Holding onto Hope

I had hoped in a dream that I believed was God’s plan for me – it was exciting and I was filled with anticipation.  But when my life turned in a different direction, I set my backpack full of dreams down and shuffled off on this unwanted new path.

The Bible mentions several people who stood at the same crossroads.  Moses, Elijah, and Naomi come to mind.  Peter and several of the disciples, uncertain of where their lives are going after Jesus’ death, dejectedly went back to fishing (John 21).  And then there are two of Jesus’ followers walking on the dusty road to Emmaus when they encounter a stranger.  They tell him about Jesus (isn’t that a kick), sadly saying, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21).  They saw their lives going in a completely different direction than they expected.

Part of the problem is our understanding of the word “hope.”  We say, “I hope it doesn’t rain out the picnic today.”  “I hope he asks me to the prom.”  “I hope you feel better soon.” – but these are spoken like “wishful thinking.”  The Bible portrays hope as “an attitude of confidently looking forward to what is good and beneficial.”  It’s not a hope in circumstances. It’s a hope in God. A hope that we can carry with us no matter what twists and turns life takes.  Better yet, it’s a hope that carries us no matter what.  That’s the kind of hope you and I need.

Remember Peter and those disciples on the road to Emmaus – the ones who had lost hope? Their stories didn’t end there.  At the end of that fishing trip was breakfast with the risen Jesus and restored hope for Peter.  At the end of the Emmaus road was the joyful realization that the stranger in their midst was the resurrected Lord Himself. 

Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when dreams come true at last there is life and joy.”  I believe this is an assurance that our God-given dreams don’t get cast aside when life takes an unexpected turn.  Because God expected that turn, even if I didn’t, and somehow the dreams He planted in my heart will make the turn too. And when He brings them to reality, they may not look exactly like I envisioned, but they will be full of life and Joy.  And hope.

Hebrews: Everything Old is New Again

New Testament writers often referred back to the Scriptures – what we know as the Old Testament to confirm the fulfillment of prophecy. The writer of Hebrews is one of them. One key I learned in hermeneutics (how to study the scriptures) is to go back to the OT reference to gain the writer’s context.

In Hebrews 10:38 the author loosely borrowed from one of the OT prophets when he wrote, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.”  Verses 19-39 are a call to persevere in Christ. The promise of Jesus’ return was given in verse 37 and is followed by this “gentle” warning. So what was happening in the OT that influenced this NT verse?

Habakkuk prophesied to Judah in the final days before Jerusalem fell. He lamented the injustice, violence, strife, lawlessness, and wickedness in the land. Does that sound familiar? God’s answer was to announce judgment – the nation would be destroyed and taken captive by the Babylonians, a “ruthless and impetuous people . . . bent on violence . . . guilty men, whose own strength is their god” (1:6,9, 11). Habakkuk questions God’s plan and the Lord responds by contrasting the evil Babylonians with “the just” – the one who remains righteous despite the circumstances. The one who perseveres.

This was the author’s theme throughout Hebrews. The Babylonians would take the Jews that survived the onslaught and either enslave them or indoctrinate them into their culture and completely erase their way of life in God. Just as the enemies of the believing Jewish community were trying to do. Just as the world, satan, the culture, and our own sinful nature are trying to do today.

“But,” said the author, “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved” (v. 39). He expressed his confidence in their faith and their ability to persevere in it under the most dire circumstances. Our enemies may look different today, but they all spring from the same root – satan, the devil, the enemy of God and God’s people.  The call to persevere is as important today as it was thousands of years ago. Only those who stand firm in their faith please God and inherit eternal life. I want that.  And I want that for you, Beloved. Let’s hang on to Jesus together.

Hebrews: Persevere

I’ll be honest, some days I just want to quit. Quit school. Quit writing. Quit trying. Life is full of some precious – but heavy – responsibilities right now. Everything revolves around my granddaughter and her needs right now. I don’t have much time for me and what I need to do. I stay up late doing schoolwork. I get up very early to write. I try to snatch 30 minutes here and there to prepare a Sunday School lesson. I’m tired. But I can’t quit. Not school, writing, or teaching, and certainly not being a grandmother. And so I press on.

The Bible has a lot to say about not giving up; the two words that biblical writers used most frequently in their encouragement were endure and persevere. Both of these words share the same root meaning: “to be in a state that begins and continues, yet may or may not end.” But they each have another word attached that makes all the difference: endure includes the word hypo meaning “under”; while persevere attaches the word epi, which means –“on” or “over.” The writer of Hebrews said, “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised” (Heb 10:16).  He is exhorting his readers to overcome the pull to walk away from Jesus in an environment that was hostile to Christians. Not unlike ours is becoming.

