No Pain, No Gain
“No Pain, No Gain”
Praise God for opposition! I didn’t hear any hearty “Amens”! These are not pleasant words to hear and even more difficult to say. You know, in Christian circles we often talk in terms of opened and closed doors. It's as though we can determine God's will for our life by these perceived opening and closing of doors. And don’t we often associate least paths of resistance as open doors? Now I want to be clear that I am not saying that God does not often go before us and pave a path for his work in our lives. But often we can too quickly conclude that a difficult situation must be a closed door. And conversely, a smooth ordeal is an open door from God. Let me ask you, do you think the apostle Paul believed this?
If we were Paul, would we conclude that every beating, every imprisonment, every shipwreck, every verbal attack must have been a closed door from God? Or do you think that sometimes God may want us to persevere in prayer, recognize our dependence on him, and demonstrate his great power amidst our opposition?
I must admit that I am glad that Paul did not quickly abandon his mission of proclaiming the gospel because of perceived closed doors. And I am glad that Nehemiah did not either. This week we will be looking at some opposition that Nehemiah faced as he desired to carry out the task committed to him by God. I’ve entitled this sermon, “No Pain, No Gain”. And I want you to notice a few these this morning. I want you to see the opposition that Nehemiah faced, and then see his responses to them. The lessons we will learn are that opposition is inevitable and that there are appropriate and necessary responses to it.
Where would we be without opposition? I would suggest that we would be full of pride, self-sufficiency, and without an understanding of our need of God. So, in that light, we would have to say praise God for opposition. How else do we learn perseverance, humility, a theology of prayer. “No Pain, No Gain.” I would even suggest that without any pain or opposition we would turn away from God. We would go backwards!
Well, let’s dive into the text. Please turn in your Bibles to Nehemiah chapter 4. While you are turning there, let’s briefly recount what has happened to this point. Our man, Nehemiah, was a cupbearer to the King. He was in a privileged and trustworthy position. Hanani and some other men returned from Judah and spoke with Nehemiah. And from what might have been a casual inquiry regarding the state of things in Jerusalem, he received a report that deeply affected him. Things were not going so well in his homeland. The report was that the remnant was in great trouble, the great wall of Jerusalem and its gates were in shambles. And having turned to the Lord in prayer and with fasting and weeping, remembering the covenant that God had made with his chosen people, Nehemiah decides he wants to be a part of the promise fulfilled. He wants to see his people reconciled to their God. He wants to see the great walls of Jerusalem strengthened again to testify to their glorious God.
So Nehemiah approaches the King – jeopardizing his very life in the process – and requests that he be given permission to go to Judah so that he might begin this undertaking. Recognizing that this is of the Lord, Nehemiah goes above and beyond and requests that he also be equipped with the resources for the project. And the King granted his request, because as Nehemiah puts it, “the good hand of my God was upon me.”
Upon arrival, he spends several days assessing the situation, inspires the people, and in chapter three they get to work. They all get to work – not just the carpenters, masons, and drywallers. Well, I suppose they didn’t have drywall then. But you get the idea.
And then chapter 4 begins with our old friends Sanballat and Tobiah. They were the guys who were accusing Nehemiah of rebelling against the king in chapter 2. The text reads, “Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” And then his sidekick Tobiah pipes up, “what they are building – if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”
So here are Sanballat (who we will recall is a governor in Samaria) and Tobiah again attempting to demoralize the builders (in verse 5) and to reassure their own supporters. For this was said in the presence of Sanballat’s brothers and the army of Samaria. We all know what this is like. You get a group of people together (of whom you may or not be a part of) and discussion revolves around a controversial topic or person. It’s not long before the people get animated around the issue. Look at protest rallies over environmental issues, land development and usage, abortion, gay rights, etc. The emotions can take over and before you know it you can really see people rally in opposition.
