Nehemiah: Always Reforming

Sermon by Gary Sinclair on July 18

Nehemiah 12:44-13:3

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Let me invite you to please take up a copy of the Word of God and turn with me to Nehemiah chapter 12 as we read from verse 44 through to chapter 13 and verse 3. This is the second to last message in our sermon series through the book of Nehemiah, and I suspect that as you reflect over what we have accomplished in the last three months and what we have been looking at, a tremendous amount has happened in a very short space of time in the time of Nehemiah.

You remember in chapters 1 through 7, the focus is on Nehemiah’s relocation from Persia to Jerusalem and his initial mobilization of the people of God in the rebuilding of the city walls of Jerusalem. And why was he doing that? Why was that the focus initially? Well it was to create safety, but ultimately so that he could turn his attention to the real issue, and that was the people of God. He wanted them to be a display not of the disgrace that was on display to people, but rather a display of grace to the surrounding nations. And so he turned his attention inward.

And so after the completion of the project, something rather remarkable happens. In chapter 8, we read about the fact that a very genuine revival breaks out. Ezra stands up to read God’s Word to the gathered people of God and the Holy Spirit comes down in power, convicting the people of their sin and their rebellion, of their idolatry and their blatant disobedience to the ways of God that had been handed onto them as the covenant people. And in that conviction of sin, we see repentance taking place. There’s personal repentance and there’s corporate repentance as the people of God are broken. And all of this in turn is followed by great rejoicing as they remember God’s deliverance and His grace towards them.

Friends, the spiritual revival caused them to remember, which brought the rejoicing and the ongoing reforms to the Word. And that’s what I want us to have a look at as we look at just two points from our passage this evening. Before we read God’s Word, let’s go to the Lord in prayer, shall we. Let’s pray.

Our Father in heaven, send Your Spirit we pray. Open up the Word that we may see You in all Your radiant glory and majesty. We pray this in Christ’s name, amen.

This is the Word of God. Nehemiah chapter 12, reading from verse 44:

“On that day men were appointed over the storerooms, the contributions, the firstfruits, and the tithes, to gather into them the portions required by the Law for the priests and for the Levites according to the fields of the towns, for Judah rejoiced over the priests and the Levites who ministered. And they performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did the singers and the gatekeepers, according to the command of David and his son Solomon. For long ago in the days of David and Asaph there were directors of the singers, and there were songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. And all Israel in the days of Zerubbabel and in the days of Nehemiah gave the daily portions for the singers and the gatekeepers; and they set apart that which was for the Levites; and the Levites set apart that which was for the sons of Aaron.

On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people. And in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, for they did not meet the people of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. As soon as the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent.”

The grass withers, the flowers fade, the Word of our God stands forever.

One of the things that has struck me anew over the last couple of weeks as Billy and Wiley have spent time expounding specifically chapter 12 is that, and as one pastor has put it, “every generation of the church stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before them.” “Every generation of the church stands on the shoulders of those that have gone before them.” I wonder if you noticed when you were going through chapter 12 over the last couple of weeks how Nehemiah, almost very deliberately, he anchors the people and the message with the past, speaking about events that took place, speaking about the names of those in generations of a bygone era. One example, chapter 12, the first 26 verses – in the midst of a slew of names being mentioned, they’re all people of a previous generation who no longer stand before Nehemiah and Ezra and amidst the community of faith that is before them. And yet they were instrumental in the beginning of the work that was now brought to completion with this other set of exiles, this group of exiles that came with Nehemiah.

You remember Zerubbabel. He returns with the first group of exiles and they rebuild the altar. They return in 538, 539 BC and they complete the altar in 536 BC. It takes a further 21 years, approximately 515 BC, when they will be finished with the temple itself. And it’s only a further 70 years down the line after another generation of exiles have returned that the city walls around Jerusalem will be completed. Nehemiah is tracing the lineage of the generations that have come before, and he speaks of Zerubbabel and he speaks of Jeshua, the political and the religious leaders, in verses 1 through 9. In verses 10 and 11, he speaks of Jeshua’s successors, Joiakim and Eliashib, and then he speaks of the generations of priests and Levites in verses 12 through 26 that leads right up until the priests and the Levites that are standing before them and ministering in the temple courtyards.

