Chief among the graces that are found in Jesus Christ is love for the church. When God saves us by Jesus Christ, He works in us at that same time devotion to the church. There are many examples of this in the Bible. The apostle Paul loved the church. He endured so much from the hands of those outside of the church and, sadly, very often from those who were within the church. He says in I Corinthians 4, for example, that he endured hunger and thirst; he had no certain dwelling place; he was persecuted; he was defamed; and he was made to be the filth and the offscouring of the world. Why? He answers: “For you, for the church, I endure these things.”
The Old Testament saints loved the church as it was represented in Jerusalem, the holy city of God. We read of that love, for instance, in Psalm 137: “If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; may my right hand forget her cunning if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.”
And what need have we for further example, if we look to Jesus Christ Himself, who loved the church? We read in Ephesians 5 that Christ loved the church—and He gave Himself for her.
Love for the church must also be seen in us. Love for the church will always be seen in self-sacrifice. In fact, it can come in no other way than in the way of self-emptying. We are, by nature, always concerned about ourselves, our own importance. But if we are to love the church and live in the body of Christ, that has to go. It has constantly to go. If we are to live in the church and love the church of Jesus Christ, we must be characterized by the grace of humility. The apostle Paul puts it this way in Philippians 2: “Let each esteem the other better than himself.”
That love for the church will be seen not only in humility, but in other things as well. It will be seen in involvement in, and willingness to use my gifts for the good of, the whole body of Christ. It will mean that I want my life to center in the church. It will mean that I will be concerned about healthy evangelism—a desire that others may be added to the church if God so will, and if not, that the seed of the truth may be planted for God to bear fruit in His good time and according to His good will. We will speak to our children of the privilege of belonging to the church. And we will speak well of the members of the church before our children.
Why? Why do we love the church? And why did this man Nehemiah (whom we have been following for the last few messages) devote himself to the church, to the cause of God on earth? The answer is this: Because the church is the glory of God in the world. That was true for Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day. It represented God’s word and promise in the world. For this reason Nehemiah gave his all for her well-being. He came to seek the well-being of God’s people.
Today we are going to learn that Nehemiah labored mightily to see that Jerusalem would be reinhabited. Having completed the walls, having set things in order within Jerusalem, and having seen a great spiritual revival and a renewal of the covenant among the people of God, now Nehemiah sees to it that Jerusalem herself is filled.
This act had been foretold by Zechariah the prophet. Zechariah, who predated Nehemiah some fifty or sixty years, in the eighth chapter of his prophecy foretold of the day (v. 5) that the city of Jerusalem would be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof. In today’s message we witness Nehemiah’s great work given to us in Nehemiah 11:1-12:27, his work of seeing to it that Jerusalem was repopulated.
It was a major problem, of course, for Nehemiah to have God’s people actually live in Jerusalem. Jerusalem had been laid waste by Nebuchadnezzar a hundred and fifty years before. Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers had done a thorough job. They had left ruinous heaps and piles of rubble. Jerusalem had been famous as a beautiful city (Psalm 48:2—”Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion”). In the days of David and Solomon it stood out in all of its glory. But it had been thoroughly broken down because of sin. The walls were broken and the city was a place of rubble. Now, even though Nehemiah has rebuilt the walls and hung the gates and has sorted through much of the rubble, yet Jerusalem was a place that was poor, decayed, and dirty. It was extremely discouraging for the remnant who had returned, especially for those who remembered it in all of its glory. They looked on it with sorrow. They saw it so low. They saw it devastated. It was a picture of the church brought low under the chastening hand of God, suffering under the effects of apostasy and worldliness, of strife and division.
There were, especially, two reasons why it required a sacrificial love if Jerusalem was actually to be populated. First of all, from the earthly, physical point of view, it was very hard to make a living within the walls of Jerusalem. It would require financial sacrifice. Although it was generally a period of economic depression for the Jews, yet families living outside of the city had better possibilities to obtain the necessities of daily life. They could gather crops (barley, oats, grapes, and olives) and have a few cattle and sheep. But a very meager trade and economy existed within the walls of Jerusalem. And, added to that, there was the fact that some would not want actually to live there due to contentions, divisions among the inhabitants of Jerusalem itself.
The second reason was that, from a spiritual point of view, Jerusalem as a city was despised because it was the city of God. It was hated by the heathen. It was reproached because within it was the temple of the living God. The closer you allied yourself to it, the more you would feel the reproach of this world. For this reason many in the days of Nehemiah were reluctant actually to populate the city itself.
