Hebrews: Turn Around

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“Turn around. Don’t drown.” “Turn back. Bridge out.” Road signs tell the driver one thing: you need to reverse course. You need to change your direction. You are on a dangerous path. They are signs we would do well to heed. The Bible also puts up signs that call us to make a change in the way we are going. Scripture calls it “repentance” and we would also do well to heed these warnings.

The writer of Hebrews focuses on one aspect of repentance in his discussion of elementary teachings: “Repentance from acts that lead to death” (6:1) Remember that he has been talking to “lazy” believers who are unwilling to grow in the matters of the faith. They are content with surface knowledge – just enough to make sure they escape hell. You know, fire insurance.  Our author says that this is a foundational truth. I wonder if 21st-century Christians understand it at all.

What is repentance? Paul described it like this: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret . . .” (2 Corinthians 7:10). It is a spiritual and moral change of attitude toward God which turns an individual from sin to God. It is recognizing the dangerous road we are on, how we got on it, and turning back to God. Repentance must have both sorrow and turning. We are often sorry for our behavior (well, let’s be honest, we’re sorry we got caught), but that doesn’t mean we turn back to God.  The Prodigal Son is the perfect expression of repentance.

So what does “acts that lead to death” mean? Other translations may say, “dead works.” This is referring to anything man does in an attempt to save himself. Remember that the readers were largely Jewish, and Judaism had 613 commandments – expounded from the original ten commandments that God had given Moses. These – including circumcision – were the Jew’s “gateway” to salvation. Do all the right things in all the right ways and you will be right before God. The problem was, no one could be right before God even if they followed every jot and tittle of those 613 rules. In the same way, non-Jews cannot be right with God by being “good enough.” Because we never will be.  

Salvation has never been about what we do or don’t do. It is always and only about the work that Jesus has done on the cross. Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Christus. Grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Beloved, it’s not too late to turn around. God will always welcome repentant sinners home.

Why Doesn’t the World Want Jesus?

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I’m mystified as to why people don’t want Jesus. I mean, who doesn’t want joy, peace, hope, and eternal life? Why do people reject the love and grace of God? Why do they refuse to receive the beautiful message of the Gospel? It makes no sense.

Then I read in Exodus, about the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt. When Moses and Aaron delivered the Lord’s message: “Let my people go” (Ex 5:1), Pharaoh instead made their work even harder. Moses tried to encourage the Israelites, telling them that God would set them free from their bondage, give them a land of their own, and most importantly, He would be their God. The Scripture says, “They did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage” (Ex 6:9).
Why does the world reject God? Because they are under bondage to Satan. They have no hope because they are over-burdened by a cruel taskmaster. They don’t understand the beauty of God’s offer because their minds are numbed by discouragement from the devil. Matthew said, “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36).   Jesus saw the hopelessness of the people and He felt great pity. Not hate, not disgust, not judgment. He felt the weight of their bondage and it broke His heart.
Maybe – just a thought here – but maybe Jesus is showing us the better way to reach the lost world. Maybe compassion rather than pointing fingers is the way to lead people to Christ. I’m not talking about the world’s humanitarian efforts to ease suffering, although caring for physical needs must be part of our ministry in the world. I  am talking about the love of God that cares about the body and the eternal soul. I’m talking about the kind of compassion that gives a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name (Matthew 10:42). Because the lost world is under bondage and they cannot even envision freedom.  Satan continually tells them how helpless they are and how hopeless their situation is. Genuine Christian compassion can loosen their chains so God’s mercy can set them free.

Will you be His conduit of love and grace so that heavy hearts may be open to life without chains?  It was His compassion that saved you, Beloved, will you share that compassion so others might be saved too?

Step-By-Step

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“Okay God, what’s the plan?”  It’s human nature, isn’t it? We want to have the full strategy laid out before us before we start.  And that’s a good thing in certain situations. No builder would begin a house without a complete set of blueprints – down to the location of every wall socket and light switch.  A smart business proposal outlines a long-term plan and prospectus for the success of a project.  We set out a plan for the day, the week, the month, and the year – and even for years ahead, even though we don’t know how things will turn out in the end.  Still, we want the whole picture.

