Hebrews: See You on the Mountain

When last we met over the book of Hebrews I told you about my childhood neighbor, Mr. Estes. Tall, broad-shouldered, and gruff of voice. I was terrified of him. One day I kicked my ball to my friend and it rolled across the road, down his driveway, through the open gate, and into his backyard. Right where he was watering Mrs. Estes’ plants. It stopped when it bumped his foot. Well, that’s one ball I would never see again. Petra was so terrified she ran back to her house at the end of the street. I started walking toward my house when I heard him call out to me. At least his lips were moving, but it wasn’t his gruff voice. This voice was kind and gentle. “Hey little girl, your ball rolled over here. Come get it, I’ll meet you at the end of the driveway.” Something in this different voice told me I could trust him and so I cautiously walked over. He handed me the ball and then asked me about school and my baby brother and stuck his hand in his pocket to pull out a butterscotch candy – my favorite.  We stood there for several minutes chatting and when I walked back to my yard I had a new friend who always kept a pocket full of butterscotchies for me.

The writer of Hebrews had talked about Mount Sinai, the mountain on which God descended with “fire, darkness, gloom, and storm” and the fearsome voice of the Lord (Heb 12:18-21). But he contrasted that mountain with another – Mount Zion. “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.  You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in Joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (Heb 12:22-23a). Mount Zion is a reference to the heavenly Jerusalem that will be the eternal home for all God’s people in the coming age. This is the place that John saw in Revelation 21:1-2. Unlike Mount Sinai, Mount Zion was a place of absolute Joy – “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (v. 23b ).

Here we will be welcome to approach God – not just in prayer (Heb 10:22) but physically – even face to glorious face. This is where believers will dwell in the presence of God, where we can once again walk in the cool of the day with our Creator (Gen 3:8). This is where my mom and dad and brother wait for me. This is where I will meet my heroes of the Bible: Deborah, Dorcas, Anna, and Ezra. And this is where I will throw my arms around my Savior’s neck and thank Him for saving a wretch like me. I have a question for you: Will I see you there too? Beloved, is your name written in heaven?

Hebrews: How to be a Christian Neighbor

The culture knows Scripture – at least a few verses that they are passionate about. “Judge not” (Matt. 7:1), “God is love” (1 John 4:16), and “Let him who is without sin . . . cast the first stone” (John 8:7). I found them a new one that I think they will really like: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men” (Heb 12:14). What’s interesting about these cultural favorites is that they are only partial verses or plucked out of their context so that their meaning is skewed. It is a favorite ploy of the devil, who knows more Scripture than most people in the pews. When he came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, he quoted from Psalm 91:11-12, but he stopped just shy of his own demise in verse 13. (You should go look that up. In fact, I encourage you to look up all of these verses and read their surrounding context.)

Hebrews 12:14 has a second part that colors the whole verse differently. “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness, no one will see the Lord.” Oh. When you add verse 15, it becomes clearer: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Now, before I started digging deeper into this verse, I thought it meant something like “let no ill feelings take root” but I was wrong (that’s not easy to say!). First, the word “bitter” metaphorically means “extreme wickedness” and literally means “poison”. Poison kills.

This reaches directly back to Deuteronomy as Moses was reiterating the covenant they had made with the Lord God. He said, “Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those [pagan] nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison” (Deut 30:18).

I’ll be honest, I’ve wrestled with this all week. It’s not an easy passage. But I believe it means to live in peace with your neighbors, especially your unsaved neighbors, don’t condemn them or harasses them over their lifestyle. Don’t cause them to turn to wickedness because of your self-righteousness. But you – and remember, the writer is speaking to the community, not to individuals – live a holy life, set apart unto God. Because Jesus showed us that a truly holy life is attractive and winsome to a lost world. And so must we be.

When I Stand Before Jesus

I wrote this several years ago, and as I was reading this passage this morning, the Holy Spirit revealed something new to me (which is why we read the Scriptures over and over and over – there’s always something new to learn.)

I have always been drawn to the story of the woman caught in adultery (see John 8:1-11), mostly because I can see myself in two of the main characters.  So many times I am part of the judgmental crowd.  Like the religious leaders, I catch someone and call them out, accusing them and looking on with scorn.  Oh, I’m never obvious about it mind you – it’s all done in my head – but I might as well have drug them before the church because I’ve declared them guilty.  Yet, I have also been the woman, the sinner caught in the act standing before Jesus shamed and ashamed.  I know I am guilty as I stand clutching my sheet of self-reproach, trying to cover my nakedness and my sin.

Here is where something new came to me. I initially said that Jesus sees me in both roles and reminds me of my own sinfulness as He calls me to drop my rock of condemnation. But I realized that I was wrong.  Because I am washed in His blood, my sin has been removed – “As far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12) never to be remembered again. He will never throw my sin back in my face. He may gently chastise me for my judgmental attitude, but He does not remind me of my past transgressions because He has forgotten them. That’s huge to me, because I have an enemy who loves to taunt me with my past – and I have a past that gives him lots of ammunition. But Jesus steps in with His scars and declares me forgiven and free.

After He turned her accusers away, Jesus told the woman He did not condemn her. He didn’t even condemn her accusers. He condemns no one.  Paul said that He is the only one who rightly could, but He doesn’t (Rom 8:34). Instead, He sacrificed Himself to take away the condemnation our sin has heaped on us. Yes, sometimes you and I are both the accused and the accuser, but oh, to be like the One who pours out grace and mercy to all who believe. Lord, help me to be more like you and less like me.

Look Up!

Sometimes words and phrases in the Bible will catch my attention in such a way that I know it is God speaking to my heart. That happened last night as I was preparing the Sunday School lesson. It was as if the Spirit took a divine highlighter and marked the words “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look . . .” (Gen 13:14). It started a treasure hunt and I discovered the same text repeated several times in the Bible.

There have been many times in my life when I was so discouraged and downhearted that all I ever saw were my feet. My head was always down along with my spirit. There’s something about our physical position that affects our emotional position. When all you ever see is the bottom of the pit it’s all you think there is. When your shoulders are continually rounded, your heart is pointing towards the floor. It becomes very hard to pick your head up. That’s where this good word helps.

Joy had to go to the dentist this week. She had a horrible experience at a previous dental visit and now she’s very fearful. When she realized where we were she tucked her chin into her little chest and started whimpering. I held her close to me and gently called out her name to get her attention. She wouldn’t raise her head at first but she did cut her eyes up to me and when I told her I loved her and it was going to be okay she eventually lifted her face – and her head – toward me.

That’s the picture I see in this verse. Life gets very hard sometimes and we may find ourselves someplace we don’t want to be. We may be there from our own foolishness and sin, through someone else’s failure, or because God has brought us into a desert for a season. Whatever the situation, “lift up your eyes and look.” Look at what? At Him. He’s there with you. He has promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you (Joshua 1:5). Beloved, when your head and heart are bowed low, when you are afraid or sad or feel lost, lift up your eyes and look for Him. God is as close as a whispered prayer.

Hebrews: Daddy’s Hands

Parents aren’t supposed to play favorites with their children, but sometimes they do.  Just ask Esau or all of Joseph’s brothers. Or me. My Dad’s favorites were my two older brothers. They loved to tinker on cars just like he did. My Mom’s favorite was my younger brother. He was sick a lot as a kid and so she was closer to him. I always felt like nobody’s kid.  Until God told me His special name for me in Luke 8:48.

Before we dig in, please grab your Bible and read Hebrews 12:5-10. The heart of this passage is the believer’s position as a child of God. How do you know that you are God’s child? The writer said we know it because He disciplines us. In the first-century world, it was common for men to have wives and concubines and to father children with both. But they did not involve themselves in the lives of the children of the concubines. These were illegitimate children and they were on their own as far as their “father” was concerned. He did not take any responsibility for their care or discipline. It’s not unlike our culture today, is it?

Good fathers discipline their children. They don’t berate and abuse their children but they also don’t let them run amuck, getting into all kinds of trouble and danger. Good fathers guard and guide their children. They teach them the right way and then redirect them when they get off track. Good fathers pay attention to their children and notice when they need help or correction. (Dad – put down your cell phone/game controller/remote control!)

Discipline involves both training and punishment. A good father will use both, in the correct measures. Paul reminded fathers to “not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Now, this is not a parenting devotional – I am far, far from the expert on raising kids. I want you to see how God “parents” us – His children. He follows the counsel He gave to Paul – He uses correction as well as positive reinforcement. And sometimes, the writer says He has to use punishment. Because He loves us too much to let us run headlong into self-destruction.

The goal of a good father is to raise mature, healthy, responsible children. The goal of our Heavenly Father is to raise children who reflect His Son (Rom 8:29) and share in His holiness ( v. 10). How does our Father know when He has succeeded? When He can say, “I have no greater Joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 Jn 4).

Tangled

My husband is a Christmas movie junkie – you know, those sappy Christmas love stories where the plot never changes. He was watching one this week (in August!) and the couple was decorating a tree for the holidays. I could tell it was make-believe because the girl pulled the strand of lights out of the box and they were tangle-free. How many hours have we spent trying to untangle strands of wires and bulbs? “Pull that end through this loop. No! THIS loop! Wait, the bulb is stuck. Why didn’t you put them away right last year?” How many times did we chunk them and go out and buy new lights? More than I want to confess.

Tangled lights are frustrating. Tangled lives are heartbreaking. You didn’t mean to get so deep into that sin, that relationship, that dark situation, that addiction, but here you are and you can’t figure out how to get free. I know of a few people in the Bible that would understand. Like the man in Mark 5 who lived in the tombs in the Gerasenes. He was possessed by multiple demons – so many that they called themselves “Legion.” The townspeople tried to chain him, but he broke free of them every time. Yet he could not free himself from the demons. Or a woman named Mary Magdalene who was also possessed by seven demons (Luke 8:2). Or an unnamed woman from Samaria who had been entangled in sin with multiple men (John 4). Or a little man named Zacchaeus who was tangled up in greed with the Roman rulers (Luke 19). Or a very religious man named Saul who was so caught up in self-righteousness that he set out to persecute Jesus’ followers (Acts 9). Jesus set each one of them free from the things that bound them.

Or if you need a more recent example, look at the one who is writing these words right now. Oh, the chains that Christ has broken in my life! He has set me free from a life tangled up in sin, selfishness, depression, fear, self-hatred, unforgiveness, abuse, anxiety, foolishness, and so much more. Beloved, whatever you’ve gotten yourself tangled up in – God can unravel your mess. It’s why Jesus came. So that you might know the truth – that God loves you – and be set free (John 3:16, 8:32).

Waves

When I was a kid I loved to go to the beach. I loved the sun and crowds – the two reasons I don’t want to go now. What I loved the most was standing a few yards from shore and letting the waves gently pick me up off my feet as they rolled by. Occasionally a strong wave would come through and knock me off my feet and send me spinning and spluttering through the water as I try to regain my stability.

Life is like that, isn’t it? Most of the time we go through the gentle waves of our day, with work, school, chores, meals, kids, and maybe some church thrown in a couple of times a week. Then a sudden tsunami hits and we are sent tumbling, tossed around like a rag doll, overwhelmed by fear and unable to find firm footing. We wonder if we’ll ever see the blue sky again. I understand. I’ve been there. I know many of you have too – or are right now. I know of at least two families I’m praying for that have been washed over this week. Life hits hard sometimes.

The Psalmist understood too and he knew where to go for help and hope. “When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ Your love O Lord, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, Your consolation brought Joy to my soul” (Psalm 94:18-19). When he was thrown for a loop, He turned to God and found stability in His love. When He was overwhelmed with anxiety, he drew comfort from the Lord and found Joy that went all the way to his soul.

Maybe I write about this kind of stuff too much. Maybe you’re not as susceptible to being drowned by worry as I am. But I read your posts. I think we’re all swimming in the same ocean. And if you’re like me, you need the reminder that God loves you, and it’s a love that you can trust when your life is in turmoil. You need the comfort and sweetness of a Heavenly Father who is strong enough to calm the seas and gentle enough to hold you until you catch your breath again. That’s the God the Psalmist turned to. That’s the God you can turn to as well, Beloved. He’s reaching His hand into the waves to rescue you.

Treasure Hunt

There’s such a wonderful benefit to getting out of our favorite passages in the Bible and exploring the rest of Scripture – it is all God’s Word after all. Wherever you read it will bless you, encourage you, challenge you, move you, teach you, guide you, and yes, chastise you. The Holy Writ of the Lord is His message of love, wisdom, discipline, and truth. It is His story with mankind as the supporting cast.

Almost everyone who has some knowledge of the Bible knows the 23rd Psalm, but not much more than that. I want to encourage you to branch out and see what else you can find. For example, Psalm 145 is one of those passages that should fill us with awe and wonder. It’s a psalm of praise as David first extols the greatness of God: “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; His greatness no one can fathom” (v. 3). He vows to declare the glory, majesty, and power of the Lord to the next generation, to tell of His “mighty acts,” “wonderful works,” and “great deeds” (vs. 4,5,6). He remembers that God is the eternal King, that He is righteous and holy and worthy of praise. But through all of that, David weaves in God’s grace, compassion, patience, love, faithfulness, protection, provision, and presence toward us. He says that God is good, compassionate, and loving toward all mankind and that He is kind to those who have fallen.

