Doing God’s Work God’s Way (Neh. 3:1-32)
How many of you got a chance to watch Michael Jackson’s funeral this past week? I only saw bits and pieces of it, but it was amazing to see people from all the world pay tribute to the King of Pop. I was reading something by Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary the past week about it. He said, (and I paraphrase here), that it was really sad to see the mass hysteria and mass emotion over Michael. It shows how people ache for a Messiah and the Gospel and until Jesus comes, all devotion and allegiance and affection will be transfer from one person to another.
Although I think Michael Jackson did do a lot in terms of music for the world, if we hold true the adage that “Only one life. It will soon, soon be past. Only what is done for Christ will last,” then all of his accomplishments will be burned up in the fire (1 Cor. 3:13). It is the Word of God and the work of God done in and through the people of God and for Jesus Christ that will truly last. If that’s the case, the stuff that matters is happening right here in front of us! And what a privilege to be part of it!
But sadly not everyone, even in the church, sees it that way. I come from an immigrant community who is so fired up about church, but really it is more a culture club than anything else. Yeah, you go to church, but that’s on the side. The real goal is to make yourself great, have a great job, make lots of money and make your parents look great in front of peers, so that they can brag about you and get some of the glory. God is there to serve them, a means to this end.
This is wrong, idolatrous thinking. We are here to serve God. We are here to bring Him glory. That is the greatest thing on the planet. “A great many people have got a false idea about the church,” said evangelist D.L. Moody. “They have got an idea that the church is a place to rest in…to get into a nicely cushioned pew, and contribute to the charities, listen to the minister, and do their share to keep the church out of bankruptcy, is all they want. The idea of work for them—actual work in the church—never enters their minds.”
We have been going through the book of Nehemiah verse-by-verse. The theme of the book is building God’s people for God’s work. Today we are going to look at “God’s work done God’s way.” In the year 586 BC, after ignoring repeated warnings by God to turn from idolatry and sin, the Babylonians came and invaded Judah in judgment and took the Jews into exile. Still God in His mercy had promised that after 70 years, He would bring His people back. This is exactly what happened.
God worked in the heart of a Persian King named Cyrus, since Persia conquered Babylon, to let the exiles return. They made three different trips. First Zerubabbel led a group, then Ezra. However, as they went back and started rebuilding the wall, opposition came and they stopped the work. 14 years go by. The wall, a symbol of their national identity and security, continued to lay in ruins. It made them a laughing-stock by all the neighboring nations and a laughing-stock of God.
But during this time, when the people of God had given up and were in despair and wondered if God was noticing anything and if He was keeping His promises, God was orchestrating His plans. He was working in the dark, raising up Nehemiah to be a cupbearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes.
We have spent the last few messages talking about how God prepares His workers for His work. But before God uses someone for His work, He makes them usable. This is what He did with Nehemiah. He broke Nehemiah’s heart with a burden to serve Him and His people. Then through some prayer and planning, Nehemiah waited for God’s timing. Four months later, he miraculously gets the King’s permission and resources to go to Jerusalem. As Nehemiah heard God’s call, He also learned that all who are called by God will get God’s provision to answer the call.
But as he gets there, he immediately finds opposition and the need overwhelming as he takes some time to tour the devastation. We learned some lessons about dealing with discouragement. Nehemiah doesn’t take the first camel out of Jerusalem back to Persia, but instead turns the obstacle of discouragement into an opportunity to rally the people of God to link their arms together and put their hands into the mighty hand of God and to the work of God.
This is where we are. The work is about to start as we pick up the story in Nehemiah 3. One of the joys of preaching through a Bible book is having to deal with obscure passages. This is what is before us today. In this chapter we have almost 40 names with 45 sections of construction, including 10 gates. If you ever encountered a list of names or a genealogy in your devotions, you probably skim or skip it altogether. It looks like reading the yellow pages, most of the names you cannot pronounce and you probably don’t care about them anyway, so you move on. In fact, some of the commentaries I looked at completely ignored this chapter or had nothing to say.
But before us today, whether we like or not, we have a list of names that not only Nehemiah decided to put in his journal, but God decided to put as part of His Word. This makes me realize that God loves to take note of His workers. How encouraging this must have been to a bunch of people who thought God had forsaken them. I can see Nehemiah (his name is not even recorded here) looking at each one of these workers as he walks by the walls, praying over each one as he writes their names down and possibly even encouraging them saying, “You are so valuable in the work of God. Thank you!” How much more does God take notice of us and each little brick we put into the wall of His work amen?
