Resisting the Enemy’s Tactics – Nehemiah 6

“Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.” (Nehemiah 6:14 ESV)

Since the days in the Garden of Eden, Satan has shown himself to be a cunning, crafty, conniving enemy, bent on deceiving and destroying God’s people. He has not stopped – we see his activity throughout the Old and New Testaments and we are called to recognize it today. James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil and he will flee.” Paul talks about not wanting to be “outwitted by Satan” by being “ignorant of his devices” (2 Corinthians 2:11). And Peter warns, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

Our studies in Ezra and Nehemiah have illustrated this point vividly. Chapter after chapter, we find the enemies of the people of God trying to thwart the furtherance of the Kingdom of God. Our text this Sunday, Nehemiah 6, is no different. Once again, the Enemy shows up immediately after a victory. The wall has been built, the breaches have been fixed, the work was a success, and it was almost completed. Before the final touches of the gates were installed, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Gesham show up again, hoping to stop any further progress.

Remember, we are admonished to be aware of Satan’s devices. In this narrative we find at least three specific tactics of the Enemy: distraction, distortion, and deception. Nehemiah proves his leadership capability by recognizing these tactics and then resisting the Enemy. One by one, these darts are fired but they miss their target.

We may not find ourselves building literal walls, but like the people of Nehemiah’s day we ought to be engaged in work of the Kingdom of God. As we work, we should anticipate opposition. Let us not only be mindful that opposition is coming, but be vigilant and wise, understanding the tactics of the Enemy that we may overcome in the power of the Spirit of God. The Enemy will still distract. He will still distort. And he will still deceive. But, praise God, “greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world!” (1 John 4:4)

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The Ark of the Lord – Exodus 25:10-22

Last time we entered a new section in Exodus wherein the Lord instructed Moses how to build the Tabernacle beginning in chapter 25. After first directing Moses how the offerings were to be collected, the Lord then instructed Moses on the dimensions and materials of the Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark holds a prominent place in history recorded in the Old Testament. It was this Ark that held the Commandments written with the Lord’s own hand (Exo 31:18). The Ark led the people through the wilderness (Numbers 10:33-36). The waters of the Jordan River parted as the Ark was carried into the river so Israel could pass through on dry ground (Joshua 3:13-17). The walls of Jericho fell as the Ark was carried around the city seven times (Joshua 6:6, 20). And in our text (chapter 25:10-22) the Ark also takes up a prominent place in the Tabernacle itself. One might suppose that a description in the construction of the Tabernacle would begin with the Tabernacle itself, but the Lord starts with a description of the heart of the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant; in fact, the Ark is what the Tabernacle was made for. It was here that the Lord would meet with His people, as Exodus 25:22 describes.

The Ark of the Covenant had at least two purposes: First, to hold the commandments the Lord would give Israel (25:16); and second, to house the mercy seat, which covered the Ark (25:17-22). Further, in Leviticus 16:11-16, the Lord tells Aaron to make a sacrifice and place the blood on the mercy seat to make atonement for sin on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The word for “mercy seat” in Hebrew is kapporet, which is related to the word Kippur, meaning to atone or propitiate. This word is translated in the Greek version of the Old Testament, hilasterion, which is the same word ascribed to Jesus in Romans 3:25: whom God put forward as a ”hilasterion” a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” At the cross, Jesus is the final atonement; He is our mercy seat! In this way the Ark of the Covenant points us to Jesus Christ and His once-for-all, final, perfect sacrifice.

 

 

The Outcry of the Powerless – Nehemiah 5

“Now our flesh is as the flesh of our brothers, our children are as their children. Yet we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but it is not in our power to help it, for other men have our fields and our vineyards.” (Nehemiah 5:5 ESV)

Derek Thomas begins his comments on Nehemiah 5 with the following:

“Foreclosures…corporate greed…mortgage crisis…laissez faire economics…government interventionism…lending fees…fiscal liquidity. No, those aren’t headlines from this week’s newspaper, though they might well have been. They actually summarize Nehemiah 5.”

You may recall the triumph of our last narratives in the book. On Easter Sunday, for example, we considered the resurrection of the wall in the face of opposition and with materials that seemed all but dead. Yet in God’s power, motivated by God’s word, the people of God arose and built. Once again we saw the enemies’ plans fail.

