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.

This is Huge!

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Sometimes I can read a verse a hundred times and on pass 101 something clicks and blows my mind. Last night was #101 for Hebrews 5:14. The writer had been admonishing his readers for refusing to grow up in their faith and take in the rich, nourishing “meat” of biblical truth. They were satisfied to know just enough to ensure their salvation. “What’s wrong with that?” you may ask. “Isn’t that what Christianity is all about?” The core of Christianity is the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. But for the spiritual babies among us, and for this “mature” teacher, there is something huge that we’ve been missing.

“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Pay attention to “by constant use have trained themselves.” Remember that the writer had declared that they were lazy and undisciplined in their spiritual growth. He was urging them to consistently and vigorously “exercise” in the Word of God. For what purpose?” And this is where I have holy goosebumps. “to distinguish good from evil. “Yeah, yeah, that’s good.” But wait, there’s more – and the only reason this caught my attention is because I wrote a school paper recently that made this very point.

Go back to the Garden of Eden, and Genesis 3 where Eve is having a foolish conversation with a serpent who said, “God knows that when you eat [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge good and evil] your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v. 5). And it happened just as he said; they ate and they suddenly knew things they’d never known – evil things. But it was knowledge they could not bear for they did not have God’s divine capacity, in knowing good and evil, to distinguish good from evil. There’s a difference. That’s why I am so excited about this verse. Hebrews 5:14 says that by consistent, disciplined training in God’s Word we can distinguish one from the other.

 “Good and evil” is used only five times in the Bible – four of which appear in the Fall narrative. “Good from evil” only appears once in the entire Bible – right here in our key passage. Do you see it? This evil knowledge that was unleashed on the human race by Adam and Eve’s sin can only be brought under control by consuming and applying the Scriptures diligently and purposefully.

In my spirit, I am standing on a table shouting: “YOU CAN OVERCOME EVIL THROUGH THE WORD OF GOD!” You can and you must or you will forever struggle with the sinful nature you inherited from the first sinners. This is huge! This is life-changing. I implore you, take this to heart. Pick up your Bible Beloved, and be set free.

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?

My Life

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“In Him, we were also chosen . . . according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will” (Ephesians 1:11).

I have often joked that “guilt is my spiritual gift.”  It’s something I’ve always done exceptionally well. Now I know and am deeply grateful that, because of Christ’s redemption, God no longer sees me as guilty.  But I agonize over my past choices and actions and the negative consequences they brought.  The list is long – and I won’t drag them out, but believe me when I say I’ve made some messes along the way.   I’ve always seen them as derailments that knocked me completely off course.  I imagine the path my life should have taken, and how I have altered that path so that God could not do what He intended in my life.  Or have I?

Is God only in control of my life when I make all the right choices? Is His plan so fragile that I can destroy it with an ill-conceived mistake? Can it survive the careless actions of others in my life? Can He work within the craziness that is my life?

As I sit here today I have a small measure of wisdom that I didn’t have in my 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s.  I am convinced to the marrow of my bones that God never lost control of my life, even when I turned in the wrong direction. He has never wrung His hands in heaven trying to figure out how to overcome my foolishness. I’ve seen Him take some of my biggest blunders and missteps and bring something good and positive and Joyful out of them. My life is not a haphazard crazy quilt of all my wrong choices, but a beautiful, if slightly eccentric design that God is still piecing together.  I love David’s musing: “You have made known to me the path of life; You will fill me with Joy in Your presence, with eternal pleasures at Your right hand” (Psalm 16:11).  The path my life has taken has not always been easy nor straight and true, but God has never been caught off guard. I’m looking back at my life from farther down the road – now sixty years old – and I’m seeing that God’s good and gracious hand has been in it all along.

Hebrews – The Deep Things of God

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I remember it like it was last week, even though it was some twenty years ago. I stood in the doorway of my pastor/boss’ office and said, “I’m content to know the basics about the Bible. I don’t need all that deep stuff. ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’ is good enough for me.”  I thought at the time that Pastor Mike was the one chuckling, but all these years later I realize it was the Lord. He – the Lord, that is – was laughing because He was going to unleash a fire in me to study and know His Word beyond anything I ever imagined. He was going to take me deep – so deep that I would need a spiritual oxygen tank to survive. The passion to dig and study and mine for “buried treasure” hits me every time I open my Bible. It has propelled me through eight years of seminary. It has compelled me to be a Bible teacher. I will never be satisfied with anything less.

