The King is Coming!

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In the first-century world, before a king came to visit one of his cities, the call would go out to prepare the roads on his path – to make the way level and straight and free from any possible danger. When God prepares a people for a great move on His part, He always calls them to make themselves ready by repentance – confessing and turning away from sin, and consecration – setting oneself apart exclusively for Him. “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy” (Lev 11:44).  Before Jesus began His earthly ministry John the Baptist was sent to “Prepare the way for the Lord, [to] make straight paths for him” (Mark 1:3).   John was calling for the people to prepare their hearts for the Lord by repentance and consecration. He declared a clear warning of the coming wrath of God – but you might be surprised to know his comments were aimed directly at the “religious leaders.” 

Christians have pleaded with God for a great move of His Spirit in the world.  We want Him to “do amazing things among us.”  But are we hearing the call to prepare the way for Him?  Are we heeding the call for repentance?  Am I carefully examining my life for habits, desires, laziness, distractions, and selfishness that serve as a quiet rebellion against God?  Are our lives straight paths for the King? Are we consecrating ourselves unto the Lord?  Are you willing to let go of everything that draws your heart away?  Are you getting rid of the things that compromise your testimony and drag you into the world?  What T.V. shows, movies, music, magazines, and websites need to go to make your heart ready for the Lord?  What attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, rights, and worldly influences do I need to turn from in order to be used for the Kingdom of God?

I believe God is getting ready to do a great work in the world.  But it will require His people to will set everything aside and prepare the way.   That means wholehearted devotion to Christ and an unwillingness to compromise with the world.  I also believe a great battle is coming in this nation; the lines have already been drawn in our culture and our courts.  Only people with pure, consecrated hearts will be able to stand firm in the face of it.   Beloved, how will you get ready?

Hebrews: The Day of Atonement

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“Keep out!” I stood there with my hands on my hips staring at the signs on my brothers’ fort. “Boys only!”  I yelled into the curtained doorway, “I don’t want to go in your fort – it should say ‘Stupid boys only!’”  But the truth is I did. I wanted to go in just because they said I couldn’t. I wanted to go in to show them they were not better than me and they couldn’t shut me out.  But mama said “No. Give the boys their space.” Fine. It was probably full of stupid boy stuff anyway. 

In the center of the people of Israel stood an elaborate tent – a tabernacle, the dwelling place of the Lord God. Not just anyone could enter the tabernacle. Only “the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry” (Heb 9:6). Within the tabernacle was another space, and it was even more exclusive than the outer space. “Only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year” (v. 7a). There might as well have been signs saying, “Keep out!” “High Priest only!” Why so particular about who entered and when? Because this was the Holy of Holies, the place where the Lord God dwelt. Admittance was strictly limited and access carried great responsibility. The writer of Hebrews noted that when the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement he was “never without blood which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (v. 7b). It was a ritual that had to be followed to the letter with the high priest bathing and putting on his holy garments, presenting the blood of animals first for himself and then again for the sins of the community (see Leviticus 16). The people were declared clean for another year, but they were still kept out of God’s presence. Why? Because, while the sins were atoned for by the blood of the sacrifices, the guilt of their sin remained.  They would never have “a clear conscience.” The memory of their sin would always be with them, like a stain that could never be washed away and no one can enter God’s presence with stains. Something more was needed, something that could do what the blood of goats and bulls could not – make men clean enough for God.

Hebrews: Examing the Hard Stuff

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And so we come, in our study of Hebrews, to one of the hardest passages in the Bible. Let me remind you where we are in this message: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Hebrews 6:4-6).

If you’re wondering where I’ve been the past two weeks, it is dealing with life issues and researching this passage. Here is what I’ve discovered: There is more confusion around these words than coherence. These are people who were never saved to begin with.  Or, they were once saved and became so hardhearted they drifted or walked away. In either case, there is no assurance of salvation and eternal life. So who’s right?   In today’s devotional, we’re going to define some terms. It’s not important that you know the original Greek words, but that you understand them as the original author did. This may be a little dry, but hang with me, we’ll put it all back together later.

