Hebrews: One Life, One Death, One Savior

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If it seems like we’ve been in the tabernacle with the high priest for a long time now, you would be right. The writer of Hebrews has repeatedly contrasted the earthly tabernacle and the human priest with the heavenly tabernacle and the divine great high priest to prove the point that Christ is the better way – the only way – to salvation and eternal life. Don’t forget that he was writing to a people steeped in the traditions of Judaism, the Law, and the sacrificial system. All they had ever known was the yearly atonement and they struggled to accept another way. Every year they watched the high priest going into the holy of holies wearing his ritual garments. On his breastplate, near his heart,  he bore the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (Ex 28). On his shoulders, he also carried the names of the sons of Israel, so that he symbolically  “bore the sins of Israel” on his shoulders before the Lord. Every year he carried the same burden into the holy of holies and repeated the necessary sacrifices because one sacrifice was never enough. Until . . .

When Christ went into the heavenly tabernacle He entered into the literal presence of God and offered Himself for “the sins of many people” (Heb 9:28). He didn’t just carry the names and sins of a single group of people, He carried them all, including the Israelites. But the Jewish believers weren’t sure they could trust their eternal security to a “one and done” Savior. What if His sacrifice wasn’t enough? They would be left with their sins uncovered and would be forever condemned. The choice was to throw their whole life on Christ or turn back to what they had always known. To make the point clearer, he said, “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (v. 27). Human life is a one-time thing and so is the judgment that follows. But so was Christ’s sacrifice – once was enough. He will come again to take the judge’s seat and render the final verdict for all who trusted in Him: “not guilty.” Beloved, make sure your one life is safe in the nail-scarred hands of Christ.

Hebrews: Nothing But the Blood of Jesus

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I’d seen pictures of the Grand Canyon, but they didn’t prepare me for the breathtaking sight when we visited the real thing. Every perspective we got as we moved around the rim was beyond description. The pictures were beautiful but they couldn’t do the real thing justice. The writer of Hebrews had set up  two tabernacles in his message – one on earth – a man-made structure with beautiful tapestries and rich gold and silver, and one in heaven: “the greater and more perfect tabernacle . . . not a part of this creation.” He did not attempt to describe it, but I am sure that he could have never adequately portrayed the heavenly dwelling place of God in mere human words.

Likewise, the work of the high priest ministering in the earthly tabernacle was a pale substitute for the work of our Great High Priest ministering in the heavenly tabernacle. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies with animal blood because blood was necessary to purge the sin and make the people clean – “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22). But why? “The life of a creature [human or animal] is in the blood (Lev 17:11). Blood is synonymous with life – any physician will tell you that when the body runs out of blood the life is drained with it. This is the price of our sin.

Let’s spell this out. In God’s holy covenant only “blood makes atonement for one’s life” (Lev. 17:14). God in His mercy allowed for animals’ blood to stand in for our blood, but its effect was short-lived and only partially cleansing. But God had planned a better way; a way that would atone for sin “once for all” (Heb. 9:12), but it required perfect blood that was only available through a divine and holy being – but there’s a problem.  God can’t die. So His one and only Son became a man – a man with divine blood – that He might atone for humanity’s sin. He hung on a cross and dripped that perfect blood from His broken human body. Then He collected it in a bowl and took it into the heavenly tabernacle into God’s very presence. No other sacrifice would be needed. Jesus had done it all.

The blood of Jesus still stands as the only way to be clean before a holy God. But it is enough. Come, Beloved, and be washed in the perfect blood of Christ.

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.

Love One Another

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It is very compelling to me that in all the Gospels, there is only one time that Jesus declared a commandment: “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17). A command means it’s not up for debate. Ah, but we do debate it, don’t we? “Who are the ‘others’?” “Did Jesus just mean fellow Christians?” “Did He mean everyone everywhere?” “And what did He mean by ‘love’?” We are much like the lawyer who asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus told Him the story of the Good Samaritan. You know this parable from Luke 10: 25-37.

A man was beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road where two very religious men passed him by on the way to do their religious duties. But a Samaritan, whom the Jews despised, stopped and helped the man, took him to an inn, and paid for his care.  When the lawyer asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” he wanted to know whom he was “required” to love. Jesus turned his question around by defining the neighbor as the one who gave love, not the one who received it. The one giving love is living out the second great commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

So love your neighbor. But God doesn’t allow us to pick and choose our neighbors. He commands us to love the person He places in front of us. Sometimes that’s a hard love because they are prickly and unpleasant and downright hateful. They take and never give. They growl and complain. Does that mean we are excused from the love command? I think they are the very ones Jesus had in mind.

Several years ago I read something in “Reader’s Digest” that has stuck with me ever since: “Don’t be afraid to be the one who loves the most.” I think sometimes we withhold love because are afraid we will be “cheated” – giving more love than we receive. But the very act of loving others fills the one who gives it all away. Here’s how John said it: “If we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us” (1 Jn 4:12).  Beloved, the more love you give away the more of God’s love you have to give. Love each other – all the others – the way Jesus loves you (John 15:12).

