Characteristics of a True Worshipping Community (Neh. 11:1-12:26)
What a journey it has been through the book of Nehemiah the past several months! God called an ordinary man named Nehemiah to do something extraordinary for Him. The people of Israel due to their sin were sent to Exile for 70 years. They came back as God had promised, but found their city, Jerusalem, in ruins from the previous destruction. Another 70 years have passed. During this time, they were able to rebuild the Temple, but the wall was not yet rebuilt. Without a wall, the city was susceptible to attack and had no real identity. In 52 days, despite internal, external and personal attacks, God uses Nehemiah to build a wall (Neh. 1-6).
Nehemiah learned right away that building the wall was the easy part. The hard part was to build God’s people. A lot of people helped put the wall up, but there were not enough people to actually live in the city (Neh. 7:4). Apparently, since Jerusalem was in ruins, the people had moved to the suburbs and had settled there. It was dangerous to live in the city and difficult to make a living. Even though they had a wall to protect the city and its people, what use is it if there are no people within it? So Nehemiah takes a census in Neh. 7:5-73 to see who is who and who is living where to figure out what to do.
It happened that just as he was doing this, that it was the New Year. The New Year and the first month of the year was the most important month for the Jews. They opened up God’s Word and revival broke out in Neh. 8. They confessed sin and rededicated their lives by renewing the covenant they made with God (Neh. 9 and 10).
So the wall is up, faithful leaders were established to watch it (Neh. 7:1-4). But Nehemiah knew that if the city was to be strong and if the worship in the temple was to thrive again, the people needed to be together unified inside the wall. God’s people were revived, but they need to be together again. Now it was time to get the people to make a bold, sacrificial decision to move back into the city. The last part of the puzzle was for the people to come together as a true worshipping community. This is the title of the message: “Characteristics of a true worshipping community.” What does this look like? I want it for us! First of all:
I. A true worshipping community consists of people who are willing to sacrifice (Neh. 11:1-2)
Notice the leaders were living in Jerusalem in Neh. 11:1. They exemplified to the people what they wanted them to do. The way they decided to figure out who is going and who is staying was by casting lots. If you remember, they also cast lots to see who would bring the wood for the altar as well in Neh. 10:34. They believed God would use this to help them decide. For us, we use the Holy Spirit inside us guiding us with the Word of God, inner conviction and guidance of others to help us make decisions.
Here the people were gathered in groups of ten. These would be family representatives, since no families were split in the process. Those on whom the lot fell would have to move to Jerusalem. Notice the term “holy city” in Neh. 11:1 and again in Neh. 11:18. This is the first time it is mentioned this way. The word “holy” means to be “set apart.” Why wasn’t it called this before in Nehemiah? Because the city is holy only as the people are. Once the people got right with God, the city was holy again.
Some have estimated that there were probably 100,000 Jews in the land. They decided to send 10% (according to the cast lots) of their people to live in Jerusalem. This means 10,000 people. Neh. 11:2 is confusing. Is it referring to these 10,000 people or some additional group who “willingly offered” to live there? We are not sure. In any case, we see that the people who did end up going had to sacrifice.
We have an interesting concept here in the words “willingly offered” in Neh. 11:2. It means “uncompelled and free movement of the will unto divine service or sacrifice.” It means “to be impelled by an inner urge to stand, to be compelled to be courageous; to be noble.” In other words, they stepped up and said, “We will leave our secure countryside and familiar surroundings. We will volunteer and uproot our families and move to Jerusalem, start over from scratch, all to see it thrive and prosper and the worship of God back again.”
What courage to take this step of faith! (the last part of our definition of biblical conviction was that we would have courage to act on our beliefs…here we see the courage in action!) One of the questions people always have is “Where does God want me to live?” For a lot of people, the criteria they use are neighborhood, taxes, proximity to work, school system, etc. These are good, but unfortunately for so many, ministry is not an issue. For so many, last on their checklist is if there is a Bible-believing church where they can grow and serve. Unless you are a church planter, this should be your first priority. The American dream is an illusion. Let’s live for God’s dream for us! As a result, you may have to sacrifice some other things. I am thankful for Steve and Serina to model that for us here at Living Hope! They will tell you it was not easy, but God will reward them for it.
