Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
For love to really flourish, commitment and accountability are necessary. They’re also scary. In this passage, we see what rebuilding a church community through recovenanting looks like.
Citylight Center City | March 14, 2021 from Citylight Church on Vimeo.
The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Charles Fensham
Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Derek Kidner
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I’ve been recently reminded of one of my great privileges as a pastor while officiating a couple weddings during COVID restrictions and being one of five people present for one, one of nine present for another. Weddings are a privilege to be part of because the two people getting married on that day enter into a new relationship with one another, a covenant relationship, a commitment to which they are accountable. The Bible institutes marriage, but many even who do not believe the Bible seem down with the idea of marriage. Why? We all seem to sense that such a binding, accountable commitment is necessary to achieve a certain depth of love. At the same time, those kinds of commitments are scary. In the passage at which we are looking today, the people of Israel are gathered for repentance, and last week we looked at the first part of repentance: Confession. Today we’re going to look at the second part: Recovenanting, a commitment, not unlike marriage, to which they were then accountable. Rebuilding requires recovenanting, and to understand that, we’ll talk about the essence of recovenanting, the specifics of recovenanting, and the fruit of recovenanting.
The essence of recovenanting
The essence of recovenanting is summarized in verses 28-29. The first thing we see is it’s a covenant the people make together. Notice all the various classes and generations within Israel in verse 28 join with their brothers and their nobles in verse 29. They were more than a loose association of people who believed the same things and happened to meet that day; they were a people bound by a shared covenant. As to the contents of the covenant, verse 29 tells us it was a covenant sealed by a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord and his rules and his statutes. So it is a commitment: It’s not a profession of how they feel today; it’s a promise of how they will live in the future. And it’s a commitment to which they are accountable: They enter into a curse and an oath. They’re publicly saying, “If we don’t do this, curse us.” They aren’t just committed in their hearts, but then later if they want to stop, they can get out of it. They’re accountable to their community, and more importantly, to God.
Now I’ve called this a recovenanting because God had already made a covenant with the people of Israel. It’s why in verse 29 they’re already able to refer to God as “the LORD our Lord.” If God had not first done this, the people would have had no way of covenanting with God in the first place. A covenant with God is not like a covenant between people where we settle on terms after a process of negotiations. God made the covenant, God gave His law, and God commanded us to do it. We didn’t do it, and as a result, we received the curses it promised: Removal from the land and years in exile. The community of God’s people was scattered, broken up, de-formed really. Now upon reentering the land, the people confessed the ways they’d disobeyed God’s law, and are now re-formed as a people in covenant with God by re-covenanting according to the terms of the covenant God made with our forefathers. The essence of recovenanting, then, is a commitment in which a community whom God called into covenant with Himself accepts accountability to obey all of God’s law.
Commitment like that is scary, especially for us 21st century people who are used to having 1000 options and keeping them all open. But rebuilding requires it. Rebuilding requires it because if you say, “Today I’ll obey the LORD, but I’m not sure about tomorrow,” you probably won’t obey Him tomorrow. Rebuilding requires recovenanting because if you say, “Today I like these people, but I’m not sure about tomorrow,” a day will come when it’s costly to keep being part of this people, and with no commitment keeping you in, you’ll leave. Rebuilding requires recovenanting because if you say, “I’m committed in my heart, but I’m not going to make myself publicly accountable to that,” a day will come when you aren’t committed in your heart, and there will be nothing keeping you in. A life without commitments is a life without direction, and a community with no covenant is a community that won’t be rebuilt.
But if you know the LORD, a covenant commitment to a covenant community is a blessing, because it keeps you directed toward Him! Such a community is called a church, and that’s what we are. As we rebuild, let’s recovenant together to obey all of God’s law. I’m considering ways we may do that ceremoniously when we’re able to regather all of our members at once, but for now at least we do have a membership covenant we’ve all already signed and made a public oath to keep when we were inducted as members, one we invite any of you here or watching today to join us in if you haven’t already. Let’s recommit ourselves to faithfulness to it. And to get a sense of what that will mean for us, we have to get into the specifics of God’s law. So let’s talk next about the specifics of recovenanting.
