Why Give a Rip About Nehemiah?
Good morning, everybody. Good morning to everybody who is live streaming this morning, as well. I want to say, one interesting thing I’ve learned about this season of culture and life is that in our gatherings live and in our gatherings via livestream, that our kids are more present than ever in our gatherings, which I think is a great thing. Over at Northwest, it’s been awesome to have everybody together.
So, a couple of things. One, I just wanted to honor parents who are working really hard to bring their kids to the gathering and wrestling with them the entire time that they are here. I also want to let parents’ consciences be clear. Everybody here knows kids make noise. We’re all good. And I think it’s interesting that we’ve seen pictures on social media of groups at home, those of you are gathered at home, families even gathering together in a home altogether. So, as I thought about that today, stepping into the book of Nehemiah, I wanted the children both live and at home to know (and by children, I mean, let’s put anybody middle school and under for this moment) that I want to work really hard to include you today. But I need a favor. I need you to work hard with me. I’m going to do my best to preach in such a way that everybody can understand something about why Nehemiah matters, whether you’re a kid or an adult. Okay?
So, we’re all going to begin with a corporate question. Everyone here or online, the question is going to pop up here, and we’re going to read it out loud together. In either venue, if your kids are too young to know the last word, somebody clue them in so that we can all say this out loud together — this question we’re going to ask each other. So, I’m going to put it up, we’re going to put this question up. Look at it for a second so that we know what we’re going to ask. If you need help with that last word, tell that person what the word is. And now at home, you guys do it, too. I know it can be awkward in home gatherings to even sing out loud, but everybody is going to say this out loud. No church mumble. We’re going to say it out loud together. Ready? Here we go.
Why give a rip about Nehemiah? Why should we even care about the book of Nehemiah? If you think about it, Nehemiah, this book in the Bible, doesn’t get a whole lot of love from people. It’s probably one of the least popular books right up there with Obadiah and Chronicles. There are precious few really cool memes about Nehemiah on Instagram. Some of you might have had grandmothers who used to do that cross stitch thing where you would cross stitch verses and put them up on the wall. I bet very few people have ever seen a cross stitch of Nehemiah put up on a wall.
Church people are interesting. When tragedy strikes, there are verses that we immediately pull out like Romans 8:28. When we’re trying to train people to be kind or to do the right thing, we might quote from Ephesians, “Be kind to one another.” Our culture even pulls out verses like when Jesus says, “Judge not that you be not judged.” They’ll even quote those verses among each other. But when does Nehemiah ever get a shout out? When is Nehemiah ever brought up? Now, some of you might have an answer why we should care about Nehemiah. Your answer might be, “Well, Ryan, it’s in the Bible. That’s why we should care about it.” And in a way, that’s a really good beginning answer.
Let’s ask a different question. Why should we care about our diet? Why should we care about the food that we eat? Well, an answer to that question might be, “Well because doctors say so. You should care about what you take because of your health, your doctor says that will help you be healthy. Well, here’s another question. Does my doctor’s opinion about my diet keep me from eating cheese danishes? No, it does not. It didn’t yesterday. I was over by Strossner’s Bakery and I went in and had one. That’s a true story. I actually had that. So, when we look at Nehemiah and ask why we should care about it, Nehemiah is in the Bible, and that is a good answer. But I wonder if that answer is big enough or rich enough or exciting enough to really make us want to dive in and read and explore and devour Nehemiah. The answer, “Nehemiah is in the Bible,” makes us respect Nehemiah. But it may not make us love the book of Nehemiah.
And I think it’s okay for us as church people to say, whether you’re young (you’re a child), or you’re new to following Jesus, or you’re new to the Bible, or you’ve been a Christian for decades, there are some books in the Bible that are just hard to get through, and there’s nothing wrong with saying that out loud to each other. Working through the Bible is really hard work. Think of what we have to work through to understand the book of Nehemiah. I’ll just give you some of the things that we’re going to have to wrestle with to understand it.
Different culture. And what I mean by culture is, Nehemiah happened in a completely different time than ours, in a completely different part of the world, with a whole bunch of different ethnicities, different politics, different normal ways that they acted in real life, different religious practices. And in Nehemiah, there are these long lists of names that we can barely pronounce, and we may have no idea who those people really are.
