Hebrews: By faith Abraham . . .

“Abraham! Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love . . . and sacrifice him as a burnt offering . . . (Genesis 22:1-2).

As I meditate on Hebrews 11:17-19 (grab your Bible and read it) two questions come to mind: Why would God make such a horrific demand of Abraham and why would Abraham obey it? As I pondered those questions, two points emerge about Abraham and Isaac’s story.

To the first question, the author says that “God tested [Abraham],” (v. 17) and, as He often does, the Spirit whispered in my heart: “what does that mean?” The word “tested” actually has two meanings: to temp or to examine. How can you know which is happening? The difference is in the tester’s purpose: the devil tempts that the believer might fail God’s standards of faith and sin; God tests that He might determine and sharpen true character, with no desire of making the believer fail. God was examining Abraham’s willingness to obey Him, even in the most difficult requests.  Sometimes it’s difficult to understand who’s behind the test, but the way through is always the same. Keep your eyes on Jesus and your heart firmly planted in the Word. In either case, you will emerge with deeper roots of faith and a testimony of God’s power and goodness.

As to Abraham’s part, I never understood how he could willingly sacrifice his son until I studied his story alongside this Hebrews passage and Romans 4:18 – 20: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed . . . he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God.”  Did you catch it? Abraham believed the promise because of Who made it. He fully expected that God would still build a nation through Isaac and that meant Isaac would have to live. In his reasoning, he expected God to raise Isaac from the dead after the deed was done. But God stayed his hand at the last moment and provided a replacement sacrifice instead. The point is that Abraham’s faith was not in the promise – it was in the Promise-maker. And so must ours be.

Those are two solid truths you can build your life upon. God will never test you to make you fail and He will never make a promise He doesn’t intend to keep. Abraham is known for his great faith. Beloved, are you? Am I?

Hebrews: Broken Promises?

I’ve wrestled with a lot of Scripture in my lifetime. Some have been difficult to understand. Some have been hard to submit to. Some say things that just grate on my nerves. But the passage we’re looking at today has been one of the most challenging. The writer of Hebrews said, “All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised, they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance” (Heb 11:13). “But,” you wonder, “I thought you said that the foundation of faith is the faithfulness of God.” I did, I still do, and I always will.

So what are we supposed to do with this seeming contradiction? God is faithful, but these people didn’t receive what they were promised. There are things that I am convinced God has promised to me. Salvation for a lost loved one. A future as a real writer. From my current vantage point, neither seems likely, much less possible. What do I do? I wait. And I hope. How do I keep my hopes up in the waiting? By looking beyond what I can see and looking ahead to what I cannot see.

Abraham was promised a nation of descendants that outnumbered the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the beach. He died with eight sons (Ishmael, Isaac, and the sons Keturah bore to him – see Genesis 25:1-4) – and only one of those was the “promised son.” Not exactly a nation. He was promised land on which his family could settle. Abraham died in a tent owning nothing more than the plot where his wife was buried. Doesn’t sound like God kept His promises, does it?

One reason I struggle with this is because of the western perspective of individuality. In Abraham’s world, the deceased lived on in his descendants. Promises made were not limited to fulfillment in the individual’s life. It would be the sons of the sons of the son of the son of Abraham who would become a nation. It would be many more generations after that before they would take possession of the Promised Land. Abraham didn’t see it happen, but he believed with all of his heart that it would. That’s the kind of faith God can build on. Beloved, is that the kind of faith you have?

Just Obey

Joy has a fascination with our cat. Celina does not share the same feelings. She chases her, picks her up, and totes her around the house. All the while we are telling her to “Put that cat down!” It’s not that Joy doesn’t know she shouldn’t aggravate the cat. She has been told countless times to leave her alone. She has sat in her time-out chair multiple times and has taken a couple of swats to the behind over it. And she’s gotten a few scratches from said cat. She knows very well that she is not to harass the cat but she is determined to do it anyway. Joy has trouble obeying.

She is one small example of the human race. Paul said you and I know the reality of God. “What may be known about God is plain to them, because has made it plain to them” (Rom 1:19). And we know God’s law. It has been written on every person’s heart (Rom 2:15). We know what sin is; we are without excuse (Rom 1:20). We know that sin brings death (Rom 6:23). And yet we disobey. And we do so with pride. Why? Because like Joy, we want what we want and we will break every commandment on our way to get it. And we will pay the price for it.