There is a saying that the church in the West is 2,000 miles wide, but one inch deep. But I am thankful though Living Hope is just a few feet wide, we are miles and miles deep! And I am blessed that in the mega church era that you choose to come to Living Hope. I have nothing against mega churches, having come from one myself, but I am thankful that you have chosen to come here! It is a sacrifice.
Warren Wiersbe adds, “Never underestimate the importance of simply being physically present in the place where God wants you. You may not be asked to perform some dramatic ministry, but simply being there is a ministry. The men, women, and children who helped to populate the city of Jerusalem were serving God, their nation, and future generations by their step of faith.”
II. A true worshipping community centers on people over programs
We are looking at the final two lists in the book of Nehemiah. I think we have grown accustomed to him and his lists. These are the fourth and fifth lists (or fifth and sixth if you count Neh. 8:4-7). This guy loves to count everybody. I can picture Nehemiah walking into Jerusalem late at night and the gatekeeper, who does the night shift, opening the gate for him and just as he closes the gate behind him, Nehemiah says, “Hey, what’s your name?” And the guy says, “Akkub” (Neh. 11:19) and Nehemiah jots his name down. Then later on in the day, he is walking on the streets of Jerusalem and some dude is sweeping the streets and he stops and says, “Hey, what’s your name?” And he jots that guy’s name down. Do you know who else does that? God! Nehemiah loves to count everybody because he knows everybody counts for God. Since it is the people who count for God, let’s focus on people over programs.
Here we have a list of as Chuck Swindoll says, “willing unknowns.” Who are these people? We can’t even pronounce their names! But they made it into God’s book! These are the lesser lights. These are some nobodies who dared to sacrifice, not knowing what they were getting themselves in to. Forgotten heroes. God honors them. Do you realize that 400 years later, the God the Universe will come from this very same place?
Pastor Steve Cole says, “Programs should always be the vehicle through which we minister to people. If a program is not doing that, we need to axe the program and replace it with something that ministers God’s Word to people…” I have been part of churches where there was no concern that the people of God were addicted to drugs or not talking to each other, but as long as the Christmas program went on, we were doing well. To the church in Sardis, Jesus said, “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 3:1). He didn’t say, “Your Christmas program stinks!” He said, “YOU are dead.”
When I was student at Moody, Dr. Joe Stowell was the president. He is now president of Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I used to work in catering for Moody (this allowed me to eat for free on campus). One of the cool things about catering was that when the very important people showed up for concerts or were speaking in chapel, you get to serve them lunch. So the caterers would dress up in tuxedos and the white gloves and serve the food. Once the food was served, Dr. Stowell would always do the same thing. He would look at us caterers and thank us. One time he looked at me and asked me to say my name and my major and then to pray for the food! This was nerve-wracking, but I never forgot it. I then graduated and got married and we were coming back from our honeymoon when I saw Dr. Stowell at the Houston airport. Of course, I ran up to him saying, “Hi Dr. Stowell!” He was probably thinking, “Do I know you?” But he was very gracious and kind. I told him I had graduated and I said, “I’m going to miss serving you.” He said, “I’m going to miss you serving me.”
Dr. Stowell reminds me ministry should always focus on people over programs. Here was a man who was the president of a school for almost 20 years, traveling everywhere to preach and raising support for Moody with endless meetings and conferences, always taking time to focus on people. Dr. Edman, former president of Wheaton College, used to pray for each Wheaton student every morning by name. One pastor was counseling his son who also wanted to become a pastor. He said, ““Keep close to God, keep close to people. And bring God and people together.”
Some people are threatened by this. Pastor Cole adds, “It’s safer to work in a program, or to be involved in maintaining the building, where you can keep your distance from people. But God isn’t saving buildings or sanctifying programs. He is saving and sanctifying people, and He does that through His people reaching out in love to others.” I really appreciate Tracey and the caring ministry team for all that they do, but let’s not leave all the caring to the care team. How many Living Hope people have you prayed for this week that weren’t your spouse or kids? When is the last time you had a meal with someone or emailed someone and asked how they were doing? When was the last time we ever invited anyone to come to Living Hope? Just because we attended the programs of the church does not mean we are truly being a part of a true worshipping community. Let’s focus on people over programs.
