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“Zealous Commitment”

Nehemiah 9:38-10:39
Tim Rask
November 1, 2009

Key Sentence

True repentance will produce enthusiastic re-commitment to obedience.

Outline

I. The Need for Re-Commitment 9:38
II. Community Re-Commitment 10:1-27
III. The Heart of Re-Commitment 10:28-39


Message

Lorne Matthews and his wife Jimmie Ruth, went through a terrible time of testing in their marriage. At the age of 40, Lorne left his wife for another woman. He chose to ignore the teaching of God’s word and abandon his family out of selfishness and pride. Even though he put her through an incredible amount of suffering, his wife refused to give him a divorce. Over time, and through a series of tragic events, God broke Lorne’s hard heart, and brought him back to his wife and children where they re-committed themselves to being faithful to each other for the rest of their lives. Mr. Matthews says:

“At the first, as we sought to restore our lives together, Jimmie Ruth and I did not have warm, "fuzzy"emotions; but in the fear of the Lord, we began rebuilding our marriage. Each began taking personal responsibility for our individual walk with God. We made an investment of putting effort behind right actions to each other, which will always lead to healed emotions over time. The process has been long and painful, but I can honestly say, the results are well worth the effort. My daily life now swims in peace; and the joyful sounds of happy, healthy grandchildren are the fruit of God’s mercy added to my obedience.”

This story highlights the issue of re-commitment. Today we are studying Nehemiah chapter 10, in which the people of Israel re-commit themselves to obeying God’s law. At this point in the story, the Israelites have just been brought to repentance through the reading of God’s word. In chapters 8 and 9, they had a direct encounter with the holiness of God, and they realized that they had not lived up to His standards. Their hearts were broken, and they confessed their sins to God. As we study chapter 10, we will discover that true repentance produces enthusiastic re-commitment to obedience. We will begin by looking at the need for re-commitment, then we will see how the Israelites re-committed themselves to follow God as a community, and last of all, we will look at the heart of re-commitment.

I. The Need for Re-Commitment - 9:38

Let’s read verse 38 of chapter 9. “In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.”

The statement, “In view of all this,” refers back to the rest of chapter 9. The leaders prayed a prayer of confession, reviewing the sins of the nation and the goodness of God from the time of Abraham until their day. They understood that their present situation of enslavement was due to their sins and the sins of their forefathers. The natural human reaction, when we are confronted with personal sin, is frequently to excuse it or deny it or explain it away. Most people are very reluctant to acknowledge that the problems they have could be caused by their sin. But in this case, the effects of sin were made clear to them as a result of the light of God’s word, and they responded with confession and repentance. Later on we will see how this point, about repentance, connects with the ideas in the rest of the passage. But for now, let’s see what they decide to do about it.

It says they decided to make a written document that contained their promise of obedience. And the language that they use to describe this written agreement is interesting. Many times in the Old Testament, God makes covenants with various people and there is a specific verb that is used in these cases. Here in Nehemiah 9:38, this covenant-making verb is used, but strangely, the promise they make is not actually called a covenant. Instead they use another phrase, they call it a “binding agreement.” See, they were making a serious promise, and in that sense, their action was like the action of covenant-making. But they did not actually call it a covenant, simply because everything they were agreeing to was stuff that they were already under obligation to do. They already had a covenant that bound them to do these things. So they weren’t making a new covenant, they were merely re-committing themselves to doing the things that they were supposed to have been doing all along. And their emotions were intense. Notice what it says at the end of 9:37, “we are in great distress.” Their emotions were coming from grief over sin, and from an awareness of God’s holiness. It is precisely because of the intensity of their encounter with God, through His word, that they were motivated to put their re-commitment in writing.

How frequently do we find ourselves in a similar position? As Christians we know that we are supposed to live a certain way. We are supposed to love God with all our hearts, and love others with the same amount of care that we show for ourselves. And yet we often stumble in this regard. So we can see that the situation of the Israelites of Nehemiah’s time is in close parallel with our daily lives. When we have our lives examined under the light of God’s word, and realize that we have sinned, it is appropriate for us to repent and to re-commit ourselves to obedience. When was the last time you were so moved by the conviction of the word of God that you actually wept? If you’ve been in that position lately, you know that in those moments, you want to do something to mark it as a significant milestone. You don’t want to forget what happened. You don’t want to let the demands of everyday life drain the vitality out of your zealous new resolve to seek after God. That’s what’s going on here. They put their binding agreement in writing because they felt strongly about the situation, and they didn’t want to forget the power of God that brought them to repentance. They recognized their failure to obey God’s law, and they were powerfully moved to re-commit themselves to obedience.

