Usually, the story of the Old Testament is a story of spiritual failure. However, there are times when God’s people get it right. One of these rare occasions appears in Nehemiah 8. Immediately before this, Nehemiah has led the people to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, and now they have all assembled in a square before the Water Gate to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets. In their conduct, we see three things that we ought to imitate.
They Were Attentive to the Law
This chapter is filled with evidence that the Jews of this day cared about the Law. In Nehemiah 8:1, they tell Ezra that now that they’re assembled, they want to hear him read the Law. According to 8:3, they listen attentively to the reading of the Law from early morning to midday. In 8:5, they stand when the scroll of the Law is opened and bow low in worship. Finally, in 8:8, they listen to those who are explaining the Law until they all understand it.
At this point in Jewish history, most of the people are probably illiterate. Additionally, they likely couldn’t afford to purchase a scroll of the Law even if they could read it. They didn’t have a building in which to assemble to hear the Law; they just stood on the pavement. In every one of these ways, our situation is better than theirs. Our access to God’s word is so much easier. Is our zeal for that word equal to theirs?
They Took the Law to Heart
Nehemiah 8:9-12 reports the reaction of the people to the reading. They weep because they understand how far short they have fallen of God’s expectations. However, a few verses later, we find them rejoicing, taking their strength from their joy in God. For them, hearing God’s word is both a meaningful and an extremely emotional experience.
By contrast, all too many Christians today declare (either openly or by their behavior) that the word of God is borrring. Frankly, that says a lot more about them than it does about the word. We can’t truly have a heart for God unless we also have a heart for His revelation. We too should be moved when we hear or read it. It is no less beautiful, meaningful, and powerful today than it was in Nehemiah’s time. However, if we want to find beauty, meaning, and power in it, we first must invest ourselves in its study.
They Restored the Practice of the Law
In Nehemiah 8:13-18, the people learn from the Law that they’re supposed to be celebrating the Feast of Booths (as set out in Leviticus 23:33-44), so they cut branches, construct booths of them, and live in them through the time of the feast. Nehemiah notes that this festival had not been celebrated correctly since the days of Joshua, nearly a thousand years before.
We too should be zealous to obey every commandment of God, especially those commandments that long have been neglected. We must beware of the danger of accumulating our set of “Church of Christ traditions”, things that we do because we have always done them, not because we are seeking to obey God’s will. Like the Jews of Nehemiah’s time, we must compare our practice to God’s law and unflinchingly obey Him no matter what that demands of us.
Even though I’m out of the Bible-review business, the form of the word of God still fascinates me almost as much as its contents. As a result, it was with great interest that I read a post about Bibles from my friend and brother Ryan Boyer. Ryan argued that just as a police officer or other firearm-wielder ought to rely on one weapon, so that they can become completely familiar with all its characteristics and quirks, so too Christians ought to rely on one Bible.
There’s a lot that I like about Ryan’s argument. First of all, it’s emotionally powerful. Lots of Bible collectors are Bible collectors because they’ve spent decades searching for that one perfect Bible that does everything they want it to. Something inside us believes that we ought to have a one-and-only Bible, and I think it’s a mistake to ignore that voice.
Second, there’s much to be said for familiarity with a particular physical format. Barring some unusual circumstance, I do think it’s wise to make our primary Bible the Bible that we use for daily reading. An increasing number of studies have found that we better remember what we have read from a physical book as opposed to a screen. We are physical creatures, and reading out of a paper Bible is a physical act. The sensation of holding the Bible and manipulating the pages, plus seeing layout in a non-virtual space, helps us remember where passages are.
After having used dozens of Bibles during my Bible-reviewing days, I’ve settled on a primary Bible (a top-grain cowhide Crossway Large-Print Thinline Reference, not that I’m particular about covers or anything) and enjoy having a primary Bible. However, there are still circumstances in which I turn to a different Bible:
- I rarely-to-never bring my primary Bible home from the church building because I am absent-minded and will end up leaving it at home, which is unhelpful.
- When I'm studying with somebody who is a Biblical novice but wants to use a paper Bible, I will use a Bible with the same layout and page numbering as our giveaway Bibles (the Crossway Large-Print Value Thinline). That way, I can tell them, "Turn to Page 1152,” even if they don't know Genesis from Revelation. However, this Bible isn't a wonderful reading Bible for me (the lines are too short), and it doesn't have a lot of the helps I look for in a desk Bible.
- When I'm preparing a textual study of a book, my first step is to read the book out of my six-volume Crossway Reader's Bible. This Bible is optimized for reading and doesn't have chapter or verse numbers, so that I have an easier time following the flow of argument through the book. However, it's tough to preach out of a Bible with no chapter or verse numbers! Lack of chapter numbers also makes it difficult to use this Bible to keep either of my two reading schedules.
Ultimately, I believe (and I know Ryan would agree) that the word of God that matters most isn’t the word of God in our hands. It’s the word of God in our hearts. So far as I know, not one first-century Christian possessed a complete copy of the New Testament, but they managed just fine without it.
That same word still saves us today, and whatever method will best get it inside us, be it a top-grain cowhide Crossway Large-Print Thinline Reference, a different translation for each day of the week, or even an e-Bible on a smart phone, that’s the method we should use. What we are reading or studying can make a difference. That we are reading and studying makes all the difference in the world.
I suppose it makes sense that the New Testament figure with the most to say about the afterlife is the One who had actually seen it beforehand. I’ve known for years that the Bible records more teaching about hell from Jesus than from any other source. It makes for an amusing rebuttal to the people who claim to be followers of a sweetness-and-light Jesus while rejecting the teachings of His mean ole followers. Wherever they found their Jesus, they didn’t find Him in the Scriptures.