His statement begs a question: “What, exactly, is the ‘will of God’?” Jesus spelled it out plainly: “My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life” (John 6:40). To believe and keep on believing until you receive the eternal life that Jesus promised. Believing – faith – is not a one and done in the Christian life. It’s not some decision you make one day when you walk the aisle and get baptized. It is an every day, moment-by-moment decision you make and continue to make to take one more step with Him and one more and one more.

I am a busy person, but school and teaching and writing and even being a Nana are not God’s will. All the things I’m doing are God’s call on my life, but His will for me is to believe in His Son till He brings me home. And never give up. I know a lot of you are busy like me. Just make sure, Beloved, in all the things you do to serve Him, that you are in His will all the way to the end.

Do You Believe?

No other event on the stage of world history is as important as the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Skeptics have long sought to discredit Christianity’s claims with attacks on the foundational veracity of the gospel.  So is it really true? Let’s take a look at the facts that are recorded in the secular history of the time.

The Jewish and Roman historical records note that a man named Jesus from Nazareth was crucified at Golgotha and buried in a garden tomb.  The grave was sealed and Roman guards were posted to prevent the theft of the body.  History records that the condemned man’s tomb was found empty three days later, despite the extreme measures the Romans took to secure the grave.  Jewish records note the claims of Jesus’ followers that their Lord had been resurrected.  Historical writers of the time frequently mention eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus, just as Paul spoke of Peter, the Apostles, more than five hundred brothers, James (Jesus’ own doubting brother), and finally Paul himself (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  In these verses, Paul reminds the believers of the gospel message “that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scripture” (v. 3-4).  These verses are almost certainly a creed that was well established in the ancient church and based on the testimonies of the very ones who firmly and emphatically believed they saw the literal resurrected Lord.  These are men who had been transformed from terrified, despondent fellows cowering behind locked doors (John 20:19) to bold witnesses willing to die for their faith, confident in what they saw (Acts 4:1-20).

The gospel message – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus – is strongly supported by men and women who had an encounter that transformed their lives and the landscape of world history.  The evidence is clearly shown in their testimonies and the traditions that are built on the foundation of their testimonies.  The eyewitness accounts of Peter, James, John and Paul, and hundreds of others, combined with the early creedal statements of the church provide good support for the claims of the resurrection of Jesus. 

Still, facts alone cannot convince anyone of the reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Generations of believers who have also experienced this life-changing Jesus provide the greatest proof that the claims of Christianity are true. People like me. I was a sinner, lost and bound for hell, but I heard the good news that God loves me and send His Son to die for my sins and rose to life three days later. I believed in Jesus. His Spirit lives in me and I have been changed. Forever.

Beloved, this same Jesus died for you too. He can change your life and your eternal destiny. Will you believe today?

Hebrews: Just Jesus

History is littered with men and women quitting before the victory. Do you remember any of their names? Neither do I. We remember the ones who stuck it out and stayed the course.  The whole premise of the book of Hebrews is about not giving up; a message twenty-first-century believers need as much as first-century believers. The author said, “So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded” (10:35). That begs a question: Do you have confidence in God? I hear your “Yes!” ringing loudly through the air. So let me press you a little farther. Confidence for what? That He will fix your problems, clean up your messes, open all the right doors, straighten out your kid, and bring world peace? There’s nothing wrong with any of those things; I’m praying for some of them myself. But the author had bigger things in mind. Eternal things.

The people reading this message were being challenged by the writer to put their confidence in one thing: the grace of God through Jesus Christ for eternal life. Remember these folks are largely Jews and for centuries their confidence was in obedience to the Mosaic Law. Something tangible. Something they could do. It was a constant mantra from the cradle to the grave. But they were now expected to believe that one man bore the burden for all of their sins and there was nothing they needed to do to ensure their salvation beyond trust.  Put yourself in their sandals – you only get one shot to make the right decision about the hereafter. How difficult would it be to stake your eternal security on this – on Him?  But this is what the writer was encouraging – even pleading with them to do. It’s what I am encouraging – even pleading with you to do.

You and I can believe God for many good things. My hope for my life is in His Word and His Name. You place your kids and your future, your struggles and heartaches, and your needs and desires in His hands and you do well to do so. But the one question that you need to answer Beloved is this: What is your hope for eternal life? If your confidence is in anything or anyone but Jesus, you have no hope and no reward. Only Jesus saves.

