Something greater is needed…

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We’ve reached the end of the Nehemiah study with SheReadsTruth and the challenge today is to consider the way that the book of Nehemiah ends. The city of Jerusalem and its walls have been rebuilt, the temple has been rededicated and the people have worshipped God enthusiastically and vowed to keep his law again.

Nehemiah returns to his old job in the service of the king in Babylon. Some time later he discovers that all is not well in Jerusalem. The people have been neglecting their offerings to the Levites, so the priests have been forced to abandon their work and return to their fields; the Sabbath has become just another regular working and trading day; the men of Judah had married foreign wives from the surrounding pagan nations, and their children couldn’t even understand Hebrew (so they would have no chance of being able to understand the word of God). Tobiah (him again!) has been given a room in the temple by one of the priests (a relative) and he’s using it to store his household furniture!

Nehemiah is very angry.

He does some chasing and chastising and cleansing and even some hair pulling!

Even at the end of the book, when he’s reclaimed the temple back for God and reinstated the priests, the reader is left with the feeling that things are unlikely to continue to go well…

So why does the book end in this way?

I’ve considered three possible reasons:

1) God wants to show us that this pattern of enthusiasm followed by complacency and backsliding will always be a risk for his people whilst they live in a fallen world. Whilst we’re sin-prone humans, we will continue to mess up. We easily forget, we look away from God’s face, we get distracted by the shiny things in the world around us.

2) God wants to show us our need for Nehemiah-types. We need people who will stand up against wrongdoing and complacency in the church and get angry and pull some hair! We need to be called back by prophetic voices and shaken up when we’re wandering in the wrong direction.

3) Most of all, I think the message of Nehemiah is like the message of all the other books in the Old Testament. It’s the recurring story of all the heroes of Genesis, Exodus, Judges, Kings. We need something greater. We need a greater Moses, a greater Joshua, a greater Joseph, a greater David, a greater Nehemiah.

We need somebody greater.

When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem before the Passover, he enters the courts of the temple and finds them to be full of people trading, swindling and robbing the poor in the name of religious effort (John 2:13-22).

Jesus is very angry.

He does some chasing and chastising and cleansing and even some whip cracking!

Jesus promised to rebuild the temple of his body in three days when it was destroyed. This claim was misquoted against him in his trial before his crucifixion. When Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. He came to finish the work, to remove the yoke of atonement-by-law-keeping from his people. When he died, it was finished.

The message echoing through the pages of the Old Testament is the need for a permanent solution to the perpetual problem of sin. Jesus comes to provide this permanent solution.

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

Romans 3:19-25a

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Render to Caesar…

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“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Luke 20:25

Caesar was revered as a god by the Romans. All of the people, including the Jews, were obligated to pay heavy taxes to him. This was a highly controversial topic, and some Jews felt that it was wrong to pay taxes to a pagan ruler who had set himself up as a god. In an attempt to trap him, the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is lawful for the Jews to pay taxes to Caesar – if he says ‘no’, he will be accused of rebellion against Caesar, which could incur a death penalty; if he says ‘yes’, they know that the people will resent his apparent allegiance with Rome.

Jesus’ response takes them entirely by surprise and stuns them into silence – Caesar can have his taxes, he can be given what he is owed, but give back to God what belongs to him! In one sense, this includes all material ‘stuff’, since God ‘owns’ it all anyway. So in reality, no-one can really claim any permanent ownership of wealth or power. But in a deeper sense, God demands back that which bears his image (like the coin bears Caesar’s image) – i.e. ourselves.

We belong to God – created in his image and likeness. We cannot hold onto any part of our life and try to keep it back from God. In sending Jesus to die for us, in our place, he has paid the highest possible price for us.

God instructs us to submit to human authority (which is bestowed by him), obey the law, pay our taxes, etc, but above all of that, He is our highest authority. All that we have and all that we are is from God and belongs to him. How are we honouring God with our ‘stuff’ and ourselves?

He has overcome the world

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I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

John 16:33

Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for what they will face in the days ahead. His arrest, his death, their desertion, the despair and confusion between Friday and Sunday. Jesus has forewarned them that he will leave them, but that he will return again. Even after his glorious resurrection the remaining 11 disciples faced troubles – in fact every single one of the them, apart from John, died a premature death at the hands of persecutors.

We now live in an in-between time. We know that Jesus is alive and that he has conquered death and sin, and yet we still live in the fallen world. We are waiting for the final restoration and renewal of all things. Jesus knew that his disciples would need supernatural encouragement to make it through the days that would follow. He offers the same encouragement to us – no matter what the world throws at us, it will be OK, because he has overcome the world!

Jesus wants us to have peace. This does not mean an absence of trouble, but an ability to remain focussed, grounded and filled with hope and joy even in the midst of trials. Notice that the way we obtain this peace in him. We are wasting our time trying to find it in anything else.

The reason for my hope

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Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ.  1 Peter 3:15-16

Before we do anything, we need to remember who is Lord – Jesus. He alone is the one to whom every knee will eventually bow. If we’ve truly grasped this, and allowed him to be the pre-eminent one in our lives, we can be freed from inappropriate fear of other people. We should have a visible hope that prompts others to question ‘why?’. This hope is not false optimism or unrealistic idealism, but a steady, unshakeable certainty that God is in control and nothing that happens in this life is beyond his control or outside his will.

We need to be able to explain this hope clearly, gently and with respect for the other person’s point of view. There is no need to be loud, forceful or defensive – God’s truth is powerful and effective and it will work even when we feel rather inadequate!

We need to be living for an audience of One. The opinions of other should factor pretty low! Too often we are kept silent by fear of what others think. It is also good to study, discuss together and consider how to explain our faith and how to counteract misunderstanding.

I’d recommend Tim Keller’s book, The Reason For God, as a possible starting point if you feel ill-equipped to counter the criticisms that people have of Christianity.

He has borne our griefs

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He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.  Isaiah 53:3-5

Meditate on this incredible description of Jesus in Isaiah this weekend. Bring your griefs and sorrows to Him; let his wounds heal yours. Praise Him that his sufferings have paid for your sin.