Hebrews: Passing on the Blessing

A father’s role is different with every culture and every era. Dads today are more involved with the care and nurturing of their children than they were even in my generation. My Dad was the provider first and he taught my brother about working on vehicles. But the emotional care of my brothers and me was largely left to my Mom. He wasn’t really a disciplinarian either. He usually forgot that he had grounded me after a couple of days. But if Mom grounded me for a week it stuck to the minute. 

Still, some things haven’t changed. Fathers in the days of the patriarchs were also providers, then teachers especially of religion and the family trade. First-century fathers had one other very important role in their family – passing on the blessing. In Hebrews 11:20-21 we see Isaac and Jacob doing just that. “By faith, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future. By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.” That’s pretty cut-and-dried without any of the drama that surrounded them.

Isaac and Jacob were passing on the promise of God that had been first given to Abraham for a land of their own – Canaan. The author of Hebrews said those blessings were given “by faith” because the land that had been promised was not yet in their possession. Abraham believed God would be faithful to the promise and he passed that confidence and faith to his son and grandson. But it would be many more generations before they would take possession of the Promised Land.

But the promise and the blessing were about more than the land. The “everlasting covenant” the Lord made with Abraham was “to be your God and the God of your descendants after you” (Gen 17:7). For a season the Jewish people lost possession of the land. From the fall of Babylon in 586 bc until May 14, 1948, Israel was under foreign rule. But she was never without God. Nor are you. In their seasons of disobedience and rebellion, God disciplined them, but He also kept a loving eye on them and brought them back to the land – and to Himself. I find a lot of hope in that. You can too. Jesus said, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:20). He meant it Beloved. Every word.

Give Careful Thought

Tucked away in the latter part of the Old Testament is the tiny book of Haggai. It is only two chapters, a total of 38 verses but it has a lot to say. Rather, God has a lot to say in this little book. Haggai prophesied after the Jews were released from Babylonian captivity. They started returning home after Cyrus’ edict around 538 b.c. They came back to a ruined Jerusalem, and most heartbreaking of all – a destroyed temple. At first, they were devoted to rebuilding the temple but neighboring nations and their personal issues interfered so they abandoned that work and settled for building “paneled houses” (1:4) for themselves.

Isn’t this how it happens for you and me? We start this Christian walk with enthusiasm and determination, but “trouble and persecution” and the “worries of this life” (Matt 13:21-22) cause us to lose our motivation and desire for the things of God. Before long we’re sleeping in on Sundays and turning our focus on ourselves.

Haggai exhorts the Jews to finish the temple work more than twenty years after it was begun. And he gives them the Word of the Lord. A repetitive word. Five times God says” “Give careful thought . . .” (1:5, 7; 2:15, and 18 twice). The word combination has the idea of taking hold of one’s thoughts – not gently – but by force. This reminds me of Paul’s message to the Corinthian church: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

There are a lot of things that we cannot control, but you and I can – and must – control our thoughts. That includes everything from the sinful imagery we replay to angry conversations we imagine to self-exaltation, self-condemnation, and self-pity. It’s all in our hands – or rather in our minds. I’m preaching to myself here – this is one of the hardest battles I face. It is so easy to let my thoughts run my mind and thus my heart. The problem is, they always run me into a ditch of apathy, doubt, discouragement, and fear. So, I’m taking my mind – and my heart – back. I’m going to give careful thought to my thoughts and bring them into submission to Christ. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. What about you, Beloved? Are you ready to take your thoughts – and your life – back?

Hanging by a Thread

I was standing in the kitchen, begging the coffee maker to hurry up when my son walked in to get something to drink. I heard him behind me – “HIC!” “HIC!” “HIC!” He said, “I don’t think there’s anything worse than waking up with the hiccups.”  I answered him, “There is – waking up and being sick to your stomach is worse.” And I playfully growled at him and said, “I know from experience – and it was all your fault!” Of course, I was referring to the morning sickness I endured when I was pregnant with him. But our conversation made me think – what would be the worst thing to wake up to? I could list a lot of things – I’m sure you could too. Waking up to pain or sorrow or loss or violence or loneliness or heartache would be hard to face first thing in the morning. Then I thought, the worst thing to wake up to is hopelessness. That feeling that life is awful and it’s never going to get any better.  I’ve had seasons like that and I know that you have too. You may be there now. When all those hard things feel like permanent fixtures in our lives, we wonder if there’s any point in waking up at all.

