Commentary by Walter Albritton


May 25, 2008


Christ Restores Our Joy through the Renewal of Our Covenant


Nehemiah 8


Key Verse: He [Ezra] read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive3 to the book of the law. – Nehemiah 8:3


          Frequently I weep in my soul when, after preaching my heart out, I realize that many of my listeners did not understand the gospel I had just proclaimed. So the interesting phrase in the key verse – “those who could understand” – does not surprise me. In Nehemiah’s day and our own there are always those in the audience who do not understand God’s Word when it is read in their presence.

          This is not difficult to understand. Every person hears what is said through their own set of “filters.” One filter could be the attitude that the Scripture is ancient history that does not apply to me. Another filter might be the belief that “My mind is made up and nobody is going to change it.”

          There are in every audience those who cannot understand because they are “confident of their own righteousness and look down on everybody else” (Luke 18:9). These are the people who say to the preacher after the sermon, “I wish old so and so could have been here to hear that message.”

          But Saint Paul offers the best explanation as to why some people cannot “understand” the gospel. Paul says there is a “veil” over their hearts, a veil that only Christ can remove. “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord,” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:16, “the veil is taken away.” Humbly accepting the mercy God offers us in Christ opens our eyes, our hearts, and our minds to see how the Scripture applies to our lives. It is this for which every preacher earnestly prays every Lord’s Day.

          Those who understood the Scripture Ezra was reading realized they were not living as God wanted them to live. They mourned over their waywardness knowing they had drifted away from obeying the God who had delivered them. Ezra wisely invited them to move quickly from weeping to celebrating the goodness of God. It is Ezra who gives us this word that is so precious to us as Christians, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” This truth moves us to celebrate the grace of God every Sunday so that our worship becomes a time of rejoicing.

          What happened as a result of Ezra’s reading the Word of God is worth shouting about. The temple had been rebuilt. The wall had been rebuilt. Now God leads the people to rebuild their faith. Through years of exile the Jews had succumbed to cultural influences. They had forgotten their sacred traditions. They had lost the zeal they once had to obey the commandments of God. Their faith, like the wall around Jerusalem, had crumbled. So God sends Ezra to help them rebuild their faith.

          We may observe that God instructed the people to build “booths” made of tree branches. In each booth was a “group” of people. In these groups they listened for hours to the Word of God. They were guided by the priests and Levites to “study” the Scriptures. They concluded their study with a great “solemn assembly.” The purpose behind the study of God’s Word was to renew their covenant with God – to love God with all their hearts, their neighbors as themselves, and to keep God’s commandments.

          In today’s world Christians drift away from obedience to God just as the Jews did. We break our sacred covenants with each other and with God. The solution for us is the same as it was in Ezra’s day. We need much more than our Sunday worship assemblies. We need to hear and study the Word of God. While individual study is helpful, the most helpful way to study God’s Word is within a small group. When I am studying the Bible, God can speak to me through one mind, my own. When I study with a group, God can speak to me through the minds of every member of the group.

          My entire ministry I have experienced the life-changing power of Christ within small groups. People are more likely to be truly converted in a small group than in a worship service. The change that takes place in a small group can be celebrated in a worship service. The Word of God has the power to change us so that we can renew our covenants, especially the covenant to live in the world as genuine disciples of Jesus Christ.

          John Wesley called the Methodists to study God’s Word in groups known as “class meetings.” When they did, their lives were changed and they were more able to reach others with the good news of the gospel. God can do it again, with us, if we are willing to swallow our pride and admit our need to study God’s Word in groups. When we make such study a priority, even if we have to give up other activities, the Spirit will help us “understand” the Scriptures and show us how to live by them in obedience to God. We shall know Christ personally and become knit together in love with fellow believers. Then the joy of our Lord will truly be our strength!  

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