Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Most people who are a little versed in the Bible know that 1 Corinthians 3:16 can be powerful ammunition in overcoming certain behaviors. In it Paul writes, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Now, take that and couple it with the next verse, and we’ve got a great weapon against drugs, smoking, or boozing. The Word of God tells us in 1 Corinthians 3:17, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” By keeping it fresh in your mind that your body is a temple of God it can be easier to avoid self-destructive behavior. After all, theoretically, you wouldn’t want to mess up a church or temple of God, so why would you do so to your body knowing its high position in the Lord? However, the Holy Spirit showed me that this sort of knowledge also can help you watch out for Tobiahs.
What are Tobiahs? Actually, Tobiah isn’t a matter of what, but of whom. He’s a person from the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah had come to rebuild the fallen Jerusalem. The Bible records,
Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me.
They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work (Nehemiah 2:17-18).
However, not everyone was thrilled about fixing up Jerusalem. Some people were quite vocal against the project,
But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” They asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?” (Nehemiah 2:19)
As we just read, among the naysayers was this guy named Tobiah. Although Nehemiah doesn’t speak very well of him, Tobiah wasn’t Nehemiah’s direct enemy. That role was filled by Sanballat. He’s always the first one to speak out against Nehemiah and to try to stop him. We can see Sanballat in action in Nehemiah 4:1-2,
When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble- burned as they are?”
To be sure, if there is an enemy character or villain in Nehemiah, it’s Sanballat. Tobiah, rather, was Sanballat’s friend (and his sidekick). Whenever Sanballat makes his comments, usually Tobiah is behind him going “Yeah boss! Yeah!” For example, after Sanballat trashed the rebuilding just a few lines up, we find Tobiah right there with him: “Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, ‘What they are building- even if a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their walls of stones!’” (Nehemiah 4:3). Therefore, because of his association with Sanballat, Tobiah worked against Nehemiah throughout the rebuilding process. However, much later, when Nehemiah was finishing up his reforms in Jerusalem, he found out that Tobiah had moved into and was living in the Temple of all places! History (as recorded by Nehemiah himself) tells us,
Before this, Eliashib the priest had been put in charge of the storerooms of the house of our God. He was closely associated with Tobiah, and he had provided him with a large room formerly used to store the grain offerings and incense and temple articles, and also the tithes of grain, new wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, singers and gatekeepers, as well as the contributions for the priests (Nehemiah 13:4-5).
Understandably, this was not well received by Nehemiah; who was quite upset by the whole thing. So, unsurprisingly, we read,
I was greatly displeased and threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God, with the grain offerings and the incense (Nehemiah 13:8-9).
So who is Tobiah? He was a guy who sided with Sanballat against Nehemiah’s rebuilding of Jerusalem, then ended up living in the Temple later on, and was eventually evicted by Nehemiah.
Alright, well how does the story of Tobiah translate into our lives? Before coming to Christ you did (or do) have various habits, hobbies, friends, or interests that are closer to the world than to God. Such things may not be destructive, just not holy. As I said before, Sanballat was more of Nehemiah’s enemy; this would be something outright destructive in your life (like drinking, smoking, drugs, gambling, or sleeping around). During the rebuilding, Sanballat and Geshem actually tried to kill Nehemiah at one point. Check it out,
When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it- though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates- Sanballat and Geshem send me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.”
But they were scheming to harm me; so I send messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:1-3).
Take note that when something truly dastardly was afoot, Tobiah backed out and wasn’t involved in the plan. In fact, amongst the people, Tobiah was actually quite well spoken of and had many connections in Jerusalem. We read,
Also, in those days the nobles of Judah were sending many letters to Tobiah, and replies from Tobiah kept coming to them. For many in Judah were under oath to him, since he was son-in-law to Shecaniah son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam son of Berekiah. Moreover, they kept reporting to me his good deeds and then telling him what I said. And Tobiah sent letters to intimidate me (Nehemiah 6:17-19).
Tobiah wasn’t destructive, but he wasn’t helpful to Nehemiah either. So what was Tobiah? He was a gateway into worse things. Remember, Tobiah was a friend of Sanballat, the true villain of the book of Nehemiah. So your hobby, friend, habit, or interest may not have been bad by the world’s standards, but because of its association with worldly things, it certainly wasn’t helping your spiritual walk.
