The first martyr

Stephen’s appointment to oversee the business of the church in Jerusalem was based on his reputation for accurate testimony about Jesus’ life; as well as the fact that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and had the spiritual gift of wisdom (Acts 6:3). Luke identified Stephen as being “full of faith and power” and noted that he “did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8). As a result of his notable achievements, Stephen’s activities were opposed by certain synagogue members that were most likely jealous of his promotion to a position of leadership (Acts 6:9-10). Stephen was falsely accused of blasphemy, a crime that was punishable by death. When he was brought before the Jewish council to defend himself, Stephen chose to use his trial as an opportunity to preach the gospel to the high priest of God’s temple (Acts 7).

Stephen began his defense by recounting the history of God’s chosen people. With amazing clarity and detail, Stephen reminded the Jewish council that God had been faithful in keeping the covenant he first made with Abraham and then,  later reaffirmed with Abraham’s descendants just before they entered the Promised Land. As he transitioned to his explanation of the New Covenant that was formulated through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Stephen focused on the analogy Jesus used when he was asked for a sign of his deity (John 2:18-19). Stephen declared, “Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands” and then he turned the table on his accusers by stating, “Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it” (Acts 7:48, 52-53).

Stephen’s abrupt accusation caused the Jewish officials to be “cut to the heart” (Acts 7:54). In other words, they became fed up and took immediate action to silence Stephen regardless of the consequences. Stephen’s stoning made it look like he had been found guilty of blasphemy, but in reality, he was murdered by an angry mob. Luke said of this incident, “But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul” (Acts 7:56-58).

Dispute resolution

In one of his rare private moments with his disciples, Jesus took it upon himself to settle a dispute among them that could have turned into a scandal if it was left unchecked. Jesus began by asking his disciples, “What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? Embarrassed by their petty argument, Mark tells us that no one answered, “But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest” (Mark 9:34). The Greek word translated greatest, meizon (mide’-zone) suggests that Jesus’ disciples were comparing themselves to each other based on their stature, importance, the reputation they had gained by their ability or more specifically, their achievements (3187). In other words, they were arguing amongst themselves about who was the best disciple. It is likely they were boasting about their accomplishments in order to show off and make each other jealous.

Jesus took this opportunity to sit down with his disciples and have a heart to heart talk with them. It was no doubt important to Jesus that he get everyone’s attention and made sure all of his disciples understood what he was about to say to them. Mark tells us, “And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me” (Mark 9:36-37). The point Jesus was trying to make was that stature or importance was not based on their accomplishments.

Jesus went on to explain to his disciples that the most important thing in God’s kingdom was not their accomplishments of casting out devils or healing the sick, but their loyalty to one another. He said, “For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward” (Mark 9:41). The Greek word translated reward, misthos means pay for service or wages(3408). In other words, if you think about what we do for God as a job, the only thing we get paid for is what we do in the name of Jesus, for example, taking care of each others needs. Jesus clarified his statement by saying, we will not be rewarded for taking care of everyone’s needs, but only those that belong to Christ, the body of believers known as his church.

Discipleship

During his ministry on earth, Jesus centered his attention on the spiritual needs of God’s people; and for those who chose to become his disciples, he conducted a three-year apprenticeship program that focused on their membership in God’s kingdom. When the multitudes began to throng about him, Jesus looked for ways to discourage people from following him, rather than seeking to increase the number people that listened to him teach. An example of this can be found in Matthew 8:18 where it says, “Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about him, he gave commandment to depart unto the other side.” The other side Jesus commanded his disciples to go to was the southern coast of the sea of Galilee. It was there, in the region of Gadara, that Jesus cast out the Legion from a demon-possessed man (Luke 8:33). Gadara was located in the portion of the Roman Empire known as the Decapolis. The Decapolis was a league of ten free cities characterized by high Greek culture (note on Matthew 4:25). Jesus’ motivation for taking his disciples to such a place may have been to expose them to the harsh reality of satanic worship that was taking place within the borders of the Promised Land.

As he was preparing to enter the ship to sail to the region of Gadara, Jesus was approached by a scribe, a professional writer of the Mosaic Law, who wanted to go with him on his trip. Their short interaction is recorded in Matthew 8:19-20, where it says, “And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee withersoever thou goest. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath no where to lay his head.” It is evident in Jesus’ response that he was trying to discourage the man from joining his entourage. Jesus’ image as an important person that people wanted to get close to was probably the main reason he had to constantly be on the move. This meant that his disciples rarely saw their families and were not afforded the luxury of sleeping in their own beds. The message Jesus was conveying to the scribe was that discipleship involved very difficult work that would require a huge sacrifice and not many were fit for the task.

