Rebuilding Requires Re-Covenanting
Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
Nehemiah 9:38: Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests. This brings us to the unifying big idea of this morning’s long passage: rebuilding requires re-covenanting. To get to the heart of what re-covenanting is and what it means for each of us and our church today, we are going to explore the concept of re-covenanting from four angles: (1) The essence of re-covenanting, (2) The specifics of re-covenanting, (3) The blessing of re-covenanting, and (4) The curse.
Nehemiah 9:38-12:26 Fensham, NICOT
NICOT commentary on Nehemiah
Tyndale commentary on Nehemiah
ESV Study Bible
One of the many privileges I enjoy being a pastor is the honor of officiating a lot of weddings. But a few years ago, I had the unique privilege of officiating a vow renewal ceremony. The couple had been married for years but had recently become followers of Jesus. They wanted to renew their solemn marriage covenant to one another with Christ at the center of it. I love weddings, but that vow renewal was a special renewal of their covenant in marriage. In Nehemiah 9:38-12:26 we witness a vow renewal ceremony between God and His people. Let’s briefly set the scene. God’s people have just confessed their sins to God and now they renew their covenant relationship with God. It’s a vow renewal. Nehemiah 9:38: Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of our princes, our Levites, and our priests. This brings us to the unifying big idea of this morning’s long passage: rebuilding requires re-covenanting. To get to the heart of what re-covenanting is and what it means for each of us and our church today, we are going to explore the concept of re-covenanting from four angles: (1) The essence of re-covenanting, (2) The specifics of re-covenanting, (3) The blessing of re-covenanting, and (4) The curse.
THE ESSENCE OF RE-COVENANTING (9:38-10-29)
We see the true essence of what re-covenanting is in Nehemiah 10:28-29: “The rest of the people, the priests, the Levites, the gatekeepers, the singers, the temple servants, and all who have separated themselves from the peoples of the lands to the Law of God, their wives, their sons, their daughters, all who have knowledge and understanding, 29 join with their brothers, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord and his rules and his statutes. What’s happening here? God’s people are pledging themselves to God as like a wife to her husband in a vow renewal ceremony. All of God’s people, down to the children who can understand what is going on, take an oath in which they promise to live by all that God commands all for God’s glory. The essence of re-covenanting is a commitment to which a whole community makes themselves accountable to obey all that God commands together.
Ok, how do we apply the essence of re-covenanting today? I have two ideas. First, join Citylight Church through covenant membership. The local church is the visible bride of Christ. For hundreds of years, one way Christian churches have applied the essence of re-covenanting – a commitment to which a whole community makes themselves accountable to obey all that God commands together – is by organizing around a church covenant or agreement that all church members participate in. Pastor and theologian John Piper explains why churches ought to organize around a written covenant, “Christ has created us by a covenant to be his people, not just individuals, but a people—a body, a bride—for himself. To fulfill that covenant calling demands that we form assemblies called churches—visible churches—which in some way make a covenant together to be the body of Christ for each other, for the world, and for the glory of God.” One way to apply the essence of re-covenanting is by covenanting with the rest of Citylight Church to be the body of Christ for one another, for the world, and for the glory of God. If you’re not yet a member of Citylight Church, to take your next step simply indicate your interest in learning more about covenant membership by: insert CTA. The second way that we apply the essence of re-covenanting today is by participating in the Lord’s Supper. Jesus’ prescribed way for his new covenant community to renew their vows to be his people for each other, for the world, and for the glory of God is by partaking in the Lord’s Supper together. Luke 22:19-20: And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. In 1 Corinthians, Paul commands us to examine ourselves first, confess our sins to God, and then receive the Lord’s Supper as a way of remembering our new relationship with God through the finished work of Jesus and a way of renewing our commitment to be his people for one another, the world, and the glory of God. The Lord’s Supper is our weekly re-covenanting ceremony.
Just before the pandemic, Andrea and I had the privilege of traveling to Florida to attend the retirement party of a former Eagles player who used to be part of Citylight. When we went over to his house he showed us his trophy case, which was the largest and most magnificent “trophy case” I have ever seen, including all the memorabilia from his two Super Bowl victories. The trophy case put on display all that he had accomplished through a lifetime of dedication to football. Friends, the church is meant to be a trophy case that puts on display all that Jesus has accomplished in making us family through his broken body and shed blood. When we join the church or when we renew our covenant commitment to be the church for each other, the world, and the glory of God through communion, we are taking our dignified place as a display of God’s glory by obeying all that God commands by his grace alone. That’s the essence of re-covenanting. Now, to get a sense of what the essence of re-covenanting will mean for the details of our lives, let’s look secondly at…
THE SPECIFICS OF RE-COVENANTING (10:30-39)
In Nehemiah 10:30-39, the whole community moves from re-covenanting to obey all that God commands to re-covenanting to obey God in two specific areas that they previously had not been living for God’s glory: marriage and money. They begin with marriage. Nehemiah 10:30: We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons. Back then the family was more involved in choosing a partner for their children, so this amounts to a commitment that no one in the covenant community will marry someone outside of it. This commitment has nothing to do with our modern concept of race, nor is it even about ethnicity, but to not marry anyone who has not separated themselves from the people of the land to the Law of God. It makes sense, then, that in the New Testament we find no prohibition of marriage between ethnic groups, but we do find that Christians are to marry only other Christians. Interracial marriages in the Lord are just as pleasing to God as any marriage in the Lord, but for the sake of our undivided devotion to the Lord, marriage must be in the Lord, to someone who shares our devotion to the Lord Jesus. I believe that this is an area it would be worth all of us re-covenanting in. I get it; the desire to be married is natural and good, and out of the 1.5 million people in Philadelphia, only something like 1/10 were even in church on a Sunday prior to the pandemic, and who knows what number of those have been born again of the Spirit and single. So there is a temptation, especially when you aren’t feeling particularly drawn to the Christians immediately around you, to date people who aren’t in covenant with God through Christ alone. But here’s what you have to consider: Do you want to be married so badly that you will violate your covenant with God in order to enter into a covenant of marriage with them? That’s not worth it. Trust me, God will be a better covenant partner than they will be. Once you settle that question, the rest does kind of fall into place: If you won’t marry them, why are you dating them? The Bible doesn’t really have a place for enjoying romantic love when you know you’re going to break it off eventually anyway. Dating, to the degree it is appropriate, should be for the purpose of evaluating marriage. If you already know you won’t marry someone though, such evaluation is unnecessary. I also know there are some gray areas here. What if they tell you that they’re a Christian, but they’re a member of a church that has some significant false-teaching or aren’t a member of a church at all? I would say, pump the brakes and involve other church members and even a pastor in your dating relationships because you’ve got the rose-colored glasses on.
