“This Day is Holy to the Lord”
Scripture Readings: Nehemiah 8::1-12 (text); Galatians 3:19-27
May 25, 2014 • Pasig and Trinity Covenant Reformed Church • Download this sermon (PDF)
Congregation of Christ: For the last three Lord’s Days, we have studied the first main part of our worship service: Entering into Worship. We studied God’s Call to Worship, the people’s response in the Invocation, God’s Greeting or Salutation, the Opening Prayer, and the opening Song of Worship. We also saw in this opening part that worship is a dialogical exchange between God and his people.
This dialogue continues in the second main portion of the service, Confession of Sin, as the holy God reminds his people of his Law, the people respond in Confession of Sin, the merciful God declares forgiveness, and the people respond in gratitude in prayer or song.
In this portion of the worship service, we see the clear distinction between what is commonly known as Law and Gospel, a very important Biblical doctrine. What is law? What is gospel? Many evangelicals can not even give a Scriptural definition of these two basic Christian doctrines. So, for most lay people, the current controversy on this subject is difficult, and their reaction is probably, “What’s the big fuss?” and “Why is this so important?”
One of the biggest misunderstandings made by many evangelicals is that Old Testament equals law and New Testament equals gospel. As we will see in this study, both law and gospel are found all over the whole Bible. For example, as early as in the Garden of Eden, God first revealed the gospel to Adam and Eve: the Seed of the woman will come and crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). And the New Testament is full of the injunctions of the law, such as the Sermon on the Mount, the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5, and Colossians 3:19-27, our Reading of the Law today.
Our text in Nehemiah 8 is not only an example of law and gospel in a few verses in the Old Testament, but also of how God is to be worshiped by his covenant people as a congregation. In the 5th century B.C., the exiles from Babylon have rebuilt the walls of the city and settled back in their new places. They were led by Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor, whom God appointed to fulfill his promise of restoration to his people.
Chapters 8-10 is an account God’s covenant renewal with the returnees. Here, we see another dialogical worship. First, Ezra reads the Book of the Law, with help from the other Levites who explained it to the people. Second, the people confess their sin to God, “Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law” (Neh 9:34). Finally, the people ratify the covenant signing their names on a sealed covenant, vowing, “to walk in God’s law that was given by Moses…” (Neh 10:29), and ending with a joyous feast of food and drink.
This assembly fell on the first day of the seventh month, the holiest month of the year and also the beginning of a new year. So today, our theme is, “This Day is Holy to the LORD,” which we will study under three parts: first, A Day for Understanding God’s Law; second, A Day for Rejoicing in the Gospel; and third, A Day for Feasting with God.
A Day for Understanding God’s Law
The assembly described in our text is actually the Feast of Trumpets, which was appointed by God for Israel to be celebrated on the first day of the seventh month. Leviticus 23:23-25 tells us that the Feast of Trumpets was a “blast of trumpets,” a day of rest with a holy assembly, and food offerings. The blowing of trumpets was an announcement the beginning of a new year, and a call for the people to assemble for worship, and to hear God’s Word once more.
So the men””and women””of Israel, “all who could understand,” gathered before Ezra and the other Levites. “Understanding” is a key word, occurring five times in the first 12 verses. The people had to study and learn what the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament, teaches, because the Law had been neglected for almost 100 years since they returned from Babylon.
Ezra stood on a wooden platform for all to see and hear him (no microphones!) and read the Law from morning until midday. Other Levites assisted in the reading, and also explained what Ezra was reading, so perhaps he paused at times to give the Levites time to explain the reading to the people. It is also possible that many in the congregation did not understand the Hebrew language, especially the later generations of exiles from Babylon. But all the people paid careful attention to the reading of the Law.
From verses 5-6, we see that this was a solemn worship assembly,
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.
Notice a few things from this description. The people stood in reverence as the word of God was read. At the end, Ezra gave the LORD’s blessing to the people, and they answered in agreement and with a vow, “Amen, Amen.” And as they prayed, they lifted up their hands, signifying that their prayers were addressed to God. Finally, they worshipped God with bowed heads and faces to the ground.