The first opposition that Nehemiah faces in this chapter is this intimidation by taunts and jeering. They are attempting to dispirit and discourage the work before it gets anywhere. I will assure you that where there is a work of God, opposition is near at hand. There will always be nay-sayers and those who openly protest. When you make a decision for Christ, for example, there will often be family members or co-workers who will try to discourage you from continuing in your faith. And what is our response to opposition? Lash out or fight back? No. Our response should be the same as Nehemiah’s. Look at verse 4. He immediately turns to his God who has entrusted him to the task. He writes, “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.”
And you say, “Wow! Jonathan, that seems rather harsh.” And I thought the same thing at first read. Then I looked at it again and reevaluated this prayer. I looked at it from the perspective of those who were in captivity for their unfaithfulness to God. And realizing that the parallel cannot be pushed too far because Israel was God’s chosen people… But in the same way that Israel was taken into captivity for turning their backs on God, shouldn’t these nations also be judged accordingly.
And then He implores the Lord not to cover their guilt or blot out their sin. For they have provoked Him to anger in the presence of the builders. Truth be told, they shouldn’t be forgiven because they have not asked for forgiveness, they have not turned to the Lord, confessed or repented of their sins. Therefore, it is not harsh or unjust request. Their sin should not be blotted out and their guilt not covered. And what this really amounts to is righteous indignation. Nehemiah is not upset that he is being taunted or jeered. But rather it is because the purposes of God are not being forwarded. They are discouraging the workers who are seeking to build the walls where God will receive the glory. His anger is directed to the minimizing of God’s glory.
In essence, Nehemiah’s prayer is “Hear, O our God… we live to glorify you. We want you to be glorified in this. And these people… they stand in the way of your glory. This is your battle. These are your enemies. This is beyond us… and we lay them at your feet knowing that you are all-powerful, and this can only be done by you.”
And how applicable is this to us today?? Well, there is a sense that we as the church should be indignant at the things that minimize and hinder God’s glory. We should be appalled and grieved at the murder of unborn babies, abuse of innocent children, rape, blatant sin in Christ’s church. And how do we respond to such atrocities? The same way Nehemiah does. He drops to his knees and offers up the enemies to the Lord. Now I realize that is not a natural response. But it is most certainly the best response. And we can learn from the honesty expressed in Nehemiah’s prayer. It sounds a lot like many of David’s prayers in the Psalms which are directed to his enemies.
What did they do next? Did they sit back and wait for something to happen? No. They continued what they set out to do. They built the wall. Verse 6. “So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.” They did what they needed to do. They laid the matter at the Lord’s feet and they entrusted the outcome to him. And then they did their part by continuing to work on the wall.
And look what happened! In no time at all, the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work! The people had a mind to pray and they had a mind to work. Those two attitudes, in and of themselves, this example is exactly what they church of Jesus Christ is called to do. We are called to pray and we are called to action.
There is always a temptation to lean to one side or the other. Some say they will pray over a matter. And then they will be content with that and then forget to act. We may pray for someone’s needs to be met and then neglect to assist them as we are able. Others may pray about finding employment, sit on the couch all day, and not pound the pavement actually looking for work.
Absolutely, we are instructed to pray. And it is also the best thing we can do. But as the church, we are also called to carry out the purposes of God. We are the instruments. We are empowered through our prayers and the ministry of the Holy Spirit and we are called to take action. And remember, there will always be opposition. And, in this case, when the heat got turned up, Nehemiah 1) dropped to his knees 2) and worked.
And from there on out it was smooth sailing. Put the book down, pick up the empty popcorn container, it’s a happy ending. Not exactly. What happens when progress is made? – more opposition.
Verses 7-8 read, “when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.”
Notice two things here. First of all the quantity of the opposition is increased. Suddenly the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites were plotting together. To properly feel this pressure, we need to understand their geographical locations. Sanballat was governor over Samaria, just to the north of Jerusalem. Tobiah and the Ammonites were just east of the Jordan River. The Arabs from the south and the Ashdodites from the west. Yep, the opposition came from all sides.
Secondly, notice the quality of the opposition. Initially, the enemies merely taunted and jeered at the Jews. But now they were threatening violence. They turned up the heat because they saw progress and probably were feeling a little threatened themselves.
