Friday, September 10, 2010

When It Comes to Nehemiah...

If your pastor starts a series on Nehemiah, a ministry push or building program is sure to follow. This has been the case in every church I have been in.
Now let's break this down a little bit. The rebuilding of Jerusalem happened in two major phases. The first was spiritual reform under Ezra. The second was material and physical restoration under Nehemiah. God always works this way with His people. Get the spiritual right first, then deal with the physical.
How this applies to the nation of Israel is plain to see. The promise of God to His people was that if they followed in His way, He would bless them in the promised land.
How can this apply to the church? The promise of God to us is found in the cross of Christ, and our promised land is the kingdom to come. We are strangers and pilgrims on this earth, seeking a better city.
In considering the physical restoration under Nehemiah, what is it that God has physically given the church that is in need of restoration? God never promised the church any physical land or cities or buildings. Superimposing the workings of today's institutionalized American church over the early NT church and/or the nation of Israel is a recipe for eisegesis and confusion, both intentional and unintentional.
I would argue that Ezra has much greater applicability to the NT church than Nehemiah. The church always seek to renew and reform as it seeks after God.
What one is left with in trying to apply Nehemiah to the NT church is an exercise in spiritualization. It fails because the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, while a testimony to the world, is not representative of outreach. It is an internal affair. Both Ezra and Nehemiah are internal affairs. If you are going to preach Nehemiah in the context of the NT church, it might make sense for inreach ministries, but not outreach. Heck, preaching Nehemiah makes more sense for a building program than it does for outreach ministry. Even here though, one is taking the institutionalized American church way and imposing it on Scripture. How about we just not go there?
In summary, Ezra and Nehemiah are about the spiritual revival of the people of God and restoration of temporal blessing and protection. We can learn lessons from the lives of Ezra and Nehemiah along these lines. One commentator of Nehemiah, Steve Cole of Flagstaff Christian Fellowship, takes this approach in dealing with Nehemiah. However, it isn't long before he ends up using Nehemiah in all the wrong ways we've just discussed. He starts well and then broadens his application beyond the warrant of Scripture.
He starts off well in his commentary on Neh 1:

"...you want to be used by God. [...] God wants to use each one of us, but He also wants to develop us into people who are more usable to Him. As we look at the life of Nehemiah, we will learn many qualities of service and leadership. The book falls into two broad sections: Rebuilding the Wall (chapters 1-7); and, Rebuilding the People (chapters 8-13)."

Further,

"The person God uses has a burden for His people."

Unfortunately, Cole then takes a wrong turn:

"Matthew 9:36-38 says, 'Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.’' So we need to pray, 'Lord, give me the eyes of Jesus to see the needs of people. Give me the heart of Jesus to feel compassion for them. And raise up workers for the harvest to meet these overwhelming needs!'"

The unsaved aren't "His people." The Jews being referred to by Jesus were "His people" in the sense that they were of Israel. But don't lose sight of the fact that Cole is trying to apply Nehemiah to the church age, the here and now. And the "people" Cole has in view in this paragraph does not comprise a Gentile church ministry to the Jews, but an outreach ministry to the unsaved. He has taken us from an in-reach ministry to "His people" (which is warranted by the text) to an outreach ministry to unsaved--NOT "His people" (which is unwarranted by the text).
By glossing over these distinctions he sets the stage for a generalization of Nehemiah's ministry that allows him to use Nehemiah (incorrectly) to exhort believers to evangelistic ministry. Indeed, a little further, he completes his slight of hand by proclaiming:

"Second, don’t commit yourself impetuously to something just because the need is there. The needs are simply endless. You don’t have to respond to all of the world’s needs."

Who said anything about "the world's needs"? Nehemiah is about the needs of the people of God. But if you aren't paying attention, you miss it.

Maybe I don't have enough burden for the unsaved, but I won't take a lesson on that from a man who doesn't divide the Scripture properly.

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