The True Builder – Nehemiah 13. RBT Notes, 15th December

It takes a few weeks to build a wall. It takes a lifetime to build a community. Churches can be planted quickly, but real churches – living, authentic and sacrificial communities of Christians, take years and years to build. That work takes skill, patience, a willingness to press on through failure, setbacks through disloyalty and disinterest, and in it all, it takes the ever-present power of God’s grace.

And real communities are built on honesty and integrity. The years have moved on, and Nehemiah has had to be away from the community. What he unearths when he gets back is far from encouraging. Yes, the people have listened to God’s word, and have made big decisions about being serious in obeying it (vv.1–3). By the way, don’t mishear the command as sanctioned racism, that that community should be one of Israelites only – God purposed back then a people who would be true to Him in their marrying within their people, before He would send one who would be the Saviour of people of all races. If our first steps in obedience are not purposeful, what hope do we have that He will build in and through our own lines?

Nehemiah discovers that there is compromise in the community. Eliashib was best buddies with Tobiah, and allowed this pagan enemy of God to have all that he wanted in the temple (vv.4–5). Then Nehemiah steps in, and deals with this decisively (vv. 8–9). But that is not all that he discovers. The Levites and singers were unpaid, so understandably went off to earn their living (v.10). Nehemiah establishes new officials, and can only hope that these problems are solved (v.13).

If only. The sabbath is being desecrated, and Nehemiah has to get involved, ensuring that business stops for the sacred day (vv.15-22). The strain is, unsurprisingly, showing. When Nehemiah can see that some of the men in the community are raising children who speak in a pagan language, he explodes with rage (vv.23-28). Model leadership behaviour? Not by modern standards, and probably not by ancient standards, either. But just as Nehemiah drives one of these disobedient men away from him (v.28), we could say that their behaviour drives their leader to this rage. Authentic spiritual leadership can be exhausting, and lonely. Nehemiah is only human. And the community, after all, are only a bunch of sinners. Why should be expect any more from them?

A man would come, though, who would lead the people of God. He would provide them with walls of salvation. He would serve them to the extent of being driven to the cross, His beard pulled out. He would suffer and die on that cross, not to win one ethnic people, but people from all the nations on earth. Now today Jesus fills us with His Spirit, empowers to be dead to sin and alive to righteous, godly living. We will fail. We will let Him and each other down. He will lift us up again, and privilege us with the calling to build with Him for His community.

 

A Prayer to pray

Father, thankyou for Nehemiah. Thankyou for the strength, faith, courage and lvoe which You gave to Your servant. Thankyou, too, that he makes me look up to Jesus, the true Builder of God’s people. Help me to serve my community, to be humble, patient, faithful hardworking. And build a dwelling-place for Your glory in our church, Lord. Amen.

God’s True Community – Nehemiah 11. RBT Notes, 13th December

It’s all well and good building a city wall, and building the city, but it’s in vain unless people live there. Don’t picture Nehemiah’s Jerusalem as a hub of commerce and leisure. This city is just getting on its feet again. Life there is hard. Community, business, leisure, all will need to be started over. You could say, it would be easier to be a farmer living in one of the towns outside of the city, with your land and the opportunity to make money from it all close at hand, than a man working out how to survive in Jerusalem. This explains why it is that they had to call for volunteers to live in the city (v.1), and why those who did were commended by the people (v.2).
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Reflect on this a little. These men and their families who are listed throughout the chapter are putting people over profit. They are putting the needs of building God’s kingdom above their natural desire for personal comfort and their own ambitions. They are saying no to the natural and entirely justifiable desire to earn a better living from the land, and are opting for the hard life of building a community according to the purposes of God.
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Challenging? It should be to us as Christians. The parallels are clear with our discipleship, aren’t they? The kingdom depends on the sacrificial living of its servants. We can choose to live lives focused on personal gain or convenience – the Spirit will allow us to do that, but that is not His will, nor is it the work He delights to fill with His guidance and power. And on the last day, what will be giving account for? A life lived for others, or a life jealously guarded for ourselves, even for ourselves and our family? Heaven help us to trace the beauty of the servant life of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to beg for his Spirit to empower us for living for Him and His kingdom.
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One man stands out in particular in this list: Mattaniah is the director who led the people in thanksgiving and prayer (v.17). His job, you might say, was joy, and urging others to find and sing out their joy in God’s covenant grace. As priests of the new covenant, we have the same commission: joy is there in Christ. Joy is discovered in serving Him, putting ourselves at a stretch for Him, and seeking to enrich others through our self emptying. This is the upside-down kingdom we are privileged to belong to. Make sure that you long to find grace in Christ, so that you may share  the riches of that grace with others.
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A prayer to Pray
Lord, You were rich beyond all splendour, all of love’s  sake became so poor. And Your Word says that You left me an example, so that I may walk in Your footsteps. Fill me with a desire to bring lost people to Yourself, and to help to build a people into one body. Give me a driving ambition to serve Your people. Empower me to make that sacrifice. Amen.