But Satan was not done. He does not want to see the people of God advance because he knows what that means for his domain. Perhaps the most powerful weapon in his arsenal is division. And here in Nehemiah 5, we see an internal conflict that could be more disastrous than any threat from the outside.

Some of the Israelites had to give up their property, including their own children, in order to afford to live in Jerusalem. Furthermore, they were charged interest by the own kinsmen, which was not only overbearing, it was in direct violation of God’s word (Deuteronomy 23:19-20)! These burdens created a power struggle within the community, with those exacting interest on top and those at the bottom feeling powerless.

The powerless cried out to Nehemiah, who in turn prayed to God and came up with a solution. He called the leaders to repentance, and by the grace of God they did repent. Nehemiah’s swift response to the problem is a reflection of the character of God, who is jealous for the unity of his people. Furthermore, Psalm 34:4 says, “I sought the Lord and he heard me.” Many times in life we, too, will feel overburdened and powerless. We will go through times of injustice and conflict. But God delights in answering the cries of his children!

When you are distraught, it’s ok to cry. But do not let your crying turn into bitterness or complaint. Cry out to God, who takes pleasure in answering his people.

 

The Disciples’ Trial – Matthew 26:69-27:10

On the eve of the Passover, after Jesus celebrated the meal with his disciples, he told them that they would all stumble because of Him that night (26:31). Specifically, he prophesied that Peter would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed (26:34).

Arguably no disciple was placed higher in the gospels than Peter, and almost no disciple fell lower. No one argued his loyalty more vehemently, and no one denied Jesus more repeatedly. Earlier that morning, Jesus was arrested, bound and taken to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, under the cover of darkness; Peter followed at a distance (26:58). During these early morning hours, while Jesus was confronted with three verbal threats (false witnesses, valid witnesses, and Caiaphas, 26:59-63), Peter was also being tested three times. While Jesus stands up for truth in the courtroom, Peter caves into the pressure in the courtyard. As Jesus’s prophetic office was being mocked by the Sanhedrin (26:67-68), ironically, his prophecy of Peter’s three-fold denial was coming to pass outside.

We can learn much from Peter’s testing that night. John Calvin wrote, “Peter’s fall, here described, brilliantly mirrors our own infirmity. His repentance in turn is a memorable demonstration for us of God’s goodness and mercy. The story told of one man … teaches those who stand to take care and caution; it encourages the fallen to trust in pardon.” Like Peter’s trial, tests of our own discipleship do not often happen when we are at our best, but they come upon us unexpectedly and from the unlikeliest of sources. When at last the rooster crowed, it was like a wake-up call to repentance. It was then that Peter remembered the Word that Jesus said (26:75). Remembering Jesus’s Word has changed and can change and save disciples. God’s amazing grace was demonstrated by the fact that Peter was restored and used mightily by God.

The same cannot be said of another disciple; Judas’s death and Peter’s denial are set in contrast. Matthew is showing us the difference between a remorse that repents leading to renewal, and a remorse that ruins. While Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (26:75), Judas “went out and hanged himself” (27:4). Though Judas demonstrates some signs associated with repentance, unlike Peter, his heart is not broken but despairing. While a broken heart longs for forgiveness, a despairing heart only thinks of what one can do for oneself.  When both hearts hit bottom, one realizes it is powerless and repents, the other tries everything else.

 

 

Offerings for the Tabernacle – Exodus 25:1-9

We’ve come a long way since we began our journey in the book of Exodus – from Israel’s bondage, to their being set free by the Lord on the Passover night, to their wanderings in the wilderness through Sinai, until they arrived at the mountain of the Lord. At the mountain, the Lord appeared to Israel powerfully as they came under another covenant which was made up of laws God’s people were to live by.

But there is more to what God revealed to His people on Mt. Sinai than the law. In chapter 25, the Lord will now reveal to Moses and the people how they are to build the tabernacle. These instructions will cover most of the remaining chapters of Exodus—a total of 13 chapters! To put this in perspective, only two chapters are devoted to the creation of the world and all living things, and four chapters are devoted to the law itself. This section on the tabernacle is one of the largest sections in scripture dedicated to one topic; the Lord has providentially given us a large in-depth description of the tabernacle and its construction.  That said, this is not a section of scripture that is high on most of our lists to study. Our new section opens up in chapter 25 verses 1-9, which takes place as Moses is on the mountain alone with the Lord. We left off in chapter 24 with Moses on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. Chapter 25 opens: The Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give.”

