Hebrews: “Strange Teachings”

Was Jesus some kind of space alien? Is there really power in sacred underwear? Check out my latest devotional in the series: "Hebrews: Strange Teachings" at Deeper Roots.

If ever there was a word for the church today, I believe this is it: “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings” (Heb 13:9). The writer was referring specifically to dietary regulations to which the Jews strictly held. “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col 2:21). Paul had adamantly preached that “Food does not bring us near to God” (1 Cor 8:8).  Nor did food make them unclean before God. Our writer went on to say, “It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them” v. 9). Jewish believers were torn between trusting in their ability to obey all the rules and trusting in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. That’s so foreign to us in the twenty-first century in the west.

But boy, do we have some weird stuff of our own in the world today – and sadly in the church too. Google “strange religious teachings” and you’ll see all sorts of things from snake handling to sacred underwear that protects believers from spiritual contamination, fire and speeding bullets. You’ll see the prosperity gospel, the humanitarian gospel, the social gospel, the gay gospel, and the feminist gospel – none of which resemble the true gospel at all. You’ll find Bibles that are gender-neutral and exclude certain portions of clear truth so as not to offend. There are so many different religions in the world, it’s impossible to keep up. And so many blatantly unbiblical teachings expressed on social media, published in “Christian” books and “Bible” study resources, and even preached from pulpits.

Is there any doubt that we are the generation of which Paul spoke when He warned Timothy, “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4).  The church today resembles what he called: “infants tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14). That is why way back in chapter 6 he said, “Let us leave the elementary teaching about Christ and go on to maturity” (v. 1) – which is a very nice way of saying “GROW UP!”

Strange teachings, whether about dietary regulations, Kabbalah, or sacred underwear, will always grab those who prefer to be spoon-fed. If all you know about the Scriptures is what you’re told, how can you know you’re being told the truth?  That’s why personal Bible study is like oxygen to a Christian. I love teaching you, Beloved, but I want you to dig into the Word for yourself. Then we can have some incredible conversations over a cup of coffee and the Words of Life we both love.

Look How Much You’ve Grown!

Joy has grown so much this last year. It’s obvious when you look at her. She’s taller and stronger. Her legs and arms are longer. Even her hair is longer. Her vocabulary is incredible, she doesn’t use baby talk and she annunciates her words very well. She can do more things for herself like spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. And she’s learning how to calm herself when she gets upset. (I hope she will teach me.) Potty training is still a work in progress, but I know she will get that too. One thing hasn’t changed – that mega-watt smile can still melt Nana’s heart. She’s a growing, beautiful, amazing little girl.

Which makes me wonder, how do we know that we’re growing spiritually? We don’t get taller, but we should see signs that mark spiritual maturity. Like Joy, our speech is a clear indication of growth. Jesus said it’s in our words. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt 12:35). We talk about God and the things of God. We reject profanity and gossip and complaining (Eph 4:29; Phil 2:14).

It’s also seen in what we desire. Growing in God means we want the things that He wants and we are repulsed by the things that offend Him (Ps 40:8; Col 3:5). We look and act more like Jesus, which is God’s goal all along – “to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Rom 8:29). We are compassionate (2 Cor 1:3-4), kind and gentle (2 Tim 2:24-25), loving (1 Cor 13), self-controlled (1 Pet 1:13), and “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (Jas 1:19).

Perhaps the most visible sign of spiritual maturity is how we deal with sin in our lives. As spiritual babes, we sin and the Spirit convicts us of our sin. We confess, repent, and receive forgiveness. But we go back to it again. And we repeat the cycle, sometimes multiple times. The true evidence of spiritual growth is when we stop going back to our sin. When the Spirit helps us recognize the pattern and break the cycle, we’ve made a major step in spiritual maturity.

I look at myself and see some signs of growth as well as places where I’m still a toddler in Christ. You too? Growth comes when we take in the things that nurture our spirit, like God’s Word, fellowship with other believers, prayer, and resting in the Lord. And trust. Paul said, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil 1:6). God’s not going to give up on you, Beloved. Don’t give up on yourself.

