Proverbs states, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV). Bill Hybels, in his book Courageous Leadership, tells us, “When a leader is casting a vision publicly the goal is to help people know, understand, and remember the ‘main thing’.” Purpose is all about keeping the “main thing” as the “main thing,” which is found in the five purposes of the church that are set forth by the New Testament as: 1) worship, 2) evangelism, 3) fellowship, 4) discipleship, and 5) ministry.
Ed Stetzer, in his book Planting Missional Churches, emphasizes that people must “envision” the core values of the congregation before they can ever become part of the vision. Without knowing the church’s purpose a congregation will be deprived of direction, leading to confusion, shattered enthusiasm, and the abandonment of the calling and mission. This article examines how Nehemiah stated, and even restated, Jerusalem’s purpose to the returning captives following the Babylonian exile.
“Then I said to them, ‘You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach’” (Nehemiah 2:17).
Back in Nehemiah 1:1-4, we read how Hanani delivered a message to Nehemiah while in Babylon, reporting how the survivors of the captivity in Jerusalem were in great distress, and that the wall of Jerusalem had been broken down and the gates burned with fire. Therefore, Nehemiah sought the Lord in prayer. Afterwards, he approached King Artaxerxes with his concern, and he was then granted permission to return home to address his people in Judah (Nehemiah 2:1-11).
In the first part of verse 17, we can see the immediate problem of which Nehemiah brought awareness. He pointed out to the people the exact same thing that Hanani had told him; that Jerusalem laid in ruins, its gates had been burned, and that its wall had been torn down. If you know the history, then you understand why the city found itself in such a terrible state. The Jews had rejected God’s leadership and coveted after foreign gods and idols; therefore, the Lord allowed them to be taken captive by Babylon; and during the siege the city was overrun and destroyed.
Nehemiah stated the immediate problem, and in turn, the people could do something about it; and back in Nehemiah 1:5-6, we learn that the first step to renewal is repentance. In the last part of verse 17, Nehemiah identified their present vision and purpose: their immediate purpose was to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. And our immediate purpose is to begin rebuilding this church and realigning with God’s plan for the strategic location in which He has planted this congregation; and a good place to start is with repentance. We need to turn away from the wall-crumbling direction that we’ve been travelling, do a “180,” and run back to what is right and true.
“And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me, and also of the king’s words that he had spoken to me. So they said, ‘Let us rise up and build.’ Then they set their hands to this good work” (Nehemiah 2:18).
In verse 18, Nehemiah motivated the people with news that God had been guiding him, and that King Artaxerxes had given him permission to rebuild Jerusalem (cf. Nehemiah 1:1-6). Back in Nehemiah 1:7-9, we learn a few more details of what the king had done for him, which was information that he most likely passed along to the people. The king had sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem with letters of passage, and a letter of instruction to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, that he must give the Jewish people timber to rebuild the city wall and the temple citadel. This news was surely encouraging!
Thus far, we’ve seen that Nehemiah 1) pointed out the problem, 2) led the nation in repentance, 3) identified their present purpose, and 4) communicated a message of hope. Through these four steps, Nehemiah laid out a clear plan and process for getting the nation back on track with where God wanted it to be. As a result of hearing Nehemiah’s clearly communicated purpose we can see, toward the end of verse 18, that the people jumped on board with the vision and got to work!
Rick Warren says, “There is incredible power in having a clearly defined purpose” (p. 86, The Purpose Driven Church); and also, “When a church clearly communicates its destination, people are eager to get on board. This is because everyone is looking for something that gives meaning, purpose, and direction to life” (p. 91). A good way to communicate purpose is through a simple and easily remembered “purpose statement” or “vision statement,” such as the one used by Saddleback Church that Rick Warren developed around the five purposes of the church. His purpose statement reads as follows:
Our purpose is to bring people to Jesus and membership in His family, develop them to Christ-like maturity, and equip them for their ministry in the church and their life mission in the world, in order to magnify God’s name (p. 107).
“So we built the wall, and the entire wall was joined together up to half its height, for the people had a mind to work. Now it happened, when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the walls of Jerusalem were being restored and the gaps were beginning to be closed, that they became very angry, and all of them conspired together to come and attack Jerusalem and create confusion. Nevertheless we made our prayer to our God, and because of them we set a watch against them day and night” (Nehemiah 4:6-9).
Here, we see something that should serve as a warning. When God’s people start getting serious about His purposes, then those outside the walls will begin to attack; as we see here with the opposition from Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites. As we read in verses 7-8, people will become angry and begin trying to create confusion in the land; or perhaps, in the community. This opposition could arise in the form of criticism and gossip, as those who are threatened by the progress start trying to deter others from jumping on board with the vision.
When people in the community begin attacking the church, trying to discourage the membership and others from following the vision, we should do as seen in verse 9, and immediately go to the Lord in prayer. We should also be on guard both day and night, willing to run interference, interrupting any criticism we hear; and ready to set people straight with words of truth and passion, affirming the positive things that God is doing as the church seeks to fulfill the Lord’s purposes for His church.
“Then Judah said, ‘The strength of the laborers is failing, and there is so much rubbish that we are not able to build the wall’ . . . And I looked, and arose and said to the nobles, to the leaders, and to the rest of the people, ‘Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome, and fight for your brethren, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses.’ 15 And it happened, when our enemies heard that it was known to us, and that God had brought their plot to nothing, that all of us returned to the wall, everyone to his work” (Nehemiah 4:10, 14-15).
Look at what the people of Judah declared in verse 10: “The strength of the laborers is failing, and there is so much rubbish that we are not able to build the wall.” From this verse we find two important observations: 1) When people get off track from their purpose, they become discouraged; and 2) the very thing that contributes to discouragement is rubbish. “Rubbish,” is defined as “worthless, unwanted material that is rejected or thrown out; [or] debris” – which is probably the sense in which Judah used the word; and it’s also defined as “foolish words or speech; [and] nonsense.” I contend that rubbish talk from without and within will halt a church from pursuing God’s purposes.
In verses 14-15, we see that because the people had begun to lose their sense of purpose, Nehemiah had to restate the importance of their work. Rick Warren comments, “Although the wall took fifty-two days to complete, the people became discouraged at the halfway point” (p. 111, The Purpose Driven Church). This midway point was twenty-six days into the project, at which time Nehemiah had to restate the vision. From this account Warren devises what he calls the “Nehemiah Principle,” which holds that vision and purpose must be restated every twenty-six days to keep people confidently moving in the right direction (p. 111).
Warren continues to state, “The vision of any church always fades with time unless it is reinforced. This is because people become distracted by other things. Restate your purposes on a regular basis. Teach them over and over . . . By continually fanning the fire of your purposes you can overcome the tendency of your church to become complacent or discouraged” (p. 118, The Purpose Driven Church).
Therefore, based on this principle of repetition, from time to time I will preach messages related to the five purposes of the church. This must be done so that, as we read in verse 15, “all of us [can] return . . . everyone to his work.” We must be encouraged to stay on track with our work and purpose, because we all have a role, and we all have a part to play, in building the church and the kingdom of God!