We are holy not because we are perfect. No, we are holy because God has set us apart for a special purpose.
I remember back when I was just saved. It was in 1984. I was in the Marine Corps and had experienced things that made my salvation experience very real and emotional as well as spiritual. I decided that every Sunday I would do nothing except read my Bible and go to church. I had decided that Sunday was special and I would reserve it for the Lord out of a grateful heart.
What I didn’t realize is that I had recognized the meaning of the word holy. In both the Old Testament and New Testament, the idea of being holy is one of specialness – of being set apart from everything else – rather than the idea of being perfect. That is an idea that we, as the Church, need to remind ourselves daily.
Here in Nehemiah 8:9-12, we see the effect of Ezra’s reading the Law to those gathered. It was devastating. And I mean devastating in a good way. The people were crushed. They were humbled. They were reminded of the true meaning of being holy.
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. Nehemiah 8:9 NASB
The first thing that leaps of the page at me is the fact that the people here were weeping. Now remember that this wasn’t just a few people. There were upwards of 50,000 folks there. And they were weeping. Imagine that for a moment. There are fifty-thousand souls gathered to hear the word of God read and explained. After that has been accomplished (and probably during the reading) the people were weeping. Fifty-thousand people weeping. Imagine the sound. It must have been beautiful to hear. Why beautiful? Yes, why beautiful indeed.
Their weeping was in response to the Law being read and explained. They had just been crushed by the beauty of God’s word and the ugliness of their sin. They more than likely understood why they had experienced the ruin and destruction of the recent past. No it wasn’t a petty god playing with them. It wasn’t the schemes of Satan hammering them. They realized that it was their own thoughts and attitudes that had brought them low. God promised them exile if they didn’t obey Him. They didn’t. God kept His promise. But God also promised them restoration if they repented. They did and God kept His promise.
They were crushed by the beauty of God’s word and the ugliness of their sin.
The weeping here is the recognition of all that – and probably more. When we hear of God’s goodness – when we experience it – we are reminded of it – what other response can we have? And when all that is brought to our mind in spite of our own thoughts and actions…well, weeping may be too tame a word to describe what our reaction should be.
Have you ever been brought to tears after hearing the word of God preached? Have you ever been brought to tears after hearing how God restored you (or a loved one) to a right relationship? Or how about watching a brother or sister in Christ being sanctified before your very eyes? Have you ever wept over the effect of God’s word on you and others? I hope so.
When we see the culture crumble around us and it defy God’s holy word we should be brought to tears. But we should also be brought to tears as we see God working miracles in spite of the crumbling culture.
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 8:10 NASB
Nehemiah, who had already declared that the day was holy – completely set apart for the Lord – once again instructed the assembly not to weep or grieve but to celebrate. Let’s consider this for a moment in our own lives.
When we are confronted by our own sin – when we understand the gravity of our rebellion – we should weep. And celebrate. We should celebrate because we are aware of the sin and shame of our thoughts and actions. We should celebrate because God obviously is working on us still. He hasn’t (and won’t) abandon us to our own devices and vices. This is a great reason to celebrate.
Joy is independent of circumstances while happiness is totally dependent on circumstances.
Nehemiah ends this verse with the oft-quoted “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Our strength is found in the Lord not ourselves. His joy – which He is eager to give us – is beyond our comprehension. Now joy must not be confused with happiness. Joy is independent of circumstances while happiness is totally dependent on circumstances. So if we experience the joy of our Lord, no matter the situation we find ourselves, we can be joyful. After nearly thirty years as a Christian – and fifty-on years of life – I may be on the brink of understanding this. How about you? Have you found that living in the joy of the Lord is where your strength exists. Please, don’t look at your circumstances to be encouraged. Look at the Lord. Look at what He has done on your behalf. Your sin is gone. Regardless of what happens in your life, if you’re a Christian your destination is sure. You will live an eternity with Him as His friend.
So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” All the people went away to eat, to drink, to send portions and to celebrate a great festival, because they understood the words which had been made known to them. Nehemiah 8:11-12 NASB
The Levites, who were the priests in God’s Temple, came to comfort the people. They reiterated the need to rejoice and not grieve. This was the most important thing the Levites could do in order to give comfort to the people.
The people had been confronted with their sinful thoughts and actions through the reading of the Law. They were obviously cut to the heart. They wept, they grieved. They responded this way because of the illumination of their sin when the Law was read and explained to them. The Priest come on the scene and tell them to go forward and celebrate, share food and rejoice. The reason the Levites said do this is because the people had understood the Law as it was read and explained to them. This is important for us.
If we ever want to be moved along in the process of progressive sanctification, we not only need to hear the word of God taught, preached and explained but also we must understand it. Reading and hearing isn’t enough.
Well the first thing we can do is study. We must be diligent in seeking to understand what the word of God actually says. To do this we must be part of a Bible believing fellowship that teaches the word of God. There are plenty of churches around us. Some are liberal and some are conservative. Those are easy to find. The hardest church to find is one that teaches what the Bible is rather than a pet interpretation of it. When you find a church that does that, stay there.
Next we need to submit to those who have gone before us. Yes I know that takes humility. We need to get over ourselves and realize not one of us has all the answers. We need to look toward those who have more experience, knowledge and wisdom to help us understand.
Third, and most importantly, we need to actively seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance. This is so often neglected. We must – MUST – seek His help in moving towards Christlikeness.