March 27, 1994
The pulpit represents the rudder of the church. In Nehemiah 8, the people of God gathered to hear God’s Word proclaimed, and their hearts were stirred to action. Alistair Begg explains that as they listened, the Word of God reordered their lives, which manifested in obedience at home, within the church, and in public. The Word of God faithfully preached transforms the lives of God’s people.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, I invite you to take your Bibles and turn back with me to Nehemiah chapter 8.
Before we turn to the Scriptures together, let’s turn to the one who authored the Scriptures and ask for his help:
Our gracious God, we seek your face. Having worshipped your name, we ask you to speak to us now through your Word. Speak to us by name, speak to us savingly, speak to us unmistakably, as a church and as individuals. For the glory of your Son we ask it. Amen.
We seek to study the second half of Nehemiah 8 this morning, beginning at verse 13, which was where we began our reading. Those of us who were present last time will perhaps remember that on the first day of this particular month, when the people had gathered together, we said four things concerning them: number one, that we saw that they had gathered expectantly; that they had, secondly, listened attentively; that they had responded properly; and that they had departed joyfully. And we suggested that in that there was an excellent paradigm for the way in which we ought to think in terms of attending upon worship and the teaching of the Bible. We can do no better than to gather expectantly, to listen attentively, to respond properly, and to depart joyfully.
Now, in the first service, there was a gentleman in very close proximity to me who, in the course of listening to these introductory remarks, went into the second and third stages of anesthesia and only came out close to the end—in fact, I think at the end of the service, not the end of the message. And I took that as one of those trials of James 1 that I should “count it all joy” when I encounter, although I was severely tempted along various other avenues that would not necessarily all have been conducive to what you would call progress in sanctification. But if you are somewhat sleepy, then give yourself a shake, and see if you can’t stay with this. I mean, it wasn’t a brilliant message, but I don’t think it was that bad, you know. It was about a four or a five—out of a hundred. But anyway, we’ll see what happens this time. That’s the nice thing about the second service: you get a second go.
We’ve got three points this morning. You’d see them on the outline: exposition, application, celebration. We’ve had a lot of words that end in -ation in this few studies here in Nehemiah. We could probably make a whole book of chapter headings that all end in -ation or -ition. But anyway…
Let’s begin then by noticing that what took place on the second day of the month was largely what was taking place on the first day of the month. If you’re wondering about where we get this from, you will notice in 8:2, “On the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought [out] the Law.” When we come to verse 13, what has taken place between 2–12 has all taken place on the first day. The people have all gone home. (And someone just did the most amazing yawn. I mean, it was just—just, you know, beautiful molars and everything. Just amazing. So, anyway, that’s by the way.) That on the first day, they all listened up real attentively, and a few of them were yawning, but by and large, they were really listening. (Actually, I like that kind of yawning. I like that better than the yawning that squeezes it out through your eyes. I mean, that is deceitful yawning. I mean, that is… Okay? So, that’s fine. I didn’t mean to embarrass the individual. I just thought I’d mention it in passing.)
So, verses 2–12 is the first day. They listened to the Word proclaimed, they start crying, they start laughing, and then they go home. On the second day, when they come back, it’s more of the same.
Now, under the heading of “Exposition,” I want to address three simple questions.
First of all: Who was there? Who was there? And the answer is: the men were there. The men were there. Now, it is not at the denigration of ladies that I now make this emphasis. Indeed, this is not a good day for ladies. I can just warn you that if you come this evening, if you read ahead in 1 Corinthians 14, it’s an interesting day. But there come times when the Scriptures emphasize things in a certain way and make points that are directly applicable in certain avenues, and here the emphasis is clearly upon the men.
We’re told that “the heads of … the families, … the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra.” It seems fairly obvious that if the Scriptures were going to have any impact upon the families, then the impact was going to come first of all to the leaders of those families and then through the leadership of the families.
