Hebrews: This is the Gospel

Tupac Shakur said, “Only God can judge me.” Coming from a guy who portrayed a “gansta” life and sang about violence, rape, drugs, and destruction, he was spot on. I don’t know if he ever read the Bible, but he’s paraphrasing Paul: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court . . . It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3,4). The writer of Hebrews echoed him saying, “you have come to God the judge of all men . . .” (Heb 12:23). That is part of the gospel story that has fallen out of favor in recent years, but it’s the bad news that makes the good news so good.

I am sure you know John 3:16 well. It reveals the heart of the gospel: God loves sinners. But Jesus also said: “Whoever does not believe [in Him] stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (v. 18).  Here’s the rest of the story (nod to Paul Harvey).  God sent His Son because all of mankind is condemned because of sin.  Not because of our sinful actions, but because sin is the human condition since the fall.  We’re not sinners because we sin – we sin because we’re sinners. It’s not just what we do – it’s who we are. The destiny of all people is eternal condemnation – the wrath of God. Unless we believe in Jesus – and then our destiny is eternal life. That is what Paul means when he says: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Hebrews continues the thought saying, “You have come . . . to the spirits of righteous men made perfect” – just as we will one day be. “You have come to Jesus . . .” Just stop right here and rest in that statement. That changes everything. “You have come to Jesus – the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (v. 24). The new covenant is a covenant of mercy – of a love that saves through holy blood that was shed, not from jealousy and rage, but from divine providence. Abel’s blood brought about a curse on Cain. Jesus’ blood brings freedom from the curse of sin for everyone who believes.

In 279 words I have told you the gospel. Here’s the summary: You are a sinner. God loves you. Jesus died to save you. Beloved, won’t you come to Jesus?

A Gift From God

Several sweet ladies did something kind and generous for me this week. They not only met my need, but they encouraged me greatly with their love. They were a gift from God to me. The Father loves to give gifts to His children. James said, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father . . .” (Jas 1:17). The foundation of the Christian faith is the gift of Jesus. “For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Eight times in His high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus speaks to His Father of “those you have given me.” (John 17: 2, 6, 9, 11-12, 24). The word for “given” means to bestow a gift. It’s the same word used in John 3:16. The great pastor and scholar Elmer Towns said: “As Jesus is the Father’s gift of love to the world, believers are the Father’s gift of love to Christ.” Imagine that. If you and I are in Christ, the Father has presented us to His Son as a gift to express His love. I am stunned and overwhelmed by that thought.

I always believed I was just a burden to Jesus. The Scriptures are clear, He went to the cross because there was no other way to save me. It had to be done. But when I began studying the Bible deeply I realized that Jesus endured the cross with Joy (Heb 12:2). Oh, I know my sins weighed heavy on his shoulders. I know it was an excruciatingly painful death He experienced on my behalf. But the picture the writer painted in this verse is that Jesus looked into heaven and saw my face there – and yours – and that gave Him Joy.

I’ve struggled my whole life with a low sense of myself and I know I’m not alone in that. Life has a way of beating us down. It’s hard to hold your head up when you’ve been told from childhood all the things that are wrong with you and how you fail to measure up. Beloved, Jesus doesn’t see you as a burden He has to bear. He sees you as a gift He Joyfully received from His Father. And everybody loves a gift – even Jesus.

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?

Bitter or Better?

In my younger days, I was a very negative person. I could always find something to complain about. When everyone else saw the rainbow, all I saw was the wet, muddy ground. My mom said as I child I worried like an old woman. Even after I became a Christian, negativity was my constant focus. When a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age I prayed for her and said, “What a waste of a beautiful life it will be if she dies this young.” And the Lord replied: “No more a waste than if you live for 100 years with a bitter, miserable heart.”

What makes us bitter? Life in a fallen world. There’s so much evil and sin and hurt and grief and loneliness and – well, I don’t have to tell you – you know. You’ve seen it and experienced it for yourself. The bigger question is what makes us better? What can turn a bitter, broken heart into a healed, whole heart? I can tell you it’s not anything the world can offer. It’s not the perfect spouse, the perfect kids, the perfect house or job or ministry – if they even existed. It’s one word. Faith.

