(Sermon preached by Rev Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 17 June 2012)
- Romans 12:1-8
- Nehemiah 3 & 6 (selected verses)
- “Sing we the King”
- “When I survey the wondrous cross”
- “The price is paid”
- “To Him we come”
- “May God’s Blessing”
My dear brother and sister in the Lord Jesus Christ,
When I take wedding services and get to that part in the Form for Marriage where the Bible says, “Husbands, love your wives”, and explain it is a command, the smile on the groom’s face usually tells me that I don’t need to tell him that. It usually is as if he would say, “I don’t need to be commanded; I already do that! It is the most natural thing.” And when the guests rave on about the beauty of the bride and her gown, and hardly or never say anything about the groom, he just smiles; because he knows it’s not about him, it’s her day to shine.
When Paul writes to the Romans in and say, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you”, he doesn’t mean to say, “think nothing of yourself”. What he means is, think of what you in Christ.
What he has in mind is what the groom knows when the guests only refer to the bride: not that she is everything and he is nothing, but considering his love for her and her glorious appearance he delights to take his place as her husband.
Paul starts this chapter with these words, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1, NIV). What does he say? He means all that he has said in Romans 1-11 is a description of the mercies of God. Listen to Romans 3:26:
“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25–26, NIV)
Or listen to this statement: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1, NIV)
When he writes the first verse in chapter 12, he says:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1–2, NIV)
“In the view of God’s mercy”. Everything in chapter 12 flows from God’s mercy through the heart that is broken because of its sin. Once one has experienced the mercy of God, having been saved by grace, without any merit of the person, one looks at the beauty of Christ and forgets himself, just like the groom looks at the beauty of the bride and forgets about himself. In other words, “think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you”.
The working principle
It is like the prisoner charged with murder and ready to receive death sentence, and then to receive mercy and to walk away free. More than that (as John Piper describes it), the Judge who had mercy on you, takes you by the hand and promise to walk with you, provide for you, love you, protect you, and hold your hand till the last day of your existence on the face of this earth, and then take you into glory – forever!
A new mindset
So, when Paul begins verse 3 with, “For by the grace given to me…” he himself knows about and experienced that grace as “the chief of sinners” (1Timothy 1:15). He then lost himself in this grace and devoted his whole life to spread the Good News about Him who had mercy upon him. For this reason he could write and say: offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. And this type of living, living as living sacrifices to God, requires a different mindset. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
The old mindset is the opposite: it sees itself as in control of its own destiny it seeks to look for its own interest, it loves itself, it pleases itself, it hates the next person and always thinks higher of itself than it thinks of the next person. The new mindset in Christ is different: it seeks to serve in humility, it tells about the love of Him who saved unconditionally, it contributes to the furtherance of the Gospel, it is merciful and it is cheerful. In short, it doses not live for itself, but it realizes that it is but part of a bigger whole, of which it has a specific, but important part, to contribute.
Part of a body
This then is what Paul means by,
“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith” (Romans 12:4–6, NIV)
All members in Christ’s body must be loving, serving, exhorting and cheerful. All must tell of the wondrous grace in Christ, and all must be able to teach (at least) the basics of the Christian faith.
But not all of us are equally good in doing these things. God has gifted people in different proportions. So, when some are called to specifically be teachers, or ministers, or deacons, or elders, He wants us to constantly remember that, although these are specific gifts to his church, all other members also have different gifts to be used to the benefit and up-building of the body of Christ. When one is for instance a better missionary than others, no-one should envy that person as if they themselves are nothing. I believe humility can sometimes just be a polite way of showing off. Something like, “I don’t tell others about the Gospel, because I know others are better than me!” This is to boast in your humility; and besides it is just a weak excuse for being lazy. Spurgeon once said, “The power that is to fight and overcome sin is never described in the Word of God as the natural goodness of human nature.” I think what he means is that walking the Christian life is like exercise, you can only get better at it be practicing it.
When the Bible then calls us to use our gifts, it reminds us to always keep in mind that by grace we were saved, and it is by grace that we should serve one another. The most basic attitude of the serving Christian is humility: always remember not to think of yourself more than you ought to think.
If you are good with words, don’t look down on the stutterer; if you have money, don’t look down on the one who cannot give as much as you can (besides, your $1,000 in God’s eyes as equal to the $5.00 of the widow); if you can sing, don’t consider yourself better that your tone-deaf brother, because although he can’t sing or make music, he might be excellent in computers and audiovisual stuff to write programs or design equipment for people to record the Bible and messages to be used on mission fields. Just do what God wants you to do to glorify his name, being saved by grace, using your gifts as part of the body of Christ.
So, how do we know what our gifts are? Do we have only one gift? What about being a member of a church where my gift might not be necessary? Reading the Bible, and understanding what the apostle is saying in this chapter, I think we would do well to understand this: all members in Christ’s body must be loving, serving, exhorting and cheerful, all must tell of the wondrous grace in Christ, and all must be able to teach at least the basics of the Christian faith. So, go do these things diligently, and in the process you will understand what you might be good or not so good at. What God has prepared for you to do now, in these circumstances, is by divine appointment. Do it well, in all humility to his glory and to the benefit of others. In practicing what you are doing, get better, growing into the full stature of Christ, and live to his glory. And God might have something else in store for you if He puts you in different circumstances: then you will once again in humility seek to serve Him and the rest of the body, and maybe develop other skills.
We are a body with many parts and we need one another to function well. This is how God planned it.
