May 1, 1994
Often we view God’s law as a list of forbidden fruits imposed by God to restrict us; however, Alistair Begg teaches that God gave us His law for our well-being. When Ezra read the Law before God’s people, they responded with praise for His goodness and repentance for their disobedience. As we learn to submit to God’s Word, we are reminded that God’s goodness is the foundation for the obedience He requires.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn back to Nehemiah chapter 9, if you would. For those of you who were present this morning, you can drop back into things with relative ease, I’m sure. For those of you who weren’t, we said that the whole of the ninth chapter of Nehemiah speaks to us of the goodness of God and that God’s goodness is first of all displayed in all that he has done. And we were looking, from the sixth verse through to the fifteenth verse, at the things which God has done. And we noted that God has displayed his goodness in the act of creation; and that he then had displayed his goodness in the election of his servant, Abraham; and we just made mention of the third factor, which was that God displayed his goodness in the redemption of his people. Once again, it seems so fitting that when we would be coming around the Lord’s Table, that we would be thinking again of God’s work in redemption.
And we’re now at Nehemiah 9:9: “You saw the suffering of our forefathers in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. You sent miraculous signs and wonders,” and so on.
Why don’t we turn just for a moment to the historical record of those events, back to Exodus and to chapter 12 and 13? We really would need to read quite an extensive section in order to refresh our minds of the history of the event. But you will remember that it was the responsibility of Moses to go up to Pharaoh and to say, “Let my people go,” and how God purposed that they should celebrate this event that was about to take place by the sprinkling of blood on the doorframes of the houses, having chosen for themselves the little sheep or goats, lambs, to be sacrificed and to be prepared according to God’s express purpose, and then for the blood of these creatures to be sprinkled on the doorposts, the lintels, of their homes. And the promise of God was, in Exodus 12:12,
On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.
“This is a day,” verse 14, “you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.” And so it was that God intervened on behalf of his people. And in the dramatic and remarkable events that then are recorded for us in their crossing of the Red Sea on dry land, he established the fact of his power and of his sovereignty and of his rule.
And by the time we come to the fifteenth chapter, we have the song of Moses and Miriam, proclaiming glory to the Lord, who “is highly exalted,” and magnifying him. In verse 13: “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling. The nations will hear and tremble; anguish will grip the people of Philistia,” and so on. Tremendous manifestation of God’s power—the dramatic events of the liberation of his people from the bondage of Egypt, standing out in the history of God’s dealings as yet another evidence of his goodness and prefiguring this great act of redemption which God would then establish when Jesus, on the night when they were celebrating the Passover, would himself become the very sacrifice and atonement for sin and make possible the redemption of those who believe in him.
The expressions that are provided for us here in Nehemiah are so typical of what has happened when God has worked in a life, in grace. If you look at verse 9, you will see that the record is that God “saw the suffering of our forefathers in Egypt.” And the fact of the matter is that in each of our lives, God has looked in mercy and in grace, and he has seen our predicament. He has seen the fact that we were “without [God] and without [hope] in the world.” He has been aware of the fact that though we were to do our very best forever, we could never, by our endeavors, put ourselves in a right standing with him. And in seeing our suffering and in hearing our cry—because it says, “You heard their cry at the Red Sea.” I do still recall the evening when Marty was with us, and he sang that song, “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.”
This is the testimony of faith: that God by his Spirit began to work in our hearts, we saw our need of a Savior, we cried, and having initiated our cry, he heard our cry, responded to our cry. And on both occasions, in the history of the Exodus and in the great work of atonement, he made a name for himself, you will see there in verse 10: “You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day.” “And [you shall] call his name Jesus,” said the angel, “for he shall save his people from their sins.”
Tonight, as we anticipate the opportunity to do as Jesus has bid us do—namely, to take this bread and drink this cup—we look back to the act of redemption made possible by the shedding of his blood. No one stated it more succinctly or clearly than Peter in writing to the scattered believers of his day. And you will remember, in a verse that we quoted just a couple of weeks ago, he says to the believers to whom he writes, those “elect, strangers in the world … who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father”—that is, his goodness revealed in election—“through the sanctifying work of the [Holy] Spirit”—that is, his goodness revealed in conforming us to the image of his Son—“for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.”
The Jewish folks understood this perfectly. For any mention of the sprinkling of blood took them to one place in their mind’s eye and one place alone: the commemorative feast celebrated every year, passed from generation to generation, recalling the fact that God, on account of the shedding of blood and the covering of the blood, passed over the homes of those who deserved judgment and death and brought to them deliverance and mercy. By the time Peter gets to 1:18, he says, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”
Tonight is a good night for us to be able to say again, with the words of the hymn writer,
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
This is the gospel. This is redemption. This is God’s goodness revealed.
And then the fourth point from this morning’s sermon was that God’s goodness has been revealed not only in creation and in election and in redemption but also in the provision that he has made for his people. And at Nehemiah 9:13 we have this immense statement: “You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations.” What an amazing event!
You need to look at Exodus 19, once again, to get the flavor of this tremendous story of God’s encounter with his servant at Mount Sinai. You remember in verse 3, “Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain” and gave him this amazing statement. Verse 10:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. [Make] them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up [to] the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the [foot of the] mountain shall surely be put to death.’”
An amazing picture of the holiness and awesomeness of God.
And of course, those of us who know our Bibles even a wee bit recognize that when we look at Nehemiah 9:13, and we think of the provision of God, and we read the phrase “You came down on Mount Sinai,” we say that in a far more glorious way, he came down in the person of his Son. He left the glory of heaven, took upon himself the form of a servant, was made in the likeness of men, considering not equality with God something to be grasped. And why? Well, once again, the hymn writer gets it right:
Jesus, my Savior, to Bethlehem came,
Born in a manger to sorrow and shame;
Oh, it was wonderful, blest be his name,
Seeking for me, for me.
And in providing for us the redemption, he also provided for us the law. This is somewhere that the believer often gets messed up. You’ve got to remember that it was after the redemption from Egypt that there was the provision of the law. Having redeemed them by his blood, he then gave to them the law to frame their way of life. Having redeemed us by the precious blood of Jesus, he has given us his law in order to frame our way of life. That’s why we study the Ten Commandments together: not so that we might find a way to make ourselves acceptable to God but in order that we might discover again the parameters for freedom which he, in his mercy, has given to those who he has made recipients of his grace.
When we think of the law, we tend to think somehow of God establishing his authority and of speaking in a way that is perhaps indignant or dramatic. But it is interesting to read the way in which God frames the events of the giving of the law. And I want just to point this out to you before we share in the breaking of bread. Deuteronomy 4:40. If you read from verse 39, God speaks to his people and he says, “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today.” Why? What’s the purpose statement? Look at it: “so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the Lord your God gives you for all time.” God has not given us his law, he did not come down on Sinai, to spoil our lives, to regulate us into some limping, legalistic frame of existence. He has provided for us these things because he loves us, because he cares for us, and because he desires that it would go well with us.
That’s why a father takes his child aside before he goes off on a trip for the first time on his own or on her own—before they go off for the first day to a new school or go off to college and university—and provides this little checklist and says, “Now, honey, be careful of this, and be sure of that, and maintain this, and avoid that, and do all these things.” It is a foolish child who brings their stiff neck to such instruction. For the issue is not somehow that the father would infringe upon the freedom of the youngster, but it is that it may go well with the boy, that it may go well with the girl. Every day that you and I awake, you may awake, as a believer, assured of this: that God in his goodness looks from heaven and desires that it may go well with you.
In chapter 12 of Deuteronomy, thinking still of his provision of the law, we read these wonderful words—12:28: “Be careful to obey all these regulations I am giving you, so that it may always go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord your God.”
And you know, loved ones, it’s a remarkable thing: when you come into the prophetic passages of the Old Testament—and you may turn latterly to Isaiah chapter 48—when you come to the point in the history of the children of God where they are disregarding his commands, where they are violating his laws, where they are living in disregard for the very provision recorded here in Nehemiah chapter 9, it becomes apparent that God is more grieved by the absence of their contentment and delight than he is grieved because of the abuse of his commands. If you doubt this, look at Isaiah 48:17:
This is what the Lord says—
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the Lord your God,
who teaches you what is best for you,
who directs you in the way you should go.