Along with the hardship of being away from loved ones, and sometimes not even having enough time to eat, Jesus expected his disciples to give up all of their earthly responsibilities in order to focus their full attention on preaching the gospel. When one of his disciples asked to be excused from the trip to Gadara so he could attend to his father’s burial, Jesus responded, “let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:21-22). Meaning, I have more important work for you to do. The spiritual work Jesus engaged in while he was on earth was not something to be taken lightly. During the brief time that he actively ministered to the Jews, Jesus probably spent less time sleeping than most people would think is humanly possible. What Jesus was looking for in the twelve disciples that became his inner circle of confidants and close companions during his three-year ministry was a willingness to leave everything in order to eat, sleep, and breathe with the creator of the universe. There was no middle ground, no half-hearted commitments. It was all or nothing in Jesus’ work of proclaiming the kingdom of heaven.

Leadership

The covenant the Jews entered into after Ezra the scribe read the book of God’s laws to them specifically stated that they would “observe and do all the commandments of the LORD” (Nehemiah 10:29). Sometime after his first term as governor had ended, Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem and found that the Jews were doing things they had promised God they wouldn’t. Nehemiah was frustrated by the people’s lack of commitment and prayed, “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof” (Nehemiah 13:14). Nehemiah probably felt that his effort to revive the relationship between God and his chosen people had been wasted, but may have hoped that the LORD would at least give him credit for attempting to get the Jews back on track.

More than a hundred years had passed since the first wave of exiles had returned to the Promised Land. In some ways, the circumstances in Jerusalem were no better than they were before God’s people were taken into captivity in Babylon, but there was one major difference. The political structure that existed before the Jew’s captivity was gone. There was no king or even an official leader of the nation. The governor role was primarily established by Artaxerxes to oversee the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem and to ensure that the resources he provided were used appropriately. After the building project was finished, the governor role may have continued so that the Jews would have a representative of the Persian government to consult with, somewhat like the role of an ambassador today.

The lack of leadership in Jerusalem seemed to have both positive and negative effects on the people. The kings of Israel and Judah were for the most part a bad influence on the Israelites. There were only a few exceptions to the list of kings that “did evil in the sight of the LORD” (2 Kings 14:24). While Nehemiah did do a lot to improve the situation in Jerusalem while he was there, things seemed to deteriorate pretty quickly after he went back to Sushan the palace. On the positive side, in spite of their other infractions of the law, the Jews stopped practicing idolatry, the main reason God had sent them into captivity. It could be that their leadership was at fault for this problem. God’s people had demanded a king so that they could be “like all the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). Perhaps, they realized afterward that they were better off not having someone to lead them into sin.

Mischief

Nehemiah’s commitment to completing his mission of rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem was met with opposition that eventually turned into personal attacks on his character. Nehemiah remained focused and would not risk even the slightest delay in the work. Two of Nehemiah’s most determined distractors, Sanballet and Geshem tried to get him involved in a political battle that would have most likely led to a protracted argument. Making it seem as if they were extending an invitation for him to join their prestigious ranks, Nehemiah said, “That Sanballet and Geshem sent unto me, saying, Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But they thought to do me mischief. The Hebrew word translated mischief, ra’ah means bad or evil (7451). The point Nehemiah was trying to make was that these men were trying to keep him from doing God’s will. If he allowed himself to be concerned with their demands, Nehemiah probably would have lost the respect of his followers.

Nehemiah’s response conveyed the importance of his mission. Nehemiah felt that a delay in completing his assignment was equivalent to disobedience to God. He said, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease whilst I leave it, and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3). Sanballet refused to take no for an answer. He sent the same message to Nehemiah four times and then made a fifth, more intimidating, attempt to convince Nehemiah he should comply with his request. Sanballet sent what was referred to as an open letter (Nehemiah 6:5). Basically, the purpose of the open letter was to make it possible for rumors to be started that would get word back to King Artaxerxes that a problem existed in Jerusalem. The letter addressed to Nehemiah stated:

It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel: for which cause thou buildest the wall, that thou mayest be their king, according to these words. And thou hast also appointed prophets to preach of thee at Jerusalem, saying, There is a king in Judah. (Nehemiah 6:7)

Sanballet’s threatening letter ended with a direct request for Nehemiah to become a member of his organization. He said, “Come now therefore, and let us take counsel together” (Nehemiah 6:7). The phrase “take counsel together” could be translated, devise a unified plan or join forces (3289/3162). Sanballet was probably implying that he would make it worth Nehemiah’s while to work for him rather than to serve God.

Perhaps the lowest trick Nehemiah was exposed to was an enticement to hide in the house of God in order to avoid being killed by Sanballet and Tobiah (Nehemiah 6:10). Nehemiah responded, “And I said, Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in” (Nehemiah 6:11). It was Nehemiah’s example as a leader that was being challenged in this cowardly suggestion. Nehemiah was right to reject such a proposal, but also wise in his understanding of the impression it would give. Nehemiah’s interpretation of the situation showed that he was aware of his enemy’s attempt to ruin his reputation. He said, “Therefore was he hired, that I should be afraid, and do so, and sin, and that they might have matter for an evil report, that they might reproach me” (Nehemiah 6:13).

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).