A leader can make a positive change in the inner city with the hope of restoring poor people to a closer relationship with Jesus Christ.
INTRODUCTION TO NEHEMIAH
The book of Nehemiah is a potential model for inner city ministry because, if we study it exegetically, there are lessons we can observe and apply to bringing the gospel to inner cities. One author writes about the importance of bringing the gospel to the inner city in a positive way stating, “Annunciating the kingdom will mean that instead of accepting the inner city as it is and offering words of future consolation, Christians will work to reverse the misery, suffering, and injustice that too often grip it. Such kingdom-focused work includes establishing alternative institutions, advancing holistic initiatives, and advancing the cause of urban reform.”[ref]Mark R. Gornik, To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 29.[/ref] My pastor, Brian Miller, felt a burden as he began Enclave Community Church. He knows it is important to play a role in making sure that the problems of the poor are solved.
In his book, The Upside-Down Kingdom, author Donald Kraybill gives a great explanation of what exactly the word “poor” meant in Biblical times. Kraybill tells us that the “term poor in the biblical context has a at least three meanings. First, it refers to the materially poor-destitutes living in squalor with meager food, housing, and clothing. . . Second, in a broader sense, the poor in the Bible are the oppressed. . . The third connotation of poor comes out of an Old Testament tradition.”[ref]Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), 32. 110.[/ref] These definitions of “poor” can be applied to inner cities today too.
Similar to Pastor Brian’s heart for the community around Enclave Church, Nehemiah is a story of God allowing a leader to follow his heart to make a change in his community. Nehemiah sought to rebuild the torn down walls and burnt gates of the holy city of Jerusalem as well as to restore religious practices.
Nehemiah’s story relates to work that has been done by Enclave in my community in Turlock, California. The story of Nehemiah, which is mostly told as a memoir, is an exciting one because of the pace that the story opens up with and in which progress is made. However, in order to understand the significance of Nehemiah, we must first have a historical and contextual view of the times in which Nehemiah creates community change.
UNDERSTANDING NEHEMIAH’S CONTEXT
By Nehemiah’s time, the Jews had spent several decades in exile. The Persian king, Cyrus, issued a decree in 538 B.C. that allowed over 50,000 Jews to return to their homeland to rebuild their temple under the leadership of Zerubbabel. Several “waves” of Jewish men and women returned to the city of Jerusalem to restore it to its former life before being conquered. One of those waves was led by Ezra, a Jewish priest who was skilled in teaching God’s law.
However, “Ezra did not solve all the problems in Jerusalem. The people still did not have a secure city with rebuilt walls and gates. Numerous enemies still opposed their presence in Jerusalem. They needed a strong civic leader who could help them preserve their independence, economic vitality, security, and sanctity of Jerusalem. God sent a new leader, Nehemiah, to address these issues.”[ref]Gary V. Smith, New Living Translation Study Bible, “The Book of Nehemiah” (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 808.[/ref] Eventually, the Jews succeeded in rebuilding the temple, but there was still much work left to be done, and the people knew that. In this context, we get to see the circumstances and process for how Nehemiah’s vision is born in Nehemiah’s life.
At the beginning of the book of Nehemiah, we quickly see that Nehemiah has a heart for God, his home country, Judah, and the holy city, Jerusalem. From Nehemiah’s heart for God, Judah, and Jerusalem, we see a vision born. In the first chapter of Nehemiah, he asks some fellow brothers “about the Jews who had returned there [to Jerusalem] from captivity and about how things were going in Jerusalem” (Neh 1:2). This might have been an optimistic question. He might have hoped to hear about positive changes being made in the city.
One Bible scholar says Nehemiah’s question was “earnest and eager, because his interest was genuine.”[ref]W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor’s Bible (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing: 1956), 2:630.[/ref] Jerusalem was the holy city of his ancestors in the “glory days” when David and Solomon ruled with great power and influence. Unfortunately, Nehemiah hears “things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire” (Neh 1:3). This is devastating news to Nehemiah, so much that he sits down and weeps. For days he mourns, fasts, and prays (Neh 1:4).
