By Daniel W. Petty
The book of Nehemiah recounts the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and the establishment of civil authority under the governorship of Nehemiah, during what we call the “restoration” period of Jewish history. God had promised, even before the captivity, that a faithful remnant would be restored (Isa. 10:20f). When Nehemiah led a group of exiles to Jerusalem in ca. 444 B.C., an earlier generation of returned exiles (under Cyrus in 536 B.C.) had already witnessed the rebuilding of the temple under the leadership of Haggai, Zechariah, and Zerubbabel (during the reign of Darius, ca. 520-516 B.C.). Nehemiah was a contemporary and compatriot of Ezra. While Nehemiah led in the work of rebuilding the walls of the city of Jerusalem, Ezra assumed the task, as scribe, of teaching the law of Judah and restoring the temple service and worship.
These two great men of God lived during the period of moral and spiritual decline, as well as social upheaval. It was also a time for rebuilding – a time for restoration. In Nehemiah 8, we find one of the clearest examples to be found in God’s word illustrating what has properly been called the “restoration principle.” Throughout the passage, prominence is given to the word of God.
Nehemiah 8: The Word of God and The Restoration Principle
The word of God appeals to reason (vv. 1-3). The opening verses describe how, in the seventh month, Ezra brought the law of Moses before the assembly to read it in their hearing. Twice the statement is made that the assembly consisted of “those who could understand.” This included both “men and women.” The word of God is well suited to rational beings created in his image (Gen. 1:26). God made man so that he would be capable of entering into relationships and communicating with him. Thus the word of God appeals to our reasoning capacity. Revelation implies knowing the things of God (1 Cor. 2:10f) and understanding them (Eph. 3:1-5). Faith is based on testimony (Rom. 10:17) and supported by objective evidence (Heb. 11: 1).
The word of God demands reverence (vv. 4-6). When Ezra mounted the wooden podium and opened the book, the people all stood up. The scribe blessed the Lord and they began to worship God, saying, “Amen, Amen! ” Perhaps it had been a long time since they had heard God’s word read to them. Sometimes people take great blessings for granted until they are deprived of them. Whatever the reason, the people now granted the word of God the reverence it deserved. We ought to accept the word “not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13).
The word of God deserved diligence (vv. 7-8). Ezra was joined by the Levites in reading and explaining the law of God to the people. The passage says it was necessary for them to translate, or explain, the reading “to give the sense so that they understood.” Surely this impresses upon our minds the importance of diligent study that we might come to a fuller understanding of God’s revelation (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15).
The word of God bringsjoy (vv. 9-12). Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites then called on the people to refrain from their mourning and weeping, and to celebrate “because they understood the words which had been made known to them.” It is truly a joyful experience to be able to know and understand the truth. To know truth is to have the key to freedom (Jn. 8:32). To know truth is to find the way to salvation (1 Tim. 2:4). To know the “precepts of the Lord” is to find joy (Psa. 19:9).
The word of God compels action and amendment (vv. 13-18). If the truth means anything, it means that we must act upon it. Ezra and the people on the second day found written in the law of Moses (Lev. 23:40f) that the Israelites were commanded to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month. The passage referred to the ancient Feast of Tabernacles, a religious observance that had not been practiced for hundreds of years (v. 17). Could such a religious observance, long perverted or lost to the memory of the people, ever be restored to its former practice? That is exactly what happened in this instance. By following the divine instructions written in the book,the Jews of Ezra’s day gathered the branches of trees to make booths, “as it is written” (v. 15). “And the entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them” (v. 17).
What is Restoration?
To restore means to bring something back to its original state or position by repairing or rebuilding. Abraham’s wells, for example, had to be cleaned out and renamed by Isaac because they had been filled with debris by the Philistines (Gen. 26:18). Abimelech restored to Abraham, Sarah his wife (Gen. 20:14). Nehemiah urged his fellow Jews to restore houses and fields to their deprived brethren (Neh. 5:11).
When we think of restoring or bringing back spiritual Israel, the church, in faith, practice, and daily living, we mean that the ancient order of things laid down in the New Testament must be rescued from the clutter of human error and apostasy. The restoration principle is the belief that such a restoration can, and indeed must, be based upon the word of God – an objective, unchanging standard of authority.
The Principle Applied to the Church
We look upon the New Testament church as a model, guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. When Jesus promised to establish his church, he promised to provide the keys of the kingdom, thereby empowering the apostles to carry out his divinely authorized program (Matt. 16:18-19). He assured them that he would send them a Helper, the Holy Spirit, who would provide them with the power and guidance they would need (Jn. 16:13). They were to wait in Jerusalem for the granting of such power (Mk. 9:1; Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit came upon them on Pentecost (Acts 2), thus providing through them the guarantee that the establishment, doctrine, and practice of the New Testament church were in accordance with the will of God.
Both history and observation tell us that people have left the original pattern. Apostasy from that ancient order dictates the need for restoration. Is such a restoration possible? The efforts of the restoration preachers of the nineteenth century are well documented. Those men determined, as “Raccoon” John Smith declared, to “come to the Bible and to the Bible alone, as the only book in the world that can give us all the light we need.” Their basic premise was scripturally sound. The restoration of New Testament faith and practice is not only possible, it is essential if our religious practice is to please the Lord.
The only basis of restoration is a return to the guidance originally provided by the Holy Spirit: the Word of God. Christ said his word would never pass away (Mk. 13:31). As the seed of the kingdom (Lk. 8:11), this abiding and unchanging message is still a pattern by which we can reproduce the New Testament church in the twentieth century. When an architect draws blueprints for a house, the builder is obligated to build the house according to the pattern. Suppose such a house is built, but as the years pass, numerous modifications are made – a room is added, a door is removed, etc. Soon the house becomes something different from, though perhaps resembling, the original house. After many years, someone decides to restore the house to its original state. If the original blueprints are available and are followed faithfully, then the house can be rebuilt exactly like the original – a true restoration.
The same is true of religious faith and practice. Suppose, for instance, that the Lord’s Supper is so perverted that its original intent is forgotten and the time of observance is forsaken. Assume this goes on for hundreds of years, and then someone reads the New Testament and finds that the early Christians observed the Supper as a memorial on the first day of the week. Can this religious observance be restored to its original form? The answer is that it must be restored if we are to please the Lord! This principle can be applied to any situation in which we find that the New Testament pattern has not been followed faithfully.
And it also applies to the restoration of broken lives marred by sin. There are many who have failed to live their lives according to God’s plan and purpose, and the results are broken fellowship and spiritual death. Many marriages, for example, are in trouble because the partners have thrown away God’s instructions for a successful marriage. Restoration can be realized in lives broken by sin.
We must go back to the original design and return to God by following his word. As in Ezra’s day, when we do there will be great rejoicing (Neh. 8:17)!
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 15, pp. 451-452
August 4, 1988