Grace For The Journey
We are nearing the end of our study of Nehemiah and are in its final chapter, chapter 13 chronologically the last written words of the Old Testament. We noted last time that chapter 13 describes the upending of the covenant that God’s people had made with God back in chapter 10 in the heat of revival. In chapter, 10 the people were all about making things right and living as authentic followers of God. Maybe in the past they had failed the Lord, but no more. They were recommitting themselves to the Lord and concluded their rededication with the rousing statement in Nehemiah 10:31, where they said, “We will not neglect the house of our God.”
Yet, here they are a few years later neglecting the house of God. What did this involve? We saw that it meant that . . .
They had neglected previous teaching,
They had neglected the purity of the temple,
And they had neglected the practice of tithing.
All this happened while Nehemiah was away on a trip back to Persia. We read where Eliashib the priest had even allowed that Tobiah to move into a storeroom of the temple. So, Nehemiah comes back and “cleans house.” Tobiah is kicked out and the temple is restored to order.
We saw last time that the first part of chapter 13 describes the people’s forsaking the house of God. Today’s passage describes their forsaking the Sabbath.
Some say the fourth commandment no longer applies. Strictly speaking, you will not find in the New Testament a teaching that says something like: “Continue to observe the Sabbath exactly as God’s people did in the Old Testament, namely resting from your labors on the seventh day of the week – Saturday – and gathering together in the Jewish Temple for the express purpose of worshiping the One True God.” You will not find that kind of statement in the New Testament and there is a good reason for it. While Sabbath was observed by Old Testament believers on the seventh day – on Saturday – something happened 2,000 years ago that caused the Jews of that day to change their Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. What was that incredible historic event that caused God’s people to change their day of worship from Saturday to Sunday?
It was none other than the resurrection.
Jesus Christ rose from the dead on
The first day of the week, on Sunday.
Luke describes the followers of Christ observing the Sabbath, getting ready for the Sabbath on Friday evening. Luke tells us there were women at the tomb that evening, that they saw where Christ’s body was placed in it, and the Bible says at the end of Luke’s Gospel in chapter 23, verse 56, “Then they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment (according to the fourth Commandment).” That is the last time we read in the New Testament that followers of Christ observed the Sabbath rest on Saturday strictly as a matter of adherence to the 4th Commandment.
After that first Easter morning, Christians began gathering together for public worship on the first day of the week, on Sunday. The Bible tells us in Acts 20:7, “Now on the first day of the week” … “the disciples came together to break bread.” They came together on the first day of the week, on Sunday, to break bread in worship. They gathered on Sunday to bring their tithes and gifts. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of the week let each of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper.” In essence, Paul says, “When you guys meet together for worship on the first day of the week, Sunday, let each of you lay something aside during the offering.” I think we can see this truth at least in part in the opening chapter of the Book of Revelation where John speaks of being, “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Revelation 1:10). The Lord’s Day was the way Christians began to refer to Sunday, the first day of the week.
Our Seventh Day Adventist friends insist that Christians should worship on Saturday. They tell us Christians did not begin worshiping on Sunday until commanded to do so by order of Constantine in the 4th Century. But when we look at these passages we say, “No, that is not what we see in our Bibles and that is not the practice of the early Christians in the centuries preceding Constantine. Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week – on Sunday – and His followers have been gathering together on the first day of the week ever since.”
Strictly speaking, the fourth commandment, in terms of keeping the Sabbath on the seventh day – Saturday – is a commandment that is no longer binding in that explicit sense. At the same time, however . . .
The Sabbath principle remains.
The importance of taking one day in seven to rest cannot be overstated. Rest is a principle woven into the very fabric of God’s creation. God created the world in six days and rested. He desires that His children rest as well for their good and for His glory.
Now, let’s study our passage.
Verse 15 says, “In those days I saw people in Judah treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and loading donkeys with wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of burdens(or all kings of stuff, goods and so forth), which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them about the day on which they were selling provisions.”
While Nehemiah was away the people had gone back to old habits of working and doing business on the Sabbath.
Verse 16, “Men of Tyre dwelt there also, who brought in fish and all kinds of goods, and sold them on the Sabbath to the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem.” The “men of Tyre” or the “Tyrians” were Gentiles, people not bound by Sabbath law, but they found ready and willing business partners in God’s people. Verses 15 and 16 describe a bustling market scene teeming with shoppers, with the accompanying noise and sounds of commerce and trade. This burgeoning marketplace did not simply appear all at once. It must have started off very small, shortly after Nehemiah had gone back to Persia. It had not been that long ago when they promised in their covenant to do differently, as we read in Nehemiah 10:31, “If the peoples of the land brought wares or any grain to sell on the Sabbath day, we would not buy it from them on the Sabbath, or on a holy day; and we would forego the seventh year’s produce and the exacting of every debt.”
