May 27, 2018

Nehemiah 3:1-32: Owning the Work

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding the Wall Scripture: Nehemiah 3:1–32

Nehemiah 3:1-32: Owning the Work

I invite you to turn with me in your Bible to Nehemiah 3. We’ve been going through the book of Nehemiah passage by passage. So where ever the text goes, that’s where we go. We simply look at whatever passage comes next. And this morning’s passage is a perfect example of why we take that approach. This passage is basically a list of people who helped rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. If many of us were honest, we’d say it sounds pretty boring, right? Like if you came across this passage on your own, you might be tempted just to read right over it or even skip it completely. But that’s the beauty of expository preaching—or preaching that goes passage by passage through a book of the Bible. Number one, it reminds us that every passage of the Bible is relevant and significant for our lives. And number two, it models for us how we can all approach the Bible and actually benefit from it and see its significance and connect it to our lives. In other words, by me preaching sermons that exposit a passage of the Bible, my hope is that you would be able to imitate the kind of approach we take in these sermons and grow in your ability to study the Bible well on your own. This is something you also can do. I remember when I first started studying the Bible soon after my conversion, I frequently felt like I was sort of wandering around in a foreign country without much of an idea of what was happening. I found many passages so difficult to understand. I specifically remember one day reading a chapter or two from the book of Isaiah and then putting down my Bible and thinking to myself, “I have no clue what I just read.” Maybe you sometimes feel that way. But hopefully, as you come here Sunday after Sunday and listen to expository sermon after expository sermon, you can start to figure out how to accurately draw out the significance of whatever biblical text is front of you. Like I said, this is something you also can do. And you can even do it when you come to passages like the one we come to here in Nehemiah 3. Nehemiah 3:1-32. Now because of the sheer length of this passage, I don’t have time to read the whole thing word for word. But please follow along with me as I summarize what the text is saying. Remember: Nehemiah is leading the Israelites to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. And in this chapter, he simply lists the people who helped get the job done. Verse 1 states that “Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brothers the priests, and they built the Sheep Gate.” Then next to him Zaccur built. Then, verse 3, “the sons of Hassenaah built the Fish Gate.” Next to them, Meshullam built. Then Zadok, then the Tekoites, then Joiada and another Meshullam repaired the Gate of Yeshanah, also called the Old Gate. Then Melatiah and Jadon, then Uzziel, then Hananiah, then Rephaiah, then Jedaiah, then Hattush, then Malchijah and Hasshub, then Shallum with his daughters. Then Hanun repaired the Valley Gate, Malchijah repaired the Dung Gate, and Shallum repaired the Fountain Gate. Then Nehemiah, then Rehum, then Hashabiah, then Bavvai, then Ezer, then Baruch, then Meremoth, then some unnamed priests, then Benjamin and Hasshub, then Azariah, then Binnui, then Palal, then Pedaiah, then the Tekoites, then more priests, then Zadok, then Shemaiah, then Hananiah, then Meshullam, then Malchijah, and then some goldsmiths and merchants. 

Now why do you think all of that is recorded? Why do you think God saw fit to include that chapter in the Bible? I’m sure there are a number of reasons, but here’s a big one. And this, I believe, is the main idea of this chapter. God wanted us to see that in order for the wall to be rebuilt, everyone had to take personal ownership of the work. In order for the wall to be rebuilt, everyone had to take personal ownership of the work. And when I say “everyone,” I mean just about everyone. Look at all the different kinds of people this text mentions—everyone from the high priest in verse 1 to the perfumers in verse 8 to a ruler of Jerusalem and his daughters in verse 12 to the Levites in verse 17 to the goldsmiths and merchants in verse 32. So people from all segments of society came together to help with this project. It was all hands on deck. Because this wasn’t something that could be done by just a few people. It was a massive project.

The project involved building somewhere around two or two and a half miles of a wall that was thick enough and tall enough to keep out enemy armies. Here’s a very simple map of the wall they were building. Our text begins by describing the workers who worked on the northern section of the wall and the gates of that northern section, namely the Sheep Gate and the Fish Gate. Then it goes around counterclockwise and mentions the Old Gate and the Valley gate on the western section, then the Dung Gate and the Fountain Gate in the south, then the Water Gate, Horse Gate, East Gate, and Inspection gate on the eastern section. So ten gates had to be constructed along with all of the walls between those gates. As I mentioned, it was a circuit of around two or two and a half miles. So this certainly was a massive project—so massive that it required everyone. Nehemiah needed just about everyone to participate and work and take personal ownership of the project. 

And just like the Israelites had to take personal ownership of their mission, God calls us as Christians to take personal ownership of our mission. Of course, our mission isn’t to build any physical structure but rather to spread the gospel and make disciples and build God’s Kingdom here in Pittsburgh. That’s what God calls us to do. And he invites each one of us to take personal ownership of that mission in manner similar to what we see here in Nehemiah 3. And I believe there are three shifts that have to happen in our lives in order to get from where we presently are to where we need to be. All of these relate to personal ownership. Number one, adopt the mentality of personal ownership. Number two, embody the practices of personal ownership. And number three, acquire the confidence for personal ownership. 

Adopt the Mentality of Personal Ownership 

So first, adopt the mentality of personal ownership. So often, we have the mentality that the work of spreading the gospel is only for an elite group of Christians. We think it’s something that’s best left for the professionals—like pastors and other key leaders in the church. I think of those commercials for new cars where you see the car doing all of these fancy, high speed maneuvers that show off how well the car’s capable of performing. It can do this impressive thing on this terrain and that impressive thing on that terrain. And at the bottom of the screen, what does the fine print typically say? It says something like, “This is a professional driver. Don’t try this yourself.” They usually feel the need to put that disclaimer on the screen. And that may be good advice for some of those high speed maneuvers, but that’s a terrible way to approach our gospel mission. Here in Nehemiah 3, we see everyone getting involved in the work—from the high priest to the merchants to the perfumers to that one ruler’s daughters. Everyone showed up to help out.

And if you want a more specific example that explicitly shows so-called “ordinary” Christians preaching the gospel, just look at Acts 8. Of course, this takes place several hundred years after what we read in Nehemiah. Acts 8:1 records how the Jewish religious leaders begin persecuting the early Christians in Jerusalem. It states, “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” So because of this persecution, the Christians of Jerusalem were scattered to the surrounding regions—except for the apostles, the text says. Then if we look down at verse 4, here’s what we read: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” So who the scattered ones who “went about preaching the word”? Was it the apostles or the leaders? No, verse 1 told us that the leaders were actually the only ones who weren’t scattered. It was everybody else in the church, the so-called “ordinary” Christians, who “went about preaching the word.” As I heard one pastor say, it was the Joe’s, not the pros, who spread the gospel here in Acts 8. 

And that’s really how God has designed the church to function. He didn’t design it to be like football game where you have a handful of players actually playing in the game and then thousands upon thousands of others watching from the stands. Like when the Steelers play, the vast majority of people at Heinz field aren’t really doing much of anything beyond drinking and eating and having a good time. Only a very small minority of the people present are actually playing football. The rest are just spectators. And the sad reality is that if you leave Heinz field and go around to various churches, it doesn’t take long to observe that the churches aren’t all that different. Many of them are full of spectators also. But that’s not the way God designed it. 

God’s design is for every Christian to do what these early Christians here in Acts 8 were doing and function as missionaries wherever he places them. That means if you’re a Christian living in the Pittsburgh area, God’s called you to be a missionary to the Pittsburgh area. Consider yourself licensed. Consider yourself authorized. God himself has licensed you, authorized you, and even commanded you and empowered you to live as a missionary right here. And that’s really our only hope of ever making a significant impact with the gospel in our city. Just like the task of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem was way too big for Nehemiah and a few of the other city leaders to handle by themselves, the task of reaching our area with the gospel is way too big for a few “elite Christians” to handle. We need every Christian to adopt the mentality of personal ownership.

