Renewed zeal for God’s covenant follows on the heels of spiritual revival.
Zeal for God’s covenant—what is that? Zeal for the covenant is when it pulsates in the hearts of Christians that they are made the friends and servants of God by grace, through the blood of Jesus Christ. And they stand in awe of His Word: “I will be thy God, and ye shall be My people.”
We fall, as Christians, as God’s people, into the sin of spiritual stupor, of becoming complacent, indifferent, detached, resentful, and apathetic. Covenant renewal is when we are, by the Spirit, made alert, thankful, committed, devoted to live in a bond of fellowship with our God—a bond of fellowship that will be seen in faithful marriages, Sabbath-keeping, deeds of mercy, and devotion to God’s house.
Renewed zeal for the covenant follows upon the heels of spiritual revival. In chapters 8 and 9 of Nehemiah, we are told of a spiritual revival among God’s people that brought them back to the Word, back to worshiping God, back to humility and confession of sin. How did that revival happen? Was there some principle of church growth at work here? No. It was sparked by a man who arrived in Jerusalem, a man named Nehemiah, who was not a preacher. But he was a man who sought the welfare of God’s people. Under his determined and godly leadership, the core of which was an unshakable trust in God to do what God had called him to do, the walls of Jerusalem were built and things were put in order. Then, under Nehemiah’s direction, a pulpit of wood was erected and the Word of God was preached faithfully to the people. And the people of God began to worship in the light of God’s goodness. They confessed their sin and sought God’s mercy.
“And because of all of this,” we read (Neh. 9:38), “we make a sure covenant, and write it.” Then we read further, in chapter 10:29, “We will cleave to our brethren and will enter into a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law.” Because of this spiritual revival they were brought back to a renewed zeal for godly covenant living, for living as children of God, as friends of God, through grace in Jesus Christ. They would be zealous for this covenant specifically by maintaining godly, faithful marriages, by observing the Sabbath day, by doing deeds of mercy, and by being devoted to God’s house.
Let us look at that. I speak to you today on “Covenant Renewal.”
The people of God, under Nehemiah’s leadership, now recognize the horrible indifference to the covenant that had characterized them since returning from captivity in Babylon. (The covenant, you remember, is the bond of living fellowship and love in which the people of God stand in relation to God. It is established by God’s grace in Jesus Christ.) After the initial excitement of returning from Babylon seventy years before under Zerubbabel, they had begun to realize the extent of the struggles that they would have as a beleaguered people of God. A dead orthodoxy spread among them. A mere outward going through the motions, a taking for granted, a complacency began to characterize them. With it came materialism. They set their heart on the earthly and on the treasures below. And they tolerated prevailing sin.
God sent prophets, Haggai and Malachi, to prod them into repentance. And now God’s people, at the time of Nehemiah, see their sins in the light of God’s goodness, as we have pointed out to you in the last two messages in that beautiful ninth chapter of Nehemiah. And because they have seen God’s goodness and have seen their sin and their need of God’s mercy, they say in Nehemiah 9:38, “We make a sure covenant.” Not a new covenant. Not for the first time. But a vow to be faithful to the covenant, the covenant that was established by God with them. For God had made a bond of love with them—the same bond that exists right now in God’s bond of love for the church, for us. God’s one glorious covenant.
This covenant in the Scriptures is not of human origin. That is, the bond of love and friendship with God is not a bond that arises out of the soil of the earth. It is not like a plant poking its way through the earth and then catching God’s eye and then heaven responding to earth. No. This covenant comes down. “I will establish My covenant,” says the heavenly One. “I will be your God, and ye shall be My people.” This covenant is established with us through the cross of Jesus Christ, not as a result of men bartering with God and seeking to come to an agreement whereby the two of us can, after all, get along a little bit. But it is of God’s grace that He condescends to choose us to be His friends and to work graciously in us. Jeremiah 31: “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and they shall know the Lord.” The covenant is God coming down in His grace to sinful men and women, working in them according to His mercy, and drawing them close to His own heart.
The people of God in this covenant in the days of Nehemiah want to renew that covenant. They want to affirm that covenant. “We make a sure covenant,” they say. “We give a fixed resolution that we will live our life as the friends of God on earth. We write down exactly what we vow and pledge before God. And we set a seal to it (that is, we sign it),” they said. “Put my name down there; record my name.” And we read that there were twenty-two priests, seventeen Levites, and forty-four princes who vowed and wrote their name.
