Words

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David posed the question: “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1) Part of the answer is “He who speaks the truth from his heart” (v.2). God demands truth – because He is truth. But truth is pretty hard to find these days. Thanks to social media, anybody can have a platform from which to espouse their brand of truth. But it is worth listening to? Does it agree with the source of truth?  Before you and I take their message to our hearts we need to ask one more question: what does their message say about their heart? Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). What comes from the lips says everything about a person’s heart – about who they really are. Are their words angry and venomous? Are they boastful, profane, and disrespectful? If their words are all about themselves then so are they.  Any “wisdom” they offer will only serve them and not you. Are their words kind, helpful, beautiful, encouraging, and uplifting? Do they speak the truth? A person’s words tell you the true condition of their heart. Especially in those unguarded moments of an emotional response.

Here’s why this matters – when you absorb someone’s words, you are, in a sense, taking on the condition of their heart.  Do you want a heart like the latest celebrity or athlete? Do you want your heart to resemble a politician’s? Perhaps it’s time to evaluate the voices you are listening to. Whose Twitter feed are you following? What music do you listen to? What t.v. Shows are you watching? There’s so much we can’t control, but where we have a choice, let’s choose to hear from good hearts full of truth because what goes in our ears touches and shapes our own hearts.

And by the way, the same thing applies to your children (and grandchildren). They are literal sponges – what are you allowing them to absorb? What is shaping their very impressionable hearts? Who are they becoming because of what they are hearing?  And most importantly, how are your words towards them and around them? What are you planting in their hearts?

Yes, you’ve heard this from me before, and you’ll hear it again because it is so important. Go back to what Jesus said –words reveal the condition of the heart. What are your words saying about you, Beloved?

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.

A Pure Heart

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When my son was younger, he was determined to do something he knew was wrong. When I caught him before he could put his plan into action he protested, “But Mom I didn’t actually do it!” “That’s not the point.” I told him, “You wanted to do it – that’s the heart of the problem.

Human nature has reduced “sin” to an act – a thing we do, while the Bible tells us that sin is a condition of the heart – our desires. When Jesus taught about adultery in Matthew 5:27-28 He said that the sin of adultery is committed when the desire arises – “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” James identified the pattern of sin in 1:14-15 as a progression from one’s “own evil desire,” to enticement, then to the action. Sin clearly starts in the heart. After his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Urriah, David pleaded for God to “create in me a pure heart” (Ps. 51:10) for he knew that it was his heart that had led him astray. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mat. 6:21), meaning we will pursue at all costs what our heart desires. If that desire is for sin, you can bet your hands, feet, and body will follow. Jesus also said only “the pure in heart . . . will see God” (Mat. 5:8). That should be incentive enough.

A pure heart recoils at the thought of disobeying and dishonoring God and breaking fellowship. It pursues the heart of God, which never leads to sin. A pure heart runs from temptation (2 Tim 2:22). Does that mean if you struggle with sinful desires You don’t have a heart for God? No – Paul attested to the battle within himself (Rom. 7:15-23) and I know well my own tug-of-war with sin. But it’s not unwinnable. You just need some Help.

Beloved, Are you weary of toying with the sinful desires of your heart? Victory comes as you allow the Word of God and the Spirit of God to purify your heart day by day. God isn’t just after your behavior Beloved, He is after your heart.  When you “delight yourself in the Lord,” that is when He is all your heart longs for, then “He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps 37:4). He will give you Himself.

What is God Worth to You?

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When I sit down to write every morning, I ask the Lord, “What do you want to say?” Some days it’s a word of encouragement. Everyone seems to like those. Some days it’s a Scripture lesson (like the Hebrews series). And some days God directs me to a passage of Scripture and I think, “This is not exactly a heart-warming story.” This is one of those days. I almost changed it, but God can be very insistent.

King David took a census of the men of  “fighting age” in Israel, a sign that his trust for his nation was in the strength of his army and not in the strength of his God. He soon realized his census was a slap in the face to the Lord God (2 Sam 24:9). He confessed his sin and pleaded for the Lord to take away his guilt. God gave him three options.  Israel could face three years of famine, David could spend three months running from his enemies, or there could be three days of plague in the land.  David decided on the last option and seventy thousand citizens of Israel died. The Lord finally stayed the hand of the death angel “at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (v. 16). The king approached Araunah to purchase the threshing floor that he might “build an altar to the Lord, that the plague on the people may be stopped” (v. 21). Araunah offered the threshing floor free of charge but David would not hear of it. He said, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (v. 24).

