Hebrews: Outside the Camp

“We’re New Testament Christians, why are we studying the Old Testament? This stuff doesn’t apply to us anymore.” “One reason,” I answered “is because the New Testament writers used it quite a bit in their books and letters.  If we want to understand what they were saying, we need to understand their references.” That’s what we’re going to do in today’s passage.

“The high priest carried the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp” (Heb 13:11). It was Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish year. The day when the sins of the nation were atoned for. It was a day for fasting and prayer and confession. It was the day that the slate was wiped clean and the people were declared righteous – at least until they sinned again.  The high priest took the blood of the slaughtered animal into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle/Temple as a sin offering and sprinkled it on the mercy seat of the Lord. The carcass of the animal would be carried outside of the camp/city to be burned because it represented the sin of the people. Sin must not be allowed to remain among God’s holy nation.

The writer makes the new covenant connection in verse 12: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His own blood.” Jesus was the sacrificial animal. Jesus’ blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Lord. And Jesus was crucified and buried outside of the city of Jerusalem because He bore the sin of all humanity. And by His blood, those who believe and receive His atonement are made holy.

An interesting aside here is that the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus and had Him crucified at Golgotha because of His radical message. But by putting Him outside of the city proper they were unknowingly confirming that He was indeed the sacrifice for the sins of the people. Because his original audience was believing Jews, the writer urged them to “go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore,” symbolically rejecting the old ways of Judaism (v. 13).

As believers in Christ, you and I will often have to “go outside the camp” of popular opinion and cultural relevance, even within the church, to live in holiness. But we’re in good company. We’re out there with Jesus. Remember what He said: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18).

Oh, and there’s one more reason why we need to study the Old Testament, even as New Testament Christians – because Jesus is all over it and all in it. It’s worth digging into the early texts to know Him better. All of history, including the entire Bible, is His story. It’s the greatest story ever told.

Faith and Fear

If I give my mind just a little rope it will always run into the pit of anxiety and fear. I was very fearful as a child and it stuck with me all my life. “But you’re a Christian,” you say, “and you write often about not giving in to fear.” And you are correct. It’s been a hard lesson for me, and I don’t always get it right, but God has revealed something to me in His Word and I need to pass it on to you.  Please take a moment to read Genesis 32:1-12.

Genesis 32:7 says Jacob was “in great fear and distress,” and with good reason. He was returning home to the brother whom he had years earlier cheated out of their father’s blessing. The brother who had sworn to kill him. The brother who was coming toward him accompanied by four hundred men. I would be in great fear and distress too. Jacob prayed to the God of His father Isaac and grandfather Abraham saying, “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me” (v. 11). Then he immediately follows his confession of fear with a profession of faith – “But You have said, “I will surely make you prosper and make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted” (v. 12).

Do you see the pivot point? “I am afraid…” “But You have said…”(vs. 11,12). Jacob was afraid of his brother, but he trusted God and took Him at His word. “I will believe what You have said, Lord.” Notice that Jacob didn’t say, “My brother is coming after me, but I’m not afraid.” He was honest about his fear – just as I have been many times. Then he picked up his shield of faith – just as the Spirit has taught me to do, too.  David said, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Psalm 56:3). That’s a simple, yet powerful prescription for fear.

Whatever is making you anxious today, Beloved, take your fears to God in prayer. He will not condemn you for being afraid, but He will remind you of His promises and give you the peace and courage you need. Faith is the hinge on which our hearts swing between fear and hope.

Jesus in Your Shoes

All across this nation, the anti-Christian machine is working to shut out every mention of God and deny the rights of Christians to express our beliefs. Nativity scenes are banned from the public square, or equal space must be given to anti-Christian displays. The Ten Commandments are being removed from government facilities, and students in school are forbidden to give reference to their faith. Lawmakers are pushing to ban all teaching of “religious doctrine.” God is unwelcome and unwanted in this country.

But don’t miss what John said, “The One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Brothers and sisters, don’t forget that the Spirit of Christ dwells in you. Everywhere you go you take Jesus with you. So as believers, we take Jesus into the marketplace and the government sector. Students take Jesus into their school. Employees bring Jesus to work.

