Wednesday 2 September 2009

The Word of God and the People of God

[A version of this article was first published in eg 23 (September 2009), a publication of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.]

Building projects – in Ezra it’s the temple, in Nehemiah it’s the city walls. Bricks and mortar. Hard work. Hot work. Heavy work. Blood, sweat and tears.

No less real – and no less hard graft – is the rebuilding of the people themselves. A restored temple and rebuilt walls to be sure, but at the centre of it all a renewed relationship with God, in community with others. Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of how God restores his broken people after they return home from exile. And at the heart of that renewal, the means by which restoration comes, as Nehemiah 8 portrays, is the word of God. Often overlooked, the chapter suggests some key features of how God works through Scripture to breathe new life into his people. It begins, as we might expect, with reading and understanding (8:1-8).

1. Reading and understanding
Picture the scene: thousands crowd into the public square; Ezra stands on a raised platform large enough for other leaders to stand on either side of him, adding to the seriousness of what’s going on; unusually, the people have asked him to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses; when he opens the scroll they stand up, he blesses them, and they respond in worship. Ezra reads the book of the Law from daybreak to noon, for about six hours. And the people listen attentively (8:3) and reverently (8:5-6).

But reading and listening alone is not enough. God’s word has to be explained in order to be understood. To ensure those gathered do not struggle (not least because the Law was written in Hebrew, and by this time most of the people spoke Aramaic) some Levites ‘read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read’ (8:8).

Already the passage strongly suggests that the growth and renewal of God’s people depends not just on hearts hungry to read and listen to his word, but on those who will explain it so that others will understand.

But even this, it seems, is not the final goal…

2. Responding and celebrating
Reading and understanding leads in turn to responding and celebrating, with weeping first, and then with joy (8:9-12). We’re not told why the people wept, but it’s not hard to imagine – especially as the rest of the story goes on – that they were convicted by what was read. Now they know how far they have drifted from God’s word.

We should not miss the emotional nature of their response to God’s word, and the people are not discouraged from responding emotionally. In this case, however, weeping is an inappropriate response. It would appear that lengthy reading, attentive listening, and careful explanation do not automatically guarantee a fitting response to God’s word. There would be a right time for confession, as chapter 9 goes on to show, but this was not it. Meanwhile, the leaders are concerned not just that the people respond to God’s word, but that they respond appropriately, and the response called for here is celebration and rejoicing – that the people might discover that the joy of the Lord is their strength (8:10). Engagement with God’s word becomes engagement with God himself, which brings joy and strength to his people.

And still there is more…

3. Remembering and participating
The rest of the chapter shows the people remembering and participating (8:13-18), celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, living in tents – like some early Greenbelt festival – recalling how their ancestors lived in the wilderness, with everyone taking part, acting out God’s provision for them. We’re told there had been nothing like it since the days of Joshua (8:17), and it becomes a seven-day festival of reading and celebration (8:18). They are recovering what it means to be the people of God because they are hearing, understanding, and responding to the voice of God in the pages of his word.

This rich chapter tells of the importance of the word of God to the life of the people of God. It reminds us that God renews through his word, that it’s a word for men and women and children, that his word addresses the whole community, that it is to be listened to attentively and reverently, and explained and understood too, and responded to appropriately, and that it makes a difference to how people live. Minds informed, hearts touched, lives changed – God renews through his word.

If Nehemiah 8 speaks of renewal through the word of God, it becomes clear in chapter 9 that at the heart of renewal is restored relationship with God. As the biblical story is recounted, from creation right up to the present day (9:5-37), the people confess their faithlessness and God’s faithfulness in his dealings with them. When renewal comes through God’s word, it will lead – through confession – to restored relationship with him. And, as chapter 10 goes on to show, it comes to the people as a whole. The renewal of the covenant in chapter 10 flows from the awakening by the word of God in chapter 8 and the confession of sin in chapter 9.

Of course, there is a need for ongoing renewal at the personal level. But what’s going on in Nehemiah, crucially, is corporate renewal, renewal of the people of God. A restored relationship with God leads to a restored relationship with each other, to a concern for the welfare of the whole community. That’s the vision offered by these chapters – renewal through the word of God, renewal in relationship with God, and renewal as the people of God.

All of this reminds us of the important relationship between Scripture and church communities, where Scripture shapes the convictions and practices of churches as part of their ongoing commitment to live and worship faithfully before God. None of this is to detract from the importance of individual study of the Bible. But, giving Nehemiah 8 its proper due may mean recognising that the reading and interpretation of Scripture is most appropriately carried out by, and in the context of, the church community. It helps to prevent privatised readings of the Bible, and to correct some of the biases we may bring to certain texts. Our appropriation of Scripture takes place in recognition that we belong within and are answerable to a community of readers, not just those to whom we belong now, but to brothers and sisters in Christ extended through space and time.

This has been a major emphasis of some current thinking, especially by those who are seeking to redefine evangelicalism apart from modernist assumptions, and who borrow from postmodern thinkers the notion that knowledge is mediated through communities and traditions with distinctive stories and language and practices. There are important insights here: there is a communal dimension to the Christian faith, which evangelicalism has not always been good at paying attention to. But, occasionally the Christian community gets it wrong (which might not come as a huge surprise), just as the communities of faith in the Bible occasionally got it wrong. And when we do, we are brought back on track by Scripture. The church stands under Scripture, not alongside it, and certainly not above it. Authority lies not in the community, but in the God who speaks to the community through Scripture. Scripture must stand in a place where it might, if necessary, critique the teaching and practice of the church, where it might renew the community of faith, as it did in Nehemiah’s day.

As we submit to God’s word, may our use of Scripture in churches – in preaching, in Bible studies, in disciple-making courses, in children’s ministry – issue in a whole-life discipleship that connects us with previous generations of faithful believers and extends that same faith into the very specific contexts in which we find ourselves in today’s world.

This represents something of LICC’s vision and hope for churches – that the whole people of God might engage with the whole word of God in a way that touches and transforms the whole of our lives, individually and together, and for the sake of the world in which we are called to live.

1 comment:

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