Last Sunday I preached on Nehemiah 3. You can download the sermon, listen to it right here, download the video via the vodcast or by rightclicking on this download link. or read the edited trancript below. You can
Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brothers the priests, and they built the Sheep Gate. They consecrated it and set its doors. They consecrated it as far as the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Tower of Hananel. And next to him the men of Jericho built. And next to them Zaccur the son of Imri built.
The sons of Hassenaah built the Fish Gate. They laid its beams and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars. And next to them Meremoth the son of Uriah, son of Hakkoz repaired. And next to them Meshullam the son of Berechiah, son of Meshezabel repaired. And next to them Zadok the son of Baana repaired. And next to them the Tekoites repaired, but their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord.
— Nehemiah 3:1-5
We are looking today at Nehemiah, chapter 3. We’re going to look at the chapter as a unit, and although it can, at first glance, seem like a list of names, you can draw a sort of graph of the wall of Jerusalem with all the different gates and places that were built. It might seem like a kind of catalogue, but it’s actually a very important chapter, and it’s important for two main reasons.
The first reason is this—it demonstrates to us that God is interested in people. All of these men and women actually built something for God, and God made sure their names got into the Bible. That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it? So God cares about the individual. He cares about you and he cares about me. The second reason it’s important is because the whole book is about building. And today we’re looking at the chapter when they were actually doing the building.
Why did they build? What prompted them to do it? Why were they interested in building? I think that while we don’t see it directly in this chapter, we have already seen that when Nehemiah arrived, Jerusalem was in disrepair—there was a shame, a mocking that was going on. The line behind that was a concern for the honor and the glory of God. We need to understand that Jerusalem was God’s home. God’s reputation was tied up with Jerusalem because Jerusalem was the place where God dwelt. Originally the temple was in ruins. That had now been rebuilt. But when you see the walls of the city in ruins, what are you going to think about God? “Oh, so your God is the kind of god that allows his precious city to fall into ruin, is he?” This is the problem we have today, of course, because many people look at the Church, particularly in the West, and say it’s in ruins. It’s a mess. So they were concerned for the glory of God.
So why build? We build because our motivation for the work is that God may be glorified. We’re not like the people who built the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:4. Those people said, “Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” There are many people today who are interested in making a name for themselves. I trust that we are interested, not in making a name for ourselves, but in making a name for Jesus. We want to see Jesus famous again in the earth. And not just infamous as a swear word, as a blasphemy that is used so often, as a name to be trampled in the mud, a word used in the same way that people use for excrement. One minute they’re saying, “Oh excrement!” (whatever that word might be), and the next minute they’re saying the name of our precious Savior. That has to stop. We want to see Jesus famous again. They wanted Jerusalem to be a place that was solid, strong, yet safe from enemies, but more than that, that it would demonstrate that God was who he said he was. That God keeps his promises. Because God’s reputation is on the line. He put his reputation on the line for the Israelis. And he puts his reputation on the line for you and me. If we’re Christians, he cares about us. But also the bounds on his glory. Jesus wept over Jerusalem in his day, saying, “Why could I not gather you?” Also, the heavenly Jerusalem is seen as a picture of the Church. We are the new Jerusalem. And one day Jerusalem will come out of heaven, the heavenly Jerusalem, and will be here on earth. The dwelling of God will be with men and women forever. We will no longer be separated from God.
You will notice that when Nehemiah comes to the people, he actually, in the short-term, doesn’t promise them anything. He doesn’t say, “I’m going to give you lots of money if you work.” Instead he says, “I’ll give you sweat.” It’s a bit like when Winston Churchill said—“All I have to offer you is blood and sweat and tears . . .” and the whole nation of Britain rose up as one man. Why? Because we have a desire within us to live for something bigger than ourselves. A reason, if you like, beyond ourselves. Living for the glory of God. If you live for the glory of God, then a number of things become the norm. It becomes normal to love God, it becomes normal to have a passion for his Church, to care about his bride, the bride that so many people diss today, that so many people are negative about today, hateful about, say all sorts of evil things about. God loves his bride and God loves his glory, and he loves those who love his glory. The question is very simply this—Will we do what God’s glory deserves? It’s not so much what God will do for us. It’s what we can do for God and for his glory. What can we do for God’s glory? If we will respect God and live accordingly, then God will actually honor us and bless us too. Our purpose is to be those who live for the glory of God. There’s the old Puritan saying, the old statement of faith—What is the chief end of man? It’s this—to glorify God and to enjoy him forever and ever.
