A Lesson in Leadership
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A Lesson in Leadership

Nehemiah 13:1–31  (ID: 1760)

Have you ever made a commitment to God on a Sunday morning only to find yourself breaking that promise within days? Under the leadership of Nehemiah, the people of God made an oath with practical implications about how they were going to live in light of God’s law—but they soon found themselves in disobedience. Alistair Begg advises us of the urgency of dealing with sin in our personal lives because it affects our spiritual well-being and the purity of God’s people.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Nehemiah, Volume 3

God’s Glory in Our Goodness Nehemiah 9:38–13:30 Series ID: 11603

Sermon Transcript: Print

Father, we give you the glory that is due your name. And now we come to these precious moments when, in opening your Word, we expect to hear your voice. Way beyond the voice of a man, way beyond simply the routine reading of verses, we ask that you will speak into our lives today and change us for your glory, that from our unbelief we may increasingly become committed followers of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

I invite you to turn back to the portion we read a moment or two ago in Nehemiah chapter 13.

The statement goes, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” Every schoolteacher knows that to be true. Even with your best substitute, it’s just not the same. And when you go down the hallway for “just for a few moments,” there’s no guarantee to what you will return. Managers in offices understand it to a certain extent. Indeed, anyone in a position of leadership knows that when you absent yourself, things will be different. Now, in many cases, there will be many things that are better, but there will be a measure of playing which goes on.

Nehemiah, here in chapter 13, discovered that to be actually the case. Verse 6, if you allow your eye to scan it, makes clear that while the events which we’ll consider in these moments were going on, Nehemiah had not been in Jerusalem.

Now, a little historical background to this, without it being painful. Nehemiah’s first governorship had lasted for twelve years. You can read about that in the middle of chapter 5, about verse 14. But during that governorship, all of the rebuilding project and most of the significant events had taken place within the first year. It had not been spread evenly throughout the twelve-year period. And during that portion of time, there had been the opportunity for him to return to the place from which he’d departed—namely, the capital of Susa.

You may recall, back to chapter 2—some—that when he had asked permission of the king to be able to go away on this journey to Jerusalem, one of the inquires that had been made was, “When will you [come] back?”[1] And we said on that occasion, it’s a wonderful thing when you ask for a leave of absence from your work if they ask you when you’re coming back. Because if they don’t, it’s probably because you aren’t coming back. And in the king’s case, he was hoping that Nehemiah would come back. And so in 2:6, they set an agreed-upon time when Nehemiah would return. Recognizing his commitment to return, in 7:2, he puts his brother Hanani, “in charge of Jerusalem,” thus making it possible for him to go back and fulfill certain obligations in the job that he had left behind.

And so it was that with the strong hand of Nehemiah’s leadership removed, as it were, from the tiller of the boat, the boat began to bob and toss around in the wind and in the waves, and they began to take on board the vessel things that should never have been taken on board, so that in the reading of chapter 13—and I commend the rest of the chapter to your careful attention; we’ll come to it, God willing, on these subsequent Sundays of November—when you read chapter 13, you discover that the conditions have deteriorated rapidly from the point of Nehemiah’s departure, and there was a laxness about the people of God, a toleration of things which had not previously marked their activities.

And this laxness towards the importance of following hard after the principles of God’s Word is dramatically demonstrated in four key areas. Now, let me outline them for you. We’ll only deal with one of them this morning, so you needn’t be concerned about whether you get all this down, those of you who like to take good notes.

First of all, in verses 4–9, the deterioration is seen in their unhelpful associations; and then, in verses 10–14, in their unfulfilled commitments; and then, in 15–22, in their unkept promises; and then, in 23 to the end of the chapter, in their unholy marriages. So it is in these four key areas that the declension, the deterioration, the laxness, as I have mentioned it, becomes most apparent.

Broken Agreements

Now, before we consider each of these in turn—and particularly the first of these this morning—let’s check back in 9:38, where we discover the people of God, having opened the Book of the Law and reacquainted themselves with the fundamentals of the faith, if you like, the foundational elements of what it means to be the people of God, they had determined on the strength of this Bible conference which had just ensued that they would make “a binding agreement” to God. And in verse 38 we have the statement: “We are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, [and] our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.”