This worship service is in stark contrast to the raucous, disorderly, irreverent “worship” as practiced in a great majority of evangelical churches today.
And how did the people react when they heard the Law of the LORD? In verse 9, we read, “For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” They wept! They did not rock to the music, hooting, hollering, clapping and laughing, as everyone does in a rock concert.
So why did they weep?
They wept because they were mourning for their sin. When sinners read or hear God’s law, he knows he is a wretched sinner before the most holy God, and he is convicted of sin. And he knows he deserves the wrath of God. We all like looking into a mirror, and the law is a mirror of our whole being. We may look good, even beautiful outside, but inside, we all are like disgusting, rotting corpses in whitewashed tombs because of sin.
This was how the Israelites saw themselves after they heard God’s Law. Idolaters, blasphemers, Sabbath-breakers, disobedient, haters, adulterers, swindlers, liars, covetous. And this is the first use of God’s law: it points us to our sin and convicts us of sin. It teaches us that we are no better than any other person, because we are all sinners. This is why Paul says that the law was our pedagogue, a cruel taskmaster who condemns us when we sin, before Christ came, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came” (Gal 3:24).
For Israel, the law was given also as a tutor to lead them from childhood to adulthood, as a slave who trains a child until he was ready for adulthood. As a child, Israel was rebellious and in unbelief. And they never matured into adulthood, so when Jesus came, they were still in rebellion and unbelief.
As believers, we are convicted by the Holy Spirit when we sin, knowing that we have offended the holy God. We mourn for our sin, like David, who had no joy and gladness after he had committed adultery and murder (Psa 51:8, 12). Like the Jews were “cut to the heart” after hearing Peter preach the gospel of repentance (Acts 2:37), we also repent when we sin.
But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Mat 5:4). How can those who mourn over sin be blessed? Because those who come to a knowledge of their utter hopelessness and wretchedness in sin are driven by the Holy Spirit to Christ. He leads them to the truth that Christ has perfectly fulfilled all of God’s holy and just law for them who will never be able to do so. And in this faith and trust in Christ alone, they would find comfort and rest.
Paul calls this mourning “godly grief [that] produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor7:10). Whereas “worldly grief” without repentance toward God produces death, like Cain’s, Judas’s, and other unrepentant criminals’ grief, “godly grief” produces true repentance and then restoration, joy and praise in forgiveness, like David’s (Psa 51:8, 15).
So James exhorts us, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom” (Jas 4:9-10). For weeping and mourning over their sin is what happened to Israel after they heard the reading of the Law of God.
But that holy day to the LORD did not end in weeping over sin.
A Day for Rejoicing in the Gospel
When Ezra saw the people weeping, he comforted them, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep” (verses 9).
That day was a holy day because the people were assembled together by Ezra his appointed priest to worship the LORD. It was also a holy day because it fell on one of the seven holy feasts commanded by God to Israel, the Feast of Trumpets, “a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation” (Lev 23:24). On this day, God delivered his Law to his people, and renewed his covenant with them.
Why should the covenant people cease from mourning and weeping?Ezra says in verse 10, “And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” It is the LORD, not anyone or anything, who gives us joy, and this joy becomes our strength. Isaiah prophesied that these exiles shall return to Zion with “everlasting joy… and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa 35:10). “In quietness and in trust [in the LORD] shall be your strength” (Isa 30:15).
God’s covenant people will be joyful and strengthened when they remember his works of creation and salvation, “For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psa 92:4; 20:5). In the Psalms, God is often called our strength (Psa 46:1; 81:1), because he “delights in the welfare of his servant!” (Psa 35:27).
The ultimate good news is that our Lord Jesus Christ is the one who strengthens us: “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit” (Eph 3:16); “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Eph 6:10); and “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Php 4:13).
Our strength comes from the salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. He satisfied God’s justice by his perfect obedience to God’s law. So when we are in Christ, his perfect obedience is imputed or counted to us. Therefore, God sees us as perfectly righteous because of Christ’s perfect righteousness.