III. A true worshipping community exercises its spiritual gifts
If you look at the outline of this section, Nehemiah lists the head of families (Neh. 11:3-9), priests and Levites (Neh. 11:10-18; 12:1-26), gatekeepers and temple servants (Neh.11:19-21), various officials appointed by the King of Persia (Neh. 11:22-24); and the people who lived outside the city (Neh. 11:25-36). Each of these people in their respective areas worked together for the cause of the nation. Even those outside the city had to farm the land to provide food for those inside the city. Each had a different role, but working to coordinate and complement one another. Sound familiar? This is exactly what Paul talked about when he says we are the body of Christ, with different roles, working together to maintain the health of the body (1 Cor. 12:12-30).
Let’s take a closer look at the wide range of gifts and abilities which these people brought. We have people with leadership qualities (Neh. 11:1; 3). We have people with administrative gifts (Neh. 11:9; overseer is best translated as “administrator” in contexts of civil leadership). In Neh. 11:10-12 we have people serving inside the temple, a staff of 822 people! We have people serving outside the temple in Neh. 11:15-16. These people not only took care of the building on the outside, but many also who “judged, handled civil affairs, and counseled and ministered to the public outside the place of worship.” Remember the priests responsible for the sacrifices and offerings, praying on behalf of the people and teaching the Law. The Levites were assigned the singing and music, they prepared the showbread, took care of the sacred vessels, cleaned the sanctuary and took charge of the treasuries. They did some teaching as well (Neh. 8:7), but both the priests and Levites had to work together. We also have a prayer warrior (Neh. 10:17), gatekeepers (Neh. 10:19) and a praise and worship team (Neh. 10:22).
I grew up in a church where really the only gift that was acknowledged was preaching. Some of the leaders of the congregation would try to make all of their kids into preachers. So what happened was that all of the youth felt like failures before God because they couldn’t preach. No one served. I didn’t realize what was going on until one Sunday when I was asked to preach and then also asked to lead the worship, read the Bible and lead the prayer time! We did not have a body of believers here, but just a mouth! It is vital that we serve the Lord the way He has gifted us.
Here are some practical thoughts about spiritual gifts:
a) Every believer has at least one spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:7). God has decided to give it to you (Rom. 12:3; 1 Cor. 12:6).
b) Each gift is to be used to edify the body (1 Cor.12:7) and glorify God (1 Pet. 4:11). The word “manifestation” in 1 Cor. 12:7 means “to make clear, to make visible, to make known, to make manifest. It means the very opposite of ‘to hide,’ or ‘to be private.’ Spiritual gifts are for manifestation. They are a visible, clear, manifest, public display.”
c) Three lists are given in Scripture of spiritual gifts (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-11; and Eph. 4:10-12). I don’t think these lists are exhaustive.
d) A good way to recognize your spiritual gifts is to see what bothers you in church. If you are bothered that our church does not do outreach, you are probably gifted in evangelism. If you are bothered by lack of caring that goes around, you probably have the gift of mercy. If you are looking around and think, “this church needs to be more organized!” you are are probably a good administrator. Another way to recognize your spiritual gifts is to take those assessments. Thirdly, let others confirm that you may be gifted in this way. You might think you have a really great voice, but please make sure others have confirmed it before talking to Anthony or Andrew to join the worship team.
e) You need to use the gift. It is like gaining muscle. If you don’t use it, it will not get developed and used. You will get flab instead of ab.
f) Faithfulness not fame must be your desire. Be careful not to use your spiritual gift and the Lord to make much of yourself. Use it to make much of the Lord. We are not the exit, we are the road sign. We are not the bread, but beggars showing other beggars where to find it. Notice the words “valiant” (Neh. 11:6), “men of valor” (Neh. 11:8) and “mighty men of valor” (Neh. 11:14). Other translations use “able” (NASU, NIV). Scholars are not sure exactly what it means. Some say it means brave because “it takes courage to leave a comfortable situation (life in the village) and move the family to a different place.” Others say it is a military connotation. At any rate, they are important people! However, they are all grouped together in these verses. They are not named at all, though they were important. They are like vital organs; you never see them, but if one of them shuts down, you are in big trouble! So you might get overlooked and not always thanked, but God always reads the credits! He knows what you did for him (Heb. 6:10).
