“Come together as one”- Word, Worship and Witness


Today (11 June 2023) we thank the Lord for the 130th anniversary of the Chinese Presbyterian Church (CPC), and also think of another celebration occasion in the book of Nehemiah Chapter 8. It is a story of the Word, Worship, and Witness.

What is the context of that celebration?

It is important to note that God never abandons His people. God was at work throughout the history of Israel, in good times and in tough times. In a similar way, God was at work throughout the history of CPC.

Let us first look at the background of Nehemiah Chapter 8.

First of all, after seventy years of exile, in 538 BC God opened the door for more than 50,000 Jews to return to Jerusalem under the leadership of two leaders, Zerubbabel and Jeshua the priest (Ezra 2:2). They began to lay the foundation for the temple and rebuild the altar (Ezra 3:2).  That was the first return from exile.

Second, God sent prophets like Haggai and Zechariah to minister over a sixty-year period to remind the people to continue faithfully and finish what they had started, that is to rebuild the temple – the life of worship.  It took more than twenty years before the temple was finally completed in 516 BC.

Third, God sent Ezra, the priest to build up the people, by bringing God’s Word to the people, the book of the Law of Moses.  The Lord equipped Ezra for the task. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses and the hand of the Lord his God was with him (Ezra 7:6).

Then finally after at least seventy years since the first return, God sent Nehemiah to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. Nehemiah travelled to Israel, leading one of the returns of the Jewish people that followed their seventy years of exile in Babylon. 

The rebuilding of the wall was completed in fifty-two days under the leadership of Nehemiah (6:15).  This is very symbolic.  Jerusalem was not only protected again, but God’s people were to be morally separate from peoples around them.  They are God’s holy people.  They are to be holy as God is holy. What is more important is the fact that even their enemies recognized that this work had been done with the help of our God and they were afraid (6:15).

It is in this context that there is a celebration.  God’s people looked back into history, recognizing how God had never abandoned them.  God has raised up different leaders at different times to lead God’s people to face new challenges.  

Similarly, God has raised up different leaders at different times to lead God’s people in CPC throughout its 130 years of history.  

Let us reflect on three aspects of this story, namely, – Word, Worship and Witness.

  1. First, the Word

i. The Word of God for all

We read at the beginning of Nehemiah Chapter 8 that the assembly consisted of men, women, and all who could understand. 

all the people came together as one in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel.

The people all came together as one, a beautiful description in verse 1, as they wanted to listen to the Word. They comprise all age groups, men and women, all who could hear and understand. This would have included children as well, because we read in Ezra 10:1, we read, “While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him.”

As we celebrate the 130th anniversary of CPC, how wonderful it is that the whole community of CPC, are coming together as one, old and young, just like the people in Nehemiah 8, to listen to the Word.

“They told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses” (1b)

The people asked Ezra to read God’s word to them. There was a hunger for God’s Word. May God give us, as the community of CPC such a revival fire that there is a deep hunger for His Word. The Word of God is for all.

ii. Reverence for the Word

As we continue on in Chapter 8, we read,

     3He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. 

     4 Ezra the teacher of the Law stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. 

    As he [Ezra] opened the book, all the people could see him because he was standing above them and the people all stood up. (8:5)  

    Ezra stood on a high platform, accompanied by thirteen leaders on his right and left.   He read the Word aloud from daybreak until noon. The people stood up when they listened to the Word of God.

    One time I was speaking at a youth conference in Germany, and I noticed that there was not a single chair in the auditorium.  The young people explained to me that they wanted to stand up listening to the message as they wanted to develop an attitude of reverence for the Word.  What an encouragement. May every member of CPC have this deep reverence for God’s Holy Word. 

    iii. Understand the Word

    In verse 7 and 8 we read,

      7The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They [the Levites] read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

      Thirteen names were mentioned. So it is not only Ezra who instructed the people with the Word, but the Levites also helped the people to understand the meaning of the Word spoken. To understand the Word is to know what it means and also how the Word applies to our lives in our context and situation so that we may obey the Word. 

      Jesus said, “Whoever loves me will obey my teaching.  My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  Whoever does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:23)

      As disciples of Christ, we not only listen to the Word but also obey the Word and live out the Word. Also, we disciple others to obey the Word of God by our example in word deed, and character.

      When I was a medical student, I attended the Sunday Service at CPC. The highlight for me every week was what happened after the Sunday Service. We met for Bible studies and we applied what we had learned from the Word to our daily lives.  Though the word “discipleship” was never mentioned, I was discipled to love the Lord my God, our Lord Jesus, with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my strength.  Cheung Yuen would always encourage me with this advice, “Patrick, do not ever underestimate even a five-minute reading of God’s Word daily and obeying every part of it.  Your life will never be the same.” Indeed, my life was not the same and I am forever grateful that I was discipled.

      I pray that this discipleship movement will continue in the life of CPC from generation to generation. 