How important it is for us to remember. David actually picked up on this this morning as he was preaching in 2 Peter chapter 3 – the importance of remembering. The Bible implores us to remember regularly. Time and time and time again – remember your God, remember all that He has done, remember what He has accomplished for you in Jesus Christ, remember all the promises that are yours because of your union with Jesus Christ, remember all the faithful in the church who have gone before you, whom the Lord has preserved and He’s advanced the Gospel so that, at an appointed time in your life, it intersects with the message of Jesus and you are transferred in that moment from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. Remember. We desperately need to remember how God has worked sovereignly through responsible human beings down through the ages to accomplish His work of redemption.

So let’s just trace a little bit of history here – the 2,000 years before Christ. There’s Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There’s Moses and there’s Aaron and there’s Joshua. There’s Ruth and there’s David. There’s Ezra and Nehemiah, just to mention ten names from the Old Testament. And then at the appointed time, all of that was leading up to when the Son of God would be enfleshed and He would dwell among us and He would accomplish that which was planned from before the foundation of the world and that had been spoken of so clearly in the old covenant. We also need to remember the faithfulness of God over the last 2,000 years of church history. There’s the apostles. They are the ones that advanced the Gospel into large sways of Asia Minor, who wrote and preserved the New Testament texts until they came together in the canon that we have today. And yet all of them were martyred for their faith.

There’s the Early Church fathers. We pick up on Ignatius and Polycarp, for instance, who stood for truth in the face of error and growing heresy in the early church. And both of them would be martyred. One of them would be thrown to the lions and the other one, at the age of 86, would be burned at the stake. Then, in late antiquity, there’s Augustine, or Augustine, one of the great minds that has been given to the church. And there’s the Cappadocian fathers who were responsible for helping us to understand and explain and express classical theism, Trinitarian theology. And it was in that time that we actually have the Apostles and the Nicene and the Athanasian creeds being written, and they are still said today in the church, 2,000 years later. What about the Medieval Church? It’s great expansion into Europe and into Britain and on to Ireland. In the Middle Ages, we have Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas a Kempis, two individuals that would come to be known as the Puritans of the Middle Ages because of their deep longing to know God and to reflect the holiness that is spoken of in Scripture, of Christian piety. And together with them, we have the minds of Anselm and of course the theologian, Thomas Aquinas. Again, a great blessing, a rich theologian that has been gifted to the church. And yet when he was being mentored in his earlier years, his mentor referred to him as a “dumb ox.” And yet such a great gift to the church.

What about the Renaissance Church? Quite honestly, probably one of the most corrupt seasons in the Christian Church’s history, and yet there were lights like John Wycliffe and Jan Huss. And then of course you’ve got the Reformation. We’re more familiar with that. You’ve got Martin Luther and John Calvin and John Knox, Martin Bucer and Bullinger, Ridley and Cranmer and many others. Remember. Remember. Remember. Then there is the period of the Protestant scholastics and it’s out of this season that we have the Westminster Confession of Faith and the catechisms. We have the legacy of the 17th century Puritans and in the 18th century we’ve got the Awakenings under the preaching of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. And it was their preaching that actually sparked the modern missionary movement as missionaries would lay down their lives to go to Africa and to Latin America and to Asia and Australasia, never knowing whether they would come back and see their family again. And then of course I’m compelled, because of the report we heard this evening with what’s going on with Honduras, I’m compelled to say that there is a 20th century theologian called Herman Bavinck that we get to inherit so much from as well. I’m just teasing! He’s a great theologian!

Friends, as we gather in worship this evening, we never gather independently of what God has done through the course of human history. We are actually building on the shoulders of those who have gone before us and we are reminded in times like this of the mercy and the kindness of God to build the Church through unprecedented means, as we heard testimony about just a few short moments ago – to build the Church, to cleanse sinners, and to faithfully preserve the Gospel in every generation. And that really is why they are celebrating in verses 27 through 43, the verses just prior to what we read. They’re celebrating and rejoicing and giving thanks and giving praise to God, not just because of the completion and the dedication of the wall, but because they are reminded that it has taken previous generations to get them to this point where they could see the hand and the work of God. Gathered worship and the importance of gathered worship is to prepare us to have our gaze reorientated towards the heavens so that we are then equipped to go out for scattered worship where there are further reforms in our lives as God is at work in and through us.

