As we have studied these lessons from the book of Nehemiah, we have certainly come to an appreciation of the truly enormous task which Nehemiah faced in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Even though he was a great man of faith, there must have been times when the job he had to do would have seemed very daunting and difficult, and the materials and manpower which he possessed to complete the task would have seemed minimal. We know that, despite this, Nehemiah put his trust in God and completed the task - not just completed it, but achieved it in an astonishingly short period of time. This fact is a great testimony to the faith of Nehemiah, and his ability as a leader of men to instil that faith and trust into the people, so that they too put their faith in God and put their backs to the work.
In circumstances such as these, it must have been very tempting to strive to complete the wall and worry about other difficulties later. Despite the recent reforms of Ezra the Jews were still in a deplorable spiritual state in many ways - compromise of God's Law and association with the enemies of God's people were still going on. Intermarriage forbidden by the Law (Nehemiah 13: 23-28), the presence and influence of Gentiles in the temple of God (13: 1-10), debt-slavery among the people (5: 1-12), the pollution of the priesthood by those who were not qualified to be priests (7: 63-64) - all these things troubled the Jews at the time and must have provided a considerable distraction from the task in hand, the reconstruction of the wall.
No doubt there were those who felt that Nehemiah should concern himself with what they would see as the 'primary task' of rebuilding the wall, and worry about the other matters later. They would have argued that once the wall was rebuilt and Judah was safe, it would be easier to rectify these 'lesser' problems more easily. They could probably have looked over the ruined battlements at any time and seen Sanballat's and Tobiah's men spying on the progress of the work - surely the priesthood could wait, they could argue, until the wall was rebuilt and they could all sleep safely in their beds without fear.
This may very well have been what many thought when Nehemiah decided to reckon the genealogy of those who were with him in Judah at the time. Although the walls and gates were now built (7: 1), Judah's enemies were still trying to oppose and frighten Nehemiah (6: 19) and the city was dangerously underpopulated (7: 4). Despite this, it is clear that Nehemiah felt that the purity of the people and of the priesthood was of sufficient importance to undertake such a register of the people. Accordingly, the people were reckoned according to the genealogy of those who had come up out of the captivity with Zerubbabel in 536 B.C., almost one hundred years before (7: 7-60). It would not have been necessary to reckon those who had come recently with Ezra and Nehemiah, as their names would have already been recorded. What Nehemiah wanted to ensure, however, was that those who had been in the land since the initial return were all in fact truly Israelites, especially the priests.
This, however, proved not to be the case. Several could not show that they were in fact of Israel (7: 61-62). More seriously, however, several priests were found not to be in the genealogies, and were accordingly put out of the priesthood as polluted (7: 63-65). This is because God had decreed on Mt. Sinai that the priesthood was only to be held by the descendants of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi (Exodus 29: 9). In his zeal for God's Law, Nehemiah wanted to ensure that only those who were truly qualified were officiating as priests. Even though there were other things to be done, Nehemiah clearly believed that God's Law must be obeyed at all times, not just when it is convenient. Obeying God's ordinances is not a 'distraction', or indeed an 'optional extra'. We, like Nehemiah, must ensure that we live in obedience to God at all times - or we also might find ourselves 'put out' of the priesthood as polluted.
There are many today who would, if they had lived in Nehemiah's time, no doubt have said that Nehemiah was 'unloving' or 'following the letter of the Law, not the Spirit' or some similar statement. However, the example of Nehemiah should teach them otherwise. Today those who are zealous of God's Law, who desire that the church should be pure from sin and heresy, are mocked and ridiculed with these same sort of terms. But what does Scripture teach us? The fact is, no-one is EVER condemned in God's Word for wanting to obey God's Law. No-one! The Pharisees were not condemned because they wanted to obey God's Laws on tithing (Matt. 23: 23), but because they did this while failing to obey God's Laws in justice, mercy and faith - it is an abuse of this Scripture to claim that it teaches God will 'overlook' the little things if we get the 'weightier' matters right.
Those of us who love God's Law today should be just as concerned as Nehemiah was that God's house and His priesthood are pure! We should not be deflected by claims that we should just 'get on with preaching the Gospel and not be concerned about the "letter" of the law' or such like. Nehemiah had a great task to perform, but this did not stop him from ensuring that those who served in the temple were entitled to do so. Today, we have a great task to perform too - we must reach a lost world with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. But this does not mean that we neglect God's Law, or the purity of God's people, in doing so! Just like Nehemiah, we must ensure the purity of God's priesthood, as well as taking in hand the great task which is set before us. Indeed, it is only by a strict obedience to the Law of God that we will be able to spread the Gospel throughout the whole world! Far from being a distraction from preaching the Gospel, a concern with the purity of God's church is the only way that the true Gospel can reach the lost.
