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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Preached At:Pilgrim Canadian Reformed Church
 London, Ontario
Text:Nehemiah 3 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Church Building

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 87:1,4,5                                                                                             

Ps 51:6,7

Reading – Nehemiah 3; Ephesians 4:1-16

Ps 48:1,2,3,4

Sermon – Nehemiah 3

Ps 122:1,2,3

Hy 52:1,2,3,4,5
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, are you a church builder? Do you see it as your personal responsibility to develop and strengthen and expand the church of Christ? You really should, because that’s the calling given to you by the Holy Spirit!

            Now, sometimes we like to leave church-building work to the experts. Not just when it comes to the physical aspects of the church—the roofing and lighting and flooring—but where the spiritual side of things is concerned too: the encouraging, the exhorting, the admonishing and praying. “There,” one might say, “it’s really up to the office bearers, the minister and elders and deacons. They’re the experts, after all. What could I ever do?” But again: we’re all church builders, involved in that holy task of advancing the church of Christ.           

            This is seen so clearly in the book of Nehemiah. We’re in that time after the exile, when God’s people are trickling back into the land, and attempting to rebuild the nation. The book begins with the introduction of Nehemiah, an Israelite who remains in Persia and serves as cup-bearer to the king. This was a position of great trust—almost like a bodyguard—as his duty was tasting any wine before the king, to make sure it wasn’t poisoned.

            Though in a high earthly position, Nehemiah hasn’t forgotten his people, and Jerusalem. So he’s disturbed to learn that even though the exiles have been back in Judah for nearly 100 years, the city’s walls are still in ruins. Nehemiah grieves before God, confesses the sin of his people, and concludes that something has to be done. Those walls have to be built!

            We should understand there was a serious risk to Nehemiah in taking up the cause of Jerusalem. His master, King Artaxerxes, had recently ordered that building operations there be stopped, because of the allegation that this was a rebellious city. Nehemiah would basically be asking the king to rescind his decree, and to allow the Israelite revival to continue. It was risky, but Nehemiah secured the king’s permission to return to Jerusalem and see what could be done. We learn that he’s even appointed governor of Judah, and given full authority. Yet Nehemiah remains a humble man of God: devoted to prayer, courageous in his faith, and zealous for the Lord’s work. He’ll answer the call of the Spirit, and he’ll lead the Israelites in building up the city of God. That’s our theme from Nehemiah 3, 

With Nehemiah as leader, God’s people rebuild Jerusalem’s walls:

1)     an important job

2)     a diverse work-crew

3)     an accelerated project

1)     an important job: If there’s ever a disaster like an earthquake or tornado, it doesn’t take long for attention to turn to restoration. How can all this be repaired and rebuilt? And more than just the buildings, there will be concern for the people: Can they recover from this disaster? Can the population regroup and carry on as before?

            So it was in Jerusalem. There had been a gradual restoration of the city, its walls and buildings and temple. But there was also a concern for the people! With new groups residing in the land, those foreigners and strangers who’d settled there while Israel was away, it became a thorny question: Who is the true nation of God? Who really belongs here? This is why Ezra opposed the Israelites who had intermarried with the locals, those who didn’t worship the Lord. He was concerned for their holiness as a people.

            This same concern explains Nehemiah’s passion for building the walls of Jerusalem. For walls don’t simply keep out unwanted guests. In ancient times, walls set boundaries for a city; walls defined a people. And Jerusalem—the city of David, the place God had chosen for his Name to dwell—had become the ultimate symbol of Israel’s identity. They were to be a pure people of God, worshiping at a holy temple, dwelling in a consecrated city.

            This is why Nehemiah is so grieved when he hears that Jerusalem’s walls are still in shambles. For what did that say about the people? What did that mean for their separation from the surrounding nations? Were they not the holy people of God any more, unique and set apart?        What Nehemiah was undertaking then, was a job of first importance for the strength and unity and future of God’s people. And if you read through the first couple chapters of Nehemiah in between services today, you’ll see that he takes this job very seriously.

            For having been commissioned by King Artaxerxes, he begins by making a survey of the work that needs to be done at Jerusalem. He finds out quickly that the bad report he received in Persia was true, “I went out by night through the Valley Gate to the Serpent Well and the Refuse Gate, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem which were broken downs and its gates which were burned with fire” (2:13). At one point, we read, the piles of rubble were so bad, the animal he was riding couldn’t go any further. The place was a mess.

