The lost sheep

Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep was set in the context of an argument that was going on between his disciples about who was the greatest among them. It is likely their argument was the result of an incident in which some of Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out a demon because of their unbelief (Matthew 17:20). Perhaps, James and John who had just returned from a mountaintop experience in which Jesus was transfigured were taunting the other disciples because of their lack of spiritual experience or were boasting about having just seen Moses and Elijah with Jesus as his face shined like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light (Matthew 17:2). Jesus rebuked his disciples by setting a little child in the middle of them and saying, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

Jesus established that the first step in serving God was to be converted or renewed in one’s relationship with the LORD. Jesus’ disciples didn’t seem to understand that God wasn’t looking for miracle workers, but children that wanted to spend time with him. Jesus began his teaching about restored fellowship with the warning, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). The point Jesus was making was that a small child that was unable to do anything to impress God was so important to his Father that he kept himself constantly updated on their physical well-being and spiritual growth. Jesus then reminded his disciples, “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost” (Matthew 18:11).

The Greek word Jesus used to describe someone that was lost, apollumi (ap-ol’-loo-mee) is derived from two other words that depict separation and ruin, that is punishment by death (575/3639). Jesus was talking about someone that was going to hell for eternity, an eternal separation from God. After establishing his purpose and specific assignment from God, Jesus said, “How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? (Matthew 18:12). Jesus’ reference to going into the mountains may have been an indication that the lost sheep(s) he was referring to were the three disciples that were taken with him on the mountain to witness his transfiguration. The point being that James, John, and Peter were not more righteous than the other disciples, but more at risk of eternal damnation.

Jesus concluded his teaching about fellowship with an illustration of the benefit of working together with other believers rather than competing against them for God’s attention. He declared, “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:19-20). The lesson that may have been hidden or tucked away within Jesus’ teaching about fellowship was the way that we are able to do more for God’s kingdom. Although two people agreeing about something may not seem like that difficult of a task, the argument between Jesus’ disciples about who was the greatest showed that they were at odds with each other and didn’t want to admit that they were all lost, separated from God and in need of a savior.

 

Rest

Jesus’ target audience was what we might refer to today as the working class. The segment of the population that was overburdened by taxes and what must have seemed like a never ending daily requirements for more and more of their limited resources. Speaking to a mixed multitude of interested spectators, Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). What Jesus was describing was a partnership in which the toils and hardships of life were shared between him and his followers. The yoke, a wooden crosspiece that was fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to a plow or cart that they were to pull, was symbolic of joint labor. Jesus wasn’t asking his followers to go it alone; he was assuring them that he would be by their side, handling life’s challenges along with them.

One of the things that Jesus was trying to clarify was God’s expectations for his children. Jesus didn’t tell his followers that they would have a life of ease, but promised them that life would be easier with his help. Jesus’ statement, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” referred to being used by God. A believer’s burden is the responsible he has for his own moral behavior and his accountability to God for making spiritual progress throughout his life (Galatians 6:4). The purpose of a yoke was to balance out the load so that a larger burden could be handled. The Greek term translated yoke, zophos means “a coupling” (2218). If you think of a couple as being complementary partners, you could say that as a partner, Jesus can provide anything that might be lacking in an individual’s spiritual capabilities.  In order to do God’s will, Jesus was saying that he could supply everything that was necessary to complete the spiritual work that each individual needed to accomplish.

The rest that Jesus invited his followers to take part in was not a vacation from work, but a type of recreation that made work less burdensome. “Christ’s rest is not a rest from work, but in work; not the rest of inactivity but of the harmonious working of all the faculties and affections – of will, heart, imagination, conscience ‘ because each had found in God the ideal sphere for its satisfaction and development” (372). Another way of describing the kind of rest that Jesus wanted his followers to experience would be collaboration. The Apostle Paul depicted collaboration as a “building fitly framed together” (Ephesians 2:21), and also said we are all “members” (Ephesians 5:30) of Christ’s body. In other words, everyone has a part to play in the work of God’s kingdom. When we all join together and do what each of us has been specifically designed by God to do best, our work seems easier and the “burden” (Matthew 11:30) of it much lighter. Therefore, doing God’s will becomes a type of rest or recreation that we want to do more often.