Christians today are priests (I Peter 2: 9), and the Lord's church is the House of God (I Tim. 3: 15). Just as it was possible in Nehemiah's day for the priesthood and the temple to be polluted, it is possible today for this to happen. And, just like Nehemiah, we should be on our guard against it and take action when it does happen! For the church today to be pure and unpolluted, it must exist in accordance with God's Law. It must be patterned after God's plan. It must be free from the taint of immorality and false teaching. Only if we are constantly striving for this can we say we are following God, and only when we are faithfully following the Law of Christ will we be able to reach the lost with the Gospel in an effective manner.
How then can God's church become polluted? First, it can become polluted when it is infiltrated by sin and immorality. God knows that we all sin from time to time, but He expects us to repent and turn back to Him when we do (I John 1: 7-10). However, sometimes sin is tolerated and overlooked in the church - it goes unrebuked and those who practice it are emboldened to continue in their ways. Paul likened sin in the congregation to leaven - something that will spread throughout the whole body if it is not removed (I Cor. 5: 6-7). Of course, the way in which a sinner is dealt with will often depend on that individual, and the amount of teaching he or she is able to bear (I Thess. 5: 14), but this should never mean that sin is tolerated and allowed to continue unchecked. Finally, if all attempts to restore someone have been rejected and ignored, the Bible commands us to withdraw from such a person (II Thess. 3: 6). This is certainly not a pleasant thing, but it is something that is commanded of God, and it is the best thing both for the congregation and for the individual himself. The alternative, that of allowing sin to flourish and spread unchecked in the Lord's body, is clearly unacceptable. It is not 'unloving' and 'Pharisaical' to insist on complete obedience to God's Word. Those who love God, as Nehemiah did, can accept no less. We must ensure that the church is free from sin.
Another way in which the church can become impure is by the introduction of false doctrine. There seems today to be a veritable explosion of false doctrine, with all kinds of falsehoods being introduced and promoted in the Lord's church. We see the A.D. 70 theory being promoted; we see falsehoods on worship and on the Holy Spirit being taught as doctrine in pulpits where once only the truth was heard; we see misinterpretations of God's Law on marriage, divorce and remarriage being presented; and almost every other possible perversion or misinterpretation of God's Word being taught instead of the simple, pure Gospel of Christ. Those who would oppose such teachings are frequently abused and decried as being unloving or legalistic. Is that really the case?
A brief glance at the New Testament will reveal that the Apostles were not reluctant to oppose falsehoods, and even to name publicly those who were teaching these false doctrines. We have been delivered a form of doctrine, and it is only obedience to that form of doctrine that will save us (Rom. 6: 16-18). Obedience to false doctrine, on the other hand, will only lead to destruction (Gal. 1: 8)! How then can those who love God not be concerned about purity of doctrine! We need to take heed to the doctrine we teach and practice - only then will both we and those who hear us be saved (I Tim. 4: 16).
Faithful Christians must do all they can to ensure that only the true, pure Gospel is taught. That means taking aside those who are teaching falsehood and showing them the way of God more perfectly (Acts 18: 26). That means marking, i.e. naming and pointing out, those who persist in publicly proclaiming their error, and avoiding them (Rom. 16: 17). This means that preachers should not appear on a lectureship or preaching program with someone who teaches error. It means that a faithful congregation will not participate in joint activities and outreaches with a congregation where error is being taught. It means that congregations should not allow such teachers into their pulpits, whether they are teaching on their particular error or not. It says avoid the teacher, not just his teaching. God has given us a soul-saving Gospel that is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1: 16). To fail to oppose attempts to dilute that message is condemning souls to hell. Those who love God, as Nehemiah did, must ensure that error is opposed and the truth upheld.
Nehemiah's concern for the purity of God's people and priesthood is
commendable and is a fine example for us today. We live in times when many would
pervert the truth and pollute the Lord's house, His church, with man-made
doctrines and immoral behaviour. Only be vigorously opposing these trends will
we be able to go forward in our God-given task of reaching a lost world with the
saving Gospel. To neglect this while concentrating only on outward growth is a
false economy of effort, because the message that will go forth will be a
dilute, perverted and ineffectual one. Only by striving to ensure that the
church is pure can we bring a pure message to the world's lost millions.