Since this is not a typical narrative here, what I want to do today is glean some principles about how to do God’s work in God’s way from this chapter. Take a note of this first thing then:
I. Every work of God needs to first set priorities (Neh. 3:1)
I will put the map up so we can get a better idea of what is going on here. The work begins at the Sheep Gate at the northeastern part of the wall and goes counterclockwise. Notice who begins the work first. Eliashib, the high priest and other priests are working on the sheep gate. Now look at the profession of these people and the name of the gate. What do you think the sheep gate was for? The sheep for sacrifices in the temple worship would be brought that way. See what Nehemiah does first? He makes sure the important part of the Temple worship, the sacrifice for the sins of people, is taken care of first.
In other words, Nehemiah is making sure the priorities are in order. What is most important? It is the worship of God through sacrifice for sin. What is interesting is that 400 hundred years later, right inside this gate, in a nearby garden called Gethsemane, the Lamb of God, would walk through this reconstructed gate to pray and finally be led as a lamb led to the slaughter (Is. 53:7) from here. Isn’t that amazing?!
But these priests set the example for everyone else. The priests rolled up their sleeves and though they don’t typically work with stones and hammers, they were willing to do any type of labor toward rebuilding the wall, fueled for the glory of God. Well unfortunately, Eliashib did not continue to be faithful as later on, due to being related to Tobiah, he allied with the enemy and conspired against Nehemiah (Neh. 13:4-9). Let us be careful as we allow nothing to distract us from the work of God, even our own relatives!
What they are saying in essence is “Put God first.” If this was now, they would put this verse on the gate: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). We would do well to make sure our priority here is lifting up the person of Jesus Christ. As Paul said, “HIM we proclaim” (Col. 1:28). One may disassociate Buddha from his teaching, Confucius and others from theirs, but Christ was His teaching. The message is not about human happiness or political influence or Christ and self-help or Christ and psychology or Christ and material wealth. Christ is the center of the bulls eye.
Let us in the work of God continue to put Him first. Let’s show God He is first on our list in our lives. So not going to church on Sunday is never an option. Not being a Bible to church is not an option. I am not here to cuddle with you. I am not here to spoon feed your formula and tickle you. When we come to church, we want to tell God you are first in my life! So I am here to receive from you. Fill me up so that I can be poured out for others. So bring a Bible and get ready to dig in the Word.
Here, we care about people more than programs. We care about character more than culture. We care about making each of us into little Christs. And when people leave here, let them say not that they saw a good children’s ministry or heard good worship or listened to a good sermon, but that we here worship a good Savior. As many of us are preparing for VBS this week, let us remember that our priorities is not just to give the kids a good time, but to give them Jesus Christ.
Let’s make sure to set our priorities straight in the work of God. Secondly,
II. Every work of God needs everyone involved
British humorist Jerome K. Jerome said, “I like work, it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” When it comes to the work of the Lord, there is no place for spectators or self-appointed advisors and critics; but there is always room for workers. It’s amazing to see all of the different types of people from different backgrounds and locations involved in rebuilding the walls. Each one was needed to do their part. Notice Neh. 3:2. People from Jericho, miles away, came to help. Distance did not hinder people from serving. The same can be said of the Tekoites in Neh. 3:5, the Gibeonites from Gibeon in Neh. 3:7, which was about six miles northwest of Jerusalem, Mizpah, which was about seven and a half miles northwest of Jerusalem, Zanoah in Neh. 3:13, was about thirteen miles southwest of Jerusalem, Beth-haccherem in Neh. 3:14 was probably five miles west of Jerusalem, Beth-zur mentioned in Neh. 3:16, was thirteen miles south of Jerusalem and lastly Keilah, in Neh. 3:17, also a few miles away. If you think about it, these people live far from the walls of Jerusalem. There is no real immediate benefit to be part of this work. But they served anyway.
Also, economic background did not stop people from serving. We have priests (Neh. 3:1, 17, 22, 28), goldsmiths (Neh. 3:8, 31,32), perfumers (Neh. 3:8), city officials (Neh. 3:9,12,14-19—the phrase “ruler of..”), temple servants (Neh. 3:26), city guards (Neh. 3:29, Shecaniah is the equivalent of a policeman or security guard) and merchants (Neh. 3:32). Commentator James Boice notes of the merchants, “Their business was trade. We might expect them to have been trading now, profiting by the situation. Apparently they were not. They were working with the others.” We also have families, including women who served (Neh. 3:12). In addition, single people also served (Neh. 3:23…Benjamin and Hasshub). What we see here is that God can use all kinds of people. The greatest ability in the kingdom of God is availability and dependability.
Whether people were priests or professionals, rulers or common folk, native residents or outsiders, construction crew or artisans, all who were willing to work were allowed to do so. And I love the words “next to them” spread throughout this chapter. It shows their diversity yet unity.