The Promise – Acts 2. RBT Notes, 2nd March

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Pentecost was the Jewish celebration of the wheat harvest. It was also used an an occasion particularly to celebrate God’s gift of His Law to His people. What takes place this Pentecost established that the Gospel of God would go out to all nations, and would signal the in-gathering of a harvest of men and women to God through faith in Christ. This is what the prophets foretold.

It sounds and looks very strange. The disciples are met with the sound of rushing wind, and the fire rested on each of them (vv.1-3). Nor could they stay in silent astonishment: their mouths were opened to speak God’s praises in languages which were totally new to them (v.4). In that moment, the Spirit’s work in coming upon them was clear: they were being set apart and empowered for mission, a mission which was to take them, as their Master had said, right to the ends of the earth (1.8).

All who hear and see are staggered. This isn’t a case of early morning alcohol, since that doesn’t give the instant gift of foreign languages. They hear the wonders of God, but are lost for the reasons for this astonishing event (vv.5-13). They don’t have to wait for their answer. The once-disowning but now-restored Peter speaks up, and what he gives is an incredible sermon, rich in Spirit-given insight into God’s Word and plan. This is the essence of his words:

God is doing a new thing, just as Joel foretold (vv.17-21). God’s Spirit is given to all, that they might know the Lord, and realise that in the uplifting of His Son, God is declaring a new era (as signified by the talk of sun and moon). This is the era of salvation.

God’s salvation is offered to all in Jesus (vv.22-36). He is the One put to death, in a mysterious and foreordained working of God’s purposes, which were fulfilled through human sin. And this Saviour was raised to life, as David was given foresight of. Vital as he was in God’s plan, David was not central, but witnessed to His Lord, Jesus, now enthroned as the Christ.

God is calling all men to be saved (vv.37-41). Peter’s words are sent home by the Spirit of God. His hearers long to know forgiveness for their sins. And three thousand make their response to God’s grace. A once-despised Jesus is now seen to be the hope of all who believe. And this truth shall never change.

This diverse crowd of people, who gathered for a familiar festival, are now being forged into a new community of believers. Read vv.42-47 once more: the Word, Prayer, Radical generosity, Joy, Growth, Outreach – all are timeless marks of the true Christian church. This is the life the Spirit brings, and it’s all discovered in Jesus. What a promise we have.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Dear Lord Jesus, exalted Lord and Saviour of all who believe, my heart is filled with joy to hear again this account of Your Spirit’s coming. I long to know His life more and more in me. Bring me close, to repent of my sin, and to see the life of the people of God. As the old hymn asks, “teach me Your way, Lord.” Amen.

 

The Glory of the Church – Ezekiel 42-45. RBT Notes, 29th January

You can have all the religion you like, but without God it is only an empty shell. You can have a fine building, all ready for use (40-41), and you can make ample provision for its workers (the priests, 42). If that’s it, though, well, that’s it.

Buildings can’t ultimately achieve anything. It all depends on who is in them. If God is there in His glorious grace, and if people are there, seeking and trusting in that grace, then suddenly the charade of religion is shown for what it is, as people instead come to taste the reality of a God who saves and dwells with His people.