In Christ, we are also indwelt by his Spirit who enables us to be joyful and strong in the Lord. He gives us strength to obey God’s law, because we cannot do this on our own strength. To obey the law, we must always be reminded of it, for we are a forgetful and rebellious people. And this is why we read God’s law every Lord’s Day. It is our guide and norm for our lives in Christ.
Many evangelicals believe that we are not bound by God’s law, thinking that Christ has fulfilled the whole law, so the whole law is obsolete. Obviously, we are not bound by the civil laws for administering the nation of Israel. This is true also of the ceremonial laws pertaining to the Temple, priesthood and sacrifices, because Christ has fulfilled all of them. But the moral law, the Ten Commandments, is binding from creation until the end.
This is why the in the third part of the Heidelberg Catechism, “how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption,” we find an explanation of the Decalogue. In each of the Ten Commandments are things we must not do, and things we are to do as Christians in gratitude to God. Also, HC 86 and 91 exhort us to do good works “according to the Law of God,” for three reasons: first, to “show ourselves thankful to God for his blessing, and that He be glorified through us; second, so we “may be assured by our faith by the fruits thereof”; and third, so “by our godly walk win also others to Christ.” There is no antinomianism in our confessions!
But what about those who are not believers? Are they still bound by God’s law? Absolutely! God has written his law on their hearts, and this is evidenced by their conscience (Rom 2:14-15). This is why no matter what religion a person has, he knows in his heart that there is a Creator, and violations of the Ten Commandments in the Bible are sins against this Creator. And in all societies, laws are written which, more or less, mirror the Ten Commandments.
The result is that all unbelievers strive to please whatever God they believe in by doing works. However, Paul says of these unbelievers who rely upon good works according to God’s law, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” (Gal 3:10). If you rely upon good works for salvation, then you are doomed and cursed, because if you violate even one commandment, there is no way out of the curse.
Reformed theology has always called the believers’ relation to the law as the Third Use of the Law or the Moral Use. I explained it first because our text relates to God’s covenant people. The Second Use of the Law, the Civil Use, is in relation to the unbelieving world, because it serves as a guide for civil society.
Israel mourned and wept when they heard God’s Law because it convicted them of their sin. But Ezra exhorted them to rejoice in the LORD, for he is their Creator, Redeemer and Strength. And in their rejoicing, they also confirmed God’s covenant with them with a feast.
A Day for Feasting with God
In verse 10, the people were commanded by Ezra, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord.” So they did.
They enjoyed the fruits of their labors. Before they even entered the Promised Land, the LORD commanded them, “And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male servants and your female servants” (Deu 12:12). They are to joyfully feast on their wine, bread, oil and flock before the LORD in their place of worship (Deu 14:23). All of them are to rejoice in the feast, so those who have more than enough are to share by “send[ing] portions to anyone who has nothing ready.”
This is what the Lord’s Supper is about. We feast with God. Why do we feast with God? Because we taste and see the goodness of the Lord. We rejoice that the Spirit has applied the law and gospel to our hearts. Now we believe that Christ has saved us when he offered his body and blood as a sacrifice for our sin.
All covenants end in a joyful feast of ratification. On that great day of Christ’s return, God’s covenant of grace will someday also end in the greatest feast ever at the Lord’s table in heaven.
Dear friends: When you hear God’s law read every Lord’s Day, do you mourn of your sin? Do you humble yourselves before God because you are hopeless and wretched sinners who need Christ the Savior?
If you do, praise God for his grace and mercy on your soul. For no one deserves God’s saving grace, but for his love and mercy towards his people. But if you don’t, he commands you to repent and believe in the gospel today! Your striving to please God by good works according to the law are as filthy rags before God, unless you have faith and trust in Christ alone.
And when you do, remember that God has given you his law and gospel all throughout his Word. The Holy Scriptures must shape and guide your life, because the Spirit indwells you to strengthen your life of faith until the end.
When you mourn and humble yourselves, God will then give you joy and exalt you.