Hebrews: The Day of Atonement

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“Keep out!” I stood there with my hands on my hips staring at the signs on my brothers’ fort. “Boys only!”  I yelled into the curtained doorway, “I don’t want to go in your fort – it should say ‘Stupid boys only!’”  But the truth is I did. I wanted to go in just because they said I couldn’t. I wanted to go in to show them they were not better than me and they couldn’t shut me out.  But mama said “No. Give the boys their space.” Fine. It was probably full of stupid boy stuff anyway. 

In the center of the people of Israel stood an elaborate tent – a tabernacle, the dwelling place of the Lord God. Not just anyone could enter the tabernacle. Only “the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry” (Heb 9:6). Within the tabernacle was another space, and it was even more exclusive than the outer space. “Only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year” (v. 7a). There might as well have been signs saying, “Keep out!” “High Priest only!” Why so particular about who entered and when? Because this was the Holy of Holies, the place where the Lord God dwelt. Admittance was strictly limited and access carried great responsibility. The writer of Hebrews noted that when the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement he was “never without blood which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (v. 7b). It was a ritual that had to be followed to the letter with the high priest bathing and putting on his holy garments, presenting the blood of animals first for himself and then again for the sins of the community (see Leviticus 16). The people were declared clean for another year, but they were still kept out of God’s presence. Why? Because, while the sins were atoned for by the blood of the sacrifices, the guilt of their sin remained.  They would never have “a clear conscience.” The memory of their sin would always be with them, like a stain that could never be washed away and no one can enter God’s presence with stains. Something more was needed, something that could do what the blood of goats and bulls could not – make men clean enough for God.

Hebrews: The Tabernacle

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Have you ever found a recipe on social media you wanted to try, but when you clicked on the link you had to wade through pages of extra content about why the dish was a family favorite, how Grandpa loved it with extra sauce and Aunt Betty Sue always wanted to tweak the ingredients? By the time you got to the actual recipe, you lost interest. “Just get to the point!” you wanted to say. Why do they do that? All the extra stuff pads the article and allows you to be exposed to lots of ads. Ads are where online writers of blogs and stories and recipes make their money.

The writer of Hebrews starts out the 9th chapter (remember that the original content wasn’t broken down into chapters and verses) talking about the tabernacle which he had mentioned in chapter 8. He described its physical layout and some of the elements that the priests used. He noted the outer room – called the Holy Place – with the lampstand (Ex 37:17-24) and the table (Ex 37:10-16) with the concentrated bread. This was separated by a curtain from the Most Holy Place which held the Ark of the Covenant, God’s dwelling place (Ex 37:1-9). The Ark contained three things – a jar of manna from their days in the wilderness (Ex 16:32-33), Aaron’s staff which was covered in buds to identify God’s chosen priest (Num 17:10), and the tablets of stone on which were etched the ten commandments for the people (Ex 34:28). The Ark featured two cherubim (not the little pudgy baby angels of Valentine’s Day, but mighty warrior angels) who stood guard over the atonement cover (Ex 37:7-9) where God sat to receive offerings once a year.

One of the most fascinating studies I’ve ever done was of the Tabernacle. It’s every element, even down to the colors in the tapestries had incredible symbolism and everything about it and in it pointed to Jesus Christ. And that is where the author wanted to go when he said, “But we cannot discuss these things in detail now” (Heb 9:5). Like the recipe seeker – he wants to get to the point of the Tabernacle – Jesus Christ. But first, he will zero in on the work of the priest, particularly the high priest to set the stage. We will look more closely into his role and work in the next devotional.

Hebrews: The Better Covenant

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“I promise.” There was a time when those two words meant something. When you could count on the person and the pledge. A couple stood before “God and these witnesses” to declare their life-long love. A politician made campaign promises that ensured his election, and his supporters could depend on the word of their elected official. A prospective employee agreed to a salary and benefits in exchange for faithful, dependable, service. All of these are the pattern of a covenant and covenant is the foundation of the relationship between God and man.

A covenant involves three people (or people groups) – two parties who wish to make an agreement of mutual benefit and a mediator to bring them to agreeable terms.  The covenant would stand as long as both parties lived and fulfilled their responsibilities. God made a covenant with Adam and Eve, first to allow them to rule over the earth (Gen 1:26), and then, after their sin, to bring a redeemer to crush their enemy (Gen 3:15). He made a covenant with Noah to never again destroy the earth with a flood (Gen 9:15). His covenant with Abraham was for his descendants to possess the land of Canaan (Gen 17:8). He made a covenant with Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai which involved a host of laws. He also made a covenant with David that his descendants would always sit on the throne of Israel, including One who would rule over an eternal kingdom ( 2 Sam 7:1-16). All of those covenants except one were dependant solely on the faithfulness of God. The Mosaic covenant demanded obedience from the people for God’s blessings and promised curses for disobedience.