I can testify that in my own life there have been numerous times when I have felt the need to re-commit myself to obedience. And yet I have discovered that just because I re-commit myself to obedience at a particular time, that doesn’t mean that from that moment on, I never struggle with the old sin anymore. This re-commitment thing has to be repeated over and over. Most of you can probably relate to this cycle. So what can we do about it? Should we conclude, based on our repeated personal failures, that re-commitment is a pointless waste of time? I don’t think so. On the other hand, should we conclude that a cycle of constant failure is healthy? No not really. By the power of God’s grace we should be able to see growth and progress in our spiritual lives. This text is going to teach us that regular re-commitment is a part of the growth process, but admitting that we need to re-commit ourselves regularly is not the same thing as saying that sin is excusable. On the contrary, the reason we re-commit ourselves to obedience is because sin is not excusable, and the act of re-commitment is part of our arsenal in fighting against sin.

II. Community Re-Commitment 10:1-27

There are two important details about this re-commitment that we need to pay attention to. First of all, when they re-committed themselves in this instance, they did it as a community. In verses 1-27 of chapter 1, (which I’m not going to read), we see the names of the leaders who put their seals on this document. They are arranged in three categories: Leaders, Priests, and Levites. This covers the full range of the national leadership, both political and religious. And in fact it includes the whole nation, because the group called “leaders” that is listed in verses 14-27, were tribal leaders who represented large extended families. So through their representatives, the whole nation was participating in this act of re-commitment.

The classic instance of “re-commitment” to God in the evangelical world is in the context of summer camp. Every year, thousands of kids go away to Christian camps, and under the preaching of a dynamic speaker, some of them come to faith in Christ for the first time, but for the ones who are already saved, they are challenged to re-commit their lives to the Lord. These re-commitments can be very meaningful encounters with God, and I’ve been involved in more than one of these myself. But they can also sometimes be fairly shallow commitments that are quickly forgotten. The question for us is, how do we stick to our promises? Well, there are undoubtedly a lot of factors that come to play in determining whether or not someone sticks to a commitment, but I think one major reason people sometimes fail, is that they are simply on their own. There’s something in this passage that is different from the typical summer camp thing, which is usually an individual call. This is a call for the whole community to re-commit themselves to obedience. Please don’t misunderstand me, it is a good thing when an individual re-commits himself or herself to obedience. But we are much more likely to have success in keeping our commitments over the long term, when we act as a group!

It is a pretty well-established fact that we humans have a “herd instinct”. That’s why the Bible compares us to sheep so many times. We just tend to follow the crowd. We feel uncomfortable sticking out in a group, unless we’re sure that we are going to get everyone’s approval. That’s why they say that fear of public speaking rates higher than fear of death for most people! And as Jerry Seinfeld has famously said, “That means that if you’re at a funeral, you’re better off being in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Well okay, maybe not. But the point is, we worry about what others think of us. And this is an incredibly powerful force, either for good, or for evil. When we live as a true community we create an environment where it is easier to stay on the narrow path of obedience because we can support each other. That’s what the Israelites were doing here. By putting their names down on paper, they were making themselves accountable to each other for the rest of their lives.

Many of you know that I have been involved in canoe racing for most of my life. And in canoe racing I have discovered an interesting principle that illustrates this issue really well. The more people you have in a boat, the easier it is to paddle hard for a long time. The biggest boats that we use are 6-man teams. Time and time again, I have marveled at how much easier it is, not just to get from point A to point B, but to sustain a tough pace, when you’re in a 6-man boat, versus being in a solo boat or a 2-man boat. For whatever reason, being part of a dedicated and highly focused group makes it easier to stay on task. That’s the way it ought to be in Church too. We need to live as a community where we encourage each other and keep each other accountable, in order to sustain our commitment to obedience.

There are two specific reasons why I think we need to re-commit to being a community. First off, there have been a number of families that have left Trinity in recent years, and when asked why they left, they said they did not feel connected. Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge who’s fault that is, because some people may have unrealistic expectations of what the church ought to be for them. But in at least some of these instances, I think it’s fair to say that they made an effort, and did not feel that it was mutual. They never achieved the level of fellowship that they were looking for.