Now, we understand that leadership within the family is teamship—that the role of a mother is so vitally significant. I think you know me well enough to know how much I want to uphold that place. But the point of emphasis here, it seems to me, is that we need to take seriously what it means to be men in the climate of our days and what it means to be those who are gathering up the instruction of the Word of God so that we may be able in turn to lead our families in the things of God. And there are unique responsibilities which attach to men in this regard.
The leaders in the church, the leaders amongst the people of God, need to primarily be men who understand the Bible more than men who are administratively correct, or men who are financially successful, or men who are by personality extremely attractive and able to move things ahead. They need to be men of the Book. They need to be men who read the Bible, who understand the Bible, who live by the Bible, who are able to answer questions on the Bible, and who are able to apply the Bible. And that is true all the way through the pages of Scripture. So we’re not at all surprised that when this second day of exposition took place, it was to the men that Ezra gave his time, and it was from the men that he received the greatest and clearest attention.
Now, just making little side points of application as we go along: combining what happened on the first day with the second day, I think we can make a very strong case for tying—and not exclusively but in certain circumstances—for tying small-group Bible study, whatever that means, with the instruction that is coming systematically and consecutively from the pulpit on a weekly basis, insofar as what we’ve said in our church is that the pulpit here represents the helm. It represents the rudder, if you like, that establishes the direction of Parkside Church. Therefore, when we gather together in smaller groups to discuss the impact of the Word of God upon our lives, there is a very real place for taking the instruction that is provided on an occasion like this, or perhaps on the Lord’s Day evening, and for the leaders to be interpreting, and applying, and answering questions, and showing the implications of this so that the church may move forward—may move forward in unity, may move forward in a harmony of perspective, and may move forward in clarity.
Because one of the things that is obvious when you engage in this kind of teaching is that not everybody understands. Not everybody understands the first time, and they don’t always understand the second time. And often what they would like to do is ask questions or study the passage a wee bit more. One of the most obvious ways to do that is to make small-group Bible study directly related to what you’re studying on the Lord’s Day, and then you get, if you like, two shots at it. It’s just a point in passing.
Who was there? The men were there.
Second question: Who was where? It sounds a little bit like “Who’s on first?” doesn’t it? At least, it sounded like that to me. That’s why I wrote it down. It’s not a particularly good question. It should read “Where were they?” But I liked “Who was where?” better than “Who was there?”
So, they were where they were—namely, “gathered around Ezra.” “Gathered around Ezra.” Well, what’s so special about Ezra? Who does Ezra think he is, that everybody would gather around him?
Now, the answer to this is very, very important. Because the reason that they gathered around Ezra was not on account of his personality, but the reason that they gathered around Ezra was on account of his functionality. It was because of the fact that he had the book, and he was reading the Book, and he was explaining the Book, and he was encouraging these people to apply the Book. And the attendance of the people bore out the significance of the role which God had entrusted to this individual, Ezra, a responsibility which God has entrusted to men throughout all of history in the prophets, and the kings, and the apostles, and the prophets, and the evangelists, and the pastors, and the teachers—gifts that God has given to the church, which specific local churches enjoy or endure as a result of God having said, “Listen, you: what I want you to do with all of your life is to study this book, understand this book, and, as best you’re enabled, teach this book and encourage the people to apply this book. And if you’re any good at it at all, a few people will come, and they’ll listen. And if you’re no good, they probably won’t, in which case that will be all right, because your damage will be limited by the size of those under your influence.” But the significance of Ezra is the significance of the role given to the servant of God.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this this week, not in relationship to myself. And I say that because this could sound dreadfully self-serving. This could sound as though the pastor, on behalf of the other pastors, wanted a little bit of encouragement, and the backhanded way to get it was to mention what I’m now about to mention. It’s not that at all. I’m very encouraged. I’m fine. Everything’s cool. My wife loves me. My kids are relatively okay. The church is good, and I love my brothers and colleagues and everything. So there’s none of that. Okay? ’Cause people always come up to me; they’ve always got hidden meanings in what I say, you know: “Oh, are you all right? I sensed…” You know. Well, you sensed something. I think it had more to do with the pizza you had last night than it had to do with the preaching. So there’s none of that in it. All right? It’s not got anything to do with that.
