Parallels Between the Reformation and Nehemiah 11 & 12
I — Particular Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 11:1-2; 12:27, 43-47
II — Introduction: October 31st is a great day…a day when we in the church get dressed up as Martin Luther and go around to other churches who aren’t preaching the true Gospel, and nail 95 complaints and remedies to their doors, telling them they need to get their act together, just like Luther did at the church at Wittenberg, Germany….ah, those were the days….
Okay…not really. But…October 31st is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther (who actually did dress up as Martin Luther) finally having his fill of the Roman Catholic Church charging people money for religious favors (indulgences) so that it could lavishly improve its shrine to itself in Rome (St. Peter’s Basilica).
Luther was a part of the RC Church, as a monk, priest, and university professor for several years. His devotion to Scripture, in preparation to teach it to students brought him to see in it something that had been hidden and clouded by the RC hierarchical structures for roughly a millennia.
(Special note): Here we must make the vital distinction between many souls who are part of the Roman Catholic Church, and yet discern the truth of Scripture where the true Gospel is concerned; and the essential falsity of general Roman Catholic teaching, in which it literally “hides” the Gospel of Christ under the veil of the cruciality of its traditions (in addition to Scripture) for eternal salvation. Therefore, this is why I specifically speak in terms of “hierarchical structures” (church polity and doctrine) rather than individual souls. In this way, the value and strength of the polemic here—a value which is actual and historical, as opposed to opinion—consists in the vein of “love the sinner, hate the sin.” This entire message is intended to see the situation as God sees it, and to follow His commands in the Mosaic Law, to the best of our ability, in Deuteronomy 25:13-19, which, in brief, is: Love what God loves and hate what God hates. (type in “Deuteronomy 25” to the search engine on this site, for my article that explains this law principle more thoroughly)
This something Luther found was so crucial, that, according to him (and many lesser-known men who came before him) it was the difference between eternal life and eternal torment. That something Luther found in poring over the scriptures day-after-day was, in fact, the Gospel. Not the false gospel of giving everything one had to the church and bowing before the lordship of the church, as a means to be in right standing with God; but instead the true Gospel, which teaches that Jesus Christ gave all He had to make us the Church, and to save us from God’s wrath, and all of this by faith in Him, not in the church itself.
So how does this 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church connect to our teaching of Nehemiah 11 & 12, and why is all of this so important for us to know and assimilate into the DNA of both our personal lives and that of this new church of ours? We’ll get to that this morning; but let me say this, to prime us for what we’re about to engage: If the Reformation had not occurred, the truth of the Gospel would still be hidden and clouded to countless generations of people today—only to be discovered by those few who, like Luther, committed their lives to the rigorous and constant study of God’s Word. Our church, right here, right now, would likely not exist.
Our DNA then, does now, and will continue to consist of those Reformational doctrines that freed the Church with the truth of God’s glorious Gospel, when it had been bound—held prisoner—for so long, by so much false doctrine. We will not be a better church than others, as it were; we will be a church constantly striving to seek the truth in love, so that we fulfill Christ’s command to be a “City on a Hill…a light to the nations”… a remedy for an extremely anxious culture! A culture we’re part of!
III — Theme: So a connecting theme between Nehemiah 11 & 12 and the Reformation of the Church 500 years ago, looks like this: Each contain elements of renewal and revolution, which begin and end with a return to a proper, biblical knowledge of and belief in God; and a naturally-resulting proper, biblical worship of God.
IV — The Setting In Nehemiah 11 & 12
- These two chapters are fraught with lists of names! Let’s just say first, that, when we see exact numbers and names, and titles, etc., in Scripture, we can be certain that we’re reading an historical record of what actually occurred; which, in turn, means that the author wants to prove that the story he’s telling is, itself real.
So, when we skip over these sections in our teaching, we certainly don’t mean to imply that the lists of names aren’t important…just that, for public reading, under most circumstances, it can get, shall we say, rather tedious!
- That said, chapters 11 & 12 are, in fact, a full crescendo of everything Nehemiah has taught us in this historical record so far. You guys know about the “crescendo,” right?
- Along with the renewal of the community of God’s people in and around Jerusalem—because they’ve rebuilt the walls and are now refurbishing the Temple—there is the reordering of God’s community.
- Jewish settlers—both those who remained during the captivity into Babylon and Persia, and those who came back from Persia (like Nehemiah, himself)—are being organized into groups of those who live inside the walls of Jerusalem, and those who live in the surrounding areas outside the walls.
- I won’t spend a lot of time on the significance of the actual placement of the people, except to say that, if you volunteered or were chosen by lot to live inside the city (11:1-2), your faithfulness to God’s calling to be part of His covenant community was being severely tested.
- First of all, most of Jerusalem during the exile was uninhabited by God’s people, as they had either gone into exile far away, or had moved to the outer areas into the country to avoid mockery and violence from those like Sanballat and Tobiah, who had taken over the city after the dispersion.