The Lord declared that His followers are ”the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (Matt 5:13, 14). Salt is our witness in the world. Light’s purpose is to shine in the darkness (John 1:5a). Salt is essential for life in general. It is one of the oldest and most universal food seasonings and methods of food preservation. Saltiness is one of the basic human tastes and it makes us thirsty. Here in the deep south, boiled peanuts are a favorite snack, but you’d better have a drink nearby because properly prepared boiled peanuts are very salty.  A salty Christian seasons the world with love, Joy, kindness, grace, compassion, and the good news of the gospel. They preserve the character of Christ in a tasteless culture and a properly prepared Christ-follower makes others thirsty for the Living Water.

From creation, light’s purpose is to shine in the darkness (John 1:5a). Light has power over darkness (John 1:5b) because darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. When light is introduced into the darkness, darkness no longer exists. That means you and I have power over darkness – not our own power, but Christ’s. The world is a very dark place. Evil is everywhere. But you and I have the His light to overcome evil and darkness. When we shine with His light, the darkness has no choice but to flee. And when we shine with His light every eye will be drawn – not to us – but to the Source of the Light.  

Sure, they can ban public displays of Christianity, but by your presence as a Christian, Beloved, Jesus still walks through this nation – in your shoes.

For the Name of Jesus

She looked at me with disgust, “Keep that stuff to yourself” she snarled. “God bless you!” I called out to her as she stormed away. I was young in my faith and bold – maybe brazen is the better word. I was sitting in the food court of the local mall with a friend who was giving witness to God’s work in her family. I raised my hands and shouted, “Wooo! Praise God!” That’s when the woman at the next table picked up her bags and launched her bomb at me. I wasn’t fazed. In fact, I wore it as a badge of honor. I counted it as “religious persecution,” and for the time and the culture, I suppose it was.

But what I called persecution was not even a slap on the wrist compared to believers in China, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Nigeria, Cuba, and dozen more. There the threats are not merely verbal but physical, economic, and relational, and often end in violence and death. I dare say their faith has been forged in the fire. Just as the apostles’ was.

Even after being ordered to stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus, His followers didn’t quit. The religious leaders were filled with jealousy and ordered them to be arrested (Acts 5:17-18). They responded by escaping jail with the help of an angel who said, “Go, stand in the temple courts and tell the people the full message of this new life” (v. 20). After being brought again before the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of the Jews – they declared, “We must obey God rather than men!” (v. 29). In return they were flogged and the Bible says they “left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (v. 41).

In our modern, western culture, religion is regarded as a personal preference, not a life-giving entity.  It is kept private and should not be allowed to spill over onto others.  In schools, workplaces, among our peers, and even in the food court at the mall we are told to keep our religion to ourselves, or “save that stuff for church.”  And we do because we don’t want to rock the boat.  But true Christianity – the kind that changes the world – is all-or-nothing. Beloved, it’s time for you and me to not only rock the boat but get out of it and walk on the water.

When I Stand Before Jesus

I wrote this several years ago, and as I was reading this passage this morning, the Holy Spirit revealed something new to me (which is why we read the Scriptures over and over and over – there’s always something new to learn.)

I have always been drawn to the story of the woman caught in adultery (see John 8:1-11), mostly because I can see myself in two of the main characters.  So many times I am part of the judgmental crowd.  Like the religious leaders, I catch someone and call them out, accusing them and looking on with scorn.  Oh, I’m never obvious about it mind you – it’s all done in my head – but I might as well have drug them before the church because I’ve declared them guilty.  Yet, I have also been the woman, the sinner caught in the act standing before Jesus shamed and ashamed.  I know I am guilty as I stand clutching my sheet of self-reproach, trying to cover my nakedness and my sin.

Here is where something new came to me. I initially said that Jesus sees me in both roles and reminds me of my own sinfulness as He calls me to drop my rock of condemnation. But I realized that I was wrong.  Because I am washed in His blood, my sin has been removed – “As far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12) never to be remembered again. He will never throw my sin back in my face. He may gently chastise me for my judgmental attitude, but He does not remind me of my past transgressions because He has forgotten them. That’s huge to me, because I have an enemy who loves to taunt me with my past – and I have a past that gives him lots of ammunition. But Jesus steps in with His scars and declares me forgiven and free.

After He turned her accusers away, Jesus told the woman He did not condemn her. He didn’t even condemn her accusers. He condemns no one.  Paul said that He is the only one who rightly could, but He doesn’t (Rom 8:34). Instead, He sacrificed Himself to take away the condemnation our sin has heaped on us. Yes, sometimes you and I are both the accused and the accuser, but oh, to be like the One who pours out grace and mercy to all who believe. Lord, help me to be more like you and less like me.