What is the fact, then, that is revealed in the tenth chapter of Nehemiah? This fact. When spiritual revival, worked by the Spirit, moves among God’s people, when their hearts are pricked, and when they are awed over the majesty of God and lost in wonder and in awe over His mercy, the result will be that they shall be resolved henceforward to live in covenant faithfulness to God. In simple language, when you know God as God and you experience pardon and compassion to you the sinner, you will be resolved, you will be determined, you will be devoted in your life to live in all the parts of your life as the friend of God in Christ.
This points out to us that, as Christians, we battle the sin of spiritual callousness, of the loss of zeal for God as our Friend. Among the great enemies of our Christian faith is the sin of complacency, especially if we have been brought up, by God’s mercy, within the confines of the church and covenant of God and raised among the blessings of the gospel of grace and showered with His goodness. So readily will our flesh make this outward, and we will begin to excuse ourselves of our sins of drinking, of swearing, of dishonesty. Spiritual decline, you know, is seldom a blowout. Most often it is a slow leak. Renewal of the covenant must be brought when the gospel pricks our hearts and humbles us as sinners.
We can also grow indifferent to the covenant because of discouragements and struggles as we seek to live a faithful life. We say, “What’s the use? The problems are insurmountable.” Or materialism can erode our zeal for the covenant of God. How many Christian homes in the day of prosperity have parents who are teaching at home—fathers who are serious about teaching their children? With all of the materialism, with all the things, with all the greed, how often are not the lives of Christians characterized by selfishness and bickering because things, possessions, and money become the object of the heart? Oh, we need a renewal of the covenant. We need to see God as our treasure. We need to see that the only thing that matters is the relationship in which we stand to Him.
Let us take note that when there is spiritual revival, that is, when the Word of God is truly living and moving among the people of God, they will be resolved from the heart to live a God-centered, covenant life as friends of God.
Now in the days of Nehemiah, they did not leave it to generalities, but they nailed it down to some specifics. They said, first of all, that our renewal of the covenant, of being friends of God in this world, will be seen in our marriages. We read in verse 30 of chapter 10, “And that we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons.” The first particular that they mention concerning how they shall live as the friend of God is that this will be seen in their marriages. Why? Because whom you marry and the spiritual life of your marriage have everything to do with your enjoying the fellowship of God. That is because of the crucial place that God has given to marriage and the experience of His covenant love. Whom you marry affects profoundly your relationship to God. God has made life’s most intimate bond, marriage, a picture of a higher bond—His covenant. This truth controls marriage. This truth shapes marriage. This truth is to be applied to every dimension of marriage.
That means marry only in the Lord. That means live in marriage even as God lives with His people. Your marriage must be characterized by forgiveness and by faithfulness. You must seek someone who is loyal to God and marry that person. And you must be faithful, even unto death, to that person.
It means, young men, be men of God, be spiritual. Prepare yourself for marriage. As you date, you must show sensitivity to God and to His law. You must know how to treat her already when you are dating her. You do not take liberties. You do not drag her around like some trophy. You develop a relationship with her through prayer and through the Word of God and through reading the Word of God with her and through praying with her.
And, girls, you need to look for a leader. Not just a leader, someone who pulls you around. But you must look to that leader who brings to you the care and the protection of the living God. You have to look to his life as he lives before God. Is he subdued and is he a loyal servant of the Lord Jesus Christ? This is absolutely crucial for your marriage. The very first thing that will be seen when the covenant is loved among God’s people and they are living in awareness of God’s covenant is that they establish God-centered marriages to which they are faithful until death do them part.
The second evidence of the covenant renewal of the people under Nehemiah was seen in Sabbath-keeping. We read in verse 31: “And if the people of the land bring ware or any victuals on the sabbath day to sell, that we would not buy it of them on the sabbath, or on the holy day.” That is crucial, too—how we observe the Lord’s Day. Why? Because there is also an intimate and inseparable connection between Sabbath-keeping and covenant living, between how you keep Sunday and how you live as friends of God your whole life. There is an inseparable relationship between them. The Sabbath is the special day of friendship and fellowship with God. It is the day when you are released by your master (God) from your earthly obligations so that you can come home and enter into His presence and commune with Him and give the whole day to fellowship with Him. The purpose of the Sabbath is covenant, that you might enter into a special bond, a special time, of fellowship with God.
