Facing opposition like Nehemiah
What should God's people do when they are serving God faithfully, building up His kingdom - and opposition comes? Nehemiah gives an outstanding example for us to follow in his narrative in chapter 4, on standing firm during times of opposition. Charles Simeon is another example of someone standing firm. He was appointed (by the bishop of York) to be the vicar of Trinity Church in Cambridge, England from 1782. Unfortunately, the parishioners did not want him as their pastor as they preferred the assistant curate, Mr. Hammond, and so Simeon offered to step down. However, the Bishop of York refused Simeon’ offer, saying that he will not place Mr. Hammond in the position of vicar. And so Charles Simeon stayed on. The parishioners were still unhappy and started an all-out attempt to remove him from office. As they had the authority to choose who preached Sunday evening service, they assigned this service to Mr. Hammond. After 5 years, when Mr. Hammond moved on, they invited other preachers to preach Sunday evening service for another 7 years. Can you imagine, serving a church for 12 years that would not even let you preach on Sunday evenings.
At some point during these 12 years, Charles Simeon started a separate Sunday evening service, to which many of the townspeople came. However, the churchwardens locked the doors to the church and the people were made to wait outside in the street. The next act of rebellion by the parishioners, was to lock the pew doors on Sunday mornings (at that time it was common practice for parishioners to have their own pews, affixed with a gate and lock). So they simply locked these pews to prevent anyone who did attend Simeon’ service, from sitting in the pews. This resulted in a church with empty pews and isles full of people, seated at Simeon’ own expense. Additionally when he tried to visit his parishioners at their homes, they would not even open the door to him. He had to endure these acts of rebellion for 10 years. Simeon could have chosen a legal recourse to force the parishioners to unlock the pews, but instead he decided to win these people with a steady, relentless ministry of the Word and prayer.
Simeon was publicly slandered and ridiculed by his parishioners, which unfortunately influenced many of the students in Cambridge to turn against him. Simeon was painted as a man who pretended to be pious yet with a bad character. He was held in derision for his biblical preaching and his uncompromising stand as an evangelical. But at the end of his life, after 45 years of patient perseverance, the tide had turned. Through Simeon’ relentless steadfastness to God’s word and prayer in face of stern opposition, Simeon had become highly esteemed throughout Cambridge, the Church of England and beyond. Charles Simeon is best known today as a great Bible expositor, his preaching in the Church of England set a new standard for generations.
As we consider our passage in Nehemiah, we see that he was a similar figure to Simeon. He was courageous, a wise leader and prayerful. We will look at 3 points in Nehemiah chapter 4: Nehemiah' opposition, Nehemiah' response, our response (in the face of opposition).
Sanballat and Tobiah, along with the Arabs, Ammonites and Ashdodites surrounded Jerusalem and were a serious threat to the safety of its inhabitants. Their plan of attack was 3-fold, they used ridicule, threats and discouragement. Sanballat' anger was kindled when he saw the wall around Jerusalem being built and he fired the first weapon from his arsenal: mockery and disdain. Tobiah then added his voice to Sanballat and mocked the strength of their building effort saying, “Your walls are so weak, if a fox had to walk on it, it will break”. While Jerusalem was unwalled, it was vulnerable to its greedy and power-hungry neighbors, but a fortified city would be a threat to these men. Consequently they attempting to stop this building program. As history has shown many times, any attempt to fulfill God's desires will almost certainly draw opposition from God's enemies.
After seeing that their taunts produced no effect and that the wall was still being built, Sanballat and Tobiah and their allies moved to the second weapon; threatening to attack Jerusalem with their armies. Yet the inhabitants still stood firm and continued the work. But with the last weapon - discouragement, they came much closer to succeeding. Sadly because this time the arrows came not from outside but from inside the camp. The people became discouraged due to exhaustion, especially when they saw how much work still needed to be done. They started thinking that this job is too big for us, we cannot possibly do it alone. Have you ever faced a situation that just looked to big at the time? Have you become discouraged in the middle of a trial? Especially when you have faced a period of prolonged battle with sin and temptation? Did the rubble lying around cause you to see no end to your trial? This is what was happening to Judah, right in the middle of their building project they seem to lose heart. And this is where Nehemiah' leadership was so exemplary. He knew how to lead from the front and he knew what to say to encourage them.
