Nehemiah—What is it you want? Spiritual Gifts
Several weeks ago we began a series on Spiritual Gifts using the Book of Nehemiah as a starting point. I gave a brief introduction to Nehemiah and its relation to the Book of Ezra. In 538 BC about 50,000 Jewish people were giving permission to return to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel’s leadership and begin rebuilding the Temple which was finished around 515 BC. In 458 BC Ezra returns and begins to bring reform to the remnant. 13 years later in 444 BC Nehemiah begins his journey towards Jerusalem and the rebuilding of its broken walls and the gates burned with fire. Upon hearing about the state of Jerusalem Nehemiah showed he cared, he shed tears, he fasted, prayed and confessed to God about the state of his people.
Nehemiah gives us a great picture of a man on an assignment by God. The foundation of his godly character, his humility and his determination are excellent attributes to bring into a study on Spiritual Gifts. We briefly looked at motivational gifts found in Rom 12:6-8, manifestations of the gifts in 1 Cor 12:7-10, 28 and ministry gifts found in Eph 4:11. While these passages are not exclusive with regards to spiritual gifts they form a solid foundation for us to begin our study.
After this brief review let us turn to Nehemiah 2 and take another look at his journey towards Jerusalem. Nehemiah begins his journey “one step at a time”. This reminds me of our journey of discovery as we consider spiritual gifts; we too begin with baby steps. Everyone receives the gifts of the Spirit in embryonic form; in other words, our callings and gifting begin in an immature state and we must grow up into fulness. As we shall see in Nehemiah’s story there was a lot to consider as he moved forward in his calling. After a period of four months and considering the state of Jerusalem he gains the courage to approach the King of Persia. In those days one did not approach the king unless summoned. As well, the kings were protected from anything that may cause them grief or sadness. Happiness was one of the chief goals of life for kings not unlike the day and age in which so many hedonistically pursue pleasure.
The problem for Nehemiah was significant - he was very sad. This Hebrew word could be translated bad or evil which maybe interpreted by King Artaxerxes as treasonous. So after months of fasting and prayer and concern he cautiously approaches the king. In the course of their conversation King Artaxerxes notices Nehemiah’s sadness and inquires about it. Nehemiah gives a brief explanation of the devastation to the city of his fore fathers and then awaits the king’s response. The king responds with this line “What is it you want?” This one statement changes the course of history and we will take a closer look at its implications for us.
What is it you want?
“What is it you want?” What an opportunity for Nehemiah! All the power and wealth of the kingdom were wrapped up in that question. In this moment of questioning Nehemiah sent up one of those “Hail Mary” prayers. He must not answer too quickly or the king may think there was some sort of pre-planned conspiracy, but also he must not wait to long and miss this wonderful opportunity. The Book of Nehemiah records these “short and sweet” prayers to God - Neh 4:4; 5:9; 6:9, 14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31. Let’s keep in mind that these quick prayers were supported by a lifestyle of prayer and the previous four months of prayer and fasting. Nehemiah was in tune to the Spirit of God and able to receive quick wisdom and insight from God.
I am reminded of several passages of Scripture that relate to this concept of coming before a king. Isn't it wonderful to know that we serve the King of Heaven and Earth. Can you imagine for a moment God Almighty saying to you “What is it you want?” The Scriptures tell us:
- Psalm 37:4 - Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.
- Jesus said to the blind man “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51).
- Matt 6:8 - Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Nehemiah approached his king with sadness on his face, but our God sees the sadness and stress of our inner hearts. We are told to “approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Hebr 4:16).
Jesus himself gave us the invitation to “ask him for anything in his name and he will do it” (John 14:14. We understand that we must meet certain conditions for this statement to be true. God is not giving us a “blank check” to selfishly spend on our own pleasures. He is giving us an opportunity to partner with him in history, to make a difference in our family and friends for the glory of God.
In the case of Nehemiah not only did he quickly pray in response to the king’s question, but he had also planned for it during those four months of fasting, prayer and waiting. To be sure he had considered the situation throughly and knew exactly how he would approach the king. His response to the king can be summarized in two requests:
- “Send me!” (Neh. 2:4–6)
- “Give me!” (Neh. 7–10)
Nehemiah would need permission to go and provision for the task. Many sermons have been written along this theme, “Where God Guides, He Provides.” This was coming into fulfillment for Nehemiah and the people of God. Tell the story of YWAM Switzerland…
Nehemiah’s Journey of Faith
I am sure Nehemiah was greatly relieved by the king’s gracious response to him. After months of prayer and fasting over the broken walls and burnt gates of Jerusalem there was light at the end of the tunnel. This would have been a wonderfully fulfilling moment for Nehemiah. This kind of moment reminds of being “born again”, or being “filled with the Spirit” or “leading someone to Christ”. How marvellous is our God.
Nehemiah’s journey of faith has several things to help us on our personal journeys.
