Doing a Great Work for God
And because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests, seal unto it.
They clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God's law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes;
Our text begins on the third day after the Jews had finished celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. Again they assembled themselves for the reading of the Law and the worship of God. A majority of chapter 9 contains the record of praise and confession by a set of specifically named Levites who recounted God's perfections in His dealings with Israel and their failure to keep their end of the covenant with God. This brought about a great desire on the part of some Jews to formally make a sure covenant with God to walk in His ways and observe His commandments. Chapter 10 records the names of those who signed this covenant and the oath made by the rest of the people who sought to renew their commitment to God.
These two chapters together represent perhaps the climax of the great revival that was taking place at that time. Jerusalem had undergone some awesome changes since Nehemiah had arrived. The blessed city was once again protected by walls and locked gates, and now the people of God had entered into a covenant, some by signature (10:1-27) and some by statement (10:28-29), to obey the commandments of God. This brings out a simple truth for us to study - every great work for God will involve change. When we consider a physical work, change is perhaps an obvious outcome, but we need to realize that this is every bit as true in the spiritual case as well. In fact, we may say that the converse is true as well - where there is no change there is no work taking place!
In this lesson we shall study how the changes found in our text form an excellent illustration for two of the great spiritual works in the life of every believer.
Sanctification is the theological term which denotes "the separation and dedication of a person or object to and for God, to belong wholly to Him and to be used for His glory" (E.H. Bancroft). Although this is not truly the first spiritual work in the life of a person, we shall begin here because this is precisely what we have witnessed in our text with the forming of the "sure covenant". After salvation, every believer experiences the spiritual work of sanctification as they become more and more conformed into the image of Christ. The changes resulting from sanctification are the evidence that God is doing a great work in the life of a Christian.
First, let us notice some of the outward works performed by the Jews in our text. These serve as great examples of the kinds of outward changes that take place in the great work of sanctification.
In verse 1 of chapter 9, we find the Jews fasting wearing sackcloth and earth. This was the outward sign of mourning and shame, or perhaps a better word is contrition. From their personal confession of sin (vs. 2) and the confession of the sins of their heritage (vs. 6-35) we know that they were broken over sin. You can mark this down that in the process of sanctification, there will be a change from pride to humility resulting from sorrow over sin and a loathing of your sinful flesh. During the process of sanctification, you may come to find that you have faults you did not even realize which will further your brokenness over sin (Job 42:1-6).
In verse 2, the Jews separated themselves from the strangers in the land. Part of the covenant these Jews made was to not permit intermarriage with the people of the land (10:30). These strangers or people of the land were not Jewish proselytes seeking the One True God, but they were the heathen inhabitants whose laws and customs were contrary to the laws of God. No doubt they had heard from the reading of the law that God had called them to be a peculiar people severed from other nations (Leviticus 20:22-26, Ephesians 2:12). The great work of sanctification always produces this separation from sin and the sinful "for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" (2 Corinthians 6:14).
Next we find that the Jews spent a quarter of the day confessing. They acknowledged their own personal sins, the sins of their forefathers, and the many perfections of God (might, faithfulness, Holiness, grace, mercy, kindness, justice, patience). As they had come to better understand both themselves and God, a confession of the truth was the natural outcome.
Another great outward work resulting from sanctification is submission. Not only was there a submission to the commands of God (10:29), but also to some man made ordinances (10:32-39). This was a turning from a life ruled by self to a surrender to the will of God.
Finally, we can see in the covenant made by these Jews the strong commitment to obey the commandments of God. When a person signs a document or swears an oath, it does not reflect a mere decision or a good intention to do something. This was a life changing commitment to follow God.
Though invisible, we can have little doubt that both faith and repentance were the cause of the outward works we have just studied. We often think of faith and repentance in connection only with salvation, but they are present in every great spiritual work. Nor can we separate repentance from faith as if only one was present for they always go hand in hand like two sides of a coin. Whenever true faith and repentance form inside a person, they will always produce some kind of outward work as we studied above. It is not possible for such great inward changes to take place without making their way outward (James 2:14-26). Now let us consider each of these separately.
The Jews had been listening to a great deal of the word of God and we know that "faith cometh by hearing" (Romans 10:17). As they were presented with the truth, they had a choice to believe or not believe. It takes faith to believe that you are a sinner. It takes faith to believe that God is and that He is who He said He is. It takes faith to believe that God's will is better for your life than your own. In all of the outward works we witnessed in our text, it is obvious that the Jews were convinced that the things they were reading in the Law were truth and they chose to believe.
Repentance has become rather a hot topic these days even though it is such a simple concept. The term repentance simply means a change of mind and purpose with regard to sin. It is definitely an inward change and we must be careful to never confuse it with an outward work. In Matthew 3:8, John the Baptist distinguished repentance from the fruits or outward result of repentance. The contrition and confession witnessed in our text is evident that these Jews had come to look on sin as being exceedingly sinful, disgusting, and loathsome. The separation from the people of the land shows a change in their regard for those who practiced idolatry as well as their position as a peculiar people. The covenant they made marks a change in their attitude toward obedience, and their submission shows the change in their will.
One of the greatest illustrations of faith and repentance can be seen in the prodigal son when he "came to himself" (Luke 15:17). At that point, inwardly he finally came to believe and understand where he was - the hog pen. Also, he changed his mind about the world being a better place than his father's house and that he had been wrong for leaving. This passage too shows how difficult it is to separate faith and repentance.
Our text provides a wonderful picture of service where we again see outward works resulting from inward changes. In chapters 9 and 10, we have a group of Jews who dedicated themselves to the service of God. You can see this in the unity of purpose - the people "clave to their brethren". You can also see this from the last 8 verses of the text which focuses on their "service of the house of our God" in the form of tithes, firstfruits, and offerings. Again, faith and repentance must have been at work. Faith to believe that they had a duty to serve God and repentance from putting their own works before their service to God (Haggai 1:3-11).
This is a great illustration of the local Church where members have made a covenant
with one another to serve God together. Membership in the local Church ought to involve
giving of tithes and offerings to support the work. There ought to be unity among members
to dedicate themselves to the work as evidenced by assembling themselves together to study
God's word, to plan on ways to get the work done, and to actually perform the work.
Members of the local Church ought to have made the service of God their highest priority
and greatest desire. When you find a Church like this, you know that God has been doing a
great work there.