The Local Church (2)
Graham Hobbs, Bognor Regis, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
In this study we shall view the Jews who . had returned from captivity, considering them collectively as a company of the Lord's people. Spiritually, and in a general sense, we have "come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem ... to the general assembly and church of the firstborn", Heb. 12. 22-23. Here there are pictures of, and lessons for, local churches of believers, present-day companies of the Lord's people. Notice five distinct phases:
1. Desolation — a city exposed.
2. Prostration — a captive exercised.
3. Formation — a construction erected.
4. Restoration — a congregation energized.
5. Deterioration — a company entangled.
1. Desolation — a City Exposed.
The initial zeal which had marked the response to the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah concerning the rebuilding of the temple, and the re-establishment of worship and testimony, had not been sustained. It had long since vanished. Nehemiah's informants presented a sorry state of affairs—"The remnant that are left . . . are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire", Neh. 1. 3. There was nothing to prevent the Jews moving in or out of the city at will, thereby allowing a casual attitude and slackness in spiritual observance and exercise. In that situation they could not be clearly identified as the people of God. Similarly, there was nothing to prevent enemies moving in to cause physical and spiritual harm.
From a study of chapters 7-11 we can deduce that, although the temple was in existence, the Word of God was neglected, religious observances were overlooked, no proper record of the people had been kept, there were mixed marriages, there had been a failure to praise God and remember His mighty power, and many people had moved away from Jerusalem, making it virtually impossible to continue with temple activities. Perhaps if applied in totality to any one local church today, this picture may be too harsh. But the elements should serve as warning signs, or desolation may not be as far away as we imagine. Is there an eagerness for the study and exposition of the Scriptures, individually and collectively, in your assembly? Are the Lord's ordinances and' other commands being fully obeyed? Do we praise and pray corporately as we should?
The walls and gates should have provided a bulwark against the enemy, and a controlled means of exit from, and access into, the city. The walls suggest the unchanging teaching of the Scriptures about the local church, while the gates speak of opportunities for gospel outreach and the bringing in of those who are being saved, Acts 2. 47. Is your local church losing its distinctive character, as compromise with Christendom or the world is taking place? Erection of "walls" around the assembly is sometimes mistaken for exclusivism, but a proper use of the "gates" will safeguard against that possibility. It is a divine pattern which we ignore at our peril, putting the future of the assembly at risk.
2. Prostration— a Captive Exercised. Although the people themselves may have had neither the desire nor the ability to change the situation, God nevertheless prepared one of His servants to discover and meet their need. In the previous study we thought of Nehemiah as a picture of Christ, but we shall now see him in his personal capacity as a captive, one of the people. Although far removed from Jerusalem at the time, Nehemiah ascertained the needs of God's people there, and showed his concern in subsequent prostration, prayer and self-denial before God, over a period of days. He associated himself with the people's sins, and we notice his compassion for them as he pleaded with God on their behalf. Despite being servant to a heathen monarch, his personal consecration to God was very evident. His prayer life, whether meditative or "telegraphic" in character, clearly demonstrated his faith in God's ability. Before setting out for Jerusalem, he had a vision of what was needed—credentials from the king and specific materials.
We might remind ourselves here of the apostle Paul who had "the care of all the churches", 2 Cor. 11. 28, even those whom he had never seen —"I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you . . . and for as many as have not seen my face", Col. 2. 1. How valuable, and rare, are those men of God who exercise perceptive spiritual vision who pray before they pronounce, who make provision before they arrive!
While it was most necessary for God to raise up that devoted leader, the task envisaged was far too great for a "one-man ministry". At Jerusalem he took a few men with him, discreetly to assess the need —men to share the burden and to help remedy the situation. How rewarding it must have been for Nehemiah to hear them say, "Let us rise up and build", Neh. 2. 18. It is vital that in each local church there should be men of God prepared to share spiritual burdens, striving together for spiritual prosperity. The Lord has wisely ordained plurality amongst the elders and workers of His assemblies. Let us not be deflected from this pattern, either through expediency or compromise towards others.