But God doesn’t give us the whole picture.  He gives us one step at a time, just as He did for the prophet Samuel.  “The Lord said, ‘Take a heifer with you and say, “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.”  Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do.’ ”  (1 Samuel 16:2,3)

He told the prophet to go to Bethlehem and prepare to make a sacrifice with Jesse and his sons.  That’s it.   “Do step one and I will show you step two.” 

God delights in obedience – the kind that doesn’t wait for the full plan but willingly acts on each step as it’s given.  I don’t know of anyone in the Bible – except Jesus – who knew details of God’s plan from beginning to end.  God doesn’t expect you to complete the whole task in one grand push; He wants you to do the one thing He told you and wait for the next instruction.  And He will not give you the next step until you are obedient to the first one. Besides, if you knew the whole plan you would a) be completely overwhelmed and/or b) set off doing things your own way which results in c) a mess.

Beloved, God has a plan – a very good plan, but it requires your daily, step-by-step obedience.  You can trust Him – He will not forget you or leave you stranded.  He will see you all the way through.  Just determine to obey what you know to do – the rest will come – right on time and with the strength you need.  Step by step by step.

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.

Rock the Boat!

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When I read in the Scriptures about the early church, I’m jealous. They had such an incredible experience witnessing “many wonders and miraculous signs” (Acts 2:43).  I long for the sense of purpose and community that they had: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (v.42). They met daily and “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God (v. 46). And He blessed them greatly: “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47). What an exciting, fulfilling time to “belong to the Way” (9:2). Even the community outside of the faith appreciated them, “they enjoyed the favor of all the people” (47).

Well maybe not everyone.

After healing a man who had been crippled from birth, Peter and John proclaimed the gospel to the astonished crowd.  A great number of people believed and that angered the Jewish authorities. They questioned the apostles who then boldly proclaimed the name of Jesus to them. They commanded Peter and John to stop teaching in His name. Their response? “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (4:19-20). Later they arrested and flogged them. Remarkably, they rejoiced at their mistreatment “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (5:17-41)

How very different from our modern, western culture, where religion is regarded as a personal preference and not a life-giving entity. In the US the battle cry is “separation of church and state,” and in our workplaces, schools, the public square, even among our peers, we are told to keep our religion to ourselves. Unlike the bold apostles, we do it because we don’t want to rock the boat. But true Christianity is all-or-nothing. It spills over into every aspect of our lives because “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” We’ll gladly take the scorn of the world for the Name. Besides, it’s only going to get worse, not better. Beloved, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, it’s time to not only rock the boat but get out of it and walk on the water.

Hebrews: Jesus Understands

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Joy helping Nana make “pankins”

Every Saturday Joy and I make “pankins” (pancakes) for breakfast. She loves to dump all the ingredients into the bowl and “crush” the eggs” then stir the batter. It is our tradition and I love it probably more than she does. I handle the skillet, which is positioned out of her reach, always telling her, “Don’t touch the skillet, it’s very hot. It will hurt you.” This past Saturday, she discovered that for herself. Before I could stop her, she stretched across the counter and barely touched the edge of the skillet. She didn’t have a mark on her fingers but it sure scared her. Later, watching me clean up, she said, “Careful Nana, dat skillet is hot.” I’m pretty sure I won’t have to tell her again not to touch it.

The writer of Hebrews, in discussing Jesus’ final hours, said “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from what He suffered and, once made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him . . .” (5:8). Just as we saw back in 2:10, Jesus was, is, and will forever be the perfect Son of God. So why would the Scriptures say He had to “learn obedience” – wasn’t He already obedient? Absolutely. He didn’t learn obedience for His sake. He learned it for ours.