Opposition

There were two types of opposition that caused interruptions to the Jews work of rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, internal and external opposition. After the work had started, a group of men showed up that were determined to keep the Jews from making progress. Nehemiah recorded, “But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?” (Nehemiah 2:19). The continual mocking that took place at their worksite was a type of external opposition that reminded the Jews of the ridicule they could expect if they dared to be different from the people around them. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem represented dominant cultures that had previously enticed God’s people to reject him. When these influential men heard that the Jews were trying to start over and intended to obey God’s commandments, they did everything they could to put a stop to it.

In spite of the external opposition they faced, the Jews were able to complete the first half of their assignment, but afterwards, they were threatened with a military attack. Nehemiah stated, “And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease” (Nehemiah 3:11). Nehemiah’s response was to arm the people and get them back to work as quickly as possible (Nehemiah 3:13, 15). Surprisingly, the threat of being attacked didn’t make the Jews want to quit, but Nehemiah knew his crew needed to be guarded or their lives could be in danger, so he armed them with weapons. It says in Nehemiah 4:16-18:

And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both, the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah. They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.

As soon as Nehemiah got the situation with his external opposition under control, an internal conflict broke out. Some of the Jews were upset because their children were being forced into slavery because they were too poor to pay the interest on their debt to the Jewish nobles and rulers (Nehemiah 4:1-4). Nehemiah said, “And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words. Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, You exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them” (Nehemiah 4:6-7). Nehemiah’s approach to the internal opposition he faced was to take upon himself the responsibility that would normally be expected of a king. The Hebrew phrase Nehemiah used that is translated, “I consulted with myself” could be interpreted as, I put myself in a position of authority, or I took responsibility for the people’s circumstances. When he said he rebuked the nobles, and the rulers and set a great assembly against them, Nehemiah was implying he challenged their leadership openly, as if these men were being put on trial.

Nehemiah was the type of leader that led by example. He didn’t separate himself from the common people, nor did he expect special treatment. One of the things Nehemiah was entitled to as Artaxerxes’ governor of Judah was a daily ration of food. Nehemiah didn’t take this portion from the people as other governors had, but provided regular meals for more than 150 persons out of his own resources. Nehemiah’s explanation for his behavior was  a fear of God and “because the bondage was heavy upon this people” (Nehemiah 4:15, 18). Nehemiah’s motive for overcoming the external and internal opposition he faced seemed to be to protect his reputation with God. Nehemiah appeared to care what God thought of his behavior more than anything else. He prayed to the LORD, “Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people” (Nehemiah 4:19).

Collaboration

Nehemiah’s assignment to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem was something that he said, “my God had put in my heart to do” (Nehemiah 2:12). Initially, Nehemiah kept his mission a secret, perhaps because he thought there was a traitor among the Jews living in Jerusalem. It might have been that Nehemiah just wanted to get a first hand look at what needed to be done to secure the perimeter of the city before he shared his action plan. Nehemiah’s night inspection revealed that the wall had been completely destroyed. There was nothing left but rubble of the once magnificent structure that protected God’s people from enemy attacks. Immediately after he had gained the support of the people to start rebuilding the wall, Nehemiah was hit with opposition from what could be considered the local mafia or an organized crime syndicate. It says in Nehemiah 2:19-20:

But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king? Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us: therefore we his servants will arise and build: but you have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.

The key to Nehemiah’s plan to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem was collaboration. Whether or not this idea came to him directly from God or was something that Nehemiah developed on his own was not clearly stated, but it seems likely that collaboration was God’s idea, not Nehemiah’s. Everyone in the city was expected to participate in the effort, including the priests, government officials, and even Nehemiah himself. Nehemiah gave out work assignments, making sure that every section of the wall had a leader assigned to it. The way Nehemiah described his plan, there were to be no gaps in building activity, everything was to be done simultaneously.

Throughout the third chapter of the book of Nehemiah the phrases “next unto him” and “after him” appear repeatedly. The picture that Nehemiah painted was an unbroken chain of people surrounding the city of Jerusalem, each person with an assigned task directly related to their own personal welfare and stake in the family’s inheritance of property. Included in Nehemiah’s plan was the restoration of ten of the twelve gates that controlled access into and out of the city. Beginning and ending with the sheep gate, Nehemiah laid out his work plan stating, “Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brethren the priests, and they built the sheep gate; they sanctified it, and set up the doors of it; even unto the tower of Meah they sanctified it, unto the tower of Hananeel…After him repaired Malchiah the goldsmith’s son unto the place of the Nethinims, and of the merchants, over against the gate of Miphkad, and to the going up of the corner. And between the going up of the corner unto the sheep gate repaired the goldsmiths and the merchants” (Nehemiah 3).