Hebrews – Back to Elementary School

My Elementary School class photo

I hate math. I always have and I always will. I know it’s important to a functional society, but it has always been a huge struggle for me. I have a word-brain, not a numbers-brain – and whose bright idea was it to put letters in numerical equations?  I cried my way through math homework, from first grade through college. My math pre-test was so poor I had to take two “remedial” math courses before I got to the one that actually counted toward my grade. I had to go back to the basics – addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division – before I could move on to College Algebra.

When the author of Hebrews wrote about the lack of spiritual development among his readers, he said, “Let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity” (6:1). Just as I had to relearn elementary math, they had to relearn some basic stuff about the Christian faith. So what were these elementary, foundational teachings? “repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (6:1-2). I dare say that believers in the modern era don’t even grasp these “elementary” concepts of the faith. For contemporary Western Christians, the basics are things like, “Jesus loves me,” having devotional time a few days a week, learning about disconnected Bible stories, and showing up at church at least two Sundays of the month (at least we’re not Chreasters, right?). We only want to know about how God desires to bless us and how just much we can flirt with sin and still take the Lord’s Supper. If verses 1-2 are describing “elementary truths,” then our churches are filled with toddlers today.  If those subjects are spiritual “milk” then it’s no wonder the 21st Century church is dangerously malnourished.

The writer has said, “Let us leave the elementary teachings . . . and go on to maturity. And God permitting, we will do so.” (v. 1,3). Oh, Beloved, God permits. It is His desire for us to be mature and complete – which the Greek renders as “perfect” – in our faith. But before we can get there, we have to start here, in elementary school. Over the next few devotionals, we will fill our cups with milk and try to grow up in Christ.

Hebrews: Are You Ready to Eat?

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My mom said when I was a baby and she fed me baby food at the supper table I would get mad that I couldn’t have the stuff everyone else was eating. I wanted chicken and corn and beans and potatoes too! When I got my first taste of real mashed potatoes, I refused to go back to gray mushy cereal. I was a big girl with a big appetite. You can look at me now and see that I haven’t changed.

The writer of Hebrews said, “though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truth of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness” (Hebrews 5:12-13) After confronting his readers with their spiritual laziness, he chastises them because they have refused to move past the “elementary truths” of God’s Word and sink their teeth into something solid. What would he say to the church today?

I have long felt that we are missing something important in the way we do Sunday School, and it shows clearly in the lack of biblical literacy in the church (specifically the church of the west). I “taught” preschool Sunday School when my son was small and we stuck with the very simple lessons of “Jesus loves me,” “God made the world,” “God made the animals and stuck them on a boat with Noah.” I moved up to elementary students and we progressed to selected Bible stories. Then I taught Sunday School to college-aged students for a season and I was saddened that many of them still saw the Bible as a string of disconnected narratives.  I recently started teaching a ladies’ Sunday School class at my church as was given the requisite quarterly, but I never use it. I prefer to teach the Bible from – get this – the Bible. We’re starting in Genesis and working our way through. It will take us several years to reach the end, but I want to show the ladies that the Bible is not just 66 unconnected books, but one seamless, beautiful account of God’s sovereignty, power, righteousness, and love. It’s the story of the ages for the ages.

Friend, you can’t survive spiritually on pablum. You need meat to sustain you. You need food that will stick to your ribs – deep truths that take a while to digest. Beloved, are you ready to come to the table?

Rock the Boat!

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When I read in the Scriptures about the early church, I’m jealous. They had such an incredible experience witnessing “many wonders and miraculous signs” (Acts 2:43).  I long for the sense of purpose and community that they had: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (v.42). They met daily and “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God (v. 46). And He blessed them greatly: “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47). What an exciting, fulfilling time to “belong to the Way” (9:2). Even the community outside of the faith appreciated them, “they enjoyed the favor of all the people” (47).

Well maybe not everyone.