Also, when we come to Nehemiah, there are a lot fewer specific commands and applications than when we read the New Testament. And what I mean by that is this. Jesus, we learned last week when Matt preached said, “Love your neighbor.” Well, that’s not super complex. We may not do it, but the application of “love your neighbor” is not complex. We can figure out how to love our neighbor. Paul says that church people, the way we interact with each other, we should do everything without grumbling or complaining. Again, that’s a pretty clear command and application. When we get to Nehemiah, there’s not quite as many of those that are really clear and really easy to grab on to. So, as we wrestle with Nehemiah, I hope to provide you today with two solid, energizing, clear reasons to love and care about the book of Nehemiah. And for you to do that, I’m going to have to tell you two stories.
Story #1, Jesus and Nehemiah. Now, this story happens about 450 years after the book of Nehemiah. There’s this man named Jesus who through a life of love and service, impacted an entire region. Jesus was from a town called Nazareth. When Jesus taught, he was different than any other religious leader that had ever taught. The way he lived his life, he was like this humble hero. His words were compassionate and challenging at the same time. His teaching was radical for his day, but very real. He was a carpenter, and he impacted a region so much that crowds of people followed this Jesus of Nazareth to listen to his teaching. Religious leaders actually spied on him, and the government hated him. Miracles that Jesus did, supernatural things that Jesus did, made many consider Jesus to be the Messiah. And Messiah is kind of a … Think of it this way, Jewish people think of the Messiah as a servant rescuer. So, when Jesus did these miracles, people thought, “This is the Messiah, the Jewish rescuer.” Other people, when they saw these miracles, hurled accusations at Jesus.
This man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, when he was 33, was sentenced to death by the government. They said he had to die by crucifixion — die up on a cross. This miracle-working savior died, and his corpse was placed into a tomb. And his most trusted followers, his friends, his buddies (called the disciples), and other followers were an absolute mess at this point, when Jesus died. When he was taken into custody to be killed, all of his followers basically deserted him. He was by himself. One follower kind of came close to Jesus when Jesus was at a fake trial. But when they found out that he was a follower of Jesus, he had to pretend that he didn’t follow Jesus. It would appear that when Jesus actually died, the only people that were there for him were his mom, a really good friend, and one of his followers named John.
Three days later, after Jesus of Nazareth died, that dear friend (her name was Mary Magdalene), Mary, went to the tomb, and the stone was rolled away from the door. And Mary actually looked in there, and the body of Jesus was gone. And Mary freaked out at this point. She could not understand what was going on. She thought what happened was the government stole the body of Jesus to further humiliate Jesus and his teachings and to punish him. So then Mary, looking around, saw this person she thought was a gardener. So, she went up to the gardener and said, “Sir, can you tell me what happened to the body of Jesus? Did they take him away?” And the gardener gave her no answer. But as he spoke to her, he actually used her name and said, “Mary.” And in that moment, she knew who it was. It wasn’t a gardener. It was Jesus. He had come back to life, and he was there. And Mary was so excited when she saw that Jesus was actually alive, that she gave him a great big bear hug that was so tight that Jesus actually had to say to Mary, “Mary, let me go. I still have work to do. I still have things I have to do.” And then Jesus told Mary, “Hey, go tell my disciples that I’m alive. My buddies, my followers, tell them that I’m okay. Mary, be my witness to the resurrection.” So, Mary grabbed a couple of other friends. One was named Joanna, and there was another girl named Mary. And they went to tell Jesus’ followers, the disciples, that he was actually alive. And guess what? The disciples, like a bunch of doofuses, did not believe these women. They didn’t believe their story was true. But Peter, one of Jesus’ friends, decided he’d better go and double check. So, he actually ran all the way to the tomb, and it was empty. And he came back and said, “It’s true. Their story is true. Jesus rose from the dead.” And that story spread among his followers.
And then Luke, who wrote this whole story I’m telling you, shifts the scene to these two followers of Jesus walking down a road to a city called Emmaus, which is about seven miles south of Jerusalem. One of them was named Cleopas. Well, as these two guys are walking down the road talking about what’s going on with Jesus, a stranger comes up to them and says, “Hey, what are you guys talking about?” Cleopas looks at him and basically says, “Are you the only person in the entire world who doesn’t know what just happened in Jerusalem?” (talking about Jesus dying and coming back from the dead). And this stranger again said, “What happened?” So, Cleopas and his friend are telling this stranger about Jesus of Nazareth, this man who was so powerful in what he did and what he said and how the government killed him and how religious leaders didn’t really care for him. And that he had come back from the dead, and there were witnesses to the fact that he had come back from the dead.
