Hebrews: See You on the Mountain

When last we met over the book of Hebrews I told you about my childhood neighbor, Mr. Estes. Tall, broad-shouldered, and gruff of voice. I was terrified of him. One day I kicked my ball to my friend and it rolled across the road, down his driveway, through the open gate, and into his backyard. Right where he was watering Mrs. Estes’ plants. It stopped when it bumped his foot. Well, that’s one ball I would never see again. Petra was so terrified she ran back to her house at the end of the street. I started walking toward my house when I heard him call out to me. At least his lips were moving, but it wasn’t his gruff voice. This voice was kind and gentle. “Hey little girl, your ball rolled over here. Come get it, I’ll meet you at the end of the driveway.” Something in this different voice told me I could trust him and so I cautiously walked over. He handed me the ball and then asked me about school and my baby brother and stuck his hand in his pocket to pull out a butterscotch candy – my favorite.  We stood there for several minutes chatting and when I walked back to my yard I had a new friend who always kept a pocket full of butterscotchies for me.

The writer of Hebrews had talked about Mount Sinai, the mountain on which God descended with “fire, darkness, gloom, and storm” and the fearsome voice of the Lord (Heb 12:18-21). But he contrasted that mountain with another – Mount Zion. “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.  You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in Joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (Heb 12:22-23a). Mount Zion is a reference to the heavenly Jerusalem that will be the eternal home for all God’s people in the coming age. This is the place that John saw in Revelation 21:1-2. Unlike Mount Sinai, Mount Zion was a place of absolute Joy – “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (v. 23b ).

Here we will be welcome to approach God – not just in prayer (Heb 10:22) but physically – even face to glorious face. This is where believers will dwell in the presence of God, where we can once again walk in the cool of the day with our Creator (Gen 3:8). This is where my mom and dad and brother wait for me. This is where I will meet my heroes of the Bible: Deborah, Dorcas, Anna, and Ezra. And this is where I will throw my arms around my Savior’s neck and thank Him for saving a wretch like me. I have a question for you: Will I see you there too? Beloved, is your name written in heaven?

Hebrews: Holy

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

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

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

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

Hebrews: How to be a Christian Neighbor

The culture knows Scripture – at least a few verses that they are passionate about. “Judge not” (Matt. 7:1), “God is love” (1 John 4:16), and “Let him who is without sin . . . cast the first stone” (John 8:7). I found them a new one that I think they will really like: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men” (Heb 12:14). What’s interesting about these cultural favorites is that they are only partial verses or plucked out of their context so that their meaning is skewed. It is a favorite ploy of the devil, who knows more Scripture than most people in the pews. When he came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, he quoted from Psalm 91:11-12, but he stopped just shy of his own demise in verse 13. (You should go look that up. In fact, I encourage you to look up all of these verses and read their surrounding context.)

Hebrews 12:14 has a second part that colors the whole verse differently. “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness, no one will see the Lord.” Oh. When you add verse 15, it becomes clearer: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Now, before I started digging deeper into this verse, I thought it meant something like “let no ill feelings take root” but I was wrong (that’s not easy to say!). First, the word “bitter” metaphorically means “extreme wickedness” and literally means “poison”. Poison kills.

This reaches directly back to Deuteronomy as Moses was reiterating the covenant they had made with the Lord God. He said, “Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those [pagan] nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison” (Deut 30:18).

I’ll be honest, I’ve wrestled with this all week. It’s not an easy passage. But I believe it means to live in peace with your neighbors, especially your unsaved neighbors, don’t condemn them or harasses them over their lifestyle. Don’t cause them to turn to wickedness because of your self-righteousness. But you – and remember, the writer is speaking to the community, not to individuals – live a holy life, set apart unto God. Because Jesus showed us that a truly holy life is attractive and winsome to a lost world. And so must we be.

Hebrews: Be Faithful

The Bible is the perfect, infallible Word of God. It is complete and lacks nothing. But we’re going to add something. Hear me out before you hang me as a heretic.