The huge redwood trees in California are considered the largest things on earth and the tallest trees in the world. Some of them are three hundred feet high and over 2,500 years old. One would think that trees so large would have a tremendous root system reaching down hundreds of feet into the earth. The redwoods actually have a very shallow system of roots, but they all intertwine. They are locked to each other. When the storms come or the winds blow, the redwoods stand. They are locked to each other, and they don’t stand alone, for all the trees support and protect each other.
Today, in the church, we need everyone to be involved, not to work alone, but interlocking their arms together. Paul said, “”And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” (Eph. 4:11-13). Unfortunately, as some has said that today the churches resemble more than anything else a football game played in a large stadium. There are eighty thousand spectators in the stands who badly need some exercise, and there are twenty-two men on the field who badly need a rest.”
I guess our problem is that we have 22 people on the field period right? I am so thankful for your willingness to serve at EFC! But let us not forget that the ministry belongs to everybody in the church and everybody in the church should be involved in ministry. It is important to find your gifting and passion and plug yourselves in and we are here to help each other recognize how God has gifted us and help us to grow. Lord willing, in the weeks and months ahead, we are working on structuring this ministry so that we can all work together better and serve one another better for the glory of God.
So we said every work of God needs first to set their priorities, get everyone involved and lastly,
III. Every work of God needs consecrated workers
The other thing that stuck out at me here is the consecration of the workers. The dictionary defines consecration as being set apart for a sacred purpose. Christians would call it sanctification. Here we see many set apart for God’s use, using how God had gifted them to serve the greater purpose. Notice I said “many” and not all. There are always some Judas’s and some Demas, who deserted Paul in love for the world (2 Tim. 4:9). Here we have some hot shot too-good-to-work nobles in Neh. 3:5 from Tekoa. No reason is given for why they did not want to work. Perhaps they did not like Nehemiah’s leadership. But it is sad to have that recorded about you!
But what does it mean to be consecrated? I would like to offer these to you from this chapter:
a) Learning as you serve (Neh 3:8-9)
If you notice in Neh. 3:8-9 that goldsmiths and perfumers (don’t you just imagine those people at the mall that spray you as you walk by?) were working in construction. We also know priests and politicians were were putting down the bricks. How much do you think they knew about construction? Probably nothing! But they were willing to learn. I would like to suggest to you that being teachable is at the top of every list of being a disciple. The person who says they cannot work for God because they do not know how, can look at these before you and learn to be teachable. It is very hard to work with people who think they always know everything. One way to decipher how well you are teachable is to see how you react to criticism. Lord, I pray for teachable servants!
Look at these verses. What phrase is repeated over and over again? Notice they “repaired another section.” By the way, The word repair is used thirty-five times; it means “to make strong and firm.” Nehemiah wasn’t interested in a “quick fix.” They were building to the glory of God, and therefore they did their best.
These people did the job they were asked to do, and then they did more. What a tremendous testimony of those who went the extra mile! This is what it means to be consecrated. You serve more than you are asked. Now I know most of us are doing that already because we are so limited here in people and resources. God takes note of that beloved! And for those of you who are serving in so many capacities, I continue to pray that God will make you larger as you do serve and do more than you are asked.
Shane Claiborne, who spent a summer in the slums of Calcutta with Mother Teresa, wrote the following about one of his experiences there:
“People often ask me what Mother Teresa was like. Sometimes it’s like they wonder if she glowed in the dark or had a halo. She was short, wrinkled, and precious, maybe even a little ornery—like a beautiful, wise old granny. But there is one thing I will never forget—her feet. Her feet were deformed. Each morning in Mass, I would stare at them. I wondered if she had contracted leprosy. But I wasn’t going to ask, of course. “Hey Mother, what’s wrong with your feet?”
One day a sister said to us, “Have you noticed her feet?” We nodded, curious. She said: “Her feet are deformed because we get just enough donated shoes for everyone, and Mother does not want anyone to get stuck with the worst pair, so she digs through and finds them. And years of doing that have deformed her feet.” Years of loving her neighbor as herself deformed her feet.”
Beloved, I wonder what marks that I have that shows that I have serving my Master with all that I have?
Thirdly, being a consecrated worker means:
c) Motivating others to serve (Neh. 3:12)
We mentioned already how there was a lot of learning going on as people not familiar with construction were putting their hands to work. That implies that there was also a lot of teaching going on. People helping others as they themselves are serving. Part of being a consecrated worker is motivating people around you to serve, especially those in your closest of circles. I thought this line was fantastic: “Shallum…repaired, he and his daughters” (Neh. 3:12). An entire family serving together! The text does not tell us, but I can just picture this father just working with his daughters and him showing them how to lay the bricks and helping them carry heavier stones.