In Psalms 106 the psalmist is relaying Israel’s history with God. On one hand, the Scripture says, “they sang His praises” but on the other “they grumbled in their tents” (vs. 12, 25). What made the difference? Faith. Listen: when “they believed His promises they sang His praise .” When “they did not believe His promise, they grumbled in their tent.” Believing God changes everything, including – especially – our hearts.

What does it mean to “believe God?” It’s more than intellectual assent. James said, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (Jas 2:19). Faith – believing God is knowledge combined with trust. The writer of Hebrews said that faith that pleases God “believes that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb 11:6 – emphasis mine). Believing God, by definition means to trust, to be certain, and – get this – to be quiet. No more grumbling in the tent.

Believing God also means obeying Him. The psalmist noted that the grumblers “did not obey the Lord.” James said that faith and actions work together (2:18-26). That’s the difference between demons and God’s redeemed people. We believe in God – more than that – we believe God and we act on it. Sometimes that means marching around the city wall or stepping out into a raging river. Sometimes it’s singing His praises and sometimes it’s being quiet and still before Him. That’s where I’m putting my faith in this difficult season. Beloved, do you believe God?

Hebrews: Holy

Mr. Estes lived across the street when I was a kid. He was a big man, very broad-shouldered and taller than my dad, who was himself over six feet. Just looking at him told me he was a scary guy. But it was his voice that really terrified me. Deep and loud and gruff. I heard him yell at his dog once and that was all it took for me to stay far away from him.

The writer of Hebrews wanted his readers to remember their history with God. Stop here and read Hebrews 12:18-21. This is referencing the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinia (Exodus 19). God came down to the mountain amid thunder and lightning and fire and smoke and a “very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled” (Ex 19:16). I reckon so. The people were commanded to not touch God’s mountain under penalty of death. Animals were forbidden to approach it.  Even Moses trembled with fear. Why? Because the presence of God made the mountain holy.

We’ve lost the concept of “holy” today. The word is often combined with farm animals and even gross bodily functions and vulgar euphemisms for sex as an expression of surprise or even a curse. This should not be. Holy is not just four letters strung together – holy is God. It is the word the angels declared thrice before His throne: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;” (Is 6:3). “Holy” is His own self-description: “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own” (Lev 20:26). Even within the church, the word is not held with honor and reverence. This is one of my most fervent frustrations. If you use the word “holy” flippantly, I hope you are convicted and pay attention when it is on the tip of your tongue.

Wherever God goes, whatever He touches becomes holy. Remember Moses and the burning bush? God told him to take off his sandals because the ground surrounding the bush was holy. When God spoke to the Israelites at Mt. Sinia, they begged Him to stop because even His voice was holy. Their sinful ears could not bear to hear it. Whatever is set apart unto God is also holy and anything that touches the consecrated thing was also considered holy.  That includes you. Just a couple of chapters back we learned that “we have been made holy” through Christ (Heb 10:10). If you are in Christ, you are holy – set apart unto God for a relationship that will last forever. That, Beloved, should make you tremble with Joy.

Hebrews: A Costly Trade

Warning: this post is not culturally correct.

Sin is such an antiquated notion. Its meaning has changed from generation to generation. The present generation – if they consider sin at all – see it as causing offense by denying someone’s right to celebrate their personal truth. But previous generations rightly understood sin as an action that is offensive to God.

While sin isn’t limited to one specific action, sexual immorality seems to be the favorite. And we don’t have to ask why. But we do need to understand what it means. The Greek word is pornos – you know what English word that corresponds to. It comes out of a root word that means “to sell into slavery,” and that gives sexual immorality a whole new tone. Sexual immorality is any sexual act that deviates from the biblical presentation of the loving physical intimacy between a husband and wife.