Let’s now just see how this principle was used by God’s people who returned from exile out of Babylon.
In the 586 B.C. Jerusalem fell and the people of Israel were taken into captivity to Babylon. Seventy years passed, and then the Lord called them back as He had promised through the prophecy of Jeremiah. They arrived in two major groups under Ezra and Nehemiah. God provided for them what they needed to restore the Temple and the city walls. We read in Ezra 1 that God stirred the heart of the godless King of Persia, Cyrus, to let the people go back to Jerusalem. He put out a decree which reads: “And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:4, NIV)
Add to this the other gifts of those whom God stirred their hearts to give, “All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.” (Ezra 1:6, NIV). They arrived in Jerusalem in 458 and 445 B.C., only to face hardship and opposition from those who had settled in the land during the seventy years of captivity. Under Ezra they rebuilt the temple and under Nehemiah the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt.
We look at Chapter 3 of Nehemiah, not to give a lesson in history, but to draw principles of how the people of God were working together to the glory of his Name. As people living on this side of the cross of Christ, we do not build physical buildings, but we build the Kingdom of Christ which is a spiritual temple. We build together, using the gifts the Holy Spirit apportioned to us.
Nehemiah sets the tone for the rebuilding process in 2:20, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you [his opponents], you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.” (Nehemiah 2:20, NIV)
Turn to Nehemiah 3.
Who took part in the rebuilding of the walls?
There were the High Priest and the priests (v. 1-2); there were Levites (v. 17); there were goldsmiths and perfumers [something like pharmacists] (v. 8), officials (vv. 9, 12), and merchants (v. 32). Some lived in Jerusalem and others came from afar. Verse 2 tell of those from Jericho, which was down in the Jordan Valley, quite a difficult and most possibly dangerous road to walk. Others were from Tekoah (v 5), which was a town a good distance south from Jerusalem in the mountain areas; others were from Gibeon and Mizpah (v. 7) north of Jerusalem, others were from Keilah right to the south-west of Jerusalem (v.17). There were women (v. 12).
What do we learn from this: beginning with the priests (let’s call them ‘clergy’!) all the people of God are involved in the Kingdom of God, whether rich, poor, free, ruling class, woman, or even from on class. They build together, they build under the instruction of appointed and gifted leaders and according to a plan. They are one in mind and in spirit, and they have one goal: to complete the work.
How did they rebuilt the walls?
We find the word “next to” repeated all over this chapter. Because they built together, they could complete this mammoth task in only fifty two days (6:15)
Some did more than others: Those from Tekoah completed two sections (v. 5, 27) so did others in v. 11, 19, 21, 24, 27, 30.
Some only did only what they could: they repaired the wall in front of their houses (v. 23).
With total commitment:
“So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.” (Nehemiah 4:6, NIV)
Under severe oppression and hostility:
“They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.” (Nehemiah 4:8, NIV). Were you perhaps of the opinion that work in the Kingdom of God is without opposition? This is not so! It’s dangerous, it calls for self-sacrifice, diligence and an undivided heart.
By doing nothing, some pulled down
Some looked for reasons to give up:
“Meanwhile, the people in Judah [this is most probably a reference to those Jews who remained in Israel during the captivity, but still identified with those who returned] said, ‘The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.’” (Nehemiah 4:10, NIV) There are the pessimists, and those who see the dark cloud rather than the silver lining. 4:12 tells of those who looked at the enemy, rather than focussing on God.
Some refused to build:
The nobles of Tekoah, unlike their brethren who did more than their part, refused to take part. One commentator is of the opinion that as members of the upper class, they had established business or personal friendships with the non-Jews of the surrounding territory. They may have believed that the building of a wall was an unwise, provocative act on the part of the Jews—an act that would only increase hostility. Or possibly they worried about reprisals if they contributed to Jerusalem’s defence. There will always be people like them, taking it safely while others stick out their necks for their safety.
Some were the enemy from within:
Just read Nehemiah 6:17-19 and you will see how some Jews actually worked together with the enemy and caused division. For such there is no place in the church of Christ.
How did they manage to complete the work?
They remembered God and loved one another: Nehemiah reminded them of this great truth: “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” (Nehemiah 4:14, NIV) We are called up for duty in this battle – you with your part to contribute, and I with mine. Together, each doing his bit, we look after one another, pray with one another, support one another, and together under Christ we conquer.
Listen to 4:16-18: “From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. ” (Nehemiah 4:16–18, NIV) Some were committed to the work from dusk to dawn (v. 21) and together they stood 24/7 till the work was completed.
Through prayer: Many times in these chapters we see Nehemiah in prayer before God. How can we ever think to conquer if we do not seek strength at the feet of the Commander-in-Chief? The page of Church history is littered with men and women who won the battle on their knees.
They cared for the poor: during this time there was a drought and the people were stricken with famine. Governor Nehemiah set the example and fed 150 Jews from his own pocket (5:17) while he called on others to look after the poor (v. 11). We should never get so busy that we forget those in need. Caring for them is part of the building process. It calls, once again, for self-sacrifice; it might call to literally live on less to provide for those who don’t have – only to discover that our own jar will not run dry under the blessed mercy of God. This is to think “not according to the pattern of this word” which teaches us that we can only be happy in materialistic self-fulfilment.
What was the effect of their work?
Just one verse:
“When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.” (Nehemiah 6:16, NIV)
This reminds us of the church in Jerusalem after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit: outsiders held them in awe. More about this next week.
The audio of this sermon can be heard on http://sermon.net/wwpc