So, it was a dramatic occasion. It was not a sort of casual, haphazard affair. There had been a clear statement of the truth of God’s Word. There had been a grasp of that by the people who had gathered. They realized that there were implications to it, that the preacher—namely, Ezra and some of his helpers—was not up there simply blowing steam. He was not up there giving ideas. He was not up there simply talking about possible ways of spending your life. He was up there saying, “This is what God says.”

Now, that, of course, is fundamentally important. Because why would we waste our time coming on the average Sunday simply to hear a guy blow off steam, simply to have him give his ideas, simply to suggest to people a way to live their lives? It’s just a total futility. Nobody should be involved it, nobody should do it, and nobody should listen to it. It’s bogus! It may help for a moment or two, but it is absolutely non-life-changing. The only thing that should be done from the Word of God is the proclamation of the Word of God in such a way that the people see that every time the Word of God is opened up, it brings a crossroads. It demands a decision. It forces us to say, “Either we’re going to understand it and do it, or we’re going to understand it and leave it alone.” The people understood it. “We’re going to do it,” they said.

When you go into 10:29, all of the people that were prepared to make this commitment gathered with their families. They “join[ed] their brothers the nobles,” and they take it almost a stage further by “bind[ing] themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God … through Moses the servant of God.” In other words, what they’re saying is “If we don’t do this, may a curse fall on our heads. And we make a solemn oath to you, O God, that we will complete this commitment, that we will follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully”—verse 29—“all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.”

Now, that is a fairly sweeping, strong, stirring, dramatic commitment to obedience. And just in case any of them would not be able to articulate what the essential elements were, instead of leaving it as a sort of broad statement, a generic treatment of obedience, they actually highlight a number of areas where people will be able to say, “Oh, they are doing that because of that commitment that they made.” The children will be able to say to their non-Christian, nonbelieving friends, “I know you think we’re weird, but the reason we did this is because our family made a binding commitment to God.” Guys are going to look beautiful girls in the eye and say to them, “You are the most gorgeous thing I ever clapped eyes on. I think your personality is fantastic. I like your clothes, and I love spending time with you. And I know you’re going to think this is strange, but I’m going to have to break my heart and walk away from you because of a binding agreement that I made with the living God.”

In other words, this commitment was going to cost. And here were the areas. Verse 30: “We will not give our daughters to people around us or take their daughters for our sons.” This was not a racial thing; this was a theological thing. It was not an ethnic thing. It had to do with the fact that they knew that you cannot intermarry with people of another faith without that it dilutes the commitment to faith. So they said, “We’re not going to do that with our daughters.” And then in verse 31: “We are not going to trade on the Sabbath.” And then in verse 32: “We are not going to neglect the house of God. So when everybody wants to know what our commitment is about, it is about a lot, but it’s definitely about this: no intermarriage, no Sabbath trading, and no neglect of the house of God.”[2]

Now, with the ink, as it were, just drying on this binding agreement, with the seals just nestling into the wax on the back of it, turn back to chapter 13, and look at what we find them doing: we find them neglecting the temple (that’s verses 10–14); we find them marrying foreign women (that is verses 23–31); and we find them trading on the Sabbath (that is verses 14–19).

Now, aren’t you just appalled? Do you find any sense of righteous indignation rising in your heart? Do you find yourself standing, as it were, in judgment on these people and saying, “Goodness gracious me! I think if I’d been there and made that kind of binding, lasting commitment and said all those things, I don’t think that within such a relatively short time I would have been allowing my daughters to get married to the wrong people, I would have been trading on a Sabbath, and I would have been neglecting the house of God.” Hey! Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey! Wait a minute! Do you remember last Sunday? Do we remember the commitments that we made a week ago? How did we do? Any declension? Any deterioration? Any fudging? Any failure? Any lack of follow-through?

We make it very, very difficult for people to be honest about their struggles in the Christian life when we present to people no struggles in our Christian life.

When I was studying at my desk this week, I found myself reacting in this way I’m describing to you. I said, “Goodness gracious! How could they do this—write this down, put the thing on it, and then blow it out in the exact three areas? They could have chosen another three areas to mess up in.” Then it was like the Lord came, just gave me a little kind of gentle cuff on the back of the head—just like that—said, “Hey, Al, think about it. What about you? How easily do your bold affirmations and your statements of consecration hit the fan? How many times have you made promises to me that you haven’t kept? How many commitments have you made that you haven’t fulfilled? How many unhelpful associations have you absorbed into your days? Who do you think you are?”