The author of Hebrews understood that surface knowledge of the things of God will not sustain us for long. He said, “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn” (5:11). I touched on this verse when I launched this study, but I think it bears repeating. The phrase “slow to learn” is not referring to a learning disability, but a learning disinterest. “Slow” means “lazy and undisciplined, no longer trying to understand.” The writer said there’s more they could know but they didn’t care to learn it. They were content to know just enough to get into heaven. I suppose that’s okay if your goal is eternal fire insurance.  But why would you deny yourself the deeper things of the faith? Why would you not want to know all you can about God? What could the world possibly teach you that is more important, more thrilling, more breath-taking than knowing the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16)?

You don’t have to go to seminary to learn the deeper things of the faith. But you do have to invest time and attention in God’s Word.  I love being a Bible teacher. But honestly, my goal is to teach myself out of a job. I want you to have that hunger for yourself. Beloved, there is no greater quest than to know God. Won’t you let Him captivate your heart?

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.

How to Battle Negative Thoughts

“The Thinker” by Auguste Rodin

I’ve had several conversations recently with ladies who are struggling with oppressive, negative, angry emotions. They are surprised when I tell them that the key is to learn to take control of their thoughts. We tend to focus on our feelings, but forget that those feelings are fed by our thoughts.  And our thoughts can be controlled. Negative thoughts, depressive thoughts, sinful thoughts, angry thoughts can and must be brought into submission. It’s a matter of paying attention to what’s running around in your head.

Psalm 77 was written by Asaph, one of the Temple priests during the Babylonian captivity. The situation seemed hopeless, and this is reflected in his Psalm. In verses 1-9, Asaph lamented God’s apparent rejection of His people. In verse 2 he says “my soul refused to be comforted.” Ever been there? I know I have. But look at verse 10, Asaph turns his mind and heart on a pivot, like a door on its hinges. “Then I thought, to this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High. I will remember the deeds of the Lord…I will meditate on all Your words” (vs. 10, 11, 12). Did you catch the keyword? Thought. In that moment of despair, Asaph took control of his thoughts and changed the focus of his heart and mind.  He deliberately remembered and meditated instead on the character and deeds of God. And when he opened that door, hope and peace flooded in.

We see the same change of mind in Lamentations 3, which starts out: “I am the man who has seen affliction,” (v.1) and continues for 20 verses saying “my soul is downcast within me” (v. 20).  And then verse 21 begins with that hinge word: “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.” There’s the clue again “I call to mind.”  Jeremiah’s whole focus and attitude is transformed. A change in his focus changed everything.

Paul said, “We take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Then we take the Philippians 4:8 prescription – I’ll let you look that up. It’s how we battle mental negativity. Beloved, the only sure way to find peace in seasons of struggle is to intentionally turn your thoughts to God, to wrap His Words around you like a comforter, and trust in His love, faithfulness, and peace to carry you through.

Hebrews: Grab Your Sword!

In the 1986 movie “Crocodile Dundee” Mick Dundee, an Australian crocodile hunter is out with his lady friend when they are approached by a young thug. His friend says, “He’s got a knife!” To which Dundee replies, “That’s not a knife. This is a knife,” and pulls out a Bowie knife with an eleven-inch blade. Needless to say, the thug couldn’t get away fast enough.

Ever notice that the Word of God calls itself the “sword of the Spirit”? There’s a good reason for that moniker – it is the only offensive weapon in our Christian arsenal (Ephesians 6:17).  And it is enough because satan runs from the holy power of God’s Word.  Hebrews 4:12 says “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword.” John’s vision of Jesus said “out of His mouth came a sharp double-edged sword” (Revelation 1:16). Even in the heavens, Jesus still uses the Sword of the Spirit to deliver justice.

So where do we get this sword, and how do we learn to use it? Psalm 119:11 gives us the answer – “I have hidden your Word in my heart,”   Simply put, we memorize Scripture. Every verse, every passage, every promise, and every truth adds to the weight and length and strength of your Sword. And the more you study the Word and meditate on it, the more adept you will be at using it. Is there a particular area of weakness or stronghold where Satan usually attacks? Look for Scripture that addresses that area. Read the verses aloud, write them on notecards and place them in areas like the kitchen, your desk, your bathroom mirror, or bedside table. Get a journal and write the verses out, look up the words, consider how this verse applies to your life – these are all excellent “drills” to help you grow in knowledge and strength in the Word of the Lord.

