“Let us rise up and build.” (Nehemiah 2:18)
Building a wall can be a good thing or a bad thing. G.K. Chesterton reminds us, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up.” A church with no walls quickly begins to look like the world. And a church with no access quickly ceases to become a church. Like I said, a wall can be a good thing or a bad thing. For Nehemiah, a wall was a good thing: after Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonian empire (586 BC), not much if it was left. Nevertheless, over a century later, Nehemiah found himself serving as the faithful cup-bearer to yet another conquering authority: Persian King Artaxerxes. No kingdom. No wall.
The walls of Jerusalem were the pleasure of God. David delighted in God’s erecting them: “build up the walls of Jerusalem.” (Ps. 51:18) 600 years later, by the grace of God, Nehemiah was sent back to restore the former glory of Jerusalem. It was a task that sparked the hopes of an exiled people. A task in which he enlisted other Israelites to help: “Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem.” (2:17) So Nehemiah set out to build the wall despite considerable opposition. And he accomplished just that, not coming down until his work was finished. (6:3)
After the wall is built in chapter 7 and before Ezra reads the Law in chapter 8, Nehemiah immediately gives two orders: (1) The entrances to the city are to be heavily guarded. (2) And the people are to be assembled. (7:3,5) Here in these two tasks we catch a glimpse of Israel’s supreme purpose: (1) To remain unstained from the Gentile world. (2) And to unite as God’s chosen people, a light for the world to see. (Lev. 20:26, Isa. 2:2) Israel was set apart to be a light unto the nations. (Isa. 49.6) And Nehemiah’s wall ensured that. The Israelites knew it. And so did their enemies. (Ezra 4:12, Neh. 6:9)
However, instead of using God’s holy Law to bow before a Gracious King and set an example for the world, Israel imbibed a spirit of self-righteousness. To the Apostle Paul, it was obvious: “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.‘” (Rom. 2:23-24) Spiritually, God’s people were as filthy as Gentiles. No stone-walled army could purge them of their sin. And this was a far cry from their intended destination: the word ‘Jew’ comes from the Hebrew name ‘Judah’ which means ‘praise.’ Israel was meant to be the praise of God. But instead, many hoarded themselves behind a wall and indulged their arrogance. In Jerusalem, exiles became Pharisees. Prophets became martyrs. (Matt. 23:37)
NEHEMIAH BUILT A WALL, NOT A CHURCH. Remember, Nehemiah’s task was geopolitical and spiritual. Despite Persian rule, the wall was built to keep pagans out and to keep a purified people in. God’s ultimate design for Jerusalem was for the world to come and see His holy mountain. At Pentecost, we see that the Jews living in Jerusalem at that time were in fact “devout men from every nation under heaven.” (Acts 2:5) God gathered the nations in order to pour His Spirit upon His church and send them forth into the world with the message of Christ. Despite its stiff-necked leadership, Jerusalem was the springboard for the Gospel. “And many nations shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:2) Jerusalem was indeed the original ‘City on a Hill.’ But as we see in Acts 2, the church operates a bit differently. We do have a light. But that light is to go forth into darkness.
OPEN DOOR POLICY. The Old Testament is a ‘COME AND SEE’ religion. God wanted Jerusalem to be a light unto the nations, and for those nations to behold His glory. The New Testament, on the other hand, is a ‘GO AND TELL’ religion. In breaking His body, Christ broke the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile. (Eph. 2:14) Consequently, He now commands His servants not to sit behind a wall, but to “go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt. 28:19)
A MODERN-DAY NEHEMIAH. There’s a temptation in every church to construct walls that keep ‘foreigners’ out and ‘holy people’ in. But that was Nehemiah’s job. Not ours. While the church is certainly to be a “light unto the world” (Matt. 5:14), the purity of the church is never its primary means of evangelism. The spoken Word is. Christ’s church doesn’t achieve God’s saving purpose by building walls to keep sinners out. We’re commanded to go. And bring unclean people inside so that they can hear the message of Jesus and be cleansed by His blood! We don’t exalt ourselves for being God’s people. We debase ourselves. We simply recognize that Christians are sinners who have admitted to having a serious sin problem…and have asked for grace. We don’t need stone walls. We stand on the Cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20)
The dying church. One of those beautiful sanctuaries where the only new faces are newborns. Where they talk more about the past than the future. Where the average age is more than the average attendance. So often churches die slow, stubborn, bitter deaths because they choose to become modern-day Nehemiahs rather than Pauls. They exchange the Great Commission for Nehemiah 2:8: “Let us rise up and build.” The only walls outside a church should be the ones made out of brick and mortar. To be clear, church discipline demands that God’s people be set apart. But a church that seeks to imitate Jewish foreign policy doesn’t remain a church for very long. Nehemiah had his task. We have ours. Don’t just let the people come. Get off your high hill and go tell it on the mountain.