Now, maybe your brain doesn’t work that way, and maybe you’re not like that. But just in case you are, let me stay with this for just a moment. Turn with me to Romans chapter 7, and let me put it in the terms of Paul in relationship to recognizing the fact that we don’t always fulfill our commitments either. Romans chapter 7. Let’s look at verse 15 first of all. This is Paul, a follower of Jesus Christ—not a pre-Christian. This is him as a Christian. He says, “I do[n’t] understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” That ring any bells? How ’bout verse 19? “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Now, we’re all made aware of that on various levels. Many superficial levels make it clear to us as we make resolves and commitments of what we’re going to do and what we’re going to be. For example, you may look out on the calendar of your week and say to yourself, “This is going to be the week when I increase my output and I reduce my intake. I will eat more.” (That was Freudian.) “I will eat less, and I will exercise more.” So you maybe write across the top of Monday, “For the week beginning Monday the fourteenth, pizza’s out, and perspiration is in. There will be less pizza and more perspiration. That’s what this week is going to be about,” we say to ourselves. Now, some of us don’t make it past the first evening. Others of us get to Tuesday. A few of us reach Thursday. But most of us find ourselves saying at some point, lamenting in the week, “For what I do is not the running I want to do. No, the pizza eating that I do not want to do, this I keep on doing.”

Now, if that’s true on a superficial level, let’s just think about it in spiritual terms. Let’s be honest this morning. Part of the problem in getting realistic about sin in our lives is that we’re not realistic about sin in our lives—that somehow or another, we feel that we have a responsibility to portray to one another such a spirit of triumphalistic success that if ever we were honest enough to say, “Well, how was this week?” say, “Well, I’ll tell you what. You remember that Romans 7:15 thing? I was all over that one. I mean, the good I wanted to do, I didn’t do one thing. And the bad I didn’t want to do, I did it the whole week! I mean, I started off last Sunday morning; I said, ‘I’m going to read my Bible every day. I going to have a Bible for my Christmas. I’m going to read it every day. I’m going to read it every day till I get it. So I’ll read someone else’s.’ And I didn’t even read it on Monday. Tuesday, I didn’t read it. Wednesday, I never read it. Thursday, I never read it. Friday… I never read it the whole week!”

Well, I hope you don’t meet a pharisee and tell him that: “I’m dreadfully sorry to hear that. Sorry that your Christian life is not all that it should be.” Stinking pharisee probably never read his Bible twice himself, but it makes him feel better—instead of being honest enough to say, “You know what? I’ve got this thing, you know, ‘Through the New Testament in a Year.’ It’s got a thing with proverbs in it—you know, you can read the morning passage, the evening passage, or the proverb. The proverb’s, like, about seventeen words. I’ve got to be honest: I tell you, the whole week, I only read the seventeen words each day. That’s all I did! And twice I was in the bathroom, once I was brushing my teeth, and the other time I was eating cornflakes.”

See, we make it very, very difficult for people to be honest about their struggles in the Christian life when we present to people no struggles in our Christian life. It’s just downright dishonest. We make dramatic commitments that are unfulfilled, we have associations that are unhelpful, there are promises that aren’t kept, and there are relationships that just shouldn’t be.

J. I. Packer makes this amazing statement concerning the Christian life. Listen to this. Write this down if you like pithy quotes: “Our spiritual life is … a fragile convalescence, easily disrupted.”[3] “Our spiritual life is … a fragile convalescence, easily disrupted.” Christ, the Great Physician, has made certain that we will one day be in heaven, not as a result of our ability to heal ourselves but as a result of his intervention on our behalf. He has set us now on the path to wholeness, but we are not yet all that we will become. We are in the midst of a fragile convalescence, and our convalescence is set back all too easily. For many of our gains are slow, and many of our wanderings are far too frequent.

Now, let’s go back into chapter 13 again, then, of Nehemiah, having brought that kind of solemnizing note, and let us see that this is a word for us, not for them. Because I think most of us have been prepared to notice the link here, insofar as we are not all that we would like to be. We’re not what we once were, we’re not what we’re going to be, but we’re not all that we would like to be. And it’s sometimes helpful just to admit that to one another.

