Lessons from Nehemiah 3: Reputation and Generosity

 

Artwork © Justin Gerard. Used with permission.

 

In Nehemiah chapter 5, Nehemiah learns that the returned exiles are being taken advantage of by their own people.The people mortgaged their fields, vineyards and homes to get food to eat. They borrowed money against their fields and vineyards to pay their taxes. They were forced to sell their sons and daughters into slavery in order to service there debt, because “other men have [their] fields and vineyards” (v. 5). Nehemiah accused the officials of oppressing the people for their own gain and demanded an end to the exacting of interest (a practice explicitly forbidden in Deut 23:19-20). “Return to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive orchards, and their houses, and the percentage of money, grain, wine, and oil that you have been exacting from them,” Nehemiah commanded (v. 11).  He made them swear an oath under threat of judgement from God (v 13), and the people agreed.

Nehemiah then leads by example in modeling generosity. Rather than taking the food allowance that were his right as governor of Judea, he forsook his rights; he did not take his daily ration of forty shekels of silver, as the previous governors had. He and his servants did not lord their position over the people, but worked with them on the rebuilding of the wall, and accumulated for themselves no land.  He even hosted large dinner parties at his home nightly for in excess of 150 people, with all food provided at his own expense.

What do we learn from this chapter? We learn how we ought to treat others— we learn the importance of true generosity.

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Scrapbook Idol

Some time ago, my wife showed me an article in Maclean’s dealing with the plight of “Scrapbook Widowers”—Men who have been “abandoned” by their spouses for their border-line obsession with the hobby of scrapbooking. The article itself is a great read, although a bit frightening. The amount of money that is poured into the craft (now a multi-billion dollar industry) is astronomical and I had no idea there were scrapbooking cruises and craft fairs. I can’t imagine looking at different kinds of paper, glue, and stickers for more than a few minutes, let alone days.

I guess that says a lot about my interest in crafts, doesn’t it?

My being creeped-out aside, we did have a great opportunity to discuss the importance of hobbies – specifically, when does our enjoyment of anything go too far and take the place of ultimate desire in our lives?

I don’t have to tell you about the different directions we’re being pulled in, the demands we all have on our time, and how important it is to have a healthy release from these demands. We all get that; I don’t think anyone would argue to the contrary. Hobbies are fantastic. One of my favourite hobbies is reading.

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows I love books. I love them more than college kids love bad pizza at four a.m. I have a stack of books on my night stand about a foot and a half high, on subjects varying from theology to crime-fiction. It’s awesome! When I see another book I’d like to read, I get giddy. When people ask me what I want for my birthday, the answer is simple: Books, check my Amazon wish list.

Christmas? Books.

The holiday when I’m not sure why I’m getting a present? Books.

There’s nothing wrong with books by themselves, even the ones I don’t like; although, if I don’t like a book or author, I’m happy to tell you why.

In excruciating detail.

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Lessons from Nehemiah 2: Planning and Perseverance

Artwork © Justin Gerard. Used with permission.

This morning continues our look at the great book of Nehemiah.This wonderful Old Testament work has a lot to teach us about our lives as Christians and how we pursue relationship with Jesus.

Nehemiah spent three days in Jerusalem, before going out in the night to walk around the city and inspect the walls for himself. After he had completed his inspection, reveals his mission to rebuild the walls and bring dignity back to the city. The people are on board, and prepare for the work ahead. Three men, Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite & Geshem the Arab, jeered and mocked the people of Jerusalem.

The people worked diligently, they and their families rebuilding sections near their homes and districts. When Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem heard that work was going forward they plotted to fight against Jerusalem.

When reading Nehemiah 2:9-4:23, two big ideas stand out: Planning and perseverance in the face of opposition.

When Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem, he told no one of his mission. Instead, he began to inspect the city and the walls. He began to make preparations—he began to plan.

As Christians, we need to make plans (and realistic plans at that). Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that this is something many Christians don’t do well, as if our plans would somehow hinder God’s sovereignty and ability to work in the world. At best, prayer is the extent of much of our planning:

“God, I want to do XYZ… and Lord God, I just pray that a door to XYZ would be opened.”

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Lessons from Nehemiah 1: Humility

Artwork © Justin Gerard. Used with permission.

This morning I began reading the great book of Nehemiah, the “sequel” to Ezra and one of my favorite books in the Bible. So this week, I’ll be sharing a few lessons from Nehemiah.

Nehemiah was the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, king of Persia, and a very trusted part of the king’s court. His job was to make sure no one was poisoning the king’s wine; this would often include swallowing some of the wine before serving it. Nehemiah regularly put his life on the line for the king.

He was also one of the Jewish exiles, sent into captivity because of Israel’s apostasy.

When his brother Hanani arrived to bring him news of Jerusalem, his heart broke, and he wept and mourned for the destroyed city of of his fathers. After much mourning, Nehemiah prayed for the mercy of the Lord to fall on him and the exiles, that they might rebuild the walls of the city and that the king would have mercy on him when he would ask to do this very thing.

Four months later, he approached the king. He had not been sad in the king’s presence (since part of his job was to be uplifting and encouraging), but now he could not hide the condition of his heart. And he was afraid. Asking to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls could be seen as disloyalty to the king—the punishment for this: Death. And Nehemiah prayed to God, then made his request. Mercifully, God softened Artaxerxes’ heart, and Nehemiah was permitted to return to the city of his fathers to rebuild the walls.

From the first chapter and a half of Nehemiah, we learn about character; and more specifically, humility.