- So, if you moved back into the city, whether voluntarily or by lot, you were uprooting everything you had established elsewhere, in order to re-establish God’s city. As well, you put yourself in danger of continued mockery and violence from those who, as we’ve seen so far in Nehemiah, want nothing more than to see you removed from Jerusalem or dead.
- Now, along with the city itself being reorganized, the Temple, more importantly, was also being reordered, in terms of the quality of its teachers, ministers, doctrine, and practice. We’ll use this concept, as the primary connection between Nehemiah 11 & 12 and the significance of the Reformation of the Church 500 years ago; but first, let’s address the mindset of Nehemiah and the leaders of God’s people, as far as why they instituted reorganization in the midst of this renewal…
- Mark Roberts says that a “proper reordering of the settlers in Jerusalem, as well as the reordering of the Temple ministry, would, in their minds, prolong the renewal of God’s city that began with the rebuilding of the walls and the Temple, and culminated in the signing of a covenant.” (per chs 1-10)
- So there it is: The reason Nehemiah and the leaders chose to reorganize and reorder the city and the Temple was to see the renewal endure.
- An application we can make here, to our time, is that, we have a tendency at times to think that too much structure and organization within the church hinders the deeper spirituality of the church. This certainly can be true, and often so. However, Nehemiah shows us here, that the concepts of renewal and order/organization do not necessarily conflict with each other; as long as the two concepts are approached from a strong understanding of the Word of God, and its application to every situation of life. In fact, Nehemiah would say, on the contrary, that renewal leads to order and organization.
- This will be a theme, of sorts, which the Reformation will also employ in the establishment of God’s people within the Church. In other words, whereas the traditional RC Church order did conflict with the deeper spirituality of God’s people, the Protestant Church’s order and organization would not (theoretically). We are a Protestant Church, and our intentions will always be that of the Reformers: Lead people to Christ with as few hindrances of tradition as possible; always exalting the Word of God as the primary means by which that leading is done. Tradition can be extremely important….until it usurps the authority of Scripture, at which point, it has outlived its usefulness.
Thus, as we move now, to the necessity of the Reformation, it’s important for us ask a question on the heels of what we just said about tradition: Just as Roman Catholicism is a tradition, isn’t being “Reformed” also just a tradition? If so, why should we spend time talking about it with such passion? I’m glad you asked.
In Nehemiah 12:44-47, we see the people reinstituting the order of the worship of God “in accordance with the command of David and of his son, Solomon.” Those commands were from men who saw absolutely zero value in traditions, in-and-of themselves; but instead established traditions which exalted God and His Word above all things.
So, just as Nehemiah and his people harken back 500 years into their history to find the purity of how God commands them to worship Him in Spirit and in truth—the product of which will be to prolong the renewal of God’s work among His people; we too, now look back 500 years into our history to find precisely the same purity of worship that has prolonged, even to this very day, the Reformation of the Church of Jesus Christ.
In terms of traditions, the RC Church had, by the time of Luther and the Reformation, become so locked within its own traditional mechanisms, that it could not see outside of itself. Its operation was far outside the bounds of Scripture, and Luther knew it—having once been part of it. It was the basis of his 95 Theses. Tradition then, was and is the primacy upon which the Roman church stands, and it has not changed very much in all of its existence.
In contrast, the Reformed tradition has always said this about itself: “Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda,” which means, “The Church reformed, yet always reforming.”
This indicates that our tradition is not the most important or most informative aspect of why we are who we are. The tradition itself is bound to change to varying degrees, because it relies solely on Scripture to change it, and thereby conform the Church into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).
V — The Reformation: Our Heritage
A — Intro
- Just as the spiritual revival and renewal in Nehemiah’s time came with the rebuilding of the city and the people’s re-engagement with the living Word of God; so the Reformation began and flourishes today because of its commitment to what it terms “Sola Scriptura.” That is, “The Christian Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice.”
- As we said earlier, the means of both eternal and current life were long hidden from the people by a church institution that often had no idea it was hiding that gift.
Again, it had just gotten so caught up in its own system (and still is today), that it couldn’t see that its own ideas had eclipsed the revelation of God. It thought then and thinks now, that its teachings are superior and that sinful souls can only be saved from God’s wrath if its traditional prescriptions are followed.
B — An Analogy of Bloodletting
- Think on this illustration: I’m sure the analogies will fall short somewhere here, but—Perhaps the most common form of medical practice for 2000 years, until the end of the 18th Century, was that of Bloodletting. Nearly every culture did it, in order to prevent or cure illness and disease.
- However, even though so many cultures for so many years had practiced bloodletting as an everyday, common approach to better health; the majority of cases were historically detrimental to the patient’s health. In fact, many people died from it. George Washington is a classic example. Essentially, he died from being “bled” because of a tracheal issue he developed. He eventually was bled to the point of hypovolemic shock. Since then, we’ve discovered many simple and effective methods to treat illness and disease without the false and fatal medical practice of bloodletting.