That can also be true today. The more you love the truth, and the closer you come to that truth, the more also you can experience the opposition that always comes against that truth, especially as we enter into the last days. The truth of Jesus Christ, of salvation by grace alone through Christ alone—more and more that will become despised because of the pride of men.
Now you can see how electrifying must have been Zechariah’s prophecy long ago when he said that the streets of Jerusalem would be full of boys and girls playing. That is a beautiful way of expressing that the city would be filled with peace and joy and it would be populated. Boys and girls would be playing in the streets. It would actually be populated, and there would be a vibrant, wonderful life of the people of God within the walls of Jerusalem.
God is telling us this to represent the truth of the church, the truth that it is the will of God that believers populate the true church of Jesus Christ, join the true church of Jesus Christ, and be members of that true church wherever she is found, and do so in the way of sacrifice. The only way that we can be used in the building and the establishment of God’s church is by a sacrificial love. We must remember that. We read in verses 1 and 2 of the 11th chapter that the rulers of the people dwelt in Jerusalem, and the rest of the people did not. That is, they were spread out away from the city. It was necessary, then, for the people again to populate this city through the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. There was no other way. So to speak, the mortar holding the bricks of the church of Jesus Christ together is the self-denying love of God. Use any other mortar, and the wall of the church will fall apart. If you go into the church thinking, “My way, my honor, what do I get, my will,” then you will witness the church fall down all around you.
The grace of Jesus Christ that is found in Jesus Christ is that we set aside ourselves and that we are consumed instead with the great glory and the great good of God’s cause on earth and that we willingly seek to give ourselves to serve for that great end. If that is not true of us, then the true church will suffer grievously.
The church is the bride of Jesus Christ. Let the great glory of God and the cause that He has given to His church captivate our hearts. Let not Babylon, let not the wealth of this world, let not our own fields and our own acres and our own careers and our own ways and our own things so captivate our hearts that we say, “No, there’s too much sacrifice to be part of that church, at least to be an enthusiastic member of that church. It takes too much of me.” Let the knowledge of what God has done for His church, let the knowledge of what the church is—the pillar and the ground of the truth of God—let that knowledge now dwell in our hearts and let it crush all other impulses. Let us give ourselves enthusiastically to the church and let not petty issues arise to become the focus of the church, to divert the church from her one and central calling to be a reflection of the truth of God in this world.
We see the grace of God at work in the day of Nehemiah when the city is repopulated and when Nehemiah makes the efforts that he does to have the people return and actually live within the city.
There are a number of things that we can learn from this, even if we look at that passage from a rather superficial point of view.
First of all, we see that there was a wide range of people who had come back into Jerusalem, people with various gifts and abilities. There were, first of all, the gifts of leadership. That was very important. Nehemiah saw to it that in the people who came back, there was an abundance of true spiritual leadership. We read in verse 1 of chapter 11 that the rulers dwelt there. Then, after that, we read in verse 3 that there were the chief of the province that dwelt in Jerusalem; verse 9, the second ruler; verse 11, rulers of the house of the Lord; verse 14, the mighty. That tells us that the indispensable grace to be a ruler in the church is consuming love for the church. Life directed toward the church, willingness to be uprooted from your own life for the sake of the church—that is the indispensable grace for anyone who will serve in the church faithfully as an elder, pastor, deacon, or anyone who would seek to serve the church in some capacity. There must be the willingness to set aside one’s own way for the life and well-being of the church.
Groom yourself, then, as a young man, for leadership. Groom yourself for leadership, if the Lord wills to place you in the church as an elder or as a deacon or as a pastor. But how do you do that? By having a consuming love for God’s church, a love that sets aside your own interests and makes your own needs at best secondary before the needs of the church.
We see also that there was not only the gift of leadership there, but there was also the gift of diversity of service. In verse 12 of chapter 11 we read of the brethren that did the work of the house; verse 16, others who had the oversight of the outward business of the house of the Lord; verse 19, porters who kept the gates; verse 22, singers who were over the business of the house of the Lord. The maintenance of God’s house was a considerable work. There needed to be sacrifices, and wood, and animals, and clean-up, and candles, and watching over the various gates, all involving commitment and responsibility. There was a lot of work to be done. God’s work was being undertaken by men and women who gave themselves freely to be used as the Lord had placed them in the church. They used their various gifts for the good of the church.