      2. Worship

      Nehemiah Chapter 8 tells us that the reading of the Word was carried out in the context of worship.  The Word brings us back to God, to worship God and honour Him.

      6Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 

      9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

      As the people listened to the Word, they began to weep. Instead of singing or clapping, the people were mourning. There is repentance. As the people listened to God’s Word, they were mourning and weeping. They wept because they realised they had sinned against God by not keeping His law.  We can read the details of this in Nehemiah Chapter 9 as the people confessed before God.

      34 Our kings, our leaders, our priests and our ancestors did not follow your law; they did not pay attention to your commands or the statutes you warned them to keep.

      There is celebration but there is also penitence.  Perhaps we can truly say there is no celebration without true penitence.   As we celebrate, we also ask God to forgive us for the wrongs we have done, for our disobedience, and our actions that have put his name to shame.  

      The people of Israel acknowledged at least four types of sins they had committed as recorded in Nehemiah 9: 

      • First, the sins of arrogance
        • 16 “But they, our ancestors, became arrogant and stiff-necked, 
      • Second, the sins of disobedience
        • 16and they did not obey your commands. 
      • Third, the sins of “forgetfulness”
        • 17 They failed to remember the miracles you performed among them.
      • Fourth, the sins of “infliction”
        • 26 “They killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you; 

      Arrogance, disobedience, forgetfulness, and infliction by hurting others were the four areas that the Israelites confessed before God.  As we celebrate the 130th anniversary of CPC, are there areas that the Lord wants us to confess before Him?  For some of us, would it be sins of arrogance?  For others, could it be sins of disobedience.  Would it be possible that we have become too inward-looking and have neglected the missional purpose God has given to CPC to be witnesses for Him both locally and to the ends of the earth?  Have we become neither hot or cold as we have become lukewarm? Have we become so innocuous that we have no gospel impact on the people around us?

      Without true repentance, there is no true celebration.

      3. Witness

      In 8:10, Nehemiah told the people of God to “go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared.”

      On this joyous occasion, the Jews were reminded to remember the less fortunate and to share God’s blessings and provisions with them.  Our listening and our response to the Word should instill in us a spiritual, social, and moral conscience, to respond to the needs around us. 

      Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the merciful,  for they will be shown mercy. (Matthew 5:7)

      The Israelites are familiar with the Old Testament teaching: “the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” Deut 14:29 

      Let me quote the Cape Town Commitment of the Lausanne III Congress for World Evangelization in 2010:

      “If we ignore the world, we betray the Word of God… If we ignore the Word of God, we have nothing to bring to the world.  

      In integral mission our proclamation has social consequences…. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.”

      A few years ago, there was a successful campaign in the city of Wuhan. This was way before COVID was discovered.  All the churches in Wuhan encouraged the believers to donate blood, but especially on November 25th.  The people in Wuhan were interested to find out why November 25th.  Whenever the Christians were asked, they quoted from the Bible from 1 Corinthians 11:25,

      25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

      They shared with the people that Jesus shed his blood for them. They donated blood as an expression of thanksgiving to Jesus, the Lord.

      What a wonderful and creative way of powerful witnessing. The gospel impacts all spheres of society.

      Like the teaching in Deuteronomy 14:29, certainly there are “the foreigners, the fatherless, the widows” in the city of Sydney.  God has instructed us not to neglect them.  We are to preach a holistic gospel.

      In the book of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people of God had rebuilt the temple, repaired the wall of Jerusalem, and gathered as one.   Yes, the walls were repaired and strengthened, and they were protected from the enemies. However, they were not to create a holy huddle.  They were to be witnesses for God.  Note that the gates of Jerusalem were repaired but remained open, not closed.  Ultimately, it is not just the Jews who will worship God.  Isaiah gave us this ultimate beautiful picture, 

      In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains;  it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it.

      Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)

      Thus, our witness is not just a social witness. Our mission is calling people back to God, to know our Saviour.  Therefore, “mission may not always begin with evangelism.  But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task.  It is defective mission, not holistic mission” (Chris Wright).

      Thus Word, Worship and Witness go hand in hand.  

      We are called to make disciples of all nations.  Yes, the mission field has come to our doorsteps with multitudes of diaspora people in Sydney. God has given us an unprecedented opportunity locally. At the same time, it is estimated that only 20% of people in East Asia know a single Christian and millions have no access to a church or Bible in their own language. The needs of global mission remain great.

      May God grant us the revival fire with a commitment to making disciples of all nations.

      I know that I am speaking as a Presbyterian, but let me end my message by quoting John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement.  

      “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can [to proclaim Christ], as long as ever you can until Christ [He] returns or call us home.”  

      May God be gracious to CPC and make His face shine upon us, so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations. May our celebration be marked by the Word, Worship and Witness.

       – Patrick Fung, OMF General Secretary