Here’s what I hear from God: “Why are my people so stingy towards me?” In the little book of Malachi, God said He would prefer that the temple doors be shut than for the people to give Him meaningless offerings – “injured, crippled, blemished or diseased animals” burned on “useless fires” (1:10-13). But above all, the people considered their gifts and service to Him to be “a burden” (1:13). Jesus talked about the cost of being His disciple (Luke 9:57-62) and Matthew recorded His parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price (13:44-46) to express how valuable the kingdom of God is. 

This is not about money, although giving is an important part of the relationship. This is about giving God our hearts, our time, our thoughts, and our whole selves. Is the kingdom worth giving up sleep to spend time every morning with the King? Is it worth turning off the T.V. to read His Word to your kids? Is it more valuable than having them excel in sports or dance? Is God your heart’s first desire, or your fifth or twentieth?

Beloved, my toes are throbbing too, but the question stands: What is God worth to you?

Hebrews: The Tabernacle

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Lovely Lane Chapel at Epworth by the Sea, St. Simons Island, Georgia

I love church buildings. I visited some beautiful, ornate cathedrals when I lived in Germany.  My late brother’s high school graduation was held in one in Worms. I didn’t see him walk for his diploma because I was looking at the intricate carvings and high, soaring ceilings. I met for a weekly Bible study in a church with incredible wood beams that always spoke peace to me.  I worked in a church in Florida with beautiful stained glass windows. I loved to sit in the sanctuary and watch the light cast colors across the room. But the church I fell in love with was a small chapel in Georgia on St. Simon’s Island called “Lovely Lane Chapel” at Epworth by the Sea. It is an unassuming white building in the traditional style of the late 19th century set on the banks of the historic Frederica River. But when you open the doors and step inside the all-wood interior will take your breath away. It is an impressive work of architectural art. But it’s just a copy and shadow of the true tabernacle in heaven (Hebrews 8:2, 5).  St. Peter’s Basilica and the pre-fire cathedral at Notre Dame, even the gold walls of Solomon’s temple pale in comparison to the divine original.

Likewise, the ministry of the priests who served in the temple in Jerusalem was significantly less than that of Jesus Christ, the great high priest. The writer of Hebrews pointed first to the gifts and sacrifices presented by generations of human high priests (8:3-4), and later we will see why those gifts and sacrifices fell short of the perfection the Law and the Law-giver demanded. But Jesus’ ministry “is superior to theirs” (8:6) because the gifts and sacrifices He offered were superior.

Jesus’ ministry did not happen in the earthly tabernacle and the sacrifice He offered was not given to a diety shrouded in smoke and incense. Jesus went personally before the Lord with His own pure blood.

Ornate buildings and animal sacrifices don’t make men holy. Neither do programs and weekly services. None of these satisfy the demands of a righteous God. But there is a way. It’s through the better tabernacle and the better offering – through Jesus, the Son of God, the Great High Priest, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Who takes away your sin, Beloved. He will make you holy.

Hebrews: The Gift of Grace

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Ask a humanitarian what the world needs and they will quote Hal David: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Ask a politician and he will say the world needs more programs and the money to run them. Teachers will say the world needs to be better educated. Generals think the world needs more control and hippies say the world just needs peace. None of these are bad answers, but they miss the real issue that plagues the world. The writer of Hebrews said the world needs a mediator – a high priest – because we are sinful people before a holy, righteous God.  That is the point of the comparison in Hebrews 7:26-28 of the earthly priests and Jesus.

Jesus, our great high priest (4:14), the writer said, is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, [and] exalted above the heavens” (v. 26). Because we are going to stand before God (and every human being will), we need a mediator who is acceptable to Him. In the Jewish religion (and remember this letter is written to believers with a Jewish background), the high priest comes before the Lord every single day to present sacrifices that atone for the sins of the people. But he has to atone for his own sins first before he can tend to the sins of the people he represented. But Jesus needed no such atonement because He was without sin – He was the perfect sacrifice that could cover all the sins of mankind – “once for all” (v. 27) One sacrifice for all the sins of all the people for all time.