The specifics of recovenanting
In verse 29 the people commit themselves to obey all of God’s law, but in verse 30 they begin to get specific about the commands of God’s law they are committing to obey. It’s not that these commands are more important, or that they’re somehow more committed to these than the others, but they had to get specific about these because these were the commands they’d specifically disobeyed in the past. Becoming a Christians means confessing you’re a sinner in general, yes, and committing to obey whatever God commands, yes, but it should also issue in conviction of specific sins you were committing, and specific resolution to now obey those specific commands. Here are things I was doing that I will stop doing; here are things I wasn’t doing that I will start doing. As that is true for the individual becoming a Christian or repenting as a Christian, so it is true for the community recovenanting. A few years into Citylight Church’s history, before Center City even started, we actually added specific commitments to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage and drunkenness to our membership covenant, because we found those were commands we were too often disobeying in the early years of our church.
For the church in Nehemiah, though, the first issue was intermarriage, so in verse 30 they commit to not give their daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for their sons. Back then the family was more involved in choosing a partner for their children, so this amounts to a commitment that no one in the covenant community will marry someone outside of it. It’s got nothing to do with our modern concept of race, which is a social construct that didn’t exist back then, nor is it even about ethnicity. It does sort of fall out along ethnic lines in this case, but that’s because the different ethnic groups worshiped different gods. The specific commitment they’re making here is not at its core a commitment to not marry anyone from another ethnicity, but to not marry anyone who has not separated themselves from the people of the land to the Law of God. It makes sense, then, that in the New Testament we find no prohibition of marriage between ethnic groups, but we do find that Christians are to marry only other Christians. Interracial marriages in the Lord are just as pleasing to God as any marriage in the Lord, but for the sake of our undivided devotion to the Lord, marriage must be in the Lord, to someone who shares our devotion to Him.
But maybe this is an area it would be worth all of us recovenanting in. I get it; the desire to be married is natural and good, and out of the 1.5 million people in Philadelphia, only something like 1/10 were even in church on a Sunday prior to the pandemic, and who knows what number of those have been born again of the Spirit. So there is a temptation, especially when you aren’t feeling particularly drawn to the Christians immediately around you, to date people who aren’t in covenant with God. But here’s what you have to consider: Do you want to be married so badly that you will violate your covenant with God in order to enter into a covenant of marriage with them? That’s not worth it. Trust me, God will be a better covenant partner than they will be. Once you settle that question, the rest does kind of fall into place: If you won’t marry them, why are you dating them? The Bible doesn’t really have a place for enjoying romantic love when you know you’re going to break it off eventually anyway. Dating, to the degree it is appropriate, should be for the purpose of evaluating marriage. If you already know you won’t marry someone though, such evaluation is unnecessary.
Now I know there are some gray areas here. What if they tell you they’re a Christian, but they’re a member of a church that has some significant false teaching in its official doctrine, like a Roman Catholic church? What if they aren’t a member of a church at all? What if they don’t even go to church? What if there are patterns of sin in their life that don’t seem consistent with their profession of faith? All of those things should really make you slow down, and some probably make it foolish to date at all. Each situation is different, but the main thing I want to encourage you toward is involving other church members and ideally a pastor in your relationship. You’ve got the rose-colored glasses on, so you aren’t going to be best equipped to really assess this person’s spiritual condition. For the sake of our undivided devotion to the Lord, let’s recovenant to marry only in the Lord.
While we’re on uncomfortable topics, the next thing they specifically address is money. They commit to not do business on the weekly Sabbath day or other holy days, to not work the ground in the 7th year, the Sabbath year, and to not exact debt on loans. Those are the things they will stop doing, along with intermarriage, but then in verse 32 they say what they will start doing: They take on themselves an obligation to give a third of the shekel for the service of the house of the LORD. The rest of chapter 10 then outlines all the other ways they will financially support the service of the house of the LORD: Bringing offerings, which cost money, bringing the firstfruits of their crops and cattle, which were their source of income, the tithes of the rest of their crop, which is 10%. The things they offered were used to furnish the house of God, offered as sacrifices to the LORD in worship, or were simply used to feed and sustain the priests, temple singers, and other temple workers. The covenant community took responsibility to fund the worship activity the community was required by God’s law to offer.
Many of those things are specific to the church under the old covenant, but under the new there are still ways God has called us to worship Him that typically cost money. God requires us to gather, and that means we need to find a space large enough for all of us to gather, which in Philadelphia costs a decent amount of money. He requires that at least some of the elders labor in preaching and teaching, which ideally means they will be freed up from other labors to do that, and then it will cost us money to ensure he and his family’s needs are supplied, just as the Levites depended on God’s provision through the generosity of the covenant community. He requires us to make disciples of all nations, which in our time things like a website help, and which more so means giving money to fund church planting and send Christians overseas to preach the gospel among peoples who have not yet heard or to strengthen struggling churches.
