Our memory text for this week says, "And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should go and guard the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of Your mercy!" Nehemiah 13:22.
Nehemiah chapter 2 tells us that in the 20th year of King Artaxerxes, shortly after the month Nisan, Nehemiah was called to his first governorship of Jerusalem. As we have been studying this quarter, reforms were accomplished, and the city and the wall were rebuilt under great oppression from Tobiah and Sanballat. The people were blessed. Ezra had read the Torah and "all the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. Chapter 9 records a prayer/sermon recounting numerous redeeming acts of God in their history. Their unfaithfulness was matched only by the faithfulness of God that never failed. "If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself." 2 Timothy 2:13. The acknowledgment of human failure in the face of abundant evidences of God's "manifold mercies", abundant kindness, was met with appropriate praise, confession and repentance. He was the awesome God Who kept covenant and mercy. See Chapter 9 of Nehemiah. This covenant rooted in the everlasting covenant that was from eternity past to eternity future told them and us today that the covenant expressed the very heart of God manifested in the sacrificial love that existed in the Godhead- the Triune God, from before time began. He had dealt faithfully though they had done wickedly. Their response was to make a covenant with God consisting of 4 promises: they would not engage in mixed marriages, they would have true Sabbath observance, they would cancel debts and pay tithe and support God's work in His church. This sounds like a heart response to the goodness of God. All that the people had promised sounded good and they were sincere. But let us look at what the pen of inspiration says in Steps to Christ p. 47. "Many are inquiring, "How am I to make the surrender of myself to God?" You desire to give yourself to Him, but you are weak in moral power, in slavery to doubt, and controlled by the habits of your life of sin. Your promises and resolutions are like ropes of sand. You cannot control your thoughts, your impulses, your affections. The knowledge of your broken promises and forfeited pledges weakens your confidence in your own sincerity, and causes you to feel that God cannot accept you; Desires for goodness and holiness are right as far as they go; but if you stop here, they will avail nothing." Sadly, Nehemiah chapter 13 reveals the reality of the last sentence of this quote. Israel had backslidden.
At some point after this covenant was made and between chapters 12 and 13, Nehemiah returned to Babylon and although the timeframe is uncertain, two texts provide some information that can help us. "Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year until the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, twelve years, neither I nor my brothers ate the governor's provisions." Nehemiah 5:14. He was there the first time 12 years.
"But during all this I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Then after certain days I obtained leave from the king, and I came to Jerusalem and discovered the evil that Eliashib had done for Tobiah, in preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God." Nehemiah 13:6,7. Sometime after his return to Babylon Israel had backslidden.
The lesson this week focuses on three of the backslidings for which Israel was guilty: allowing foreigners or idolaters in their midst, withholding the tithe and support for the Levites and the temple, and proper Sabbath keeping. We will focus briefly on the first two and then turn our attention to the significance of the Sabbath which the memory text also highlights.
Eliashib was the high priest. Tobiah was the Ammonite enemy of Nehemiah who along with Sanballat the Horonite in chapter 2 laughed at the people of God to scorn and despise them, and to hinder the work of God in building the wall during Nehemiah's first governorship. Now here was Tobiah taking up residence in one of the temple rooms. Though the room was not in the main building of the Temple, it was in one of the buildings adjacent to it, within the sacred precincts of the Temple area. It was used for secular purposes and would need ceremonial cleansing. This likely occurred because of intermarriage with the "foreigners." The quarterly mentions that the singers, gatekeepers, and other temple servants had to go back to work in their fields because the offerings had been misapplied.
As bad as all that is, a proper perspective of the purpose, power, and meaning of the Sabbath, could have been a bulwark against all their backsliding. The Sabbath had been a stumbling block for Israel and is today for many Christians. How can a true understanding of the Sabbath uplift Jesus, and draw all to the meaning invested in the Sabbath at creation? And not only that, but how a proper understanding of the Sabbath gives us a true appreciation of the truth of Righteousness by Faith. The world and Christianity at large need to understand this connection. Let us consider some Sabbath texts.
"But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." Matthew 12:7,8.
"And He said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath." Mark 2:27,28
"If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable and shall honor Him, not doing your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the Lord." Isaiah 58:13,14
The question for us as a church today is how can we present the Sabbath the way God saw it at creation?
The Sabbath was the centerpiece of the creation week, the climax. God Himself rested on the Sabbath, He blessed it and He sanctified it.
"Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. 2 And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made." Genesis 2:1-3
God had worked and now He rested. Man, had done nothing and God invited him to rest in His accomplished work.
A.T. Jones has a lot to say about the meaning of the Sabbath and its relationship to redemption.
"Faith is the expecting the word of God to do what it says, and the depending upon that word to do what it says. As that is faith, and as faith comes by the word of God, it is plain that the word has in itself power to accomplish what itself says." Lessons on Faith p.17. On the same page, he highlights the fact that "the greater part of the very first chapter of the Bible is instruction in faith." He has identified no fewer than 7 statements meant to inculcate faith. "The inculcation of faith is the teaching that the word of God itself accomplishes the thing which is spoken in that word." Ibid.
By the word of the Lord all things were created. "This is why it is, that faith is the knowing that in the word of God there is this power, the expecting the word itself to do the thing spoken, and the depending upon that word itself to do that which the word speaks." Ibid p.18.
We can apply this next quotation to backslidden Israel and to our backsliding.
"This is the difference between the word of God and the word of man. Man, may speak; but there is no power in his words to perform the thing spoken: if the thing is to be accomplished which he has spoken, the man must do something in addition to speaking the word - he must make good on his word." Ibid p.19.
Jones goes on, "He spake, and it was. Before He spoke, there were no worlds: after He spoke, the worlds were there…. In this same way, precisely it is in man's life. In man's life, there is no righteousness. In man, there is no righteousness, from which righteousness can appear in his life. But God has set forth Christ to declare righteousness unto and upon man. Christ has spoken the word only, and in the darkened void of man's life there is righteousness to everyone who will receive it. Where, before the word is received, there was neither righteousness nor anything which could possibly produce righteousness, after the word is received, there is perfect righteousness and the very Fountain from which it springs. The word of God received by faith - that is, the word of God expected to do what that word says, and depended upon to do what it says produces righteousness in the man and in the life where there never was any before; precisely as, in the original creation, the word of God produced worlds where there never was any before." Ibid p.25.
Jesus Himself rested in the tomb on the Sabbath day. On the cross He cried out "It is finished" and then He rested. Ellen White says, "When upon the cross He cried out, "It is finished," He addressed the Father. The compact had been fully carried out. Now He declares: Father, it is finished. I have done Thy will, O My God. I have completed the work of redemption. If Thy justice is satisfied, "I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am." John 19:30; 17:24. The voice of God is heard proclaiming that justice is satisfied. Satan is vanquished. Christ's toiling, struggling ones on earth are "accepted in the Beloved." Ephesians 1:6. Before the heavenly angels and the representatives of unfallen worlds, they are declared justified." DA 834.3.
Creation and redemption meet in Christ. "He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, 14 in Whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist." Colossians 1:13-17.
E J Waggoner says this about this text: "So the preaching of the everlasting Gospel is the preaching of Christ the creative power of God, through Whom alone salvation can come. And the power by which Christ saves men from sin is the power by which He created the worlds. We have redemption through His blood; the preaching of the cross is the preaching of the power of God; and the power of God is the power that creates; therefore, the cross of Christ has in it creative power. Surely that is enough power for anybody." The Everlasting Covenant p. 18.
Going back to Steps to Christ p.47 the rest of the quote says, "You cannot change your heart, you cannot of yourself give to God its affections; but you can choose to serve Him. You can give Him your will; He will then work in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure. Thus, your whole nature will be brought under the control of the Spirit of Christ; your affections will be centered upon Him, your thoughts will be in harmony with Him…. Through the right exercise of the will, an entire change may be made in your life. By yielding up your will to Christ, you ally yourself with the power that is above all principalities and powers. You will have strength from above to hold you steadfast, and thus through constant surrender to God you will be enabled to live the new life, even the life of faith." He is the One that does the creative work and by faith we surrender to His work.
We understand that the old covenant and the new covenant both have two applications: historical and experiential and both are needed. Israel's covenant with God in Nehemiah 10 was much like Israel on Mount Sinai. What they said was good, but God's observation was, "Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!" Deuteronomy 5:29.
The experiential application of the covenant is righteousness in the life by the faith of Jesus Christ. Paul understood this as did Jeremiah.
"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith of the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me." Galatians 2:20.
"Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for Whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith of Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; Philippians 3:8,9.
It is important to note that both Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:10-12 say the same thing. "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 11 None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. 12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more." Hebrews 8:10-12.
"Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;". Philippians 1:6