“Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda“ (the church reformed, always reforming), has become a beloved slogan of the reformed church since it was first coined in a devotional book by the Dutch minister, Jodocus van Lodenstein in 1674. We might assume that he was talking about making major changes to the doctrine, worship, or government of the Church. But in his day, the church was already thoroughly reformed in each of those areas.
Godfrey The great concern of ministers like van Lodenstein was not the externals of religion—as absolutely important as they are—but rather the internal side of religion. Van Lodenstein was a Reformed pietist and part of the Dutch Second Reformation. As such, his religious concerns were very similar to those of the English Puritans. They all believed that once the externals of religion had been carefully and faithfully reformed according to the Word of God, the great need was for ministers to lead people in the true religion of the heart.
We are finally at the end of our sermon series in Nehemiah. After rebuilding the wall, revival and reformation broke out as the people of Israel sought to know and apply God’s Word. After weeks of celebration and repentance the people renewed their covenant commitment to honor God’s Law. But, within a few years of Nehemiah’s departure, they have compromised on every one of their vows.
Our failure to reform in thought, word, and deed leaves us vulnerable to the secularization and desecration of God’s will.
Read Nehemiah 13:23-31.
The Secularization of Marriage (23-27)
Israelite men married women from enemy nations (23). The Ammonites and Ashdodites were the same nations who were angry that Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls (Neh. 4:7). They sought to thwart the project. The Moabites and Ammonites were the offspring of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughters (Gen. 19:30-38), who were always at war with Israel.
But, Nehemiah wasn’t upset that these marriages were mixed between two nations. The problem was that it revealed a pluralistic approach to worship. These marriages involved women who remained committed to serving their foreign gods. Mixed marriage was not the problem, secular marriage was the problem.
Brown “Now, yesterday’s enemies have become today’s marriage partners. There is more than one way of destroying a city.”
This led to children who could not even speak Hebrew (24); which implies they were not concerned with their Hebrew Scripture. Half of the children were only able to speak their mother’s language. This reality threatened Israelite identity and secularized the family. As Derek Kidner puts it, “A single generation’s compromise could undo the work of centuries.”
Nehemiah’s response was not subtle or nuanced. He confronted them, cursed them, beat some of them, pulled out their hair, and made them vow to quit their practice (25). Keep in mind, Nehemiah was the governor, not the priest. His role was one of physical power whereas the priest possessed spiritual authority. It would be a mistake for a pastor—mmhmm…Mark Driscoll—to take a verse like this and use it to threaten physical violence against church members and fellow elders.
This kind of reaction would have been outside the scope of Ezra’s power. That is why we don’t see him taking physical action against the people. Rather, he turns to God in prayer and fasting (pulling hair from his own head and beard Ezra 9:3). He led Israel in the corporate confession of their sin regarding marriage to foreign women (Ezra 9). The people responded with bitter weeping of their own and, many of them, separated from their wives (Ezra 10).
But don’t mishear me. I’m not suggesting that Ezra’s reaction was superior to Nehemiah’s. I’m not suggesting that physical violence is bad and that our approach to conflict should always and only be spiritual. It depends upon your role. Nehemiah had the authority of the government. We don’t want police officers to pray for criminals, we want them to arrest them. And if they need to get violent in order to do that—so be it. They have the full support of Romans 13 behind them.
Still, was Nehemiah overreacting in this particular situation? Just because a person has power, it doesn’t mean they have permission to wield it any way they choose. Before you accuse him of being too rash and harsh with his power—at least acknowledge that his concern was for the glory of God and the good of the people of God.
Packer “The assumption, so common today, that niceness is of the essence of goodness needs to be exploded. Nehemiah should not be criticized for thinking that there are more important things in life than being nice.”
A Christian Duty to Marry Only in the Lord
The Israelites had compromised their marriage vows. Nehemiah points to the example of King Solomon, whose many foreign wives caused him to sin (26). Once again, he labels their actions as “evil” (Neh. 13:7, 17, 27).
One principle we ought to receive from this text is found in our standards:
WCF 24.3 “It is the duty of Christians to marry only in the Lord. And therefore such as profess the true reformed religion should not marry with infidels, papists, or other idolaters: neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked, by marrying with such as are notoriously wicked in their life, or maintain damnable heresies.”
Marriage is supposed to be centered around our faith. We cannot marry someone who refuses to participate in our religion. I understand this can be complicated if someone comes to faith after being married. But a single believer should only pursue relationships that complement their walk with God. Only those who are thoroughly compromised in their doctrine and practice would consider anything less.
A Faith Preserving Marriage
When Jesus arrived, marriage became an afterthought for his disciples. They were devoted to following him. They didn’t have time to take care of a wife and children. Jesus was thoroughly invested in marriage. He was devoted to the ultimate marriage to which all Christian marriages point (Eph. 5:22-33). He is the true bridegroom around whom we center our lives. Only pursue a marriage that contributes to your love for Christ!
If you’re already married, pursue a relationship with your spouse that keeps faith at the center. What’s the point of being particular about your spouse when you are not particularly committed to your faith? Marriage is meant to serve your faith, not hinder it. So, if you have a spouse, seek to serve God together. Pray together. Read the Bible together. Partner with one another in ministry. What holds your marriage together should not be a mystery to others.
The secularization of marriage remains a moral crisis around the world. It’s bigoted to hold to the biblical definition of marriage between one man and one woman. In fact, it’s bigoted to define what a woman is nowadays. I don’t want to step any closer to that dumpster fire, but, the church should be abundantly clear about these things.