            Only after confirming the worst does Nehemiah share with the citizens his purpose in coming to the city. “You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste… Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach” (2:17). Notice the last phrase; when Nehemiah challenges the Israelites, he calls them to consider their reputation with the surrounding peoples: “that may no more be a reproach.” The godless populations roundabout were laughing at them, and mocking their efforts at nation-building—what kind of people lives in a city that has no walls?

And worse, what did this present ruin say about the LORD? That’s right, it reflected badly on him. Was this what God had restored them for, to live in a slum, a shanty town? Just as in the days when Judah first went into exile, the LORD is concerned for the honour of his Name. A vigorous people brings glory to God. A cohesive church resounds to his praise. But one in shambles brings him shame. So Nehemiah assures them that God’s favour was upon this project, that He’d prosper it, to his glory.

            The people’s response is unhesitating, “Let us rise up and build” (2:18). And, “they set their hands to this good work.” They knew it had to be done: for themselves, their children, and for the Lord. As David exhorts all God’s people in Psalm 122, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, prosperity within your palaces” (vv 6-7).

Brothers and sisters, that’s our calling and our prayer today in the church of Christ. No, we’re not into building walls in the same way, and with the same intent. We don’t want to keep people out, but to bring them in! Yet we’re still seeking to be a strong, a unified, a holy church of God. We seek the “peace of Jerusalem,” for it’s worth every investment of time and energy, and even money. Yes, think of how much it’s worth: Christ gave his own life for the church; poured out his blood to buy it for God! It’s an investment we need to protect and build up.

            The job’s importance is also seen in how Nehemiah organizes it. He wants it done quickly, but he also wants it done well, so he assigns the workers to strategic points along the wall: at this gate, that gate, this buttress and that tower. Think of the confusion if everyone was at the same spot. No, each work-crew was given an assignment, beginning at the Sheep Gate, on the north wall. From there, the list of gates proceeds in an counter-clockwise direction, until you end up back at the Sheep Gate. Section by section, Jerusalem’s wall will be built. 

Now, when we read over our chapter, we don’t find any direct reference to Nehemiah—at least not Nehemiah, son of Hachaliah. Does this mean he exhorted the people to begin the work, gave them directions, and then left them to it? One of those foremen who shows up at the jobsite for a couple minutes, then retreats to his office? By no means; the detailed record of this chapter suggests he was on the job day after day, supervising, encouraging, providing hands-on leadership. He knew exactly who was there, and on what portion of the wall. This job was too significant to neglect.

Church-building isn’t to be left to the experts, nor is it to be done without the guidance of faithful leaders. When the leaders are diligent, when the people are devoted—when everyone realizes the importance of the task—then the work will be carried out well.

2)     a diverse work-crew: There’s a book from a few years back called, “Nehemiah: Laws of Leadership.” And the leadership law that the author derives from our chapter is “Distribute the load!” That’s a fitting summary of what we read, and a great lesson for church life. “Distribute the load!”

For this long list of names may be boring in the ears of some, but a closer look reveals some key principles about this project. First is that Nehemiah sought to organize this work-crew according to the normal structure of things; namely, the family unit. Recorded here are the names of nearly fifty individuals, but all working within his family or community group. He didn’t decide to gather all the bricklayers into one team, and all the woodworkers into another. That might’ve led to division or rivalry. But this natural division—by family—would bring a sense of unity. It comes as a refrain in this chapter, “Next to them was so-and-so… and next to them was… and next to them…” The families were doing it together, side by side.

            A second thing is that Nehemiah seems to have assigned at least some to their own, local section of the wall. Take verse 10 as just one example, “Next to them Jedaiah the son of Harumaph made repairs in front of his house.” People were placed where they’d have a personal interest in the strength of the wall, where they’d be sure to do it well.

            Is there a lesson in that? Not a lesson of self-interest, but that God calls you to do the work that’s nearest you, those responsibilities within your reach. Being involved in building the church today doesn’t mean that God calls us all to do heroic things like becoming a missionary in the downtown of a major city, or getting involved with smuggling Bibles into China. Sure, some are called to do that. But for most of us, church-building means being faithful in the place He’s already assigned us. At home. At work. In the local congregation. Within our circle of friends. And there, seeking the good of Christ’s people, building up communion, sharing the gospel.