Embody the Practices of Personal Ownership

But not only do we need to adopt that mentality, we also need to let that mentality drive us to action. We have to actually do something. So number two, having first adopted the mentality of personal ownership, we also have to embody the practices of personal ownership. It wouldn’t have done Nehemiah much good if the people of Jerusalem had acted all excited about rebuilding the wall and each doing his or her part if none of them had actually showed up to their jobsite the next day. In order for the task to be accomplished, everybody would have to actually get up in the morning, lift the stones for the wall, cut the lumber for the gates, and do whatever else was necessary to complete the project. They had to actually do what God had called them to do. And so do we, if we want the gospel to move forward. 

So what exactly does that look like? What exactly am I asking you to do when I talk about taking personal ownership? Well, of course a great place to start is volunteering on Sunday mornings. The fact is, we can’t do what we do Sunday mornings without a large number of volunteers. And that will be especially true at our new location when we have to do a lot more setup and takedown—we’ll need volunteers for that. So that’s a good place to start. But when I talk about taking personal ownership of the mission, I’m talking about a lot more than what you do Sunday morning. I’m primarily talking about what you do the rest of the week. I’m exhorting you to live every aspect of your life like a missionary. 

Let’s do a brief thought exercise. Imagine our church appointed you as an overseas missionary and sent you out to a city in China. What steps would you take to reach that city with the gospel? What methods would you employ, what habits would you form, what practices would you utilize? Well, you would probably begin by getting to know people, right? You’d find out where people like to hang out and start hanging out there yourself. You’d find out what people like to do for fun and maybe start doing some of those things. And as you started going to those places and doing those things, you’d probably be thinking very intentionally about who seems receptive to you and open to you. There’s a good chance you’d write down the names of those people and begin praying for them by name on a regular basis. Then, I’m guessing you’d try to build relationships with those people and get to know them more. I’m sure you’d have them over for a meal and invite them to your kid’s birthday party and do whatever else you could think of to build those relationships. Then eventually, God would start giving you opportunities to talk about Jesus with them. So you would try to do that in the context of regular conversations. Maybe eventually, you’d invite them over to your house for a weekly Bible study that went on for a few weeks. Or maybe you’d try to schedule a weekly meeting at a coffee shop with them to talk about the teachings of Jesus. Then hopefully, person by person, people would start coming to faith. That’s what the life of a missionary looks like. That’s the basic pattern. Number one, start going places where people are. Number two, identify people who seem to be friendly to you. Number three, start praying for those people regularly. Number four, pursue deeper relationships with those people. Number five, talk about Jesus in ordinary conversations with those people. And number six, think of ways you can teach them about Jesus in a more intentional and structured way. That’s the life of a missionary. 

So when we talk about being missionaries to Pittsburgh, that’s what we’re talking about. Just think about the kinds of things you’d do as a missionary to China, and then start doing those things in a culturally appropriate way here in Pittsburgh. And I think the biggest difference between what many of us are currently doing and what we should be doing is the intentionality. You may be around people all week, but how intentional are you being with those opportunities and relationships? How intentional are you being your mealtimes? How intentional are you being with your recreational activities? Are you really living like a missionary in all of those things? For example, I think I’ve mentioned before that my five-year-old son is on a soccer team. That’s a pretty common thing for kids to do, right? Playing soccer. But I’m personally striving to live as a missionary. So when they announced that they needed more coaches, I volunteered to serve as a coach. Now, did I really want to have to help coordinate the team pictures and coordinate the hoagie sale and do some of the other things a coach has to do? No, not really. I don’t find those things particularly enjoyable. But I knew being a coach would help me interact more with the other parents and give me an opportunity to serve them in a practical way. So I’m the coach for the team. And every game, I arrive early and I leave late so that I have the chance to interact with other parents even more. And I’m praying for them. I’m praying for Kristie, Jodi, Ray, Julia, Chris, Brian, and Katie just about every day. And since I’ve only known them for about 5 or 6 weeks so far, I haven’t yet been able to have any gospel conversations with them. But I have invited them all over to my house for an end-of-season pizza and ice cream party in June that I’m paying for so that we can have an opportunity to get to know them more. Now, will I be able to have a gospel conversation at that party? I don’t know. I plan on praying before the meal, and it will definitely be a very gospel-rich prayer. And since Brentwood is a pretty small community, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw many of those families again once sports start back up in the Fall. So that’s just a quick example of what living like a missionary looks like in day-to-day life. It’s all about approaching the things we do in a much more intentional way. 