Recently, I’ve come to realize that Jesus is also the source most responsible for Bible teaching about our afterlife in heaven. Sure, you’ve got a goodly chunk of material in Revelation 21-22, but I’m only about 55 percent certain that it’s about heaven (as opposed to being about the victorious church), and John’s efforts to conceal his point from Scripturally ignorant contemporaries also serve to conceal his point pretty well from many Christians today. Unless you’re playing Old Testament Reference Bingo as you work through Revelation, you’re not going to get it.
Jesus, on the other hand, talks about heaven in Matthew 22:1-14, 25:1-13, Luke 13:22-30, 14:15-24, and 22:28-30. Toss in the description of paradise as “Abraham’s side” in Luke 16:19-31, and you’ve got a considerable body of teaching that all employs the same accessible metaphor. To Jesus, heaven is a banquet, a wedding feast. I don’t think we’re doing the text a disservice to say that Jesus wants us to see heaven as an eternal party.
At this thought, a number of brethren become alarmed. In our society, after all, “party” has some ugly connotations. We hear “party” and think “frat-house kegger”. However, even for us, the essence of partying isn’t in getting drunk and sinning. Somebody who gets drunk by himself isn’t a party animal. He’s an alcoholic.
Instead, having a party is about being around other people and having fun with them. Certainly, I would choose different companions than the boys down at Delta Psi, and I would do different things with those companions, but for all of us, a party is about companionship.
As ideas go, that one is awfully close to the Biblical concept of fellowship, and fellowship is exactly what Jesus is attempting to convey with all of his feasting imagery. In Luke 16, Lazarus isn’t in Abraham’s bosom because they’re snuggling. It’s because they’re reclining at table, and Lazarus is leaning back against Abraham. In the final working-out of the kingdom of God, pauper and patriarch will celebrate together.
In No Exit, Sartre famously declares that hell is other people. He is exactly wrong. Hell isn’t other people. Heaven is. It’s impossible for us to get to heaven without loving others, and heaven will be filled with those who return our love. The joy that we experience there will be like the joy of an evening spent with dear friends, only intensified and prolonged for eternity.
Of course, the centerpiece of this eternal feast will be the bridegroom Himself, Jesus. I’ve never had a conversation with Jesus, though I desperately long to, but in heaven, the yearning of every honest heart for Him will be satisfied. Forever with the Lord, forever with His people—that’s a party that everyone should strive to attend!
Wholly devoted to Christ may I be:
Saved by my faith in His mercy to me,
Bound to my Master, yet joyful and free,
Wholly devoted to Jesus!
Wholly devoted, resolved to be pure,
Scorning the passing for what shall endure,
Journeying upward with step light and sure,
Wholly devoted to Jesus!
Wholly devoted in work and in prayer,
Useful for service and ready to share,
Never distracted by blessing or care,
Wholly devoted to Jesus!
Wholly devoted from day until night,
Trusting His promise as faith becomes sight,
Praising His glory through ages of light,
Wholly devoted to Jesus!
Of all the leaders in the Bible, Nehemiah is one of my favorites. He confronts a wide variety of problems, but through them all, he remains steadfast in his purpose, trusts God, and eventually achieves success.
One of Nehemiah’s most revealing actions, though, is something that he does not do. Nehemiah 6:10-13 tells the story. At this point in the book, the work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem is nearly completed. The enemies of the Jews, led by Tobiah, Sanballat, and Geshem, have already tried the threat of force, assassination, and a whispering campaign. However, due to Nehemiah’s determination, none of these schemes have worked.
Their next attempt is even subtler. Beginning in v. 10, Nehemiah visits the house of a prophet named Shemaiah. Shemaiah reports that Nehemiah’s enemies are coming to kill him, so in order to save his life, Nehemiah needs to flee into the temple and bar the doors behind him.
Nehemiah reacts with outrage, and he does so for two reasons. First, such cowardice would be exactly the opposite of the example that the people need. Second, Nehemiah isn’t a priest. He knows that he isn’t allowed to enter the temple, into which only the priests can go as part of their daily and yearly service. In Nehemiah’s view, it would be better for him to die outside the temple than to flee into the temple and save his life.
At some point, Nehemiah realizes that Shemaiah has only said these things because Tobiah and Sanballat have paid him to do so. However, whether we are faced with hired liars or not, Nehemiah’s resolution has much to teach us. In our lives too, there are those who encourage disobedience to the law of God because it appears to be expedient. These false counselors will advise us to reject God’s pattern for worship because you need a praise band up on stage in order to draw young people. They’ll tell us that we should use anything from raffles to free food to attract those whom the gospel won’t attract, so that maybe they’ll get a little gospel on the side.
Though such advice appears wise to the world, it can only bring disaster to the kingdom of God. First, it requires us to abandon our conviction that God’s way works. I believe in the power of the gospel to touch hearts and change lives just as it did 2000 years ago. I believe that the simple pattern of the New Testament will still please God and edify men as it did in the first century. Why abandon the perfect wisdom of God for the wisdom of men, which has proven to be anything but perfect?
Even if God’s way isn’t working anymore, even if we are living in a time like the time of Noah, there’s no point in using clever tricks to expose sinners to a powerless gospel. If those who will have no interest in God come for the sake of free food, their interest will continue to be in free food and not in God. They will remain unconverted. Conversely, if the power of God can reach them, the free food is unnecessary.
No matter how threatening the times may seem to be, the example of Nehemiah shows us that the best course is to remain steadfast. What is right always has been right and will continue to be right. The ancient paths will lead us to success, but listening to Shemaiahs can only entice us into failure.