Rebuilding Requires Regathering
Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
As we move in the book of Nehemiah from a focus on rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem to a focus on rebuilding the people of Jerusalem, what do we find Nehemiah doing? Regathering the people.
Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Derek Kidner
Often something I hear from people when talking to them about Christianity is something along the lines of, “You know, if God would just speak to me in a way I couldn’t deny, I would believe.” I’ve felt that myself at times. What if God were to tell you that tomorrow at noon, He was going to be at City Hall, and that He would give a speech there are at that time? You could hear his voice. Is there anything that could possibly stop you from being there? In the passage we’ve just read in Nehemiah, something like that has happened, and something like that is actually happening now as we gather. When we arrive at Nehemiah 8, the rebuilding project in the book of Nehemiah has shifted from a focus on rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem to rebuilding the people of Jerusalem, and what do we find them doing in chapter 8? We find the people gathering to hear the word of God. We learn from this that rebuilding requires regathering, to hear God’s Word together, to worship the God of the Word together, and to understand God’s Word together.
To hear God’s Word together
In verse 1 of our passage, we read that the people gathered as one man. Chapter 7 tells us this was about 50,000 people, so we aren’t talking about a few friends getting together for Bible study; this was, as verse 1 says, all the people gathering as one man. In verse 2 this group is called the assembly, the Hebrew word translated into Greek as εκκλησια, which we then translate into English as “church.” Nehemiah 8 is a church gathering. But why do they gather? Why assemble? The first reason we see is to hear God’s Word. In verse 1 once the people assemble, the first thing they do is tell Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, the Bible of their day. They came to church wanting to hear the Bible. And that makes sense if you understand what the Bible is. Keep reading in verse 1 and we see that the Book of the Law of Moses is called the Book “that the LORD commanded Israel.” It is the book of God’s commands. Its words are the words of God. The Bible is God’s Word. This is called the doctrine of inspiration: That as human authors wrote, the Holy Spirit so carried them along that all the words that end up in the Bible are the words of God. So they gathered to hear them read aloud.
Specifically, the “they” who gathered according to verse 2 were men, women, and all who could understand what they heard. Beyond the obvious gender inclusivity, this verse makes clear that children were included in the church’s gathering, though there was a limit: It was those children who could understand. Probably what this means is that children who are at an age where they can speak and understand words were expected to come and hear God’s Word. So parents, if you’re feeling the challenge of having your kids in church with you, my wife and I are right there with you—but don’t underestimate what they can understand, and how powerful hearing God’s Word in the assembly of God’s people can be.
Verse 3 goes on to tell us that the ears of the people were attentive to the word; literally that their ears were toward it. When Ezra stands to read it, he’s on an elevated platform so the people can see him open the scroll and realize these are God’s words, not his, and they are therefore worthy of our utmost attention and reverence, a reverence shown by the people standing, as we did in our service today. In fact, there is a lot in this passage that explains why we do what we do today as a church, though our services aren’t identical to this one. Before the coming of Christ, the church was under age. So think of it like this: You ever hear stories of friends you know now from when they were a kid? You don’t expect them to be exactly the same today; it would be weird if they were. But the stories often do make you say, “Hey that actually explains a lot about you.” So also, we are no longer a church under age, but this church gathering explains a lot about our church gatherings today.
It gives us one of the main reasons we still gather for worship today: To hear God’s Word. Now it is worth realizing that we have more ways to access God’s Word today than the Israelites did then: They didn’t have printed Bibles, apps, audio recording, or livestreams. If they wanted to hear God’s Word, this is how it happened. But our immense privilege in having such easy access to God’s Word should serve to supplement gathering to hear His Word, rather than replacing it, for a few brief reasons: 1.) If you only ever read the Bible, you aren’t actually hearing it, and as a being with a sense of sight and sound, it is important that you also hear God’s Word read aloud, 2.) When you hear the Word in a church gathering, you hear it from and with people in your covenant community, who can actually hold you accountable to it. Audio recordings from elsewhere can’t do that. 3.) In order for any community to be built, they have to do things together. Reading or hearing the Bible alone forms you as an individual, but hearing it together forms us as a community. 4.) When the church gathers, there is a unique presence of the Spirit of Jesus among us. Jesus says in Matthew 18:20 that where (location) two or three are gathered in His name, there (location) is He among (location) them. We can do a lot through a livestream, but we can’t reproduce that through it.
