The whistles were blowing as the lifeguard charged from his perch with a swift, flowing and practiced movement. In one swoop his right arm took hold of the small life preserver that hung beside him on his station, as his feet plunged into the sand. Bouncing forward, he barely touched down on each stride as he charged ahead with his eyes fixed on the horizon. He lunged with four pronouncedly large paces into a few feet of depth in the water, and then dove headlong into the sea, as he began a fast-paced swim to the little body that was bobbing face down in the water. He approached the child, pulled their limp body upward, and slung what appeared to be a lifeless pale blue body on his side – swiftly pulling the child back to the beach. It was an unmistakably nightmare for a parent that was nearby and missed the clues that their child was in life-threatening trouble. When the lifeguard put the child down on the beach, other emergency personnel moved in and began forcing the crowd back, trying to give the guard room to work on the child. The site of a blue-skinned little boy shocked people. He was clearly not breathing, and it looked hopeless – to everyone EXCEPT the trained personnel that worked on his skinny little body. They breathed air into his lungs; they pressed upon his chest. In what seemed like an hour, but was more like a minute or two, the child choked, and then turned him aside to expel the contents of his stomach and his lungs. In short order, the boy was breathing and his color returned. A little one who was walking a path to eternity was invited back to the land of the breathing – right before our eyes. Some onlookers cried, some clapped for the rescuers, and two very fearful parents learned a lesson that day they will never forget: Sometimes life has been so squeezed from us that we need someone else to pump new life into our fading heart. Today, some of us need to hear this lesson, not because we are drowning in water… but because we are drowning in LIFE.
This passage, taken from Nehemiah 8, is all about spiritual revival. It is about new breath in old lungs. It is a story of those long ago, but it is also a story about you and I. Here is the principle…
Key Principle: God has given us the means to revive a cold heart and a breathless spiritual life and restore our passion for Him.
Before we move ahead, take a step back and look at the book from which we are taking our lessons. This is an ancient diary of a wine steward who trusted God, and was sent on a mission to restore a city and lay a foundation for the rebuilding of its people. Nehemiah was a man God brought from obscurity to prominence. He never would have thought that would happen… but God uses those who desire to be used of Him.
The lessons are broken in the book between three distinct stages:
• Accepting the call of God through a burden (chapter one). Here we saw that God’s call to a man or woman who is ready will be both painful and uncertain at times – but it will lead a believer to a more intimate experience – trusting God to provide where He guides.
• Completing the work of God in the face of opposition (chapters 2-6). We walked through this section of the journal, and recalled that any time we attempt to do what God has laid on our heart, we face the testing of fire by God’s enemy, as he stirs opposition. Because we have a spiritual foe that is set to stir up trouble, we learned of his familiar methods, so that we would be able to recognize them. In the journal, the enemy began with criticism of the work by men who were positioned to offer discouragement – but that didn’t stop the work. The criticism morphed into planted stories of gossip in the ranks of Nehemiah’s followers – but that test was overcome by a direct answer of the leader. Nehemiah was then challenged by the draining of his energy through the complaints of mishandled people involved in the work, and even faced personal temptation in the lure of gain as his spiritual enemy dangled benefits in his face. By the time we reached the story in chapter six, Nehemiah faced a trio of very personal troubles – slander, private intimidation and public threats – all meant to produce FEAR in the leader and get him to make mistakes from which he could not recover. In the end – the wall got completed in fifty-two days. The leader and the people he oversaw could celebrate the completion, and God’s protection.
• Organizing the people of God to become a blessing for God (7-13). Chapter seven began the process of getting the people right before God, and pressing on their journey to become a testimony of God’s goodness. Nehemiah installed long term leaders, organized the city’s gates and guards, and then went for a search of records to repopulate the city with those who belonged a part of what God wanted to do in the revived city of Jerusalem. That got the people of God into the walls – but not the passion for God into their hearts… that is our story for today!
The people saw God through their leader – and that is important – but not enough. Nehemiah was an example to them – but he was not always going to be with them. He could not help them in the days ahead… so they needed to be attached to God and capable to make decisions. They needed to know God’s Word, and follow God’s leading. How could they learn to do that after so long depending on others to lead them? They needed to hear directly from God. At the time – just the right time – God brought into the story the older priestly leader who again visited the people – Ezra. He was a master expositor of Scripture, and he could lead the people to carefully study of God’s Holy Word. It would become the pattern of learning that would hold the Jewish people together long after the newly rebuilt Temple and the re-erected walls of their capital lay in ruins. It became the pattern we are following this very day as we open the Word together. God had BIG PLANS for this small group of people – but ONLY if they would follow Him.
First, the story opens with the request of the people (7:73-8:1).