Now, you will notice that Nehemiah’s strength of leadership is revealed in his response to these circumstances. Indeed, the strength of his response that we’re going to see is such that some of us may have a hard time accepting that it is legitimate. It will perhaps help us to realize that the concern of genuine leadership, true leadership, for the people under its care must be, at its deepest level, the spiritual well-being of the people and must recognize that what the general drift of the population may regard as marginal, leadership will often view as crucial. Because leadership will see in a way that the other great masses and movements of people do not necessarily identify.

And that’s exactly what happened here. These people had become accepting of a general standard and ethos in much the same way as when Nehemiah had shown up in Jerusalem in the first place. The walls were broken down, there was rubble all over the place, and he came to them, and he said, “Do you see the trouble we’re in?”[4] And, of course, the answer was, “Well, we see it, but we don’t see it.” And it took leadership to say, “Look! This can be cleaned up. This will be cleaned up. This wall will be raised up. And we will magnify God on the top of this wall.” And all of that had been done.

Nehemiah’s away. The people say, “Hey, we did it! We made a binding agreement. We marched on the wall. Everybody knows. The surrounding countryside knows. Now, surely one or two little things, like, you know, Tobiah in the house of God and stuff like that—they don’t matter.” Nehemiah comes back and says, “Yeah, they do.”

Unhelpful Associations

And he addresses, first of all, this issue of unhelpful associations. Now, the first three verses provide a helpful background to the event that follows, because they speak to the issue that the people of God, having discovered in the Law of God—you can read this in Deuteronomy 23—had realized that they weren’t supposed to do certain things. Deuteronomy 23:3: “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, even down to the tenth generation.” Kind of categorical. “No Ammonite and no Moabite for ten subsequent generations is allowed to come in here.” Now, you don’t have to be brilliant to understand that. That’s a categorical statement. “No way you’re coming in here.”

Now, the people had understood that. Remember, they said, “We make a binding agreement to be committed to all the Law of God,” and part of that involved this. And here they are, in a relatively short period of time, and they say, “Hey, you know what? It doesn’t really matter. I mean, it’s not a big issue. It’s not a huge issue. I mean, it’s just one guy in a couple of rooms, and it won’t really have much of an effect.” Because in verse 4 and following, you realize that this chap Eliashib had decided to provide a room in the courts of the house of God. Eliashib was “the priest” who “had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of … God.” As a result of one of the other problems—namely, the neglect of the house of God—there wasn’t a tremendous amount of produce coming in to be stored in the house. So in the absence of what should be there, there was a vacuum. And into that vacuum, Eliashib decided he would put what shouldn’t be there.

If we do not fill our lives with what God says we’re to fill them with, then there is a vacuum, and they will be filled with other junk.

You know, if you clean a closet in your house and you’ve got in mind that you’re going to put in there a certain category of materials that you as the mother or whatever else have determined, I suggest to you: get it in there fast! ’Cause if you don’t get in there what should be in there, I can guarantee you, you’re going to get in there what you don’t want in there. And that is exactly the case in the house of God—Nehemiah 13. What should have been in there wasn’t, and therefore, what shouldn’t have been in there was.

It’s the same in our lives. If we do not fill our lives with what God says we’re to fill them with, then there is a vacuum, and they will be filled with other junk. And that is the reason that some of us live our lives all junked up: because we are not filled with all the fullness of God. We understand the Bible says we are to “be filled with the [Holy] Spirit,”[5] and we’re just leaking all over the place. And in the vacuum created by the leak, we are filling our lives with all kinds of nonsense.

And Eliashib had made the space available not just to any character but to one of Nehemiah’s key opponents. It wasn’t a superficial relationship. They were hand in glove with one another. That’s what verse 4 says: this fellow Tobiah was “closely associated.” They had entered into some measure of partnership. And there is a distinct absence of clear discernment and leadership revealed in this guy Eliashib, even though he is “the priest … in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God.” Just because you’re the priest in charge of the storerooms in the house of your God doesn’t mean you necessarily know how to bring up your kids. Just because you’ve got a position and a place and a prominence doesn’t mean you’ll be able to cut it at home. And he couldn’t. And he didn’t. And indeed, when you get to verse 28, you find out that his grandson has married the daughter of Sanballat, who was another member of the unholy trinity opposed to Nehemiah and the work of God.