            A third thing we observe, probably the most striking thing about our chapter, is how Nehemiah employed the entire available work force. Not just the strongest men of Judah, and not just the carpenters—the “professionals”—but everyone.

            Let’s take note of some of them. Verse 1: “Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brethren the priests and built the Sheep Gate; they consecrated it and hung its doors.” This was the gate where animals were customarily brought into the city, to be sacrificed at the temple. And the priests, normally occupied in such worship, saw no contradiction between sacrificing sheep and stacking stones. Because it was for God, this too, was holy work! They even “consecrated” the section they built; they set it apart in dedication to the LORD.

            Or verse 9, “Rephaiah the son of Hur, leader of half the district of Jerusalem, made repairs.” This leader was used to the boardrooms and council chambers of Jerusalem, but he was willing to get his hands dirty for a good cause. Who else worked on the wall? Verse 12 tells us that Shallum and his daughters were involved in building a section. Maybe Shallum had no sons, but his family too, would be sure to do their share.

            Others in this diverse work-crew: “Uzziel the son of Harhaiah, one of the goldsmiths… also next to him Hananiah, one of the perfumers” (v 8). And verse 32, “the merchants.” These men didn’t think they were exempt, even if this was much harder work than they were used to, even if they had to leave their shops and merchandise to attend to the walls. They knew that any revenue they “lost” would be more than made up by the blessing of God.

            And was it only the people who lived in Jerusalem who cared about Jerusalem’s walls? Certainly not! We see country dwellers doing their part too, men from Jericho (v 2); men of Gibeon and Mizpah (v 7), men from Zanoah (v 13). They would be busy for the sake of Zion, for the larger cause of the LORD and his house and his people.

Men and women, religious and civil leaders, city and country dwellers, rich and poor—they answered the call to do “this good work.” All hands on deck! Each in his place and section, each contributing to the overall plan, each aware that his work brought the end-result a little closer. No, maybe the goldsmiths couldn’t haul stone like the others. Maybe one family had a longer section of the wall, and some had a harder section. But the sense given by our chapter is that each worker was essential, each worked according to ability, and each gave to the project everything they could, ‘till it was all done.

            Brothers and sisters, it’s not hard to discern here another key lesson for the church of Christ in this place. We have building to do: in numbers hopefully, but also in faith, and communion, and obedience to the Lord’s commands. And we must not leave this church-building work to others. Again, it’s not only the task of the theologians or the ministers. Neither do we leave evangelism to the appointed committee, or spiritual admonition to the elders, or the giving of money to the wealthy. The church is to be mobilized entirely. Everyone is needed. All have something to contribute.

It’s a principle Paul draws out as well in his letter to the Ephesians. He first emphasizes the spiritual unity of God’s people, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (4:4-6). Today we might represent that unity Christ’s body by rephrasing the words of our text: “the young people are at work in the church, and next to them the elders and deacons are at work, and next to them the children, and next to them the senior citizens doing their part, and next to them…” Side by side, under one Lord.

There’s that unity in Christ, and then also diversity. This is what Paul speaks of in the following verses: “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (v 7). No, not everyone has the same ability to teach, or to encourage, or to show mercy. Not everyone receives the same resources. Not everyone is called to office.

But Paul says that, not to exclude some from service, but to underline how everyone in the church of Christ is called to faithful labour. Paul uses the image of a human body, “joined and knit together by what every joint supplies” (v 16). Each and every member has their place, and every part must do its share: “knit together by what every joint supplies.” You might say we’re all “on the wall.” So what is it that you’ll do? Where’s your place in that diverse work-crew? How has Christ equipped you in his grace?

Getting back to Nehemiah 3, there were a few who didn’t step forward as they should. Consider verse 5, “The Tekoites made repairs; but their nobles did not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord.” We can’t say for sure why these men of Tekoa don’t get to work; maybe they took the side of Sanballat and the other enemies of God’s people. Maybe they thought the work was beneath them, that their dignity and wealth kept them from the humble labour of hauling bricks and carrying stones.