And if you’re thinking to yourself right now that that sounds like hard work, you’re right. It is hard work. Back in Nehemiah 3, working on the wall of Jerusalem was hard work too. It was physically demanding. It required personal sacrifice since the workers weren’t able to do what they’d otherwise be doing with their time like raising crops and things like that. But they were pursuing a mission that was so much bigger than just them. Ultimately, it was the mission of God. And we also get to be a part of that mission. In fact, I’d say we get to be a part of it in an even greater and higher way. And that’s really what our church is all about. This church is a missionary outpost. That’s why our church is located down here on earth right now instead of up there in heaven. God’s left us here for a reason. He’s left us here to be a missionary outpost and individually to be missionaries.

Acquire the Confidence for Personal Ownership

But maybe that scares you. And maybe that scares you because you don’t think you’re capable of that. That’s why we need to, point number three, acquire the confidence for personal ownership. So first we had “adopt the mentality of personal ownership.” Then we had “embody the practices of personal ownership.” And now we have “acquire the confidence for personal ownership.” And here’s where that confidence comes from. Three words: the Holy Spirit. So often, we act like we don’t have the Holy Spirit, like Jesus has left us all alone to accomplish his mission. We think to ourselves, “Oh, poor me. I can’t really do much of anything. I haven’t been to seminary. I don’t have an exceptionally winsome personality. Poor me. I’m really not capable really being a missionary.” And all the while, I just picture God up there being like, “What more do you want? I’ve given you my Holy Spirit. I’ve taken my infinitely great divine power and put it within you. What else do you want?” It reminds me of what I heard one time about how they used to get circus elephants to stay where they were supposed to stay. And I have no clue whether this is actually true or not, but it makes for a good illustration, so I’ll share it with you. Apparently, they were able to tie an elephant to a wooden stake in the ground and have him stay there. Of course, if the elephant wanted to, he could rip the stake out of the ground with virtually no effort whatsoever. But the elephant didn’t know that. Because they would start tying the elephant to that stake from the time he was a baby. So when he was a baby, he couldn’t rip the stake out of the ground no matter how much he tried to run away. And after trying it a bunch of times, he finally just stopped trying and gave up. And apparently, just about all circus elephants would behave this way. So even when the elephants grew to their full size, they still thought that when they were tied to that stake, there was no getting free. But of course the limitation was all in their mind. In reality, they had more than enough strength to easily pull that stake out of the ground and go wherever they wanted to. And that’s the way a lot of Christians are living right now. We think we can’t do much of anything. But in reality, we possess the Holy Spirit—the very same Spirit, Romans 8 says, who raised Jesus from the dead. Don’t you think that should give us the confidence we need to take personal ownership of the mission?


But maybe this morning, you’re truly not ready for the mission because you don’t yet have the Spirit. Maybe you’re here and you’ve never been saved. You’re not in a position to spread the gospel because you haven’t yet embraced the gospel yourself. If that’s you, please understand that your greatest need isn’t to be more active in God’s mission—it’s to surrender to God’s mission. God wants to give the gift of rescue to you. He wants to rescue you from your sins. You see, the Bible teaches that every single one of us has done things and said things and thought things that God finds absolutely abominable. And the problem goes right down to our heart—to the very core of our being. We’re sinful through and through. That’s where the outward sins come from—they come from within. And because of our sin and our sinfulness, we deserve God’s punishment. But in his great mercy, God hasn’t given us what we deserve. Instead, he’s sent his own Son Jesus to come to this earth and die on the cross in our place. That’s why the cross is so central to Christianity. Jesus was bearing the wrath we deserved so that we wouldn’t have to bear it. Then after that, he victoriously rose from the dead so that he’s now able to rescue those who look to him for rescue. Will that be you? Will you put your trust in Jesus for rescue? You can, even this morning.

other sermons in this series

Sep 23


Sep 2


Nehemiah 12:44-47: The Joy of Giving

Preacher: Josh Tancordo Scripture: Nehemiah 12:44–47 Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding the Wall