WHAT EXACTLY DO WE BUILD?
We’re not building a physical temple. We at Jubilee meet in a cinema. We don’t even have our own building. But even if we had our own building we wouldn’t be so concerned about the building. What we are concerned about is the people. How are you building your life? The Bible thinks of our lives as being like a building. Matthew 7:24-27 says:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And when the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does no do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.
There are many things that shake us in this world. Things can shake us individually. Things can shake us as families. Things can shake us as communities. Things can shake us as whole nations. And right now there are things that are shaking us as the whole world. We are facing some interesting financial storms at this time. We have to ask, “Were the banks building on sand or on a rock?” Oh, it can look very nice for a number of years. It can look very attractive. You can start talking about billions of pounds; in fact, trillions of pounds—and that can all be wiped out when the storm comes, as the foundations are exposed. I want to challenge you this morning not to assume that you have the foundation right. I want you to ask, “Have I got the foundation right?” Jesus tells us in those words how we know if we’ve got the foundation right. This is not how you get the foundation right. Please understand there’s a big difference here. Being a Christian is about a relationship with Jesus. But how do you know if you’ve got that right? How do you know if you’ve been born again? Let me tell you. Jesus said this—if you do the things Jesus says, that’s how you know. Do you do the things that Jesus says? Do you live a godly life? Or is your life no different from the world? Are you sleeping around? Are you consuming too much alcohol? Are you rowing with your wife or your husband in an inappropriate way? Well, Jesus would seem to say here—be careful! Is your foundation right? Look again at your foundation. The truth is this, of course—we all sin. We all fail. Even Christians who have been Christians for ten, twenty, thirty years still sin. I’m not saying we have to be perfect to know that we’re going to heaven. The question is simply this—is the foundation there? And what is that foundation? The foundation is Christ himself. He’s the solid rock on which we stand. All other ground is sinking sand. If you stand today on the basis of “Oh well, I’m a good Christian. I go to church. I pray. I read my Bible.” That’s no foundation. No, Christ is the foundation, and what he did for us on the cross. Paul explains this very well in 1 Corinthians 3. I do want us to be slightly unsettled for a moment and again look at our foundation. Am I relying on Christ for my salvation or am I relying on my own good works? Do I think I can be good enough for God? No, none of us can be good enough for God. 1 Corinthians 3 says this:
. . . like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
And when I say “Jesus Christ,” what I mean is this—I mean his perfect life, his sinless life. I mean his undeserved death, taking our punishment for us. And I mean his resurrection from the dead, raised to life, glorious, victorious, conquering death that we might not have to suffer death eternally. Oh, we may taste death at some point in our lives, but we will not suffer it eternally if we are saved. That’s the foundation—his life, his death, his resurrection—what is laid, Jesus Christ.
Now maybe you do have the foundation right. But Paul says, “Be careful!”
Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
There are two key questions that we need to ask ourselves here.
- Do you have the foundation right? Are you a believer? Has God caused you to be born again? Has God granted you that new life? Are you aware that you are relying on him, on Jesus, on what Jesus has done? Have you truly repented from your sins? Have you truly given your heart to him? Have you given yourself to follow him? That’s just the foundation for that. But if that foundation is there, then you will go to heaven. But so many Christians stop there and say, “Well, if I’m going to heaven, that’s fine.” But notice this. Paul is saying here that there’s building to be done.