So here this fellow, Grandpa Eliashib, lets it go. He lets it go in an apparently trivial matter: “What’s a room? And what’s it to you? And who’s Tobiah? It can hardly matter, can it?” Yes, it mattered. Because his son noticed that his dad, who said he was going to be committed to these things, had a fudge factor in his life, and he didn’t walk the walk; he just talked the talk. And so what he said and what he did were two different things. So the son said, “Aha! So you can do that, can you?” And then his son said, “It doesn’t matter who you marry, because old Grandpa Eliashib, he let Tobiah in the house of God, don’t you remember? He blew it out at that level. My dad blew it out at this level. So what does it matter if I get married to this girl? After all, she’s so cute, and who cares if she comes from the background of Moab?”

Let me say something to you this morning: the decisions that we make in a moment in time that are apparently existential—you know, they only have implications for the immediate—they don’t! And decisions that are being made at the moment in Parkside Church have implications for generations still to come. And we have to recognize that in leadership, many people will say, “Oh, but, you know, that is a far too stringent approach to these things.” Say, “Well, maybe it appears to be. But we’re thinking not only about now; we’re thinking about tomorrow and all our tomorrows.”

Tobiah was vehemently opposed to the work of God. He had criticized and maligned Nehemiah, and here he is in the house of God. Now, you’ve got to remember that when Nehemiah was involved in the building project, in its leadership, and he had these characters constantly coming up and opposing him, one of the things he was determined to ensure was that Tobiah and Sanballat would not get inside the project. Remember that? So, “We prayed to our God and [we] posted a guard.”[6] “We took a trowel in one hand, and we took a sword in the other hand.” Why? “So that Tobiah and his buddies couldn’t get in.”[7] So he labors all this time to make it clear to the people of God why it is that “you can’t associate with these people,” he goes away for a wee while, and he comes back, and the joker’s living in the place! That’s why leadership is so important!

Moses leaves, goes up on the mountain, right? Strong leadership, up the mountain for a brief time; comes down, there’s an orgy going on. The same people he just left, dancing round a golden calf and worshipping this and neglecting the one who came to bear the very law of God from the presence of God.

We’re not, here, dealing with a clash of personalities. That’s the important thing to see. This is not Nehemiah versus Tobiah—they never liked one another: “I never liked your face, Tobiah, and I don’t like your style, and I don’t like you in here.” It’s not that at all. It is the issue of evil. Verse 7: “[I] came back to Jerusalem [and] I learned about the evil.” “The evil.” Why was it evil? It was evil because God’s Word said, “Don’t do it,” and they did it, and that’s evil.

You want a definition of evil? Go look in the Bible, find out what you’re supposed to do, and then do the opposite. That’s evil. Go look in the Bible, find out what you’re not supposed to do, and then do it. That’s evil. And the Bible said, “Don’t have these characters in here, not even for ten generations.” Eliashib says, “It’s not a big deal. Bring him in. Won’t matter. It’s only a room or two. I mean, we’re not talking about him taking over the whole place. We’re not talking about him becoming the leader. We’re not giving him a place of prominence,” and so on—just the same way that we always rationalize sin when we want to take it into our lives. We take it in a little bit at a time and just for a little place: “No, I’m not going to do a lot of this. I’m not going to do it often. I just want to do it a little bit, a little time, just have a little place in here.” If you don’t understand it to be evil, then you will allow your sense of rightness or your conscience or pragmatism to rule, and you and I will be able, by the perversity of our own minds, to be able to tolerate just about everything and to explain it away and to let people know that we’re still going on well for God, when in point of fact we’re a walking contradiction.

He doesn’t get a closet. He gets a suite of rooms. “How did you feel about this, Nehemiah?” we ask him. “Well,” he replies, “I was greatly displeased.” “I was greatly displeased.” Why was he displeased? It seems to me that part of the skill in parenting is getting mad about the right things. I find it real easy to get mad about the wrong things. Then I’ve got nothing. When I need to get mad about the right things, you’ve got to get exponentially mad in order to let people know how mad you are, ’cause you got mad about some dumb thing that really wasn’t that important. And some people get mad about everything all the time. Then their kids never know what are, you know, the degrees of madness. I mean, what are you going to do, have steam, smoke coming out of your ears? Fire, you know, flame guns or something? “This is a grade-sixteen madness coming up,” whatever it is.