3. Formation — a Construction Erected. This phase is characterized by building and battling. Those who built on the wall were such that "every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon", 4. 17. Following Peter's great confession Christ said, "upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell (Hades) shall not prevail against it", Matt. 16. 18. But it was not long before Satan commenced his relentless battle to thwart Christ's purpose. Almost immediately he caused Peter to oppose Christ, "Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee", 16. 22. Likewise, Paul viewed Christian life as building and battling, I Cor. 3. 10; Eph.6. 10.
In the building operations it is interesting to note the variety of workers who participated—over forty individuals and/or groups of people are mentioned by name in Nehemiah 3. What careful planning and co-ordination of effort was needed!action and human volition. The enemies "perceived that this work was wrought of our God", Neh. 6. 16; "So built we the wall . . . the people had a mind to work", 4. 6. In assembly life today there is scope for all to play their part, for we are the "body of Christ, and members in particular", 1 Cor. 12. 27. Each member has a responsibility to carry out his or her function. We must recognize too, that, while the Lord must "build the house, (or) they labour in vain that build it", Psa. 127. 1, a readiness on our part is needed to "stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel", Phil. 1.27.
We observe that the battling had two distinct aspects—external foes and internal problems. The main foes depicted represent that evil trinity which always opposes the work of God—the devil himself, the flesh, and the world. There was Sanballat ("the enemy in secret"), Tobiah the Ammonite (descendant of the fleshly line of Ben-Ammi, the result of Lot's incestuous union with his younger daughter), and Geshem (corporealness, or materialistic). In the previous study we examined their tactics. They did not see the necessity of walls and gates, and when the work was under way they made fun of it, referring to "these feeble Jews", Neh. 4. 2. Those who have fought for the recovery and maintenance of New Testament church principles through the centuries have experienced similar tactics, both from the world, and from professing Christendom. Church history tells its own vivid story of those who have suffered physically, mentally and spiritually because of their determination to be true to the Word of God. The local church in Asia Minor which received the highest commendation only had "a little strength", Rev. 3. 8, but they did have Christ's power granting them an "open door". Are we in danger today of exchanging "a little strength" for an outward display of all-embracing power?
The internal problems were brought about through discouragement and dissension. At one stage the people said "we are not able to build", Neh. 4. 10. Dissension among the people was caused by those who had possessions, taking advantage of those less favoured. As we view the Lord's work today we need to remind ourselves that "without me ye can do nothing", John 15. 5, but also that "I can do all things through Christ which strengthened me", Phil. 4. 13. In His perfect wisdom the Lord has ordained variety, both in individual talents and possessions on the natural plane, as well as in spiritual gifts. It is vital to see that in no way, materially or spiritually, do we take advantage of one another, lest we cause division and hindrance in he work. We sometimes need a wise and willing Nehemiah to resolve problems in a conciliatory, spiritual manner.
4. Restoration — a Congregation Energized. In the second of these studies we observed three distinctive elements which marked a revival among God's people —a return to the Word of God, a renewal of the worship of God, and a dynamic working of God in their hearts and lives. Suffice it to say here, once an assembly is firmly established, there must be a constant appeal to the Scriptures for guidance and authority, devoted worship, and a positive response in personal life to divine principles and precepts.
5. Deterioration — a Company Entangled. The revival was short lived once the man of God departed. How heartbreaking it must have been for Nehemiah, on his return, to discover the conditions that prevailed. Not only had there been compromise in personal and domestic life, but an alliance had been made between the high priest and Tobiah (the "flesh"), the latter even being accommodated in the temple! Neh. 13. 4-5. There was more concern for commercial success than for consecrated service.
As spiritual declension and apostasy increase, we are caused to think of the Lord's words, "when the Son of man cometh, shall he find (the) faith on the earth?", Luke 18. 8. May the Lord help us to be truly separated in our personal lives, and give us grace and spiritual perception to prevent fleshly ideas corrupting scriptural principles in assembly testimony. May our sincere prayer and desire be:
Keep us Lord, O keep us cleaving To Thyself, and still believing,
Till the hour of our receiving Promised joys in heaven.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Graham Hobbs is retired training manager and is now in fellowship with assembly in Bognor Regis. His written and oral ministry is appreciated in England and he also regularly visits Albania where he is involved in Bible teaching.