A God Fearing Community
At this point in my life I have been in ministry about fifteen years. I have had the privilege of being a part of a thriving ministry taking off and reaching its peak, with many lives being changed and growing to a movement of many churches. I remember during those times talking to people who saw how great things were and probably put a little too much on how great things were going. I remember telling people it’s going great here but we are not without our problems.
There were indeed some kinks in the armor and those got exposed in some very unfortunate events, and I had the sobering experience of seeing everything come apart. The ministry splitting in half and congregations going different ways. And I was telling people then it’s not good, but it is not as bad as it appears.
I realized how many people in church don’t have a sound theology of the church.
In those hard times I watched a number a of people leave the church or lose confidence in the church because of the unfortunate events we went through and the things being said of the church. Even in the midst of those great difficulties I couldn’t help but feel that God was doing something great in it. He was teaching his people to trust in him and not how great their leaders or ministries seemed to be.
The hardest part was watching people see the legitimate failures of the church and want nothing to do with the church. It was as though they saw the church mess and thought this discredits Christianity. A lot of people today see the failures of the church and want nothing to do with organized religion. I think a lot of those have legitimate concerns about the church. Their problem is not their criticism, but it is in what their conception of the church should be.
We are in a passage of Scripture that helps us understand the true nature of the church. It is a fallen people who are redeemed and called to live in the fear of God rather than a fear of the world.
In the book of Nehemiah, Nehemiah is rebuilding the holy city. He risked his life to ask the king for permission to rebuild. He has Sanballat and Tobiah charging him with wrongdoing, belittling his work, and even threatening to kill people. He has other nations raging against him, and now he faces another significant challenge. This challenge comes from his own people oppressing one another. We see this oppression and how it is dealt with.
This internal adversity of his own people shows us several things of what kind of place the community of God’s people is and can be.
Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. 2 For there were those who said, "With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive." 3 There were also those who said, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine." 4 And there were those who said, "We have borrowed money for the king's tax on our fields and our vineyards. 5 Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards." 6 I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. 7 I took counsel with myself, and I brought charges against the nobles and the officials. I said to them, "You are exacting interest, each from his brother." And I held a great assembly against them 8 and said to them, "We, as far as we are able, have bought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations, but you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us!" They were silent and could not find a word to say. 9 So I said, "The thing that you are doing is not good. Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies? 10 Moreover, I and my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Let us abandon this exacting of interest. 11 Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them." 12 Then they said, "We will restore these and require nothing from them. We will do as you say." And I called the priests and made them swear to do as they had promised. 13 I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, "So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied." And all the assembly said "Amen" and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised. 14 Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the food allowance of the governor. 15 The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people and took from them for their daily ration forty shekels of silver. Even their servants lorded it over the people. But I did not do so, because of the fear of God. 16 I also persevered in the work on this wall, and we acquired no land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work. 17 Moreover, there were at my table 150 men, Jews and officials, besides those who came to us from the nations that were around us. 18 Now what was prepared at my expense for each day was one ox and six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance. Yet for all this I did not demand the food allowance of the governor, because the service was too heavy on this people. 19 Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people. (Nehemiah 5:1-19 ESV)
I want to look at three things this passage teaches us the community of God’s people. First, this community is …
- A Place of God-fearing Sinners
This section starts out with an outcry of the people. There are injustices going on and here they are committed by the community, the nobles of the people, the wealthy Jewish brothers.
There is a very challenging political and economic situation that brings three outcries.
- A Concern for grain: v2 "With our sons and our daughters, we are many. So let us get grain, that we may eat and keep alive."
- Mortgaging of fields: v3 There were also those who said, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards, and our houses to get grain because of the famine."
- Paying their taxes: v4 And there were those who said, "We have borrowed money for the king's tax on our fields and our vineyards.
They are in Jerusalem, which has been devastated, and instead of farming they are working on the city walls. This means they are not able to work their lands. In this time many of the surrounding nations were opposing them so they were not able to trade for food. They were threatened by enemies and so they had to spend the nights in Jerusalem (4:16). This prevented them from going back to their lands. Nehemiah placed heavy demands on the people for rebuilding the walls. But notice the outcry is not against nehemiah and his harsh demands, but it is against the wealthy Jews who were taking advantage of the situation.
There has been a famine on the land. Which is like “come on, man!” All they have done, can’t they catch a break? But then again famines were often the result of people not obeying God.
The people could not pay the tax on the land and they began mortgaging their fields to others to work it. The situation was so serious that even the wives join in the complaints. They had to find ways to buy grain and to do that they mortgaged their fields. They also had to borrow money to pay the royal tax on their fields. Its likely they were working on wall and not fields, so they needed food and they got others to work it, but then the famine hits and there is no crop for food or to pay tax.