Then there was also the gift of covenant generations, that is, of the family and of the sons and grandsons remaining within the church. In verses 4 and 5 and many of the other verses we read that all of those who dwelt in Jerusalem were the sons of so-and-so. That is, families emphasized to their children that they must remain committed to the church of Jesus Christ, that there be boys and girls playing within the streets of Jerusalem—boys and girls within the church.
Those who were dwelling now within Jerusalem, who were heeding the call of God to come into the city and to live there, were aware of the holiness of the church. They knew that Jerusalem was the holy city. They knew that Jerusalem was holy because God put His name there and because God revealed Himself there and because God had fellowship with them there. Therefore, Jerusalem represented to the world what it meant to live with God. The church is a holy church—holy in Jesus Christ our Lord, redeemed in the blood of Jesus Christ, holy because of the purposes that God has for her. Therefore, we who live within the church must live in holiness, in all of our life, and with reverence and respect and care for God.
We read further that those who were within the church were those who were longing for the coming of Jesus Christ. There were those within Jerusalem who were longing for the coming, the advent, of the Lord Jesus Christ. You see, those in the church are ever looking for the Lord of the church. And the Lord of the church is Jesus Christ.
Still more, those within the church were showing a deep appreciation for the priority of the proper worship of God. They wanted all things to be just so within Jerusalem, in order that Jerusalem might be a place of thanksgiving and of singing and of worship. They desired God to be worshiped by His people in the church.
What a beautiful picture we have, then, of the church of Jesus Christ being populated, of God calling repentant believers to enter into the church, to populate the church, God calling parents to bring up their children within the church. The will of God for us is a life within the walls of the church—a life that does not look first for our own opportunities in this world, but a life that is free in Christ to look for our life in the church, as faithful members of the church with our families.
I say again, this can only come with self-sacrificing love. This can come only at a cost. This can come only out of a way of struggle—the struggle of faith. This can come only when we are resolved, by the grace of God, to use our gifts, to use our talents, to use our all, for the church. We must say, “My life is the church, and the church is my life.” Do you know that type of sacrificial love? Are you aware of what the church is—God’s dwelling place, Christ’s bride? Are you committed to the church? Do you love the church?
Then we must have the right reason. We must have the same reason that dwelt within the heart of the people of God in Nehemiah’s day—the glory of God in His church. God is glorified in His church on earth. God’s honor, God’s name, God’s gospel, God’s truth, God’s purposes in the spreading of the word—all of these are tied up with the church of Jesus Christ on the earth. The church carries into the world, not first of all charity, not first of all political agendas, not pious influence, but God’s honor, God’s gospel, God’s purposes, God’s name, God’s glory.
Jerusalem was the typical dwelling of God. It was a type. It pointed to the true church of Jesus Christ established now by Christ in His Word. And for that church, men and women came. They entered into that church, into Jerusalem, even though it was going to cost dearly in terms of their own life and advancement. What a privilege to be a member of the church of Jesus Christ under the truth of God’s Word with faithful elders, faithful pastors and deacons. That church represents God’s honor, God’s gospel, God’s name, God’s purposes. That is why we love her and that is why it is a blessing to live our life within the church of Jesus Christ—such a blessing that swallows up everything else.
God’s fellowship, the fellowship of His people, is to be enjoyed within the church. Let me ask you a question. Is heaven important to you? Do you want to go to heaven? Why? You say, to be with God and to be with His people; to see Jesus; to glorify God. That is why I want to go to heaven—to be with Him and His people and Jesus. That is the same reason I want to be a member of the church of Jesus Christ right now, that church, faithful to His Word, zealous of His glory and honor. Why do we want to be members of that church? So that we can have fellowship with God and His people, see Jesus, and glorify God.
Let us then be encouraged by God’s Word and let us press on in our calling as the church of Jesus Christ. Let us count this the highest privilege, to be a member of the church, and let us live sacrificially, in self-denying love, that we might hear the blessing of boys and girls playing, living, growing up, being nurtured in the church.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank and praise Thee for Thy Word today and pray that such a love for Thy church may dwell within our hearts, that we may not set our own way and our own prosperity and the things of this world before Thy kingdom, but that we may turn our backs upon them and devote all things in our lives to Thy church. In Jesus’ name, Amen.