The King on a Colt

As was the tradition, thousands of Jews flocked to the city, and one question was on everybody’s lips: “Would Jesus come into the city for the Passover Feast?” The people were all abuzz with reports of His miraculous deeds – in particular, raising Lazarus from the dead. The religious leaders had given orders that anyone knowing His whereabouts should report it to them, for they planned to arrest Him on sight. His previous entries into the city were quiet, without any show of publicity. Now, however, with deliberate purpose, Jesus publically presented Himself as Israel’s Messiah and King. He chose a time when all Israel would be gathered in Jerusalem, a place where huge crowds could see Him, and a way of proclamation that was unmistakable.

He made his way into the city, seated on a young colt, to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your King comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zec 9:9/John 12:15).  The people lined the road praising God, waving palm branches and throwing their cloaks in front of him to provide a “royal carpet.” They shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matt 21:9) – which meant “save now!” – because they recognized the fulfillment of the long-awaited prophecy. Praises rang out loudly and joyfully: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel! (John 12:13).

Yet once inside the city gates, as strangers asked: “Who is this?” the answer was different. “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” From Messiah to Prophet. First, One who “comes in the Name of the Lord” – now one who comes from Nazareth-a city despised and disregarded by the Jews (John 1:46).

Don’t we still do the same? In the Sanctuary on Sunday morning Jesus is Lord and we sing His praises with voices raised. But what happens we the crowd changes? Do we tuck Him inside the cover of a dusty Bible? How do we respond to the question, “Who is this?” Is He just a “good teacher, a man of peace”, or maybe even a fool? He can not be Lord on Sunday and disregarded on Monday. To which crowd do you belong, Beloved? Who is this Man to you?

Hebrews: The Disgrace of being a Christian

I became a Christian at nine years of age. I still remember sitting in the pew after I was baptized and feeling the water dripping from my hair and down my back. I remember standing in front of the church and receiving “the right hand of Christian fellowship.” One of my teachers hugged me in class on Monday and congratulated me on my decision for Christ. But for first-century believers, being a Christian was vastly different.

The writer of Hebrews said, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publically exposed to insult and persecution, at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated” (Hebrews 10:32-33). For a Jew to make a public profession of faith in Jesus was, at best, to open yourself to public ridicule and often worse. Many lost their employment or the community would cease doing business with them. Sons were disowned by their fathers and wives faced severe repercussions from their husbands, including beatings. They were stripped of their possessions, even their homes, and many were imprisoned just for taking hold of new life in Christ.

How did these early believers respond to such awful treatment? Better than I would have. “You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property . . .” (v. 34a). They found Joy in the persecution they faced. Why on earth? Because they weren’t thinking about earth. “You knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions” (34b). They were thinking about heaven and eternity. They were thinking about what Peter called, “an inheritance that can never perish spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet 1:4).

They remind me of the apostles who, after being beaten by the Sanhedrin for preaching the name of Jesus, rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

I live in the US where the cost of being a Christ-follower is mild compared to the early Christians and to believers today in places where faith in Jesus is tantamount to a death sentence. We might get insulted on social media, and some factions are working through the liberal courts to shut down Christian businesses, but on the whole, being a Christian here is not a hardship. And maybe that’s the problem. But I am certain it’s coming. The cultural winds are shifting to the left and blowing in real hatred for God and His people. You and I need to be ready. It takes a firm faith and an eye to eternity to rejoice in the face of persecution. Beloved, are you willing to suffer disgrace for the Name?

I Want to See Jesus

She called out my name – not the name “Beth” that folks in Tallahassee called me, but “Dorcas,” a name I hadn’t used since we left home a dozen years before. I was surprised that I would hear my “real” name. She said, “You haven’t seen me since I was a kid,” and then she told me who she was and everything clicked. Her family had lived next door to us for a few years and I had watched her and her brother a few times for her mother to run errands. I asked “How did you recognize me? It’s been so long and you were so young when we moved away.”  She hugged me and said, “I’d know that smile anywhere!”

People change so much – ask anyone who’s gone to their high-school reunion. I was so glad the reunion committee put our senior yearbook pictures on our name badges or I would have been completely lost. We all walked around with puzzled faces until we glanced down at the badge and – “Oh, it’s you!”

