by Chris Ritter
Question: What does Nehemiah have to do with Pentecost?
In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit was thought to anoint three types of people: Prophets, Priests, and Kings. Nehemiah was none of these. As we learned last week, he was simply a man with a broken heart over a homeland he had never seen. Yet the Holy Spirit anointed him anyway. The life of Nehemiah provides a preview of the New Testament where all believers are gifted, empowered, and called to ministry.
On the Day of Pentecost, 120 followers of Jesus were gathered in an upper room awaiting the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise. In Acts 1:8, Jesus promised new power for his disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth. About nine that morning, the Holy Spirit fell on that prayer meeting. Tongues of fire rested upon each one of them. They went out to turn the world right-side-up.
All the Holy Spirit’s gifts are necessary to do God’s work. Nehemiah was not the first to try to re-build Jerusalem. The first attempt happened when King Cyrus let the captives return home. Zerubbabel led over forty thousand Jews back to Judea. He was a zealot who believed that if they could rebuild the temple everything would turn around. It didn’t. The second attempt was thirteen years before Nehemiah’s mission. Ezra went back to preach and teach God’s law. But this mission, too, failed to achieve the desired results. (It is difficult for a preacher like me to admit that God’s people need more that solid preaching.)
Nehemiah was, at heart, an administrator. If that doesn’t sound very spiritual, we need to remember that leadership and administration are spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament (1 Cor. 12:28, Romans 12:8). Nehemiah had a passion for his cause and the ability to think through the steps he would need to get an important job done. I have found over the years that I need people with administrative gifts surrounding me at all times. I can communicate a vision, but it takes administrators to move the ball down the field.
The Person for the Job
Consider some personal qualities of Nehemiah that made him the person for the job:
Nehemiah was a person of excellence. As the cup-bearer to the King of the Persian Empire, he brought his A-Game to work every day. Some people wonder why doors of opportunity do not seem to open for them. Nehemiah understood that waking up and doing your best, no matter what your current job, is the key to being prepared for new opportunities that God might send your way. When we bring our best, God opens new doors. When we are faithful over a few things, God puts us over more things. (Matthew 25:21)
Nehemiah was willing to sacrifice. To follow God’s call, Nehemiah was leaving one of the best jobs in the world to take on one of the lousiest jobs in the world. In the Christian vernacular, leadership always involves downward mobility. Jesus came as a servant, washed feet, and called those who would lead in his name to do the same. Some people only want to lead in order to promote their own egos and comfort. Nehemiah was looking for significance, not mere worldly success. He left a job at the right hand of the most powerful man in the world to be governor over a heap of ruins.
Nehemiah was a planner. When King Artaxerxes agreed to send him to Jerusalem, Nehemiah was ready with a plan. He asked for letters authorizing the mission. This was important because the Persian Empire was organized into satrapies each ruled more or less autonomously by satraps, local governors. The papers would allow him to move across the various jurisdictions of the kingdom without harassment. Nehemiah also had the forethought to request timber from the royal forests of Lebanon. Timber of the required size was essential, expensive, and not available locally around Jerusalem.
Nehemiah accepted help that was offered. When Ezra went to Jerusalem a few years earlier, he was offered a military escort. But he refused. Nehemiah gratefully accepted the offer of Persian soldiers to travel with him. He knew the papers from the king might help him with local politicians, but they would not help him with bandits. Sometimes God sends us help we are too proud of accept. Stop it!
Nehemiah in Jerusalem
With nothing but some papers and a plan, Nehemiah begins the arduous journey toward Jerusalem:
11 I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days 12 I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.Nehemiah 2:11-20, New International Version
13 By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. 14 Then I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; 15 so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate. 16 The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work.
17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” 18 I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me.
They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work.