A few thousand years ago, a prophet was waking up to the reality that all of his efforts to turn the nation of Israel back to God were useless. Jeremiah watched helplessly as the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem – under God’s judgment. He said, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord . . . my soul is downcast” (Lamentations 3:18, 19). He had hoped to save his people. He had hoped God would stop the invasion. But his hopes were not to be. He wept bitterly for the rebellious children of God.

But he did not give up. He declared “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I HAVE HOPE: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (vs. 21-23, emphasis added). He still had a thread of hope that was tied securely to the love, mercy, and faithfulness of God. And that was enough. It’s enough for you too, Beloved. Tie your last thread of hope to the goodness of the Lord. He will never fail you.

Hebrews: Everything Old is New Again

New Testament writers often referred back to the Scriptures – what we know as the Old Testament to confirm the fulfillment of prophecy. The writer of Hebrews is one of them. One key I learned in hermeneutics (how to study the scriptures) is to go back to the OT reference to gain the writer’s context.

In Hebrews 10:38 the author loosely borrowed from one of the OT prophets when he wrote, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.”  Verses 19-39 are a call to persevere in Christ. The promise of Jesus’ return was given in verse 37 and is followed by this “gentle” warning. So what was happening in the OT that influenced this NT verse?

Habakkuk prophesied to Judah in the final days before Jerusalem fell. He lamented the injustice, violence, strife, lawlessness, and wickedness in the land. Does that sound familiar? God’s answer was to announce judgment – the nation would be destroyed and taken captive by the Babylonians, a “ruthless and impetuous people . . . bent on violence . . . guilty men, whose own strength is their god” (1:6,9, 11). Habakkuk questions God’s plan and the Lord responds by contrasting the evil Babylonians with “the just” – the one who remains righteous despite the circumstances. The one who perseveres.

This was the author’s theme throughout Hebrews. The Babylonians would take the Jews that survived the onslaught and either enslave them or indoctrinate them into their culture and completely erase their way of life in God. Just as the enemies of the believing Jewish community were trying to do. Just as the world, satan, the culture, and our own sinful nature are trying to do today.

“But,” said the author, “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved” (v. 39). He expressed his confidence in their faith and their ability to persevere in it under the most dire circumstances. Our enemies may look different today, but they all spring from the same root – satan, the devil, the enemy of God and God’s people.  The call to persevere is as important today as it was thousands of years ago. Only those who stand firm in their faith please God and inherit eternal life. I want that.  And I want that for you, Beloved. Let’s hang on to Jesus together.

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.

Songs of Joy

Since my granddaughter came into this world I’ve been coloring in my Bible. When I read the Scriptures, every time I see the word “joy” I draw a heart around it, capitalize the “J”, and color it in with a pink marker. It’s just a reminder to me to claim Joy for the Lord. This morning I came to Psalm 126. I encourage you to stop and read these six verses. How many times did you find her name? I counted four. As much as I love to see her name there, I love what this Psalm is and says.

This is one of the “Songs of Ascents.” Jews often made pilgrimages back to Jerusalem to worship during certain religious festivals. These Songs of Ascents – Psalm 120—134 – were sung along the way to prepare their hearts to meet with the Lord. Psalm 126 begins, “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion . . .” (v. 1). It is remembering the Israelite’s return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. No wonder the word “joy” is so prominent! After 70 years of captivity, they had reason to rejoice.