For several weeks now, we’ve been studying the Hall of Faith in Hebrews, the stories of men and women whom God found faithful. I hope it has been as rich and encouraging to you as it has been to me.  But here’s my question: did faith end with these ancient saints? Is there room for your name and mine on this list?

Maybe we haven’t built a massive boat or nearly sacrificed our children or led two million plus people out of slavery. I suspect none of us have witnessed the seas part or shouted down a stone wall or defeated your nation’s enemy with a sling and a stone. I don’t believe we’ve faced off against hungry lions or walked out of a fiery furnace. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been faithful.

If you’ve trusted God in hard circumstances, you’ve been faithful. If you endured insults for being a Christian, you have been faithful. If you have resisted temptation or been truthful when a lie would have been easier, you have been faithful. If you’ve wept on your knees and got up and pressed on, you, my friend, have been faithful. If you’ve been gentle in the face of anger or loved the one who hated you, or been patient with the grown kid who keeps failing over and over, you have been faithful. If you’ve kept at your calling, even if no one else notices, you are faithful. If you’ve walked into unknown territory because God said go, if you’ve gone the extra mile (or several miles) – you’ve been faithful. If you have looked into an empty pantry or an empty gas tank and said, “God I will trust you to provide” – there’s no doubt you are faithful. If you’ve gotten up early to spend time in the Word and prayer – you have been faithful.

I want you to do something this morning. Open up your Bible to the end of Hebrews 11 and write (yes, it’s okay to write in your Bible) “By faith (your name) . . . ” then ask Him how you have been faithful and how you can be even more so. Beloved, it’s time to add our names to the Hall of Faith and continue the legacy of God’s faithful people.

Hebrews: Extraordinary Faith

God has moved and worked in my life for many years now and I don’t think He’s ever done anything “normal.” He doesn’t follow conventional wisdom, doesn’t act according to my expectations, resists my good advice, and doesn’t even obey His own laws of nature. But I’m not the first person to witness His extraordinary ways – and I doubt I will be the last. The writer of Hebrews highlighted two instances in the Scriptures.

“By faith, the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned” (Heb 11:29). The Israelites were trapped. The sea blocked their way forward and Pharaoh and his army pinned them in from behind. They faced either drowning or defeat. The Lord had But the Lord knew right where they were and exactly what was happening. And He had a plan. A strong wind blew across the sea and the waters parted. Picture old men tapping their walking sticks on the sea bed expecting mud and marveling at the dry ground beneath their feet.  Watch curious children poking their fingers into the side walls of water, as bewildered fish watch the strange creatures passing by. See Mothers and grandmothers pulling youngsters back from those walls and scooping up little ones to get quickly across. As the people stepped onto the shore and watched the sea swallow up their enemies, I’m sure they shook their heads in amazement (Exodus 14).

“By faith, the walls of Jericho fell, after the people had marched around them for seven days” (v. 30). Joshua led the people toward Jericho when the “Commander of the army of the Lord” came to him with the strangest battle plan in history. But he followed it to a T. For six days the entire nation walked silently outside the walls of the city as the priests blew the trumpets. On the seventh day, they marched again and then the command was given to SHOUT – and the walls came tumbling down (Joshua 6).

It had to take some extraordinary faith to step out onto the riverbed where the water once flowed or to walk silently around the city walls, trusting that they will fall. The same kind of faith it takes to trust God in the everyday trials and struggles of life you face today. You can have that same faith because you have the same God. Walk through Beloved. March on. Their God proved faithful. And so will yours.

Hebrews: The Blood of the Lamb

As a Christian, I am fascinated by the history of Israel and the people of the Jewish faith – after all my Savior was a Jew. Every person God used in Israel’s history has an important story to tell. Like the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the great kings, David and Solomon. And don’t forget the rescuer of the Hebrew people. Every Jewish person knows the story of Moses. Christians who want to know the Lord better should too because he was a “type” of Christ, an early example of Jesus and His ministry. Maybe that’s why the writer of Hebrews devoted so much of “the Hall of Faith” to telling his story.