While we’re on uncomfortable topics, the next thing they specifically address is money. Nehemiah 10:32, 35, 39b “We also take on ourselves the obligation to give yearly a third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God…We obligate ourselves to bring the firstfruits of our ground and the firstfruits of all fruit of every tree, your by year, to the house of the LORD… We will not neglect the house of our God… They re-covenant to tithe, to give a tenth of their firstfruits to support worship at the temple. How should we apply re-covenanting in the specifics of our money? Four quick principles. First, Christians are no longer under the Old Covenant law of Moses. Therefore, giving a tenth of our pre-tax income to the Lord is not an absolute law that we are under, but it’s a good principle and an ideal place to start when a Christian is considering generally how much to give. Second, when Christians give the Bible says that it should not be reluctant, but cheerful (2 Cor. 9:7). We give cheerfully as those who have been given the ultimate gift in Christ. Third, Christians are called to give both generously and according to their means (1 Cor. 16:2). Generous giving means that Christians should always live at least one rung lower than they could on the spending ladder so that they can give. Fourth, Christians should prioritize their church when giving (Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5) because the local church is our spiritual family on earth. In general, Andrea and I advise and practice the principal of giving a tenth of our pre-tax income to the church and then seek to give above and beyond that to missions and other gospel-centered ministries as able. At Citylight, we have missionaries, so if you’re looking to give above and beyond, please reach out to one of the pastors so we can connect you to our international missionaries who live on our support. As we re-covenant to be the church for one another, the world, and the glory of God, let’s be specific in the areas of marriage and money. Now that we’ve done the hard work, let’s look at…
THE BLESSING OF RE-COVENANTING (11:1-12:26)
After God’s people renew their relationship with Him, they commit to repopulating Jerusalem. The leaders lived in Jerusalem, but they needed more people to move into Jerusalem so that they could be a balanced, defensible and distinct people. Why was repopulating Jerusalem so important? Well, when God first formed Israel as a distinct people, He gave them this charge, “…you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). By repopulating Jerusalem, God’s people are setting themselves apart once again as God’s chosen people devoted to God’s purposes. In the Old Testament, God chose one man, Abraham, to be the father of a multitude of people, Israel, so that they would mediate God’s blessing to all the scattered peoples of the earth. Practically, the way this was supposed to work is that God’s people were to stay put in Jerusalem, live as a holy people, and the nations were meant to see how different they were and stream to God’s temple for the blessing of salvation. Now that Christ, the true offspring of Abraham, has come to live, die and rise, we mediate God’s blessing not by staying put but by going and making disciples of Jesus among all nations. As the re-covenanted people of God, we exist to extend the blessing of the gospel where Jesus is not yet named or known. Will you re-covenant to bring the blessing of the gospel to the people God has placed you among? Would some of you even covenant to take the blessing of the gospel among less reached people-groups around the world? We would love to help you take your first steps toward the nations (email email@example.com). Rebuilding requires re-covenanting to be God’s people for one another, for the world, and, ultimately, for God’s glory. We’ve seen the essence, the specifics, and the blessing, let’s turn finally to…
Up to this point, we’ve brushed past an element that is at the heart of both the essence and specifics are re-covenanting: an oath and a curse. Nehemiah 10:29: join with their brothers, their nobles, and enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God…A covenant is a chosen relationship between two-parties in which the two making binding promises to one another, typically bound by an oath, upon pain of a curse if one breaks their oath. God’s people are re-covenanting with the Lord upon pain of a curse if they break it. There is just one problem. By Nehemiah 13, they’ve already broken their oath. Nehemiah 13:10: “I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them…” Already the people aren’t tithing as they re-covenanted to do. They’ve broken the covenant and have incurred its curse. Even worse, the New Testament teaches that you and I are under the same curse of God for failing to do and me what he requires in his law. Galatians 3:10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” God’s law called them and calls us to obey God together, completely, in essence and in detail. But they could not do it and neither can we. Like Israel, we are under God’s curse as law-breaking rebels. But how sweet the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is! Paul goes on in Galatians 3:13-14: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. God’s law calls for complete obedience, and we cannot do it and are cursed. But Christ perfectly fulfilled the law’s demands through his perfect life, took our covenant curses by becoming a curse for us on the cross, and rose from the dead so that all who receive and rest in Him alone for salvation are re-covenanted as the people of God by faith. Not only that, after taking our curse and rising from the grave, Christ gave us the Spirit so that we have fresh power to re-covenant in essence, specifics, and with great blessing. We couldn’t do it, but Christ has done it, so that now through the power that he supplies through His Spirit, we can walk as the re-covenanted people of God for one another, for the world, for the glory of God.