Steps to Spiritual Renewal

Nehemiah 7-8

October 22, 2000 | Brian Bill

I received an email this week from one of our missionaries serving in the Philippines.  She’s been there for about 10 weeks and is learning the language and beginning to understand the culture.  In her email, she forwarded what her co-worker wrote about a shared experience in a recent church service:

“I heard my pastor announce that we were going to take up an offering to purchase some “sin” for another developing church.  The pastor made this compelling announcement: “Their church building is nearly finished, and they are in desperate need of more “sin.”  If you would like to make a donation toward the purchase of more “sin” or if you would just like to go out and buy “sin” to give them yourself, let us know as soon as possibleIf you aren’t going to be here next Sunday and would like to leave your donation for “sin” with us, that would be fine.  I know the Lord will bless you for your generous gift toward this project!”

The missionary’s friend continues: “At that point I was nearly unable to contain myself!  I leaned over and whispered to my friend [who I think was Janelle], ‘So, you can actually go out and purchase “sin” here in the Philippines?   What a shame they don’t have enough “sin” in their church already!”

Later on, they figured out what was going on: “The Cebuano word for “tin” is “sin”!  They were in fact, needing more tin to complete the roof of the new church building.  Could it be said, then, that they were in sin over their heads?”

My guess is that most of us have plenty of sin to deal with in our lives – we certainly don’t need to purchase any more!  What our missionary experiencing in another culture is very common.  Due to the difficulty in understanding a new language, she’s faced with some misconceptions.

Just as there are many misconceptions when trying to learn a new language, so too, many of us have some misconceptions about the Bible.  Here are three that come to mind:

  • It’s too confusing to read
  • It’s too boring to study
  • It’s impossible to apply

These myths are demolished in Nehemiah 8.  In the first half of the book, in chapters 1-6, the focus is on reconstructionChapter 1 Knowing How to Pray

Chapter 2 How to Tackle a Tough Job

Chapter 3 Working Well With Others

Chapter 4 Defeating Discouragement

Chapter 5 How to Stop Strife

Chapter 6 Dealing With Distractions

The emphasis shifts in chapter 7, as the focal point becomes reinstruction in the rest of the book.  We move from rebuilding the city, to rebuilding the people.  

I want to use these myths, or misconceptions, as an outline this morning.  The first myth is that the Bible is too confusing to read.  In verses 1-8, we’ll see that the Bible, instead of being confusing, is actually a book that you and I can comprehend – You can understand it!

The second myth is that the Bible is too dry and boring to study.  What we’ll discover in verses 9-12 is that the Bible is anything but dull – You can rejoice in it!

The third misconception is that the Bible is impossible to apply.  What relevance does a book this old have to do with my world today?  Verses 13-18 show us that there are many ways we can apply its truths – You can obey it!

You Can Understand It 

Take a look at verse 1: “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate.  They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.”

the Bible is not meant to be confusing, but to be understood

The Bible is not a “magic book” that changes us just because we read it – God’s Word must be understood before it can enter the heart and release its life-changing power.  The word, “understanding” is used six times in this chapter, which shows that the Bible is not meant to be confusing, but to be understood.

Ezra was the ideal man to conduct this outdoor Bible conference.  He had come to Jerusalem 14 years before Nehemiah and was a priest, scholar, and teacher of the Law. Ezra 7:10 gives us some insight into what kind of man he was: “For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”  He was committed to personal study of the Word, he looked for ways to apply the Bible to his life, and then he taught it to others.  This is one of my favorite verses – I consider it a personal challenge because I want to do the same.  I’m committed to study and personal application so that I can teach the Word accurately and with integrity

They came together on the first day of the seventh month, which was the Jewish equivalent of our New Year’s Day.  During this month, the Israelites celebrated the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles.  It was the perfect time for them to get right with God and make a fresh start.  Notice that this seems to be a spontaneous gathering.  No invitations were sent out.  No public notice was given.  They came together as “one man,” eager to understand God’s Word.  They met before the “Water Gate.”  In the Bible, water is a picture of the Word of God.

Instead of waiting to hear what Ezra wanted to preach on, “they told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law…”  Like an impatient audience at a concert, the people were probably chanting, “We want Ezra.  We want Ezra.  Teach us the Word.  Bring it on!”  The Book of the Law was the Torah, which contains the first five Books of Moses.

Verse 3 tells us that he started reading at dawn and read until lunch.  The people listened to the Word of God for over six hours!   We know from verse 18 that this continued for a week.  And, they didn’t just sit in their pews – they “listened attentively.”  There’s no greater thrill to a preacher then when people listen alertly to the Word of God. 

In verse 4 we read, “Ezra stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion” so they could see and hear him better.  Some churches in Scotland have high pulpits, with 20 or 30 steps leading up to them – they probably got the idea from this passage.  Thirteen men stood with Ezra while he read.