It has to do with the impact of the servants of God on my life. I’ve thought about it in this way around. I’ve thought about all the people that have—and there aren’t too many—who’ve had an impact on my life as my pastors. All right? A guy called John. A fellow called Stanley, Stanley Collins. Some of you knew him before he went to heaven, from out at Forest Home, or whatever it was, on the West Coast. Jim, Derek, Eric. There’s my men, in forty-one years of my life.
Now, I thought about the significance and why it was that I gathered to these men, why it was that I was a part of others who were under their tutelage. And I realized this: that my affection to this day for those men who taught the Word of God to me was because they taught the Word of God to me. That was it! It was not because they were really into sports, and so was I, and so I could kind of “identify.” It was not because they had a personality that was peculiarly akin to my own, and therefore, it was appealing to me—because in no case did I think that there was that. It wasn’t because they decided that we’d spend a tremendous amount of personal time with me. It wasn’t on account of the fact that they expressed special interest in me, ’cause there was none of that over forty-one years. But the reason that I held them and hold them in such high esteem is because I knew that they must really love me, and they must really love the people of God, to go through it week after week after week after week of their lives, as weeks become months and months become years, to go and to study the Word of God, to try and understand it, to try and make it clear, to try and express their desire for the well-being of their people.
And the impact of Ezra on the lives of those who, when Ezra was dead and buried, would have occasion to say, “What did Ezra mean to you?”—the answer would presumably be, “Ezra meant so much to me, because Ezra taught me the Word of God. Ezra taught me the important foundations of the faith. Ezra taught me what really matters.”
That’s why, you see, the Scriptures have so much to say about paying honor and respect to those who have the responsibilities, in eldership, of teaching and admonishing. “Remember your leaders, who [taught] the word of God to you,” says the writer to the Hebrews. “Consider the outcome of their way of life and [emulate] their faith.”
Now, in the providence and goodness of God, I think of John, who was my pastor when I was this height. I just met him again in Toronto, and I had my photograph taken with him; it was a tremendous thrill to me. It almost reduced me to tears to think that I was standing next to my pastor. I used to be this high. I’d be going through the crowd looking for a chance just to shake his hand. And then I got to preach for him and to him in Toronto. He’s walking with the Lord. He’s preaching the Word. He’s loving his wife. I’m considering the outcome of his way of life. Okay?
Stanley has gone to heaven with a big, solid A. Eric is coming in two weeks, three. Check it out for yourself. His wife, his son, his daughter follow after Christ. I’m considering the outcome of his way of life. I want to emulate his faith. Derek: his four kids walking with Christ. His one son, a qualified attorney in Edinburgh, has just become assistant pastor to a young man who followed me in a church in London. I am considering the outcome of his way of life. I’m emulating his faith. MacArthur, on the West Coast: four kids—four married kids—grandkids, walking with Christ, faithful to his wife, faithful to the Word. I am considering the outcome of his way of life, and I am emulating his faith. Why? For no other reason than in a sea of chaos, these men, in the providence of God, have had that kind of impact on my life.
Now, I could get us up row by row here, and you could run through your own Tom, Dick, Harry, John, Mary, Fred—whoever it is—and it would be wonderful. And it’s a good thing to do. Go home in the afternoon, and write down on a sheet of paper for yourself the men, the Ezras, that God has used in your life to instill within you a hunger and a desire for God’s Word, to place within your families a longing for your families to be centered on the Word of God.
