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Lesson 3: We Won! (Nehemiah 3:1-32)

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You are famished. You haven’t eaten for several days, but you have been invited to a banquet. You arrive and are seated with the other guests as huge platters of delicious smelling food are served. But then you discover that you have a rather serious problem: your arms will not bend at the elbow! You can’t get the food from your plate to your mouth! Then you learn that everyone else at the banquet has the same problem! No one can taste this feast unless he decides to go for it face first, like a pig.

But then one guy gets an idea. He reaches down with his fork and gets a mouthful of food. With his stiff arm, he swings it over into his neighbor’s mouth. His neighbor reciprocates and soon everyone is feeding one another and enjoying the banquet.

That’s a rough picture of how God’s people should function. God made us as individuals and we should not deny it. But at the same time, He has made us as interdependent individuals. We are many members, but one body in Christ. He wants us to learn to work together. God Himself is a Trinity. He is one God consisting of three persons, each of which is fully God. The three persons are in perfect unity of being and harmony in working together. God wants His people to reflect His image by working together in unity and harmony.

But that’s easier said than done. How do we do it? Nehemiah 3 provides us with an illustrative answer. It’s an account of the division of labor in rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem under Nehemiah’s leadership. At first glance (and perhaps at second and third glance), it is not an easy passage to preach. One well-known Bible teacher allegorizes the gates in the chapter, assigning a spiritual meaning to each one. The Sheep Gate refers to Christ, the Good Shepherd, where the Christian life must begin. The Fish Gate refers to Christ’s calling us to be fishers of men. The Old Gate means that we should reject all the modern, newfangled ideas and get back to the old paths. Etc.!

Another usually profitable author launches off the verses that mention men working by their houses to deal with the importance of the Christian family. A third mentions the chapter in one sentence and moves on to chapter four. Even C. H. Spurgeon takes the reference to the Broad Wall (3:8) to springboard into a sermon on the need for the church to be separate from the world. While I agree with his point, I fail to see that as the meaning of this text.

Why did God include Nehemiah 3 in Scripture? What does He want us to learn from it? I believe that it’s here to show us the importance of working together to accomplish God’s purpose.

To accomplish God’s purpose, we need a common vision, dedicated leaders, and willing workers who do their part.

These three elements are either explicit or implicit in our text: the common vision to rebuild the wall; Nehemiah as the leader who had instilled that vision; and, all the people who got involved.

1. To accomplish God’s purpose, we need a common vision for the task.

You can’t work together if everyone has a different notion of what you’re trying to accomplish. If one man had thought that the purpose was to construct a decorative fence, but the next guy envisioned a fortress, chaos would have reigned! If they had gotten very far, it would have looked ridiculous. They needed to agree on a common vision so they could work together harmoniously.

Their task was specific and measurable: to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem to provide a defense against their enemies. I envy them in that the project could be completed fairly quickly and everyone could say, “We did it!”

But the church’s task is not so easily attained. Our task is to see the Great Commission fulfilled by proclaiming the gospel to every people group on earth. But more than just evangelism, that task requires raising up churches in every people group that teach their people to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20). And the supreme goal of God’s purpose through His church is that He would be glorified, that His name would be hallowed on earth as it is in heaven.

As we saw in chapter 1, that will happen as His people find their sufficiency and joy in Jesus Christ. As John Piper says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” And so our goal is to spread a passion for God’s glory among the nations by proclaiming the gospel and by helping all His saints to savor Jesus Christ as their greatest joy and treasure. That’s our vision.

Everything we do for the Lord should have that vision in mind, even though it’s not as immediately obvious how every task contributes to the vision. For example, if you get an opportunity to talk to someone about Jesus Christ and he responds to the gospel, that is obviously related to the vision!