The people in Nehemiah’s day were vowing something about their friendship with God. They said that this friendship with God will mean that they would not engage in commerce, would not buy wares of the people of the land on the Lord’s Day. The Lord’s Day is not a day for shopping at the mall, browsing through the shops, and comparing prices and styles and clipping out coupons. It is the market day for the soul. You may, on the Lord’s Day, buy, peruse, clip out, and store up all the wares, all the good things, all the valuables of Jesus Christ. It is the day that you are to come home, enter into Father’s house, where mercy waits and He will talk with you.
The Sabbath is also a wonderful witnessing opportunity for the covenant of God. The Christian shop owner closes up his shop once a week. Your neighbors see you on the way to church. You haul the kids into the van and the neighbors watch you leave for church. You witness to them. You leave them in no doubt that you have an allegiance to God, an allegiance that is first. You say, “My allegiance to God transcends business interest. It transcends and is greater than domestic concerns. It is more to me than social obligations. It is more to me than a beautiful day at the beach.” You say, “My God counts. My God is best!” Twice a Sunday. You leave a witness.
But when you allow more and more of the world to enter into your life and you come to Sunday either totally exhausted because you have given everything to the things of this life, or you allow the actions of this world to affect your Sunday, then, on Monday morning, you have to talk to your neighbor (or co-worker) and say, “You know, my God is wonderful.” You have to say that—because it is not apparent to them that your God is wonderful. It is not apparent to the world that God is wonderful if Christians despise the Lord’s Day, make the Lord’s Day as any other day. Then the witness that the Christian is leaving with the world is not that God is wonderful, but that God really does not matter.
The third thing that showed the Jews’ renewal to the covenant was this, that they were going to express their spirituality in selfless deeds of mercy. We read in verse 31 of chapter 10 (I am paraphrasing now), “And this we will do. We will show mercy to those who are indebted to us.” And that mercy that they would show (we will not go into the details) was, of course, the reflection of His love. When you are resolved to live a covenant, faithful life, then you will have mercy toward one another in the Lord Jesus Christ. A good barometer of the reality of a heart toward God is how one stands toward his brothers and sisters and whether he is sensitive to their needs. Do you say, “Well, I got mine, let him get his.” Or: “He hurt me, I’ll get him back.” Or: “I’ll just withdraw from the whole business.” If you bear a grudge, if you view them all as sinners because of what they did to you, if you are ruled by jealousy and are judgmental, that is sin.
No, when we stand in the covenant of God, then we say, “I will forgive. I will put the best construction on the actions of others. I will want them to prosper.” And we will go out of our way to show mercy and kindness.
And, fourthly, covenant renewal in that day of Nehemiah was seen in renewed devotion to the church. We take that from many verses in chapter 10 in which they say, “And we will not forsake the house of our God.” They will be devoted to the house of God. Devotion to the church is intimately tied to living as God’s friend in the covenant. Why? Because, above all other things—above marriage, above Sabbath-keeping, above deeds of mercy—above them all, it is in the church that God draws near to us in worship. There is where He comes down. Children, where is the spot on earth closest to heaven? On this side of the grave, what is the spot closest to heaven? It is the worship of the church. That means that if you are to live as the friend of God in this world, you must support the church, you must be involved in the church.
And the people of God in Nehemiah’s day became very specific at this point. They said, “We will bring in offering, we will bring in wood, we will bring in bread, we will bring in the firstfruits.” They recognized their responsibility to give, to contribute. They supported the church.
The people of God in Nehemiah’s day are again renewed to covenant faithfulness in their life. “We make a sure covenant,” they said. “We write our names and we seal unto it (we sign it) as an expression of our personal resolve, by the grace of God. We seal it, we are vowing.”
This was the result of God’s grace among them. The fruit of God’s grace among you is that you make a commitment that you shall live as the friend of God—in your marriage, on the Sabbath, by showing mercy, by being devoted to the church and to the house of God. You will sign it. You will say, “Put my name down. Count me in.”
This is the commitment that comes when the Holy Spirit sparks true, godly revival in our hearts. Because He has forgiven us and has had compassion upon us and has become our God, we pledge to live as His friends in marriage, Sabbath-keeping, deeds of mercy, and devotion to the church.
This is blessing. For to live as the covenant friend of God in love and fellowship with God is a life of hope and joy and peace. It is the beginning of eternal life.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word and we pray that this same renewal of living as the friend of God may so characterize our lives. May it come down to the specifics of our lives that we live in marriage faithfully, that we keep the Lord’s Day joyfully, that we perform deeds of mercy humbly, and that we are committed to Thy church on earth enthusiastically and with our all. Grant us this grace, in Jesus’ name, Amen.