Drop your eyes on the last words of Nehemiah 7:73: “…When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns…that appears to be the beginning of the sentence and should precede the beginning of chapter eight…keep reading…Nehemiah 8:1 And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel.
The people needed more than walls and leaders, administration and posted gate closing hours – they needed God’s direction for their spiritual transformation. Can you see that they SENSED the need for God’s Word in their request?
Maybe they sensed their need because they had just been through a tremendous time of testing… Dr. David Osborn at Denver Seminary said: “Too often we try to use God to change our circumstances, while He is using our circumstances to change us.” (Compass, April 2003)
The fact is that one of the benefits of sustained testing and trouble in our lives is that it refines us to see what is truly important, and moves us to hunger for God. One writer noted:
“You see, God is right now in the process of making us like Christ. Think of the process of refining maple syrup. Maple trees are tapped with buckets hung under the taps, and out drips a sap which is thin and clear, like water. On a good day, 50 trees will yield 30-40 gallons of sap, but it is essentially useless at this point with only a hint of sweetness. Then as the buckets fill, they are emptied into large bins that sit over an open fire. The sap comes to a slow boil; and as it boils, its water content is reduced and its sugars are concentrated. Hours later, it has developed a rich flavor and golden-brown color, but it must be strained several times to remove impurities before being reheated, bottled, and graded for quality. In the end, those 30-40 gallons of sap are reduced to one gallon of pure, delicious maple syrup, which is far better than the cheap, imitation, colored sugar-water that passes for maple syrup in the grocery store. So it is when we come to faith in Christ. We start like raw, unfinished sap, which could have been tossed aside as worthless. But God knew what he could make of us. He sought and found us, and his skillful hands are transforming us into something precious, sweet and useful. The long and often painful refining process brings forth a pure, genuine disciple easily distinguished from cheap imitations.” (Michele Straubel, Red Lake, Minnesota. From a sermon by C. Philip Green, Our Living Hope, 4/26/2011). Perhaps their troubles refined their taste buds for God. In any case…
In the simple request to have Ezra bring the Word, we see two important truths:
• First, they GATHERED and they ASKED for the Law to be opened to them. They didn’t have a copy at home – this was the only way they could get the truth! Revival starts with the HUNGER by believers to hear God. They draw together people in the name and of the Lord and the pursuit of His will – not because they were afraid of the world, nor because they wanted to preserve some cultural “Bible belt” practices of yesteryear out of some nostalgia – but because they HUNGERED FOR GOD.
• Second, the people asked someone with both knowledge of the text and a passion for God to explain revival to them. Ezra brought more than an old dusty scroll – he brought a warm and vibrant passion we will encounter between each line of the story. He knew that respect for Scripture is valueless unless it springs from awe of the God of Scripture and leads to obedience of its words. The walls built, the people recognized what their leaders already knew – the walls were a MEANS to the END of WORSHIP and TESTIMONY in Jerusalem!
How did they know to call on Ezra? It is worth noting this is the first mention of Ezra in this book – even though we know he was a leader from about a dozen years before of a group of returnees. Some scholars surmise that after Ezra 10 and the reforms he made in the people, he left them to return to Artaxerxes the King, and was now revisiting years later. His exposition of the Word was known from the decade before, and people wanted to hear it again.
A renewed passion for God comes, then, from a HUNGER to hear God and be changed by God. It can be found in His Word, but should be communicated by those with a passion to follow God and believe what He said. This is the beginning of a revival of our heart.
Second, we can observe the reading of the Word (8:2-4).
Nehemiah 8:2 Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who [could] listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4 Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah [and] Meshullam on his left hand.
Watch closely as you observe the scene where hearts were changed by God:
• The Word was brought in to the people of God as the holy seventh month commenced.
• The people were assembled – but not all were an equal part of the proceedings. Note the phrase in verse repeated in both verse two and three “those who could understand”. The reading of the Word was in Hebrew – but many of the people were no longer capable of recognizing the ancient words, because they spoke Aramaic. Some families carried on teaching the old language of God’s Word to their children, and those families could grasp what God’s Word taught more readily. Note they didn’t DUMB DOWN the teaching for effect – but rather pressed ahead with a reading only understood by some – and then took time to explain it to the rest in verse eight. My point: In a world where many were not versed in the things of God from their home, the meeting didn’t ignore those who DID know the Word and understand its teaching. Far too many meetings today, in an effort to win the new ones, ignore the ones who need more. People are spiritually starving in many a church that has its whole design to reach the new believer.
• Also note that careful attention to the Word of God preceded great revival. It was not merely the stirring and impassioned pleas of a crafted preacher, or the pulsing tones of the skilled band members – it was the timeless truth of the Word that changed lives! Leaders PLANNED the event and erected a platform and stood in attendance. Great moves of the Spirit are often preceded by a planned time in the Word!