We need to work on that. We are working on that, that’s why we have these small groups that we’re doing. I would like to encourage all of you that as you are involved in your small groups, pursue meaningful depth. Pursue caring about other people, and really listening to them. Each of us ought to think of ourselves as having the role of “encourager” to those around us. If we can succeed in really being the Body of Christ, that will strengthen our ability to stick to the commitments that we have made to God as a church, and as individuals. Let’s purpose to obey 1 Peter 1:22 and “fervently love one another from the heart.” That’s the first reason.

The second reason is that I’ve been hearing something very disturbing from a growing number of young people that I’ve talked with recently. Specifically, friends of my brother David, who recently passed away. Almost all of them grew up in Church and have now abandoned it. They will say that they have a “good relationship with God,” but most of them are living sinful lifestyles and want nothing to do with the Church. They claim that they can worship God on their own, and when challenged, they argue that church people are either hypocritical, or judgmental or both. Now I realize that there will always be people who leave the church so they can indulge in sins they don’t want to give up. But I have been deeply disturbed by the sheer number of young people that are simply walking away from the whole thing, and who seem to think that they can somehow still be connected to Christ, even though they are totally disconnected from the rest of His body. My brother fell for this lie and it contributed to his misery. This is a growing trend in America today, and we need to respond to it by teaching what the word of God says about community - namely that it consists of love, and that it is not optional - and then we need to demonstrate that truth by the way we interact here at Trinity Fellowship.

Let’s read the rest of chapter 10, and discover what exactly is at the heart of re-commitment.

III. The Heart of Re-Commitment 10:28-39

28 “The rest of the people—priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand— 29 all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the LORD our Lord.

30 “We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.

31 “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.

32 “We assume the responsibility for carrying out the commands to give a third of a shekel each year for the service of the house of our God: 33 for the bread set out on the table; for the regular grain offerings and burnt offerings; for the offerings on the Sabbaths, New Moon festivals and appointed feasts; for the holy offerings; for sin offerings to make atonement for Israel; and for all the duties of the house of our God.

34 “We—the priests, the Levites and the people—have cast lots to determine when each of our families is to bring to the house of our God at set times each year a contribution of wood to burn on the altar of the LORD our God, as it is written in the Law.

35 “We also assume responsibility for bringing to the house of the LORD each year the firstfruits of our crops and of every fruit tree.

36 “As it is also written in the Law, we will bring the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, of our herds and of our flocks to the house of our God, to the priests ministering there.

37 “Moreover, we will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and oil. And we will bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all the towns where we work. 38 A priest descended from Aaron is to accompany the Levites when they receive the tithes, and the Levites are to bring a tenth of the tithes up to the house of our God, to the storerooms of the treasury. 39 The people of Israel, including the Levites, are to bring their contributions of grain, new wine and oil to the storerooms where the articles for the sanctuary are kept and where the ministering priests, the gatekeepers and the singers stay.

“We will not neglect the house of our God.”

I am not going to comment on every single thing mentioned in this passage, but I would just like to highlight three specific elements that I believe are at the heart of re-commitment. First of all, notice in particular, the last statement in verse 29. As they are promising to obey the Law of God, they refer to Him as “the LORD our Lord.” In order to catch the full significance of this phrase you need to notice that the first occurrence of LORD is fully capitalized in the text. That is because it is a translation of God’s name Yahweh. Whenever LORD is in all caps in an English Bible it is a translation of the name Yahweh. The second occurrence of the English word Lord, here is not in all caps because it is a translation of the Hebrew word Adonai. Adonai is a much more general term that can be applied to people as well as to God. Adonai is often translated “Lord,” but it can also be translated “Master.”

Here in Nehemiah 10, the Israelites are calling God, “Yahweh our master.” In this context, it would be a mistake to read the phrase, “the LORD our Lord,” merely as a religious formality, or respectful address. By addressing God in this way, the Israelites were acknowledging that Yahweh alone is worthy of worship. If you remember, the reason they were in captivity to foreign powers in the first place was because they had worshiped other gods. Yahweh had not been their true master. Yes they gave Him lip-service for a time, and maintained a pretense of temple-worship in Jerusalem. But all the while they were sacrificing to Baal on the high places. By calling Him “Yahweh our Master” this generation of Israelites was acknowledging that Yahweh alone was supreme in their hearts.

