"Restore now to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive groves, and their houses, also a hundredth of the money and the grain, the new wine and the oil, that you have charged them' " (Nehemiah 5:11, NKJV).
This week's "Insights" is divided into two parts - application and insights.
Part 1: Application
The best lessons strike closest to home. With whom in this week's story do you identify? There are three choices.
Nehemiah. Courageous. Self-sacrificing. Persistent. Unfazed by power or wealth. Giving. Just. Prayer warrior. Man of faith. Godly leader. Not intimidated by conflict. Direct in confronting wrongdoing.
The Poor Jews. Frazzled. Frustrated. They and/or their children sold into slavery against their will. In debt. Protestors. Unable to pay taxes or home mortgages. Hungry. Forced from their homes and land. Many troubles and trials.
The Wealthy Jews. Opportunistic. Took advantage of poorer brethren by charging usury (interest). Financial interests were highest priority. Sold their brethren into slavery. Repented and made restitution after their sin was pointed out.
I am not proud of this, but of the three options listed above, I identify most with the wealthy Jews. Though I haven't had the opportunity of selling people into slavery to get my money back or of charging interest on loans. There is something about this group, though, that resonates with me. Let me explain.
"'Let us not love in word,' the apostle writes, 'but in deed and in truth.' The completeness of Christian character is attained when the impulse to help and bless others springs constantly from within. It is the atmosphere of this love surrounding the soul of the believer that makes him a savor of life unto life and enables God to bless his work" (AA 551).
There are plenty of times when the impulse to help and bless others comes to my mind. The trouble is, I don't always heed the voice. Sometimes God puts people in my path who need help when I wasn't planning to give it; perhaps taking time to help wasn't on my to do list for the day. Perhaps the help that is most needed will involve great sacrifice on my part. Sometimes, getting me to help has been like squeezing juice out of a cold, hard lemon. I can relate to the wealthy Jews.
The Lord Himself has identified my condition in Revelation 3. "'Because you say, "I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing"--and do not know that you are wretched, miserable poor blind, and naked--I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich, and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with the eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten, Therefore be zealous and repent" (vss 17-19).
The 1888 message is especially suited to us in Laodicea; we need the righteousness of Christ, for which He has made provision at an infinite, personal sacrifice. I am ashamed that I hesitate to help and bless others. I am sorry for selfishly balking at self-sacrifice and inconvenience.
"We were all debtors to divine justice, but we had nothing with which to pay the debt. Then the Son of God, Who pitied us, paid the price of our redemption. He became poor that through His poverty we might be rich. By deeds of liberality toward His poor we may prove the sincerity of our gratitude for the mercy extended to us. . . 'Ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good' " (PK 652).
This week I have frequently found myself checking for updates on the fires in California. One news article pondered the contrast between the very wealthy who were fleeing their homes ahead of fires, and of their migrant worker-employees, some of whom had not even realized there was an evacuation order, but had been faithfully doing their jobs--collecting the trash, tending yards, streets, and vineyards, and harvesting grapes. Our society places high value on wealth, beauty, talent, position, and fame. The article pointed out that the rich need the poor and the poor need the rich. It's just that power and money often lead to abuse at the expense of the poor.
That was what was happening in Nehemiah's day. The very wealthy have means with which to build another home. The poor who work for them do not know if they will get another paycheck. The Lord does not see as man sees. He honored the poor by becoming one of them. He values them as much as the wealthy.
Nehemiah was used by God to reach the wealthy Jews. They repented. They made restitution to their poorer brethren. Everyone is needed in the body of Christ. To our churches the Lord brings the poor, the sick and handicapped, the outcasts, and those in need of clothing, shelter, and food, to our doorstep. The true test of our love for Christ is demonstrated in how we treat these individuals. As far as possible, we should "not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased" (Hebrews 13:16).
This week's lesson also covered the topic of oaths, and how they were often utilized to secure agreements between two parties in ancient times. Did you notice the quote in Friday's lesson? "Jesus preceded to lay down a principle that would make oath taking needless. He teaches that the exact truth should be the law of speech. 'Let your speech be Yea, yea; Nay, nay; and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one' R.V." (TMB, p. 67).
Continuing, Sister White says, "These words condemn all those meaningless phrases and expletives that border on profanity. They condemn the deceptive compliments, the evasion of truth, the flattering phrases, the exaggerations, the misrepresentations in trade, that are current in society and in the business world. They teach that no one who tries to appear what he is not, or whose words do not convey the real sentiment of his heart, can be called truthful" (p. 68).