After healing a man who had been crippled from birth, Peter and John proclaimed the gospel to the astonished crowd.  A great number of people believed and that angered the Jewish authorities. They questioned the apostles who then boldly proclaimed the name of Jesus to them. They commanded Peter and John to stop teaching in His name. Their response? “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (4:19-20). Later they arrested and flogged them. Remarkably, they rejoiced at their mistreatment “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (5:17-41)

How very different from our modern, western culture, where religion is regarded as a personal preference and not a life-giving entity. In the US the battle cry is “separation of church and state,” and in our workplaces, schools, the public square, even among our peers, we are told to keep our religion to ourselves. Unlike the bold apostles, we do it because we don’t want to rock the boat. But true Christianity is all-or-nothing. It spills over into every aspect of our lives because “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” We’ll gladly take the scorn of the world for the Name. Besides, it’s only going to get worse, not better. Beloved, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, it’s time to not only rock the boat but get out of it and walk on the water.

The Core of Christianity

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The Christian faith has experienced a tremendous amount of change over the past two thousand years.  Some of these changes have been positive, such as the agreement of the doctrines of the faith. And some changes have caused havoc, confusion, and turmoil in the church.  All these changes have added layers to the basic truths of Christianity. So when we strip away all these added layers what is the core of the Christian faith?

 “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time . . . Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.”  1 Corinthians 15:3-7.

The death of Jesus Christ, His burial, and His resurrection are the core, the root, and the foundation of the Christian faith.  Paul said that those are “of first importance.”  That does not mean that other doctrines of the faith are of lesser importance.  We must recognize the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the incarnation, and the virgin birth, but the heart of our faith is the fact that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again. These prove that Jesus was, and is, the Son of God. 

Why are these so important?  Without the death of Jesus, our sin debt remains.  Without the grave, His death is a question, not a fact. Without His resurrection, we are trusting in a dead man with no power.  But He is alive and He promises us that we will have life everlasting if we believe and trust in Him. There are many facets to the Christian faith and we do well to learn about atonement, justification, sanctification, grace, and the other great truths of Christianity. They are the building blocks of our faith.  But before you start erecting the walls, Beloved, make certain you are on the rock-solid foundation of “first importance.”  All other ground is sinking sand.

Not a Christian Nation Anymore

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Like many of you, I have watched with sadness the declining influence of the church on the nation. I have also grieved the decline of the church itself. While it is by no means dead, it is quite ill. It has replaced the true gospel with the junk food of social justice, pop-psychology, and “God wants everyone to be happy” theology. It has drunk the wine of complacency, apathy, and laziness. It has become addicted to the drug of the culture, “tolerance.” It is nothing like the church of my youth.  

I grew up in the 60’s. It was much easier to be a “Christian” in those days. It was what was expected. If you went to church, the culture smiled on you. Even those who didn’t go to church had a sense of respect for those that did. But that’s not the world we live in anymore. I miss the time when right was right and wrong was wrong and everyone knew the first three verses of Amazing Grace. But while the Christianization of America looked good on the outside, it was not all good. It was akin to the reign of Constantine in the 2nd century A.D. when, because of the Emperor’s Christian zeal, every citizen born in the Roman Empire was deemed a “Christian.” The true heart of a Christ-follower was long forgotten as the populous did what was expected.

Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). What is the will of the Father? “My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40). The will of the Father, the mark of a true Christ-follower was not to sit in a church pew, but to believe in Christ.

The de-Christianization of America may be the best thing that ever happened to God’s people. As the culture takes a deeper hold on the church the faithful will be pushed out and ostracized. Only pure-hearted Christ-loving believers will stand firm. And just as happened throughout the history of the church, God will use the world’s hatred as a purifying fire to burn away the dross and bring out the gold. Those who kneel before Christ today will stand firm in the face of persecution tomorrow. What will it be for you, Beloved?