There is a better way, you know. Just obey God’s Word. The Psalmist said, “I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands” (Psalm 119:60). When God handed down the law through Moses he didn’t say, “Here are ten suggestions for a happy life,” He said, “These are my commandments,” meaning they are not optional. Writer and speaker Priscilla Shirer said, “God doesn’t speak to be heard, He speaks to be obeyed.” Believe me, I am preaching to myself here. I know God’s law – I’ve studied it for many years, yet I still have trouble obeying at times. Like Paul, I know what is right, but I still do what is wrong (Rom 7:15-23). And if you’re honest, you will admit the same. There is great blessing in obedience. The Psalmist said, “I run in the path of your commands, for You have set my heart free” (Ps 119:32). Peace. Joy. Freedom. Beloved, let’s walk the path of obedience together.

The Valley

This morning I was thinking about something I needed to do, something I didn’t really want to do because it often raised up a temptation I’ve been trying to put down for a long time. I prayed for help and a verse came to mind. It comes out of Psalm 23 – The Shepherd’s Psalm. Verse 4 says “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Now, what does that have to do with temptation?

This valley is not a pastoral scene of gentle slopes between the hills but a steep, narrow gorge where the sun never reaches. The valley most attributed to this passage was the Valley of Hinnom outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was a horrible place of death as bodies of criminals and animals and the town’s rubbish were thrown there and fires burned continually to consume them. The ”shadow of death” is a place of extreme danger and thick darkness – an apt description of the valley. It was also a place where kings and priest sent their own children to be burned alive to appease the gods – a horrible sin.

Death and sin go hand in hand. From the very beginning, God told the first humans that when they sin (disobey God) they “will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Paul said that “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The valley was a terrifying place of sin and death. But it was also a place people had to pass to get to the gates of the city. Here’s where this all comes together. You and I will be faced with sin and its consequences as long as we are on this earth. We can’t escape it. But we don’t have to fear it. God is with us. If we walk closely with Him we can traverse the sin and death of this world without falling into it. That’s what God was saying to me this morning. “Don’t be afraid of what you need to do. I am with you. I will not let you fall.” And He didn’t.

Beloved, the world is filled with sin and death, but if you belong to Christ you can face it with faith in your Shepherd. Your very Good Shepherd who died to save you – His precious little lamb.

Hebrews: By Faith – Abel

We’re now entering the “Hall of Faith” – the eleventh chapter of Hebrews that lists the heroes of the people of God. You know these stories well they are a staple of Bible teachers because they lead by example. Their examples were not their exploits. Over and over and over it was their faith.

First up: Abel. “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead” (v. 4). Every sermon I’ve heard on Cain and Abel was about Cain’s actions and how God told him that “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (v. 7). Thus, Cain becomes a lesson in self-control.

But the writer takes an entirely different approach. In fact, he makes no mention of how Abel died. He said that Abel’s faith was evidenced by the offering he brought. Cain brought “some” of the produce from his fields while Able brought “fat portions from the firstborn of his flock” – or the best of the best. Did God just want a good steak dinner with no salad that day? No. The point was and is Abel’s faith. By definition, faith here is “the conviction that God exists and is the creator and ruler of all things, the provider and bestower of eternal salvation through Christ”  (blueletterbible.com). Abel believed that God was real, that He was everything He claimed to be, and that He was worthy of the very best that Abel had to offer. Abel’s offering reflected how He saw God. And so did Cain’s.

What are you bringing to God and what does it say about how you see Him? I once heard a story about a little boy who, when the offering plate was passed at church, took the plate, set it on the floor, and stood in it. His embarrassed mother jerked him back in his seat, and hissed, “What are you doing?!” He loudly replied, “I don’t gots no money, so I want to give Jesus myself.” He was right on target. God doesn’t want your money – though tithing is one part of our giving. He wants you. All of you. Heart. Mind. Soul, Strength. So, Beloved, what is God worth to you?

Glory!

Why does God deliver us out of our troubles? Why did He send His Son to die on the cross for you and me? Why does He “part the heavens and come down” and “draw [us] out of deep waters” (Psalm 18: 9, 16).