And look, I’ve got no drive-by guilting for those of you who are watching this on livestream or recording; there are good, God-gloryifying to sometimes temporarily not gather for worship; that’s why we’ve had months over the past year where we haven’t. But I got this question from Pastor Matt up at Citylight Manayunk, and I think it’s really important: Here’s the question you’ve got to answer before the Lord: Are you staying home out of convenience, or out of conviction? If it’s out of conviction, if as best as you can tell, based on Scripture and your best assessment of your situation, God wants you to stay home, you should stay home. But if it’s out of convenience, you should be here. Either way, you need to realize that if you want to continue to be part of this church going forward, at some point, you will need to regather with us. Rebuilding requires regathering. We still need to hear God’s Word together as a covenant community.
And don’t get me wrong: It is inconvenient in some sense. I can’t imagine how inconvenient it would have been to assemble 50,000 people with their kids at the same time and place. They even had to build a wooden platform for the occasion. But it’s worth it. On that note, can I make a plea to you to really take on the inconvenience of getting here on time? Yes we typically start 5 minutes late to give people a little grace period, but we really are starting at that 5 minute mark, and after the announcements, that call to worship is the Word of God read aloud. There are at least 5 times in our service where the words of God are read aloud: The call to worship, the words of assurance, the sermon text, the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper, and the benediction. All of those matter, and we aren’t even stretching them from early morning to mid-day like Ezra did. Be here for them, and listen attentively to them, as they did here. The words of this book are God’s words; rebuilding requires regathering so we can hear them together. Rebuilding also requires regathering to worship the God of the Word together.
To worship the God of the Word together
So again, here’s a little explanation of the order of our services: We begin with a biblical call to worship, and then we begin to sing God’s praises. So here, after God’s Word is read aloud, verse 6 tells us that Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, which probably means he spoke aloud of God’s greatness, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bow their heads and worship the LORD with their faces to the ground. At Citylight we’re fond of saying that all of life is meant to be worship, and that is gloriously true, but there is still an activity called worship that we see in this verse that is something we set aside time from our ordinary lives to do together. It’s unlikely they were singing; before the coming of Christ, singing was done by only a small number within the congregation, but they may have been saying aloud what was true of God, or just bowing repeatedly as an act of worship. The two postures here of blessing the LORD and then bowing before Him correspond roughly to the first two things we do in our service: Call to worship, praise, and then humbling ourselves by a prayer of confession and lament.
In President Biden’s inauguration speech, he quoted Augustine’s definition of a city: “A multitude of rational beings united by a common love.” What Augustine really was saying is that if you want to build a city, a community, it has to be united by a common object of worship. Sociologists point out that what forms the deepest communities is a shared sense of “the sacred.” Worshiping together, then, is a key part of building any community, any city. Rebuilding requires regathering, but we aren’t just after community. Nehemiah wasn’t just trying to rebuild a city; he was trying to rebuild the city of God. The object of their worship, the common love uniting us, is the God of the Word, so the kind of worship taking place here in Nehemiah is a stark contrast to the worship of the surrounding nations. Typical worship in the ancient world looked similar to this in that people bowed down and worshiped. However, the object of their worship was a statue or image of some kind. Here all the people bow down, but there’s no statue or image they’re worshipping. The people don’t call for a statue in verse 1; they call for the Word. And they aren’t bowing down to the Book itself; they’re bowing down to the God of the Book, the great God, who is revealed by the Book. Commenting on Israel’s first worship gathering, one of the verses in the Book says that on that day, “You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut 4:12). That’s why God forbid them from bowing down to images.
So also, our worship today should look different from the worship of the peoples around us who worship different gods. It should look different from the worshiping crowd at an Eagles game, or the worshiping crowd at a concert. There are similarities just as there were in Israel’s case, but there are important differences. At a concert you’re there for the music; at a church gathering you’re there for the Word. We have a great band here, but we don’t worship because the band is great; we worship because the God is great, and the God is revealed through His Word. When we come here, we aren’t coming just to hang out and have fun, though our worship should be joyful, and we love catching up with one another before and after the service. We’re here to worship the living God. Could it be that sometimes we lose sight of that because we aren’t listening attentively to God’s Word? Passionate, deep worship like what we see here comes from passionate, deep listening to God’s Word. So let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, never forgetting that our God is a consuming fire. Rebuilding requires regathering to worship the God of the Word together And finally, rebuilding requires regathering to understand God’s Word together.
