Significance of Nehemiah for Biblical Worship

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from Biblical Worship: Theology for God’s Glory
by Thomas Petter
Editors: Benjamin K. Forrest, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., and Vernon M. Whaley

Preparing the Way for True Worship on Mount Zion

The person and work of Christ as described and explained in the New Testament is the ultimate answer to the question of worship of the living God. Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Consequently, Nehemiah’s significance and contribution to the theme of worship from a biblical perspective must be set against the fulfillment found in Christ. Nehemiah’s chronological placement in redemptive history matters since the book of Nehemiah (and Ezra) lays some of the last foundations (with Malachi) before the coming of the Messiah in fulfillment of Isaiah 40 (cf. Mark 1). In Nehemiah we see the last throes of the ongoing tensions in the sacrificial system and the worship in the Old Testament (Neh. 13). The contrast between Sinaitic worship and the direct access to the sacred space through Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 4:14–16; 1 John 4:18) is illustrated vividly in Hebrews 12:18–24:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Thus, the acropolis of Zion at the time of Nehemiah (until AD 70), with the coming of the “son” (Heb. 1:1–2), turns into “the city of the living God,” the “heavenly Jerusalem” (cf. Gal. 4:26). Its population (a minority in Yehud) now grows in ever-increasing numbers (in fulfillment of Isa. 2:1–4). It is now “the assembly [ekklēsia] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). Zion continues to be the place where the worshiper meets “God, the Judge of all” (Heb. 12:23) now manifested through “Jesus the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 9:15). But instead of fear, now the picture is one of acceptance through the justification of the believer (see Rom. 8) so that they have direct access into this heavenly city, through the sacrifice of Christ (Heb. 12:23). This heavenly Zion is of course not unfamiliar to Isaiah’s prophecy who so frequently refers to the new Zion both in the first and second half of his prophecy (Isa. 1:26–27; 2:1–4; 4:2–6; 10:5; 11:1–16; 25:6–9; 28:16; 30:18; 32:1; 33:5–6; 35; 40:1–31; 52–55). Nehemiah thus becomes the bridge between what Isaiah envisions and the first part of the Isaianic fulfillment in Christ’s first coming until its consummation at his second coming.

Holiness Has No Expiration Date

The all-important requirements and qualifications of holiness for worship (Levitical credentials, purification and holiness—all prevailing themes in Nehemiah) and the blatant shortage of holiness on the part of his people (Neh. 13; cf. Isa. 6:3, 5; Ezek. 16) are now met by the Holy One of God himself. Jesus, God the Son, through his own sacrifice as a “guilt offering” (Isa. 53:10), met the standard no fallen human can ever meet. Paul powerfully captures the new reality (1 Cor. 1:30): “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteous- ness and sanctification [hagiasmos = holiness] and redemption.” Through our position by faith in Christ, we receive his holiness and have become “saints” (hagios) (1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:1). Peter himself confirms the cancelation of the Old Testament genealogical test of worthiness (which was so important in Ezra-Nehemiah) to be qualified for worship (cf. Exod. 19:5–6): “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9). However, the requirement of holiness remains a command in the new covenant (Eph. 4:24; “the will of God” [1 Thess. 4:3]; “be holy as I am holy” [1 Peter 1:15; Lev. 11:44]). We are made holy entirely outside ourselves, by faith in him (Eph. 1:4), but because God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is holy, we emulate his character in every aspect of our lives out of love and loyalty to him. In Christ, the Levitical sacrificial system has been superseded by the priesthood of Christ and our worship and sacrifices become spiritual. Paul says to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).

The Gathered Community

Finally, the elements of worship from Nehemiah outlined above pro- vide continuity in New Testament forms of worship by anchoring the importance of the unity of the people gathered now fulfilled in Christ (Eph. 2:11–22). The centrality of the Word in worship (as modeled by the reading of Scripture in the synagogue in Nazareth [Luke 4:17]); confession of sin (James 5:16; 1 John 1:9); and the singing of praise and worship songs in celebratory joy (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19–20; Phil. 4:4) have all been noted in Nehemiah. By faith in Christ and in fulfillment of the inclusion of the nations into the blessing of Abraham (Isa. 2:1–4), every nation, tribe, people, and language continue to gather in the worship of the Lamb of God and in singing (Rev. 5:6–9). God indeed has been faithful to Nehemiah’s prayer to remember him and what he had done for the cause of Zion:

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9–10)

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9–10)

This post is an excerpt from Biblical Worship: Theology for God’s Glory,  edited by Benjamin K. Forrest, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., and Vernon M. Whaley; adapted from the chapter, “Protecting the Sanctity of Zion: Worship in Nehemiah,” written by contributor Thomas Petter. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

A biblical theology of worship spanning both the Old and New Testaments

While many books on worship focus on contemporary trends, Biblical Worship plumbs every book of the Bible to uncover its teaching on worship and then applies these insights to our lives and churches today. A team of respected evangelical scholars unearths insights into a variety of issues surrounding worship, including:

  • The Old Testament concept of Worship
  • Worship before the Exodus
  • Worship in the Old Testament feasts and celebrations
  • Worship in the Psalms of Lament and Thanksgiving
  • The New Testament concept of worship
  • Worship in the Gospels
  • Worship in Acts
  • Worship in the Pastoral Epistles, and much more.

Pastors, worship leaders, instructors, and anyone who wants to grow in their knowledge of the Bible’s full teaching on worship and how it applies today will benefit from this volume, part of the Biblical Theology for the Church series.

Benjamin K. Forrest is associate dean of the college of arts and sciences at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. He is coauthor of Good Arguments: Making your Case in Writing and Public Speaking and co-editor of The History of Apologetics: A Biographical and Methodological Introduction.
Walter C. Kaiser Jr. (PhD, Brandeis University) is distinguished professor emeritus of Old Testament and president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Dr. Kaiser has written over 40 books, including Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching; The Messiah in the Old Testament; and The Promise-Plan of God; and coauthored An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning. Dr. Kaiser and his wife, Nancy, live in Oostburg, Wisconsin. Dr. Kaiser’s website is
Vernon M. Whaley (Ph.D. University of Oklahoma; DWS Liberty University; DMin Luther Rice Seminary) is Associate Vice President of Program Development for Music and Worship Arts at Trevecca University in Nashville, Tn. He served for 15 years as Dean of the School of Music and Director of the Center for Worship at Liberty University in Lynchburg VA. He is author of several books including: The Way of WorshipCalled to WorshipThe Great Commission to WorshipWorship and WitnessWorship through the AgesThe Dynamics of Corporate Worship, and Exalt His Name (Book 1 & 2).




About Author

Thomas Petter (PhD, University of Toronto) is senior pastor of Trinitarian Congregational Church in Wayland Massachusetts and associate professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts.

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