But that was then, and this is now. What had started as a small little compromise, just one “little sin,” had grown into a monstrous mesh of trespasses. The far-reaching impact of just one sin! We noted this truth in our last study by way of application. We said we must remember the danger of compromise. Someone said, “People seldom lose their faith by a blowout – It is usually a slow leak.” One small little compromise that begins like a trickle of water from a faucet in time turns into a gushing flood of iniquity.
The trouble with “little sins” is that they do not stay little. People who never imagined to be stuck in darkness were the very people who had begun to enjoy a “little stroll in the shade.” The trouble with little sins is that they do not stay little. How many times have we said this, “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.”
Verses 17 and 18 state, “Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, ‘What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.’” Here is Nehemiah the reformer in action again! He’s like, “What in the world is this evil you are doing, buying and selling on the Sabbath?!” He says in verse 18, “Did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city” because of Sabbath-breaking?!”
That was a reminder that at least one of the reasons God had disciplined His children centuries earlier, allowing them to be carried off into exile by the Assyrians and Babylonians, was because of Sabbath-breaking. Nehemiah is saying, “Don’t you remember your history?!” Don’t you remember what happened to our ancestors when they profaned the Sabbath?! Their sin had consequences! And you are headed for the same consequences!” Sin would have fewer takers if its results occurred immediately.
If you knew that the “little sin” of clicking on the inappropriate link on your computer, taking you to a web page you ought not to be looking at, if you knew that one seemingly small click would lead immediately to your losing your job, losing your spouse, losing the pride of your children, and losing respect from everyone in the community, you would be less likely to click on the inappropriate link. Sin would have fewer takers if its results occurred immediately.
Verse 19 states, “So it was, at the gates of Jerusalem, as it began to be dark before the Sabbath, that I commanded the gates to be shut, and charged that they must not be opened till after the Sabbath. Then I posted some of my servants at the gates, so that no burdens would be brought in on the Sabbath day.” Nehemiah determines to fix the problem. He instructs them to close the gates of the city and make sure they do not open back up until after the Sabbath. Closing the gates ensured that no one could go outside and do business, and no one could come inside to do business. Nehemiah sees that the gates are closed “as it began to be dark before the Sabbath.”
The Sabbath ran roughly from six o’clock Friday evening to six o’clock Saturday evening. Even today, the Sabbath is observed in Jerusalem by orthodox Jews. Beginning early Friday afternoon most businesses and restaurants close. There are a few non-kosher restaurants that stay open for tourists, but most shut down. Public transportation, busses, and light railway shut down as well, Friday evening to Saturday evening.
The last part of verse 19 tells us Nehemiah did not trust the people to keep the gates shut. The Bible tells us that he, “… posted some of my servants at the gates.” He wants to make absolutely certain the gates stay shut!
Verse 20 says, “Now the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice.” There are some people camping out just outside the gate ready to do business on the Sabbath. Nehemiah warns them in verse 21, “Then I warned them, and said to them, ‘Why do you spend the night around the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you!’ From that time on they came no more on the Sabbath.” Nehemiah is not talking about laying hands on them to pray for them! Someone said, “The only right time to get angry is when you get angry at sin.” Nehemiah was angry at sin, a righteous indignation. Verse 22 states, “And I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves(due to their negligence, the Levites needed to be ritualistically purified again), and that they should go and guard the gates, to sanctify the Sabbath day. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of Your mercy!”
How does this passage apply to us today? We have already noted again the danger of compromise. The trouble with little sins is that they do not stay little. Some of us need to repent of the little sins we have allowed to “get inside the gates.” We have got to take decisive action like Nehemiah and say, “No more!” That will mean some of us need to be honest before God, confess sin, and repent from sin – little sins and greater sins. When a person is ready to confess his or her sins, God is always ready to cover those sins with His blood.
This also applies with regarding to the Sabbath day observance. If the fourth commandment no longer applies in the strictest sense an explicit command to observe the Sabbath as Jews under law did in Nehemiah’s day, how do we apply the principle of Sabbath as followers of Christ today? I am glad you asked! I want to share with you the “Three Rs” of the Sabbath . . .