So put yourself in the sandals of the Jews. Do you feel the pressure?? On the one hand you realize that God is on your side. But as you peer out over the half-built walls you envision the armies of Samaria coming from the north. And then you look to your right and see the Ammonites. You turn again to your right and there are the Arabs. You turn once more and there are the Ashdodites pressing in on your city which is only half-completed.
In reading several commentaries in preparation, one in particular emphasized the role of Satan as the primary mover in the opposition to Nehemiah and the people. I found this quite interesting. Up to this point, my focus and my reading was on the human opposition – mainly the work of Sanballat and Tobiah. And I neglected the focus on the supernatural battle between God and Satan. And it was at this point that I was reminded of how often I forget that. When life gets tough, I will often look at the immediate circumstances and try to understand things from a limited and earthly perspective.
Notably this is an area of our Christian journey that people will usually lean heavily on one side or the other. Many do not recognize or acknowledge spiritual forces at work in their lives. This may not be intentional. But they crawl and fight and get confused because they cannot understand difficult situations in their lives. Others attribute all difficulty and all trials to the hand of Satan and neglect the fact that there are consequences to sin, (PAUSE) and that their will be opposition as we intentionally pursue the purposes of God. Need I remind you that this is not an easy life that we are called to? We are cross-carrying, self-denying, God-glorifying servants of Christ!
Can you think of anything better?? Those of us who have lived in the world and experienced the short-lived pleasures of it… and then surrendered ourselves to Christ?? Would we go back? Not if we have seen the glory of God. There is no turning back because everything else pales in comparison. Who else has the words of eternal life?
Karl Neufeld and I have been having some theological and ministry-related conversations. And often what is discussed are seemingly paradoxical concepts throughout Scripture. We talk about balance in our understanding of Scripture and the Christian life and finding ourselves in the middle of two extremes. For example, people may focus primarily on the imminence of God without understanding his transcendence. He becomes our little teddy bear instead of the Creator of the universe, the One who holds the stars in his hands. Or vice-versa. People may see God as only transcendent and not see that God is concerned with us intimately. He personally formed us inside our mother’s womb. Or we see a God of love versus a God of wrath, a God of mercy versus a God of justice. These things are equally true. But as human beings, we like to emphasize one over the other.
And I think the same applies when we view our trials in life. As we continue our walk in Christ, we need to feel the tension between the supernatural battle that is taking place because of God’s purposes and the consequences of our own choices. Like Nehemiah we will experience opposition because of the nature of our pursuit. We are seeking to carry out God’s purposes to his glory. But we will also face difficulty because we often choose to act contrary to them – by acting in disobedience to his word.
And in this particular case with Nehemiah, the spiritual nature of this undertaking should be recognized. Satan does not want to see the Jews succeed because they were God’s chosen people to be a light to the nations. They were chosen to proclaim His name and to be a testimony to Him. I’m sure that Satan was quite content to see the nation of Israel taken and held in captivity because they had turned their backs on the very One who had called them and blessed them. To see them emerge from this awful state probably put him back on the front lines. Satan was beginning to see the people of God repenting of their sin, placing their faith in the God who promised to remember His covenant with Israel. He saw them exerting tremendous effort… blood, sweat, and tears…
When we take a stand for Christ in our homes, in our workplaces, in our neighborhood, this will attract the attention of the Adversary. He will increase his influence in those areas. Most of you already know this (PAUSE) as you attempt to live out your faith with non-Christian spouses or other family members, making good ethical decisions in your workplace that might make your co-workers look bad or inconvenience them. For example, do you take a stand at work and say to your employer that you are not available to work Sunday mornings because you place a high priority on worshiping with your church? Satan will do all that he can to keep you from meeting together on Sundays.
And so Nehemiah now faced this physical and violent threat. And again he exemplified godly leadership by turning to the Lord and then taking action. Noting the imminent danger, he knew where to turn.