One of the primary ways we preserve a right view of marriage is by modeling healthy, god-centered marriages, that raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. God help us, if the reformation of our hearts doesn’t include the preservation of faith within our immediate family. Pray for the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit as you seek to safeguard your home.
Unfortunately, in Israel’s case, the secularization of marriage was compounded by…
The Desecration of the Priesthood (28-29)
One of the challenges of these pluralistic marriages was that it involved the family of the high priest. Eliashib’s grandson married the daughter of Sanballat the Horonite (Neh. 2:10, 19). Nehemiah chased him away for desecrating the priesthood. How can you expect Israelites to only marry within the covenant when the priests can’t remain pure?
Although Eliashib started well, working alongside Nehemiah to build the wall (Neh. 3:1), he became a compromised spiritual leader. He offered space in a large Chamber for Tobiah (Neh. 13:4) which led to the neglect of the tithe. Now his grandson apparently married for political gain. It seems likely that Eliashib and his son were heavily involved or, at the very least, highly supportive of this marriage.
Nehemiah had the authority to expel this priest from the community, because he had broken a commandment for the whole community. When Christians, even pastors, break the civil law—they too are subject to discipline by the civil authorities.
An Exemplary Priest
The pastoral office has largely lost it’s respectability among a secular society. But, corruption will quickly take over where the leadership itself is wicked. Nehemiah’s external reformation had not yet reached the level of internal reformation—even among the priesthood.
There is a powerful episode in Victor Hugo’s, Les Miserables, where Jean Valjean’s internal struggle reaches an apex. Tracing the inward battle of Jean Valjean throughout the book is part of its brilliance. Before we get to this particular scene, we need a bit of the backstory.
As a newly released convict, Valjean was unable to find anywhere to stay the night. He was eventually led to a priest, who not only provided Valjean a free room, but also fed him a meal that night. Still, in the middle of the night, Valjean found the priest’s silverware and fled. The next day Valjean was arrested and the stolen utensils were returned to the priest. However, instead of reprimanding Valjean, the priest told him he had forgotten to take the silver candlesticks too. They ought to sell for just as much money as the silverware.
After walking away and reflecting on his freedom, he sat down for a rest. A young chimney sweep walked by singing and playing with the few coins he had to his name. A forty-sou piece ($2) fell and rolled over toward Valjean, who quickly stomped on it with his foot. The boy begged for the piece, but Valjean scared him off threatening to hurt him. After awhile he snapped out of his cold indifference, picked up the coin, and ran off to find the boy. But he was gone. After calling out and searching for some time, he fell to his knees and wept for the first time in nineteen years!
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables “He felt distinctly that the old priest’s forgiveness was the greatest assault and the most deadly attack he had ever been rocked by; that if he could resist such clemency his heart would be hardened once and for all; that if he gave in to it, he would have to give up the hate that the actions of other men had filled his heart with for so many years and which he relished; that this time, he had to conquer or be conquered and that the struggle, a colossal and decisive struggle, was now on between his own rottenness and the goodness of that man.”
Hugo sounds a lot like John Owen here. “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” The priest’s single act of mercy led Valjean to an internal reformation that utterly changed him for the rest of his life.
Our Great High Priest
Leaders are held to the same standard as everyone else, but they are expected to be exemplary in their adherence to the law. Corruption at the highest levels of the priesthood had impacted Israel under Nehemiah. Unfortunately, It does not appear that they ever fully recovered from their corruption.
Religious leaders were the target of some of Jesus’ strongest rebukes. They were whitewashed tombs that might have looked physically good on the outside, but they were spiritually dead on the inside. Jesus routinely corrected their misunderstanding and pride. Regardless of their outward reformation, their hearts were unaffected.
Jesus, our great high priest, was not only uncompromising in his life—but he was also full of compassion. He knew no sin. Yet, instead of offering up another lamb on behalf of his people, he offered up something infinitely more valuable—his own perfect, spotless life. The only reason any of us can ever experience true reformation is because we have a Savior who mercifully offered to take our guilt and shame, and to replace it with a righteous reputation that we could never earn. The desecration of a corrupt priesthood serves to highlight our need for a holy and compassionate high priest.
God calls us to nothing less than holistic reformation, and he provides nothing less than its full completion in his Son.
The only solution to secularization and desecration is the heart reformation held out to us in the gospel. And the mercy and grace of the gospel always leads to…
The Restoration of Worship (30-31)
After cleansing Israel from foreign marriages, Nehemiah reestablishes the proper people over the proper work within the temple. He ensured the wood offering and the firstfruits were on schedule. Then he concludes with another prayer for God to remember him. Again, this prayer is not a prayer to earn salvation, but a prayer that reveals Nehemiah’s gratitude and desire to please God.
Surely, these concluding notes convicted the original audience. They knew how Nehemiah’s reforms failed. Some probably responded to that by spiraling into further rebellion. They should have responded with repentance and a hopeful longing for the Messiah—the only one capable of walking in perfect obedience. Christ alone upheld the duties of the law. Where every prophet, priest, and king failed—He succeeded! He was always gentle with the humble, but the arrogant were condemned with fierce judgment.
As a priesthood of believers (1 Pt. 2:19; Rev. 5:10), all of us stand on level ground before the cross. All of us stand in need of his forgiveness. And all of us are called to rest in the finished work of Christ—our great High Priest.