Impossible: the word combination negates the power to accomplish a task. Because we know He has infallible power we can reason that the task is not impossible for God.

Once: once for all; what is done is eternally valid and never needs to be repeated.

Enlightened: to illumine; spiritually imbue with saving knowledge, to instruct, inform, teach.

Tasted: to come into existence: to prove to be – implying the partaking and enjoying of the experience.

Gift: a thing given

Shared: sharing/participating in (by context: sharing in the Holy Spirit)

Fall away: to fall beside a person or thing; to slip aside; to deviate from the right path (by context to fall away from the true faith and worship of Jehovah God).

Brought back: renew, restore; to renew that he shall repent (only appearance in Scripture)

Public disgrace: to make a public example in a bad sense, to expose to public disgrace.

What do all these words and terms mean together?  That’s the next Hebrews devotional. Stay tuned . . .

Turning the Church Back to God

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Psalm 74 was written during a hard time for Israel. Once they were God’s holy and righteous nation, but slowly, in seemingly insignificant ways, a drift away from God had been taking place.  A small compromise here, a little concession there and they drifted right into captivity. In verse 4 the psalmist said, “[The enemy] has set up their standards for signs. And in verse 9 he lamented, “We do not see our signs.”  Israel could no longer see the signs – that is “the line of measure” – of the Lord. They were lost and confused, and easily drawn into captivity without them.

The Christian Church today – particularly in the West – has drifted dangerously away from the signs of truth.  We have slowly and imperceptibly allowed the world to influence the church’s beliefs and standards. We have allowed the heart of the church to become cold to God, His Word, and His ways. We are repeating Israel’s folly and being taken captive by the world – and we don’t even realize it’s happening.

Lest we forget, the church is you and me.  And if the church has been taken captive, it is because you and I have been taken captive. And if the church is to turn back to God, it will only happen when you and I turn away in repentance from worldly influences, deny ourselves the pleasures of sin, and seek God’s face in whole-hearted devotion. 

Remember the lament of Asaph?  Though the enemy had set up their wicked standards in the Temple, he knew where his salvation and his loyalty lay.  In verse 12 he said, “But you, O God, are my King from of old, who works deeds of deliverance.” Asaph knew that only by keeping his heart devoted to God and to His ways and words, would he be delivered from the hands of the enemy.  His deliverance is our deliverance too.  Only through faith in and wholehearted devotion to Jesus Christ, who is “the same, yesterday and today and forever,” will His church, His people – you and I – be delivered.

I was reminded today of the power of encouragement – that is urging – even begging and pleading – believers to faithfulness. Beloved, with all my heart, I encourage you – return to the Lord, renew your faith, and fall in love with His Word. Walk in His holy ways. Be the one who turns the heart of the church back to God.,

Hebrews: Judgement’s Coming

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Its earliest origins were in the 1720s in a small Dutch Reformed Church in New Jersey, but the First Great Awakening caught fire in 1741 when Jonathan Edwards preached the sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards’ message revisited the biblical truth of God’s wrath on unbelievers. He reminded his listeners that all men are sinful creatures and under the condemnation of God. ButGod is withholding His righteous wrath so that all may have an opportunity to repent and turn in faith to Christ. Faced with the fearsome wrath of God, people fell trembling and wailing, “What must I do to be saved?” I wonder why people are not asking that question anymore.

The final subject in Hebrew’s “elementary teachings” is “eternal judgment” and I daresay that is even rarer today than it was in Edward’s day. We talked about God’s wrath when we dug into Hebrews 2:2-3 so I won’t belabor the point (I will post a link to that devotional in the comments) because there’s something else I want you to see. 