IV. A true worshipping community prioritizes worship
The last thing I want us to take away from here is how much this community prioritized worship. We saw in Neh. 3:1, that the first thing they repaired was the sheep gate. This is where the sheep would be brought in for the sacrifice. Once the wall was completed, Nehemiah got the singers and Levites appointed (Neh. 7:1) first. Again in Neh. 10:32-39, one of their major convictions was about giving to God’s work.
Here, notice the mention of Mattaniah the Levite in Neh. 11:17. Seraiah was probably the high priest of the time had a team of priests to carry on the work for the temple (Neh. 11:11). Their ministry was supplemented by a worship team. NIV calls Matt “the director who led in thanksgiving and prayer” and NASU says he was the “leader in beginning the thanksgiving at prayer.” This director would lead the songs of praise at prayer time. He would get everybody going as far as prayer (asking God for help) and praise (acknowledging God’s generosity) is concerned. He is the equivalent of our Cho bros!
Notice Nehemiah making sure to jot this down! Even the King of Persia helped fund ministry for the temple (Neh. 11:23). Neh. 12:1-26 is a list of all the priests since they returned from Exile. Nehemiah writes them down to show that they had the authority to lead all the people. You cannot have any ole Joe Schmo off the street saying he’s a priest. They had to prove it from the genealogy. Again, for Nehemiah, establishing spiritual leadership in this worshipping community is so important and a priority. In fact, he establishes it like David commanded (Neh. 11:24; 1 Chron.24:7-19).
Let us not take lightly our worship to God. Have you ever wondered what God hears when we sing to Him, preach about Him, hear His Word, give His money back to His work and our time here every Sunday. Is it like sweet smelling incense to his heart? Karen Burton Mains wrote these well-phrased admonitions about worship in the preface of the hymnbook, Sing Joyfully:
“Worship has been defined as being preoccupied with God. How do we learn to become preoccupied with God? By cultivating intentionality. By deliberately turning our minds toward divine preoccupation. By developing worship habits and working on them. Intentional worship means a worshipper is not going to church expecting that worship will just happen; but intentionality means that a worshipper is going to church determined to make worship happen …
“A church bulletin aptly (said): ‘Too many Christians worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship.’ We must learn to work at our worship so that preoccupation with God becomes delightfully habitual.
“We must remind ourselves, over and over, that the focus of Sunday worship must be upon the living Christ among us. In truth, if Christ were bodily present and we could see him with more than our soul’s eyes, all our worship would become intentional. If Christ stood on our platforms, we would bend our knees without asking. If He stretched out His hands and we saw the wounds, our hearts would break; we would confess our sins and weep over our shortcomings. If we could hear His voice leading the hymns, we too would sing heartily; the words would take on meaning. The Bible reading would be lively; meaning would pierce to the marrow of our souls. If Christ walked our aisles, we would hasten to make amends with that brother or sister to whom we had not spoken. We would volunteer for service, the choir loft would be crowded.
If we knew Christ would attend our church Sunday after Sunday, the front pews would fill fastest, believers would arrive early, offering plates would be laden with sacrificial but gladsome gifts, prayers would concentrate our attention. “Yet … Christ is present.”*
Let us take this time to pray and praise. Can you find one or two people next to you and pray for Living Hope to have these characteristics of a worshipping community? Jesus is here among us! What do you want to ask Him for our community?
Dahlen and Larsen, 254.
Harris, R. L., Harris, R. L., Archer, G. L., & Waltke, B. K. (1999). Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed.) (554). Chicago: Moody Press.
Cole, Stephen. “You’re in the Ministry Now!” http://www.fcfonline.org/content/1/sermons/020203M.pdf accessed November 12, 2009.
Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M., & Stamm, J. J. (1999). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed.) (960). Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill.
MacArthur, J. (1983). Spiritual Gifts. Chicago: Moody Press.
Morgan, R. J. 814–815.