Keep rebuilding in the face of opposition
Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
The book of Nehemiah is all about rebuilding together after hardship. In Nehemiah 1-3, we’ve learned that rebuilding together begins with prayer, but in chapter four we learn that rebuilding proceeds amidst opposition. That brings us to the big idea of our passage is: Keep rebuilding in the face of opposition. Citylight, we are in a season of seeking the rebuilding and renewing grace of God for ourselves personally and for our church as an attractively different gospel-culture that portrays the very beauty of Jesus. For us, rebuilding means each of us taking our dignified place and doing our dignified part in building up our church in gospel-empowered worship, community, and mission. The Bible says we are always rebuilding in the face of opposition, but Nehemiah 4 provides three ways to keep rebuilding in the face of opposition: (1) Look to the Lord (2) Encourage one another (3) Stay on guard.
NICOT commentary on Nehemiah
Tyndale commentary on Nehemiah
ESV Study Bible
Adapted from Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
Many of you have never heard the name Jack Canfield, but your parents have because he pioneered a book series that was huge in their generation: Chicken Soup for the Soul. There are more than 250 books in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, with more than 500 million books sold worldwide, and over $2 billion in revenue. What you may not know is that Jack Canfield’s original Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected by 144 publishers before Canfield finally landed a publishing deal. In the business world, Canfield is considered the master of building a brand in the face of rejection and opposition. The reason I bring up Chicken Soup for the Soul is because Nehemiah is sort of the Jack Canfield of the Bible; he keeps rebuilding no matter the opposition. The book of Nehemiah is all about rebuilding together after hardship. In Nehemiah 1-3, we’ve learned that rebuilding together begins with prayer, but in chapter four we learn that rebuilding proceeds amidst opposition. That brings us to the big idea of our passage is: Keep rebuilding in the face of opposition. Citylight, we are in a season of seeking the rebuilding and renewing grace of God for ourselves personally and for our church as an attractively different gospel-culture that portrays the very beauty of Jesus. For us, rebuilding means each of us taking our dignified place and doing our dignified part in building up our church in gospel-empowered worship, community, and mission. The Bible says we are always rebuilding in the face of opposition, but Nehemiah 4 provides three ways to keep rebuilding in the face of opposition: (1) Look to the Lord (2) Encourage one another (3) Stay on guard.
LOOK TO THE LORD
Nehemiah 4 opens with Sanballat, and his friend Tobiah, leaders in nearby Samaria who opposed the rebuild because they wanted to assert their authority in the region, launching first a verbal and then planning a physical attack on God’s people. But when opposition comes at Nehemiah, he looks to the Lord. Nehemiah 4:4-5: Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. 5 Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders. When the opposition ratchets up, we read in Nehemiah 4:9a: And we prayed to our God. We rebuild in the face of opposition, first, by looking to the Lord!
At this point, you may be wondering, “ok, we rebuild in the face of opposition by looking to the Lord, sure. But what is actually opposing us? The Bible says in Ephesians 2:1-2 that rebuilding together after hardship is always opposed by three enemies: the world (godless cultural patterns easily absorbed by the church), the flesh (our old sinful nature that is still a resilient foe), and the Devil (the spiritual being behind all the lies we are tempted to believe about God and God’s world). But that’s general. You may still be wondering, “What specifically is the greatest threat to Citylight rebuilding after hardship?” In a word, I believe the greatest threat to rebuilding together after hardship is individualism. Let me explain. Here is how I would define the kind of individualism specifically threatening Christians in our church. Christian Individualism is the tendency of each Christian to isolate themselves from their local church as a whole and the tendency to withdraw into the circle of family and handpicked friends; with this little society formed to his or her taste, the Christian gladly leaves the greater church to look after itself. What might this look like? Many of your Citygroups are still meeting completely or partially over Zoom. And we might be tempted to withdraw. Why? We might say, “I’m a bit tired of Zoom; it doesn’t work well with how I spend the rest of my workday.” “I don’t connect well over Zoom; it doesn’t really work well for my preferences.” “It’s hard to keep my kids occupied; it doesn’t work well for my comfort.” “It doesn’t fit my kids’ typical bedtime; it doesn’t work well for my children or schedule.” I’m picking on Zoom, but what’s beneath all that? The worldly philosophy of individualism subtly leading me to withdraw from the church and into myself or my family. What’s missing when we do this? Our Lord’s vision for our lives as being bound up in this rich body known as the church that has many diverse parts all working together to build itself up in love. Individualism misses that the way that we portray the beauty of Jesus is through our relationships and life together in non-hand-picked life together as a diverse church united in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Individualism is our greatest threat, and it leads to other threats like idolizing comfort and political polarization. Honestly, do you see it in yourself? If we are honest, I think we all do.