Heaven will be filled with faces both strange and familiar. I know I will be scanning the multitude, looking for my mom and dad and brother Jim and my friends Judy, Joey, Dorothy, Virginia, Mavis, Bob, and so many more. But there’s one Face I want most to see. One person who changed everything for me. I want to see Jesus. But how will I recognize Him?

The Bible gives no physical description other than “He had no beauty or majesty” (Isaiah 53:2). Nobody really knows what Jesus looked like and the paintings we have are not true representations of the Lord. I highly doubt he was a light-skinned, auburn-haired man with a chiseled, European face. True, we can make assumptions based on His nationality. But how many people will have the same olive complexion and middle-eastern features in heaven? Yet the Bible does say that we will recognize Him when we see Him. How? I imagine the crown on His head and His throne at the right hand of the Father and the glory that will emanate from Him will be big clues.  But there’s one other way. When He appeared to the disciples John said, “He showed them His hands and side [and] the disciples were overjoyed” (John 20:20). There be no doubt about which one is Jesus – we’ll know Him the same way they did – by His scars.

Do You Know Jesus?

I recently saw a meme that said, “I follow Jesus, not the Bible.” But the Bible is where you will find everything you need to know about Jesus.

He is the Seed of the woman who will one day crush the head of Satan and the Passover Lamb. He is the great high priest and the perfect sacrifice, the Prophet and the Captain of the Lord’s army.  He is the Deliverer and our Kinsman Redeemer and the King in the line of David. He is the Restorer of Jerusalem, the Shepherd, and the Source of all wisdom.  He is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and Suffering Servant. He is the Man acquainted with sorrows and the one who brings life to dry bones. He is the Ancient of Days, a faithful Husband, Source of Hope, Judge, Preacher, Mighty Savior, and the Son of Righteousness.

Matthew declared Him as the long-awaited Messiah and the fulfillment of prophecy. Mark showed that He was the King with power and authority over every realm. Luke proclaimed Him as the Son of God full of compassion and mercy.  John said that Jesus “was the Word” made “flesh” and the “true light” and the “One and Only” from the Father (John 1:1, 14, 9, 14, respectively). And throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus is revealed as “the Bread of Life” (6:48), “the Light of the world” (8:12), “the Door” and “the Good Shepherd” (10:9,11), “the Resurrection and the Life” (11:25), “the Way and the Truth and the Life” (14:6), and “the true Vine” (15:1). Paul said Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15) and the writer of Hebrews said that “the Son is . . . the exact representation of [God’s] being. In other words, when you see these truths about Jesus, you are seeing God. What we know about Him from the Scriptures is enough to change our lives forever.

The Lord posed the most important question when He asked, “Who do you say I am?” (Matt 16:15). You need to know the right answer, Beloved. Your eternal destiny depends on it.  You will only find Him on the pages of Holy Writ. I encourage you to pick up a Bible and meet the Son of God. It’s the most wonderful discovery you’ll ever make.

Blood-stained Faith

I know, this is Hebrews Monday, but this morning the Holy Spirit has a different word from the Word. It is one of those Old Testament to  New Testament connections I love so much.

The psalmist said, “May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands” (Ps. 149:6). You probably picked up on that “double-edged sword” and recognized it from Hebrews 4:12: “For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword . . .” You may also recall John’s vision of Jesus in heaven: “out of His mouth came a sharp double-edged sword” (Rev 1:16). You know that this sword is none other than the Word of God – the Bible – the Holy Scriptures. You know that in the Armor of God the sword of the Spirit is the only offensive weapon we have (Eph 6:17) – but it is enough because the Word of God sends satan packing. This sword is powerful and purposeful.

But the Spirit made another connection for me as He reminded me of the scene in heaven. Under the altar dwelt “the souls of those who had been slain” – martyred saints. Why? “Because of the Word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (Rev. 6:17). And what was their testimony? The same writer said, “And this is the testimony: ‘God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son’” (1 John 5:11). Do you see the connection?

What is praise but declaring the great Name and work of Almighty God? The martyrs throughout the history of the church have held tightly to the name of Jesus and the Word of God as their source of strength and conviction. But martyrs are not only part of the church’s past. Believers are being slain for their faith today, and as the world moves farther away from God, more saints will face the same fate. Maybe even you and me. How will we endure? How will we not fail our Savior? The same way they did. With the name of Jesus on our lips and our hands frozen to the sword (2 Sam 23:10). Come to think of it, this verse is right in line with the message of Hebrews: stand firm in Christ Jesus and do not lose heart. Hard times are coming Beloved, but so is Jesus!