So the first critical element at the heart of zealous re-commitment is turning to God as our only Lord. God must reign supreme in the heart of every believer. For us this means that knowing God must be the thing we desire most, and worshiping God must be the thing that brings us the greatest happiness. This point becomes even clearer as we move on to the second element at the heart of re-commitment, which is found in verse 30.

Here the people promise not to intermarry with foreigners. Ever since the time of Moses, the Israelites had been tempted into idol worship through intermarriage with the Canaanites. This was a habitual sin problem that they had for hundreds of years. I think most Christians can relate to having a habitual sin of some kind that plagues them for years. If this is the case for you, there is a principle at work here that should be helpful. And the principle is this: you serve what you love. If you are a slave to sin, it’s probably because you love sin more than you love God. A heart that is truly filled with love for God has no room in it for a supreme love of something else. In order to successfully rid yourself of the thing that is dragging you down, you must replace your love for that thing with a love for Him, and then purpose to turn away from the source of temptation. Cultivating a love for Yahweh our Master will strengthen our ability to find all our happiness in God alone, and it will strengthen our ability to say no to the things that lead us away from Him. At the heart of re-commitment is an acknowledgment that Yahweh is Master, and therefore we must turn away from anything, no matter how dear it is to us emotionally, that threatens to replace our love for God.

In verses 31-39 they make a lot of promises. They promise to honor the Sabbath and the year of Jubilee. They promise to bring all the sacrifices and offerings they were supposed to bring, they promise to pay their tithes. They were so excited about worship, that before they even signed this agreement they had already cast lots to decide when each family would bring a contribution of wood for burning on the altar. Our natural tendency is to glaze over when we read things like this because we can’t really relate to it very well. But we’re definitely missing the point if we think this is boring. They were evidently excited about this. No one told them that they had to write this document and sign their names to it. They did it because they wanted to, and they wanted to because their hearts had been changed by God’s word. What we see here is the transformation of mechanical obedience into fervent worship. That’s what happens when Yahweh reigns as Master. When we love our idols, religious things seem fairly mundane. But when the idols are gone, and Yahweh is our Master, then worship for Him becomes a serious matter, and it becomes an exciting matter. Only when we love God whole-heartedly, and turn away from the things in our lives that threaten to replace Him, are we free to experience genuinely zealous worship.

So we have seen that the Israelites needed to re-commit themselves to obedience because when they were confronted by God’s word, they realized that they were in sin. When they re-committed themselves to obedience, they did it as a community, and at the heart of this re-commitment was a recognition of Yahweh alone as Master.

Some of you may be thinking that this re-commitment stuff sounds good in a sermon, but in real life, there’s no way anybody can stick to it. We all know what it’s like making those New Year’s resolutions after all. You know, you decide on December 31st that you’re going to lose weight, or start having a consistent prayer time every morning or stop spending so much time on the internet, and by the middle of the first week in January, it’s business as usual. Even here in Nehemiah, if you look at chapter 13, sadly, it turns out that they did not all keep these commitments. We humans are like that. No matter how hard we try to make ourselves be good, we can’t. No amount of willpower on it’s own can change us. If it could, we wouldn’t need a Savior. But do not conclude that there is no value in making a commitment, because there most certainly is.

Imagine that you’re standing beside a road that goes up a steep hill, and there is a huge truck, an 18 wheeler, sitting right in front of you on the road. Your task, in this imaginary situation, is to move the truck over the top of the hill. If you tried to push the truck up and over the hill with sheer force, all by yourself, you could never make it. It would be impossible no matter how committed you were, no matter how much willpower you had. That’s what it’s like trying to live a godly life on willpower alone - it’s impossible. But if God were to show up, and fill the tank with gas, and give you the keys to the truck, that changes everything. You still have to be committed to obedience. You still have to get into the truck, and put the key in the ignition and turn it on. You still have to put it into gear and step on the gas, right? So your commitment to obedience is crucial. But your commitment to obedience is not where the power comes from. The real power comes from God who made the truck, and put the gas in the tank and gave you the keys. Our willpower, our commitment to obedience is only one small part of the equation, but since it’s the part that we are responsible for, it is completely appropriate for us to make that commitment. In fact it would be sinful not to make that commitment.

So let’s join together as a community this morning, and re-commit ourselves to encouraging each other on this journey of obedience. Let’s be zealous for God by committing to obey Him because He is the one we love more than anything else.