Consider this, when Satan launches an attack against you, and all you know is John 3:16, (which is an awesome verse to know), you are trying to defeat the enemy with a pocketknife. But if you have been reading, studying, meditating, and memorizing Scripture, when you reach into your heart where that Word has been stored and grab hold of those verses, you are going to pull out a SWORD that will send satan scrambling. Beloved, that’s how you do battle with the enemy of your soul!

(We’re not done with the Sword. We’ll dig into it more in the next devotional.)

The Art of Spiritual Warfare: Know Yourself

A couple of days ago I shared a quote by Sun Tzu, who is credited with writing The Art of War. His premise is that victory in war comes when you know your enemy and know yourself.  From that we explored scripture about knowing our enemy the devil, but more importantly, knowing God. Several of you asked for more on “knowing yourself.” Honestly, I purposely skipped that part of Tzu’s quote because, in the current “Christian” marketplace, there is a glut of music, books, studies, and messages that are heavily self-focused. I believe it is an unhealthy trend. The church has forgotten Jesus’ call.  It’s really hard to “deny yourselves” (Luke 9:23) when you’re always thinking about yourself. But I digress.

There is a biblical directive to “know yourself” – especially in the face of spiritual warfare. The enemy loves to attack your heart. When he says, “God could never love you,” you need to know that He has promised to love you with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3).  When he says you are worthless you need to know that God purchased you at a very high price – not with gold or silver, but with the precious blood of His Son (1 Peter 1:18-19). When satan says God has forgotten you, be assured that you are engraved on the palm of God’s hand (Isaiah 49:16). Your Father says that  “you are precious and honored in my sight” (Isaiah 43:4). You are redeemed (Galatians 3:13). You are sons [and daughters] of God (Galatians 4:6). You are chosen (Ephesians 1:4).

But there’s another kind of war that your enemy wages You need to know who you are when temptation hits – and you need to know who you are not. Paul said you used to be a slave to wickedness, “but now you have been set free from sin (Romans 6:19-22). You once were dead in your sins but now you are alive with Christ (Colossians 2:13). “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” Then he added, “Live as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8).

Over and over Paul drives home the point – you used to love sin – BUT THAT’S NOT WHO YOU ARE NOW. (Yes I’m shouting – I want you to get this.) You are “more than conquerors” in this battle (Romans 8:37). That, Beloved, is what you need to know about yourself.

Hebrews: Awe and Wonder

Quick! What are you thinking about right now? Right now, I’m thinking about the pain in my knee. I’m thinking about my next course coming up in two weeks. I’m thinking about all the things I didn’t get done this weekend added to all the things I need to do this week. I’m thinking about getting Joy to her nanny and me to work on time.  

The writer of Hebrews said, “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (3:1). One of the first things we learn in Bible study is to pay attention to the word, “therefore” and ask ourselves, “what’s it there for?” Therefore always refers us back to the previous text – in this case, the author has just listed eight reasons why God would send His one and only Son from glory to earth. He is saying, in light of all that Jesus is and has done, our natural response is to “fix our thoughts” on Him, meaning to mentally focus with intentional consideration. That sounds a lot like studying algebra to me.  I would stare at my textbook for hours but just could not wrap my mind around those useless equations and formulas. Thankfully, that’s not what’s happening here.

Glance back just a few words, where the author, speaking to his “holy brothers” (and sisters), said that they – and we – “share in the heavenly calling.” That calling is a divine invitation from heaven to consider all that Jesus is. Redeemer. Savior. Brother. Victor. High Priest. Sacrifice. Helper. Apostle. The book of Hebrews is all about discovering Jesus. Like looking through a kaleidoscope, we keep turning the dial and seeing new and wonderful sides to Him.  

Fixing our thoughts on Jesus is more than a mental exercise we have to push ourselves through like my algebra book. It’s lifting our thoughts above the mundane things of this world and filling our minds with awe and wonder at the Son of the Most High God. It’s not something we have to do, it’s something we get to do! What a high and holy privilege we’ve been given.

That brings me back to the question we opened with. Beloved, what are you thinking about right now?