One point of Moses’ story that most parallels Jesus is in the Passover – an eight-day festival that celebrates the Jews’ escape from Egypt. It especially remembers the protection of the Lord from the tenth plague when God sent the death angel to every house in the land, and every firstborn son was slain – unless the mark was present. This is where Moses stood tall. “By faith, he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel” (Heb 11:28). It’s not just a dramatic story for Cecil B. DeMille’s movie. It is the most powerful, important truth in human history: personal deliverance only comes through the blood of the Lamb.

The Passover (pesach) lamb, a spotless, yearling, was slain and the blood was applied to “the sides and tops of the door frames of the houses” (Ex 12:7). When the “destroyer of the firstborn” went through Egypt, he “passed over” the Hebrews’ homes where the blood was applied. Consider the placement of the blood – on the top and sides of the door frame. Think about the cross where Jesus’ bloodied head and hands were positioned. The blood on the door frames foretold the blood of Jesus – the Lamb of God – on the cross.

What does all this mean for you? It means that if you have been covered by that blood, you are spared the condemnation due all sinful people. Moses had faith that the blood of the paschal lamb was enough to save the people. You and I can have faith that the blood of Jesus is enough to save us. God has made the way through the blood of the Lamb. He did it for His people. He did it for you, Beloved.

God is With You

The Lord God told Abram (Abraham) “I will bless you . . .” (Gen 12:2) and at first glance, we see that God made Abram a wealthy man with “livestock, silver, and gold” (13:2).  So much so that he and his nephew, Lot, had to part ways because the land could not support them both (v. 6). That’s a lot of blessing! But the real blessing of God is found a couple of pages over. “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Gen. 15:1). The greatest blessing God gave Abram was Himself.  The more I read the Bible the more I’ve discovered that the blessing God desires most to give us is the same.

To Moses, who questioned his ability to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, God said “I will be with you” (Ex 3:12). To Joshua, as he prepared to lead them into the Promised Land, “Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God goes with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). To Gideon, “The Lord is with you mighty warrior” (Judges 6:12). To the disciples Jesus said, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:20). And when Paul was in prison, the Lord Jesus Himself “stood near” him and gave him strength (Acts 23:11). And Jesus promised that He was returning to heaven to “prepare a place for you . . . that you may always be where I am” (John 14:2-3). Forever.

But God’s presence is not just relegated to the past. Jesus promised His own Spirit would dwell in His followers so that His presence would never leave them (John 14:16-17).  That means when you accept Christ, you are given His Spirit at that very moment. The same God that was with Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, the disciples, and Paul is with you. In you. What you and I need now is an awareness of His presence. That’s my prayer for us both today, that we would be acutely sensitive to the Spirit, keenly attuned to His voice and His leading. The most comforting words in Scripture are not, “it’s all gonna be okay,” but “I am with you.”

Hebrews: Perseverance

I didn’t come from wealthy folks so there wasn’t any inheritance for me or my brothers. But I do have some treasures that were passed along to me like some of my dad’s military memorabilia and my most precious possession – my mom’s Bible with notes in her handwriting. I also “inherited” bags and bags of fabric, much of it leftover scraps from clothes my Mom made us when we were kids. One thing she and I have in common is our refusal to give up on half-done craft projects. Notice I didn’t say we finished them, we just tucked them away to “come back to later.” I have boxes now of hers and my own.

The Bible has a lot to say about not giving up but I don’t think that is what Scripture means. The writer of Hebrews said that Moses “persevered” in his calling to rescue the Hebrew people out of slavery (Heb 11:17).  Remember that this letter is written to Hebrew Christians who are facing extreme persecution for their faith. Every one of them knew the story of Moses and the exodus out of Egypt. They knew that Moses had repeatedly gone before Pharaoh to demand the release of the Jews and he had refused. He made ten visits to Pharaoh – each more contentious than the last. But Moses persisted. Why? Because He had God’s name and promise. God had revealed Himself to Moses as “The Lord” and promised on that very name to deliver the people out of their misery. (Ex 3:15-17). Through all of the trouble that Pharaoh caused, God’s name and promise continued to give Moses strength.

