In 586 BC, the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem and carried away a final group of prisoners into captivity. This was God’s judgment against his people because of their refusal to obey him. But by the time the book of Nehemiah was written, the exile was over. The Jews were allowed to return home and rebuild the Temple of God. A spirit of revival was sweeping the land, and the people were eager to serve God. You can see that clearly in Nehemiah 8.The scribe Ezra read the law publicly to the people assembled for the Feast of Tabernacles while they listened intently for hours.
But as he was reading, they discovered that God had commanded them to live in temporary huts during the feast. Nehemiah 8:17says that it had not been done since the days of Joshua – that’s about 1,000 years! What was their response?
Well, if a similar situation occurred today, you can imagine that many would have been skeptical. “We’re still observing the Feast of Tabernacles. That’s what matters. If huts were that important, wouldn’t we have been doing it for the last 1,000 years?” Or, “Is this really salvation issue?” Or, “Let’s not be legalistic!”
No – they said immediately, “Let’s build the huts!” Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves… And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in the booths, for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. (Neh 8:15b-16a, 17)
This story is important because it is a powerful example of the restoration principle in action. God has given his people instructions for life, whether we are talking about Israel or the church. God sets guidelines for how we approach him and worship him, as well as how we conduct ourselves morally and ethically. And he expects that his people will be obedient.
But, unfortunately, people do not always obey God. Sometimes that is intentional as people are deliberately rebellious. But at other times, the will of God on a matter simply gets lost somehow. There are several examples of this in Scripture beyond the story we just related: Josiah renovated the Temple as part of his religious reform program and in the process discovered the lost book of the Law, prompting him to keep the Passover properly for the first time in generations (2 Chronicles 34-35); Uzzah was struck dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant when it appeared it was going to fall, a direct result of it being transported on a cart rather than being carried by priests, a practice David consequently reinstituted (1 Chronicles 15).
Each of these demonstrates what we mean by restoration. In each case, the people discovered a command of God that had fallen into obscurity. And, in each case, they endeavored to restore it to the practice of the community. Scripture provides the means of renewal because it is the account of how God has revealed himself to humanity. When God’s people have drifted, his Word leads them to see the true standard and encourages them to come back to the right way.
Bringing ourselves individually and corporately in line with God’s standards should be the spirit that motivates us. The New Testament is, or ought to be, normative for our beliefs and practices – that is, it sets the standard for what we teach and what we do. The very concept of restoration indicates that, sometimes, important parts of God’s will have been lost. That should not surprise us, considering that it has happened before. But that means that we must always be on guard. We must constantly hold ourselves up to God’s word, evaluating and reevaluating ourselves. After all, even the first century churches were not always what God wanted them to be! We ought not think that we are somehow an exception. We stand always under the judgment of Scripture – restored, but every restoring. We must examine ourselves just as we must ultimately be examined by the Lord.
We also have a personal responsibility to spend the time and effort necessary to know God. The only way to know God is through his revelation. This means not just public instruction in the Scripture, but private Bible study. And then, knowing it, we must endeavor to put it into practice in our lives. May God help us as a church and as his people to do his will in all things.