How to (not)Resist Temptation

I love fall. I love the colors of the leaves (even though they don’t change here in the deep south). I love the cool, crisp bite of the morning air. I love back-to-school season. I love the ground carpeted with shed leaves. I love college football. I love to watch the harvesters at work in the fields, bringing their bounty to bless the world. Except for peanuts. Oh, I love to eat peanuts. But the nut is produced under the soil and the farmer has to turn the plants over to harvest the crop, which releases all kinds of things into the air – like mold – to which I am highly allergic. And I live in the peanut capital of the world. Achoo! And yet I keep the window in my study open to enjoy the aforementioned cool, crisp air. I know. That’s pretty stupid. Just like standing in the path of temptation.

The mainstay of Christian conviction has always been  “Resist temptation!”  But the Bible says we are to run from temptation.  We are told to “flee from sexual immorality” and “idolatry” (1 Corinthians 6:18; 10:14); “flee from greed [the love of money]” (1 Timothy 6:10,11); and “flee from evil desires” (2 Timothy 2:22).  Why flee? James said we are all “tempted when, by [our] own evil desire, [we] are dragged away and enticed” (1:14). Our evil desires are internal. We have to flee from temptation because it is tapping into those desires. That’s why you can’t stand in front of temptation and try to talk yourself out of it – you have to get away from it. If your flesh is agreeing with the thing in front of you, run. You are standing on dangerous ground.

I knew a man who drove six miles out of his way on his daily route just to avoid driving past a bar he used to frequent in his drinking days. He knew the desire was always in him so he detoured away from the temptation. He took Paul’s word to heart: “when you are tempted, [God] will provide a way out” (1 Corinthians 10:13). The way out for him was an alternative – if longer – route. A married woman quit her lucrative job to distance herself from a coworker to whom she was attracted. Another man gave up his smartphone with internet capabilities for a simple call-and-text-only phone to avoid the pull of pornography.

Jesus wants you and me to be victorious over temptation. He gave us His Holy Spirit to empower us to do just that. But we still have to put distance between ourselves and temptation. If I want to stop sneezing I’ve got to close the window. Beloved, If you want to stop falling into sin take the way out. Take the long way home. Change your job. Cancel the subscription. Change your phone. Cry out to Jesus for help. Then run.

Sing to the Lord!

For many years I sang in church choirs as an alto –in the lower female range. In one choir, I was seated with a soprano to my left, and a tenor and bass directly behind me on either side. Everyone was going in different vocal directions and I had the hardest time staying on my alto notes. Because the soprano was a strong singer, I was constantly being pulled in her direction. The choir director didn’t want to move me (he had us arranged aesthetically by height), but he did give me some advice. He told me to concentrate more on my note – and to lean just a little towards the alto to my right. He said that he could hear me singing the correct notes, but at the same time, he could tell that I was listening to all the other singers around me and losing confidence in myself. I will always remember what he told me, “You’re on the right notes, but you have to stay focused and not back off.”

I think about that often when the world is loud and I’m struggling to stay on the right way. Many different voices are saying many different things, and they are apt to draw me away from what I know is true. The culture wants me to embrace things that God’s Word has clearly forbidden. The scholar wants me to trade truth for worldly philosophies that have no regard for God. The unsaved world wants me to stop singing God’s praises altogether. My choir director’s advice rings loud and clear: stay focused. Concentrate on what you know is right and true; lean into godly wisdom and don’t back off. This world is becoming more evil and more vocal every day. If we are not intentionally listening to God, you and I will be pulled away from what is right and true. I love this word from Paul to his protégé Timothy, “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of” (2 Timothy 3:14). Stay the course. Focus on the truth. Let God’s Word drown out the voices of the world. The way of righteousness has not changed just because the music around you has. Beloved, don’t let the world change your song.