The result is that debts mount and some of the people are enslaved. Their own daughters are sold into slavery. Debtors slavery was permitted in Israel (Ex 21:2). It was a way to work off one’s debt, and it would be intended to end after six years. It was not a permanent slavery. But the core problem here is that the people financial predicament does not have to do with the financial irresponsibility, but with their commitment to build the holy city. If that is the case then why are their own people, own brothers and sisters treating them like this. The people with money were charging usury on the others, which was forbidden. Where is the fear of God!??
"You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. (Deu 23:19 ESV)
Even more, the very people Nehemiah labored hard to buy back their freedom have been sold again by their own people! Where is their concern for the nation and the glory of God???
When Nehemiah hears what is going on he becomes “angry” (v 6). There is no justification for what they are doing, selling their own people into slavery! It is shameful that the wealthy people of the city would act this way.
Why does this happen? Why do people do evil things? If you have been in the church any amount of time then you have probably seen people do wrong things. All the churches I have been in, the response of people when they first come is that everyone is so nice. That is great! But the longer you stay in a church the more you realize people have their weaknesses. That is not a knock on the church it is a reality. Even the most faithful people in the church have their areas of weakness, they get grumpy, they miss certain things. The church is a place of sinners. Imperfect people with imperfect wills, knowledge, and commitment. They were not walking in the fear of God.
God’s people are bound together by their fear of God. Without the fear of God they become nothing more than a gathering of sinners. Some of these people lost their fear of God. When the church loses its fear of God it loses the very thing that holds it together.
It’s like sweet tea without the sugar.
- A Place of Correction
Notice that Nehemiah does not sit back and do nothing. He is not scared offending. The case is too serious for that.
A mark of the true people of God is not that it is without problems but that the it handles the problems in the right way. You can’t overlook wrongs. But you also don’t just condemn people. Some say a mark of a true church is the faithful practice of church discipline. The word of God dictates what is and is not permitted, and it dictates the response toward various acts.
6 I was very angry when I heard their outcry and these words.” Nehemiah corrects them and they are silent. The sound of guilt! They know that their actions are not right.
This is the pattern of the NT. Paul rebuked Peter. Paul called Timothy to correct and rebuke. The people of God are responsible for discipline in the church (Matt 18, Col 3:16).
It is not forcing people to live to our preferences but to the word of God. Nehemiah shows them where they are not obeying what God has spoken in his word. He is not forcing people to abide by his standard and what will make him prosper. He wants the people to obey God.
There is no church that every person is walking with the Lord the whole time. We all have our ups and downs. We must love one another enough that we are willing to correct them, challenge them, show them their fault.
The chief problem is that these people were not “walking in the fear of the Lord.” This is what the church community hinges on. It not about being a social club. Its not about playing games or soccer or being entertained. The church is a people who fear God and want to serve him. The whole vitality of the church hinges on them walking in fear of the Lord. when that fails everything else fails. It has to be corrected.
Matt 18 lays out a method for correcting those in the church. The need for this clearly shows that people are going to sin, and if you are going to be a faithful member of Christ’s church you are going to need to correct people.
"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17 ESV)
You go and correct him. If he listens then great! If he does not you take some others. Involving others is a way to say, “Am I right in my assessment of my brother? Has he sinned or am I wrong?” If they agree he has sinned they go and correct him. The widening of the circle to involve more establishes the basis of the fault.
It should sober you that at times people can be so callous and cold to their faith. It is all too easy to be around the things of God, have your Bible, be in church and be cold and indifferent to the life that God calls us to. And the more we are around that and unmoved by the coldere our hearts get.
You see the importance of a committed group of members to the cause. It all falls apart without that. This is why I want to make sure we take membership at Bridgeway seriously. I want us to be a community that really knows one another, and that wants to do their part for the community, and also says I want you to hold me accountable to God’s word. Membership is voluntarily putting oneself in the community to love and support. It is knowing who is connected, who wants to be accountable, who wants to help support the larger body. To not be a formal member is to not be fully connected.
- A Place of Restoration
Nehemiah is angry and rightfully so. These people have taken advantage of others. He is very direct and forthright. V9 what you have done is wrong and you ought to walk in the fear of the Lord.”
The people repent and they are forgiven. They restore all that was taken and require nothing of them (v12). All the assembly agrees, says “Amen” and they praise God! The community moves forward. That is the goal of all discipline.