Recently a gentleman from England who moved to the U.S. about ten years ago explained to me a difference he noticed between British and American English. The British, he said, employ satire to make a point, by saying the opposite of what they mean. Americans, on the other hand, utilize slang to an extreme. Our language has become littered with many repetitive expressions, some of which border on profanity or swearing, while others are idiomatic of our rapidly changing pop culture. As ambassadors for Christ, we can lay aside these expressions that connect us to the world in exchange for the words of life found in Scripture. Particularly in preaching from the pulpit, the absence of such language gives evidence that we have been with Jesus. "Surely you also are one of them, for your speech betrays you" (Luke 26:73).
Part 2: Insight
We owe a significant gospel insight in this week's lesson to a quote in the E. G. White Sabbath School Notes for Monday's lesson. The context takes us back to Nehemiah 5:1-5 where the poor Jews were crying out for justice:
"Because of poverty, some [children] were sold into bondage by their parents. Others who were sentenced for crimes by the judges were sold into bondage. The Lord specified that even these were not to be held as bond-servants for more than seven years. At the end of that time every servant was given his freedom, or, if he chose, he was allowed to remain with his master. Thus God guarded the interests of the lowly and the oppressed. Thus He enjoined a noble spirit of generosity, and encouraged all to cultivate a love for liberty, because the Lord had made them free. Anyone who refused liberty when it was his privilege to have it, was marked. This was not a badge of honor to him, but a mark of disgrace. Thus God encouraged the cultivation of a high and noble spirit, rather than a spirit of bondage and slavery" (Ellen G. White Comments, in the SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 1, p. 1106, emphasis supplied).
Do you see the connection here with the mark of the beast?
When Adam sinned, Satan became his master. "Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one's slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness. But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness" Romans 6:16-18.
This passage clearly articulates that by obeying Satan, we became his slaves. Slavery originated with Satan and was chosen by Adam. Being without hope in this condition, Philippians 2 describes the downward path Jesus took in order to save us from Satan's grasp, "Who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant," (vs. 6, 7). Jesus, Who was free in heaven, became a bondservant on earth in order to rescue us.
Let's pick up the passage identified in our lesson that explains the laws governing slaves in Israel:
"If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years: and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,' then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever" (Exodus 21:2-6).
Slavery was never God's plan, but in view of the widespread custom of employing slaves, these directions were given to Moses.
Applying this passage to Christ and his bride, we observe the following.
The great controversy has lasted 6,000 years. The six years followed by a seventh year of freedom point to our redemption from this world on the eve of the millennial Sabbath rest at the second advent of Jesus Christ. This is the Christian's Jubilee. As described in type in Exodus 21, Jesus became a servant and came to this world to claim His bride. He has declared his love for her, and for all eternity His intention is to remain married to her. He will not "go out free" without her. He was wounded for our transgressions, He was pierced for our iniquities. He has become one with the human race, never to regain, in some sense, the position He had in heaven before the fall. He was numbered with the transgressors, He will ever retain the marks of His crucifixion in His forehead, hands, and feet, the price He paid to purchase our liberty.
"And one will say to him, 'What are these wounds between your arms?' Then he will answer, 'Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends' " (Zechariah 13:6).
"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:36).
On the cross, Jesus liberated the entire human race. He opened the slave house door and set the captives free. "With His own blood He has signed the emancipation papers of the race" (Te 124).
When our bodies are transformed at His coming, all traces of sin, including scars, will be removed. Jesus alone will bear the marks of what it cost Him to save us.
At His coming there will be another group, those who worship "the beast and his image," and receive "his mark on his forehead or on his hand" (Revelation 14:9). This mark is characterized by no rest day or night. This group has rejected the liberty in Christ. They have chosen their own righteousness over His robe of righteousness.
Those who do not rest are working day and night to save themselves. "Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work" (Ex. 20:9). Those who receive the seal of God in the forehead are resting in Christ for salvation. "But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt not do any work . . . " (vs. 9). Keeping the seventh day Sabbath is the sign or seal of God fixed in the foreheads of those who liberty in Christ (Ex. 31:13).
Those with the mark of the beast have not walked out of Satan's slave house even though Christ has opened the door. When this group beholds the marks of Calvary on Jesus, they will be "tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb" (vs. 10). The sight of Him stirs within their souls the keenest anguish, as the realization of what they have rejected overwhelms them. As slaves of Satan, "they have no rest day or night who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name" (vs. 11).
Hence, the third angel's message is heaven's last appeal to earth's inhabitants to come out from slavery to sin and into newness of life in Christ. Thus, "anyone who refused liberty when it was his privilege to have it, was marked."
"Rebellion was not to be overcome by force. Compelling power is found only under Satan's government. The Lord's principles are not of this order. His authority rests upon goodness, mercy, and love; and the presentation of these principles is the means to be used. God's government is moral, and truth and love are to be the prevailing power" (DA p. 759).