Why weep over walls and gates?
In 586 B.C., 141 years earlier, Judah was conquered by the Babylonians.[ref]Edwin M. Yamauchi, “The Archaeological Background of Nehemiah,” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December 1980): 302.[/ref] In Nehemiah’s time, blessings and punishments were seen as the result of people’s behavior. In other words, if things were good and God blessed them, it meant God was pleased with the people’s obedience to Him. On the flip side, thanks to the prophets’ revelations the people knew they had been conquered and carried away to a foreign land because they had allowed their hearts to drift away from God.
Nehemiah shows us he knows this when he prays in verses six and seven of chapter one, “I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses” (Neh 1:6-7). Judah had a long history of failing to be faithful to God, and this led them to eventually being conquered by the Babylonians and 60,000-80,000 people carried away to live in various districts of Babylon.[ref]Comfort, Ph.D., Phillip W. and Walter A. Alwell, Ph.D., eds. Tyndale Bible Dictionary: A comprehensive guide to the people, places, and important words of the Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 943.[/ref] The city of Jerusalem had its walls torn down, gates burned, temple destroyed, and religious artifacts carried away. In this era it was also believed that the people who had the most land and power had the most powerful Gods. Judah’s exile and Jerusalem’s destruction not only highlighted their disobedience, it meant their God was no longer seen as a power by their enemies. Nehemiah views this news as a message that either God was not in power or that God was still angry with them for their past sin.
Nehemiah was a man in a foreign nation, serving a foreign king who worshipped a foreign god. The news that Nehemiah’s homeland and people were still in disarray was definitely something to weep over, and leads him to a prayer that gives us insight into his heart.
A VISION IS BORN
Nehemiah offers a sincere and heartfelt prayer to God asking for God to show favor to him and to the Persian King who Nehemiah serves:
O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses. Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’ The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants. Lord, please hear my prayer! Listen to the prayers of those of us who delight in honoring you. Please grant me success today by making the king favorable to me. Put it into his heart to be kind to me. (Neh 1:5-11, NLT)
Nehemiah knows things in Jerusalem are not the way they are supposed to be, and a vision is born in his heart to do something about it.
One scholar describes Nehemiah as “a man of vision. He knew who God was and what He could do through His servants. Nehemiah was not, however, a visionary, but instead was a man who planned then acted.”[ref]Edwin M. Yamauchi, “The Archaeological Background of Nehemiah,” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December 1980): 304.[/ref] During this time period Jews such as Nehemiah knew the Scripture well. He references God’s promise that “if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them. . . . I will bring you back to the place I have chosen” (Neh 1:9). That promise is important enough to Nehemiah and other Jews that it moves them to action.
Additionally, Nehemiah knew King Cyrus and King Artaxerxes had allowed some of the Jews to return back to their homeland. There was hope and a little bit of momentum for Nehemiah to maybe be able to do something about the situation his fellow Jewish countrymen were in Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s position as a cup bearer to the king plays a role in allowing his vision to be realized.
The importance of being cup bearer becomes evident when we learn that Nehemiah, as a cup bearer, “would have been well trained in court etiquette . . . . was probably handsome . . . . would know how to select wines for the king to drink . . . . was probably a companion to the king who was willing to listen to the king at all times . . . . would be a man of great influence because he had closest access to the king and could determine who could see the king [and] . . . . was someone who the king trusted greatly.”[ref]Edwin M. Yamauchi, “The Archaeological Background of Nehemiah,” Bibliotheca Sacra (October-December 1980): 296-297.[/ref] With this important historical information in mind about Nehemiah’s relationship to the king as his cup bearer, we can now understand what happens when Nehemiah has his opportunity to share his vision with the king and queen.