The writer of Hebrews said the old covenant was perfect, but “God found fault with the people,” (Heb 8:8) because they were unable to maintain obedience. Rather than give up on them, he determined to “make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (v. 8). It was a covenant of forgiveness (v. 12) and of the Holy Spirit. The writer quoted Jeremiah saying, “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time . . . I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people . . . and they will all know me” (v. 10,11).

While Moses was the mediator between God and Israel, Jesus Christ is the mediator between a holy God and sinful humanity – and the covenant was sealed with His blood. This covenant will never become “obsolete” and it will never “disappear” (v. 13) because its foundation is the obedience of Christ, not man.  Beloved, it’s not up to you. It’s up to Him, and He is forever faithful.

What is God Worth to You?

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When I sit down to write every morning, I ask the Lord, “What do you want to say?” Some days it’s a word of encouragement. Everyone seems to like those. Some days it’s a Scripture lesson (like the Hebrews series). And some days God directs me to a passage of Scripture and I think, “This is not exactly a heart-warming story.” This is one of those days. I almost changed it, but God can be very insistent.

King David took a census of the men of  “fighting age” in Israel, a sign that his trust for his nation was in the strength of his army and not in the strength of his God. He soon realized his census was a slap in the face to the Lord God (2 Sam 24:9). He confessed his sin and pleaded for the Lord to take away his guilt. God gave him three options.  Israel could face three years of famine, David could spend three months running from his enemies, or there could be three days of plague in the land.  David decided on the last option and seventy thousand citizens of Israel died. The Lord finally stayed the hand of the death angel “at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (v. 16). The king approached Araunah to purchase the threshing floor that he might “build an altar to the Lord, that the plague on the people may be stopped” (v. 21). Araunah offered the threshing floor free of charge but David would not hear of it. He said, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (v. 24).

Here’s what I hear from God: “Why are my people so stingy towards me?” In the little book of Malachi, God said He would prefer that the temple doors be shut than for the people to give Him meaningless offerings – “injured, crippled, blemished or diseased animals” burned on “useless fires” (1:10-13). But above all, the people considered their gifts and service to Him to be “a burden” (1:13). Jesus talked about the cost of being His disciple (Luke 9:57-62) and Matthew recorded His parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price (13:44-46) to express how valuable the kingdom of God is. 

This is not about money, although giving is an important part of the relationship. This is about giving God our hearts, our time, our thoughts, and our whole selves. Is the kingdom worth giving up sleep to spend time every morning with the King? Is it worth turning off the T.V. to read His Word to your kids? Is it more valuable than having them excel in sports or dance? Is God your heart’s first desire, or your fifth or twentieth?

Beloved, my toes are throbbing too, but the question stands: What is God worth to you?

Hebrews: The Tabernacle

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Lovely Lane Chapel at Epworth by the Sea, St. Simons Island, Georgia

I love church buildings. I visited some beautiful, ornate cathedrals when I lived in Germany.  My late brother’s high school graduation was held in one in Worms. I didn’t see him walk for his diploma because I was looking at the intricate carvings and high, soaring ceilings. I met for a weekly Bible study in a church with incredible wood beams that always spoke peace to me.  I worked in a church in Florida with beautiful stained glass windows. I loved to sit in the sanctuary and watch the light cast colors across the room. But the church I fell in love with was a small chapel in Georgia on St. Simon’s Island called “Lovely Lane Chapel” at Epworth by the Sea. It is an unassuming white building in the traditional style of the late 19th century set on the banks of the historic Frederica River. But when you open the doors and step inside the all-wood interior will take your breath away. It is an impressive work of architectural art. But it’s just a copy and shadow of the true tabernacle in heaven (Hebrews 8:2, 5).  St. Peter’s Basilica and the pre-fire cathedral at Notre Dame, even the gold walls of Solomon’s temple pale in comparison to the divine original.

Likewise, the ministry of the priests who served in the temple in Jerusalem was significantly less than that of Jesus Christ, the great high priest. The writer of Hebrews pointed first to the gifts and sacrifices presented by generations of human high priests (8:3-4), and later we will see why those gifts and sacrifices fell short of the perfection the Law and the Law-giver demanded. But Jesus’ ministry “is superior to theirs” (8:6) because the gifts and sacrifices He offered were superior.

