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

My Elementary School class photo

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.

What Do We Do About Sin?

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Because you trust me as a Bible teacher, I want to tell you that sin is not an issue in my life. I want to tell you that, but it would be a lie. Yes, I belong to Jesus, He has saved me and redeemed me and continues every day to transform me into His image. He has done such a work in my life where sin is concerned. But like every other human being, I was born with a sinful nature and sinful desires – perhaps different from the things that tug at you, but sin is a real and present danger for me just as it is for you.

How do we handle our bent towards sin? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Recognize sin for what it is and don’t make excuses or exceptions for it. (Psalm 51:3)
  2. Keep God’s Word close – in your hands, in your mind, and in your heart. (Psalm 119:11)
  3. Keep God closer. (James 4:7-8)
  4. Keep sin at a distance. Don’t put yourself in positions you know lead you into sin – whether places, events, movies, T.V. shows, websites, or even people. Take the way out. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
  5. Repent when you do sin. (Acts 3:19).
  6. Pray. 

The prayer I find myself returning to again and again is: “Lord cause me to love you so much that sin has no appeal to me.” I came to that prayer while meditating on Psalm 37:4 “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desire of your heart.” I realized that if God is my delight, then I will desire only Him and that is a desire He is more than willing to fulfill. And if God is the delight and desire of my heart, I will take no delight in sin and will instead be repulsed by it because I love God with all my heart. And if I love God with all my heart there is no room in my heart to love sin.

I know I have a very long way to go before that is the reality of my life. Sin still beckons to me.  But this is my prayer – and the desire of my heart. Beloved, will it be yours too?

How Jesus Decluttered my Life

MY desk on a good day

The saying goes, “less is more,” meaning the less clutter you have in your home, life, etc. the more home, life, etc. you have.  It’s a lesson I’ve yet to learn as I look around my study, cluttered with books, boxes, toys, sewing stuff, and tons of notebooks.  But, because of Jesus, there are some areas of my life where I am truly grateful that less really is more.

Because of Jesus, I am shameless – Romans 8:1 says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  I did not always live for God, and my sin caused me tremendous shame.  Even after I became a Christian I still stumbled in many ways, and the enemy heaped shame on me.   But Jesus took all my shame to the cross and the grave.  When He rose to life again, my shame stayed buried forever. Whatever you may have done, no matter how shameful it may be, Jesus can set you free.

Because of Jesus, I am guiltless – Hebrews 10:22 says, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”  We’ve all had feelings of guilt—because we are all sinners.  Jesus’ blood falls on all who will come and kneel beneath the cross, washing away all our sin, and with it our guilt.  You can set down that heavy burden and run into your Father’s presence knowing that His arms are open wide to receive you.

Because of Jesus, I am fearless – 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment.”  God loves you and me perfectly with an everlasting love that will never fail, no matter what we may do.  Because of His perfect love, we no longer have to tip-toe into God’s presence, fearing His anger and wrath. 

Jesus took all our sin and with it all the consequences and the burdens that sin brings. Because of Him you and I can be shameless, guiltless, and fearless.  Beloved, don’t let your life get cluttered with all this stuff.  Grab hold of the “less is more” principle and walk in the freedom Christ won for you.

Jesus Loves Sinners

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In the days after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples wondered what they should do. Jesus had appeared to them and they recognized that He was the living Son of God. But what now? They had received no direction from the Lord at this point. Was their ministry season over? Peter, carrying the additional weight of his betrayal, decided to go back to doing what he knew best, fishing. I understand him. I’ve been in a season where my life was full of ministry, then a fall in my character took it all away and I wondered if God was done with me. Just like Peter, I discovered that the Lord doesn’t give up on His people.

After a night of futile fishing, Peter and the disciples who had joined him headed toward home. A man stood on the shore and called out, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” (21:5) “No.” they replied. He then directed them to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, where they caught more fish than they could manage. That struck a memory in John. He knew that man on the shore! “The disciple whom Jesus loved said, “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7).

Peter, the impetuous one, jumped out of the boat and into the water. The shame of his betrayal must have nearly drowned him. But to Peter’s credit, he didn’t try to dodge Jesus. He was oblivious to everything else but his Lord.

It is so easy to fall into sin; even the greatest saint is one temptation away from the pit. What do you do when the dust clears and you’re standing there in the aftermath of your failure? Judas refused to come to Jesus for forgiveness. But Peter splashed his way to Him. We don’t have a record of those few private moments before the rest joined them, but I have this picture of a repentant Peter standing on the shore, dripping with water and tears. Oh, the blessed, tender heart of Jesus. He forgave His rebellious disciple and restored him fully.