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: Jesus the High Priest

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If I were God, I would choose people who were not so messy. I would pick the ones who were grateful for my help and didn’t keep jumping right back into the same pit I had just pulled them out of. People who were easily moldable and not so resistant and hard-hearted (and headed). In other words, I would have picked anyone other than me.

The writer of Hebrews said, “For surely it is not angels he helps but Abraham’s descendants” (2:16). God helps fallen human beings. Why in heaven’s name does He help ungrateful, selfish, messy people like you and me? Are we somehow more worthy than angels? Hardly. God helps us because we are the ones who need Him.

“For this reason,” the writer adds, “He had to be made like His brothers in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God . . .” (v. 17a). He became like us so that he could help us. We’re going to talk more about the humanity of Jesus in a later chapter, but for today we’re looking at another reason that God sent His Son to earth. To take up the role of the high priest. In God’s original design the high priest was the mediator between heaven and earth. The high priest represented God before man and represented man before God. Under the old covenant, high priests offered sacrifices that satisfied God’s justice and demonstrated His mercy. He showed the people the love of God in His merciful kindness every time he offered sacrifices to atone for their sins.

But somewhere along the way, the priesthood became more about status and power than about kindness and mercy. Instead of becoming the bridge between God and man through atonement, the priests became a wall keeping men they deemed unworthy of God from Him. Jesus brought back the lost mercy and faithfulness to the office of the high priest.

It’s probably a good thing I’m not God. It’s even a better thing that God made provision for messy people like me to be made right with Him. Jesus stands in the gap between us and God – not to block the way, but to be the bridge that allows us to cross the chasm and stand in His presence. And that’s a very good thing.

Jesus is . . .

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“We’re New Testament people, we don’t need to read the Old Testament.” “I just want to know about Jesus, so I’ll stick with the New Testament.” Ever thought or said anything like that? I’ve heard it many times. As Christians – Christ’s followers – we are focused on only what Jesus did and taught.  But the Old Testament looks ahead to Jesus Christ.  Check it out:

In Genesis, He is the Seed of the woman who will one day crush the head of Satan.

In Exodus, He is the Passover Lamb and the one who leads His people out of bondage.

In Leviticus, He is the great high priest and the perfect sacrifice.

In Deuteronomy, he is the Great Prophet to come.

In Joshua, He is the Captain of the Lord’s host.

In Judges, He is the one who faithfully delivers His people from the cost of sin.

In Ruth, He is our Kinsman Redeemer.

He is the anointed King in the line of David in the books of Samuel.

In the books of the Kings, He is the Spirit filling the Temple.

He is the great Teacher in Ezra and the Restorer of broken walls in Nehemiah.

He is the Interceder for His people in Esther and the coming Redeemer in Job.

He is the Shepherd in Psalms and the Source of all wisdom in Proverbs.

He is the Teacher in Ecclesiastes.

He is the Beloved Bridegroom in the Song of Solomon.

In Isaiah, He is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace and Suffering Servant.

In Jeremiah and Lamentations, He is the Man acquainted with sorrows.

In Ezekiel, He brings life to dry bones.

In Daniel, He is the Ancient of Days.

He is the faithful Husband in Hosea, the Hope of His people in Joel, the Judge of the nations in Amos, and in Obadiah the One who warns of coming judgment.

In Jonah He is the preacher of the Good News, in Micah He is the Ruler from Bethlehem.

In Nahum, He is the judge of His people’s enemy,  the Sovereign Lord in Habakkuk, and in Zephaniah, He is the God who is mighty to save.

In Haggai He is the Glory of the House of God, in Zechariah He is the Royal Priest and in Malachi Jesus is the Son of Righteousness.

Beloved, if you want to know Jesus, read the Old Testament. He is all over the place.  Then read the New Testament with a fresh understanding of Jesus who was and is and is to come.

Why the Old Testament Still Matters

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Reading the Bible is paramount for the believer who wants to live and walk as Jesus did – after all, that is the purpose for our salvation – “to be conformed to the likeness of [God’s] Son” (Romans 8:27). I’ll bet you have started trying to read through the whole Bible and found it to be more challenging than you thought. Especially in the Old Testament – especially in Leviticus! What do all those old rules and sacrifices and rituals have to do with us as New Testament believers? EVERYTHING!

The entire Old Testament looks ahead to Jesus Christ. He fulfills every promise and completes every command. In Genesis He is the Seed of the woman who will one day crush the head of Satan. In Exodus, He is the Passover Lamb and the one who leads His people out of bondage .In Leviticus, He is the great high priest and the perfect sacrifice. In Deuteronomy he is the Great Prophet to come. In Joshua, He is the Captain of the Lord’s host.