• Look carefully at the list of names. Most of them are not terribly familiar sounding to you, but that isn’t the point. The text reveals one reader, but fourteen leaders. All were part of the pulpit team – even though only ONE was speaking. This wasn’t an opportunity to venerate Ezra – but rather the reflection of TEAM MINISTRY right from the start. The leaders were public, present and picked from the people. Good leadership was part of the scene of revival – it usually is.
Third, we begin to notice the reaction of the people (8:5-6).
Nehemiah 8:5 Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the LORD the great God. And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with [their] faces to the ground.
Don’t be misled by reading of the respect the people had for the Word. They stood, not simply because of the words written on the vellum, but because of the Author of those words. This was God’s Holy Word – from the Creator’s own magnificent hand! The focus of their response in worship was clear in the text – not on the Word or the service, but on the Lord! Their first reaction was to stand out of respect for the Word; then in focus on the Lord of this Word! As the book was opened, the people showed: hunger for the Word (i.e. Amen); the opening of the palms to call on God to meet with them and sincere humility before God.
We have seen that revival comes from hunger and should be communicated by one who is passionate to follow God. We have seen the move of God was planned by leaders – not to become a celebrity show, but a team effort. We have seen respect for the Word and humility of heart – accompanied the pattern of renewal.
God’s Word is a powerful source of transformation. That is why we gather to study it together! The Word of God is a controlled release of truth and power. Ten gallons of gasoline can be lit with a match and release great power and show a dramatic and immediate impact. Yet, that is not the best use of such a fuel. On the other hand, if you fill the fuel tank of an automobile, the well-designed engine will use ten gallons of gasoline to take a person 300 miles or more. Explosions are spectacular, but controlled and consistent application of fuel has staying power. You don’t want to be a flash in the pan, but a sustainable and moving host to God’s hand and work. Regular application of God’s Word is not dramatic, but it moves you to where God wants to put you!
Fourth, we observe the careful rendering of the Word (8:7-8).
Nehemiah 8:7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, explained the law to the people while the people [remained] in their place. 8 They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.
We cannot stress enough the simple point of these two verses…It isn’t just hearing the Word of God that changes people; understanding the Word is required for change! Careful, systematic instruction of the Word of God sown into the hearts of the people of God will bring about transformation. Careless handling of the Word will bring disaster! Who hasn’t seen the Bible used on the internet or television in a way that communicated the very OPPOSITE of the intended truths of God? People need more than just a hearing of the words – they require explanation and application of the principles of the Word.
Not to get distracted here, but we need to make a distinction between the systematic teaching of the Word and the bullet point teaching of systematic theology. Many a believer engages a theological presentation, but seldom encounters the story of the Bible in its setting. Remember this, theology is philosophy erected over the Word of God to help you see it cohesively. If your theology is wrong, it will affect the way you read the text. Let the text speak BEFORE you decide what it MUST MEAN to fit your theological and philosophical bend.
Pastor Bobby Scobey from Memphis insightfully wrote: “For 2,000 years the Bible, often unaided by any human intervention, has transformed the lives of those who read it, many times dramatically so. St. Augustine is a good example. For most of his life he was a famed academic in the Roman Empire. He was very successful in rhetoric, a noble profession. But he lived a thoroughly dissolute, self-indulgent, immoral life. The time came when he began to consider the claims of Christianity. He was alone in a garden one day when he heard a child singing out a line from a game: “Pick it up and read, pick it up and read.” He turned to his copy of the Scriptures, which was opened to Roman. 13. His eyes were drawn to the following words: “Not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” (Rom. 13:13-14). Deeply convicted, he surrendered to Christ, and the Roman rhetorician went on to become the Christian bishop of Hippo, the greatest theologian after Paul, and one of the most formidable intellects of Western civilization.” (sermoncentral.com)
Fifth, we encounter the response of the leaders (8:9-11).
Nehemiah 8:9 Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest [and] scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.”
When the people heard what God told them they were to do and to be, they were stunned by their own sin. The power of conviction overcame them – and the tears flowed like rain. Yet, that wasn’t what God wanted. God wanted them to change and feel released from the grip of the troubles. God wanted a time of sweet restoration!
How different our times! We stand before a hardened generation – often unwilling to even acknowledge sin in their lives when the results are devastating! What can we do! We can lovingly, passionately but clearly articulate the words of the Creator.
The other things we notice is that people need to be directed even in conviction. The people responded to the Word with tears, but the teachers offered more instruction. Who instructed? The teachers were Nehemiah (the Tirshata); Ezra (the scribe/reader) and Levites (explainers). They called to the people to cease mourning and proclaim the HOLY DAY! (9), to feast and rejoice and take care of the needy. Why? Because in addition to the conviction of the Word, God provided mature teachers that could direct the response to be in accordance with God’s greater purposes. Also, don’t neglect to note: God takes care of needy through those sensitive to HIS leading.