- How are you building your life? Are you building your life for the glory of God? Or are you building your life for comfort? Are you building your life to get more money? Are you—dare I say it?—even shamefully trying to use God as a means to get more money so that you can be more comfortable? Nehemiah never offered them comfort. In fact, he said, “Come away from your comfortable houses now and work. Pick up the trowel.” I want to challenge you. Have you picked up the trowel in your own life? Or is your life a ruin? Is your life a mess? So many lives are wasted. So many lives are wasted by wrong decisions and the consequences of those wrong decisions working themselves out over years and years and years. Sometimes a life needs to be knocked down and rebuilt by the grace of God. If you have wasted your life, God can help you restore it and renew it. God is in the business of restoring. And he doesn’t just want you to get to heaven by the skin of your teeth. He wants you to get to heaven where he can look you in the eye and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. We worked together. We built together. We built together in your life. We built together in your family.” Its not just for the sake of your kids being comfortable and you having that nice modern life style, but for the glory of God.But notice this. It’s also about the Church. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says this: “I will build my Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Actually, the church is built up with lots and lots of lives that themselves are being built well. If your life is being built well, God would challenge you, not just to be a passenger, not just to be a seat warmer in these nice comfortable seats, thinking, “Oh, yes, I liked that sermon. Or, I didn’t like that one as much. Wish we could get the other preacher back.” Or, “The worship was okay this morning.” No, the question is this—what are you contributing? Are you building the Church? Are you building the life of your neighbor? The person sitting next to you? The person in your small group? Are you actively seeking what God might want you to do? And I want to challenge your this morning. If you are a Christian here this morning, it’s time to pick up the trowel. And if you’re not a Christian, this is an opportunity to get a foundation that is laid by Christ. You see, only Christ can lay the foundation, but we all, with God’s help, can build on that foundation.
My third point is simply this—How did they build? And of course, “How then should we build?”
- An interesting thing is this—when they built, they had a strategy. And they built in such a way that the work was designed in a very clever way by Nehemiah. Nehemiah rode around the wall and he identified different bits of the wall. And he said, “Okay. This bit of wall you can do. And this bit of wall you can do. This group of people—you can go there.” So they submitted themselves to Nehemiah. I wonder when you read a story like Nehemiah whether you have a tendency to identify with Nehemiah and say, “Oh, yes, God is calling ME to be a Nehemiah, and God is going to give ME a vision.” And maybe that’s right. God will give us a vision. But I wonder actually whether we ought not to be looking to identify with these ordinary people. Not everyone can be a Nehemiah. I know I’m not a Nehemiah. But I do know this. I can serve a Nehemiah’s vision. And I can build. And actually, I can build with a team alongside me. I haven’t invented my own vision. I have no desire to do that. I’m building the Church of God that has been purchased by Jesus. And I’ve given my life to that. I’ve given my life to this place; to helping in whatever way I can. With maybe a group of people who are under me, if you like, who I’m leading and supervising and helping—yes.
But what if the question is this—What can I do to help? How can I serve? There are many ways in which you can serve in church. There are all kinds of things. It’s not just about preaching. It’s not just about leading worship. Sometimes people come into church and the very first thing you hear from them is—“Oh, yes, I used to do this and that and the next thing in my last church.” But hold on for a second. The question is this—Will you just muck in? Will you just do what God is calling you to do? Will you just do what is needed? There are all kinds of jobs. Welcome people are needed to show others the way in from the car park when it’s cold. And it’s going to get harder in the English winters soon. I can just see it now, shivering out there, while everyone in here is singing, “Oh, we worship Jesus!” And you’re saying, “You know, I’m just freezing for Jesus.” But that’s what you’re doing—you’re freezing for Jesus. And God will reward what is done in secret. There’s a God who will honor you and who will give maybe a bigger crown to you than to that person you’re envying, who is at the front every week. God sees when you miss a sermon to go out and teach, not to a whole room full of people, but to a few kids. And I can tell you this. Thirty years on—I still remember one of my Sunday School teachers particularly. A lady called Janita Ring. She wasn’t a preacher on a Sunday morning. She didn’t lead a church. She didn’t do any of those things. But she inspired a young boy to love God, and I’m very grateful for Janita Ring. I’m very grateful for my Christian parents. I’m very grateful for all the other Sunday School teachers whose names I don’t necessarily remember, but I do remember the impact. And God remembers. God sees. There was some guy who invited Billy Graham to a crusade when he wasn’t saved. Imagine that! Your job in life could be to invite a young boy to a crusade! If that was all he did in his whole Christian life, that would have been pretty impressive, no? And I don’t even remember his name.