As they were telling this guy the story though, you can feel that they were still kind of doubting what was going on. Like, why did it have to happen this way? And this newcomer looks at them and says this,
“O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.”
All that the prophets have spoken. Notice that word “prophets.” The prophets were messengers of God in the Old Testament. They went to God’s people and said, “God told me to tell you this.” So, this stranger is telling these two friends of Jesus, “You haven’t listened to the prophets.” And he continues to tell them what the prophets said. “Didn’t the prophets say that the Messiah, the servant rescuer, had to die, be buried, and rise again? Isn’t that the message the prophets gave you?”
Then, right in the middle of the road, this stranger begins a Bible study with Jesus’ two friends. The topic? Jesus. He’s doing a Bible study about Jesus walking down this road. But he didn’t use all of our Bible. He used what we could call the Hebrew Bible, or just the Old Testament, the beginning part of the Bible. And then Luke says this, this stranger “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Notice that phrase “Moses and all the prophets” and notice the word “Scriptures.” Moses and all the prophets, that little phrase, think of it this way. That’s like a nickname for the Old Testament. If you say Moses and prophets, you’re actually talking about the entire Old Testament.
Now, this is where our story gets really wild. We discover in this story that this stranger is actually Jesus. Just like Mary didn’t know who Jesus was, these two guys walking down the road, they don’t know that they just got a Bible study about Jesus from Jesus. The hour was getting late, and so they invited him to come in and have dinner. So, Jesus said, “Sure.” He comes into this house, they sit down to have dinner, and Jesus grabs bread. And he broke it, and he prayed over it, and he handed it to them. And in that moment, they knew who he was. They knew they were sitting across from Jesus. And then do you know what happened? Jesus disappeared right in front of their eyes. Gone, just disappeared.
Now Cleopas and his friend must have been much more used to Jesus’ power than me. Because if someone disappears right in front of me, I’m going to lose it. But all they do is talk about the Bible study that they had just had with Jesus. They say this,
“Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures.”
Notice that word “Scriptures.” Their hearts felt like they were on fire as Jesus explained to them who he was in the Old Testament. So, these two friends retrace the seven miles back to Jerusalem and go to Jesus’ main crew, Jesus’ main friends, and say, “He really is alive. We met him.” And then right in the middle of that, Jesus appears out of thin air, just like he disappeared a little bit ago. He appears right in front of the disciples. And this time they do freak out. And Jesus looked at them and says, “Guys, peace, peace. Calm down. All will be well.” And fear and astonishment turn to joy and celebration as Jesus’ friends saw that he was really alive.
And then in an odd moment, Jesus must have been a little hungry, because he asked them for food. And whenever he had gotten a plate, he sat down and said this:
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
Notice that phrase “Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.” We’ve already heard about Moses and the Prophets, and Psalms is now added in. And again, think of it like shorthand or a nickname for the Old Testament. If you say that phrase, you mean everything in the Old Testament. Luke then describes what happens next.
“Then Jesus opened up their minds to understand the Scriptures.”
Notice that word “Scriptures.” What did they understand from the Scriptures? Jesus says it out loud.
“Thus it is written, that the Christ [the Messiah, the Jewish servant rescuer] should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
Jesus says the point of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms — the point of all of the Old Testament — is to hear his story, his birth, his life, his death, coming back from the dead. And that that should be told to everybody everywhere, all over the entire world.
So, how does this story help us care about the little book, Nehemiah? Well, it gives us a glimpse of how Jesus viewed the Old Testament and how Jesus saw the point of the Old Testament, which includes Nehemiah. Jesus deeply cared about the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Jesus cared deeply about the Scriptures themselves. When Jesus said the word Psalms, that includes Nehemiah. It’s not just the Book of Psalms and the Old Testament. That’s for a whole bunch of books, and Nehemiah is in there.
What is the point of all of these Scriptures in the Old Testament, the Scriptures that Luke talks about over and over and over in our story? The point is, Jesus loved them. He knew them. And Jesus saw himself as the point of them. On that Bible study going down the road with those two disciples, Jesus preached himself out of the entire Old Testament.
