. Even when it actually cost Him His life, when they really were coming to kill Him, He didn’t cut a single corner of God’s law. And on the cross, He offered to God a perfect obedience and suffered the penalty for all the corners we’ve cut, so that when it comes to the work of our salvation, only He could say, “It is finished.” And why did He do all this? Not ultimately to build a wall, but to build a people. And now, risen from the dead, He still says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
So come to Him. The work of salvation is finished, and we start our work now knowing that the most important work of our lives has already been done by someone else. Now He sends us out to join Him in gathering and maturing all those for whom He died. Only when that work is complete will He return, and only then will we all rest from our labors with Him. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest. Don’t get distracted, don’t get scared, and don’t cut corners. Fix your eyes on Jesus, and keep going until all of His people are safely home.