When Nehemiah is serving the king his wine the king notices Nehemiah is sad. Nehemiah tells it this way, “Early the following spring, in the month of Nisan, during the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes’ reign, I was serving the king his wine. I had never before appeared sad in his presence. So the king asked me, ‘Why are you looking so sad? You don’t look sick to me. You must be deeply troubled.’ Then I was terrified” (Neh 2:1-2). It is obvious that time has passed since Nehemiah’s prayer when he writes, “early in the following spring” (Neh 2:1).
Also, Nehemiah regularly served the king his wine, but this time was different because Nehemiah appeared sad. Perhaps Nehemiah’s heart is worn down as more time passes with no progress on the repair to the walls torn down and the gates burnt. He feels God has put a vision on his heart to do something about those walls, but he is not able. Nehemiah replies to the king’s inquiry about the origin of this uncommon sadness by saying, “Long live the king! How can I not be sad? For the city where my ancestors are buried is in ruins, and the gates have been destroyed by fire” (Neh 2:3).
Nehemiah has a chance to share his vision with the king when the king replies, “Well, how can I help you?” (Neh 2:4). Nehemiah reflects on the experience saying, “With a prayer to the God of heaven, I replied, ‘If it please the king, and if you are pleased with me, your servant, send me to Judah to rebuild the city where my ancestors are buried” (Neh 2:4-5). Then the king and queen both give Nehemiah permission, resources, and people to travel to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall.
RESEARCH IS DONE ON THE VISION
Three days after arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah “slipped out during the night, taking only a few others with me. I had not told anyone about the plans God had put in my heart for Jerusalem” (Neh 2:11-12).
There are three key things we can observe here as Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem that relate to the urban ministry context.
1. Nehemiah waits before he works.
The author and Nehemiah himself make it very clear that when Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem he waits three days before doing anything.
2. Nehemiah does his research.
Nehemiah takes time to go around to inspect the “broken walls and burned gates” (Neh 2:13). John Fuder, who has 14 years of experience in urban ministries notices, “When Nehemiah gets the news about the state of despair of Jerusalem, he goes out and conducts research, thoroughly ‘inspecting the walls’.”[ref]John Fuder, A Heart for the Community, ed. John Fuder and Noel Castellanos (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 72.[/ref]
3. Nehemiah intentionally does not tell others why he is there.
We see this when Nehemiah writes, “The city officials did not know I had been out there or what I was doing, for I had not said anything to anyone about my plans. I had not yet spoken to the Jewish leaders-the priests, the nobles, the officials, or anyone else in the administration” (Neh 2:16)
Nehemiah is there with the vision God has placed in his heart, and he has not told anyone about it.
We did something similar at our church as it was new to the downtown community of Turlock, California. Enclave Community Church was about two years old but had recently moved into a church building in downtown Turlock. I remember when Pastor Brian gathered the church together to do one thing: walk around the neighborhood to ask people what they thought the community needed and what the church could do about these needs. I did not realize it at the time, but similar to Nehemiah, we were “inspecting” our local community. God had put a vision in our pastor’s heart to reach the lost of the inner city of Turlock (people who were not being reached by other churches and were commonly left out of church). We were inspecting the community and listening to what we could do to help. This experience greatly helped me realize that we as a church are here to serve and care for our neighbors and that we serve those neighbors by first listening to their needs instead of defining their needs for them.
What is interesting to observe in Nehemiah’s story is not just that he listens, researches, and observes, but also how he carefully unveils his vision for the city of Jerusalem.
THE VISION IS SLOWLY SHARED
We now find ourselves in the story of Nehemiah as he announces his vision in a unique way.