When Ezra opened the Book in verse 5, the people honored God by standing up.  They knew this was not just a man speaking; they were about to hear the very Word of God.  After Ezra praised “the great God” in verse 6, all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!”  No one fell asleep in this service.  Everyone listened attentively and everyone responded.  Then they “bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”

The people went from sitting to standing.  Then, they raised their hands, shouted out their agreement by saying “Amen” and then bowed down and worshipped by putting their faces to the ground.  The anticipation of hearing the Bible in a way that they could understand totally gripped them.  They were locked in, focused, and ready to hear from their great God.

In this spirit, please stand as I read the rest of this chapter.  [Have people stand and read Nehemiah 8:7-18]

In verses 7-8, the Levites join Ezra in helping to instruct the people.  They “made it clear” and gave the meaning “so that the people could understand what was being read.”   Their task was twofold.  First, they had to translate from Hebrew into Aramaic because the language would have undergone some changes since the days of Moses.  By the way, the reason we need new translations of the Bible is not because the Bible changes, but because our language is undergoing change all the time.  

Second, they had to spell out the application, so that the listeners would know how to flesh out God’s truth in their own lives.  They probably mingled with the people and, when there was a break in the reading, answered questions and told them how to apply the Law.  There was both a public proclamation of the Word in a large assembly and the face-to-face interaction of a small group.  

Misconception #1 is that the Bible is too confusing to read.  What we learn from verses 1-8 is that the Bible is designed to be understood.  Let me give you four hints to help you better comprehend the Word of God.

  • Find a contemporary translation and read a chapter of the Bible every day.  Grab a notebook and write down one verse that impacts you.  Saturate yourself with Scripture.
  • Be attentive during the preaching time.  Read the passage I will be speaking on during the week.  Bring your Bible and follow along.  Take notes.
  • Participate in an IMPACT class on Sunday mornings.  These classes are designed to help you understand more about the Bible.
  • Plug into a small group.  Like the Levites with Ezra, our small group leaders are trained to help you better understand the Bible.  If you’re ready to join a group, pick up some information in the hallway or call the church office.

You Can Rejoice In It

Myth #2 is that the Bible is too boring to study.  The truth of the matter is that you can rejoice in it!  We see this in verses 9-12.

The ministry of Scripture caused them to see the beauty of God and the ugliness of their own hearts

As Ezra read and the small group leaders explained the Word, the congregation’s first response was one of conviction and grief in verse 9.  The natural reaction to the Bible is guilt.  The people wept because they knew they had been neglecting God’s Word.  Another reason they were broken up is because their hearts were convicted by what they heard.  As Romans 3:20 says, “…through the Law we become conscious of sin.”  The ministry of Scripture caused them to see the beauty of God and the ugliness of their own hearts.

Though weeping is necessary and important, it’s not the final message God has for us.  Assisted by the Levites, Nehemiah convinced the people to stop mourning and start celebrating.  The Word of God brings conviction and leads to repentance, but it also brings us joy; for the same Word that wounds also heals.  Jeremiah 15:16: “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight…”  Psalm 19:8: “The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart…”  Friends, it is as wrong to mourn when God has forgiven us, as it is to rejoice when sin has conquered us.  Grief for sin, and joy in God’s forgiveness are not far from each other.  The God who convicts of sin is the God of grace and mercy.

It isn’t enough for us to read the Word, or receive the Word as others explain it; we must also rejoice in the Word.  

Look at verses 10-12: “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared.  This day is sacred to our Lord.  Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.  The Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for this is a sacred day.  Do not grieve.’  Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

Did you catch that?  When people understand the Word of God, it brings them joy.  We can have joy because God has found a solution to the sin problem.  

Notice how the people are urged to share what they have with others.  This is significant in light of what we learned in chapter 5 when the rich were taking advantage of the poor.  When we understand God through understanding His Word, we will have a contagious joy as we invite others to experience the same thing.  As someone has said, “Joy is magnified when it’s shared.”  That’s one of the points Nehemiah makes: Eat something good, drink something sweet, and give some to people who don’t have any.  This is a sacred day, so be joyful.  Reverence and rejoicing go together.  Philemon 6 challenges us to “be active in sharing our faith so that we will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.”  We can’t have true joy unless we share what we have with others.

Friends, the Bible and the truths within it are far from dry or boring.  If we understand Scripture, we will come to the place of joy.  Every effort to make Christianity seem sad, heavy, strict, and boring comes up short.  The people who know the story of redemption the best are the most free, the most joyful, and the least likely to keep it to themselves.

