Today is Pentecost. It is recognized as the birthday of the church. It is the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and they stood up to proclaim Jesus and Him crucified. Not just crucified but raised from the grave and ascended into heaven.
Typically, on this day we read from Acts the 2nd chapter. We have done this several times before. In reality, I prepared today message for a Sunday back in January when we had snow and ice and did not have a service. The message is about people receiving God’s word and how they reacted.
I firmly believe the Holy Spirit lives within us and has several jobs like comfort us, help us pray, and guides us in all truth. I do not believe that the Holy Spirit shares anything that is not in harmony with the revealed word of God as found in the Bible. I do believe that the Holy Spirit works with the Bible to convict us of our sins and to prompt us to align with God’s will. Today’s message looks at a time when the people of God had been exiled and not heard or read the words of God. They are hearing them read and they are moved.
God has always wanted us to love and honor Him above everything else. This is the basis on which any service to God must be built. We have already discussed that all of the laws and commandments rest on our love for God and then our love for our fellowman. So, what does it mean to love God? How do we know we love God?
I dare say that most of us had several relationships as we grew up. We may have felt that we were “in love” with some of those early relationships before we finally found “Mr. or Mrs. Right.” As we matured, we realized that love requires that we know something about the object of our affection. Even after marriage, we continue to learn more about each other and our love grows each day. However, some marriages fail. We could analyze the reasons for a marital breakdown. Perhaps in the most elementary terms the lack of communication leads to unfaithfulness, misunderstandings, or other problems. We find that God often speaks of the unfaithful nature if His children in similar term to a marriage. As God looked at Israel (in the times of Hosea), He placed the blame on Israel’s failure to stay connected with God’s laws.
Jesus clearly tells us something about loving God: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. (John 14:15 NASB) We know that Jesus is God in the flesh, so, loving Jesus is loving God and our love rooted in keeping His commandments. John repeats the same idea in his first letter where we read: Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. (1 John 5:1-3 NASB)
John, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, tells us what loving God involves; this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments.
When we fail to keep His commandments, we allow something or someone else above God. God has deliberately tried to help us understand how He views any departure, on our part where we fail to place God first.
We look at the history of Israel and find the recurring theme describing the failed relationship between God and His people. God tells us that He views this as an adulterous relationship in a marriage.
This theme of an adulterous relationship is the basis for the first minor prophet, Hosea. Most of us are aware of the first minor prophet Hosea. He warned the Northern Kingdom (Israel) of the coming exile into Assyria. He warned them that they had violated their side of the covenant with God. We may remember that to illustrate this breach of contract, Hosea married a prostitute who continued to be unfaithful to Hosea. This demonstrates how the unfaithfulness of Israel toward God is viewed in similar terms as a violation of the marriage contract. This infidelity toward God has its consequences.
In the 4th chapter of Hosea, we read these words: Listen to the word of the Lord, O sons of Israel, for the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of the land, because there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land. There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows (Lit. touches) bloodshed.
This sounds like a commentary of our times. God pronounces His judgement in the 6th verse. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. (Hosea 4:6 NASB)
Lack of knowledge is the root cause of the estrangement from the life God designed. Lack of knowledge leads to destruction. Lack of knowledge in how God describes the situation outlined in the first verses of Hosea the 4th chapter.
Earlier, we read that our love for God is integrated into our keeping His commandments. We now have reached the heart of the matter. How can we keep His commandments, when we don’t know His commandments? How can we know His commandments, when we fail to read His word to learn His commandments?
We are all aware that both Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Judah ended up being taken in to captivity. The Assyrians took the Northern Kingdom into exile and later, the Babylonians took Judah into exile. Those were dark times in their history.
When the children of Judah were allowed to return to their homeland, the began to rebuilt the temple. They were ready to reconnect with God. However, they had lost connection with His word and the laws contained in that word. This brings us to our main scripture for this morning. Let’s turn to the 8th chapter of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah had been granted permission to return to Jerusalem to oversee the rebuilding of the walls around the city. When the wall was completed, Nehemiah took a census of those returning from exile (Nehemiah 7).
And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law. (Nehemiah 8:1-3 NASB)
So, on the first day of the seventh month, they gathered together to hear the reading of the book of the law of Moses. This day coincides with the civil new year. It was also the celebration of the Feast of Trumpets which was a solemn assembly and cessation from labor.
This gathering was an extremely important event as noted by the presence of women and children. They were not normally included except for solemn occasions.
Notice they stood up, as customary, during the reading from the law. Also note that meant they stood up for approximately 5 hours. I find it especially noteworthy that they listened attentively.
Most of us find it difficult to sit on padded pews for an hour. Some are bothered if the service extends beyond an hour. That is enough of my commentary, let’s return to the gathering in Nehemiah the 8th chapter and pick up with verse 5.
Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord the great God. And all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. (Nehemiah 8:5-6 NASB)
In reality, the “book” was a scroll. Books did not exist until much later. As mentioned earlier, it was customary for the people to stand during the reading of the Torah.
We are accustomed to a very sterile and rigid worship service. We like it to be very quiet and peaceful. We are not ready to worship like we just read. People lifting their hands toward heaven and bowing low to the ground. Certainly, we are not ready for people to saying “Amen” aloud where others can hear. I mean, didn’t Paul tell us to do things “properly and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40)? Yes, he did. However, we see that our saying “Amen” shows our feelings of agreement. It is an appropriate congregational response as we just read and it is approved again by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:16.
So, we return to Nehemiah the 8th chapter beginning with verse 8.
They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.
Let’s stop for a moment right here. We see they translated the Law so the people could understand what the heard. Most of these people had returned from exile. The exile lasted nearly 70 years and some of the people no longer knew or understood Hebrew so the Law had to be translated into a language they could understand, likely Aramaic.
Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:8-10 NASB)
Hearing the Law read was an emotional time. When we hear that we are living contrary to the Law of God, we may have remorse. We should not remain in a posture of grief. Rather, we should be moved to change and rejoice that God has revealed to us what He desires from us.
For the people gathered in Jerusalem, they were told to celebrate the hearing of the Law and to gain strength from the Law.
When we read or hear the word of God today, do we listen for areas of our life where we may need to change? Are we moved, emotionally, by hearing God’s word revealed to us today? God does not accept our ignorance as an excuse for failing to follow His law. We need to realize that His love for us has given us the means of knowing His will (Bible, preaching, Sunday school, etc.) and the path for salvation through Jesus. How do we respond?