Between the first and second service, I had this letter. I read it now in part, just because it’s so applicable. The guy didn’t write it after the first service. That’s the important thing to notice. This was written on the twenty-fifth of March. It’s not handwritten; it’s computer generated. And the letter simply says, “My wife and my three children have been coming here for two months. We had been wandering the area, looking for a place where God’s Word would be expounded authoritatively and helpfully.” They talked about a four-year period whereby they had really been in the wilderness. And then this paragraph: “We have benefited greatly from your yielding to God’s purpose for your life. We have ministered and witnessed to more people in the last two months than in the last four years.” Now, here’s the key: “We believe this is because an attitude of expectation has developed in our hearts through the accurate proclamation of the Word of God.” So whoopee-do for who? For no one, save Jesus and his Word. See?
They “gathered [round] Ezra,” and Ezra was significant. And all this stuff about “Nobody matters,” and “He doesn’t matter,” and “She doesn’t matter,” and “He’s this and that and the next thing”—that is warped thinking. In all of the purposes of God, people matter directly in relation to the function they fulfill. And their significance is directly tied to the fulfilling of that function, whether you like them or don’t like them, whether their personality fits or doesn’t fit, whether you’ve spent a lot of time with them or no time with them, whether they were in your home or not in your home. All of that is secondary. If you can see past all of that, then you will be better served in attending upon the Word of God.
Who came? The men came. Where did they come? To Ezra. Why did they come there? The answer is made perfectly clear in verse 18, and in verse 13. They “gathered around Ezra,” verse 13, “to give attention to the words of the Law.” The word which is used here for “giving attention to” suggests that they were not simply interested in becoming fatheads or filling their notebooks with lots of information. Not that it’s bad to take notes; I’m so thankful for all the notes I’ve taken in the past. But it’s possible for people who sit under the exposition of the Word of God to become very tadpole-like, with big, fat heads full of information and tiny little tails. It’s a strange picture, if you draw a congregation like that—a big congregation of tadpoles, just with big heads like this, tiny little tails. That’s not what they were. These individuals were concerned to give attention to the thing. In other words, they were asking Ezra, “Hey, Ezra, what does this mean? How does it apply? How should it change us? What should we be doing?” They were on the right side of the equation in James 1:22: “Do not merely be hearers of the Word, but be ye doers also.” They were asking for the Word of God to be broken down to them in such a way that they may be changed by it.
I can guarantee you, loved ones, this morning, that when you attend upon the instruction of the Word of God with that kind of heart attitude, then you will begin to see big changes in your life. If you listen carefully to the Word of God and are able to give your attention to it, then, if you come with that kind of expectant heart, your life will be impacted in a way that is life transforming. But if we gather upon the listening to the Word of God in such a way that our hearts are hardened or closed in any way, then it’s just like a dripping tap on a piece of slate.
And let me tell you four things that will prevent you from benefiting from the Word of God when it is preached. And these come from James chapter 1.
Number one: an angry heart. If you have angry heart.
Now, for example, I’ll give you a classic, immediate illustration of this. Because of what I just said concerning the baby, some of you went “Ugh!”—like that. So the hair stood up on your neck. Now you’re angry. So I hope you’ve benefitted from the message up until the point I mentioned that, ’cause you ain’t going to get nothing out of it from this point on. Okay? Not if you get angry. Of course, if you don’t get angry, you’re okay. But if you do get angry, you can’t listen to the Bible and benefit from it.
If you’re angry with your wife coming in, you should have stayed out, gone out, got yourself a coffee, and been reconciled to your wife. If you’re fighting with your brothers and sisters when you came in, you’re wasting your time. You should have stayed out, settled the affairs before you came in. If you’re angry with your boss, you’d better make an appointment to see him tomorrow morning, first thing, and get it settled, because you’re not going to benefit from the Bible until such times as you deal with anger. There is nothing will close down the impact of the Word of God upon a person’s life quite the way that an angry heart will do. An angry heart.
A dirty mind. A dirty mind. If you’re fooling, or I am fooling in my mind, with that which is impure, it will have an immediate detrimental effect on my ability to listen to, assimilate, absorb, and apply the Word of God.
