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It is common for great enterprises of faith to be surrounded by extremely difficult relationships.
William Carey, the father of modern Protestant missions, may be a hero to us, but in his own day he was viewed as eccentric and had more than his share of personal and familial sorrow. The great magisterial reformers did not battle for mere ideas; they were enmeshed in a great controversy that included not only “enemies” but countless people who were “friends” in some arenas and foes in others. In any great controversy there is bound to be a spectrum of viewpoints and a considerable diversity of degrees of integrity. One cannot read a detailed and candid biography of any Christian leader without observing the kinds and frequency of the difficult, painful, and sometimes deceptive debates in which they were called to participate. Consider, for example, Arnold Dallimore’s George Whitefield or Iain Murray’s D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I cannot think of an exception.
Where sufficient information is provided, the same thing must be said regarding leaders of the faith whose cameos appear in Scripture. Despite the long list of physical sufferings inflicted on him by unbelievers and by his calling as a church-planting apostle (2 Cor. 11), doubtless Paul’s most anguished moments come to him from closer to home—from Christians behaving in sub-Christian ways, from false brothers and false apostles undermining his work with innuendo and half-truths.
These are the kinds of things Nehemiah now faces (Neh. 6). Failing to succeed by ridicule, threat, and direct opposition, Sanballat, Tobiah, and their colleagues embark on subterfuge and personal pressure. In this chapter there are lies, false prophets, and accusations of rebellion. Indeed, even some of the Jews, Nehemiah’s own people, owe allegiance through political and marriage alliances to Tobiah, and use their compromised positions to try to influence the governor away from a policy that is good for the Jews and honoring to God. In all these machinations, Nehemiah steers a straight course, asks God for help, and shows himself to be a discerning and far-seeing leader.
Similar problems assail genuine Christian leaders today, and similar quiet resolve and fearless discernment are required to meet them. This is certainly true in pastoral ministry. The most difficult challenges will erupt not from direct opposition or from problems with a building or the like, but from deceivers, liars, those committed to some other agenda but whose smooth talk is so superficially “spiritual” that many are deceived. Expect such difficulties; they will surely come. It is the price of godly leadership in a fallen world.
We are not to think that God disclosed himself to Abram every day: the decisive moments take place over considerable time. Putting the chronological hints together, Genesis 12 occurs when Abram is 75; Genesis 15 is undated, but occurs during the following decade. Now he is 99, and Ishmael is already 13 (Gen. 17:1, 25). God’s opening words on this occasion must have been a great comfort, pulling together as they do some of the themes already introduced: “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers” (17:1–2).
In the following verses, there is initial emphasis on the covenant, on the promise of the land, and on the fact that Abram will be “the father of many nations” (17:4–5). The latter takes pride of place, but there are three new elements that carry the history of redemption forward.
First, both Abram and Sarai are given new names. If Abram means “exalted father,” Abraham means “father of many,” i.e., “the father of many nations,” which implicitly announces that however important his role as head of the fledgling Hebrew nation, Abraham will be greater still in his foundational role as the one through whom all the peoples of the earth will be blessed (12:3). Sarah “will be the mother of nations” (17:16).
Second, God introduces circumcision as the initiatory sign of the covenant. Circumcision was practiced by several ancient Near Eastern peoples. Here, however, it has a distinctive role: a rite that is not unknown in Abraham’s world is picked up by God and assigned distinctive significance in the history of the covenant God enters into with his people. Abraham loses no time in complying (17:23–27). This is a social “boundary marker” which across the course of history increasingly marks the Hebrews out as different; but it is more than that. It is so definitively established as the unique sign of the everlasting covenant that failure to comply means one is cut off from the people of God (17:13–14). Even before there is a great quantity of stipulation in the covenant, its framework, its boundary, and its symbolism are being established.
Third, Abraham’s understandable but unhappy skepticism that he will bring forth a son of Sarah at this late stage in their marriage leads him to propose Ishmael as the one through whom God will fulfill his promises (17:17–18). But God will have none of it. Ishmael will sire great numbers, but the covenant line goes through Isaac (17:19–21). The history of the covenant people is thus decisively shaped by God’s sovereign choice.
17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty;1 walk before me, and be blameless, 2 that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4 “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram,2 but your name shall be Abraham,3 for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah4 shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give5 you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.6 I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
22 When he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham. 23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.
 17:1 Hebrew El Shaddai
 17:5 Abram means exalted father
 17:5 Abraham means father of a multitude
 17:15 Sarai and Sarah mean princess
 17:16 Hebrew have given
 17:19 Isaac means he laughs
16:1 And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. 2 He answered them,1 “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ 3 And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
5 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6 Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7 And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” 8 But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? 9 Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11 How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock2 I will build my church, and the gates of hell3 shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed4 in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord!5 This shall never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance6 to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life7 will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
 16:2 Some manuscripts omit the following words to the end of verse 3
 16:18 The Greek words for Peter and rock sound similar
 16:18 Greek the gates of Hades
 16:19 Or shall have been bound . . . shall have been loosed
 16:22 Or “[May God be] merciful to you, Lord!”
 16:23 Greek stumbling block
 16:25 The same Greek word can mean either soul or life, depending on the context; twice in this verse and twice in verse 26
6:1 Now when Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies heard that I had built the wall and that there was no breach left in it (although up to that time I had not set up the doors in the gates), 2 Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono.” But they intended to do me harm. 3 And I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” 4 And they sent to me four times in this way, and I answered them in the same manner. 5 In the same way Sanballat for the fifth time sent his servant to me with an open letter in his hand. 6 In it was written, “It is reported among the nations, and Geshem1 also says it, that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall. And according to these reports you wish to become their king. 7 And you have also set up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, ‘There is a king in Judah.’ And now the king will hear of these reports. So now come and let us take counsel together.” 8 Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.” 9 For they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will drop from the work, and it will not be done.” But now, O God,2 strengthen my hands.
10 Now when I went into the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home, he said, “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple. Let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you. They are coming to kill you by night.” 11 But I said, “Should such a man as I run away? And what man such as I could go into the temple and live?3 I will not go in.” 12 And I understood and saw that God had not sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. 13 For this purpose he was hired, that I should be afraid and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to taunt me. 14 Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.
15 So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. 16 And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God. 17 Moreover, in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and Tobiah's letters came to them. 18 For many in Judah were bound by oath to him, because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah: and his son Jehohanan had taken the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah as his wife. 19 Also they spoke of his good deeds in my presence and reported my words to him. And Tobiah sent letters to make me afraid.
16:1 Paul1 came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. 2 He was well spoken of by the brothers2 at Lystra and Iconium. 3 Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
6 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 And when Paul3 had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
11 So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the4 district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. 13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. 14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.
16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.
19 But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. 20 And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. 21 They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” 22 The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. 23 And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. 24 Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone's bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer5 called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.
35 But when it was day, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” 36 And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, “The magistrates have sent to let you go. Therefore come out now and go in peace.” 37 But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and do they now throw us out secretly? No! Let them come themselves and take us out.” 38 The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens. 39 So they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. 40 So they went out of the prison and visited Lydia. And when they had seen the brothers, they encouraged them and departed.