That’s what the word “persevere” means – a strong, steadfast assurance that fuels endurance. It also means a word we often steer clear of. Patience. You’ve probably been told you should never pray for patience because the way to get it is through hardships, but Moses proved that the way to patience and perseverance is “by faith” in the name and the promise of the Lord.

When God calls you to a task, that calling comes with His promise to finish the work. Paul said, “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (1Thess 1:24). His calling and His promise rest on His Name. So can you, Beloved.

Hebrews: The Voice of God

Joy rediscovered her toy radio last week. I bought it for her when she was about a year old to have something to play with on the drive to and from her nanny. When I first gave it to her she kept turning it over and over like she was looking for something. She turned to me with a puzzled expression and said, “Where da moosic?” Because she loved to watch kids’ music videos on TV, she thought she should be able to see the moosic as well as hear it.

The writer of Hebrews highlighted one of the most famous events in the Bible in retelling Moses’ story. “By faith, he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw Him who is invisible” (Heb 11:27). While Moses was in Midian, tending his father-in-law’s flock saw a bush on fire. Not so uncommon in the dry, hot desert. What caught his attention was that the blazing bush was not consumed by the flames. As he went closer to investigate, he heard a voice coming from the bush – calling his name! I would have taken off for the hills, but Moses answered, “Here I am.” And his whole life changed from that moment on.

Of course, you know that it was the voice of the Lord God speaking and He called Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of bondage. And Moses obeyed. Well, he argued a bit first, then he obeyed. He went into Egypt where he had been a wanted man, confronted Pharaoh (and made him very angry), and convinced two million plus Jews to follow him to freedom. All because of a voice that spoke to him out of a burning bush.

God speaks to me. No, I haven’t heard audible voices, but He speaks to me every day through His Word. I trust what I read in the Bible as the authoritative, infallible, perfect voice of the Lord God. And I haven’t seen any burning bushes, but I often feel a burning in my heart over a Scripture – a sense of knowing that He is speaking directly to me. I’ve never seen Him, but I hear Him, and I strive to obey. God is speaking to you too, Beloved. Just open His Book and listen with your heart. You’ll hear His voice. By faith.

Hebrews: Life Lessons with Moses

I loved growing up a military brat but I secretly wished my family had been southern socialites. The schoolmates I most admired had that genteel southern way about them I longed for. I always thought my life would have been so different if I had grown up like them.

The writer of Hebrews noted that Moses had grown up in the royal palace in Egypt having been adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (you know baby Moses in the basket floating down the Nile). He enjoyed all the benefits it offered. Wealth. Opulence. Education. Power. But he turned it all down to be obedient to the Lord and return to his Hebrew roots. The writer said, “By faith, Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time” (Heb 11:24-25).

The people of God – the Hebrews – were slaves in Egypt. Despite his Egyptian upbringing, Moses knew he was a Hebrew. His physical appearance gave him away. And no doubt, when Pharaoh’s daughter divinely chose Moses’ biological mother Jochebed to nurture him, he heard the story of his rescue out of the river. His first forty years were spent serving in the Egyptian bureaucracy. But he never forgot who he was. He made a life-altering decision to side with his people against their Egyptian taskmasters.

Some would say that Moses threw it all away but the truth is it was all preparation for God’s call. He learned skills in his Egyptian household – like leadership and diplomacy – that he could not have learned as a Hebrew slave that would benefit him as he led God’s people to freedom. I understand now that my childhood – as ugly as it was – prepared me for ministry. Abuse taught me to be compassionate and caring to hurting people. Loneliness pushed me toward books and a love for words that is reflected in what you’re reading right now. Even moving around every few years taught me how to adapt to change – a constant in my life.

Most of all, my life’s struggles make me long for the perfection of heaven. Moses understood. “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (v. 26). I am too. Beloved, God never wastes the experiences of your life, even – especially – the hard things.