Nehemiah' response during this time of opposition is a brilliant example of wise leadership. Chapter 4:9 says, “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” His first response was prayer. You have seen this response from him already in chapter 1 and 2. One commentator says, “God's people should always regard prayer not as a last resort but our first weapon against opposition.”
Nehemiah' second response was to continue the work as we read in verse 6, “So we built the wall,” and in verse 15, “And we all returned to the wall.” His third response was to remind the people about the God who is behind this building project. He said in verse 14, “ Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your homes.” Nehemiah focused their attention on God and on their duty to protect their families and property. C.H. Spurgeon (The great 17th century preacher in England.) used to advise his students saying, “Pray as if everything depended on God, then preach as if everything depended on you.” Nehemiah repeatedly used this phrase “Great and awesome.” “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenants and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments,” (Nehemiah 1:5). And again, “Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love,” (Nehemiah 9:32). Each time he used this phrase it was to remind the people of God's nature of steadfast love and faithfulness to His covenant promises. When Nehemiah urged them to remember God's awesomeness, he was urging them to remember God's character. And God's character is bound up in His redemptive action, in saving His people. Nehemiah' last response was to be practical, he set up self-defense. He armed the people, planned for battle and kept people on guard duty. There was order and purpose to his defenses yet he reminded them also that it is God who will do the fighting in verse 20.
Our response to opposition
Should we expect opposition? The Bible says all who desire to live godly in this world will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). And, “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it come upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you,” (1 Peter 4:12). You will face opposition for carrying the name of Christ, that is a certainty. When you repent and place your faith in the completed work of Christ on your behalf, you are adopted into the family of God. When you are adopted into a family, you bear that family name. And there are few names that can cause such diverse and often quite viscous attack as the name of our Savior Jesus. Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you,” (John 15:19-20). If you are a believer then you have been adopted into God's family and you can be assured that opposition will come your way.
The arrows of opposition that you face may take the same form as those that were aimed at the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Subtle forms of ridicule are often more painful to accept especially if it comes from those you love. To be excluded, patronized and ignored may even cause you to slightly downplay your faith or compromise your stand on certain issues. Interestingly, during the Communist era of the 1950's - 1980's, often the way the government tried to stamp out religion, was not through overt use of force (even though that was used at times), but the most effective way was through reaching the children of Christians at school, teaching them to ridicule the beliefs of their parents. Subtle yet very effective way of warfare. Also living in a fallen world, you may at times be hurt by other believers or feel let down by the church. You may face the death of a loved one and wonder why God has allowed this to happen. All these discouragements may lead you to separate yourself from the church and other believers. Your discouragement may cause feelings of self-pity and may even lead to a desire just to give up. And lastly threats can come in different packages, for some it may be a threat of actual physical violence for other it may be more subtle. But these fears may cause some to abandon the faith, to give up on the building project while surrounded by rubble.
Why does God allow opposition? Have you ever wondered about this? Why does God not just save you and take you to heaven? Firstly God allows opposition because it strengthens your faith. “Count it all joy my brother, when you meet trails of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2). This sounds strange, most people would say that faith will allow you to survive suffering. Having faith should help you to survive suffering. But James says your faith survives because of suffering. He says the reason your faith is a lasting faith is because it has been proven in the fire. Secondly God allows opposition because we can serve the church better. Paul writes that the God of mercies and all comfort has a reason for suffering and that is, “So that we may be able to comfort those who are in affliction,” (2 Corinthians 1:4). Jesus said to Peter just before He prayed on the Mount of Olives: “Peter, Satan demanded to have you, that he may sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers”. How gracious the Lord is that he gives purpose to suffering. How often has it been that you have been able to use the lessons you learned during a time of trial, to turn around and comfort your sister in Christ through similar circumstances?