Sacrificial Giving

And so for this evening, two points. And it’s two points of ongoing reform that emerge from these verses. And we’ll entitle them – sacrificial giving and sacrificial living. That’s quite easy to remember, I think! So let’s consider the first area of reform – sacrificial giving. We see it in verses 44 through 47 of chapter 12. Verse 44 begins, “On that day.” In other words, no sooner had the community finished in their gathered worship, in the dedication of the wall, than they instinctively respond to God with what can only be called the fruit of scattered worship. In other words, from the labors of the land and the field and in the marketplace, they are bringing that back as an offering to the Lord so that that can be used to sustain the work of ministry at the temple and beyond. And this sacrificial giving that is mentioned in verse 44 begins the same day as the dedication service, but it is ongoing. It is part of their life from there on in, as they bring daily that which is required to sustain those who have been called of God. God was reforming them to His Word.

Now why is this important for us to take a moment to consider? Well we need to remember that there was a season in the history of Israel where the Jews had neglected to take care of the priests and the Levites. In actual fact, they saw them more as a burden than as a blessing. And with the consideration of the Levites and the priests being a burden, they actually severed themselves from the source of their own spiritual teaching – the means of grace; they cut themselves off from that. And yet what we see is with the revival that happens in chapter 8 and the ongoing work of the Spirit through the Word, change was taking place as God was slowly ministering once again to His people reminding them of the great truths. He was reforming and sanctifying their lives. No longer did they see the Levites and the priests and the temple itself as a burden, but in actual fact they saw it as a privilege. They saw it as a grace of God. Look at verse 44, right at the end. It says, “For Judah rejoiced over the priests and the Levites who ministered there.” That wasn’t always the case.

Now if we bring that a little bit closer to home, “Do we see this as a privilege and a grace of God that we can gather together, Sunday morning, Sunday evening, to sing God’s praise, to sit under the reading of the Word, and sit under the preaching of the Word? Do we see it as a privilege? Do we see it as this is the place where God has ordained to meet with His people to encourage us and to deal with our hearts in preparation for the week that lies ahead?” It’s part of what happens here. And friends, as they bring their contributions and as they bring their firstfruits and as they bring their tithes in, they are essentially fulfilling what they actually covenanted to do in chapter 10, verses 28 through 39. And you can go and read that in your own time. The reason that that’s important to mention is because in the midst of a revival people can respond with emotionalism. They can say, “Yes, we will do this – X, Y and Z.” But here, it wasn’t just words. They were actually desiring to live out that which they said that they would do in the covenant worship from a couple of chapters beforehand. There is genuine reform that is taking place amidst the people of God here.

And this reform in giving is merely a physical, a responsive act of obedience within the greater service of worship that was taking place. Look down at the text again. Verse 45 – The priests and the Levites were told, “perform the service of God and the service of purification.” In other words, the priests and the Levites were leading the people in prayer. They were leading them in sacrifice. They were leading them in the explanation of what the sacrifice represents. They were reading the Word. They were preaching the Word, explaining it to them. And then in verses 45 and 46, we have the singers and the gatekeepers, faithfully ministering through songs of praise and songs of thanksgiving. All of this, all of this service of worship is designed to reorientate the gaze of the people toward God Himself.

Now just before I continue, one further detail that I just love – and it kind of ties in with what we began this evening in our sermon with – I love how Nehemiah anchors what they are doing at the temple with the priests and with the Levites with Israel’s past. Notice how he speaks about the tradition of music and song going back to David and to Asaph. And that giving, as in the days of Zerubbabel, has now been picked up and restored as in the days of Nehemiah. And that the sacrifices of the Levites and the sons of Aaron – once again tracing the history. He’s trying to remind them this is not something new. This is something that is part of the order in which God has ordained to be worshipped.

And that really brings us to the place where we need to consider the fact that we do not get to pick and choose how God is to be worshipped. God as the Creator has ordained how He wants the creature to worship Him. In Reformed and Presbyterian circles, that would be called “the regulative principle of worship,” where there is singing and there is praying and there is the reading of the Word and there is the preaching of the Word and there is baptism and Lord’s Supper and there is giving. All of that comes straight out of the text of Scripture that this is what God has said – “This is how you ought to worship Me.” And so we don’t incorporate things that are not expressly stated in the Word itself.