Remember, the author has been building a case that Jesus is a worthy, compassionate high priest who can sympathize with us in all of our human struggles. He had previously said that “He had to be made like His brothers (us) in every way” (2:17). Including obedience. He didn’t need to learn obedience to keep him from the harsh consequences of disobedience like my granddaughter learned. No, it was to give us a high priest we could identify with. Perfect people are not much help to imperfect folks like you and me. His struggle to submit to the Father’s plan gives us the confidence to call out for His help when we are in the same battle. The best high priest is the one who can help us out of His own experience.

Beloved, what is that thing you’re clinging to that is so hard to submit to God? What has God called you to that you’re not sure you’re willing to do? Jesus understands. He can help you be obedient. He’s not so far above you that you can’t reach Him. He’s right there in the garden, on His knees.

Hebrews: When God Says “No.”

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“We’re going to pray, and God will give us the funds for this new building,” the preacher bellowed, and the crowd, whipped into a frenzy shouted their agreement. “Yes!” “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” I, however, did not. The woman beside me said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you believe God can do it?” “Oh, I believe God can do it, I just don’t believe He’s obligated to do it.”  She looked at me like I had two heads and turned her back to me. Please don’t misunderstand me, I absolutely believe that God answers prayers – He’s answered more than a few of mine recently.  But some of my prayers are still hanging, and for some of my prayers, the answer was “No.” God knew better. God always answers according to what He knows is better – what fits His good, pleasing, and perfect will (Romans 12:2). Sometimes that means we don’t get what we pray for. Even Jesus got a “No” from His Father.

In our last Hebrews devotional, I left you in the Garden of Gethsemane, listening to Jesus plead with His Father, “Take this cup from me . . .” Let’s leave quietly and head back to Hebrews 5 to see how it came out. The writer said, “He was heard.” Jesus’ word did not fall to the ground nor fall on deaf ears. His Father heard His prayers and pleading. So Jesus got what He wanted, right? After all, the Father listened to His Son “because of His reverent submission” (v.7b). Yet you know the rest of the story. God said “No” to Jesus. And He knew He would – the eternal fate of the entire human race hung in the balance. If God had saved Jesus from the cross, you and I would be lost forever.

What do we do with those “Nos?” The same thing Jesus did. “He learned obedience from what He suffered,” (v. 8a). We accept the “No” as coming from the heart of our loving, gracious, all-knowing Father and submit to Him in obedience without grumbling. Are we disappointed? Sure – and we can take that disappointment right back to Him and say, “I’m surrendering this to You because I trust You, but my heart is hurting.” God honors honesty and “He heals the brokenhearted” (Psalm 147:3).  Whether the answer is “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait,” you can trust the heart of your Father, Beloved. It’s the same heart that said “No” to His Son so that He could say “Yes” to you.

Hebrews: Jesus – The Forever High Priest

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I used to be so star-struck when I was younger. I bought every magazine that would tell me all about my favorite singers and actors. I watched every award show and marveled at the beautiful people. Then I grew up. I began to see how egotistical these stars were. I lost interest in the glory-hogs of the entertainment world. Those who seek fame and notice will gladly sell their soul to get it.  I wish we could say that preachers and people in ministry are immune to the lure of fame, but we know that’s not the case.

In our last Hebrews devotional, we discussed the calling of the priestly line of Levi and especially of the high priest. The author said, “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God” (5:4). The office of the high priest became increasingly political as foreign rulers appointed high priests who would best serve their purposes. But Jesus was called to the position.  “So Christ did not take upon Himself the glory of becoming a high priest” (v. 5). Jesus didn’t go after the position of the high priest out of ego or political ideology, but, in keeping with the nature of the role, out of humility and obedience. The author quoted a verse from the Psalms: “You are my Son, today I have become your Father” (v. 5b; also Psalm 2:7). This is a reference to the resurrection of Jesus which authenticated His claim to be the Son of God. He also identified Jesus as “a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (v. 6; also Psalm 110:4). Melchizedek was an Old Testament king and priest who appeared in the account of Abraham in Genesis 14:18-20. We’ll dig into his story in chapter 7, but the point is that Jesus, like Melchizedek, was appointed to the priesthood – and in Jesus’ case anointed as a high priest by God Himself. The high priest served until his death – but Jesus is alive forever so His priesthood lives on eternally. That means in His role as high priest He forever advocates for us before the Father (1 John 2:1). I find a lot of comfort in that because I am very human in my weaknesses and failures.