Have you ever thought that the Old Testament is the source material for all of Jesus’ preaching? That all of the preaching we hear in the New Testament is based on the Old Testament? That every 22 verses in the New Testament, the Old Testament is quoted? We learn from this story that the Old Testament is the backdrop for the story of Jesus. It’s the magnifying glass that focuses us in on Jesus. It’s the photo album containing image after image of why Jesus matters. Or in modern language, it’s the Google Drive that contains and clarifies exactly who Jesus is, why he came to earth, why Jesus died, why he rose again.
This is why we should care about Nehemiah. We need Nehemiah to see Jesus in a different way. If Jesus preached himself out of that book, I really want to know what that was like. What did he say about himself to those two guys? Remember what Cleopas said to his friend after Jesus disappeared?
“Didn’t our hearts burn within us when he opened the Scriptures?”
Followers of Jesus, their hearts get on fire when they think about God’s Word. I think knowing how Jesus viewed Nehemiah should motivate, energize, and inspire us to devour the book. Jesus cared about Nehemiah. So should we.
Story #2 to help us understand why we should care about Nehemiah — Paul, Timothy, and Nehemiah. This story happens about 30 years after our story about Jesus. And the main characters in this are Paul and Timothy. Paul, who was known as Saul, was a really rough dude. He persecuted the church. But then he had a face-to-face encounter with Jesus that completely altered his life. He went from persecuting people who believed in Jesus to proclaiming Jesus as the servant rescuer. His entire life changed so much that God changed his name from Saul to Paul.
Paul has a younger friend named Timothy. Think of it this way, Paul is kind of developing Timothy, or mentoring Timothy, or trying to teach Timothy how to be a better pastor. And to do that, Paul writes Timothy two letters. These letters are packed with encouragement. Paul and Timothy are both pastors. Paul kind of treats Timothy like a son. So, if you think of that, when you read I and 2 Timothy, it’ll help you feel the book better. In the second letter, Paul’s pouring out his heart. He’s writing this letter in prison. And even from prison, he’s still trying to encourage Timothy. And near the end of that letter, Paul says something that sounds a lot like what Jesus said in our first story. Paul says this to Timothy,
“Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you’ve been acquainted with the sacred writings …”
Notice those words, “sacred writings.” Paul tells Timothy, “Continue in what you believe. Don’t give up on it. Knowing who taught you …” Which is actually kind of cool. That’s his grandmother and mother who taught him the sacred writings. Continue in that. Since Timothy was a kid, he knew these sacred writings. You could think of it as like, the sacred writings were Timothy’s friend.
Paul keeps going and tells Timothy, “Why do you need to hold onto these sacred writings? Why do they matter?” And he says this, these sacred writings …
“which are able to make you wise [These sacred writings can make you wise for what?] for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in [righteous living], that the man of God may be equipped, complete [ready] for every good work.”
Notice that word “Scripture” again. The sacred writings are the Scriptures. It’s once more the Old Testament — the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Timothy was acquainted with those writings. And now Paul tells him these are why those writings matter. And he gives him three reasons. The sacred writings matter because they make us wise for salvation. The sacred writings are profitable for many uses. The sacred writings prepare us for good works. Again, sacred writings, the Old Testament, the first part of our Bible. The first part, they make us wise for salvation.
What conclusion do you come to after you read the Old Testament? If I’m honest with you, sometimes for me it’s confusion. Sometimes at the end of reading parts of the Old Testament, I have more questions than when I started. But Paul tells us as we enter and exit the Old Testament, we become more wise. We become more skilled. We have better understanding of having faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. That’s what we get out of the Old Testament. This makes books like Nehemiah extremely valuable. If I want increased wisdom to know about my need for Jesus, Paul would tell you, “Read and feed yourself with the Old Testament.”
Nehemiah can do this for us. We can get a glimpse in Nehemiah of people who have missed being reconciled to God for 70 years. We can watch as they work really hard together, build a temple, build altars, build walls, read the Law, sacrifice animals, sing songs, pray prayers, have loud worship nights, make really big commitments to God that “This time we’re going to do it.” And in the end, with an amazing priest and a Christian governor, an amazing spiritual context, they still discover they need someone else to fulfill all of God’s Law for them. They can’t do it on their own. They need a better priest than a guy named Ezra. They need a better governor and king than a guy named Nehemiah. They need a better temple than the one that they built. They need a better sacrifice than just a lamb. We discover at the end of the Nehemiah that they need Jesus. Nehemiah shows us their need, and it shows us our need.
