Welcome back to the Sunday Mass notes. This week we open with a reading from the Book of Nehemiah in which we learn about rebuilding of the people of God through their learning from the Word of God. Then we move to the second reading from Saint Paul in which we learn about spiritual gifts distributed among members of the church. Finally, we close with a reading from Luke in which we see Jesus quoting from the Prophet Isaiah in fulfillment of this Old Testament prophet’s writings about Jesus.
Introduction to the First Reading:
The first reading is from the Book of Nehemiah that concerns itself with the rebuilding of the temple and the restoration of the people following their exile to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. During their 70 year exile from the land there was a change of world powers from Babylon to Medo/Persia under the reign of King Cyrus. The return to Jerusalem happened in three waves beginning with Zerubbabel as chronicled in Ezra chapters 1 – 6. The second wave was led by Ezra as described in Ezra 7 – 10. The third and final wave was led by Nehemiah as described in Nehemiah chapters 1 – 3. Nehemiah was concerned primarily with the rapid rebuilding of the wall of the city that he accomplished against the greatest of odds in just 52 days. We have to remember that in the ancient near east the city wall formed an extremely important physical barrier in the city but also an import cultural and psychological foundation. The city gate was where information was passed to the people, judgments were held, and various goods moved in and out of the city. This city gates were the choke points through which every important thing passed into the city, whether food, information, or important (or not) people.
There are three topics to keep in mind while reading the chronicles of Nehemiah (and Ezra). First is the city of God, meaning Jerusalem. Second is the people of God, the Jews. Third is the Word of God. Today’s reading is concerning that last topic, as the context of the reading is the restoration of the Scriptures to the people after the restoration of wall of Jerusalem. At this early stage of the restoration of the people to the city, the spiritual lives of the people were in shambles after an entire generation had passed since their captivity in Babylon. As the next generation prepared to resume their lives in the Promised Land, they found the homeland physically broken and spiritually void. Nehemiah, the man of God, after successfully directing the people in the rebuilding the city walls, gathered the people together to hear Ezra cast a vision for the spiritual rebuilding of the people (Nehemiah 7:5). Ezra was a priest who returned with Zerubbabel (Nehemiah 12:1).
Nehemiah 8:1-10 NAS95 1 And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel. 2 Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 He read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4 Ezra the scribe stood at a wooden podium which they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the LORD the great God. And all the people answered, "Amen, Amen!" while lifting up their hands; then they bowed low and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. 8 They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading. 9 Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, "This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep." For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, "Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."
After the rebuilding of the wall around the city of God, Nehemiah gathered the people of God to learn from the reading of the Word of God. During their seventy-year captivity, the reading of the Word was scarce. As Ezra began the reading of the Word, the people instinctively responded in unison by worshiping the LORD “with their faces to the ground” (v. 6). As the Levites (priests of God) read the Word they also explained it to the people (v. 8). The people began weeping during the preaching of the Word of God (v. 9) to which the leaders responded by declaring the day as a celebration and one on which they were not to be grieved for “the joy of the LORD is [their] strength” (v. 10).
The people experienced conviction brought about by the Word of God as the priests and Levites explained it to them. This was a very good sign that after their long stay in Babylon that the Word still had this effect upon their hearts. The Book of Ecclesiastes tell us that there is time for everything, “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven-- A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted” and on it goes (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2). There was indeed a time for mourning as God convicted the people of their sin, and it was a good sign that this indeed happened during the reading and explanation of the Word. However, as the day progressed the leaders realized that the time for mourning had ended and instead called the people to celebrate the victory that God had given them.
In the introduction, we mentioned how there were three themes in the Ezra / Nehemiah chronicles including the City of God, the people of God, and the Word of God. As Christians, our identity isn’t tied to the City of God (Jerusalem) as was (and is) the Jews. Instead, our identity as the people of God is closely tied to our relationship with the incarnate Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. In John’s Gospel Jesus told us that He went aware to “prepare a place for us” (John 14:3). The Book of Revelation describes this place as the New Jerusalem, a heavenly city built by God that will one day descend from heaven and be presented to the people of God. John said, “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). This eternal city, with gates that will never be destroyed is what Jesus is preparing for us now. At the closing of the age of the people of God will inherit the City of God prepared by the Word of God.
Introduction to the Second Reading:
The second reading is from Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Paul opened this chapter with a clear explanation of his purpose by saying, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware” (1 Corinthians 12:1). First Paul explained there the variety of spiritual gifts that God distributed among the people, next he moved in today’s reading to explain their purpose.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31 NAS95 12 For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot says, "Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, "Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19 If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; or again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? 31 But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.
The big idea in the reading is that God distributes spiritual gifts among the members of the church, the body of Christ, in diverse ways in order to accomplish His purposes. Each of members of the church are to use their diverse gifts for the building up of the church, the body of Christ. Christians are not to boast about their particular gifts but rather are to cooperate with each other in the body of Christ much in the way that the parts of the body work together. Since each person’s abilities are gifts given by God, they are not to boast about the gift that was given to them as if it were somehow superior to the gifting of another church member. For example, the gift of helps is in no way inferior to someone having the gift of hospitality.