Beloved, you are never without your great high priest. When you fall, Jesus leans over to the Father, shows Him the scars on His hands, and says, “She’s covered by my blood.” I believe that makes the Father smile.

Hebrews: How Can Jesus Understand My Temptation?

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I have a hard time taking advice from perfect people. That’s one thing you’ll never have to worry about with me. I am pretty transparent about my life, my past, my struggles, and my failures – perhaps a little too transparent – but there’s a reason. I believe that if you know I have been through a struggle similar to yours, you are more likely to trust me to help.

The Bible says we have a great high priest who can help us because He understands us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). But, wait just a minute. Jesus was perfect and sinless. How can He know how I feel? Indeed – Jesus was perfectly sinless, He never failed a single time—but he was certainly pressed by temptation. Glance back at Hebrews 2:17: “[Jesus] had to be made like His brothers in every way, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest . . .” Jesus was made like us – human flesh and bones, heart and lungs that kept Him alive just like yours. He got hungry and tired just like me. He had to walk on feet just like His disciples. He had normal bodily functions. He had emotions – anger, joy, and sadness. And He felt the weight of temptation. Remember the desert and the devil? Let’s join them in the wilderness (Matthew 4: 1-11).

Temptation #1 – “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Have you ever been tempted to satisfy the needs and desires of your flesh in your own way? Ever heard of porn? Ever been tempted to steal?

Temptation #2 – “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” If you are, He will send His angels to save you from harm. It was the same question that set off the first sin and satan has been using it ever since: Can you trust God?

Temptation #3 – “I will give you [the kingdoms of this world] if you will bow down and worship me.” Ever wanted more than what you’ve got? Ever entertained less-than-honest ways to get it?

Jesus understands the weight of the temptations we face because He was human just as you and I are and those temptations pressed Him even harder than they do you and me. He gave us the perfect model to handle temptation. We’ll talk about that next time.  

Ordinary People in the Hands of God

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Moses said to the Lord, ‘O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since You have spoken to Your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue’” (Exodus 4:10).

Think you have nothing to offer to God and His kingdom? You’re too young or too old (60!) or have no gifts or talents? You’re just a mom wiping dirty noses, or a regular guy at a regular job, or a college student trying to survive your classes. You’re in very good company my friend!

A young slave sat in a prison, unjustly accused of rape. But God lifted Joseph up and used him to save the founding family of Israel through whom the Savior of mankind would come.

A widow had nothing to offer God but a loyal heart. She humbly out to gather grain to feed them herself and her mother-in-law. But God interceded and Ruth became the great grandmother of God’s anointed King of Israel and part of the lineage of Jesus.

Esther had no influence in the politics of Persia – but she had courage. Because she stepped up and stepped into the King’s court, the Jewish people throughout the Persian empire were saved.

A young captive in a foreign land, Daniel had nothing of value. But he did have integrity. God used him to show His sovereignty and power to Nebuchadnezzar and Darius.

Jesus called twelve men from fishing boats and tax booths and used them to turn the entire world upside down.

Two women did what women throughout the ages have done – raised children and grandchildren. God used Lois and Eunice to shape young Timothy into the Apostle Paul’s right-hand man and true son in the faith.

You may not be in a position of importance, but you are important to the Kingdom of God. You may see yourself as small and insignificant or past your prime, and that’s just fine with Him. He likes to use the least likely people to accomplish the most amazing things. That way He gets all the glory.

If you think you have nothing of value to offer God, you’re wrong. You have yourself. That’s all He needs. He will take you and use you in the most ordinary – and yet extraordinary – ways. He’s got an important task, and you’re just the person He’s been looking for.  All you need to do, Beloved, is be available and watch Him work.