Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
The church is the new house where God dwells and as we come to end of our journey through Nehemiah, the message is clear: keep rebuilding. How do we do that? (1) Be attractively different (2) Be obediently generous (3) Be truly rested.
NICOT commentary on Nehemiah
Tyndale commentary on Nehemiah
ESV Study Bible
Have you ever had the experience of leaving a room thinking that all is well and then returning to find a total mess? Throughout high school I lived with some of my parents’ closest friends, the DeWalt family. I can still vividly remember one afternoon the mom putting their daughter down for nap. This was all very normal. She put her down for a nap and then left the room to go about her day. Sometime later I hear the mom let out one of the loudest screams you’ve ever heard because when she finally returned to her daughter’s room, she discovered that her daughter had removed her diaper and smeared the contents of said diaper everywhere. We’ve probably all had an experience like that, when we left a room thinking that all will be well, but then come back to find a literal or figurative mess. And that’s the kind of situation in which Nehemiah finds himself in the final chapter of the book that bears his name. The book of Nehemiah is all about rebuilding together after hardship. After all the hardships that we experienced as individuals and as a church during 2020, we thought that Nehemiah would be a wonderful guide to help us strengthen our gospel culture after hardship and Nehemiah has been just that. Nehemiah accomplished a lot. By God’s grace, Nehemiah led God’s people to rebuild God’s city, rebuild their identity as God’s people, and rebuild worship at God’s temple. But just before the final chapter of Nehemiah, Nehemiah leaves the room, so to speak. He travels to Persia and when he returns to Jerusalem months or maybe even a year later, he discovers a total mess and learns the big idea of the final chapter in our journey through Nehemiah: keep rebuilding. Specifically, Nehemiah learns that he has to keep rebuilding God’s house. And we apply that big idea today by continuing to build up God’s new house, the church. When speaking to the church in 1 Peter 2:4-5, the Apostle Peter writes: As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. The church is the new house where God dwells and as we come to end of our journey through Nehemiah, the message is clear: keep rebuilding. How do we do that? (1) Be attractively different (2) Be obediently generous (3) Be truly rested.
BE ATTRACTIVELY DIFFERENT (13:1-9; 23-27)
We keep rebuilding by being attractively different. When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, the major mess that he found was that God’s people were no different than the people around them. In New Testament terms, God’s people had become worldly. God’s people were willingly inviting the Ammonites’ and Moabites’ idolatry to infiltrate the Temple and draw their hearts away from God, one of the Ammonite leaders, Tobiah, was even living in the temple, and God’s people were marrying outside the Lord, which was direct disobedience to God’s commands and the very thing that drew King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, away from the Lord. Later in our passage, we’ll see that the way that God’s people spend their money, spend the sabbath, and raise their children are all also no different than the nations around them. Rather than being attractively different, God’s people aren’t attractive at all because there is nothing different and distinct about them. This is what Nehemiah comes home to and he realizes that he has to keep rebuilding by keeping God’s people attractively different, so in a fury of holy anger Nehemiah throws Tobiah’s furniture out in the street, cleanses the temple, uses his authority as governor to punish those marrying outside the Lord, and makes God’s people swear that they will only marry in the Lord.
Now, why does Nehemiah consider this to be such a disgusting mess? When God formed Israel as his special people, listen to what he said to them. Exodus 19:5-6: Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” They were to be a holy nation, that is, different. And they were to be a kingdom of priests, that is attractive. Priests mediated God’s presence and blessing. A kingdom of priests mediated God’s blessing and presence to all the other kingdoms. Israel’s mission was to be an attractively different people so that they could bring God’s blessing to all peoples. To keep rebuilding, God’s people must be attractively different.
It has probably been a while since any of us have seen a movie in the theatres, but undoubtedly one of the best parts of seeing a movie in the theatres is the previews. A great preview can get you so hyped about a movie that you feel like you have to get in on it. Citylight, we are meant to be a preview. We are meant to be so attractively different in our relationships with one another, in our worship, in the way that we spend our money, in the way that we rest, in the way that we decide who to marry, and the way that we raise our children that the world sees in us a preview of coming heavenly attractions so that anyone can get in on it through Christ alone. We are meant to be a preview by living as an attractively different gospel culture.
Question: How can you help Citylight Church be attractively different? Generally speaking, it’s our calendars, how we spend our time, and our checkbooks, how we spend our money that make us attractively different because Jesus says it’s more blessed to give than to receive. So, we use our time and money to give, rather than to get, which makes us attractively different in our joy. In our passage specifically, it’s their worship and their marriages that are meant to be attractively different. Our weekly gathering together in worship of the living God and protest against the idols of our age is central to what makes us attractively different and one of the reasons why we invite our friends and neighbors to be part of it. And our commitment to only marry in the Lord and to raise our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord is also central to what makes us attractively different. How can you help Citylight Church be attractively different? We keep rebuilding by being attractively different, a preview of coming heavenly attractions so that anyone can get in on it through Christ alone. Second, to keep rebuilding…
BE OBEDIENTLY GENEROUS (13:10-14)
After Nehemiah finds Tobiah living in the temple and forcibly evicts him, in verses 10-14 we read that Nehemiah also finds that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them. In other words, God’s people weren’t tithing. Just a couple chapters ago, God’s people made themselves accountable to tithe in order to support God’s workers who lead worship at God’s house. But when tough times come, instead of being attractively different and by continuing to be obediently generous toward God’s house, they decide God can’t really be trusted to provide for them, and they go back on their oath and quit tithing. As a result, God’s workers at the temple have no food to eat, so they leave Jerusalem and move back to their farms simply to survive, bringing worship at God’s house to a grinding halt. As Nehemiah’s question in verse 11 implies, God’s house is forsaken because God’s people do not follow through on their oath to give. And so, Nehemiah keeps rebuilding by confronting God’s people and urging them to be obediently generous.