- Yet, for 2000 years, physicians really thought they were helping their patients with this doctrine and practice! Only when doctors later discovered God’s original design for the body’s chemistry and recovery, did the practice of bloodletting become exposed as false and deadly.
- Finally, to wrap up this illustration of how false doctrine and practice lead us to death and how the discovery of truth leads us to life—
—it is noteworthy, that even today, bloodletting is still a practice undertaken by many so-called physicians around the world. And the results are still the same…people die from false doctrine and practice.
- The practice of bloodletting today is considered a “pseudoscience;” that is, a false science, in that it claims to practice the truth, even when undeniable facts have been presented against it! And yet it won’t listen to truth, and thus, it still persists…and it still kills.
- So the question must be, why would the world still follow traditions that claim their own authority superior to that of what is proven otherwise?
- The Word of God is truth because the author of the universe says it’s truth. Whom shall we believe? The Reformation default is to believe in God through His Word. Sola Scriptura indeed.
C — The Merits of the Reformation
- At the heart of the Reformation of the Church—just as in the reformation of Nehemiah’s time—was and is the meaning and application of the Word of God, and in so doing, the imparting of life, both eternal and earthly.
- Timothy George says, “The Reformation was essentially a religious event; its deepest concerns theological.”
- Here we must remember that the definition of theology is not what many have made it out to be in the last hundred years—that is, that it’s old and outdated, irrelevant Bible “stuff” that practical people can’t use and don’t care about…that it’s just meant for those (like myself) who are geeks for academic briefings in God’s Word. No, that’s not even remotely what “theology” means.
- When Timothy George says that the Reformation’s “deepest concerns are theological,” he isn’t saying anything different than what Nehemiah’s concerns were. “Theology” means, The study of what the Word of God teaches and the application of it in real life.
- That was and is the concern of the Reformation, as it was with Nehemiah
- In terms of the darkness in which so many generations had lived under a false gospel, one Christian philosopher called the Reformation “an all-consuming sun, which followed that day-break at the end of the dark Middle Ages (speaking of the fact that the Reformation soon followed what is known as “Medieval Theology”)
- Scottish theologian William Cunningham said that “The
Reformation was the greatest series of events that have occurred since the close of the canon of Scripture itself.”
- Finally, it’s pretty huge for us to consider that, the heart behind the Reformation of the Church was so passionate about the Word of God for all doctrine and practice in the church and in life, that this period produced more martyrs in the faith than all previous persecutions combined, since the early church.
They were serious about what they stood for: The absolute glory of God in Christ, found in His Word; and all for the Church to know who she really is….that she is the bride of Christ, Himself! They were ready to die for Christ just as He had died for them. That’s passion about truth.
VI — Conclusion: We owe much of this conclusion to Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers.
Whether we’re studying Nehemiah’s time of reformation, or the Reformation of the Church itself, those reformers, like Luther and Calvin, and others, who rediscovered the Word of God for the Church are indeed our fathers in the faith and they are our brothers in the community of the faithful (that is, whatever church body you find yourself to be part of). Their struggles and doubts, their victories and defeats, are also ours today.
Many of the theological issues with which the original reformers wrestled seem far removed from our contemporary concerns. We tend to think that much of what they fought for is trivial and even irrelevant. For most modern Christians the intricacies of predestination, the precise mode of Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist, and the arguments for and against infant baptism are matters of acute indifference—that is, they ultimately don’t matter, in the minds of many of us. But let’s think again, not so much about what they were arguing, but why they were arguing points such as these, which seem so small and devisive to us today. But we must live by the truth that, Theology Matters!
The real truth is that, concealed within the arguments are points which raise burning questions of earthly and eternal life and death, even for common people who could care less about theological matters. These are questions of Who God is; How His revelation comes to us; and What really makes His Church true or false? The reformers faced these and many other questions, with a biblical integrity and lived-out courage that can admire and imitate, even if we can’t always agree with all of their answers. That is the biblical dynamic of the true Church.
An ancient theologian once said, “We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants; thanks to them, we can farther than they could. We busy ourselves with studying the true Gospel which they rediscovered, and we take their choicest thoughts, which have been buried by age and human neglect, and we—in our time, today—raise up that Gospel, as it were, from death to renewed life.”
Finally, as we close, in terms of how relevant a teaching like this is for us in our time, when the world is moving so fast, and there are so many issues that appear to need our tangible hands and feet, such that any discussion of theology seems counterproductive; we would do well to remember this:
“The reformers of the Church were able to accomplish what they did because they were alive to the deepest struggles and hopes of their age. By tapping a profound reservoir of spiritual yearning, the reformers affected a major change in the religious sensibilities of the culture around them. In this sense, the Reformation was, at the same time, both a revival and a revolution.”
For our own serious reflection, in light of this message, I ask: Are we alive to the deep struggles & the spiritual yearning of the culture we live in & are a part of? Are we learning & applying the Word of God in such a way as to affect the change we’re supposed to?