But what about cleaning up the kitchen after a church social? Helping with that task probably won’t directly result in many souls being added to the kingdom. But even so, it is a vital task that contributes to the overall cause. If no one chose to do it, it could seriously hinder the well-being of the church! Or, someone could do it with a grumbling spirit, complaining about how insensitive others are who don’t get involved. Or, you can do it with joy in your heart because God has saved you and made you a part of His church. He gets the glory and your life radiates the joy of knowing Jesus Christ.

Again, our overall vision is to spread a passion for God’s glory among the nations by proclaiming the gospel and by helping all of His saints to savor Jesus Christ as their greatest joy and treasure.

2. To accomplish God’s purpose, we need dedicated leaders who can help everyone work toward the common vision.

God accomplishes His purpose through people, but people need leaders to motivate and organize them for the cause. The people listed in Nehemiah 3 had been living there for years. But the wall didn’t get built until God raised up Nehemiah to lead the charge. It’s interesting that Nehemiah is never mentioned in chapter 3 (3:16 refers to a different man), but his labor is behind the whole chapter. He did at least seven things that good leaders do:

(1) A leader must not mind if the credit goes to others.

Nehemiah didn’t want a huge sign over the main gate or a bronze plaque reading: THE NEHEMIAH MEMORIAL WALL. Rather, Nehemiah was committed to the task. He wanted the wall to be built so that God’s name would be exalted in Jerusalem and His people would no longer be a reproach. Nehemiah knew that God would recognize his efforts. He was laboring to hear “well done” from the Lord (13:31).

(2) A leader must motivate people.

The Jews had been back in the land for 90 years, but the wall hadn’t been built. But then Nehemiah came along and got everyone excited about the idea. They went to work and put up the wall in record time, in spite of opposition.

Motivation is a key to productivity. You’ve experienced this. You’ve had a project that didn’t get done for a long time. You procrastinated because you just were not motivated to do it. Then something inside you changed. Maybe it was a deadline: Clean the house before the relatives arrived for a visit. Maybe you saw the value of getting it done. You thought, “I’m tired of looking at a weed-overgrown back yard. I’m going to landscape it.” You got motivated and finished the project rather quickly.

The difficult thing about motivating a group of people is that what motivates some turns off others. Even Nehemiah couldn’t get the nobles of Tekoa to join the project (3:5). One wise way that Nehemiah motivated the people was to assign many of them to work on the portion of the wall that they had particular interest in. The priests worked on the Sheep Gate (3:1), where the people would bring sacrifices to the temple. Others repaired the wall in front of their own homes (3:10, 23, 28-30). They had a personal incentive to do a good job!

(3) A leader must plan and organize.

It is obvious from the smooth operation outlined in chapter 3 that Nehemiah had done some extensive planning and organizing. He had figured out in advance how to go about this huge task. He broke the project down into manageable units. He assigned the available workers to the various units and worked to coordinate them so that everything fit together. As we saw last week, planning and prayer are not opposed to one another, as long as we don’t rely on our plans.

And there is nothing wrong with organization, as long as we are flexible enough to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals involved. Sometimes people emphasize that the body of Christ is a living organism, not an organization. While that is true and must not be forgotten, we also should remember that every living organism is highly organized. There is nothing wrong and everything right with organization as long as it furthers the efficient functioning of the organism.

(4) A leader must delegate.

Nehemiah couldn’t possibly have done all this work by himself. He had to entrust it to the workers and give them the authority to get the job done. Sometimes, to be honest, it is easier to do the job myself rather than to delegate it. But as the job grows in size, the necessity of delegation grows.

Some pastors keep their hand on every aspect of the ministry, and they often burn out. I sometimes baffle people because I don’t have a clue about what is going on in some aspects of the ministry here. I don’t see that as my job. God has given gifts to His people and they are competent to carry on His work. I’m available as a resource if there is a problem. But I do not need to have my hand on everything. I couldn’t do that and get done what God has given me to do. If God has called you to lead, always ask yourself, “Can someone else do this as effectively or more effectively than I can?” By delegating, you involve more workers and you get more done.

(5) A leader must oversee.

