Nehemiah 7-8, Hebrews 9
And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. – Nehemiah 8:16 ESV
The walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt – in just 52 days. The temple had already been restored under the leadership of Ezra. But the city was a virtual ghost town. The majority of the people who had returned to the land were living in the towns outside the walls of the city. But Nehemiah knew that his work was incomplete. While he had done what he had set out to do, the rebuilding of the walls, he chose not to return to Susa. He stayed because he knew that rebuilt walls did not make a city. It had to be repopulated. And the people who would repopulate that city would have to be made right with God. So he assembled the congregation of Judah and arranged for Ezra to read from the book of the law. This could have been the entire Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, or it could have been just the book of Deuteronomy along with portions of Leviticus. But whatever it was that Ezra read, it took hours for him to do so, and the people stood the entire time. The law was read and it was explained in detail so that the people could understand it. And the result was that the people were convicted of their sins. They wept and mourned as they heard how they had violated the commands of God. But Nehemiah told them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep” (Nehemiah 8:9 ESV). He encouraged them focus their attention on God. While the law had reminded them of their sin, he wanted them to remember their gracious, merciful God. It was time to celebrate because God was their strength. He had provided a means for them to receive forgiveness for their sins. All of this would have taken place in the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. Part of what was read to them out of the law was the command to keep the festivals of God. They were to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets, the Feast of Booths and the Day of Atonement. These festivals were designed to remind them of all that God had done for them in the past. And they were to culminate with the once-a-year sacrifice made on their behalf by the high priest, when he entered into the Holy of Holies and made atonement for the unintentional sins they had committed that year. This was to be a celebration. While they stood guilty before God, He had provided a means of receiving forgiveness and pardon.
What does this passage reveal about God?
When God had given the people of Israel His plans for the tabernacle and His commands for observing the sacrificial system, it was all a foreshadowing of things to come. It was an earthly picture of a heavenly reality. It was designed to be temporary and incomplete. The author of Hebrews says, “They serve as a copy and shadow of heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5 ESV). The law, associated with the Old Covenant, was not intended to be lasting. It was not a permanent fix to man's persistent sin problem. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second” (Hebrews 8:7 ESV). God had told the people of Israel, “Behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Hebrews 8:8 ESV). He had a plan for a new and improved covenant that would be permanent and complete. Everything that the people of Israel had done in association with the tabernacle and later, with the temple, had been intended to point toward something greater to come. One of the key elements involved in man's atonement under the law was the shedding of blood. “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV). Every year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest had to offer a sacrifice for his own sins before he could intercede for the people. Why? Because he was a sinner just like to whom he ministered. Then he had to offer a sacrifice and take the blood, mixed with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkle it on the book of the law and the people, declaring, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you” (Hebrews 9:20 ESV). At that moment, the covenant between God and His people was ratified and renewed. But again, it was just a foreshadowing of things to come. Because that event had to take place every single year, because their atonement was only temporary. It was incomplete. In the next chapter, we will read, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4 ESV). Complete, permanent forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of bulls and goats could never happen. But God had a better solution.
What does this passage reveal about man?
Our sin is an ever-present reality. It follows us wherever we go. It is a permanent part of our experience as we live on this planet. When we read God's Word, we are reminded of our sin. It convicts us of sin and reveals to us our unfaithfulness and consistent rebellion against a faithful, loving God. But rather than weep and mourn over our sin, we must learn to rejoice in our Savior. God has provided a solution to our sin problem. And this solution is far better than the one the Israelites had. “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:24 ESV). Christ didn't enter into an earthly tabernacle or temple. As our high priest, He took His sacrifice right into the presence of God the Father. And the sacrifice he made was once and for all. “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrew 9:26 ESV). He gave His life as a sacrifice for our sins and, unlike the animal sacrifices under the Old Covenant, His sacrifice was a permanent solution to man's sin problem. His death provided complete atonement for man's sins – past, present and future. He has secured an “eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12 ESV).
How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?
So what should our reaction be to this news? We should rejoice and celebrate. We should recognize that the joy of the Lord is our strength. He has provided for our salvation. He has made a way for us to be restored to a right relationship with Him that is not based on human effort. God has done for us what we could never have done for ourselves. “God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him” (1 John 4:9 NLT). “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). That is cause for celebration. That is reason for rejoicing. Our God is great. His love is unimaginable and His grace is immeasurable. Yes, our sin is real. But so is our salvation. Those of us who have placed our faith and hope in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross can celebrate because our redemption is eternal, our atonement is complete. And the truly great news is, “so also Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. He will come again, not to deal with our sins, but to bring salvation to all who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 NLT). Now that's cause for celebration.
Father, never let me lose sight of the staggering implications of the salvation that You have provided through Your Son. Rather than wallow in my sins, let me rejoice in the fact that my sins are forgiven, my future is secure, and Your Son is some day coming back for me. Thank You for the new covenant made available through the death, burial and resurrection of Your Son. He died, but He rose again. He left, but He is coming again. I have plenty to rejoice about. Amen