And I want you to notice how in the wisdom of God the elements of worship that form part of the regulative principle, they engage our entire being. Our voices are engaged and our ears are engaged as we listen to everyone else singing. If you’re sitting next to me, maybe squawking. But our heads and our hearts are engaged, our affections and our wills. It engages our personal dependence upon God as we pray to Him, asking for repentance and even offering up our prayers of supplication. It engages us in our livelihood dependence as we bring back to God, we give back to Him a portion of that which He has entrusted to us, that He has blessed us in the fruitfulness of our lives. Sight and taste is engaged in the sacraments themselves. You see, in worship we taste of the grace and the mercy of God and it’s just a natural response that we respond with thankfulness and joyfulness in our giving in order to sustain that which the Lord is doing, so that the baton can be passed on to the next generation and they too can remember.

Sacrificial Living

And that brings us to the second point that I want us to bring out in the text because it’s not just our giving, but in actual fact it’s our entire lives that the Lord is after. And so the second area of reform that we see is sacrificial living. We see it in verses 1 through 3 of chapter 13. An expanded heading could be sacrificial obedience in living. Again, we see that phrase in verse 1, “On that day,” but most commentators are in agreement that this phrase in verse 1 does not carry exactly the same period of time that is mentioned in verse 44. This is more of a loose expression of time – “Around that time,” or “At that time,” these things took place. In other words, having completed and dedicated the wall, having gathered in worship at the temple, having sung their hearts out in thanksgiving and praise to God, having given of the fruits of scattered worship to maintain and sustain the work of ministry, they keep returning to sit under the regular, systematic reading of the Word. And it’s in that ordinary, systematic, regular reading of the Word that verses 1 through 3 we realize they’re cut to the heart once again. That’s the power of the Word – to pierce the heart, the human heart, to bring us to a place of repentance and dependence.

Now as they are reading, we know that in verse 1 it says they are reading from the book of Moses. More particularly, we know that it is from Deuteronomy 23 verses 3 through 5 because the verses here in verses 1 through 3 is almost a direct quote from the passage in Deuteronomy 23. And as they are reading, they come across this little detail that no Ammonite and no Moabite is allowed to enter the assembly of God. Why? Well look at verse 2 – “For they did not meet the people of Israel with bread and water but hired Balaam against them to curse them. Yet our God turned the curse into a blessing.” So what’s going on here? Well the historical backdrop to this passage goes to Numbers 22 through 25. I’m not going to read that this evening; you can go and do that during your devotional time tonight or tomorrow morning. But in Numbers 22 and 25, it’s the narrative of Balaam and his talking donkey. You probably know it quite well.

Israel is on their way to the Promised Land but they needed to cut through the land of Moab in order to get to their destination from where they were right now. And so the Israelites approach the Moabites and they say, “Look, can you give us permission to just cut through the land? We won’t do anything. We won’t take anything. We’ve got our own food so we won’t be a disturbance. We just want to save some time and energy.” And the Moabites, they respond with, “No, quite frankly we don’t want you here so, no.” And then of course you’ve got the whole interaction of Balaam and the donkey and how God turns the curse into a blessing. For some reason – and there is a historical basis to this – for some reason Moab and their neighbors, the Ammonites, they hated God and they hated God’s people. They were a literal thorn in Israel’s flesh, not just for a couple of decades but for most of the generations in which Israel existed, striving to antagonize and distract God’s people in their worship of God and their obedience to the Law of God itself.

And one could say that Moab and Ammon are really just representative of the distractions of life at large – the world, the flesh and the devil. You know what it’s like every morning. You wake up, the alarm goes off, and you have the best of intentions to get to the Bible and to have your Bible time and your personal study, and all of a sudden the phone is starting to ping and you’ve got 100 emails or 50 texts or however many social media alerts and it becomes this distraction and immediately it takes you away from what you know you’d long to do and you desire to do. And so God puts this prohibition in place that no Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly.