Delegating does not mean dumping or dictating! To dump something on someone and walk away from it is not effective leadership. To dictate every detail is not to delegate with proper freedom. While Nehemiah delegated the work, you can be sure that he went around inspecting the progress, talking to his leaders, helping them keep things moving toward the goal. In 3:20, he notes that Baruch zealously repaired a section of the wall. Apparently, Nehemiah knew not only who was doing what, but also how they were doing it. Baruch did an exceptional job.

The elders are to give oversight to the flock. That involves the balance between giving guidance and counsel as needed, but also giving the freedom to workers to carry out their ministries in accordance with their own gifts and ideas, in line with Scripture and the overall vision.

(6) A leader must give proper recognition.

Apparently Nehemiah wrote down in detail who was doing what on this project (I can’t imagine him remembering all these names without writing them down!). Some are mentioned as completing more than one section of the wall (3:4 & 21; 5 & 27). But the important thing was not that Nehemiah recognized every worker, but that God recognized them by including their names here. I’ll be honest that I’m always a little nervous to give recognition by name for fear that I’ll forget someone who will get his feelings hurt. But in spite of that, it is proper to give recognition for a job well done.

(7) A leader must not get distracted by those who are not cooperative.

Nehemiah 3:5 mentions in passing the nobles of Tekoa who refused to join the project, perhaps out of petty pride. To the nobles’ shame, the people of Tekoa built two sections of the wall, and some nobles from other towns rolled up their sleeves and went to work (3:9, 12). But Nehemiah didn’t expend any energy on the nobles of Tekoa. Rather, he worked with the many willing workers. Those who didn’t get involved were the losers in the long run.

To accomplish God’s purpose, we need a common vision and dedicated leaders. Finally,

3. To accomplish God’s purpose, we need willing workers who do their part.

The people heard Nehemiah’s vision and they responded, “Let’s arise and build” (2:18). Working together they accomplished what no one could have accomplished individually. Four things:

(1) The workers were willing to cooperate and coordinate with one another for the overall cause.

While some worked in front of their own homes (as already noted), many others came from outlying cities to help (3:2, 5, 7, 13, 14, 16, 17). After the project was through, they returned home without any daily personal benefit. Perhaps they could dwell more securely in their villages with a strong capital in Jerusalem. They would have enjoyed knowing that the temple was secure behind the wall, so that they could go there for the annual feasts. But beyond any personal benefits, they were willing to work for the overall cause, that the name of the Lord and His people would no longer be a reproach among the nations.

Also, they coordinated the project so that all the parts fit together. Each person knew what his task was and did it, but he did it in harmony and conjunction with others. It would not have worked if one guy built his section but didn’t interlock it with the section of the guy next to him. If you’ve ever played with your kids’ interlocking building blocks, you know that each section of a wall must be locked into the next section, or it will fall over. The guys building the gates had to coordinate with the guys building the walls around the gates. In the church, it is not enough to have a bunch of independent ministries alongside each other. We all should work together in supporting the overall cause of Christ.

(2) The workers were willing to complement each other for the overall cause.

Everyone couldn’t do the same job. Some worked on the walls. Others worked on the gates. Hanging a large gate is not an easy task! Some were strong enough to carry heavy stones or bricks. Others had to do lighter work. But each worker was important to the cause. As Paul tells us (1 Cor. 12:12-30), the body is not one member, but many. The foot dare not think that it is not a vital part of the body because it is not a hand. And the hand would be foolish to despise the foot. Each part has a specific and important function to fulfill. Each part depends on the other parts in order for the whole body to function properly.

(3) Some workers were willing to work outside of their areas of strength.

The priests (including the high priest) got involved building the Sheep Gate and a portion of the wall (3:1). They didn’t learn how to do that in seminary! Maybe they had to get some pointers on how to build and hang a gate from some of the men who were experienced in that sort of thing. Some of the city officials rolled up their sleeves and joined their people in the work (3:9, 12). They didn’t view manual labor as beneath their dignity. Some of the workers were goldsmiths and perfume makers by trade (3:8). They weren’t used to this kind of rugged labor. They probably had aches in muscles they never knew that they had before this, but they joined in the work. One man made repairs with his daughters (3:12)! Apparently they did more than made lunch and lemonade!