So this is what Ezekiel starts to see: the glory returns. God, who left His temple to its Babylonian judgment, is coming back to this new temple-community (43). With roaring voice, and a glory which shines out across the land, He comes, and all Ezekiel can do is worship (vv.1-3). The voice speaks, and it is the voice of Ezekiel’s companion, the shining one who has been showing him the temple, surely the Second Person of the Trinity Himself. Here, He declares, He will live forever (v.7). But who can endure the Day of His Coming? Only those made pure. The prophet is promised that He will dwell among a purified people, and so Ezekiel is told to take the message to his countrymen, that they are to be pure for their Lord (vv.9-12).

Purity comes from where, though? It comes from sacrifice, sacrifice to cover the guilt of all our sins and to bring cleansing. For that you need an altar (vv.13-18), an offering (v.19-25), and someone to offer sacrifice on our behalf (v.27, 44.1-31). In fact much of ch.44 reads like a repeat of the instructions to the priests in Leviticus. Afterall, God’s purposes have never changed, because God never changes.

How God achieves His plans can change, though. We look back on these chapters, and we know now that the altar is the Cross, the sacrifice is a man, and the offerer, the One who offered Himself. Jesus came to purify a people for His very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2.14). That is where glory shines. And glory still shines, and indeed, shines ever more brightly, amongst a people who have been gathered around that cross, to bask in its forgiveness and to live its life together. Afterall, that message of grace will one day conquer the world. And heaven? Heaven is a celebration of grace, forever, and in Christ for all (ch.45). This is our glory.

 

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God’s New Community – Ezekiel 40-41. RBT Notes, 28th January

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Now for the part that you probably won’t read. People don’t. What should have been an exciting, gripping climax turns into a protracted, uninteresting whimper. We want hope and life, but we get architectural plans. Ezekiel, this might be what you’re interested in, and what you understand. We’re just not your sort of people, though. Maybe we should leave at this point.

Don’t. Ezekiel knows what he’s doing. More than that, God knows what He’s doing. He gave the vision, afterall. If we have the humility, and the patience, we’ll discover here not a dusty set of building plans, but a blueprint for a new community. In all of these details of walls, cubits, alcoves and jambs in ch.’s 40-41, God is actually starting to lay out the shape of His building-project. And that is one in which Jesus is at the centre and we, His people, sr being put into place, right according to God’s plans.

Twenty five years into his ministry, where he has seen hope die, dreams crushed, and his precious city of Jerusalem and its temple torn apart by the Babylonians, Ezekiel has a vision. In it he is taken to Jerusalem (though Ezekiel isn’t explicit, He wants us to join the dots, so to speak, vv.1-2). There he sees the shining man he saw a quarter of a century before (cf ch.’s 8-11). There is no time for Ezekiel to fix his attention on him, though: he must record all he sees and hears. And what he is seeing is the future.

So read the chapters, and no, you’re not in sin if your skimread them, or hardly begin to make sense of them. Some of the details of  of this Temple don’t strictly make sense, with walls and gates at places out of proportion with each other. The following two points, though, are for us to linger on:

 

God has no Plan B, because His plans are on track.

Ezekiel’s vision is of a temple which in almost all of its details is the same as the one Solomon built. Walls, courts and altars all underline that God is still calling people to approach Him, trusting in a sacrifice for the forgiveness of their sins, and looking to God to show mercy. God has not changed how He deals with sinners. Ezekiel’s vision tells us that mercy is still available for all who come. This is a mercy which we now look to Christ, our Great High Priest, to bring to us. God’s plans are fulfilled in Him, and this vision is part of that plan coming to its climax.

 

The Temple is empty, but one day it will be crowded.

 Where are the priests, sacrifices, and worshippers? They’re all strikingly absent. Ezekiel just has the blueprint to work with. Now, though, the house is full. The Great High Priest has offered Himself, and His sacrifice, given at the Cross, opens God’s House to all who come. And God comes to us, to work in us by His Spirit, cleansing and renewing, as Ezekiel already prophesied.

Don’t look for a physical building today when you are seeking God. He is seeking worshippers who will worship Him in Spirit and in Truth (John 4.24). “As you come to Him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to Him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2.4). This is the community Ezekiel is getting God’s people ready for: this is the church, and it will be crowded with worshipers throughout the world.