Dig a Ditch

The nation of Moab was on the attack. The armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom set out to fight Moab in the desert. After a week of marching, they ran out of water – a deadly thing to face in a desert. Jehoshaphat, the king of Israel turned to God’s prophet Elisha for the Word of the Lord. “This is what the Lord says: ‘Make this valley full of ditches’” (2 Kings 3:16). Jehoshaphat assumed God was going to send rain to fill the ditches and provide water. Not so. Elisha said, “You will see neither wind nor rain, yet this valley will be filled with water” (v. 17). Water is going to magically appear in the desert? Right! The prophet answered, “This is an easy thing in the eyes of the Lord” (v. 18). Not only will God provide water for Israel, but “He will also hand Moab over to you” (v. 19). The armies obeyed and set to digging. In the morning the ditches were flowing with water! The army and the animals were refreshed and ready to press on.

But remember God’s second promise? When the Moabite army began to take up their battle positions in the early morning, the rising sun was shining on the water. “To the Moabites, the water looked red like blood” and they assumed that the armies had turned on one another and slaughtered each other. Their battle plan changed – “To the plunder, Moab!” (v. 23). But Moab walked right into the revitalized armies, and the few that survived turned tail and ran.

I confess I sat down to write with a heavy heart this morning. I am facing some tough things right now. I feel the press of the enemy against me. I feel his hot, nasty breath on the back of my neck. I was flipping through my Bible for inspiration and God stopped me here on this page. This is what He is speaking to me right now – and to you. “Yes, the enemy has put a bullseye on you, but I will help you. Watch Me easily do what is too hard for you. Dig a ditch and prepare to receive My blessing. Watch Me use that blessing to overthrow your enemy.”

I don’t know what the enemy has up his evil sleeve against you. But I know Who has your back. Beloved, dig a ditch.

Hebrews: Kill That Sin!

Last week as I was driving I spied something in the road up ahead. When I got closer I realized it was a vulture enjoying his road kill. I thought he would fly away when I got closer but all he did was take two hops to the other side of the road until I passed by and then he hopped back to his feast. I guess his appetite was greater than his sense of danger. Or he was just a fool.

The writer of Hebrews warned them about the dangers of ignoring the gospel, rejecting Jesus, and falling into apostasy and unbelief. Now he warns them about becoming lax about sin. He said, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). The fight against sin is a life-long struggle. We cannot let our guard down, even for a moment. We must remain diligent and ready for battle. Armor on. Sword and shield in hand.

In context, the writer was speaking against the sin of apostasy, of walking away from Jesus. His readers were facing persecution and even death for their faith in Christ. Many would sin by turning away from Christianity. They chose not to struggle with the temptation of apostasy, they just abandoned Jesus. They loved their lives more than they loved the Lord. But most of us (at least in the west) do not face the prospect of death for being a Christian – yet. But we do face sinful desires.

And let’s be honest. We don’t really struggle with our sin, do we? Oh, we may give a wimpy word of protest, but we still give in to it more often than we want to admit.  We call it a “stronghold” a “lifestyle” or even a “right.” David called it cherishing sin in our hearts (Ps 66:18). We also don’t look for “the way out” that God provides, because we don’t want to escape it (1 Corinthians 10:13).  Like the vulture on the road, we want to stay close by. And that’s dangerous. Deadly even.

It is time to be brutally honest about your pet sin.  It is not your friend.  Paul said we must, “put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” (Col 3:5). You need to kill it, Beloved, before it kills you.

Hebrews: The Joy of the Cross

I always thought my mom was super-human. She could power through any sickness and keep going and going and going. Even when she was undergoing cancer treatments. I hardly slowed her down – until the end. Either she had an uncommon strength – or she was a mom.

I always imagined Jesus facing the cross with His divine strength in full force. Surely the Son of God just shut out the pain and powered through. But the writer of Hebrews refutes that thought. He said that Jesus, “for the Joy set before Him,  endured the cross, scorning its shame . . .” (Heb 12:2) Endurance implies difficulty. Jesus endured the difficulty of the cross. It was all very real to Him. He felt the nails rip through His flesh, crush His bones, and tear His veins open. He felt the sharp points of the thorns dig deeply into His head. He felt the whip shred the skin on His back. His shoulders screamed with firey pain every time He took a breath. Jesus felt it all. He suffered.

