Citizenship in the Royal city (Nehemiah 7:4-6)
One of my favorite books is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. One of my favorite scenes is when Christian sees the Celestial City from a distance. He is excited and ready with anticipation to enter the city and see his King, yet on this last leg of the journey he meets an old friend who came in by a different way and as they approach the gate he sees that his friend doesn’t get to enter the city because he didn’t come through the wicket gate like Christian did. This last bit is sobering and it reminds me that many can put on a good front, but only those who are qualified in Christ get to enter into Heaven and those who reject him have rejected his Kingdom as well.
Today in Nehemiah we see something similar as Nehemiah seeks out qualified people to fill the city of Jerusalem. The key word there is qualified. You had to be from the city and from the people of Judah to live in the city. It was a big deal. The right credentials got you a city address. The wrong credentials got you kicked out of the city… it mattered.
The city was wide and large, but the people within it were few, and no houses had been rebuilt. Then my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles and the officials and the people to be enrolled by genealogy. And I found the book of the genealogy of those who came up at the first, and I found written in it: These were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried into exile. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his town. (Nehemiah 7:4-6 ESV)
The following were those who came up from Tel-melah, Tel-harsha, Cherub, Addon, and Immer, but they could not prove their fathers’ houses nor their descent, whether they belonged to Israel: the sons of Delaiah, the sons of Tobiah, the sons of Nekoda, 642. Also, of the priests: the sons of Hobaiah, the sons of Hakkoz, the sons of Barzillai (who had taken a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite and was called by their name). These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but it was not found there, so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean. (Nehemiah 7:61-64 ESV)
We don’t place much emphasis on land these days but generations ago people were tied to geography. It mattered where you came from, even if you weren’t born there, it was “home.” Such was the case for Jerusalem. Many of the people who had come back weren’t born in Jerusalem. They didn’t have memories of growing up in Jerusalem. At best they may have had some old stories shared by their parents or grandparents about what life was like in Jerusalem before an invading army had come in and carried the people off into captivity. They were told to pray for the peace of the city where they found themselves (Jeremiah 29:7), but they never forgot that they really belonged back in Jerusalem. So when the time came and they were free to go back, many did!
I think the image of having a home that you have never seen is a beautiful image of what heaven is like for the Christian. We know that we live this life as aliens and exiles (Philippians 3:20, Hebrews 11:13-16) from the one true city that we have yet to see. We are citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. We haven’t seen it yet, but we have heard about it and we can’t wait to get there. Unlike Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem will already have walls and gates (Revelation 21:12), but just like in the day of Nehemiah this New Jerusalem is incomplete without its people.
Just like in Nehemiah’s day, you had to belong to the city before you could become a resident. There will be many who think they belong in Heaven but find out at the last moment that they were never citizens to begin with (Matthew 7:19-21). Jesus told us that the only way to get to God the Father and by consequence the Celestial City in which he reigns was to come through Him (John 14:6).