Now, such things were in your worldly life. Before Christ, it didn’t matter that you hung out with Tobiah because you weren’t living in Jerusalem anyway. But one way or another, the Spirit of God came into your life and you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior through his death on a cross. This moment (if you’ve experienced it) changed everything. Suddenly, instead of being driven by your desires you were guided by the Spirit and motivated to clean your life up and all of that stuff that comes with being a new Christian. It is usually a very exciting time and many bad habits and varied distractions drop off for a while. After some time though, you may notice that something doesn’t feel quite right. When this happens, you might have a Tobiah in your temple- that is to say, you might be investing too much of your resources (time, money, effort, concentration) on something that while maybe not dangerous, isn’t beneficial to your walk with Christ. Paul touched on this topic during his ministry. We are saved by the grace of God; therefore Christians aren’t defined by what they do but rather who they are in Christ. However, even Paul realized that we shouldn’t take our liberty lightly. He wrote, “’Everything is permissible’- but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’- but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). You have to remember that in order for Tobiah to have a room in the Temple a whole bunch of the Temple’s stuff (like the offerings, tithes, and supplies) was displaced. You might not be doing anything wrong; in fact the world would probably say its fine or no problem at all. However, such things could be distracting you from your relationship with God, which can drain your Spiritual power. Think of golfing or fishing on a Sunday instead of going to church, or watching TV during what used to be the time you read the Bible. Is there anything wrong with watching TV, playing golf, or fishing? Of course not! But if it is becoming a bigger part of your life than the Lord, then you’ve probably given Tobiah a room in your temple (which is not where he belongs). Paul reminds us, “’Everything is permissible for me’- but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’- but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). If some activity or interest is starting to gain some mastery over you, then you’re dealing with a Tobiah situation. Be aware my friends that while Paul is pretty soft on the problem, James 4:4 tells us, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” Tobiah wasn’t exactly Nehemiah’s rival or enemy, but he was friends with Sanballat, who stood against everything Nehemiah represented.
Ok, here’s a good question: How did Tobiah even get into the Temple after opposing Nehemiah for so long anyway? At the time, Nehemiah had been out of town. He records,
But while all this was going on, I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had returned to the king. Some time later I asked his permission and came back to Jerusalem. Here I learned about the evil thing Eliashib had done in providing Tobiah a room in the courts of the house of God (Nehemiah 13:6-7).
For us, Tobiahs can sneak in while we’re not paying attention. This is why Paul writes to the young pastor Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). By being careful about how you live, you can keep an eye out for potential problems. Tobiahs are sneaky, so you need to be alert. Maybe an old friend messaged you, or a random Google search revived an old interest- such things weren’t problems before you became a Christian. However, now that you have Jesus, these sort of things might be snares in your walk with Christ if not managed properly.
When Tobiah sneaks in to your life, the most obvious thing you should do is throw him out. However, this is generally more easily said than done. I think most of us know that when an old habit comes back, it usually dies hard, and it’s pretty difficult to separate ourselves from our interests. Therefore, prevention is the key to keeping Tobiah out of your temple. Always keep your eyes open and don’t give Tobiah the room he wants. To do this, make sure you put God first and stick to it. Paul writes,
For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
As you develop spiritual habits, stick with them. Even as your time dwindles away and something has to get cut, put the Lord above your personal interests. You may not have time to watch TV or cruise the internet some days, but you’ll be preserving your relationship with Christ and sticking it to Tobiah. Jesus tells us not to worry about other things in life, but rather to focus on God first and foremost. He says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). You’re not called to live a nothing life, the Lord knows what you need and will richly supply you. Rather, watch out for stuff that might take your focus off of God. In how we’re to live as Christians, it is written,
No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs- he wants to please his commanding officer. Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules. The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this (2 Timothy 2:4-7).
Jesus is more than a “get out of jail free” card and the Christian life is more than going to church sometimes. When you offer your life to Christ, you’re changing your priorities, so watch out that they don’t revert back to where you were before being saved through Jesus’ atoning death. The best way to stay aware of potential Tobiahs is to always check yourself against what is written in the Bible; because we read,
For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:12-13).
So read your Bible daily and see if the Holy Spirit points out anything you might want to work on. At the same time, pray…a lot. Actually, according to the Bible you should be praying all the time. It is written, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). By keeping a constant dialogue with God going, you’ll be receptive to when he tries to warn you and wants to speak to you. By reading the Word and praying, the Lord will help you keep Tobiah out of your temple.