Because we are helpless and in desperate situations? Yes, but that’s not the only reason.

Because He loves us? Without question, but that’s not the whole answer.

Because He is the only one who can? That is true, but there’s more to the equation than that.

The most important reason God delivers us from our troubles and our sin is for His glory. He said, “Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will glorify me” (Psalm 50:15). When you and I are pulled from the pit of despair, God is exalted. When His hand lifts us up from our fallen state, He is lifted up before all men. When pitiful sinners become children of God, knees bow and tongues confess His glory and majesty.

In His “high priestly prayer” in John 17, Jesus said, “Father the time has come.” Time for what? His death? Our atonement? The devil’s defeat? Yes, and no. Jesus said the time had come for glory. “Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you” (v. 1). In just five verses, Jesus used the word “glorify” and “glory” five times. His vision went beyond the cross to something greater – glory. That is what it’s all about. David proclaimed, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands” (Psalm 19:1) Nature, the heavens, the nations, you and me –were all created to give God glory.  And we will. Paul said that “every knee should bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10,11).

Every knee. Every tongue. Whether they did in this life or not, whether they acknowledge His existence today or not, whether they want to not or not – they will glorify Him. Beloved, maybe we should start practicing now.

Spiritual Math

My favorite way to study the Bible is to slowly chew on small bites of Scripture to get every bit of flavor from it I can. But there is also great value in looking at the bigger picture. I was reminded of that when a memory popped up on my Facebook feed this morning. It said: Light + Truth = Life 1 John 1.

John made several proclamations in this first chapter. He proclaimed Jesus as “the Word of life” (1 John 1:1), much the same way He called Him “the Word” in his gospel (John 1:1). He was the “Word made flesh” (Jn 1:14). The walking, talking Scripture who came to deliver the message of the Father in person.  What is that message? “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (v. 5). Wherever God is, light exists; not just a lamp, but a floodlight. That’s why John said we can’t claim to be a Christian and walk around in the darkness. It’s impossible. That’s also why, when a light-filled believer enters a place where there is spiritual darkness, one of two things happens. Either the light changes everything it touches, or the darkness and the ones living in darkness flee. Light illuminates, it reveals, and it forces us to confront the things that were hidden or take them and slink farther into the dark recesses.

Because light shows us things – including ourselves – as they really are. That’s the “truth” part of our equation. Light says, “If you run from me it’s because you don’t want to know the truth.” I’ll admit, sometimes the truth is hard to take, but who wants to live by lies? I know I don’t. The truth is, I was born a sinner and lived like it. Then the Light came and I saw what I was. I saw the lies that said I was “good enough” and my wrongs were too petty to keep me out of heaven. I saw how the enemy and the culture said that my sins were just “lifestyle choices,” “addictions,” “illness,” “personality quirks,” and “errors in judgment.”  And I saw the corollary to the 1 John equation. If Light+Truth=Life, then Darkenss+Lies=Death.

Beloved, I pray you will choose Life. I pray you will choose light and truth. I pray you will not run away from the sin you see in the light, but will put it all in Jesus’ hands. The darkness is no place for you.

Death vs. Love

“In all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” Romans 8:37.

It was the rallying cry of the martyr in the early church, the prayer of the saint drawing his last breath. It is the hope and promise for God’s people. “We are more than conquerors.” But what does that mean? And what are “all these things,? Trouble. Hardship. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Danger. Sword. Death. Where does your life fall on this list? Do you have trouble? Do not despair – God will help you. Are you under hardship? Do not faint – God will bring you through. Are you being persecuted? Do not shrink back – God will give you strength. Not many of us are experiencing famine or nakedness – most of us live in plenty to one degree or another. Nor do we face danger or threats to our lives, though that day seems not far off.

But all of us – sooner or later – will meet death. And here is where our Conquering Hero leads the way. Jesus made an astounding promise: “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). The greatest threat we face is death – but not the end of our mortal lives. No, our enemy is eternal death – separation from God forever.