We must believe in the reverence of the Lord’s Day. Deuteronomy 5:12 says, “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” Sunday ought to be thought of as a holy day, a day set apart for worship of the One True and Living God who saves us through His Son Jesus Christ. It is not just any day, it is a day where we especially pay tribute to and give concerted reverence to God.
The people of Nehemiah’s day fell into an irreverence of the Sabbath. It was a day like any other day. They did business and traded on the Sabbath, indicating that they had a love for the world more than a love for the Lord. Making money on the Sabbath was more important to them than taking time on the Sabbath to focus upon the Lord.
Our Lord’s Day – Sunday – ought to be a day of special focus upon the Lord, a holy day, a day we endeavor to do things differently than other days of the week. It is not that there is some place in the New Testament that provides a list of approved activities on Sunday, you know, “You can do this, but not this.” That would be to commit the error of legalism, precisely the problem with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. He had to teach them that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
We need to understand the importance of rest from work. Many folks spend hundreds of dollars on time-saving devices and then work overtime to pay for them! Someone said, “The average American is a guy who was born in the country, worked so hard he could live in the city, then worked even harder so he could get back to the country.” Few Americans really know the value of rest. Even when we take time off, we don’t know how to rest. With irony we often note that “no one needs a vacation more than the guy who just had one.” Rest is a gift from God.
The Bible tells us in Exodus 20:9-11, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day …” God rested not because He was weary, but because He was finished! He was finished with the work of creating. There was a limit to God’s creative work and God met the limit. Man must also recognize the value of limits to his work.
Ray Stedman called the Sabbath, “God’s stress management program.” I like that. The Sabbath teaches us the value of “pushing the pause button,” taking a break from the frenetic pace of our workaday world, giving our bodies and our minds a break from the chaos.
Rest. But what are we to do during this time of resting? That is the third R . . .
We have already noted the importance of reverence . . .
The Lord’s Day is a day consecrated or
Set aside for focus upon the Lord.
It is during this day of focus
That we remember. We remember . . .
Who God is and
What He has done.
Right after Moses gives the fourth commandment to rest on the Sabbath, he adds this in Deuteronomy 5:15, “And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.”
Remember what God did for you.
Remember how He delivered you.
Observing the Sabbath is not just about reverence and rest . . .
It is about remembering;
The Lord on the Sabbath.
The Lord’s day is not a day merely to sit around and do nothing! It is a day, yes to physically rest from the regular routine of work, but it is a thoughtful rest. It is a time to remember who God is and what He has done; a thoughtful rest. In a word, it is worship.
When we gather for worship, we focus upon and think about God – Remembering His mighty acts, praising Him because He is worthy of all praise.
We take time in our homes to open the Word, reading from the Bible, remembering who He is and what He has done. It is a special time for thoughtful, restful reflection upon the Lord.
The point of the Lord’s Day is not rest in the sense of inactivity and idleness, laying around all day, or just sitting around watching TV, or going shopping or playing video games and surfing the internet. Again, we must not be legalistic here. Sometime in those activities may well be acceptable, but we must take care not to lose the day.
We must not miss the blessing of the Lord’s Day as a day of “relaxation infused with consecration.” The Lord’s Day is a special day on which we refrain from doing the things we normally do that we might consecrate ourselves to God and enjoy His presence more fully in a uniquely wonderful way!
As our Lord Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for man.” It is a gift from God!
As we prepare to respond to God’s truth. Let me review the essence of our study . . .
First – Is there a sin you need to confess right now before God? Have you compromised your faith, allowing sin to intrude through the city gates and into your temple – your mind, your body. Confess silently to God and ask His forgiveness. Repent. Turn to God.
Second – What do you need to do to make sure Sunday never becomes like just any other day, but a special day – a day of reverence, rest, and remembering. You may ask God silently, “God, help me always to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.”
If you are not a believer, you have never been saved, turn to Jesus Christ and be saved from your sin. The Bible teaches in the Book of Hebrews that Jesus Christ is the One in Whom is found rest, real rest, in the fullest sense. If you are weak and tired and heavy-laden with sin and sorrow, go to Jesus and He will give you rest, heavenly rest, salvation rest. Just say to Him right now, “Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I am weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but, through you, I am more loved and accepted than I ever dared hope. I thank you for paying my debt, bearing my punishment and offering forgiveness. I turn from my sin and receive you as Savior.”
May God give us grace to surrender all to Him, including the Sabbath.
This is Grace for your Journey …
Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!
Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”
Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”