Before examining what he says to the people living within and near Jerusalem, we must correctly understand the hearts of the people listening to him. Nehemiah encounters Jews in Jerusalem who are ready for change. They know that 141 years have passed since the Babylonians originally conquered Jerusalem, burned the city and its temple, and took 60,000-80,000 Jews into exile.[ref]Comfort, Ph.D., Phillip W. and Walter A. Alwell, Ph.D., eds. Tyndale Bible Dictionary: A comprehensive guide to the people, places, and important words of the Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 943.[/ref] Turlock, where Enclave Church is located, was actually founded in 1871.[ref]Turlock Convention and Visitors Bureau, “History of Turlock,” Turlock Convention and Visitors Bureau, visitturlock.org/pages?id=27&ss=3 (accessed March 10, 2012).[/ref] If we can imagine Turlock being in ruins and need of restoration that entire time, we will see what these Jews faced. These people were ready for someone to help them change Jerusalem and improve it.
As Nehemiah begins to share his vision, he first sparks in them the desire they already have; he touches on their pain. Nehemiah says to the Jews living in and near Jerusalem, “You know very well the trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire. Let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and end this disgrace” (Neh 2:17).
As current or future urban ministry leaders there are three key words in that verse worth taking time to examine in their original context.
1. The first word is “trouble.”
Nehemiah talks to them about what hurts. He does not condemn them for their failure or point to their past sins because that does not matter much at this time.[ref]Mark R. Gornik, To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 35-64.[/ref]
2. Another word worth examining is “we”.
Nehemiah is careful to say, “we are in” not “you are in”. Nehemiah comes to the people living within and near the city of Jerusalem as “one of them” who shares a spiritual connection with this special city. In our ministry at Enclave Community Church, we too attempt to relate ourselves to the poor and needy by seeing ourselves also as sinners. This helps us relate to them, and it prevents us from putting blame on the people of the community.
3. The final word worth examining is the last word in the verse, “disgrace”.
When talking about disgrace, Nehemiah knew what we might call strategy in mobilizing volunteers. Like Nehemiah, at Enclave many people have a desire to see our city and the area we worship in transformed. We just need volunteers to help us do that. “The first thing that needs to happen before a church attempts to mobilize volunteers is to be clear on the mission. Tell the church why it is important.”[ref]Alvin C. Bibbs, Sr., A Heart for the Community, ed. John Fuder and Noel Castellanos (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 328.[/ref] Nehemiah was crystal clear on that mission when talking about disgrace. The Jews hated that disgrace, so Nehemiah tells them the disgrace will end when the walls and gates are rebuilt.
Now that Nehemiah has sparked that interest and touched on the people’s shared pain and disgrace, he is ready to mobilize the people and cast his vision.
Now we arrive at the climax of all of Nehemiah’s work. Thus far he has heard the news that led him weep, mourn, fast, and pray; he has courageously asked the king and queen for permission to travel to Jerusalem; and he has made the journey of hundreds of miles[ref]Broadman & Holman Publishers, Holman Book of Biblical Charts, Maps, and Reconstructions (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 122.[/ref] to Jerusalem. He has seen the torn down walls and burnt gates with his own eyes, and he has shared the vision God has placed in his heart. How are the people going to respond? Are they going to accept him and his bold and courageous vision to rebuild the walls and gates? The Jewish people respond to Nehemiah saying, “Yes, let’s rebuild the wall!” (Neh 2:18).
But the story does not end there. If you have read Nehemiah you know that despite some internal and external opposition Nehemiah leads the people to complete the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem in 52 days!
Mark R. Gornik who has extensive experience in changing inner cities comments on the remarkable story of the beginning of rebuilding Jerusalem this way, “Once this task of rebuilding the wall and the city had been clearly articulated, a challenging yet achievable project, it created its own energy, enabling people to do more than they thought they could. It would be the catalytic event of their new story.”[ref]Mark R. Gornik, To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 137.[/ref] It was an amazing feat!
REFLECTIONS FOR INNER CITY LEADERS
The stories of Nehemiah and Enclave Community Church are similar. For over six years we have worked to “rebuild the walls” in our city of Turlock. As a church that originally started as a vision of Pastor Brian Miller—our godly leader—we have made some progress towards community change. But we are still learning and developing our ministry. I hope that Enclave has a similar process of living out a vision to care for the poor just as Nehemiah did.