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Book Review: Young, Restless, Reformed

Young-Restless-Reformed

In 2004, Collin Hansen came on staff as an editor of Christianity Today, and the emerging/emergent church, with its tweaking and questioning of theology in light of a postmodern outlook, was all the rage (as it continues to be in some circles today). Many on staff thought that Hansen should know more about it than anyone given his age. However, he found that, within his circles, there was a disposition towards traditional Reformed theology, and he began to ask the question: Is it just us, or is this the beginning of something bigger? This question led him on a two year journey across America, and the results form Young, Restless, Reformed, first published as an article in Christianity Today, and expanded into this book in 2008.

Travelling across the United States, Hansen visited several “hot spots” of emerging Reformed theology including: The Passion Conference, Atlanta, Georgia; Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky; Covenant Life Church, Gaithersburg, Maryland; New Attitude Conference, Louisville, Kentucky; and Mars Hill Church, Seattle, Washington. While certainly not covering all of places he could, Hansen does a great job of creating a solid cross-section of this movement.

Hansen shows us a growing group of young men and women who are sick of the empty, shallow, Christless religion that has supplanted biblical Christianity in many of North America’s churches, which Christian Smith & Melinda Lundquist Denton, in their work Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, refer to as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” As quoted in Hansen’s book, they say that this religion teaches that “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process” (pg 22).

Instead, these younger evangelicals are looking for depth. They want more than just “Your Best Life Now;” they want Jesus. And the search leads many to Calvinism. For those who aren’t aware, Calvinism is most easily described in the acronym TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perserverence of the Saints. Twenty-five-year-old Matt first learned of Calvinism while attending a Christian high school. As Matt began to read the Scriptures for himself, he found passages such as Ephesians 1 and Romans 9 standing out. “‘Calvin wasn’t just being difficult,’ Matt said. ‘He was just seeking to systematize what I was seeing in Scripture…People are brought up with one conception of Calvinism as the stale “frozen chosen,” [o]r they’re like me and haven’t previously read the Scriptures themselves so when they do they’re like, “Whoa, wait a second. There is a pretty strong theme throughout the Old and New Testament of God’s extreme sovereignty over the wills and decisions of people”‘” (pg 30).

As Hansen continues his journey, he meets interesting characters such as Robin, a young man raised in the Adventist church and self-described “Piper-fiend;” and Irene, a student at Yale who spent years having phone-dates reading Jonathan Edward’s Religious Affectionswith her long-distance boyfriend. He also delivers impactful interviews with leaders in the emerging Calvinist movement, such as Mark Driscoll, CJ Mahaney, and John Piper, as well as providing insights from opponents to Calvinism like Arminian theologian Roger Olson and Emergent Village’s Tony Jones.

While there are some elements of the emerging culture depicted that make me a little nervous (and in the interests of full disclosure, I am part of this movement), particularly a proclivity for some to idolize the godly men teaching the doctrines of grace and the system itself, this may simply be the arrogance of youth that will be tempered as God’s grace continues to transform these young men and women who have found a deep passion for Jesus Christ unlike any they’ve seen before.

For those who are unfamiliar or wary Calvinism and it’s sudden cool factor, Young, Restless, Reformed is an easy place to gain an understanding of why this resurgence is taking place. For those who would identify themselves as part of the new Calvinism, this book provides a helpful look at the movement that can help us to repent of our arrogance and grow in the grace God has given us.

Purchase your copy at Amazon or Chapters/Indigo.

Why doctrine matters

“Doctrine” is a dirty word for a lot of Christians. Many are oblivious, often throwing around phrases like, “All this talk about doctrine… isn’t the important thing knowing God?” and, “There’s nothing worse than theology in the hands of the untrained.”

Maybe I got hit in the head too much when I was a kid, but the whole point of doctrine is for us to know God—all of the teaching we receive is about God and the Christian life is doctrine.

The Bible is doctrine.

Paul wrote to his disciple, Timothy, about this very issue:

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [or doctrine]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Tim 4:6-16, emphasis added

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Thoughts on Ahaz & suffering

Late last October, I challenged myself to read through the entirety of Scripture in a year. Today, I read the story of Ahaz, king of Judah, as told in 2 Chronicles 28, and it gave me a lot to think about.

Ahaz was one of the many apostate kings who abandoned the law and clung to idols—even sacrificing his sons as a burnt offering(!). And God’s wrath was upon him.

Verse 5 says that Judah was given into the hand of Syria and Israel. 120,000 men of Judah were killed by Pekah the son of Remaliah, and the men of Israel captured 200,000 of their relatives, women and children, along with “much spoil.”

The Edomites invaded. The Phillistines raided.

Ahaz sent to the king of Assyria for help, giving him tribute (read: cash). But instead of helping Ahaz, he took the money and he too went to war against him!

So what did Ahaz do? Verse 22 tells us: “In the time of his distress he became yet more faithless to the Lord—this same King Ahaz.”

“For he sacrificed to the gods of Damascus that had defeated him and said, ‘Because the gods of the kings of Syria helped them, I will sacrifice to them that they may help me'” (verse 23 a).

“But they were the ruin of him and of all Israel” (verse 23 b).

God’s wrath was upon him, and Ahaz suffered mightily.

Many people ask the question, “Why do we suffer? If God loves us, why do bad things happen?”

I think the answer can really be found in verse 22: In our times of distress we need to not become more faithless, but to trust God even more.

Not all suffering is a consequence of our sins. Suffering also comes from sins commited against us (to say nothing of the unexplainable hardships that occur). All suffering is meant to show us our dependence on God and to cause us to move closer to him.

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