Hebrews: Church Secretaries and High Priests

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Me and Carol Dehner hard at work at Tallahassee Heights United Methodist Church

I worked in church administration for more than 25 years. I often considered myself a Levite. Levi, one of the sons of Jacob, would become the priestly line for all of Israel. It was “the family business.” God called Aaron to be the first high priest, his sons to be “assistant” priests, and the remaining Levites to be their assistants “doing the work at the Tent of Meeting” (Numbers 8:19). They managed the mundane details of the tabernacle so Aaron and his sons could perform sacrifices and offerings to the Lord. Like a Levi, I was the creator of bulletins and newsletters, handler of mail, and keeper of the membership records. I freed up the pastor to focus on the ministry of the Word, care of the members, and leading the church as God directed. It was not the weighty stuff the pastor did, but it helped the church run (fairly) smoothly.

Like a pastor, the high priest had a serious responsibility and it was not a job for just anyone. It was a divinely given role. In our ongoing study of Hebrews, the writer said, “Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.” (Hebrews 5:1). It was the most important position in Israel. The high priest represented the people before God and represented God before the people. In addition to interceding for them, He also taught them about righteousness. “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray,” (v. 2a). Because of who he represented, the high priest was expected to be holy – to be set apart from the common and certainly from sin. But at the end of the day, he was still a flesh-and-blood man like every other man. Listen to the second half of verse 2-3: “since himself is subject to weakness.” The high priest had ”to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.”

A Christian pastor is likewise called to his position. “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was” (v. 4). After many years of working with pastors, I can testify to the fact that it is not a job; it is a holy calling. (I could rant about pastors not being fit for the position, but I won’t.)

You’re probably wondering, what does my career and an OT history lesson have to do with the church today? I’m glad you asked, and I will answer – in our next Hebrews devotional.

Hebrews: Jesus is Enough

I have great respect and appreciation for my pastor. He preaches the Word of God without compromise. He serves his church wholeheartedly. He has been a blessing to my family in times of need. He encourages me and cares about me. But he can’t save me. He can’t take on my sin and declare me righteous. He can’t bear my burdens and weaknesses. He can be my pastor, but he can’t be my high priest. But Jesus can. 

The author of Hebrews said, “we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God . . .” (4:14). That probably doesn’t mean much to us as twenty-first century Protestants, but context is important. The Jewish people, like all people, were a sinful bunch. God made provision for them through the high priest, who, once a year, entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple, the place where God dwelled and presented a sacrifice for the atonement for them. This was repeated every year because, as we’ll see later, the blood of animals was a temporary solution to an eternal problem.

Jesus is our “great high priest” who didn’t just enter the earthly dwelling place of God, but He went right into heaven, into God’s very presence to present Himself as our sacrifice of atonement. Once. But once was enough. He alone could do that for us because He is the Son of God. Remember that the original readers were Jews who depended on the yearly sacrifice and atonement. They needed to hold firmly to their confidence that what Jesus did for them once was enough to make them righteous – and keep them righteous before God.

What does that mean for you and me? The same thing. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, which He presented personally to His Father, we are righteous. We have to hold firmly to that as our defining truth. Not just in an ethereal way, but in practical ways every day. When we face choices we remember that we have been declared righteous, and we choose accordingly. When the flesh craves something ungodly, we remember that we have been declared righteous and we deny our flesh. When we would react out of anger or fear or discouragement we remember that we have been declared righteous and we respond as a child of God – with peace and trust and hope. Jesus did it all for you, Beloved. Now hold firmly to Him. He is enough.

Hebrews: I Need You

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One major blow the pandemic has dealt the church is disconnection. When churches closed their doors trying to keep their members safe, it also isolated them physically from one another. Now that churches are opened again, many have decided not to return. Without the opportunity to come together, many people have grown cold. They just don’t think they need the church anymore.

The writer of Hebrews pointed to one important aspect of the Christian community: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (3:12-13). This is not a message to individual Christians; it’s a word for the full Body of Christ. “You are responsible for one another.” No, that doesn’t mean you will be held accountable for my sins (aren’t you glad!), but that you and I are called to encourage each other away from sin and into a deeper faith in God. That means being together enough that I notice when your faith is faltering.  That’s one thing I really miss being 100 miles away from my best friend. When we lived in the same town, we spent a lot of time together. She knew when I was struggling just by the inflection of my voice and my posture. She would come beside me and redirect me back to truth and faith. We are called to encourage one another in our daily walk so that sin and unbelief do not harden our hearts and turn us away from God.

