What is the ultimate purpose of a church platform or stage? Is it to inspire? Entertain? Challenge? Or dare we ask…has its role in our worship become “marginally outdated”? As we are in the process of completing our first proper stage as an 11-year-old church, I have been grappling with these very questions…and God led me, I believe providentially, in my devotions to come across a precious section of Scripture in Nehemiah 8 that keeps us from getting caught up in form (lighting, screens, worship style, etc.) and focused more upon substance.
Here are a few thoughts I recently shared with our church of what a God-honoring “stage” always includes:
A Place of Eager Attention
Ne 8:1-3 “And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.”
Whether you appreciate it or not, the church and especially its teaching/preaching ministry is a voluntary participation event! The vibe of your attitude/attendance greatly impacts its teaching success or failure. How do we exhibit greater eagerness?
First, ask God to give your church unified attention. Notice the words in Nehemiah 8:1, “Gathered themselves together AS ONE MAN”-this kind of unity is only possible when we choose to eagerly make it all about THE WORD OF GOD! From the dawn of mankind, like Adam and Eve, we predictably turn on each other when we abandon God’s Word. The Devil’s predictable mode of attack continues to always be “divide and conquer” God’s people…a tactic that will always work unless we stay locked in together upon the Word. Will you join me in appreciating, defending, supporting the pulpit ministry of our local churches, not out of duty or drudgery but with eager vigilance?
Secondly, implore God to endue your church with substantive attention. Notice the phrase, “From the morning until midday.” The reading of the Law occupied the time from daylight until noon. This would have been about a six-hour period! According one commentator, one could read approximately one-quarter of the Pentateuch during this time. Yes, it likely included some of the “dry sections” of Leviticus. While it doesn’t have to be a “hostage situation,” may the platform and pulpit in your local church always be a place where the preaching of God Word is PRIMARY, never to be displaced by even well-intended music, drama, or social/political agendas! We don’t need “sermonettes”; we need and SHOULD WANT TO SIT UNDER THE ROBUST PREACHING OF GOD’S WORD! (There is a chasm of difference between what the Spirit can do with a room of watch-checking congregants and one filled with a “preach-the-whole-counsel-of-God” sentiment.)
A Place of Elevated Clarity
Ne 8:4-8 “And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose…And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”
We do not elevate the preacher or stand as the audience for MAN’S WORDS but GOD’S WORD! As Michael Horton writes, “Christ’s body is not a stage for my performance.” (This platform/stage idea does not come from the theater but the Bible!!!). How do we share in lifting up the clear exposition of God’s Word?
Beseech God to grant your church a respectful clarity. Standing on a platform (“tower of wood) above the people Ezra read from the Law, while 13 men, perhaps priests (v. 7), stood on the platform beside him. As he read, the people stood to attention. (This is why we typically stand during the opening text of sermons preached at North Life.) In verse 6, the people are seen lifting their hands toward heaven they shouted, “Amen! Amen!” in an expression of agreement with God’s Word. Then they fell on their knees and bowed low as they worshiped the Lord. Until we respect God’s Word and the faithful declaration of it, we will never have the FULL CLARITY that God intends for His people to possess, maintain, and expand! Are you willing to come to church/support your church with an awesome expectancy toward divine revelation and illumination?
Seek from God an intentional clarity in your church. Nehemiah did not explain exactly how Ezra and the Levites read and explained God’s Law to this large crowd that may have numbered between 30,000 and 50,000 people (7:66–67). Possibly Ezra read sections of the Law in the presence of all the people (8:3), and then at certain times the Levites circulated among them and made it clear (pāraš, “to make distinct or interpret,”) and explained what Ezra had read as the people stood in groups (vv. 7–8). Since the Aramaic language replaced Hebrew after the captivity, it was necessary to explain many words of the Hebrew Scriptures. At some point the pulpit ministry of every local church has to choose between TOKEN or THOROUGH study of God’s Word! Are you willing to PARTNER WITH THE TEACHERS/PREACHERS of your church to have clarity and help others have clarity on God’s Word? (This could look like teaching a class, faithful attendance to services, involvement in small groups, cleaning the building, working in the nursery, praying for God’s illumination, and even making sure your household gets enough sleep the night before!). It-this divinely-enabled clarity does not just happen!
A Place of Emotional Response
Ne 8:9-12 “And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the LORD your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law. Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength. So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved. And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.”
In verse 6, the people’s response to the reading of the Scriptures and to Ezra’s praises must have been a tremendously emotional experience for all who had a part. (That should be a part of our church…and yours.). How do we facilitate a place where God’s Word and Spirit can demonstratively move us on a heart level?
Beg the Lord for a collective, tearful response. The most gratifying thing that happened, of course, is that the people obeyed God’s Word. What they heard touched their emotions, for they wept as they heard the Law (v. 9). Apparently, they were remorseful over their past disobedience to the Law and contrite over their sins. This is key: while the pulpit ministry should be grounded in a reasonable, rich theology, it must not be only ACADEMIC. God intends for it to not only inform the mind but to MOVE THE HEART! (Notice how physically and emotionally demonstrative the narrative is here: repentance should involve our whole being…including our BODIES…THEY ARE WHAT REBUILT A PHYSICAL WALL AND STAGE!!!). One of the key features of our new stage are the STEPS…steps that will feature singing kids, likely tripping pastors, and umpteen other things, but is PRIMARILY AN ALTAR! I notice a waning on this front in our churches. We are too abstract in our responses to God. While we are not to be manipulative with “altar calls,” I believe a “come forward” invitation or some other tangible response still has a place (even with social distancing) in the faithful church of Jesus Christ.
Seek from God a joyful response. There is direct correlation to the negativity/positivity of the believer and their relationship/lack of relationship with the pulpit ministry of the local church WHICH GOD HAD HAND-PICKED FOR THEM! The people’s tears showed that the message was taken seriously (v. 9). They were right in taking the Word of God seriously, but they did not need to be overwhelmed by grief. The feast was not for weeping but for rejoicing. Only one occasion for mourning and fasting was found among Israel’s feasts, and that was the Day of Atonement. The rest of the feasts were to be kept with joy and celebration. There should be more SMILES, CLAPS, and SHOUTS at an event around God’s Word than any event on any “stage” hosted by the world! In verses 10-12, the fruit of the Spirit was to be visible: love, in sharing with the less fortunate; joy, in eating and drinking before the Lord; peace, in calming their fears and putting their hearts at rest. Their sadness was turned to joy, and the joy of the Lord was their strength. The church is intended to be where the GOSPEL (“good news) BECOMES STRONGLY INCARNATE anew and afresh each week! The brick and mortar as well as the online “stage” in your ekklesia is not about what we can SOAK UP emotionally as much as what we can SHARE emotionally—love, joy, and peace that only comes through the faithful attention to God’s declared Word!
May we catch the spirit of a recent author’s sentiment, “I normally shun the spotlight, but I don’t mind being the platform.” There are a lot of things that we should be a part of in our local church, but none are more important that supporting and defending WHAT WILL HAPPEN/WHO WILL BE FEATURED ON OUR HEAVEN-ENTRUSTED STAGE! Will you support the stage ministry of the church of Jesus Christ by championing more fully it to be a place of EAGER ATTENTION, ELEVATED CLARITY, and EMOTIONAL RESPONSE in and through you?