The sacred writings are also, secondly, profitable for many uses. That’s where Paul says, “It’s profitable for this, for teaching and for reproof and for correction and for training.” The Old Testament writings provide great teaching content. They’ll challenge you. They’ll reprove you. They’ll correct you. They’ll train you to do the right thing. We can read through Nehemiah and glean from the characters in this story great teachings of how we need to change, how we need to live differently. We can see in Nehemiah a godly leader who leads so well all the way right up until the end. And then he fails. We can get a glimpse of worship that is so loud, it could be heard in Spartanburg County. We can walk through all of the prayers that are in Nehemiah (and they are everywhere), and it can transform our prayer lives. Nehemiah can do this for us.
Finally, the sacred writings prepare us for good works. Paul tells Timothy that as the Scriptures affect you, they change the way that you actually live. So, the goal of working through Nehemiah for us as a people is not information, but action. We’re going to understand the book, and then hopefully it’s going to reorient us and help us live in a different way to do what God wants us to do. Nehemiah, in a sense, is the gym where we’re going to go train. It’s the track that we’re going to get out and run in and learn how to follow Jesus well. Nehemiah can do this for us.
So, brothers and sisters, I’m going to ask you to take Paul’s advice to Timothy and make it your own. Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. Those of you who are unfamiliar with the Scriptures, we invite you to begin to learn them. Why should we give a care about the book of Nehemiah? Well, story #1 tells us, Jesus preached himself from Nehemiah. Jesus is in that book. I want to see him there. I hope you do, too.
Story #2 tells us that Paul told Timothy why Nehemiah was valuable. Nehemiah helps us see our need for Jesus. It makes us really wise to know why we need Jesus. Nehemiah provides a whole lot of profitable teaching. And it’s going to prepare us to do good things. This is why we should care about Nehemiah.
So, as we end, I want to remind you of something that I said at the very beginning. This is not easy work. Nehemiah is not easy to make our way through. But if Nehemiah will give us what Jesus and Paul and Timothy tell us, then the work is going to be worth it.
You know, there’s this phrase that’s used a lot right now in church world about preaching, that we should arrive at “practical application,” which often means, at the end of preaching, please tell us what to do with that. Thanks for talking for a half hour, Ryan, but so what? So, I’m going to let you in on something. Sometimes that’s really hard in preaching to do that, because the responses to different texts are different. So, the most practical thing that I can give you to apply today is this, is to answer a yes or no question. Will you work? Will you work with us over the next ten weeks as we make our way through this book? That means you might do things between Sundays on your own. It might be that you’re coming in with energy about this book, and you’re just taking in what we say and adding it to your own energy.
So, if you’ll work, I would love for you to do this assignment this week. Read the book between now and next Sunday. If you’re a teenager, 13 and above, you and our adults, you have the capacity to make your way through this book in a week. I don’t suggest trying to tackle the whole thing and one read-through. But if you want to be aggressive, go for it. If you are younger, you need to ask your parents for some help. Ask them to read through this book with you over the course of the next week. And I’m going to give you, as children, something you can do that’s going to be kind of fun as you make your way through the book. You can tease your parents as they try to pronounce all of the Hebrew and Persian names in the book. You just tease them because they’re going to make it up just like everybody else who reads through those sections.
But I would love in every venue — whether that’s live here, at Northwest, if you gather in groups on livestream — what if all of us gather together next week, and we’ve all read through the entire book? Then we’ll hear the history of it and the impact of it. And hopefully, by God’s amazing grace, he will do with Nehemiah what he said it will do. We will be wise, and we will be changed.
As you read, I give you this prayer to take with you and pray this week. God, make me more wise about my need for Jesus. Teach me and prepare me to do all the good you want me to do.
Let’s all corporately choose to give a rip about Nehemiah.
Let’s pray. So, Father, I pray for myself and my brothers and sisters live in front of me, my brothers and sisters on the other end of the Internet, that you would indeed open this book to us. God, I pray especially for children in this gathering and out there that you would help those of us who preach do our best to engage them in this really cool story. Give them bigger minds than they think they have to grasp what’s going on. God, allow us to step into these ancient words that are ever true that will change me and will change you. I ask this in faith. Amen.