In his message on the armor of God, Paul wrote about “the shield of faith” (Ephesians 6:16). The Roman soldier’s shield had a particularly important feature for the protection of the whole troop – a loop-and-locking system on the sides that allowed a group of soldiers to form what is known as “The Testudo (Tortoise) Formation.” By locking their shields together they formed a “safe house” around and above the whole company that covered them from all sides. This is the picture Paul painted of the Body of Christ working together against the “flaming arrows” of sin and unbelief launched by the evil one.

We dare not face off against the enemy in isolation. Beloved, your brothers and sisters need you. I need you. And you need me. Lock your shield with mine and theirs and let’s help one another stand firm in our shared faith.

To Be a Mighty Man (or Woman) of God

King David was a mighty warrior. His feats are recorded all through 1st and 2nd Samuel. Every child knows the story of David and Goliath. David defeated many kings and conquered many enemy nations – but he didn’t do it alone. 2 Samuel 23 is a record of David’s “mighty men” who fought by his side. There was Josheb-Basshebeth, who killed 800 men in one encounter, and Abishai who killed 300. Benaiah killed a lion and a “huge Egyptian” with the man’s own spear. But there are two in particular that captured my attention.

Eleazar was with David when he faced off against the Philistines. The Scripture said that the rest of the army of Israel retreated, “but [Eleazar] stood his ground and struck down the Philistines till his hand grew tired and froze to the sword. The Lord brought about a great victory that day.” (v. 10). Shammah also faced an army of Philistines on his own after Israel’s troops fled. “Shammah took his stand in the middle of the field. He defended it and struck the Philistines down, and the Lord brought about a great victory” (v. 12).

Do you see the similarities in these accounts? Both men stood firm when everyone else had fled and The Lord brought about a great victory. I want to be like them. I want to stand firm in the Lord, no matter the size of the enemy, even if I stand alone. I want to hold the Sword of the Spirit with such a tight grip that my hand freezes around it. I want a faith that keeps me in the good fight till the end.

Like Perpetua, a young woman who, despite the pleas of her beloved father and the knowledge that she would leave behind a very young child, refused to recount her faith, but went courageously and gloriously into the Roman arena, counting herself blessed to suffer for her Savior, Jesus Christ. Still today, Christians around the world face the sentence of death for refusing to deny Christ. I want a faith like that – one that stands the ultimate test.

I want to be a “mighty woman of God.” I want that for my granddaughter. I want that for you too, Beloved. When the world demands that we deny Christ and bow to the culture, I want us to stand our ground, hands frozen to the Sword of the Spirit till the Lord brings the victory.

What Is a Christian?

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How do others know you’re a follower of Christ? Is it your “Daughter of the King” T-shirt? Maybe it’s the fish on your car or posting Jesus memes on social media. Perhaps it’s how you rail against sins you would never commit. Do these things say you are a Christian? No more than sitting in a garage says you are a car. There are three things that Jesus identified as marking His followers.

Love – “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Twice: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” ((John 15:12). And again: “This is my command: Love each other” (15:17). Three times Jesus said, “Love one another.” And this is the only time in all four gospels that Jesus called His words a “command.”

Fruit – “This is to my Father’s glory that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8). Fruit is the evidence of what something or someone is. A peach tree bears peaches. A banana tree bears bananas. A Christian bears the fruit of the Spirit: love (there it is again), Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

Persecution – “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. You do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19). If you belong to Christ, you have a target painted on your back.

The church wants to say it is all about doing and saying the right things. The world says it is approving all kinds of sin for the sake of “love.” But Jesus said the mark of a Christian is love for the Body of Christ, producing fruit, and being hated by the world. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a little uneasy right now. Beloved, what is it about you that tells the world you belong to Jesus?