Let me give you a couple ways to demolish this second myth so that you can rejoice in what you understand from the Bible:

  • Instead of focusing on how you’ve messed up, draw your attention to what God has done on your behalf.  Some of you are crippled with guilt and paralyzed with shame.  If you’ve confessed it, the Bible says you are forgiven and free.  It’s time to move on with joy.  Isaiah 44:22 is a great verse to treasure if you’re struggling with guilt and shame: “I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist.  Return to me, for I have redeemed you.”
  • Look for ways to share what you have with others.  Someone this week stopped by my office because she wanted to give a meal to a homeless person.  She was passing along her joy to someone else.  Who can you give something to this week?  Think of someone you know who is a pre-Christian.  Ask God to give you an opportunity this week to share your joy with him or her.

You Can Obey It

The third misconception is that the Bible is impossible to apply.  This myth says that God is just out to make life miserable for us by giving us things to do which are unattainable.  While it’s certainly true that we can’t obey everything in the Bible because of our sinfulness, we can live out its truths and principles on a daily basis.  In fact, God’s Word was given in order to transform our lives.  We don’t have to make the Bible relevant because it already is.  Our challenge is to follow what we know to be true as we ask the Holy Spirit to empower and fill us.  As James 1:22-25 reminds us, it’s not enough to just hear the Word of God; we must obey what it tells us to do.

You see, as we understand the Bible, we will debunk myth #1, which says that it’s too confusing to read.  As we celebrate with rejoicing and disarm myth #2, which says that it’s too boring to study; we will be ready to obey and destroy myth #3 which says that it’s impossible to apply.  Matthew Henry, a Bible commentator once wrote: “Holy joy is oil to the wheels of our obedience.”  To the believer without joy, the will of God is drudgery; but to the believer who is strengthened by the joy of the Lord, the will of God is nourishment.  

In verses 13-18 we see how the Israelites found great joy in their obedience.  As they paid attention to what they heard, verse 14 says that they discovered they were not fully following the Lord in all areas.  While they had celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles at different times in their history, they were supposed to set up booths made out of branches.  They were doing part of what God wanted, but weren’t following all the directions.  There are times in my life when my problem isn’t that I’m not following the Lord, it’s that I’m not obeying Him completely.

The Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths, was a reminder that they were called as a people out of Egypt.  When they got into the desert, God told them to collect branches and limbs of trees in order to have shelter.  God then told them to do this every year, even when they had their homes to dwell in.

God told them to live in shacks for a week.  They were to go out, fetch some branches and sticks, and make booths for their families to live in.  They may have wondered why this was so important, especially since the wall was now complete.  Sanballat and Tobiah must have just shaken their heads in amazement.  They made fun of the wall’s construction and now the people were busy building little shacks.  These little lean-tos were scattered all over Jerusalem.

There were three main purposes for this festival.  It was a time for looking back and remembering the nation’s forty years of wandering in the wilderness, when the people were homeless and lived in temporary shelters.  It helped them remember where they had come from and how far God had brought them.  

This “Fall Festival” was also a time for looking around at the harvest blessings from the hand of God.  That’s one of the reasons we are going to meet tonight at our Fall Fest – to celebrate the harvest from our fields and to thank God for the spiritual harvest that God is blessing our church with.  

The Feast of Tabernacles was also an occasion for looking ahead.  These believers may have been tempted to get comfortable with their new city and their new homes.  But the Word of God says, “Remember, your home is not in this world.  You are always going to be pilgrims here.   Your home is in heaven.”  After the walls were up, God wanted to make sure they didn’t count on the walls, but instead, count on Him.  We need that reminder – don’t sink your roots too deep into this world because our true home is in heaven.

As the people applied God’s truth, they did it with an attitude of joy.  Look at verse 17: “And their joy was very great.”  When God gives you insight, no matter how strange or difficult it appears to be, cultivate an attitude of complete commitment and unreserved obedience.  When you obey Him, you will have the deep satisfaction that you are doing the right thing, no matter how hard it is.  If we are truly a people of the Book, we’ll live by the Book.  Let me suggest three action steps that will help you develop an application orientation to the Word of God.  The Bible is not impossible to apply – you can obey it!

  • Pray and ask God for personal transformation as you read and understand the Bible.  Ask Him to reveal what it is He wants you to do as a result of what you’ve read or heard.  Avoid the temptation to just “study” the Bible, compiling information as if that’s the only goal.  Expect to hear something that God wants you to apply.
  • When God reveals something to you, don’t put it off.  Don’t bargain with God.  Don’t go halfway.  Don’t settle for spiritual mediocrity.  Determine to be obedient.
  • Ask someone to help hold you accountable.  When you know what God wants you to do, and you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to do it on your own, ask for some help.

Two Invitations

I want to close this message by first addressing those of you who are believers.  In every genuine revival in history, there have always been two major thrusts:

  • Proclamation and preaching of the Word
  • Responsive mobilization of God’s people

As you’ve listened to God’s Word this morning some of you are ready to be renewed.  You want to respond because you know you need to be personally revived.  It’s so easy to slip, isn’t it?  Our natural tendency is to head south spiritually.  Some of you have lost your joy and feel a bit dry.  You can relate to the psalmist when he asked in Psalm 85:6: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?”