The Man (or Woman) God Uses

“Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said, ‘Who am I, O Sovereign Lord, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?’” (2 Samuel 7:18).

Think you have nothing to offer to God and His kingdom? Do you believe that you’re too young or too old or have no gifts or talents? Sure you want to do great things for God, but you’re just a mom wiping dirty noses or a regular guy at a regular job, or a college student trying to get through finals. You’re in very good company, my friend!

A young woman had nothing to offer God but a loyal heart. She followed her mother-in-law home and did the most normal thing – she went out to gather grain to feed them both. 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 two of the greatest rulers in history: 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. I’m living proof of that. Beloved, He’s got an important task, and you’re just the person He’s been looking for. Just be available and watch Him work.

Hebrews: Telling Our Faith Stories

I love being a Bible student and teacher and writer. But one of my most important roles is being Joy’s Nana and teaching her stuff. We’ve spent many Saturday mornings learning how to make pankins (pancakes). Last night she learned how to spin her pink bracelet on her finger by watching me do it.  But above all, I want to teach her my story with God – and how she is part of it. I didn’t grow up around my grandmothers, so I don’t know their faith stories. But I will make sure that Joy knows mine.

Sharing faith stories was how the Hebrew people taught their children and grandchildren about God. Joseph is a good example.  The writer of Hebrews said, “By faith, Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones” (11:22). There’s a lot packed into that verse. Joseph was Abraham’s great-grandson. Abraham was already deceased when Joseph was born, but he knew his great-grandpa’s faith story and he made it part of his own.

God promised Abraham, while he was childless and a nomad, that he would have countless offspring and that they would have possession of the very land on which he stood (Genesis 15). But He also told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved for four hundred years in a foreign land. Then He said, He would rescue them and “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here” (Gen 15: 13-16). Abraham told Isaac who told Jacob who told Joseph. On his deathbed, Joseph told his brothers, “God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . and you must carry my bones up from this place” (Gen 50:24-25). Joseph believed in the promise that had been passed down to each generation. More to the point, Joseph believed the Promise-Maker. Four hundred and thirty years later, “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him . . .” as he exited Egypt (Exodus 13:19). Promise made. Promise believed. Promise kept.

I don’t know the God-history of my ancestors, I don’t even know much about the faith stories of my parents. But Joy will know mine. She will know that God has been faithful, good, gracious, generous, and mighty in my life. Beloved, who needs to know yours?

Silver Vases and Chamber Pots

When I was a very young girl, and we visited my grandmother we experienced true “country living.” We slept on real feather beds (John Denver anyone?), helped granny pick and snap beans for supper, slopped the hogs, and on cold mornings huddled around the coal-burning stove.  And during the day – when [ahem] the need arose – we visited the outhouse.  But at night, no one wanted to traipse out in the dark and cold, so granny had pans that sat under the bed for our nightly needs. 

Where am I going with this? To Paul’s second letter to Timothy. He said, “In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:20-21). 

Keep in mind that Paul is addressing Christians – not the world. He is talking to people God desires to use in Kingdom work on earth. He is saying that how God uses us largely depends on how we live.  We can be “an instrument of noble purposes” if we strive for holiness in our daily lives. Think of a silver vase that holds beautiful flowers in God’s throne room or the golden goblet from which He drinks each day. But if we pursue “ignoble purposes” – if we live for the world and our flesh we will be good for nothing more than an iron dustpan, or a tin mop bucket in the King’s great house. Or the pan under my granny’s bed.

So how do we endeavor to be vessels for noble purposes? Paul continued: “flee evil desires and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (v. 22). We run from things that lead us into sin. We cultivate desires for the things of God, and we align ourselves with believers who are on the same path. If you are in Christ the Father has cleansed you with Jesus’ blood, clothed you in robes of righteousness, anointed you with the Holy Spirit, and set you apart for a holy purpose.  Beloved, how will you be used in the house of God?