Does that mean that every person is saved by the work of Jesus? Yes. And no. Every persons’ sins are covered – if they accept that covering. But God gave man a little thing called “free will” to accept or reject His offer. The one who rebuffs that grace doesn’t negate the work of Christ, he just refuses it. And God is very much a gentleman who will not force His grace on anyone who does not want it. But why would anyone not want it? Because they do not see themselves as sinners in need of grace. Jesus said, “[Satan] has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn – and I would heal them” (John 12:40).

I imagine that you, like me, have someone in mind as you read this, someone who continually pushes God away. How can we help? Pray, Beloved. Pray that the blindfold of the enemy be removed so that they can see and understand. Grace is a gift, but it must be received.

Hebrews: Perfection

I’ve known many pastors in my life and my  25+ year career as a church administrator – some of whom I had more confidence in than others. But none of them were perfect. Yet, the Law of God demands perfection, so how can these imperfect men help me to reach perfection? They can’t – and they will tell you that themselves.

The author of Hebrews said, “If perfection could have been obtained through the Levitical priesthood (for on the basis of it the law was given to the people), why was there still need for another priest to come—one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron?” (Hebrews 7:11). The perfect law was given to imperfect people and they were instructed in it by imperfect priests. How then, could they ever meet the law’s demands? Enter Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the other person worthy of both a crown and a mitre.

The author pointed to Jesus’ lineage as a descendant of Judah, the royal line, but what of his priestly role? He said, like Melchizedek, Jesus is “one who has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to His ancestry, but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life” (7:16). What does that mean? Indestructible at its root means unable to be dissolved, disunited, overthrown. It means Jesus’s life, ministry, and mission would never be diminished or rendered vain because of His personal moral power. And because His position as priest was not something He inherited, but something He always was – the perfect mediator of the perfect law and the only one who had the power to make imperfect people perfect before God.

Many priests served and retired or died, and the law was never satisfied through any of them. But hear this: “Because Jesus lives forever, He has a permanent priesthood. Therefore He is able to save completely [forever, to the uttermost] those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them” (7:24-25). He alone can guarantee our salvation because He alone is “holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, [and] exalted above the heavens” (v. 27).

Beloved, you will never pull off perfect obedience, but you can put your faith in one who has. You can trust in the indestructible life of the Lord Jesus Christ, your priest and king to make you perfect.

Hebrews: Who’s the Greatest?

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In our last devotional on Hebrews 7, we looked at Melchizedek, a mysterious figure from the days of Abraham, who was held in high esteem by the Jewish people. Go back and read verses 1-10. There are several similarities between Melchezidek and Jesus. Melchezidek was both a priest and a king, an unheard of combination in the Jewish nation. Nations outside of Israel often combined the offices, but for God’s people, kings were descendants of Judah, specifically David, and priests descended from Levi, specifically Aaron. Jesus was the only other person in Scripture who could fill both roles perfectly. He was a descendant of David through his adoptive father and was appointed to the priesthood by God (Psalm 110:4). We’re going to come back to this thought.

Melchizedek, the author said, was “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever” (v. 3). Bear in mind that he does not claim that Melchizedek was more than a mortal human being.  And we do know Jesus’s human mother, Mary, and Matthew and Luke record the genealogical record of Jesus (through Joseph). But the Scripture did not mention the birth or death of Melchizedek, which the author used to point to Jesus’ eternal nature, “without beginning of days or end of life.” That is because Jesus is the Son of God and has always existed. “He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:2), and “His years will never end” (Heb. 1:12). Melchizedek was a figure of Christ, but Christ was the reality and the standard.

Finally, Melchizedek’s name and title are the identity of Jesus. His name meant “the king of righteousness” and his domain meant “the king of peace” (Salem=Shalom). Jesus is the one who brings us righteousness before God and peace with God. No human priest or king could ever do that. It is Christ’s work alone.