- What we see if we look in the Scripture here is that every man is committed to the work, everyone of them. Look in verse 1—what do we have? The priests simply sanctify the wall. I wonder what that looked like. They said they sanctified the wall. Have you thought about that? It probably involved a lot of blood because everything in the Old Testament involved blood. The priests were pretty enthusiastic, and there were two other places that they built as well. Then you have the men of Jericho. In verse 2, we see the men of Jericho. They did their bit then in verse 7, the men of Gibeon and Mizpah. We’re talking about aliens. We’re talking about people who are not from Jerusalem. We’re here in London, God loves London. We’re building a church here in the midst of London for the glory of God that we want to see hve an impact on our city. We want to see a changing expression of Christianity in this city. We want to see people take notice that there’s something glorious going on. And some of us actually didn’t come from London. Some of us didn’t even come from England. I came from England, but not from London—God called me here, and God called many people here. We have many people in our church who God has taken from other nations— for example from Africa. Everyone can play a part. In verse 13, we have Hanun and the inhabitants of Zanoah—I mean, who are these people from Zanoah? In verse 8, we have the goldsmiths, and they also seem to be pretty keen. They get up to it again in verses 31 and 32. We have perfumers. I mean, whoever taught perfumers how to build a wall? And in verse 9, we see the ruler of half the district building, and that happens again, actually, later on—rulers building. And verse 10 is just someone building opposite his own house. Have you ever thought about your neighbors? What can you do for God with your neighbors? In verse 12, we see it says, “and his daughters helped,” so it’s not just the men, it’s the women too. And then we see a ruler building the Dung Gate. And we see goldsmiths and merchants, basically business people. Business people can make a difference for God. And many of you think, “I want to lead the church. I want to work for God full-time.” You can work for God full-time and be paid, not by the church, but by some other master.
So I urge the Christian—Please don’t be like the nobles. The Tekoite nobles wouldn’t stoop to serve their Lord. Perhaps a small group leader comes up to you. “Would you mind doing the Bible study this week?” And you reply, “Oh, I’m not sure I can really manage. I think I’ll leave that up to you. Because, you know, I’m still quite a young Christian.” And you think you’re being humble—you’re not. Actually, you’re being proud. You saying, “I refuse to stoop to serve my God.” Or someone comes up to you and says, “Would you come early one week and help with the teas and coffee?” And you say, “Well, I might be at a party the night before.” You won’t stoop to serve the Lord. That’s the posture of humility—to stoop. If it’s for the glory of God, then I will do it. Will you do it for the glory of God? It’s not about your glory. It’s not about your fame. It’s about the glory of God. Whatever he asks us, we need to be prepared to do it.
I want to close with one verse of a psalm. Psalm 127:1 says this, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” I want to ask you this, “Are you still trying to build your own house? Are you someone who maybe has the foundation right, but you know you’re building with straw. And you think, “It’s okay. I’ll get to heaven.” I would challenge you, because the Bible isn’t very clear sometimes about how we know, how we determine who is one of those people who is going to get to heaven by the skin of their teeth because the foundation is right. They do believe in Jesus. They’re just messed up a bit as their life has gone on. They haven’t really contributed. They haven’t really earned their place in the universe, if you like. And who will be the ones who Jesus will look in the eye and say this, “Away from me, I never knew you.” My passion is this—I don’t want anyone in this room to be in that group because there will be church-goers in that group. They will even be church leaders in that group, because the Bible says that there will be those who have cast out demons in the name of Jesus. There will be those who have healed the sick in the name of Jesus. And you sit there thinking, “Well, I’m all right. I’ll just scrape in by the skin of my teeth.” Are you so sure? Are you so proud that you think, “Oh, yeah, I know better than God.” See, what God says to you is this—Give me your whole life. Let’s do this business of life together. Let’s build your life my way. Let’s do things my way. And then on that glorious day when the fire comes, what you have built will stand a lot better than the British banking system. I saw a statistic today. Apparently if you want to put your money somewhere safe, they say send it to Botswana. The Botswana banks are safer than the British ones right now. That’s what it said! I guess they haven’t loaned out so much money foolishly. Don’t be like the British bankers. Put your life on a firm foundation, on a sure foundation, on trust that’s not trust in some half-witted idea that money is going to keep on growing forever. No, it’s trust in the living God who loves you, who came, who died for you to save you, and to give you that new life.