Thirdly God allows us to face opposition because it brings Him glory. Consider how great God's name is made when you refuse to indulge in the sins of the world or when you walk steadfast in faith during times of great opposition. With your actions you are saying, “I have found a greater treasure.” You are proclaiming that He is better and more satisfying than anything the world can offer. And lastly God allows suffering because it makes the cross of Christ so beautiful to us. D.A Carson says, "Frequently it is when we are crushed and devastated that the cross speaks most powerfully to us. The wounds of Christ then become Christ's credentials. The world mocks, but we are assured of God's love by Christ's wounds." The gospel assures us of God's great love for us. It enables us to face any opposition or trial. If God is for you, who can be against you, the Bible asks. God has shown He is for you by sending His Son to die the death that you deserved. If you have repented of your sin you have been adopted into His family, and God has given you the protection of His name. For when you face opposition, it is not you that people are opposing, but God, and He fights for you. The gospel gives great comfort during times of opposition because we have a High Priest in heaven Jesus Christ. Not only did He share in your experience in the flesh, in order that He can truly sympathize with you. He also is an example in suffering to you so that you will not grow weary. “Consider Him (Jesus) who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted,” (Hebrews 12:3). Jesus prays for His body and John 17 is a beautiful example of the prayers Christ makes for His bride as High Priest. So how can you be sure that you have become an adoptive daughter and share in the blessing of God's name? The simple answer to that is; have you believed the gospel? Have you believed that God is holy and you are a sinner in need of forgiveness. Remember you are not a sinner because you sin, you sin because you are a sinner. Your greatest need is not for happiness or health but it is to be forgiven of your sin. And you can only be forgiven when you accept that God has accepted the payment for your sins because of the death of Chris ton the cross. Repent and believe on His name. Paul writes, “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him,” (Philippians 3:8).
Do you think there is there a connection between your view of God and your response to opposition? The answer to this would be absolutely! Your view of God will directly influence how you respond to opposition and suffering. In 1 Peter 2:19-23 you see that when Jesus faced opposition He committed no sin, for when He was reviled yet He did not revile in return. When He suffered He did not threaten but what He did do, was to entrust Himself to God. And Jesus knowing the Father, knew that the Father does not require any to come to His defense, to fight for Him. Jesus simply entrusted Himself to God, as should we. When you have a high view of God, you are assured that He is sovereign and have purpose for opposition. And above all that He is a good and loving God whose character is wrapped up in His redemptive actions. Having a high view of God allows you to rest and entrust yourself to this great and awesome God. But with a low view of God, you will be tempted to see opposition and suffering as punishment and will seek to, “Do better or to be better,” in order to find favor with God.
What should our response be? “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” (1 Peter 4:13). Not only are you to rejoice in your trials, you are to view opposition and persecution as a privilege. Since it is a privilege to share in Christ's suffering, because in your suffering, Christ is made much of, He is glorified. Then,
what can you practically do for self-defense? Remember Nehemiah prayed and planned but He also armed his people, yet never forgetting that it is God who is doing the fighting. So let your first act be prayer. Pray for your enemies. Pray for your responses. Use the Psalms like Psalm 37,
“Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the LORD, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Memorize and study those texts in the Bible that deals with endurance, perseverance and steadfastness. But especially like Nehemiah, remind yourself of God's greatness and awesomeness through texts that show His character. Fill up the storehouse of your heart in the times of plenty, so that when the lean times come you have ample supply of Scripture and spiritual food to sustain you.
Then in closing, Charles Simeon was asked by a friend how he had persevered through the persecution and Simeon said: "My dear brother, we must not mind a little suffering for Christ's sake. When I am getting through a hedge, if my head and shoulders are safely through, I can bear the pricking of my legs. Let us rejoice in the remembrance that our holy Head has surmounted all His suffering and triumphed over death. Let us follow Him patiently; we shall soon be partakers of His victory"
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