19 But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?”
20 I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”
Nehemiah tells us very little about his 850 mile trek from Susa to Jerusalem. It must have been an arduous journey. We know his first stop was to deliver papers from the king to the neighboring governors. The royal orders basically carved territories away from them to give to Nehemiah. As you can imagine, they did not like this. They accused Nehemiah of all sorts of things. He put these negative voices on mute by remembering his mission: He had come to “seek the welfare of the people of Israel.” (Neh 2:10) When you follow God’s call, be prepared to be disliked. Those who live for the applause of men never accomplish what they should. Only those who live for the applause of Heaven reach their potential. Nehemiah seemed to understand that those who step on field to play must be ready for heckles from the cheap seats.
So much of Old Testament history is difficult to pin down precisely by date. Not so with Nehemiah. Because of historical references in the text, we know he began his mission in the spring of 446 BC. There is roughly 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, and Nehemiah fits at the very end of the Old Testament timeline. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 597 BC, 150 years earlier. What must it had been like for him to see the city for the first time? This was the place from which David reigned and where he was buried. This was the city that boasted Solomon’s temple. But now it was reduced to ruins. Feeble attempts to repair the walls had been met with hostility that stopped the work.
Nehemiah did not announce his presence as the new governor of Judea. Instead, he spent three days walking around the walls and surveying the wreckage. He moved around at night so as not to attract attention to himself. I am sure he came to realize the task ahead would require every man, woman, and child in the city.
The “We” of Leadership
When he did announce himself, Nehemiah did so with these words, “You see the trouble we are in.” Notice the “we.” It would have been easy for Nehemiah to consider the ruins of Jerusalem someone else’s problem that he was here to help address. But instead he made himself a Jerusalemite. He seemed to understand that it is necessary to become one with the people he hoped to serve. A few hundred years later, God would take this same approach when he took on human flesh in the Incarnation to become our Savior. Jesus didn’t just shout at us from the balcony of Heaven. He breathed our air and walked our sod. He became truly human.
Nehemiah called the people to join him in rebuilding the walls. As we read the story, we have the advantage of hindsight. But I don’t believe that an all-out effort to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem was viewed as a slam-dunk, great idea. I am sure there were people in Jerusalem fearful of the resistance of the neighboring governors ton whom they relied for security. Like the whack-a-mole game, if you stick your head up too high, you might get thumped. There were probably some who agreed that the walls should be re-built but that other priorities should come first. Nehemiah, however, understood that nothing lasting was going to change for Jerusalem until the walls and gates were back in place.
He cast a vision. They caught it. The work began.
Of course, the “powers that be” around Jerusalem were not pleased. They accused Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem of plotting a revolt against Artexerxes. They ridiculed his plan. It would have been the most natural thing in the world for Nehemiah to refer to the orders from Nehemiah as the basis of his work. But he does not do that. In verse 20 he replies, “The God of Heaven will give us success.” Nehemiah knows that he has been called by God to this great work. Human plans fail. God’s plan never do.
Let Us Rebuild
I am calling our congregation to an all-in effort to rebuild our church. We put up a great defense against the threats of COVID. We started new helping ministries. We developed great online worship opportunities. We adapted quickly to a new reality. Now that we are coming out of that season, we need to get our defense off the field and bring out our offense. It is time to draw people to Jesus, develop people in Jesus, and deploy people for Jesus. There have never been more unchurched people within ten miles of our church than today. This is why we are hiring staff, gearing up our ministries, and recruiting you today to participate.
I am not at all embarrassed to say we need your help. Your prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness are going to be the difference-maker. We can’t do it without you. While in Alabama recently, I attended some meetings at Frazer Church in Montgomery. And older gentleman strolled through the room to greet everyone. I recognized him immediately. It was John Ed Mathison. Now in his 80’s, John Ed is the pastor emeritus of Frazer. During his long tenure there as lead pastor he built that congregation on four words, “Every Member in Ministry.” He wrote a book by that same title that influenced the way I looked at church. Leadership is only effective to the extent that it mobilizes God’s people for ministry. That is the whole point of Pentecost. God wants to release the full, diverse, and glorious range of gifts of the Holy Spirit upon the world through his people. We are reborn to rebuild.