- Nehemiah’s faith showed great patience. There were months of prayer and fasting and weeping. During these times of awkward waiting he poured out his concerns to God. Patience is not an easy part of the journey. It confronts our own selfishness. It exposes our own personal agendas. It reveals our independence from God; I can do it myself. On Wednesday night at prayers we meditated and then prayed over our circumstances personally and corporately. We highlighted three Scriptures; Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord (Ex 14:13), Still still until you know how the matter will turn out (Ruth 3:18) and Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10). We prayed “Our God is Great” over our circumstances and over the enemy. Sometimes we need these kind of Scriptures to encourage us in our journey of patient faith.
- Nehemiah’s faith overcame opposition (Neh 2:10, 19). Nehemiah had secured all that he needed for his journey left for Jerusalem. However, there are times in our journey with God that individuals will oppose us. In the case of Nehemiah there were three men in particular that caused the Jewish people great grief; Sanballat was a leader and warrior, Tobiah was a friend to some of the Jews and Geshem was an Arabian. Nehemiah endured their ridicule and mocking and strategies to stop the work of rebuilding the walls and gates. He would soon understand that the real problem was not the enemy on the outside but the compromisers on the inside. This is still a problem in the church today.
- Nehemiah’s faith was investigative (Neh 2:11-12). Nehemiah’s journey required patience and overcoming initial opposition. But that was just the beginning. He also scouted of the land just like the 12 spies without making his enemies aware. He didn’t rush in but checked out the broken wall around Jerusalem and its burnt gates. He didn't let the Israelites know for fear of the news getting back to Tobiah, a friend to some of the Jews.
- Nehemiah’s faith was active (Neh 2:17-18). On the one hand Nehemiah was patient in his faith. On the other hand, at some point, faith must become active. There can be various experiences in between these two bookends, like opposition and investigation, but eventually one must act on one’s faith. Nehemiah did so. How? By focusing on the greatness of God. He spoke in terms of unity - we and us - not about - us and them. He recognized the grace of God was working on their behalf. He prayerful secured provision for his journey and for the rebuilding of the walls and gates.
What is it you want?
There are so many lessons that we can learn from the Book of Nehemiah; prayer, leadership, renewal, team work to name a few. King Artaxerxes ask this question of Nehemiah at he end of four months of prayer and fasting. This open ended question is what gave Nehemiah the opportunity to proceed to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding the walls and gates.
I want to take a moment and to reconnect this question in our thoughts to the mandate of spiritual gifts. Have you ever imagined the Almighty God asking you this kind of question? What is it you want? With God there is no lack of wisdom or strength. His love always provides for his children. We know that God genuinely cares for us and desires the best future for us.
In the context of spiritual gifts this is an incredible opportunity to utilize the divine gifts of heaven for life and ministry here on earth. The Scriptures tell us to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” - 1 Cor 12:31. Firstly, this verse is in the form of a command, it is a verb that is active and present in context. In other words, we are to put this into action daily, moment by moment. We are to set our hearts towards, to be zealous for spiritual gifts. Secondly, Paul makes a distinction between lessor and greater gifts. For sure we are to desire and pursue all the divine gifting God has made available for his church. Yet we must remember that there are greater gifts that will have greater effect in the world in which we live. We will look more closely at our spiritual gifts in the weeks coming.
The way I think is like this - “What is it you want?” is being asked of the church today. What are the spiritual gifts we need to fulfill God’s dreams? What do you need in order to be successful at work? What gifts do you need to reach your neighbours with the message of salvation? What do you need to see your family blessed?
The Bible tells us “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness (2 Peter 1:3). Another way to look at this verse is such - everything that we need to please and glorify God has been given to us in the context of our personal relationship with him. I don’t know about you but this kind of divine partnership with his earthly children is so exciting; it is not about fulfilling religious duty but about an intimate interaction. In this life of promise, God asks us the question, “What is it you want?” For many of us we answer this question according to what we think we need. We tend to think in the context of needs not wants. In other words, I need to pay the bills therefore I need money. I not feeling well therefore I need to be healed. These thoughts are not wrong, but I believe God wants us to go deeper into spiritual intimacy with him. What is it you want is a much more personal question.
I believe God is placing this incredible question before us both personally and corporately as a church community. What is it you want? We must make sure that the answer to this question comes from a place of fasting and prayer and confession of sin, just like in Nehemiah’s situation. We must make sure that we are not answering this question selfishly for person gain. We must make sure that our answer in not some misguided personal agenda.
When God asks the question “what is it you want?” we need to make sure our answer aligns with his will and purpose.
Today and during the week let’s take some time to consider “what is it you want?” God has tremendous love and care for his children and church. He tells us to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well… (Matt 6:33). All these things refer to the daily needs we all experience; food, clothing shelter, the daily necessities of life.
Let’s try to separate our needs from our wants.
Let’s take some time to consider what your wants really look like.
What is it you want? is a wonderful opportunity for us to apprehend God’s heart and fulfill His dreams.