The second concept in the reading beginning in verse 28 is the organization of the church by God in order to take maximum advantage of the “gift mix” in the church. God has ordained specific gifts within the organization of the local church such a way as to make the church most effective. When Paul describes the gift of tongues in the church this was most likely what we call a “sign gift” operational in the early church in which certain people were given divine, prophetic utterance which could only be understood by someone with the corresponding gift of interpretation. “Prophecy” in the early church included both foretelling (telling the future) as well as forth telling (exclaiming existing prophecy or Scripture), although the former seems to have gradually ceased in the ages since the beginning of the church age. Some possibly had both the gift of tongues and of interpretation. Additionally, we know that during Pentecost in Acts 2:6 we know that when God poured out His Holy Spirit on the first group of church members they spoke in tongues that the surrounding people heard in their own languages. Regardless of the nature of the gift being described by Paul here in First Corinthians, the gift was one that enriched the churched and helped it to accomplish God’s specific purposes in the particular era. It’s should not be surprising to us to find giving modern believers different gift mixes in order to accomplish His purposes in our era.
A proper understanding of today’s reading is paramount to a proper functioning church today. Although God distributes spiritual gifts as He sees fit, each person is to utilize their gifts to the maximum advantage of the church. They are not to boast about the superiority of their gift either vocally or in their hearts as to think of themselves as superior. As Paul closed the reading in verse 31 he mentioned “And I show you a still more excellent way” just before he launches into his teaching of the superiority of love over all of the gifts. He said, “If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). If we maintain the bond of love at the center of having hearts of service for the Lord, we will automatically use our spiritual gifts for the maximum advantage of the church.
Introduction to the Gospel Reading:
The Gospel reading is from the Book of Luke. It opens with a statement of Luke’s purpose and then moves to chapter four in which we find Jesus teaching in the synagogue in His home village of Nazareth north of Jerusalem not far from the Sea of Galilee.
When Isaiah wrote his Book, all of the events concerning Jesus were yet future. Yet in this section in Saint Luke Jesus quoted from Isaiah and said that a portion of it was being fulfilled at that very instant. However, Jesus stopped his quote exactly at that point at which the prophetic timetable turned to events concerning His Second Coming.
The context of the reading today from Luke Chapter 4 is that Jesus is just beginning His ministry and He had returned to His home town of Nazareth. This reading is just after Jesus’ baptism. Read the text from Saint Luke and carefully note Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah that is marked in all CAPITAL LETTERS.
Luke 1:1-4 NAS95 1 In as much as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
Luke 4:15-21 NAS95 15 And He began teaching in their synagogues and was praised by all. 16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 "THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, 19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD." 20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
In this section of Luke, Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61:1-2a but stopped short of the concluding portion of Isaiah 61:2. Verse two, with the section highlighted that Jesus omitted from Isaiah, said “To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn.” Jesus said in verse 21b of Luke 4, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v.21b). It’s very significant that Jesus stopped where he did when he was quoting from Isaiah because it is important to understand the distinction between the purpose of His First Coming and of His second coming. We live in the “pause” between the First and Second Coming of Christ. This era allows us time to choose to embrace the favor of the Lord (grace) through faith. The next era, though, will usher in the day of “vengeance of our God.” Who can stand in the midst of Him setting the record straight? None of us has a chance outside of God’s wonderful provision through the death of His Son, Jesus at His first coming. Understanding this distinction will make it possible to properly understand the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. It also helps to interpret the future events in the Book of Revelation including the purpose of the Great Tribulation period that we discussed in a previous issue.
What’s the importance of the Gospel reading for your life as a believer in Jesus Christ? First, we can trust the Old Testament prophecies concerning Jesus’ First Coming because we can read about the facts of their fulfillment in the New Testament. Second, since we can trust the prophecies about Jesus’ First Advent we can trust those about His Second Coming. Jesus’ Second coming is when the believing world will realize the wonderful promises from God including restoration of the world to its pre-fallen, sinless condition. The Prophet Isaiah said, “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the kid, And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little boy will lead them” (Isaiah 11:6). We have hope that Jesus’ Millennial Kingdom will be a world of universal peace. This promise should motivate us to reach out to those in our community who don’t know Jesus Christ personally.
- In the second reading, Paul provided a list of spiritual gifts distributed among the body of Christ. Read the following two verses from the reading.
28 And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?
Do you find any of the unique abilities that God has given you listed among this list? In what ways do you serve the body of Christ with your gift? If your spiritual gift is not on the list, what is it? In what ways do you serve the church (meaning all believers, not just the local church) through the use of your gift?
- In what ways do you feel yourself inclined to see your spiritual gifts as superior to the gifts of another person? How does having a proper understanding of the reading from Corinthians help you to reevaluate this belief?
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation.