The Apostle Paul had planted the church at Philippi on his second missionary journey — the first church on the European continent. His very affectionate language in this letter to them reveals that they held a special place in his heart. The pastors and deacons of the church (v.1), along with members like Lydia (see Acts 16:14-15) and Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), had ministered to Paul when he was in prison and invested generously in his work. No wonder he “yearned” for them “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (v.8) as he sat in prison in Rome.
Paul’s prayer for the Philippian believers in verses 9-11 provides a prayer list that every church member ought to pray for their church. I pray it for mine this morning:
Lord, may my church be unified in love — love that grows stronger and deeper and wider as we grow closer and closer to You. Teach us to “approve what is excellent” (v.10) so that we can tell the difference between good and best, vital and trivial. Help us to be what You want us to be (pure, blameless, filled with the righteousness of Christ) so that we can do what You want us to do. When Christ returns (on “the day of Christ”, v.10), may He find us loving one another and busy in the work of the gospel.
Paul serves as an example of how to make the most of every situation the will of God allows into our lives. Paul was a doer, a man of action, a visionary leader pursuing a missionary mandate — but he sat in a prison, unable to travel and preach. But instead of complaining or sinking into depression he was filled with joy! In fact, this prison letter mentions joy or rejoicing sixteen times. And Paul did not see his imprisonment as a setback, but as a part of God’s plan to “advance the gospel” (v.12). The prison became his mission field and before long, every soldier in the imperial guard had heard about Jesus — probably several times over (v.13). No doubt many of them were saved as Paul, their strangely joyful prisoner, told them how to be free in Christ!
While Paul made the best of his imprisonment, he asked his friends in Philippi to pray that he be released (v.19). For all he knew, his upcoming trial would result in his exoneration or his execution. Either way, Paul was determined to honor the Lord — by dying a martyr’s death or by continuing his missionary work. To choose between those two options would be difficult (v.23): to die would mean departing the troubles of the world and being with Jesus in heaven (by far the best option for Paul), but to live on would mean continuing his important work with the Philippians and others.
Whatever the outcome for him personally, Paul encouraged his friends to live in a way that would prove the gospel and demonstrate its transforming power (v.27). How sad that many times our behavior discredits the gospel we preach. Paul wanted the church to be united and to fight together to push back the darkness of sin with the light of the gospel. How sad when we are found fighting against each other in the church instead of fighting against the darkness.
Safe inside the new walls of their capital city, the people of Israel gathered to focus on spiritual renewal. Having been brought up in captivity in a pagan nation, they needed to reconnect with the one true God — their God. They didn’t get in a hurry about it, but spent nearly a month in Jerusalem worshiping together and studying God’s Word. God was speaking to their hearts, drawing them into a deeper understanding of His love, and leading them to a new level of commitment to Him.
The defining moment of the protracted meeting is described in this chapter. The people had heard the Scripture read aloud by Ezra, who repeated it over and over. God’s truth exposed their sin and revealed how far they fell short of His holy standards (God’s Word still has that power, Hebrews 4:12). In response, the people repented of their sins, openly confessing their personal and corporate violations of God’s Law (v.1-2). The sackcloth on their bodies and the dirt on their heads indicated the depth of their repentance and the intensity of their contrition. They spent half the day letting the Word of God wash over them and responding to God in reflective worship (v.3).
Then the Levites called the people to praise (v.5-6). (Note: our praise is purest when it comes from clean hearts. The praise described here came after an extended time of confession and repentance, and it was as good as it gets this side of heaven.) What followed next was a beautiful summary of the Word of God, sort of a sermon that emphasized God’s steadfast love for His people (v.6-31). Throughout their history, Israel found that He never stopped loving them — even when they stopped loving Him. God never lowered His holy standards, but neither did He lower the level of His grace and mercy. He required unconditional obedience to His commands, but He gave unconditional love to those who repented of their disobedience.
That is a good summary of my history with the Lord, too. When my faith wavers, His faithfulness is rock-steady. When I break my promises to Him, He keeps His promises to Me. When my love for Him grows cold, His love for me never fails. When I shame His name and then return to Him in embarrassment, He is still proud to call me His child. When I sin and ask His forgiveness, He washes me clean and refuses to hold it against me. What an awesome God! His goodness ought to lead us to a place of dependence on Him (v.32-37) and faithfulness to Him (v.38).
Nehemiah was a man on a mission. He had come to Jerusalem to lead his countrymen to rebuild the walls of the city. The task seemed impossible and the opposition was relentless — but with good leadership and (more importantly) by God’s grace, they did it! In just 52 days, in the heat of summer, by hand (no power tools or heavy equipment), Nehemiah and the people completed 1.5 miles of wall, 9 feet thick, and ten gates! Even their enemies had to admit that it was a “God-thing” (see 6:16)!
But the work was not over. The walls of the city were not the only things in need of repair; the people within the walls were also broken and in need of spiritual renovation. Nehemiah used his administrative skills to lead the rebuilding of the walls, but now Jerusalem needed someone skilled in teaching the Word of God to lead the rebuilding of broken lives. That man was Ezra.
Ezra had returned to Jerusalem thirteen years before Nehemiah, and he was probably a much older man. He was an anointed teacher of the Word (see Ezra 7:6-10). All the people of Judah gathered inside the newly constructed walls at the Water Gate on the southeast side of the city. A platform had been built for the occasion, perhaps between the two towers on either side of the gate, so that all the people could see the Book in Ezra’s hands and hear as he read aloud from it. The people knew the Lord had been at work among them, and when Ezra opened the Scriptures they were ready to listen (v.3). They stood up, lifted their hands, and shouted their affirmation (v.5-6). We can learn something from their eagerness to hear God’s Word.
As Ezra read “The Law” (the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) he paused throughout for the teachers with him to explain and make application out in the congregation (v.7-8). As the Word exposed their sins and shortcomings, the people began to cry and to repent. They were making the connection between broken walls and broken faith. As a wise teacher Ezra knew that total spiritual renewal and thorough repentance was going to be a process for these people. There would be time for the deeper work of revival later (v.18), but it was important for the people to celebrate what God had done so far. They had exercised their faith, they had worked hard, they had seen God do amazing things — and they were experiencing the unique, invigorating joy that comes from joining God in His work (v.10).
You can experience that kind of joy, too, when you (in the words of William Carey) “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
God had called Nehemiah out of a comfortable job in Persia to move to Jerusalem and lead His people to rebuild the walls of the city. It was a daunting task to be sure, but Nehemiah was the right man for the job. He had the administrative skills to coordinate the details of the project and the leadership skills to keep the people focused on the task. But there was another very special quality that set him apart: he was a man who feared the Lord. He had a deep love and respect for God based on a high view of God’s holiness and sovereignty. You can hear it in the way he approached God in prayer: “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love Him and keep His commandments” (1:5). Nehemiah feared the Lord, and as Oswald Chambers wrote,
“The remarkable thing about fearing God is that, when you fear God, you fear nothing else; whereas, if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.”
Nehemiah had good reason to be afraid, and it would have been understandable if he had quit and moved back to Persia. As the Jerusalem project neared completion he became the focus of a conspiracy that threatened his reputation, questioned his motives, and endangered his very life. But with fearless faith, he kept working until he had completed his God-given task. When Sanballat (the hateful governor of neighboring Samaria) and his allies tried to lure him into an ambush, Nehemiah saw through their scheme and just kept building (v.2-4). When they launched a smear campaign against him, Nehemiah prayed for strength and continued working (v.5-9). When they paid one of the Jewish leaders to frighten him into hiding, again Nehemiah prayed and got back to work (v.10-14). Under constant pressure to give up, and surrounded by enemy spies, Nehemiah was undaunted (v.17-19) — he led the people to complete the wall in only 52 days.
When you face opposition or discouragement as you try to live for Jesus and do His work, remember Nehemiah’s example. The same God who protected him will protect you; the same God who answered his prayers for strength will answer yours. So get busy, trust the Lord, and “Git-R-Done!”
The book of Nehemiah is the story of God’s people rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, but this chapter is an interruption to the flow of that story. As such, it should alert us to the fact that there may be some important lessons for us here.
Apparently when the exiles began to return from captivity, some brought great wealth with them. Others may have become wealthy once they returned and started businesses. But these well-off Jews began to loan money to their countrymen who were having a more difficult time financially, charging them exorbitant interest that amounted to oppression. Like the “payday loan” and “title loan” businesses of our day, these people were preying on the misfortune of the needy.
As the appointed governor of the Jews, Nehemiah began to hear the sad stories of those who were being taken advantage of. Some of them were having to indenture their children to their creditors in order to make the high interest payments. That was a common practice in that day, but it should never have been necessary among God’s people. The Law of Moses was clear: “If you lend money to any of My people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him” (Exodus 22:25).
When Nehemiah heard the “outcry” of the oppressed, it broke his heart. He knew that among God’s people caring for each other is more important than personal gain. He knew that the exploitation of the poor did not reflect the grace of God and that it sent a confusing message to unbelievers. So Nehemiah called the wealthy citizens together and confronted them, saying bluntly, “The thing that you are doing is not good” (v.9). He demanded that any property taken to secure debts be returned and that no more interest be charged on loans. The people knew it was the right thing to do, and it felt so good to repent and make it right that they broke out into spontaneous praise (v.13)! It is important to note that when Nehemiah confronted sin, he did so from a place of personal integrity. Scripture records his testimony of generosity in verses 14-19.