General preoccupations with evil—the willingness to absorb evil, to include it in my thinking, in the way I approach my life and the things that I do. To the degree that I allow that to happen, it fails to see the Scriptures applied in a way that I desire.
And also, to become a professional listener. To become the person who is adept at answering all the questions, knowing all the answers, becoming very able to explain this and that, but there’s not a bit of it applies to my life.
Now, if you’re looking for those things, you can find them in James chapter 1. They’re all there.
In verses 14 and 15, because they listened expectantly and attentively, they discovered that there was a festival that they’d been neglecting. They’d been neglecting this Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths, which is described in Leviticus chapter 23. If you turn to it for just a moment so that you know that it’s there, it will anchor it in your mind, and you’ll be able to pay attention to it. Leviticus 23:33: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the Israelites: “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the Lord’s Feast of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days.”’” It goes on to give details of it. And we read in Leviticus 23:39: “So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days.” Then it goes on once again to describe the existence whereby they’re going to be living in booths. The feast was to serve as a reminder of their pilgrim status and also as an indication of the blessings that they had experienced in the harvest.
Now, since this was the second day of the month and it was to take place on the fifteenth day of the month, they had approximately a fortnight to get ready for it and to move from exposition to application. And that’s exactly where we are.
In terms of application, you will notice that the instruction was clear. “They found written”—verse 14—in the words “which the Lord had commanded through Moses…” This was not an idea dreamt up by Ezra. This is not a scheme or a dream that had its roots in human ingenuity. We have enough of that. This was the very word which God had commanded, which Ezra had been reading from the book, reminding the people that the incumbency upon them was to listen to the book and to submit to the direction and guidance of their leaders only as they themselves were clearly in submission to the book: “Go out and live in booths, and gather the necessary materials to put them together.”
So they’re reading, and they discover that this is something that God says to do, and so they do it. It’s as simple as that. God said, “Do this,” so they said to one another, “We better do it.” God says, “Be honest”; therefore, we better be honest. God says, “Love those who hate you,” so we better love those that hate us. God says that we should live in purity prior to marriage and in fidelity after marriage; therefore, we better do it. God says that when we repent of our sins, we should get baptized; therefore, we better get baptized. Whatever God says, when the Spirit of God brings it to our hearts, we do.
But a lot of that is costly. A lot of that is daunting. A lot of that will change our plans and our programs. After all, presumably, these people had their days organized for the next thirteen days or so. This was the second day of the month, and they had their plans already made. They knew what they were supposed to be doing. If they started preparing for a feast on the fifteenth day, it was going to change everything. Exactly! And the degree to which we are prepared to reorder our lives and our existence and our plans and our finances and our hopes and our schemes because of the Bible says to the watching world that the Bible is important to us.
Now, if you think about it, the enemies would have been intrigued, at least, and probably got a kick out of their approach to things here. They had watched them build the wall. Now they watched them go gathering branches. Suddenly, they’re all coming out through the gates of the city, and they seem to be clearing up the undergrowth. They’ve cleaned up all the walls, and now they’re clearing up all the shrubbery. They must have said to one another, “I can’t imagine what they’re up to now.” Somebody shouted across to one of them, “What are you doing with a pile of sticks? Don’t you like your house, that you’re building another one? I see you’re building an extension. Strange little extension! Doesn’t look like much.” The people were obedient, despite the cost.
Their obedience was obvious in three areas—verse 16. Their obedience was clear in their own backyard: they “built themselves booths on their own roofs” and “in their courtyards.” Their obedience was clear “in the courts of the house of God.” And their obedience was clear “in the [public] square,” where they also were erecting these little shanties in the Water Gate and in the Gate of Ephraim.
You think that made an impact on the people? Can you imagine: you go home this afternoon, after the morning worship, you go out, and you gather up all the sticks out of your woods and some of the areas and parks around you, you bring it back in bags, you go out on your front porch, and you start building another little porch for yourself—a little shed with a little straw roof and everything? Put it right out front. Or, if you have any flat part in the roof of your house, go up there and start building. You think you’d get some phone calls from the homeowner’s association?