We’ve talked about money quite a bit over the last two weeks because we are Bible-people, and the Bible has talked a lot about money over the last two weeks. And in light of all that we’ve covered over the last two weeks, I don’t have anything new to teach you, but in light of what we see in our passage today, I simply want to encourage you. When it comes to giving, we can be a lot like God’s people in Nehemiah: a lot of commitment without a lot of action. So, my simple encouragement is this: whatever God’s has put on your heart over the last two weeks related to giving, whatever you’ve committed before God to give, follow through with it. Take the time, make a prayerful decision about your giving, set it up, and turn your oath into action. Not only that, have Nehemiah’s courage to encourage one another to do the same. In times of plenty and in times of want, keep giving, it’s how we keep rebuilding.
After Nehemiah confronts the people and helps the people keep giving, he says something that can sound a little strange in our ears. Nehemiah 13:14: “Remember me, O my God, concerning this and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service.” Is Nehemiah doing all this to earn God’s favor? Do we give in order to get from God? No, we give out of a longing to one day hear those wonderful words from Jesus spoken over our lives: well done good and faithful servant. As Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner puts it: “To hear God’s ‘well done’ is the most innocent and most cleansing of ambitions. Further, the plea springs from humility, not self-importance, for it is an appeal for help. God’s ‘remembering’ always implies his intervention, not merely his recollection or recognition. Nehemiah is committing himself and his cause to the only safe hands.” May God remember us in such a way as we keep giving to build up his church. To keep rebuilding, be attractively different, obediently generous, and…
BE TRULY RESTED (13:15-22)
The final mess that Nehemiah discovers when he returns to Jerusalem is that God’s people are no longer keeping the Sabbath. Part of what made Israel attractively different from the nations around them is that they worked six days and rested on the seventh. The one true God of Israel could be trusted to provide and work for his people, so they didn’t have to work non-stop like the nations. The sabbath was about devoting one day each week to worship because God is worthy and ceasing from normal work one day to rest because God is trustworthy. We too can work hard and worshipfully rest because God is still worthy and trustworthy. But times were tough and as a result Israel started working on the sabbath, trusting their own hands rather than God’s plan to provide for them. Nehemiah confronts God’s people for their sabbath breaking and even puts some accountability structures in place to help keep them from the temptation to break the sabbath and preserve what made them attractively different.
To understand how we keep rebuilding by being truly rested, we need to do a quick theological sidebar here. The Old Testament sabbath regulations were part of the law of Moses, which is tied to the old covenant. In his life, death, and resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses. Therefore, as Christians we are no longer under the law of Moses and are not obligated to keep the sabbath regulations. It’s also important to keep in mind that Sunday is not the Christian version of the sabbath as though we are obligated to keep old covenant sabbath regulations on Sunday now. So, how do we keep rebuilding by being truly rested? Certainly, one answer is by honoring the sabbath as an enduring principle for our souls. Like God’s people in Nehemiah’s day, many of us are tempted to be just like the world by deriving our security and significance, hope and happiness by working too much. We rebuild as an attractively different community by trusting God’s provision and our identity in Jesus enough to cease. As Pastor Justin Huffman says in his excellent article on The Gospel Coalition website, “Being overly busy is, in the end, a way of pursuing Godlike status. When we think we can schedule our way to significance, we’re trying to supply what only God can. And we’re seeking to be what only God can be: omnipresent and omnipotent. A sabbath rest, then, becomes a regular, timely reminder to us that we are not God.” We honor the sabbath principle by regularly pulling away from every other pursuit to feast on all that God is in Christ, primarily by gathering with his people for worship and fellowship. But if we press into the pages of the New Testament, we find an even more fundamental way to keep rebuilding by being truly rested, and that is by receiving and resting in Jesus himself, who is the true and greater sabbath where we find rest for our souls. As Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Similarly, the author to the Hebrews writes, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has rested from his works as God did from his (Hebrews 4:9-10). As Christians, we keep rebuilding by being a people who are free from relying on our works to make us right with God and are so rested in the grace that is in Jesus, that we don’t run on the same hamster wheel as everyone else and become truly attractively different. Have you found true rest for your soul now and forever in Christ alone?
Citylight, I have loved learning how to rebuild with you after hardship through the pages of Nehemiah. Our future as an attractively different community has never been brighter. Let’s keep building from a place of complete rest in Jesus.