Like Nehemiah, we look to the Lord. Nehemiah called down the power of God to destroy what threatened rebuilding together after hardship and nothing less than the power of God called down through fervent prayer will overcome our expressive individualism. The truth of the gospel is that when we are reconciled to God as Father through faith in Christ, we are also united to one another as brothers and sisters. We need to be clothed in the gospel if we are going to stand against the opposition of individualism and looking to the Lord in prayer for ourselves and for one another is the way that we as a church put the protection of the gospel on. Look to the Lord! My wife likes to tease me because I am one of those strange people who lays out their clothes the night before, always. This was especially important before the pandemic because I would run to the Citylight office each morning and I needed the right clothes to protect me from bad weather. But without actually putting those clothes on, I would go out into the world totally unprotected. The truth of the gospel is our armor against the world, the flesh, and the Devil, but without looking to the Lord in prayer for ourselves and one another, we are just leaving the gospel laying on the floor and striking out into the world unprotected. Rebuilding in the face of opposition requires, first, looking to the Lord. Second, rebuilding in the face of opposition requires…
ENCOURAGING ONE ANOTHER
As opposition to God’s work of renewal and rebuilding mounts, God’s people who are rebuilding the wall experience perhaps the deadliest opposition to rebuilding together after hardship: discouragement. Verse 10: In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.” All the words and threats of opposition have left God’s people discouraged. Discouragement from within is always more dangerous than opposition from without. When enemies oppose Nehemiah, he talks to God about his enemies. But when brothers and sisters are discouraged, Nehemiah speaks to his brothers about God. Verse 14: And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” He encourages them. I imagine that encouragement may seem to many of you a good, but small thing. Encouragement is massive. Mutual encouragement is the only way we keep rebuilding in the face of opposition. That’s why the New Testament actually commands us to encourage one another. It’s not optional; encouragement deserves nothing less than to set the predominant tone in our church, our homes, and even our self-talk. The NT verb translated “encourage” means “to comfort, cheer up, console, speak in a friendly manner.” To encourage one another is to stand by one another, bringing a life-giving presence to one another. In our cynical and sarcastic age, thank God that this isn’t optional! We rebuild in the face of opposition by encouraging one another.
How do we encourage one another? Let’s read verse 14 again: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” The best way to encourage one another, first, is to help one another remember the Lord, who is great and awesome. When I am discouraged, don’t tell me that I’m great and awesome. I know that it’s not true, so it won’t help. The greatest encouragement is when you lift my eyes off of me to the Lord who is great and awesome in a tone of friendly comfort and consolation in a discouraging world. Notice that Nehemiah also reminds God’s people that they’re fighting for their brothers, sons, daughters, wives, and homes. The greatest danger when it comes to discouragement is that we’ll throw in the towel on walking faithfully with Jesus and His church. Typically, this throwing in of the towel happens gradually, almost imperceptibly over time, as we begin to less and less regularly read Scripture, less regularly pray, and less regularly press into life together in the church. We need the encouragement of being told who we’re fighting for. Your faithfulness to Jesus, to your church, and to your family matters to your other brothers and sisters in Christ, to your spouse, and to your children down to the tenth generation. Discouragement threatens all that. So, let’s turn Citylight into a culture of God-centered, lavish encouragement. You don’t have to be careful or cautious about it. As Ray Ortlund says, “I have never met someone suffering from too much encouragement in Christ.” Let’s lavish one another with encouragement and when it gets a little awkward, that’s when we know that we’re getting somewhere. Earlier this week, I was on a Zoom call with 150 Acts 29 pastors led by Ray Ortlund. To be honest, when I joined the call, I was busy, exhausted, and a little pastorally discouraged. During the call, an older pastor in Acts 29 that I highly respect, sent me a message that said, “Matt, you’re a profound encouragement to me. You matter to God.” That kept me rebuilding on Wednesday. You have no idea what a profound encouragement it would be to your CG leaders or a fellow Citylight, to receive a simple note that helps them remember God and remember who they’re fighting for. We keep rebuilding in the face of opposition by encouraging one another. The final way to keep rebuilding when opposed is…
STAY ON GUARD
After Nehemiah encouraged the people and the immediate threat subsided, Nehemiah and the rest of God’s people remained on guard. Nehemiah 4:18, 23: And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built…So neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his right hand. Rebuilding requires staying on guard at all times because opposition is always present, but always changing.
How can we as a church stay on guard against the world, the flesh, and the Devil as we rebuilt together? I believe that something we desperately need as a church is something the Bible calls discernment. The word “discernment” in Hebrew literally means “taste.” “It is the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of action. True discernment means not only distinguishing the right from the wrong; it means distinguishing the primary from the secondary, the essential from the indifferent, and the permanent from the transient. And, yes, it means distinguishing between the good and the better, and even between the better and the best” (Sinclair Ferguson). We become discerning over time as we receive God’s word by faith in the power of the Spirit. Why is discernment so important? It guards us from being spiritually deceived or distracted while we rebuild. From Qanon to Christian Nationalism to Critical Race Theory, there are so many potential distractions, but discernment guards us. Discernment can also bring healing to others as we help them discernment between primary and secondary and right or wrong in situations where there isn’t chapter and verse to tell us just what to do. Discernment helps keep Christians free from being enslaved to “you know you ought’s” that aren’t in the Bible. Discernment helps us develop spiritually because discernment leads us to prioritize growing. We stay on guard by being a people of God’s Word, who receive his word with faith, and plant our lives in it. When we are growing in discernment, we are always ready and on guard against whatever opposition comes.
This all brings me to one final question: why would we want to rebuild when opposed anyway? Knowing that we’ll experience opposition from without that will inevitably lead to discouragement within, why seek the rebuilding and renewing grace of God for our lives and our church as an attractively different gospel-culture. Why not just coast through with a reasonably comfortable middle-class American life? One answer: the gospel. The gospel is the good news that Christ lived the perfect life, died the atoning death, and rose from the grave victoriously for our sins. One aspect of the atoning death of Christ that we don’t often talk about is victory. This aspect of Christ’s atoning work is called Christus Victor. Christus Victor is the element of the atoning work of Christ that emphasizes the triumph of Christ over the evil powers of the world, through which he rescues his people and establishes a new relationship between God and the world. Friends, the death of Christ on the cross assures us that all of our enemies, including our Great Enemy, have been defeated and are as good as dead. Therefore, we can give ourselves to building the church because the gates of Hell will never prevail against it. The gospel frees and empowers us to keep rebuilding no matter the opposition.