He also suffered shame. The cross was a disgraceful way to die in the first century. But the shame that Jesus endured wasn’t personal embarrassment; the writer said that He “scored the shame” of the cross. He didn’t consider it as humiliation, though it was. He endured the cross with Joy because His suffering meant our freedom. The shame He experienced was bearing all the sins of all mankind throughout all the ages. Adam’s sin. Eve’s sin. Cain’s sin. David’s sin. Hitler’s sin. My sin. Your sin. It was the shame of the Father’s face turning away from the Son because He can not look on sin.

But I found something mind-blowing when I dug into the words used in this verse. Jesus endured it all. But He didn’t have to. The secondary meaning of the word “endure” means “to remain, to not flee.” Jesus could have ditched the cross and escaped the physical, emotional, and spiritual agony. Then I understood His words when He was arrested: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:53). Jesus could have escaped it all but He stayed. He suffered. He died. Why? To save you, Beloved.  The Joy set before Him was seeing your face in heaven. That’s how much He loves you.

All In

A hen and a pig were looking at the farmer’s breakfast plate, with toast, grits, eggs, and bacon. The hen strutted around saying, “Look at the hen’s contribution to this fine breakfast – see those eggs there on the plate!” The pig looked at the hen and said, “You hens make a contribution, but for us pigs, it’s an all-or-nothing commitment.”

“Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). Jesus has very high expectations for His followers. He doesn’t just want contributors, he wants people who will surrender it all to Him. People who will Joyfully “lose their life” for the Kingdom.

What does that really mean? When I study His Word – and look at the world – I realize that Jesus meant exactly what he said. I researched the words Matthew recorded and He said that those who deny Him are more concerned with keeping their earthly lives safe and sound and free from suffering and danger than they are with His Kingdom. (Have you noticed a “suffering” theme in my devotionals lately? That’s not my choice. I believe that God is preparing us for something.) And the life we lose – or destroy according to the Greek – is our souls. When we chose our lives over the Kingdom of God we throw away eternal life with Christ in heaven.

I’ve always heard to lose your life for Christ’s sake means letting go of everything that the world tells us life is all about. Certainly, it’s recognizing that whatever reward this temporal life offers – pleasure, fame, wealth, power, status, or intellect – cannot compare with all Christ offers. But losing our life literally means being willing to die for His Kingdom. We have the examples of the apostles and the martyrs of the faith who died with the name of Jesus on their lips. It’s not only about denying worldly attractions, but it’s being ready to face lions and swords and all manner of suffering – even death. It is trading the small sphere of this world for the much bigger eternal Kingdom of God. So I ask you, Beloved, are you making a contribution to the Kingdom of God or are you all in?

Surrounded

One of my favorite Bible accounts is in 2 Kings 6. The prophet Elisha and his aide were pinned down by the Aramean army. Through God’s secret wisdom, Elisha had been giving away Aram’s location to the king of Israel, giving Israel a decided advantage in the war. The Arameans had surrounded the city and were preparing to rush in and capture Elisha. The prophet’s aide saw the army with its horses and chariots and soldiers and cried to his master “O my Lord, what shall we do?” (v. 15).

Ever been there? Me too. The money won’t stretch. The doctor said there’s nothing more he can do. You just got laid off. You watch your spouse walk away. You hand your rent money over to the mechanic. Your kids are hungry and your pantry is empty. “Oh my God, what am I going to do?”

I’ve walked with God long enough to know that that’s the heart of anxiety: What am I going to do? Like it’s all on your shoulders. Child of God it’s not. Let me suggest a different question: “Oh, my God, what are You going to do?”

Elisha told his aide, “Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (v. 16). Then he called on the Lord to give the man spiritual eyes to see. “The Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (v. 17). He was seeing the army of the Lord that had encircled Elisha and stood between him and the enemy. The man of God – and his aide – were completely safe and secure.

God has promised to care for you – but it requires spiritual eyes to see Him surrounding you. Listen to His own Words: Deuteronomy 31:8 says “The Lord Himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” Isaiah 52:12 says “The God of Israel will be your rear guard.” Psalm 32:10 says, “The Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the man [or woman] who trusts in Him.” Beloved, whatever you are facing right now, your Heavenly Father is there with you, before you, behind you, and all around you. Just open your eyes.