And it’s here in this portion of the Word that once again they realize they’ve been disobedient. Isn’t that a reminder to us of how we can read the same passage of Scripture over and over and one time it means nothing and another time, because of the situation of life that we’re in, it really pierces us and it brings us to repentance and it brings us to love the Lord our God more and more. And immediately we are told in the text that they respond in obedience by taking the first steps, in this case, not to intermarry with others.

Now there may be some of you who may be thinking at this point that what Nehemiah is writing here in verse 1 sounds a bit like a bit of a racial or cultural prohibition. Please don’t misinterpret it that way at all. This is simply a prohibition that has been instituted by God for God’s people to maintain a religious protection against the paganism and the idolatry that it doesn’t come into the religious services of God Himself. In other words, no watering down of that which God has instituted. It also has a connection to the ethics that is so often associated with the idolatry of the surrounding nations.

And just as a point of proof, I guess you could say, in case you’re wondering if it’s a racial or cultural prohibition, throughout the Old Testament we are reminded that those who will turn away from their idolatry and turn to worship and believe in the living God, they will be embraced. They are completely welcomed within the community of God’s people. You just think of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite, a Moabitess, and she was a direct ancestor of Jesus Christ. And it was her testimony to her mother-in-law when she said, “Your people are my people and your God is my God,” that it caused her to be embraced by the people of God themselves.

As you’re reading those three verses in chapter 13, the beautiful thing that ought to strike us is that when they realize their sin, they turn from it. That’s repentance. That’s repentance. That’s sort of what David was speaking about this morning and it comes up again in our text. That’s what we are called to do whenever God ministers to us, whenever He exposes our rebellion and our sinful inclinations. It’s to get on our knees and repent, to confess our sin and ask for His grace and mercy to restore us. We must keep coming back to the Word. That’s our compass. It points us to true North, to “true truth,” as Francis Schaeffer said. It lights the path with the light of the Gospel one day at a time. Come back to the Word. Read it. Study it. Memorize it. Pray it. Have it with you throughout the day.

Now friends, these changes in Israel – their sacrificial giving and their sacrificial living – it didn’t happen out of the cleverness of their own doing. This was not something that all of a sudden they just dreamt up and they started to act upon. This was very clearly the grace of God as the Spirit of God applied the Word of God to the people of God, bringing them to a realization as they were revived, so also they need to be reformed in their giving and their living. But, and this is the instructive part here because we are not going to get to it this week – there is no guarantee as to how long the reforms will last. You’ll see in chapter 13 from verse 4 through to the end that in actual fact it didn’t take long before they started to go wayward and God needed to continually remind them to reform them.

So let me say this in closing. It’s the Word and the Spirit that revives us to life. Have you been revived to life? Brothers and sisters, if you are sitting here this evening and you have not come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, I pray that you will take the time to repent of your sin and come to the Savior, acknowledge Him as Lord and come into a relationship with God Most High. But it’s the Spirit and the Word that revives us to life and it brings thanksgiving and rejoicing in the whole of our lives. It’s the Spirit through the Word that brings personal and corporate reformation where we are continuously being sanctified and reformed to reflect that of the Word itself. God allows us to remember, to read, to reflect, to rediscover, to repent and to rejoice, especially as we remember and as we reflect upon the sacrificial giving of God in giving His own Son. What greater sacrificial gift could there have been in Jesus Christ taking on human flesh, dwelling among us, knowing that He would be paying the price for all repentant sinners who would come and know the grace of God? In addition to that, we remember and reflect on the sacrificial living of Jesus Christ – a Man with completely no sin, no desire to sin, living a perfectly righteous life so that when He dies He takes on our sin and all who will come to Him will be clothed in righteousness. It’s the great exchange. The great gift of salvation. There is no greater sacrificial gift or sacrificial life that has been lived. And God is continually working in us to reform us in our word, in our actions, our thoughts and our deeds.

May God continue to do that work as we realize more and more that He is after our giving and our living, He’s after our belongings and our being, He’s after the whole of who we are as we depend upon Him. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer shall we? Let’s pray.

Our Father in heaven, we thank You that You never give up. You’re constantly at work as Your Spirit and Your Word draws us to Yourself, showing us more of You and more of what You have been doing and how You are still at work. Father, do a great work in each of our lives this evening, showing us more and more of Jesus Christ that we may love Him more fully. And we pray this in Christ’s name, amen.

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