The writer had previously listed “the resurrection of the dead” as another foundational truth of the faith. The two are intrinsically linked. The church has claimed “resurrection from the dead” as something saved people have to look forward to, and rightly so. But Jesus didn’t teach resurrection as a “saved-only” deal. “A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear His voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29). The wicked will be raised also, but for the purpose of judgment and eternal punishment. Paul said, Those who do not know God (through Jesus) “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord . . . on the day He comes to be glorified” (2 Thess. 1:9-10). Yes, God is infinite love, grace, and mercy, but He is also infinite holiness that cannot tolerate wickedness. The world needs to hear the whole gospel.

I ask the same question I’ve asked again and again throughout this section. What does the church know of this today? Very little. I say that because if we did every lost person in the church (yes, there are many) would be trembling and wailing, “What must I do to be saved?” And every saved person would be begging sinners to come to Christ. No one will be left in the grave – everyone has an eternal destiny. Beloved, your family members, neighbors, friends, and coworkers need to know.  Will you tell them?

Hebrews: Faith in God

In June of 1995, British actor Hugh Grant was arrested in Los Angeles, California for hiring a prostitute for a sexual encounter. After a few weeks of hiding out with his PR people, Grant went on an “apology tour,” which famously led to an appearance with Jay Leno who called the actor out. Grant sheepishly said, “I think you know in life, pretty much, what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing. I did a bad thing, and there you have it.” Come to think of it, Grant acknowledged his “bad thing,” but never apologized for it.

It’s one thing to be sorry for our actions. Lots of people have apologized publically and privately for things said and done (or not said and not done). Lots of people have even prayed for forgiveness, but few follow that prayer with “faith in God” (Hebrews 6:1).  In our last Hebrews study, we talked about “repentance from acts that lead to death.”  We defined repentance as a spiritual and moral change of attitude toward God which turns an individual from sin to God.  And we pointed out that true repentance must have both sorrow and turning.  If repentance is turning away, faith in God is turning to. Repentance for the Jewish readers of this message was turning away from the Law as a means of righteousness and turning to God through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.

But I’m pretty sure the vast majority of you reading this devotional are, like me, not Jewish. We’ve never been a slave to the Mosaic Law. So what does this mean for us?  The same thing. It means we must come to God with both a sincere heart of repentance and faith in God through the work of Christ.  It is saying, my old way of life, my selfish, self-centered, it’s-all-about-me attitude is wrong and the ways of God are right. It’s saying I am a slave to sin and I cannot redeem myself, but I trust that God can through His Son.  And remember, the writer contends that this is an “elementary, foundational teaching.”

I love to expound on things in Scripture, to take you deep into the truth of God’s Word and help you grow, but you and I have to get this right first. Beloved, “today is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Have you, will you, turn away from sin and turn to faith in God through Jesus Christ?

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.

Hebrews – Back to Elementary School

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I hate math. I always have and I always will. I know it’s important to a functional society, but it has always been a huge struggle for me. I have a word-brain, not a numbers-brain – and whose bright idea was it to put letters in numerical equations?  I cried my way through math homework, from first grade through college. My math pre-test was so poor I had to take two “remedial” math courses before I got to the one that actually counted toward my grade. I had to go back to the basics – addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division – before I could move on to College Algebra.

When the author of Hebrews wrote about the lack of spiritual development among his readers, he said, “Let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity” (6:1). Just as I had to relearn elementary math, they had to relearn some basic stuff about the Christian faith. So what were these elementary, foundational teachings? “repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (6:1-2). I dare say that believers in the modern era don’t even grasp these “elementary” concepts of the faith. For contemporary Western Christians, the basics are things like, “Jesus loves me,” having devotional time a few days a week, learning about disconnected Bible stories, and showing up at church at least two Sundays of the month (at least we’re not Chreasters, right?). We only want to know about how God desires to bless us and how just much we can flirt with sin and still take the Lord’s Supper. If verses 1-2 are describing “elementary truths,” then our churches are filled with toddlers today.  If those subjects are spiritual “milk” then it’s no wonder the 21st Century church is dangerously malnourished.