Matt 18:15 says if your brother responds you have gained him, you have won him. Punishment is not intended to just hurt. It is intended to bring them back to the Lord. This is the goal in the church. It should be the goal anytime you correct or punish, whether for your children, your employees, students, etc. You want to gain them.
All the things that you see in the world happen in the church. But the thing that sets the church apart is the goal of discipline and the response to discipline.
And here is an important application. If you are actively in the word and actively involved in community, people who know you, you are constantly being refined and changed, and the constant daily rebukes keep you from the big rebukes.
The wonderful mess of the church. Many people see the mess of the church and want nothing to do with it. I think that shows a lack of love on their part. Christ calls us to be around unlovely people. He came to us when we were not lovely. We can do the same. It is being together as a body that we are changed.When you see the greed of a person and you mention it to them. When you see someone get impatient as they are setting up for church and you talk with them about it. When you see someone whose humor grates on you and you talk about. Those are all wonderful moments of growth that only happen in the mess of the church. You learn to correct with gentleness. You learn to love when it is hard. You learn to forgive. You learn to show grace to others. You learn to be patient and firm.
The Gathering of the redeemed people is a place of Wonder
The Bible speaks very clear to the messy, fallen nature of the church, and while acknowledging that it also says that the church is to be a city set upon a hill (Matt 5:17) and that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God is being displayed (Eph 3:10).
Isn’t it appropriate that a people claiming to know God’s amazing grace and holy righteousness should have opportunity to stand up for God’s laws and display his grace? Dont begrudge such moments or think it a diversion from the church’s purpose.
It is amazing how the community responds. It is awesome to see people in the community respond to correction.
It is awesome to see those in the community pursue correction and redemption in the right way. To see they are living for something bigger.
You also get an incredible view of Nehemiah. A person who genuinely cares about the people. He fears God and his actions stand in stark contrast to the earlier actions. He is an incredibly wealthy man with over 150 people dinning with him each day, but he is careful not to put too heavy a burden on the people. He will not Lord it over them (v15). He does this because he fears God. He cares more about the mission of God than of getting more money.
This seems to be what lay under his commitment to buying back his people. Nehemiah ensures that his people are bought back. Those are words of redemption. Redemption is used describe what Christ did for us. That term comes from the slave court of purchasing another. Christ bought us back from our sin!
The debt against us is not viewed as simply cancelled, but is fully paid. Redemption is a central issue of the Bible. It is brought up over and over and it reaches its climax in Christ. Christ's blood or life, which he surrendered for them, is the "ransom" by which the deliverance of his people from the servitude of sin and from its penal consequences is secured. It is the plain doctrine of Scripture that
"Christ saves us neither by the mere exercise of power, nor by his doctrine, nor by his example, nor by the moral influence which he exerted, nor by any subjective influence on his people, whether natural or mystical, but as a satisfaction to divine justice, as an expiation for sin, and as a ransom from the curse and authority of the law, thus reconciling us to God by making it consistent with his perfection to exercise mercy toward sinners" JI Packer.
The people are redeemed. They are ransomed. That redemption should define the way they relate to their God and to each other. It should inspire what they do in community. It should inspire them to be different in the world.
If those people truly knew the redemption God offered them in the sacrifices they would have been more willing to redeem their own family from their debts and shortcomings. In the same way we who are in the church, if we really know what christ has saved us from, we are going to be more willing to speak out against the wrongs that others do and also help point them to the redemption in Jesus. We will be a community that fears God and seeks to life live in a way that it doesn’t add up in this life.
Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.
Like any human organization the church is composed of fallen people. And the distinction that is in the church is the way sinful actions are dealt with, correction is given and redemption offered. This is what the church is to be, and it is those who have been redeemed who should be most excited about sharing redemption with others.
This redemption is what puts the fire in the people of God. It is the difference between empty religion and genuine Christianity. You don’t go to church because you have to, or read your Bible because you have to, or keep the commands so no one things poorly of you. That is dead religion, and we are not going to be a church of dead religion.
Imagine the disconnect in those people. They had been freed from slavery and imprisonment because of the mercy of the king of Persia. It was his grace to allow them to go back to their land. Now they are there and they are imprisoning their own brothers.
If you are a Christian and believe that Jesus died for your sins, that you have been set free from bondage to sin and are promised life everlasting then you will want to sing, dance, rejoice, and tell others about that. You will want to be a part of a community of folks committed to doing that.
- What are some of the problems in this community? What are some of the wonderful things in this community?
- Have you ever been turned off to the church because of things the church has done? What helped you get over this hurdle?
- How should these people have conducted themselves in light of the redemption they experienced? How should Christ’s redemption light a fire in our hearts?