Jesus drew a final breath. His heart stopped beating. He was placed in a tomb. But He rose from death to complete life. And in doing so, He conquered our chief enemy. Because of His resurrection, we too have the promise of eternal life. Oh, most of us will likely draw a final breath, and our mortal heart will cease its beating. But another life is coming for those who believe in Jesus – a life that cannot end. A life that will never be taken away. A life that cannot be touched by trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. Not even by death.

What is the power that overcomes? Love. Holy love. Love that went to the cross. Love that succumbed to death. Love that lay in the tomb. And love that rose again. Paul said that “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). The empty tomb proves it. In Christ, dear one you are more than a conqueror – you are the Beloved. What could possibly be greater than this?

Do You Believe?

No other event on the stage of world history is as important as the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Skeptics have long sought to discredit Christianity’s claims with attacks on the foundational veracity of the gospel.  So is it really true? Let’s take a look at the facts that are recorded in the secular history of the time.

The Jewish and Roman historical records note that a man named Jesus from Nazareth was crucified at Golgotha and buried in a garden tomb.  The grave was sealed and Roman guards were posted to prevent the theft of the body.  History records that the condemned man’s tomb was found empty three days later, despite the extreme measures the Romans took to secure the grave.  Jewish records note the claims of Jesus’ followers that their Lord had been resurrected.  Historical writers of the time frequently mention eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus, just as Paul spoke of Peter, the Apostles, more than five hundred brothers, James (Jesus’ own doubting brother), and finally Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  In these verses, Paul reminds the believers of the gospel message “that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scripture” (v. 3-4).  These verses are almost certainly a creed that was well established in the ancient church and based on the testimonies of the very ones who firmly and emphatically believed they saw the literal resurrected Lord.  These are men who had been transformed from terrified, despondent fellows cowering behind locked doors (John 20:19) to bold witnesses willing to die for their faith, confident in what they saw (Acts 4:1-20).

The gospel message – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus – is strongly supported by men and women who had an encounter that transformed their lives and the landscape of world history.  The evidence is clearly shown in their testimonies and the traditions that are built on the foundation of their testimonies.  The eyewitness accounts of Peter, James, John and Paul, and hundreds of others, combined with the early creedal statements of the church provide good support for the claims of the resurrection of Jesus. 

Still, facts alone cannot convince anyone of the reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Generations of believers who have also experienced this life-changing Jesus provide the greatest proof that the claims of Christianity are true. People like me. I was a sinner, lost and bound for hell, but I heard the good news that God loves me and send His Son to die for my sins and rose to life three days later. I believed in Jesus. His Spirit lives in me and I have been changed. Forever.

Beloved, this same Jesus died for you too. He can change your life and your eternal destiny. Will you believe today?

Heaven Wept

“It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how His body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.” Luke 23:54-56

It was the darkest day of their lives – the day after Jesus had been crucified on the cross. They’d heard the hammers pound the nails into His hands and feet. They listened to Him cry out to His Father in anguish and surrender. They saw His body slump as He give up His Spirit. They watched the soldiers pierce His side and witnessed blood and water drain from His battered body. They held their breath as Joseph and Nicodemus took His lifeless body down from the cross. They followed in a sad processional to the garden where their Lord was entombed.

In our modern understanding of these days, we hold solemn vigils on Good Friday, remembering the death of Jesus, and we come together for joyful celebrations on Easter Sunday to celebrate His resurrection. But Saturday is the day for egg hunts, travel, shopping, and preparing our Easter Sunday finery.

More and more the Holy Spirit is teaching me to sit in the moment with the Bible characters. To put myself in their sandals and their experience and not rush on to the end of a familiar story. He is teaching me to take a holy pause.

What must this day have been like for these devoted women? Were they numb with grief? Or was it the kind of sorrow that aches deep in the bones? This day – the day after darkness filled the noon-day sky and the curtain was torn in two – must have left them empty inside – confused, in anguish, and filled with disbelief. How could this be? Their Jesus was dead.

Looking back from this side of the Cross, we want to take their faces in our hands and tell them, “Just hold on! Don’t grieve. Everything is going to change tomorrow!” As Paul Harvey says, we know “the rest of the story.” We know death cannot keep its grip on Jesus. We know they will soon find the tomb empty. We know this is only the day between death and life. But they didn’t. In their world, death was final. It was all over.

They didn’t know they were only waiting. . .