The writer has said, “Let us leave the elementary teachings . . . and go on to maturity. And God permitting, we will do so.” (v. 1,3). Oh, Beloved, God permits. It is His desire for us to be mature and complete – which the Greek renders as “perfect” – in our faith. But before we can get there, we have to start here, in elementary school. Over the next few devotionals, we will fill our cups with milk and try to grow up in Christ.

Life Lessons

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I hate to shake whatever fine image you have of me, but I’m not a model of wisdom. I tend to learn life lessons the hard way. My Mom used to say “Bought lessons stay with you longer than taught lessons,” and I have paid a high price for many lessons. Still am. Mom’s words remind me of a couple of lessons from Psalm 119:67: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey Your Word.”

Lesson #1: When I disregard the Word of God I will wind up in trouble. The Bible is full of wisdom for life. It is written by our Creator, who knows best how life should work, and we are wise to read and study it and put its principles and teachings into action. Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish builders in Matthew 7:24-27. He said the wise man built his house on the rock and the foolish man built on the sand. He was talking about obedience to His Word. While a house and a life built on sand can be brought down by the wind and rain, no storm could destroy the house built on the rock, and no storm can destroy the person who builds their life on knowing and obeying the Word of God.

Lesson #2: It’s not over just because I messed up. Aren’t you glad that our merciful and gracious God gives multiple second chances? The mistakes we make, our failures, and our missteps are not the end. God doesn’t write us off, wash His hands of us or give up on us because we stumble. All through the Bible God tells us that He is patient, forgiving, compassionate, merciful, and full of grace. He loves you, even when your knees are bloody because you fell. He loves me, even when I am covered in the muck of my own choices. Jesus died so you can be forgiven, so you could have a second chance at life. Do you really believe that He would give up on you so quickly?

Have you made a mistake somewhere along the way? Have you run in the wrong direction, played with the wrong people, touched something that left you in pain? Take heart, Beloved, God has not given up on you. Lay it all before your loving Heavenly Father. Then take that hard-won wisdom and start walking in the right direction.

I’m Sorry

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We’re trying to teach Joy to apologize when she does something wrong, especially when she hurts someone. She’s picking up that lesson pretty well. Tonight during her bath she was playing with finger paints again (it’s a bribe to get her in the tub) and she started to stick her paint-covered finger in her mouth. I said, “No Joy! Don’t put the paint in your mouth!” She looked up at me and said “Sorry, Nana.” “It’s okay,” I said, “You didn’t do anything wrong. Just don’t put the paint in your mouth – it’s yucky.” That was different from the other night when she got mad at me for taking something away from her that she was misusing. She lashed out – literally – and scratched me with her fingernails (that need trimming). Let me tell you – it hurt! Her mommy took her to time out in the other room and told her she had to tell Nana she was sorry. After a few minutes, I came into the room, and she lifted her tear-streaked face and said, “I sorry Nana.” I scooped her up in my arms and this time I said, “Thank you for saying ‘Sorry’ Joy. Nana loves you.” I didn’t tell her it was okay because what she had done was definitely not okay. It was wrong, and she needed to know it was wrong. But she also needed to know that saying “Sorry” was the right thing to do – and that Nana would always love her no matter what.

You and I have done wrong – we have sinned against God (Romans 3:23). We have broken His laws and offended His holiness. What we have done is not okay. Our actions deserve punishment – much more than a time-out. According to the Bible, we deserve death (Romans 6:23).  But God is gracious to us sinners (Romans 3:24) and that grace cost Him everything – “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed . . . but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18, 19).

Beloved, of Jesus, when you and I sin, we can look to God and say “I’m sorry,” and know that, while our actions are not okay, our relationship with God is. Because Jesus paid the highest price to make us okay. Because God loves you – no matter what.