If only you had paid attention to my commands,
your peace would have been like a river,
your righteousness like the waves of the sea.”
What a wonderful statement! Especially for some who come to this Communion service tonight battered and bruised and beaten and scorned as a result of your own rebellion—having suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” having found yourself, as it were, outwith the framework of God’s choicest provision. And the temptation that you have felt is to say, “Goodness, I’ve made such a hash of it. I’ve made such a mess of it. Perhaps it would be better if I just threw in the towel once and for all. After all, God must be looking from heaven with great anger at me.” No, you misunderstand it. God is looking from heaven, and he’s saying, on the basis of the mistakes of the past, “If only you’d paid attention, then your peace would have been like a river.”
So, the fact that it was not like a river—that we do not have peace like a river and joy like a fountain and love like an ocean, on account of our disobedience and rebellion—does not mean that we must continue to live there, but that on an evening such as this, we may start afresh. As with Abraham: great beginning, off he goes, friend of God, the father of all righteous. Things get a little difficult, and he has to go back down to Egypt on account of famine. He has a beautiful wife called Sarah. He knows that the structure of life is such that if he allows it to be known that she is his wife, the temptation will be for some enterprising character to kill him so that he might have her. And so he says to Sarah, he says, “Sarah, when we go down here, I’d like you just to do one thing: just say you’re my sister.” Straightforward lie. A real sidestep. But I’m not surprised, are you? For I know what it is to tell lies and to make sidesteps. And it means a tremendous amount to be able, as it were, to go with Abraham, and it says, “And he went back to that little portion of ground at Bethel, east of Ai, where he had been at the first. And there he pitched his tent, and there he built his altar.”
I’m sure that it is one of the things that Jesus had in mind when he left to us this feast to be celebrated with regularity, to be celebrated with reality, to be celebrated with humility, that it may be a point of reckoning, a point of rediscovering his goodness, and a point of recommitment in our lives.
That little section in Nehemiah 9 ends by the writer pointing out that God had given his people these decrees. He wrote them down in a book. He gave them a book. Verse 14: he gave them a day that would magnify their distinctiveness. And “this is the day the Lord has made”; we’re here to “rejoice and be glad in it.” He gave them a land to be their possession. And he has given that to us. The hymn writer says,
There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we [shall] see it afar;
For [my] Father waits over the way
To prepare [me] a dwelling place there.
In the sweet by and by,
We [will] meet on that beautiful shore.
The people of God in the Old Testament knew they had been redeemed, knew that they had been provided for, and knew that the best was yet to be. That ought to be the testimony of every believer: “I know whom I have believed.” “I know that he has provided for me, and I know that the best is yet to be.” He gave them a day, he gave them a book, he gave them a feast, and he gave them heaven.
How good is the God we adore,
Our faithful, unchangeable friend;
[Whose] love is as great as his power
And knows neither measure nor end.
’Tis Jesus, the first and the last,
Whose Spirit shall guide us safe home,
We’ll praise him for all that is past,
[We’ll] trust him for all that’s to come.
Surely, from the heart of every believer there rises the inclination to say,
My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine;
For thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou;
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.
 Exodus 5:1 (NIV 1984).
 See Exodus 14:1–31.
 Exodus 15:1 (NIV 1984).
 Exodus 15:13–14 (NIV 1984).
 Ephesians 2:12 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 34:6 (KJV).
 Matthew 1:21 (KJV).
 1 Peter 1:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 Fanny J. Crosby, “To God Be the Glory” (1875).
 See Philippians 2:6–7.
 William Warren Bentley, “Seeking for Me” (1878).
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.1.
 See Genesis 12:13.
 Genesis 12:8 (paraphrased).
 Psalms 118:24 (NIV 1984).
 Sanford Fillmore Bennett, “In the Sweet By and By” (1868).
 2 Timothy 1:12 (NIV 1984).
 Joseph Hart, “How Good Is the God We Adore” (1759).
 William Ralph Featherston, “My Jesus, I Love Thee” (1862).
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.