In Judges, He is the one who faithfully delivers His people from the cost of the sin. In Ruth, He is our Kinsman Redeemer. He is the anointed King in the line of David in the books of Samuel. In the books of the Kings, He is the Spirit filling the Temple. He is the great Teacher in Ezra and the Rebuilder of broken walls in Nehemiah. He is the Interceder for His people in Esther and the coming Redeemer in Job.

He is the Shepherd in Psalms and the Source of all wisdom in Proverbs. He is the Beloved Bridegroom in the Song of Solomon. In Isaiah He is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace and Suffering Servant. In Jeremiah and Lamentations He is the Man acquainted with sorrows. In Ezekiel He brings life to dry bones. In Daniel He is the Ancient of Days.

He is the faithful Husband in Hosea, the Hope of HIs people in Joel, the Judge of the nations in Amos, and in Obadiah the One who warns of coming judgment. In Jonah He is the preacher of the Good News, in Micah He is the Ruler from Bethlehem. In Nahum, He is the judge of His people’s enemy, the Sovereign Lord in Habakkuk and in Zephaniah He is the God who is mighty to save. In Haggai He is the Glory of the House of God, in Zechariah He is the Royal Priest and in Malachi Jesus is the Son of Righteousness.

When you read the Old Testament, always look for Jesus, He is on every page, in every verse. Then read the New Testament with a fresh understanding of Jesus who was and is and is to come.

A Shameful Woman and a Gracious Savior

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Luke 8:42-48 tells the story of a very shameful woman and a very gracious Healer. She had “an issue of blood” or as we might say in the South – “She had woman troubles.” In that culture, a woman’s monthly cycle rendered her “unclean” for the duration (Lev. 15:19. Anyone who touched her or anything that she touched, such as furniture, would be unclean. This woman had suffered for twelve years!  Twelve years of being unclean had heaped tremendous shame and isolation upon her. Plus she had spent every penny on doctors who could not help her.  She was a woman in desperate need of divine help.

She knew the Law and the ramifications of what she intended to do. But she had heard of the rabbi’s healing miracles and somehow knew He could do the same for her. So she dared to approach Jesus, albeit stealthily. She thought she could receive healing without His notice, but – horror of horrors – He stopped and sought her out. “Who touched me?” He demanded (v. 45).  The disciples pointed out the crowd around Him, but this touch was different from the rest. He knew the touch of faith when He felt it. When she bravely came forward, He was gracious and merciful. Before the whole community—those who regarded her with shame and had ostracized her—He commended her faith and proclaimed her healed. Can you imagine how her disgrace surely turned to rejoicing? She “owned up to” what she had done – “In the presence of all the people, she told why she had touched Him and how she had been instantly healed” (v. 47). Listen to Jesus’ response to her confession: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace” (v. 48).  Did you catch it? Because of her faith, the Lord not only healed her but claimed her as His own. And announced it to all her neighbors. Oh, had she never stepped forward she would have still been healed, but what a witness she was to the community.

Beloved, I don’t know what scandalous burden you carry. But I do know that when we are honest with the Lord, no matter what we have done or how shameful we feel, He honors us with healing and acceptance that is evident to everyone around us. I just really believe God wants someone to know that.

Obedience = Love

The class I’m taking this semester is a study of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.  This week we’re in Leviticus, the book where New Year’s Resolutions go to die. I know – this book is so antiquated – so many strange rules, weird diseases, and issues that rub against the grain of our culture. But it is also completely applicable to the 21st Century if we will take the time to study it and think.

As I sat down to read this week’s assigned chapters, right off the bat, God spoke a timeless word to me.  The Lord said to the Israelites “When any of you bring an offering to the Lord . . .” (Lev. 1:2). Can you guess what jumped out at me – what word is as relevant today as it was then?  “When.” Notice that God didn’t say, “If you bring an offering to the Lord” – He said, “When.” What did that mean for Israel, and what does that mean for you and me? Simply that God expects obedience. He didn’t offer a suggestion they can accept or decline. The sovereign Lord gave a command. The Israelites were obligated to obey.

That chafes against our modern sensibilities and our independent, autonomous attitudes. We stand proudly and say, “I’ll do what I want to do.” “I make my own decisions.” No one has the right to make any demands on me. And when it comes to “religion” – we “pick-and-choose” from the Bible what we feel comfortable with and then put our own spin on it. “This is what I think this verse says and that’s what I intend to follow.” How else could the church applaud and celebrate what God so clearly condemned? 

What was true for Israel is true for the church and believers today. God expects obedience. Jesus said, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me” (John 14:21). Obedience is the fruit – the evidence – of our love for Him. Beloved, what had God been calling you to do? That can be a big as a call to ministry or as small as pulling weeds for your elderly neighbor. Are you regarding it as a choice you can take or leave – or as the Word of God that you will commit to obey? Obedience = love. Do you love God?