Jesus’ ministry did not happen in the earthly tabernacle and the sacrifice He offered was not given to a diety shrouded in smoke and incense. Jesus went personally before the Lord with His own pure blood.

Ornate buildings and animal sacrifices don’t make men holy. Neither do programs and weekly services. None of these satisfy the demands of a righteous God. But there is a way. It’s through the better tabernacle and the better offering – through Jesus, the Son of God, the Great High Priest, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Who takes away your sin, Beloved. He will make you holy.

Hebrews: The Gift of Grace

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Ask a humanitarian what the world needs and they will quote Hal David: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Ask a politician and he will say the world needs more programs and the money to run them. Teachers will say the world needs to be better educated. Generals think the world needs more control and hippies say the world just needs peace. None of these are bad answers, but they miss the real issue that plagues the world. The writer of Hebrews said the world needs a mediator – a high priest – because we are sinful people before a holy, righteous God.  That is the point of the comparison in Hebrews 7:26-28 of the earthly priests and Jesus.

Jesus, our great high priest (4:14), the writer said, is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, [and] exalted above the heavens” (v. 26). Because we are going to stand before God (and every human being will), we need a mediator who is acceptable to Him. In the Jewish religion (and remember this letter is written to believers with a Jewish background), the high priest comes before the Lord every single day to present sacrifices that atone for the sins of the people. But he has to atone for his own sins first before he can tend to the sins of the people he represented. But Jesus needed no such atonement because He was without sin – He was the perfect sacrifice that could cover all the sins of mankind – “once for all” (v. 27) One sacrifice for all the sins of all the people for all time.

Does that mean that every person is saved by the work of Jesus? Yes. And no. Every persons’ sins are covered – if they accept that covering. But God gave man a little thing called “free will” to accept or reject His offer. The one who rebuffs that grace doesn’t negate the work of Christ, he just refuses it. And God is very much a gentleman who will not force His grace on anyone who does not want it. But why would anyone not want it? Because they do not see themselves as sinners in need of grace. Jesus said, “[Satan] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn – and I would heal them” (John 12:40).

I imagine that you, like me, have someone in mind as you read this, someone who continually pushes God away. How can we help? Pray, Beloved. Pray that the blindfold of the enemy be removed so that they can see and understand. Grace is a gift, but it must be received.

The Story of God

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The first four words of Scripture tell you everything you need to know about the Bible: “In the beginning God . . .”(Gen. 1:1). The Bible, for all the people and stories it contains, is a book about God. We like to say it is about God and man, God and Abraham, God and Israel. We point to all God’s creative activity, which is worthy of note and awe. But the Bible isn’t about all God did and the humans he worked through. The Bible is about God. The story of Moses is the story of God. The story of David is the story of God. The stories of Jonah and the Apostles are all the stories of God. He is on every page, in every verse, and behind every story, even if His name is not mentioned.

That is because God is the creator and sustainer of all existence. If He were to somehow cease to be, which can never happen because He is eternal, the heavens and the earth – every mountain and tree, every planet and star would disappear. Paul said of Christ (who is fully God) “By Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). And John the Revelator recorded the angels’ praise: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they were created and have their being” (Rev. 4:11).

Get this – your story and my story is also the story of God. Paul said, “We live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28). We would not exist without Him. We should seek every day to know Him. That is why I teach the Bible. That is why I encourage you to read and study for yourself. Listen to His amazing promise: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord” (Jer. 29:13, 14). You don’t have to hope to know God, you just have to look for Him in the pages of His Word. Beloved, will you open your Bible and seek out the One who created you and loves you?

Hebrews: Who’s the Greatest?

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In our last devotional on Hebrews 7, we looked at Melchizedek, a mysterious figure from the days of Abraham, who was held in high esteem by the Jewish people. Go back and read verses 1-10. There are several similarities between Melchezidek and Jesus. Melchezidek was both a priest and a king, an unheard of combination in the Jewish nation. Nations outside of Israel often combined the offices, but for God’s people, kings were descendants of Judah, specifically David, and priests descended from Levi, specifically Aaron. Jesus was the only other person in Scripture who could fill both roles perfectly. He was a descendant of David through his adoptive father and was appointed to the priesthood by God (Psalm 110:4). We’re going to come back to this thought.