And Nehemiah—we haven’t seen Nehemiah getting mad all the way through thirteen chapters, have we? I mean, he’s got concerned. He’s got prayerful. He’s got interested. He’s got motivational. He’s got a number of things, but he hasn’t got mad. Now he gets mad. He says, “I’m really greatly displeased. I’m greatly displeased, because these people shouldn’t be in here, and you’ve brought them in here.” It’s just as simple as that. People of non-Israelite blood were only welcomed into the community of Israel when they accepted the faith of Israel.

And that remains true today in Orthodox Judaism. Every orthodox and devout Jew knows, “You are not coming in here. And the reason you are not coming in here is because I believe God’s law, and God’s law says you aren’t coming in here.” And I admire them for that commitment, and that is right. They may not have read the whole story, but the part of the story they’ve read they’re committed to. And I like that commitment, and I honor them for that commitment.

I grew up in a school with 40 percent of my school class was Jewish. And I used to play with all those boys. They were my friends—Ian Brody and Eric Linklater and a whole bunch of guys; Gerald Konchater and… They all come before my gaze, even now. But four o’clock Friday afternoons, I got kicked out of all of their houses. Vamoose. Gone. History. Out of here.

It was never a question—was never a “Could we have a sleepover, Mrs. Brody?”

“No. Out of here.”

“Is it okay if I stay for dinner, Mrs. Brody?”

“No, you can’t stay for dinner.”


“’Cause you’re not allowed in here when we’re having dinner, ’cause you don’t share our faith, and you don’t embrace our commitments, and you are not one of us. And we read in this book, said ‘Get you out of here.’ So you’re out of here.”

“So what did you do about it, Nehemiah? If that’s how you felt about it—you felt displeasure—what did you do?” “Well,” he says, “I threw the stuff out of the room.” Now, depending on whether you’re a, you know, a type A or a type B, or whatever you are, you recoil from this or you get excited about this. I’m excited about this. I am… You know, the idea of Nehemiah being some kind of quiet-spoken, benevolent, nonaggressive, type B character is dealt a heavy blow here in this chapter, and particularly in verse 8. Actually, it gets worse. You read on—and get excited about the next few weeks—he starts pulling people’s beards out and beating on them before we get to the end of chapter 13. He’s not going to monkey around with sin. He’s not going to monkey around with sin. That’s the lesson! Tobiah shouldn’t be in here. So it’s going out in the street. It gives a whole new spin to the idea of room service: “Room service! Okay, out of here!”

I mean, every mother understands it. You go in your boy’s bedroom or your daughter’s bedroom, and it’s, like, post–Second World War décor. And you can stand it for so long. And then, all of a sudden, you just start throwing things all around. You say, “Out of here! Out of here! Out of here!” Then you have to go out in the hall. You do it again. It goes all over the place. Of course, maybe you don’t do that, because your children are wonderful.

But that’s what Nehemiah’s doing. He took out what shouldn’t be there, and he put in what should be there. He’s not praying about it; he’s doing it. Prays all the way through the book, doesn’t he? “O Lord, help me with this. O Lord, I’m about to talk about that. O Lord, I’m going there. O Lord, I need these. O Lord, Lord, help, help, help, help, help.” There’s no praying here. Straight at it: “I do not like this. You’re out of here.”

Applications for Churches and Individuals

Now let me apply this, and we’ll wrap it up.

We live in a climate today of such prevailing compromise that tolerance has become the shrine at which we worship rather than truth. The issue is not whether a thing is true; the issue is whether it is tolerable. And people today are prepared to tolerate everything except the intolerance of those who would be as bold as to say, “This is wrong, but this is right.” For the environment in which we live says, “It may be wrong for you, but it’s not necessarily wrong for me. So let’s just tolerate one another. After all, we don’t want to become fanatical about these things.” And so the prevailing drift is such that it is very, very hard to stand against the tide.