To understand God’s Word together
Verse 7 now lists off 13 more men who it seems were Levites, the priests of Old Testament Israel charged with teaching the book of the law. They helped the people understand the law, while the people remained in their places. We don’t know exactly how they did that, but the important thing is what they did: They helped the people understand the Law. Verse 8 unpacks that more fully: They read from the book of the Law, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
It is actually important, then, that you not only hear God’s Word, but that you understand it, and there are teaching officers set aside to help you do that called pastors, elders, or overseers in the New Testament. Reading or listening to the Bible on your own is great; such things will help you understand the Bible better and help you make sure what the pastor says is actually there in the Bible. But if reading and study on your own was sufficient, why did God set aside teaching officers in His church? Why did the Levites go out to help the people understand? Rebuilding requires regathering so the teaching officers of the church can exercise their teaching office and help the whole church understand God’s Word.
At Citylight that means when we gather, aside from reading Scripture aloud at least 5 times throughout the service, we also have times where the Scripture is explained, especially through the sermon. The type of preaching we do is called expositional or expository preaching, and Nehemiah 8:8 is one of the verses from which we get it. An expositional sermon is one where the preacher’s goal is to give the sense of the Scripture text that was read, so that the people understand it. A topical sermon is one in which the preacher comes with a topic or an idea that he wants to communicate, and then uses Scripture to support the idea he chose. Sometimes that may be a good or true idea, and other times it’s a downright heretical idea, but in either case, he’s not starting with God’s Word, then building his sermon in such a way as to give you the sense of the text, with the goal that you understand the text.
But at Citylight, we do our best to do Nehemiah 8:8, not only because it’s instanced for us in Scripture, but because we really believe God’s Word is good, powerful, and sufficient to cause deep worship, solid joy, and radical obedience. We believe that God’s Word itself is what rebuilds us; for those of you in the Colossians class with me, remember it’s the gospel word that we hear and understand that bears fruit and increases among us. So the work of the preacher is not to come up with his own ideas or give you something in addition to it, but simply to help you understand it. Do you listen to sermons with the hope to understand the passage that was read?
Consider this wise counsel from Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile: “When we listen to the preaching of the Word, we should not listen primarily for ‘practical how-to advice,’ though Scripture teaches us much about everyday matters. Nor should we listen for messages that bolster our self-esteem or that rouse us to political and social causes. Rather, as members of Christian churches we should listen…for the meaning of a passage of Scripture and accept that meaning as the main idea to be grasped for our personal and corporate lives as Christians.” In other words, a “win” for listening to a sermon is, “I now understand the Scripture on which that sermon was based.” And if you don’t, ask! I long for more days when after the service you all are coming up to me and the topic of conversation is, “Hey Mike, I noticed in verse 1 that they were meeting at the Water Gate, not at the temple. Why is that?” or “Hey what does it mean when the people say Amen in verse 6? We use that word all the time, but what does it mean?” Listen attentively to sermons for understanding of the Scripture that was read.
These words are the thing worth listening attentively to. These words are worth whatever inconvenience to gather and hear them. These words fuel our worship, these words are what we want to understand, and, ultimately, Jesus shows us why. Speaking of the words of Moses in this book, Jesus makes a stunning statement in John 5:46: “He wrote of me.” Jesus is saying, “This book…these words…they’re all about me!” This gathering brought together the people of Israel as one man, but listen to this description of what Jesus has done: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph 2). Jesus is the one man who gathers not just the people of Israel, but all the nations in Himself, and reconciled us to God through His death on the cross on our behalf.
When you hear of this church gathering of around 50,000 people, it sure makes 30 seem small. 30 is pretty small in comparison to what we are used to at Citylight. But when we gather for worship, we join in with a much larger church, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, the souls of those who have gone before us in death and who are gathered now in heaven bowing before the risen Lord Jesus Himself. We pray the day comes soon when our local congregation can gather as one man again, a people made up of diverse peoples ourselves, but our ultimate hope is for the day when Jesus will come to earth and assemble all His people from all the nations of the earth, and we will worship Him forever. As we see that Day drawing near to us, let us draw near to Him now by faith, and let us not give up meeting together to listen attentively to His Word read aloud and preached, and to offer to Him acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, in the name of Jesus Christ.