Due to the Spirit-filled leadership of Nehemiah, the people of Jerusalem achieved a great amount—the city wall was rebuilt in just 52 days, Jerusalem’s corrupt leaders were ousted and the people had come together for registration. Jerusalem’s glory was renewed!
In response, the people gathered, built a platform in the city square and called for Ezra, their priest, to read them God’s law. The people longed to worship.
“Ezra stood on the platform in full view of all the people. When they saw him open the book, they all rose to their feet.
“Then Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people chanted, ‘Amen! Amen!’ as they lifted their hands. Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8:5, 6*).
Then Ezra began to read. He recited the scriptures “from early morning until noon. . . . All the people listened closely to the Book of the Law” (verse 3). When the reading finished, the Levites mingled with the people reading the law and they “clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage” (verse 8).
Then, the inevitable happened. People began to see the disparity between their lives and the holy lives called for by the law. In sorrow and repentance, the worshippers began “weeping as they listened to the words of the Law” (verse 9).
At this point in their day of worship, Nehemiah is first mentioned. I imagine him quietly walking on stage and whispering something in Ezra’s ear. The Levites regroup at the podium and confer with God’s leader and His priest. Then, they presented the people with a life-changing message.
The Levites merged back into the crowd and “quieted the people, telling them, ‘Hush! Don’t weep! For this is a sacred day’” (verse 11). The worshippers timidly approached the stage. Don’t weep? they thought. Aren’t we supposed to heap ashes on our heads and repent with tears? Isn’t this the purpose of the law?
Nehemiah took centre stage. Their fearless—seemingly faultless—leader smiled, and in a jubilant voice proclaimed: “Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God. . . . Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (verses 9, 10).
The joy of the Lord is your strength. Have you ever pondered Paul’s meaning when he wrote, ”Always be joyful” (1 Thessalonians 5:16)? Is it really possible to be joyful always? Even when facing your true nature in comparison to Christ’s perfect law?
Or what about Jesus, hanging on the cross? He couldn’t have been joyful as he endured such pain, could he?
Where did Jesus get His strength as He “endured the cross”? Paul presents the answer: “Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).
Joy? Yes! Jesus looked beyond the cross to the joy of the eternal kingdom and received the strength to endure His temporary suffering. His own future joy, and the joy of His Father, gave Him strength.
But, that’s only the last half of the text. Paul had a reason for painting a picture of joyful Jesus on the cross. The first half of the text offers us the same opportunity for transformation in worship experienced in Nehemiah’s new-Jerusalem.
We know our sinfulness, and we have witnessed our sinless Saviour suffer on our cross. The chasm seems too great. And we weep. How are we to go on? We must mourn, we think. We must bear the burden of His death. How can we endure?
Paul—our Nehemiah—steps forward and proclaims, “We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honour beside God’s throne” (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus, the joy of the Lord, is our strength! Eyes fixed on Him belong to a people of joy. And to a world searching for strength, such joy is irresistible.
Imagine you received a flyer in your letterbox from the best downhill snow skiing park in your area. The flyer invites you to come to a short presentation and receive a free gift valued at over $100. You look at the date of the presentation and realise that you are free on that day.
When the day finally arrives you excitedly bundle into the car and head to the mountain. You drive up to the lodge where there is special parking close to the lodge for people responding to the flyer. You park and make your way inside.
You walk up to a group of people standing in front of a sign saying, “Please wait here for special presentation.” After waiting for a while, the manager arrives and separates the group in two. The groups are sent into separate rooms.
Inside one room the manager faces the expectant group, “Thank you for coming out this morning. We have a 30 minute presentation we would like you to watch on the big screen, then we will give your gift!” He steps to the door, switches off the lights and the screen comes to life.
As the picture comes into focus you can see a couple on a chairlift. The woman says, “I’m not sure I can do this honey.”
He puts his arm around her and says, “You’ll be fine. I’ll help you.” When they get to the top of the lift he skies off. She tries to stand, one ski goes skewing off to the left, she puts her weight on it, picks up speed and smashes into a pole.
The movie is all downhill from there: Fast skiers knocking learners over. Jumpers landing very wrong. Close ups of sunburned faces and chapped lips. Skier after skier injuring themselves. Finally after thirty minutes of mayhem and agony the manager returns, flips the light switch and says, “Thank you for watching our presentation today. Your gift is a free day on the snow! We have free lift tickets for each of you as well as skies, boots and poles. There are also warm clothes available if you need. We just want you to enjoy your day!”
In the other room much the same thing takes place. The manager faces the seated crowd and says, “Thank you for coming out this morning. We have a 30 minute presentation we would like you to watch on the big screen, then we will give your gift!” He steps to the door, switches off the lights and the screen comes to life.
The first scene is of a class of learners. They are all facing a coach and he says, “By lunchtime you will be skiing confidently. I promise.” He then shows them how to do some basic manoeuvres and they slowly skid down the learners slope.
A time lapse shows they have now been skiing for two hours. The same group is swishing down steep runs, laughing and shouting to each other.
The film then switches to shots of extreme skiing. People jump from ridges landing in a flurry of bouncing knees and fast skiing. Skiers jump, do flips, the splits, wave to the crowd—and land perfectly, every time.
At the end of the thirty minutes the movie finishes, the lights come on and the manager says, “Thank you for watching our presentation today. Your gift is a free day on the snow! We have free lift tickets for each of you as well as skies, boots and poles. There are also warm clothes available if you need. We just want you to enjoy your day!”
Which group do you think will go skiing for the day?
Nehemiah was on to something. He understood that joy motivates people. Neighbouring tribes and towns would hear of the joy in Jerusalem. They would travel there for business or pleasure and see the joy for themselves, and they would want such joy in their lives.
When Nehemiah said, “The joy of the Lord is your strength,” he meant it. There is no greater way to influence others than by being joyful. They will want what you have.
Which 30 minute presentation is your church? Do visitors leave feeling they have just experienced something divine, or do they flee hoping they wont catch whatever sickness has befallen your flock?
The joy that is set before us is Jesus, our Saviour, returning in billowing clouds of glory to take us to Heaven. That’s worth looking forward too—and should cause inexpressible joy to be on our face constantly.
Yet, many Christians are less than joyful. Charles Swindoll says some Christians have such long faces they could eat corn out of a coke bottle.
It is as if many of us are walking to Heaven backward. We know the joy that awaits us, but we spend our time shuffling slowly in reverse watching all the mayhem and destruction behind us—and being morose. Paul gives us the perfect solution, “Look to Jesus!” Keep your eyes fixes forward. Your hands and heart can still go out to the world, but you have reason to be joyful—let it show!
Like Nehemiah, we pastors need to model the joy of the Lord. We can do this only by looking at Jesus moment by moment. And then, when the people around us mourn we need to have the strength to stand tall and demand, “Stop crying! Rejoice! The Joy of the Lord is your strength!”