Now I will say I don’t think this is an area of overwhelming unfaithfulness for our church, as it was for Israel at that time. We’ve surpassed budget every year of our existence. Even this past year, when money started to feel less certain during the pandemic, you were faithful to your commitment to give regularly, joyously, and sacrificially for the service God has given us as one of His houses. But giving is the kind of thing worth reevaluating from time to time, and recovenanting in. Maybe God is providing you more money now than He did when you first committing to giving; might He be enabling you to give more? Maybe you were giving automatically and your credit card expired. Maybe you weren’t giving automatically and you’ve forgotten about it for some time. Maybe God has used this past year to grow your love for Him and your hope in His heavenly kingdom, and even though you have the same income you did last year, you want to invest more of it in the service of God’s house. Let’s take responsibility for our covenant community and recovenant to give our money regularly, joyously, and sacrificially so that our church excels in the mission Jesus has given us.
The fruit of recovenanting
The recovenanting proper ends where chapter 10 does. In it, the whole community commits to the same things: Walking in obedience to all of God’s law, specifically to abstaining from intermarriage with the peoples of the land and putting their money to use for the worship of God. When we come to chapter 11, we begin to see the fruit of that in the willingness of the people to play whatever unique part God assigned them in His purposes. At that time the leaders lived in Jerusalem, but in order for the city to really be rebuilt, it had to have people living in it, in order that it might shine as the glorious city of God. So they cast lots, and 1/10 of the people who lived in the towns were chosen by God through the lots to come live in the city. Verse 2 then tells us that the men chosen did not complain about this, but that others in fact blessed them for the willingness to respond to God’s call and go live in Jerusalem. The rest of chapter 11 then gives us the names of those who did so, followed by the names of those who lived in their towns, because they were also an important part of God’s people, though they had a different role. Then chapter 12 lists the priests and the Levites who stayed in Jerusalem to do the work of the house of God for which the people had committed to provide. The city being refilled, the people working together, the work of the house of God resuming: This was the people rebuilding, and it was a fruit of their recovenanting.
There are things we all covenant to do together, and there is the role the LORD assigns each of us within that according to our gifts, resources, and opportunities. For some of us, that will mean a unique calling out of ordinary labors to pastoral ministry or taking the gospel to unreached peoples, and for many of us it will mean leading “ordinary” lives of service right where God has you now. For some of us it will mean living in the city of Philadelphia long-term, for others it will not. You don’t have to figure that part out. You just be willing, and the Lord will direct your way.
So are you willing? Will you recovenant, or perhaps even covenant today for the first time, to do all of God’s law, including the specific ways you’ve disobeyed it in the past? It’s the only way to be in covenant with the LORD; it’s the only way to be in real community with His people. And yet, it means dying to yourself, and our selves resist that. This is the problem that God’s people keep facing. We recovenant and commit to obey all that God commands, only to find ourselves disobeying His commands again, sometimes moments later. That means we deserve the curse of the covenant, but God’s covenant promise was also to be our God, to be the LORD our Lord. He didn’t commit Himself to love us only when it felt good to do so, only when it cost Him little; He loved us with a covenantal love, to which He was accountable. How could He do both? How could He love us and curse our sins? He could do both by appointing His Son a Mediator in the covenant. Jesus Christ is ultimately the one who stood before God and entered into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s Law that was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord and his rules and his statutes, only He committed to obey on our behalf, and made Himself accountable for our disobedience. The oath of obedience He offered was for us, and the curse He entered into was ours. God was willing to bear our curse rather than violate His commitment to us. So Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” He took our curse so that we might receive His blessing, the blessing He received when He rose from the dead, to a new life without possibility of being cursed again.
That life is now available to whoever believes in Him, and He calls whoever hears these words today to come and enter into covenant with Him by faith, receive the covenant sign of baptism, and join a particular church in covenant. To those who do, His covenant promise is the forgiveness of all your sins, and He takes upon Himself the responsibility to ensure that you will not ultimately receive the curse, though you will still disobey His law at times. We stand in a fundamentally different place with God now than the church of Nehemiah’s day. That covenant is over. The obedience is complete, the curse has been borne, the reward has been received. So get in on it. Turn from your sins, trust Christ, and commit to obey Him in the accountability of His covenant people. Close the door behind you. Don’t look back. If the breakers of this covenant received a curse, how much worse punishment will be received by those who forsake the only curse-bearer? Let’s recovenant together to walk in all the commands of the Lord, specifically to marry only in the Lord, and to give regularly, joyously, and sacrificially to the work God has given our church. And if we disobey, let’s confess our sins, rejoice in the one who bore our curse, and recovenant to obey Him again.