Are you ready to repent and turn from your sins?  There’s a town in Canada called Wabush that was completely isolated for many years.  Recently they cut a road through the wilderness to reach it.  It now has one road leading into it, and thus, only one road leading out.  If someone would travel the 8 hours it would take to get to Wabush, there is only one way they could leave – by turning around.

Some of you have been spending too much time in a town called sin.  As with this town, there is only one way out – a road built by God himself.  In order to take that road, one must first turn around.  Are you ready to turn from your sin and experience the power of the Lord again in your life?  Are you ready to commit to full obedience?

If so, commit to understand, rejoice, and obey the Word of God.

My second invitation is for those of you who have not yet put your full faith in Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins.  You have no need to purchase more sin in your life because you have plenty already.  The Bible says that each of us are stained by sin and because of that, we have been separated from God.  Jesus, when He died on the cross, paid the price for our sins so that we can have forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

Let me illustrate.  This week I was having lunch with a recent visitor to our church.  During lunch I got up and said “hi” to another couple I knew.  When we were done eating, the waitress came over and said that this other couple had paid our bill for us. I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t do anything to deserve their kindness.  

That’s exactly what Jesus has done for you.  He’s paid your sin tab because of how much He loves you.  All you have to do is accept His payment and receive Him into your life.  But it takes a response on your behalf.  Max Lucado has said that there are a thousand steps between us and God and that God will take all of those steps, but one.  He’s leaving the final one for us.  The choice is ours.

Are you read this morning to take this final step?  You see, if you want spiritual renewal in your life, you first need to be regenerated.  Just as Nehemiah listed a bunch of names in chapter 7, which proved who the true believers were, so too, there is another book that is full of names.  It’s called the Lamb’s Book of Life.  Is your name in it?  Are you ready to take the step you need to take?

I want to give you the opportunity right now to respond to God’s Word.  If you’re a believer and you need revival, I invite you to come forward.  If you’re not yet a believer, and you need regeneration, I invite you to slip out of your chair and come forward.

Someone has said this about repentance: “If we put off repentance another day, we have one day more to repent of, and a day less to repent in.”

Prone to Wander

It was a bright Sunday morning in 28th century London, but Robert Robinson’s mood was anything but sunny.  All along the street there were people hurrying to church, but in the midst of the crowd Robinson was a lonely man.  The sound of church bells reminded him of years past when his faith in God was strong and the church was an integral part of his life.  It had been years since he set foot in a church—years of wandering, disillusionment, and gradual defection from the God he once loved.  That love for God—once fiery and passionate—had slowly burned out within him, leaving him dark and cold inside.

Robinson heard the clip-clop, clip-clop of a horse-drawn cab approaching behind him.  Turning, he lifted his hand to hail the driver.  But then he saw that the cab was occupied by a young woman dressed in her Sunday best.  He waved the driver on, but the woman in the carriage ordered the carriage to be stopped.

“Sir, I’d be happy to share this carriage with you,” she said to Robinson.  “Are you going to church?”  Robinson was about to decline, but then he paused.  “Yes,” he said at last. “I am going to church.”  He stepped into the carriage and sat down beside the young woman.

As the carriage rolled forward Robert Robinson and the woman exchanged introductions.  There was a flash of recognition in her eyes when he stated his name.  “That’s an interesting coincidence,” she said, reaching into her purse.  She withdrew a small book of poems, opened it to a ribbon-bookmark, and handed the book to him.  “I was just reading a verse by a poet named Robert Robinson.  Could it be…?”

He took the book, nodding.  “Yes, I wrote these words years ago.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” she exclaimed.  “Imagine! I’m sharing a carriage with the author of these very lines!

But Robinson barely heard her. He was absorbed in the words he was reading.  They were words that would one day be set to music and become a great hymn of the faith, familiar to generations of Christians:

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,

Tune my heart to sing Thy grace’

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,

Call for songs of loudest praise.

His eyes slipped to the bottom of the page where he read:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it—

Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

Seal it for Thy courts above.

He could barely read the last few lines through the tears that brimmed in his eyes.  “I wrote these words—and I’ve lived these words.  ‘Prone to wander…prone to leave the God I love.’”

The woman suddenly understood. “You also wrote, ‘Here’s my heart, O take and seal it.’ You can offer your heart again to God, Mr. Robinson. It’s not too late.”

And it wasn’t too late for Robert Robinson.  In that moment he turned his heart back to God and walked with him the rest of his days.

And, it’s not too late for you!  Are you ready to turn your heart back to God right now?  I’m going to ask Susan to play this hymn and as she does, if you need revival, or if you need regeneration, come up front and I’ll pray with you.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?