It was still hard work however. No Pain, No Gain. Verse 10 tells us that, “In Judah it was said, ‘The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.’”
Dr. James Montgomery Boice notes that this threat of violence was timely. It came at a low point in the people’s circumstances, when they were tired. And he writes, “Haven’t you felt that kind of discouragement yourself when you were in the middle of a particularly demanding job? I have. I often feel it when I am in the middle of writing a sermon. In fact, I have a term for it. I say to myself that I have ‘bogged,’ meaning that I have bogged down. It is because the process of preparing a sermon is mentally and emotionally draining, and I frequently reach a point at which I no longer want to go on. If when I am feeling like that I should receive an additional threat from outside, the combination of tiredness and fear or anxiety could easily make me stop what I am doing. We can fight against one enemy on one front, but it is hard to fight against two (or more) enemies simultaneously.”
Satan knows when we are tired and weak. And it is often in those times that we face the greatest temptations. But what is also true is that when we are weak then our God is strong on our behalf. Our Lord Jesus experienced it in the wilderness temptations. It was in his fasting and testing that he became strong. When we cease trying to do things in our own strength, it becomes an opportunity for our God to be glorified. And whether or not the Jews intended this idea or not, they got it right when they said, “by ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.”
Verses 11 and 12 inform us that Nehemiah’s enemies plotted a surprise attack. And somehow the Jews that were living outside the walls found out about this plot and warned the workers to depart from the work and to return to their homes. But Nehemiah took action and strategically positioned the people in order to defend their work and their families. Verse 13 says that “in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows.” Do you see what he did here? He grouped the people by their families! What better way to motivate people to defend themselves than to have them stand and fight for wives, and children, brother and sister!
And what is the next thing that Nehemiah does? He looked, arose, and spoke. The great leader that Nehemiah was he gets up in front of the people and says, “Do NOT be afraid of them! (PAUSE) Remember the Lord (PAUSE) He is great. And He is AWESOME! Fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” You would almost think that he would say “for FREEDOM”. They should get Mel Gibson to play his role when the movie comes out. I’m telling ya. I actually had a couple of different movies going on in my head when I read this passage. I saw Mel Gibson in Braveheart and I saw Russell Crowe as Maximus in the opening scene in Gladiator – rallying the troops for battle. But as Nehemiah would surely attest, his confidence was in His God who would fight for His people.
And perhaps that was all that the enemy needed to see and hear because they backed off their surprise attack. And the workers tended to the wall. But this time they would always be prepared - for some of the servants were building while others held weapons and armor. Those who carried burdens had a tool in one hand and a sword in the other. The builders all with swords strapped on. There was a man with a trumpet that stood next to Nehemiah in the event that the enemy would attack and they would need to rally to a particular spot on the wall. Nehemiah reminds them again that God will fight for them and they continued day and night at the task always prepared for battle.
The well-known preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon actually entitled his publication The Sword and Trowel after this passage. Even today as the church we are building and defending. We too go through this life with a sword and a trowel. We spend much of our time building - working to put food on the table, to clothe our families, to give financially and physically to the local church. We are building healthy marriages, raising godly children, and building our relationship with Christ. And we also need to defend those things.
Men… we are primarily responsible for these tasks. We are to be the spiritual leaders of our families and our churches. We are to ensure that what we are building in these venues has eternal value. In addition are we protecting our marriages by loving our wives as Christ loved the church? Are we intentional about family worship where we share our love for Christ with our wives and kids? Are we praying regularly with them? Are we teaching them God’s Word? If not we leave them and ourselves defenseless! And I am frequently asking myself these very questions. There is a lot at stake! We are presently in a battle and we are preparing our children for battle – I hope.
If we do not acknowledge the battle, the Enemy has deceived us and he is advancing. If we are living in habitual sin, he is advancing. Don’t give up the ground! Stand firm! Ephesians 6:10-18 reminds us men and women, 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.
Be encouraged! There is coming a day when there will be no more opposition. One day we will be in the presence of the One who is the Victor in the final battle. And we will worship him freely.