The author’s point is not to set our focus on Melchizedek, but to turn all eyes to Jesus who exceeds the great priest-king. He continued to press the point that Jesus is – not just the better way to God and eternal life – but the only way. To those who were on the fence about staying with Christ or returning to the Law, the choice is clear. There is no other way but Jesus. The same is true for you and me, there is no other way to eternal life. Stick with Jesus, Beloved, all the way home.

Hebrews: Melchizedek

I had a friend in Jr. High school who followed the most obscure, unheard-of bands. Every time we got together to play records (yes records!) she brought her favorites with her. Some of them, as it turned out were quite good (like Highway Robbery), but they weren’t as popular and well-known as The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, and The Who. Likewise, most of us who grew up in the church know Adam and Eve, David, Moses, and Abraham, but few are familiar with one character the writer of Hebrews calls on as a witness to Christ – Melchizedek.

As the “king of Salem” (which means Peace) “and a priest of God Most High,” Melchizedek (whose name meant “king of righteousness”) had a small but important part in the Old Testament account of Abraham (Abram at this point). Genesis 14 tells the story of Abram rescuing his nephew Lot from a trio of enemy kings.  Two friendly kings came out to meet Abram – the unnamed king of Sodom, where Lot had settled, and Melchizedek. Melchizedek presented bread and wine and a blessing: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand” (v. 19). In response, Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the plunder he had gained from the rescue operation.

Melchizedek is significant for several reasons found in Hebrews 7. He appears mysteriously on the scene and the Scriptures tell us nothing about his genealogy or his life before this encounter, and we hear nothing from him after (v. 3).  The tithe which Abram gave him indicated that he was a great king, for Abram was a great man in the Ancient-Near-East and he humbled himself before Melchizedek (vs. 4, 8).  His dual role as king and priest was also uncommon. The two positions would always be separate in the Jewish nation – kings would be descendants of Judah and priests descendants of Levi (v. 1). The sons of Levi would collect the tithe from the rest of Abram’s descendants, but through Abram, the writer said, Levi  “paid the tithe” to the greater priest (6, 9-10). And most significantly, Melchizedek was, “like the Son of God, a priest forever” (v. 3).

I know, this all sounds very strange and probably confusing, but the story of Melchizedek foretold the greater King and Priest, Jesus Christ. It’s important that you and I study and understand everything the Scriptures say about Him. Stay with me – we will make those parallels in the next Hebrews devotional.

Hebrews: Where the Rain Falls

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For the past several weeks we’ve looked deeply at what many scholars consider some of the most challenging verses in the entire Bible: Hebrews 6:4-6. But the author of Hebrews is not letting go of the theme yet, and so, neither will we. In 6:7-8 he makes what is the crucial point to understanding what he has laid out. “Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.  But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed.  In the end, it will be burned.”

Again, this passage should be laid beside Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds. Just as the sower tosses the seeds out to let them fall where they may, the rain falls over the whole field and all the land soaks it up – good, productive soil and poor, rocky, thorny soil. All receive the rain – that is the gospel of Christ and the grace and mercy of God – but the fruit – bountiful crops or thorns and thistles – is the evidence of the condition of the soil.   Jesus said, “By their fruit, you will recognize them. Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matt 7:16, 17-18). People who do not produce good fruit despite receiving God’s blessings demonstrate the poor condition of their hearts. Those who do produce good fruit give clear evidence that they are receiving God’s blessings with a good and sincere heart.

Those who persevere with Christ to the end prove two things: their hearts are good and the Lord is faithful to keep His own (John 10:28-29). Those who abandon Christ also prove two things: their hearts were always wicked and Jesus has no place for them (Matt 25:12). And I remind you that the Lord also said that both would sit together in the same pews until the end when the angels will sort them all out (Matt 13:24-30). While Jesus told us never to judge the condition of another person’s heart, He did strongly advise us to become fruit inspectors.

I suspect the writer of Hebrews included this information so that the true believers would not become discouraged by the falling away of the false believers. He also wanted them to know that he had seen good fruit in them – fruit that would endure and would be productive for the kingdom. “Even though we speak like this, dear friend, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation” (v.9).

I’ll leave you with one simple question Beloved: What does the fruit of your life say about the condition of your heart?