I have three dated notes beside this Psalm: 5/2018 – Home, 9/2018 – BCF, 5/2019 – JOY! After 22 years away, because of job loss and health struggles, God sent us back home. After many months of searching, God opened up the best job I’ve ever had. And exactly a year to the day after we limped our way back home, God sent us Joy. Every word of this Psalm is my story. As if it weren’t perfect enough, three of the four “joys” are “songs of joy” and the most precious moments for me are singing my Joy to sleep. Yes, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with Joy” (v. 3).

Beloved, when there is weeping, please hold on to God’s promise that “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of Joy” (v. 5). This moment of sorrow and pain and heartache is not the end of your story. Joy is coming. Songs of Joy will fill your heart again. This life is a pilgrimage. Joy in the Lord your destination.

To Know, Know, Know Him . . .

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“Lord, I do not understand. Why this battle? Why this hard thing? Why this discouraging place? Why Lord, is this happening?”

I wonder if those words or something similar fell from your lips even this morning. Why does God allow these painful things in our lives? I believe it is to show us Who He is. God wants you and me to know Him. Think about it, I would never know God as my Provider unless I had a need I couldn’t meet. You would never know God as your Healer if you were never sick. We would never know He is our Protector unless we needed protection. If you never stand in the darkness you don’t appreciate the Light.

There is a name that I believe God wants you and me to know above all the others.

I ran across a verse this morning in Micah, who was an Old Testament prophet about a hundred years or so before the fall of Judah. The people have rebelled against and disobeyed the Lord. God spoke a word to them: “You will go to Babylon” (Micha 4:10) They would be torn from their beloved home and exiled in a foreign land. It would be a very hard time. God could rightly leave it there. They deserved punishment for their sins. But He doesn’t.

“There you will be rescued. There the Lord will redeem you.” God is our Redeemer – the one who saves us from danger, hostility, and slavery. That is the name I believe He most wants us to know. Because until you know Him as Redeemer, you cannot know Him as Provider, Healer, Protector, or Light. God revealed Himself as Redeemer when His people were in a place of danger and distress and hardship. He redeemed them out of Egyptian slavery. He redeemed them out of Babylonian exile. And He is still redeeming. He gave His one and only Son to redeem you out of bondage to sin and death (John 3:16). God redeemed you because He loves you. When you understand that you cannot help but love Him too.

Beloved, that hard place your in is the perfect place for you to get to know and love your Redeemer. Maybe the Teddy Bears said it the best “To know, know, know Him is to love, love, love Him.”

Worship the King!

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What kind of faith must you have to chase a star for two years and hundreds of miles based on an ancient prophecy? The wise men – Matthew calls them “Magi” – traveled what scholars suppose to be about 1,000 miles “from the east” (Matt. 2:1), most likely ancient Persia, or our modern Iran. They were probably devout scholars who studied ancient holy texts of many religions. The writings of the Jewish faith – which would include prophecies of a special King – would have likely come to them via Daniel’s time in Babylon. Through their studies, they came to recognize that the star that rose at a specific time signaled the birth of this very King. So they set out on a long, difficult journey with gifts fit for royalty.

Here’s what amazes me about the Magi – it wasn’t curiosity that caused them to leave their homes and families for such an arduous journey. It was worship. Matthew records their words to King Herod, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship him” (v. 2). Here’s the other thing that is surprising to me – He wasn’t their king. Remember – they identified Him as the “King of the Jews.” The Magi didn’t owe him homage. Why would they worship a king not their own? They realized from all they had studied that this king was worthy of worship – not just the worship of the Jews, but the worship of all men everywhere.

These Magi took ancient prophecies, looked forward, and recognized that Jesus was a unique king. In faith and awe, they set out on a long journey to worship Him. You and I have not just ancient prophecies, but we have the New Testament Scriptures that testify that Jesus is this King. We have the eye-witness of the Apostles and we have the heart-witness of the martyrs that testify that Jesus is not just King of the Jews, but King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The faith of all these should inspire faith in us. Jesus – the baby in the manger, the child in Bethlehem, the man healing lepers and raising the dead and dying on a cross and bursting alive out of the grave – this Jesus is worthy of our faith and worthy of our worship. Let’s give Him all He deserves this Christmas – and every day.