The offering that God requires is described in very specific detail in verses 3-7 of the chapter.  Yet, while the offering is very specific, they are commanded to give from their hearts! The main purpose of the sanctuary was so that God may dwell in their midst. The people needed to understand that their giving was ultimately to the Lord, and that would also benefit them. The section ends in verse 9 with a description of the Architect of the tabernacle. “They are to build it exactly as I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle, and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.” The Lord Himself is the architect of the tabernacle!

 

Jesus on Trial: The Jewish Trial – Matthew 26:57-68

On the same evening of the Passover, after praying in Gethsemane, and having been betrayed by Judas, Jesus was bound and brought to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest. It was the post-midnight early morning hours, and by now the disciples have scattered, just as Jesus prophesied in the Upper Room earlier that evening. Only one disciple, Peter, followed at a distance to watch the events. The so-called trial took place in three phases, the first two being completed in the very early hours of the morning; this was illegal according to Jewish law, which only permitted trials during daylight hours.

In verses 57-63, deposition of (false) witnesses was sought that would incriminate Jesus with blasphemy. After some time, two witnesses announced that they heard Jesus say, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.” Ironically Jesus did make this statement in John 2:19, but because their testimony did not agree (Mk 14:59), it was overthrown. Up to this point in the trial, Jesus remained silent, refusing to defend himself. Frustrated and angry, Caiaphas made a bold and devious move that changed the direction of the proceedings. He came right out and directly asked Jesus to swear an oath telling if he was indeed “the Messiah, the Son of God.” This was a crafty challenge, for reasons we will discuss on Sunday.

Curiously, Jesus finally spoke up and answered Caiaphas’s challenge in verse 64, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” These powerful words drawn from Daniel 7:13-14, became the turning point of the trial. Caiaphas and the judges did not misunderstand that reference – they had the blasphemy they were waiting to hear, and their indictment was that Jesus’s crime was worthy of death. He would be officially charged and sentenced in the morning (27:1).

Imagine that you were Jesus’s defense attorney at this trial; could you defend his claim to be the Messiah and the Son of God? On what texts would you build your case? One could go to any number of witnesses from the Old Testament to show that Jesus was the Messiah; but how about “the Son of God?” What do the following texts reveal about this title that Jesus claimed? (Ps 2:7, Is 9:6, Is 7:14, Ge 16:13, 18:13, 17, 26, Dan 3:25)

 

The True Man and true men – Matthew 26:31-46

In the final three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, we have been seeing how the events leading up to and including the Passion of Jesus Christ are intensely dramatic, only occasionally relieved by pleasant interludes. Once again in our text, no sooner have the disciples celebrated the gift of the Lord’s Supper and finished singing the triumphant Hallel psalms, than Jesus breaks the mood with a prediction of their complete collapse. Jesus foresaw that His shameful betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion would so scandalize the disciples that they would all lose their faith. Identifying Himself as the shepherd of Zechariah 13:7, Jesus said, “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” And indeed, this very night, all of his disciples would utterly deny and forsake Jesus Christ, thus demonstrating the weakness of all humanity.

Throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, the heroes of Scripture are rarely from among God’s people; Israel, the church, disciples, religious folks are almost always painfully fragile – even those who appear most adamant in their dedication. Our text unashamedly displays the weakness of humanity, as the spokesman for the twelve and arguably the most dedicated apostle, Peter, affirms that his deeply felt commitment for Christ would last forever; but in fact, Jesus tells him that it would not even last the night. “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” But despite his and all of the disciples’ failure, Christ promises that He is not finished with them. Despite our sins, weaknesses, failures, and even denials, Christ will never leave or forsake His people.

Nowhere is the human weakness of the disciples contrasted with the strength of Christ more clearly than in the garden of Gethsemane. While the scene in the garden that night teaches Jesus’s true humanity, as we find Him confused, depressed, and even fearing death; nevertheless, His poise and resolve to carry out His Father’s will, prevail as He anguishes in prayer. While Jesus overcomes His grief through prayer, the disciples are found sleeping. Instead of being watchful in prayer, they did not find prayer very important. The result of Gethsemane is that Jesus emerged confident to face the trials that lay ahead of him, while the disciples were unprepared for what came next, and ended up forsaking Jesus in His most difficult hour.