It’s a realistic detail in our text. There can be some in the church who hold back from doing the work of the Lord. Sometimes there’s the complacent attitude that “others will do it,” the same people who always do it. Others might view themselves as too good for certain activities, or not gifted enough to do anything. Others might remain on the sidelines, and only contribute complaints and criticisms. That’s not church-building, and their shame is upon them. For just think, this is how we remember the nobles of Tekoa, 2500 years later: “they did not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord.”

But thankfully, they were the exception in Nehemiah’s day—and in our day too. Why, we see in verse 27 that the other people of Tekoa made up for the failure of their nobles, building an extra portion of the wall. That enthusiastic spirit characterizes so much of this work-crew. Consider verse 20, where it says that “Baruch the son of Zabbai carefully repaired the other section, from the buttress to the door of the house of Eliashib the high priest.” The root of the Hebrew adverb there has the sense of glowing red hot or blazing; the NIV says he “zealously” repaired his section. Baruch, and so many with him, were on fire to get the work done.

Some of the work-groups even took a second assignment once the first was done. Even those who had to fix the Refuse Gate (or Dung Gate)—where the city’s garbage and waste was dumped into the valley of Hinnom—even these men were faithful to the task, in what were probably smelly, dirty conditions!

Individually, our efforts in the church don’t often look like much. And some jobs are hard, and some never seem finished. But collectively, the effect will be certain. The church will be strengthened. Says Paul, this will “[cause] growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (v 16). Built up, for God’s glory.

3)     an accelerated project: Our chapter doesn’t describe everything that happened in the rebuilding of the wall. It’s only later that we hear about setbacks and opposition. This is a summary chapter; it’s meant to give us an overview of the project. But reading it, one thing is clear: there is progress! We’re used to building projects being completed behind schedule, and over-budget. But if we skip ahead to chapter 6:15, we find out that the work is completed in 52 days—a little under two months.

            It almost sounds unbelievable, doesn’t it? An entire city wall, with a dozen gates, with bolts and bars and towers, completed in such a short time. Piles of rubble transformed into strong, smooth, fortifications.

            How was it possible for this project to be completed so quickly? Well, just as we saw before, the people had the right perspective. Nehemiah includes an important phrase in 3:5, describing how the nobles of Tekoa went on strike, “They did not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord.” They did not, with the inference that everyone else did. Everyone else saw this assignment for what it really was: the work of the Lord God! They put their shoulders to it, because they saw it as their holy calling. God wanted a strong city, secure and stable—a place for his house, and place for his people—so they’d gladly work for it.

            And whenever we work sincerely for the Lord, whenever we’re diligent in building up the church, and faithful in praying for the peace of Jerusalem, we can be assured of the Lord’s blessing. He’ll give the wisdom for planning. He’ll give the strength for heavy-lifting. He’ll give that spirit of cooperation. He’ll give the words we need to say, whether in encouraging or admonishing or witnessing.

Yes, it was an accelerated project, because it was God’s project. Even their opponents could perceive it. We read in 6:16, once the walls are done, “When all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations around us saw these things… they were very disheartened in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was done by our God.” They had tried hard and tried often to stop it, but they couldn’t. For when the work is done by God, who can get in the way? Even the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church!

            Beloved, all this is a great encouragement for us to be involved in the work of building up the church of Christ. We know the Lord has given us differing gifts. We know there will be opposition from without. We know challenges will arise from within. We know the work won’t get done in a hurry, but we’ll have to give our attention it, year after year after year.

            But this is what makes the difference: it’s the work of our Lord. It’s for the benefit of the church whom Christ bought with his precious blood. And that makes every sacrifice well worth it, every effort well spent. In Ephesians 4, Paul reminds us of the goal of all those differing gifts: they’re “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (vv 12-13). That’s what we must seek for the church: unity, growth, strength, and finally: perfection.

            We conclude then, with the questions we started with. What about you: Are you a church builder? Do you see it as your responsibility to develop and strengthen the church of Christ? You should, for that’s your God-given calling. Even today, our heavenly Lord is watching over the task. He’s taking note of who’s on the wall. And one day, we’ll have to give an account to him of our work in the church. We pray that then we’ll hear those blessed words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.” Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2012, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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