There is no greater joy than to serve with your family. I think my greatest times have been serving with my family. I remember once about four years ago, Jenny and I and my parents went to India to visit our relatives. This was right after we got married. I remember there was a prayer meeting in one of the local villages and they wanted me to preach there. Well, I am not fluent enough to speak the language, so we needed a translator and my dad agreed to translate! It was an amazing time of serving with him. And I cannot begin to tell you how amazing it is to serve with your spouse. I would encourage you singles that you put that in your list of non-negotiables that you would find someone who is willing to serve the Lord.
d) Serving in difficult places (Neh. 3:14-15)
This is an interesting verse in Neh. 3:13-14. Neh. 3:13 mentions Hanun and the people of Zanoah working on the Valley Gate, but stopping at the Dung Gate. We don’t know why they stopped repairing until the Dung Gate, unless they were like, “We will do everything except that!” The Dung Gate was where all the garbage, manure, and refuse were taken. But look at Neh. 3:14: Malchijah steps up to work in a difficult place. Now what makes matters possibly worse is the next verse in Neh. 3:15. Shallum is working by the pool near the king’s gardens. What’s up with that Malchijah may have thought?! Now these places were probably not functional until these people built it, but in the end, thank God for Malchijahs who were willing to work in difficult places.
Two more here,
Interestingly, the bachelors in Neh. 3:23, Ben and Hashub, decided to work at the wall which was near their house. Sometimes our service for God is right before us! No mention here of their motivations (like of course single guys do the most convenient), but some of the priests did the same thing (Neh. 3:28) as well as Zadok in Neh. 3:29 and Meshullam repaired opposite his chamber in Neh. 3:31. By the way, Meshullam’s daughter is married to Tobiah, the Enemy’s son. (Neh. 6:18). Meshullam also repaired part of the wall as well (Neh. 3:4). One of these chambers would be given to Tobiah for his use (Neh. 13:4-9). Don’t let all your work for God eventually be a platform for the Enemy to live and work!
But I appreciate the fact for whatever reason some of these worked near their home, at the end of the day, they worked. Also, it would ensure good work as well, as those who worked on places near their home would make sure they are well protected. The contributed to the wall and that is all Nehemiah seems to care about here.
f) Serving despite past failures (Neh. 3:11)
I want us to look at this last person as we close. His name is Malchijah. From Neh. 3:11, we see he is one of those who went the extra mile. But a closer look in Malchijah’s past will reveal something. Turn to Ezra 10:18. We find that years before, there were some of the exiles who married foreign women, which was forbidden, because it led to them worshipping the gods of these women. Well Ezra confronts them in their sin, and they repent and he lists at the end of his book those guilty of intermarriage. Go down to Ezra 10:31. Notice right there in the list is Malchijah. Years later, when it came time for him to be part of God’s work again, here he is, putting his hand in the work and doing more than others. Past failures do not stop present grace. Are there any Malchijah’s in the house not serving because of past mistakes? I do not minimize consequences that some of us may have to face because of it, but God in His grace offers you forgiveness and a chance to serve Him again upon repentance.
Loved ones, the church is a construction zone. It is not a palace or a winter resort. The Apostle Peter says that God has given each of us a gift to, “use…to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace:….by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 4:10-11). This is why the picture God uses to talk about believers in a church community is a body, working together under the head of Jesus Christ.
Take a look at this mural: It’s called Adam—One Blood Many Nations, created by Lewis Lavoie and it stands 16 feet high and 20 feet wide. There are a lot of these nowadays. I think this was created by one guy, but there are several others which are group efforts. What is amazing about them is that it unifies hundreds of artists together to create one unified masterpiece. I think the church can learn from this. Each of us can leave our mark of the work of God so that it may look like Jesus Christ.
As we think about these names today, how amazing it is to think that they left something for people to talk about centuries later. I also thought it was incredible that even Nehemiah’s own name is mentioned. He would say all glory to God in the end (Neh. 6:16). Turn to Revelation 14:13. One of eight beatitudes in the book is this: “Blessed are those who are dead, who die in the Lord…that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” Our work does not die with us, if they are done in the Lord! (1 Cor. 15:58).
What will follow us when we die?
Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Determined, On cover: An Old Testament study—Nehemiah., Ne 4:1 (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1996, c1992).
Mervin Breneman, vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary, 189 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1993).
James Montgomery Boice, Nehemiah : An Expositional Commentary, 46 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: BakerBooks, 2005).
Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes, electronic ed., 129 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000).
 Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution, 167-168 (Zondervan, 2006).