Sometimes people will say, “I’m not going to work on a cleanup crew because that’s not my spiritual gift.” Your spiritual gift should help you know where to concentrate your efforts, but there are many jobs where we’re all called to pitch in, whether it’s our gift or not. The point of Nehemiah 3 is that everyone got involved. The New Testament is clear that if you’re a Christian, you are in the ministry (service) and you will give an account of your ministry to the Master someday (Matt. 25:14-30). The danger is that the “one-talent” Christian will think that his part is insignificant and he won’t use it for the Master. But the Master expects every servant to use what He has entrusted to him.

(4) Some workers were willing to do the less glamorous or desirable jobs.

Malchijah (3:14) repaired the Refuse (or Dung) Gate. It was at the south of the city, and opened to the Kidron Valley where the people brought all their trash to burn. If he is the same Malchijah mentioned in 3:31, he was a goldsmith by trade, and he also helped out with repairs on another part of the wall. There were probably a lot more volunteers to repair the Fountain Gate than there were for the Refuse Gate! But Malchijah realized that the job needed to get done, and he was willing to do it for the cause.

Conclusion

Years ago I heard a story that I’ve never forgotten because it challenged my cultural mindset with what I believe is a more biblical point-of-view. I’ve shared it with you before, but I tell it again because it illustrates our text so well. Some Western missionaries in a remote area of the Philippine Islands set up a croquet game in their front yard. Several of their Agta Negrito neighbors became interested, and so the missionary explained the rules, gave each one a mallet and ball, and got them going.

As the game progressed, opportunity came for one of the players to take advantage of another by knocking that person’s ball out of the court. The missionary explained the procedure, but his advice puzzled his Negrito friend. “Why would I want to knock his ball out of the court?” he asked. “So you will win!” the missionary explained. The short native, clad only in a loincloth, shook his head in bewilderment. In that hunting and gathering society, people survive not by competing, but by sharing equally in every activity.

The game continued, but no one followed the missionary’s advice. When a player successfully got through all the wickets, the game was not over for him. He went back and gave aid and advice to his fellow players. As the final player moved toward the last wicket, the game was still very much a team effort. Finally, when the last wicket was played, the whole group shouted happily, “We won! We won!”

That’s how the church should function. We should work together cooperatively, not competitively. When one member scores a point, it’s a point for the whole team.

Studying this chapter reminded me of several things at our church. One was the two work days we had to demolish the old facility so that we could remodel. It was a real joy to see all the men working together for a common goal, and we got a lot done. It also brought to mind what happened again just this week, as the ladies came together to orchestrate the annual Craft Sale for missions. Their efforts combine to raise thousands of dollars to further the cause of Christ around the globe. I could also mention AWANA or Sunday School, but I’m likely to leave a worthy ministry out! We all should see these things and shout, “We won!”

But some of you attend services here, but you aren’t serving in any part of the cause. I’m so glad that you come, and I hope that you’re learning and growing. Maybe you’re just taking a much-needed rest, and that’s okay. But if you know Christ, you’re a vital part of the body. At some point, the Lord wants you to get involved in the cause. Here’s how 1 Peter 4:10-11 puts it:

“As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a believer know where in God’s purpose he/she ought to serve?
  2. Ezra was a godly leader, but he didn’t get the wall built. Should he have tried again, or was it okay for him to focus on other areas and leave the wall to Nehemiah?
  3. Since none of us can do it all, how do we know when it’s okay to say no to a ministry opportunity?
  4. Is there a proper place for competition among believers? Give biblical support. When is it out of balance? Should we teach our kids more about cooperation instead of competition?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Leadership, Sanctification, Spiritual Life