As believers, we reflect the grace of God in the way we treat others. We should be generous with the poor (see Proverbs 28:27). We should take special care of our brothers and sisters in Christ when they are suffering. Members of the original church in Jerusalem were so committed to meeting each other’s needs that “there was not a needy person among them” (see Acts 4:34). We can learn from Nehemiah that God rewards diligence, hard work, and wise investments in business — but He will not reward the kind of shrewdness that is devoid of grace or the kind of opportunism that disguises greed as “good business”.
Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem began to see some progress as they rebuilt the city’s walls. Working long hours at a feverish pace, they closed the gaps between sections and reached the halfway point in the project (v.6). But every rubble-pile they cleared and every stone they set in place was done with their enemies shouting threats and jeers at them. Sanballat, the smart-aleck governor of neighboring Samaria, came with his army to taunt the workers (v.1-2). Like schoolyard bullies, he and Tobiah cracked jokes and hurled insults at them, hoping to intimidate and discourage them into quitting (v.3, 8). These men felt their control over the region slipping away and knew that if the wall was completed, the Jews would only become more powerful.
Whenever you attempt something for God that threatens Satan’s kingdom, like a ministry project or a mission trip or a witnessing opportunity, you can count on opposition. But when you are mocked for your faith, criticized for doing what is right, and discouraged by haters, do what Nehemiah did: realizing that God was on his side, he prayed for strength, refused to quit, and kept on doing what God had called him to do (v.4, 9). He knew that what he was doing was important — and if it was important it was worth fighting for (v.14).
I am impressed by the unity of the Jews in the face of opposition. They worked together to complete the task, taking turns, watching each other’s backs, ready to rally together to protect the group (v.15-20). They found strength in their common faith, believing together that God would fight for them.
I see in this chapter an example for the church to follow. Our Great Commission work requires uncommon unity. We face the “schemes of the devil” and we struggle against evil forces that oppose our gospel efforts (see Ephesians 6:11-12). If we are going to be successful, we need to work together and defend our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can’t fight against the enemy if we are fighting against each other. Too many times the walls we build in the church are walls of division, not walls of protection. So let’s work together, build together, fight together — and trust God for the victory!
With his heart broken over the condition of Jerusalem, Nehemiah carried on with his duties in the king’s court — but he could not hide his sadness. His body was in Susa but his heart was in his homeland. Nehemiah knew that he could make a difference in Jerusalem. His natural administrative skills combined with the special touch of God on his life (see v.8, 18) made him the right man for the job. But the problem was that he already had a job, and you can’t just walk away from a powerful king. God would have to open the king’s heart to the idea of his personal cupbearer taking a leave of absence — and that is just what happened.
The king saw that Nehemiah looked sad and when he asked about it, Nehemiah risked displeasing the king (a capital offense) by telling him about the plight of his people in Jerusalem. After a brief conversation (v.4-8) Nehemiah had the king’s permission to leave, documents to ensure safe passage to Jerusalem, and a promise of necessary building supplies for the construction of the gates and walls. Nehemiah acknowledged the hand of God in the process. The King of kings had turned the heart of powerful Artaxerxes to a position of unusual kindness. That is what often happens when your heart is broken for the work of the Lord and you catch a vision for some great task: you find Him intervening for you, working things out in ways you never could, and sending blessings from unexpected sources. When you pray to the God of heaven (v.4), you are accessing the unlimited resources of heaven!
Nehemiah made his way to Jerusalem and inspected the city by night. What he saw confirmed the reports he had heard: Jerusalem was a wreck. The protective walls were broken down and the gates had been burned. In a day when cities were regarded according to the strength of their defenses (especially their walls), Jerusalem was a joke, a laughingstock to the neighboring nations. After the inspection, Nehemiah gathered the leaders of Jerusalem and offered a simple challenge: “Let us arise and build!” In that moment the Lord had brought the right man to the right place with the right challenge at the right time. The people of Jerusalem were ready to do the right thing and they eagerly agreed to Nehemiah’s plan.
Isn’t it amazing how one person’s faith can inspire many others? Nehemiah’s we-can-do-it attitude, infused with faith in his nothing-is-impossible God, was contagious! Don’t underestimate the power of your godly influence on others. The vision you share and the faith you exercise may inspire someone else to get involved. Your example can change things. Let others see you trusting the Lord and turning vision into reality.