Here is the Gospel my friends. God is high and holy, mighty and awesome. In love He created us and for that reason alone He is worthy of our praise. But we fail to praise Him because we are fallen and sinful, and in that state, we deserve destruction (v. 20). But God (my favorite phrase in all of the Bible) poured out His wrath on the cross of His Son. He pours out His love and kindness on humanity and lavishes those who believe with His mercy and grace. He has claimed us as His own. How is it that we are not on our faces in awe and worship and gratitude? Do we not realize that the great, awesome, righteous God who owes us nothing gave us everything?

The Bible tells this same story over and over from Genesis to Revelation. Go dig for treasure, Beloved. You’ll find it on every page.

Pebbles in Your Shoe

Satan would rather put a pebble in your shoe than a mountain in your path.  Why? Ever had a little pebble in your shoe?  Isn’t it amazing how something so small can be such a huge distraction? It is a constant irritation that will stop you in your tracks. Often it’s the minor, seemingly insignificant things that do the most damage. Fishermen in the sea of Galilee watched the skies diligently and hurried to shore at the first sign of a storm. But more boats were damaged by the steady slap-slap-slap of the constant smaller waves that slowly ate away at the boat’s wooden sides. The wise fisherman checked his boat daily for signs of wear that could give way unexpectedly in the middle of the sea.

 I am quick to call down the forces of heaven over those mountains – but pebbles are such small, insignificant things.  “I can’t bother God with that.”  We tend to put our needs into different boxes. “Too big for me,” or “too little for God.”  We call for prayer when Grandma is near death, our child is hurt in an accident, or amid a worldwide pandemic.  But we think that God does not want to be bothered with our petty problems.  Does He even care that your washing machine has died?   Should I even bother Him about the paper I need to write?  Why would God be concerned about a teething baby who has kept you up three nights in a row?  He is too busy for such petty little problems.

My friend, God cares about all your needs.  He wants to be involved in the “everydayness” of your life.  He wants you to come to Him with your frustrations and the demands of your day that wear you down.  1 Peter 5:7 says “Cast all your cares on Him, because He cares for you.” All your cares – not just the big ones.  Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11)? Daily bread. Daily needs. He is a daily God.

God has not left you to manage this life on your own.  He sees all issues you face.  He cares about the most intimate details of your life.  Take it all to Him Beloved, the big and small.  He is the God that moves mountains that stand in your way.  And pebbles that get in your shoe.

A Light in the Darkness

I don’t want you to think I am some super-Christian through the words I write.  I am just as prone to the difficulties and hardships of life as anyone.  I love Jesus with all my heart – but I struggle often with depression. It has been my constant companion since I was young. I see you nodding your head. You understand. Depression is a bully. One that is hard to escape. That’s why you and I need encouragement and hope. The truth is, I always write to encourage myself as much as to encourage you.  Someone reading this is in the dark place of depression. I don’t know your name, but I am writing to you today.

You are doing your best to be a good, faithful Christian.  But you’re questioning your faith because of the darkness.  And the enemy is using that to his advantage.  I hear the accusations too: “If you were really a Christian you wouldn’t be depressed.  God is so disappointed in you.” You hear the reminders that Christians are supposed to be full of joy, joy, joy!  But you’re not.  I am writing this so that you, my weary and hurting friend, will know that there is no shame in depression – even for Christians.  The Bible shows that we are in very good company in this cave – Moses, Elijah, David, Jeremiah, and Paul all expressed similar emotions and seasons.  Many of the great men and women throughout Christian history struggled with depression.

I am also writing this to let you know that God loves you – even in the pit or desert or cave of depression.  He is not angry or disappointed with you.  He has not written you off.  He has drawn near to you like a caring parent does when their child is hurting.  He speaks gentle whispers of love and encouragement, and He tenderly wipes away the tears on your face. Let Him love you – it is His greatest delight.  Let Him minister grace to you.  

Beloved, there is hope for you and for me in the face of depression.  God is too good to leave His dear child in pain. David said, “You, LORD, are my lamp; the LORD turns my darkness into light.” 2 Samuel 22:29. And He will.  We have His Word on it.