Now, when Jude wrote—and it’s the second-last book of the Bible—in the first century, he felt that while he would like to write a letter that was full of positive things about salvation and the goodness of Jesus, he says in Jude verse 3, “Although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” Why? “For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you.” The “Tobiah factor” is here. Now, who are they? Well, “they are godless men, who [ex]change the grace of our God into a license for immorality,” and they “deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.”[8]

Sin, tolerated sin, robs us of our joy, robs us of our peace, robs us of our usefulness, robs us of our prayerfulness.

Okay, here we are, twenty centuries later. Time magazine, Newsweek magazine, U.S. News & World Report, every news magazine in the last two weeks has covered the story of the silly scholars who sit around deciding which bits of the Bible aren’t true. So far, they’re left with about seventeen lines out the whole of the Old Testament, and they don’t have many more for the new. So it’s no surprise that in the final run-up to Christmas, they wanted to let everybody know that there is no conviction whatsoever that the New Testament actually teaches the virgin birth—that the church has taught it, but the Bible doesn’t teach it.

So what do you do with that stuff? You throw it out the house! What do you do with the ordaining of homosexual clergy? You throw it out of the house! What do you do with those who challenge the very veracity of the Bible itself and say, “Well, you know, we are part of the family of God. We just don’t believe the Bible. And we would like to join up with you, and we would like to have a room with you, and we would like to be partners with you, and we don’t believe what you believe, and we don’t think it matters, and we don’t think that you should think it matters. All that matters is that we’re prepared to be committed to being fine, upstanding members of the community.” What do you do with that?

Well, if you want to go with the flow, you say, “Yeah, that’s right.” And I want to tell you that the flow in America is real wide, with some surprising people in the mainstream. And it is increasingly challenging and daunting to swim against the flow. And before this decade ends, we as a church, I can guarantee you, will be forced to take a stand on many of these issues which at the moment are objective and distant to us but will very quickly become issues of absolute fact. And that’s why I’m teaching you the way I’m teaching you this morning: in order that you might be prepared, when that day comes, to be, with the spirit of Nehemiah, prepared to say, “We don’t have that in here. We don’t do that. We’re going to get rid of that.”

And then, finally, if that’s a word of application on the level of the church, what about an application on the level of our individual lives?

Can I ask you this morning: Are you involved in any unhelpful associations? I’m not asking you, “Do you have non-Christian friends?” I certainly hope you do. I hope you’ve got some good non-Christian friends—at school, in college, in work, and in the neighborhood. If we were supposed to disassociate ourselves from unbelievers, then we would have to either go to heaven or live in a cave. It’s not that. The issue is: Am I entering into partnership which is jeopardizing the commitment to the gospel and to faith and to truth as a result of becoming hand in glove with those who do not follow my Master or share my faith?

I’ve lost count of how many times parents have come to me and said, “You know, we really missed it at the level of their peers. We should have been smart enough to realize that they would get like the people they hung with. And we didn’t intervene.” It was the threat of unhelpful associations.

Do you or I have any little closet in our lives where we’re tolerating, as it were, the “Tobiah factor”? Nobody really knows. They think it doesn’t matter. It matters. Sin, tolerated sin, robs us of our joy, robs us of our peace, robs us of our usefulness, robs us of our prayerfulness. Sin needs to be dealt with at the point of entry. Sin needs to be resisted in the power that God provides. And we do not need to live in faltering, bumbling disobedience, nor are we going to live in dramatic, unsullied success. Instead, we’re going to live in the healthy tension that recognizes, “I’m not what I’m going to be, I’m not all that I should be, but I thank God that I’m not what I once was.”

One of the greatest threats to your life and mine, to our church and to the wider church in the continental United States, is right here between verse 4 and verse 9 of this ancient book, Nehemiah: the threat of unhelpful associations. May God make us alert to the threat.

[1] Nehemiah 2:6 (NIV 1984).

[2] Nehemiah 10:30–32 (paraphrased).

[3] J. I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness (Ann Arbor: Servant, 1992), 41.

[4] Nehemiah 2:17 (paraphrased).

[5] Ephesians 5:18 (NIV 1984).

[6] Nehemiah 4:9 (NIV 1984).

[7] See Nehemiah 4:16–17.

[8] Jude 4 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.