Sixth, we enjoy watching the right responses of the people (8:12-18).
It included celebration! (8:12)
Nehemiah 8:12 All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them.
The strange mix of pain and trust are hard to understand, but it is part of the transformation process – and it is played out differently in each life. In 1993 Gerald Sittser, a professor at Whitworth College was driving home from a family outing. In the car was his mother, wife of 20 years and four children. A drunk driver swerved across the center line and hit them head on. In an instant he lost his wife, his two year old daughter and his mother. In his book, A Grace Disguised, Sittser shares some insights from his painful journey: “The accident itself bewilders me today as much as it did three years ago. Much good has come out of it, but all the good in the world will never make the accident itself good. It remains a horrible, tragic and evil event to me. Yet the grief I feet is sweet as well as bitter. I still have a sorrowful soul; yet I wake up each morning joyful, eager for what the new day will bring. Never have I felt as much pain as I have in the last three years; yet never have I experienced as much pleasure in simply being alive … never have I felt so broken; yet never have I felt so whole . . . Never have I been so aware of my weaknesses and vulnerability; yet never have I been so content and felt so strong … Above all, I have become aware of the power of God’s grace and my need for it. My soul has grown because it has been awakened to the goodness and love of God. God has been present in my life these past three years. God will continue to be present to the end of my life and through all eternity. God is growing my soul, making it bigger and filling it with himself. My life is being transformed.”
The truth is that when we HEAR the Word of God, and we UNDERSTAND the Word, we must be willing to conform our ACTIONS to His Will! Emotions must be made subject to God’s direction. He doesn’t convict us to CRUSH us – but to CLEANSE US. God called the people to CELEBRATE their walk, not wallow in their conviction.
It included even greater hunger for truth (13).
Good food makes me hungry for good food. Pallets are trained… and so are congregations. Look at what the people did in response to hearing the MEAT of God’s Word…
Nehemiah 8:13 Then on the second day the heads of fathers’ [households] of all the people, the priests and the Levites were gathered to Ezra the scribe that they might gain insight into the words of the law.
Truth fires the mind and heart to gain a better understanding. Lies dull the mind, and leave us in befuddled complexity. Billy Graham said years ago: “We’re suffering from only one disease in the world. Our basic problem is not a race problem. Our basic problem is not a poverty problem. Our basic problem is not a war problem. Our basic problem is a heart problem. We need to get the heart changed, the heart transformed.”
I love that in this example God began His renewal work in the heads of families – the leaders in the family! Their hearing brought them greater hunger, and their hunger pulled them to engage in learning.
It included the ready obedience of the families (8:14-18).
God’s Word is incredibly practical. They listened intently:
Nehemiah 8:14 They found written in the law how the LORD had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month. 15 So they proclaimed and circulated a proclamation in all their cities and in Jerusalem, saying, “Go out to the hills, and bring olive branches and wild olive branches, myrtle branches, palm branches and branches of [other] leafy trees, to make booths, as it is written.” 16 So the people went out and brought [them] and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. 17 The entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. The sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was great rejoicing. 18 He read from the book of the law of God daily, from the first day to the last day. And they celebrated the feast seven days, and on the eighth day [there was] a solemn assembly according to the ordinance.
The Feast of Tabernacles has always been a feast of thanksgiving for the deliverance of God from bondage and a celebration of the fruits of the harvest by His good hand! Here the harvest abounded in the fruits of gladness (17b) – not in the good THINGS God gave, but JOY in the OPPORTUNITY to obey him and “delight in the Lord”.
God has given us the means to revive a cold heart and a breathless spiritual life and restore our passion for Him.
Respect for Scripture is valueless unless it springs from awe of the God of Scripture and leads to obedience of the Scripture. It is not what we HEAR that helps us, it is what CHANGES US that helps us. Francis Chan said it well: “The truth is that the Spirit of the living God is guaranteed to ask you to go somewhere or do something you wouldn’t normally want or choose to do. The Spirit will lead you to the way of the cross, as He led Jesus to the cross, and that is definitely not a safe or pretty or comfortable place to be. The Holy Spirit of God will mold you into the person you were made to be. This often incredibly painful process strips you of selfishness, pride, and fear. For a powerful example of this, read in C. S. Lewis’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader about the boy, Eustace, who becomes a dragon. In order to become a little boy again, he must undergo a tremendous amount of pain as the dragon skin is peeled away and torn from him. Only after he endures this painful process is he truly transformed from a dragon back into a boy. Sometimes the sin we take on becomes such a part of us that it requires this same kind of ripping and tearing to free us. The Holy Spirit does not seek to hurt us, but He does seek to make us Christlike, and this can be painful.” (Francis Chan. Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit (pp. 50-51). Kindle Edition.)