“Hello. We noticed there’s a strange thing appeared up on your—just on the left-hand side there. I know it probably wasn’t you. Oh, it was you? Ah! Could you explain what this is about?”
“Oh, yeah, I’d love to explain what it’s about! It’s about the fact that our people in the past, they lived in Egypt. And God redeemed them from Egypt, and he brought them through the wilderness, and he brought them into the promised land. And while they were in the wilderness, they lived in booths. And we’re tempted to forget that, and so we build these little booths every year. We haven’t been doing it for a while, but we remembered. And because we remembered and rediscovered, we decided to apply. And so we’ve put it all together in this way.”
Our neighbors say, “You’re totally out of your gourd. You’re totally crazy!” And that, presumably, is what they said to them.
Let me ask you this question: How crazy are you prepared to be for Jesus Christ? How crazy are you prepared to get? ’Cause right now, we don’t look that crazy. I mean, by and large, the men are all sort of bourgeoise—ties, camel jackets, navy blazers; you know, pleated pants, suspenders, the whole gig. Ladies, all very nice. And that’s okay, you know. It’s Sunday. But what do we represent to our neighbors and our friends in our world? Where’s the crazy element going to come? Where does it come in our lives that our friends say, “There is something about these people.” Because that’s the challenge. First Peter 2:9: “You are a chosen [generation], a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may [show forth] the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his [marvelous] light.”
The impact of these things upon their lives and upon their children must have been dramatic. I can imagine the children saying to their fathers, “Hey, Dad, do we have to build it up on the roof? I mean, my friends at school, they think you’re totally mad.”
“Yeah, we’ve got to build it on the roof.”
“Because God said, ‘Build it on the roof.’”
You think about the things that you do with your children that make them say, “Could we not stop doing this? Because my friends think I’m crazy.” Things like worship on a Sunday (irrespective of clothing). “My friends don’t have to go. Why do I have to go? Dad, I don’t know one single other church within ten square miles that has a Sunday evening service. Why do we have to do it twice? You’re crazy!”
But here’s the deal: if the dads hadn’t gone to the instruction and if the dads hadn’t made the application, then the wives and the children would never have shared in the celebration. There is no celebration without exposition plus application. And that’s where it ends. This celebration was “very great,” we’re told in verse 17. “Very great.” It wasn’t just great. It was fantastic! There were no dropouts. Verse 17: “The whole company” was there. Nobody held out. They were all there for seven days. And the focus—verse 18—was in the reading of the Book of the Law. They had a Bible conference. On day one, there was teaching; day two, there was training; then followed by seven days of reading the book. The people were exposed to the truths of the Bible. They became cognizant of the implications upon their lives and what it would mean to their families. And the world looked on and saw the difference.
The equation, then, is simple: exposition plus application equals celebration. But the celebration is not an end in itself, because it leads to further proclamation. We gather to discover, we gather to apply, we gather to celebrate, and we go to tell. We go on a week like this, where there will be all kinds of things in the newspaper, many opportunities to speak concerning Jesus, lots of bogus stuff about the resurrection. You’ll see the swoon theory and every theory that has ever been explained to explain why Jesus didn’t ever rise from the dead. You’ll see it all in magazines and newspapers all over the place. Get ready for it. And be ready to use it as an opportunity to say to your friends and neighbors, “You know what? If you would like to come and worship with us, you can come within a context in which I think you will discover that, contrary to what you’re reading in here, that Jesus really is alive.”
Now, how would these people ever hear? Not as a result of me. As a result of you. ’Cause I don’t live in your street. I don’t work in your office. I don’t ride on your Rapid. I don’t go to school with your friends. But each one can reach one.
 James 1:2 (KJV).
 Nehemiah 8:2 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 13:7 (NIV 1984).
 James 1:22 (paraphrased).
 See Matthew 5:44.
Copyright © 2023, 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.