Melchizedek, the author said, was “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever” (v. 3). Bear in mind that he does not claim that Melchizedek was more than a mortal human being.  And we do know Jesus’s human mother, Mary, and Matthew and Luke record the genealogical record of Jesus (through Joseph). But the Scripture did not mention the birth or death of Melchizedek, which the author used to point to Jesus’ eternal nature, “without beginning of days or end of life.” That is because Jesus is the Son of God and has always existed. “He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:2), and “His years will never end” (Heb. 1:12). Melchizedek was a figure of Christ, but Christ was the reality and the standard.

Finally, Melchizedek’s name and title are the identity of Jesus. His name meant “the king of righteousness” and his domain meant “the king of peace” (Salem=Shalom). Jesus is the one who brings us righteousness before God and peace with God. No human priest or king could ever do that. It is Christ’s work alone.

The author’s point is not to set our focus on Melchizedek, but to turn all eyes to Jesus who exceeds the great priest-king. He continued to press the point that Jesus is – not just the better way to God and eternal life – but the only way. To those who were on the fence about staying with Christ or returning to the Law, the choice is clear. There is no other way but Jesus. The same is true for you and me, there is no other way to eternal life. Stick with Jesus, Beloved, all the way home.

Hebrews: Melchizedek

I had a friend in Jr. High school who followed the most obscure, unheard-of bands. Every time we got together to play records (yes records!) she brought her favorites with her. Some of them, as it turned out were quite good (like Highway Robbery), but they weren’t as popular and well-known as The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, and The Who. Likewise, most of us who grew up in the church know Adam and Eve, David, Moses, and Abraham, but few are familiar with one character the writer of Hebrews calls on as a witness to Christ – Melchizedek.

As the “king of Salem” (which means Peace) “and a priest of God Most High,” Melchizedek (whose name meant “king of righteousness”) had a small but important part in the Old Testament account of Abraham (Abram at this point). Genesis 14 tells the story of Abram rescuing his nephew Lot from a trio of enemy kings.  Two friendly kings came out to meet Abram – the unnamed king of Sodom, where Lot had settled, and Melchizedek. Melchizedek presented bread and wine and a blessing: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand” (v. 19). In response, Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the plunder he had gained from the rescue operation.

Melchizedek is significant for several reasons found in Hebrews 7. He appears mysteriously on the scene and the Scriptures tell us nothing about his genealogy or his life before this encounter, and we hear nothing from him after (v. 3).  The tithe which Abram gave him indicated that he was a great king, for Abram was a great man in the Ancient-Near-East and he humbled himself before Melchizedek (vs. 4, 8).  His dual role as king and priest was also uncommon. The two positions would always be separate in the Jewish nation – kings would be descendants of Judah and priests descendants of Levi (v. 1). The sons of Levi would collect the tithe from the rest of Abram’s descendants, but through Abram, the writer said, Levi  “paid the tithe” to the greater priest (6, 9-10). And most significantly, Melchizedek was, “like the Son of God, a priest forever” (v. 3).

I know, this all sounds very strange and probably confusing, but the story of Melchizedek foretold the greater King and Priest, Jesus Christ. It’s important that you and I study and understand everything the Scriptures say about Him. Stay with me – we will make those parallels in the next Hebrews devotional.

The Face of God

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The ancient blessing from God contained the words: “The Lord make His face shine on you . . . The Lord turn His face toward you . . .”  (Numbers 6:26). In the terminology of the Old Testament, to “turn one’s face toward” someone was to signify favor and blessing from the greater to the lesser.  A king might show favor to a trusted soldier or advisor and shower him with gifts and position—he had turned his face toward him.  It was a mutual benefit as the king gained greater loyalty from the one he favored.  For the nation of Israel, the God of heaven and earth turned His face toward them and promised His blessing, His grace, and His peace (see vs. 24-26).  This weary group had just escaped from Egypt after four hundred years of slavery.  They had nothing to offer that would garner His favor, they had no country of their own, no wealth or treasure, and no political or military power.  When God turned His face toward them, it was purely an act of unmerited favor on the part of the Lord.

As we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the favor of the Creator poured out on us, His creation.  We celebrate the gift of His mercy and His grace given in the Baby in the manger. Our celebrations are meager compared to this gift. We hang lights in our homes to honor the Light of the World.  We give gifts just as the Magi gave gifts to the Christ Child.  We sing songs remembering the song of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (Luke 2:14).  We rejoice at the Joy of the shepherds who first saw this wondrous gift from heaven.

But let us not forget that God showed His highest favor toward us at Calvary.  The gift given at Jesus’ birth was made complete in His sacrifice.  At the cross, the Father turned His away from His one and only Son so that He might turn His face toward sinful humanity – toward you, Beloved – and give you peace.  It is the highest act of benevolence and it is the greatest gift you will ever be given.