Beloved, have you fallen into sin? Have you stumbled in your walk? Do not sit in your guilt. Do not run away in your shame. Run to Jesus. He has promised, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37). He stands on the shore waiting for you with forgiveness and restoration in His hands.

The Momentum of Sin

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I carried a fresh glass of tea to my desk and set it down to plug up my phone. I reached for the old empty glass and started walking quickly toward the kitchen, but I soon realized I had picked up the wrong one. I tried to stop in my tracks and turn around, but my momentum took me a step or two further toward the kitchen. But I didn’t want to go to the kitchen. I wanted to go back to my desk and get the right glass and then go to the kitchen. I knew what I wanted to do but I kept going in the wrong direction. That may seem like a scene out of a cartoon, but what it reminded me of was the momentum of sin.

Paul said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:15-16,18-19). We want to be right with God. We want to turn away from sin. Yet our sinful desires set us in motion toward what our flesh craves. There is a war waging within us between our desire to please God and our desire to please our flesh.

How do we break sin’s momentum? First, by preparing ourselves for the battle. Paul said, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2). Renewing our minds is a life-long habit of reading, studying, and obeying the Word of God and listening to His Spirit. The more of God we put into our minds the less room there is for the world.

But what do we do when the momentum toward sin is so strong? I heard of an older man known for his godly life who was asked what he did when he was tempted. He replied, “Well, I just say, ‘Lord, your property is in danger.’” Paul said, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:24-25). Beloved, the One who rescued you from death and hell can also rescue you from the powerful pull of sin. Just cry out to Jesus.

What’s Your Favorite Verse?

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Quick! What’s your favorite Bible verse?  John 3:16? Philippians 4:13? The 23rd Psalm? Jeremiah 29:11? Psalm 37:4? Romans 8:28? I love all of those. Why is it your favorite? What does it mean? Do you understand what is God saying? Have you studied it deeply? Have you considered the surrounding context? What is the verse’s setting? Why did God/Jesus speak as He did? My favorite verse is . . . well, I just can’t narrow it down to one.

Many people claim Jeremiah 29:11 as their favorite – “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” That is a great verse.  It is a staple at graduations, and rightly so. It shows that God has good plans for His people that they will prosper and always have hope for the future.  But do you know the context? Jeremiah was a prophet to the exiles in Babylon. After many, many years of idolatry and rebellion, God allowed Nebuchadnezzar to invade Jerusalem and take many people to Babylon to serve him and the nation. The Lord sent word through Jeremiah to the exiles and Jeremiah put it all down in a letter. This verse is one part of the whole letter which contained instruction, caution, and hope. In this letter, God took responsibility for their exile but reminded them that He was acting against their disobedience. In fact, half of the letter is rebuke and warning. But in chastisement, God offers this wonderful word of hope. To the weary, heartbroken exiles, God said, “I will bring you back . . .” (v. 14).

One of my favorite verses is part of this letter – “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord.” (vv 14-15a) You and I are going to have seasons of pain and suffering and yes, discipline for our actions. Jeremiah 29:11 is God’s promise not to abandon us in our disobedience. It is His assurance of hope for a good future when we turn away from sin and seek Him with our whole hearts. And not just at graduation.

God Knows Your Heart

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My friend had been trying for 20 minutes to explain why she kept doing something she knew was a sin. She honestly wanted to put this thing behind her, but she kept going back to it like a drug. We’d had this discussion many times over the years.  She stayed in this continuous cycle of sin and defeat. “I guess I’m just weak,” she sighed. “In my heart, I want to do better, isn’t that good enough?” “After all,” she said with a shrug, “God knows my heart.”
I threw out one of those breath-prayers, took her by the hand, and said, “Yes sweet friend, God knows your heart – that’s why He sent you a Savior.”
God does know our hearts. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15). God knows that in its natural state “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9). He knows that our hearts are very human and prone to mislead us by our own desires (James 1:14). It’s why we struggle to break away from sins that we cherish (Psalm 66:18).  It’s why the devil has such a grip on the world – because sin, at its core, is not so much a matter of what you and I do but what our hearts desire. Our actions will always follow our hearts. And there’s only room in our hearts for one. If our hearts desire what the world offers, we will not desire God.

But there is hope for the human heart. He is the divine Savior, Jesus. He knows your heart and mine and He came to redeem our hearts through His death on the cross. Covered by the blood of the Son of God our hard, stone hearts can become living flesh again (Ezekiel 36:26).

Beloved, God knows your heart – does your heart know Him?