The author of Hebrews tied that sin to Esau, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. He said, “See that no one is sexually immoral, or godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son” (Heb 12:16). Even though he was a twin, Esau made his entrance minutes ahead of his brother Jacob, making him the elder. By rights, he got the blessing of their father and a greater portion of the inheritance – called “the birthright.” But Esau came in from a hunting expedition one day, “famished.” He smelled the food his brother was cooking and sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. He threw away who he was – the eldest son – and all he stood to gain – the birthright – to fill his belly momentarily. He didn’t have proper regard for the gift that was rightfully his. When it was time to bestow the blessing, Jacob cashed in. “Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears” (v. 17).

Sex between a husband and wife is a beautiful, God-honoring thing. But any other expression of sex is sexual immorality. It is a moment of pleasure that will cost you dearly. In a culture where anything goes, Beloved, don’t sell your blessing to satisfy your flesh. God has so much more for you than that.

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.

Hebrews: A Strong, Healthy Body

In the modern west are individualists. We take great pride in self – too much pride if we’re honest. In fact, we believe that everything revolves around the unholy trinity – me, myself, and I. You can see that clearly in this culture that takes offense at every innocent thing and turns it into a cause for protest. The church is no different. (And again, I’m speaking of the western church, which most of us are.) Our tendency when reading Scripture is to ask “What does this mean to me?”. That’s the wrong question. The Bible was written to God’s people – plural.

When the author of Hebrews declared: “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees” (12:12), our first thought is “I need to work harder at being a strong Christian.” But look at verse 13: “Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” He is speaking to the collective church.

One of the challenges of being a preacher or Bible teacher is bringing the Word of God to a group of people that are all over the spectrum in knowledge, growth, experience, and motivation. Some people are young in their faith – mere babes. Some have grown into full, mature Christians. This has nothing to do with age and even little to do with how long they’ve been in church.

Read this passage with Paul’s “Body” imagery in mind – in fact, stop right here and read 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. We are a Body, not individual parts. Some of our arms and knees and feet are not as strong as our back and thighs. Some of us are immature and need training, some are wounded and hurting, and let’s be honest, a few of us are a bit lazy. The author is calling for the stronger believers to strengthen the weaker ones and clear away any obstacles for those who are struggling. The goal is a healthy church serving Christ together. Strong parts benefit the whole Body.

So are you a strong back or a weak knee? Do you need some spiritual training? Then seek out a mature believer. Might you be the mature believer they need? It’s time to look across the aisle, Beloved, and ask “What can I do to make the Body of Christ whole and healthy?

Hebrews: It’s for Your Own Good

My parents had very different approaches to discipline. Dad grounded me once for the rest of my life. I guess he didn’t notice that at some point I snuck out of the house, got married, and lived my own life. Mom, however, did not play so loosely with me. She grounded me once for two weeks and I was stuck at home with no t.v. until I had served my time – to the minute. Yep, she wrote it down and held me to it. Dad disciplined in anger, and once his anger had passed, he stopped paying attention. Mom disciplined with a purpose, to teach me that I had best plan to make it home by curfew.

The writer of Hebrews said that, as hard as it may be, God, too, disciples with a purpose. We touched on verse 10 last time: “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness.” Verse 11 says that God’s discipline “produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.” So God’s purposes are holiness, peace, and righteousness. But look at one other thing in verse 11 – these are benefits “for those who have been trained by it.” My Dad’s discipline was reactionary, Mom’s discipline was to train me to pay attention to the clock. God’s discipline is a training ground.

Now you can look at me and see that I’m not into physical training, but I sure need to be. I need to develop the discipline of exercise and better eating habits so that I enjoy the benefits of more energy and strength.  But I’m flabby and out of shape. The writer has a word for me: “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees” (v. 12). Now we know he is not talking about the physical but the spiritual. This comes as Isaiah is prophesying the Babylonian captivity for the nation of Judah. The first part of this book is warnings and woes, but then the tone changes as God promises comfort and restoration. And Joy. He declares to the fearful and weary captives, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come . . . He will come to save you” (Is 35:4).

So as we’re lifting weights let’s lift high the name of Jesus. While we’re running in place on the treadmill, let’s run away from temptation. When we exercise to strengthen our core, we need to also “be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power” (Eph 6:10). The benefits of God’s discipline are worth all the sweat and strain. As my Mom would say – this is for your own good Beloved – and also for God’s glory.

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).