Hebrews: This is the Gospel

Tupac Shakur said, “Only God can judge me.” Coming from a guy who portrayed a “gansta” life and sang about violence, rape, drugs, and destruction, he was spot on. I don’t know if he ever read the Bible, but he’s paraphrasing Paul: “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court . . . It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3,4). The writer of Hebrews echoed him saying, “you have come to God the judge of all men . . .” (Heb 12:23). That is part of the gospel story that has fallen out of favor in recent years, but it’s the bad news that makes the good news so good.

I am sure you know John 3:16 well. It reveals the heart of the gospel: God loves sinners. But Jesus also said: “Whoever does not believe [in Him] stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (v. 18).  Here’s the rest of the story (nod to Paul Harvey).  God sent His Son because all of mankind is condemned because of sin.  Not because of our sinful actions, but because sin is the human condition since the fall.  We’re not sinners because we sin – we sin because we’re sinners. It’s not just what we do – it’s who we are. The destiny of all people is eternal condemnation – the wrath of God. Unless we believe in Jesus – and then our destiny is eternal life. That is what Paul means when he says: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Hebrews continues the thought saying, “You have come . . . to the spirits of righteous men made perfect” – just as we will one day be. “You have come to Jesus . . .” Just stop right here and rest in that statement. That changes everything. “You have come to Jesus – the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (v. 24). The new covenant is a covenant of mercy – of a love that saves through holy blood that was shed, not from jealousy and rage, but from divine providence. Abel’s blood brought about a curse on Cain. Jesus’ blood brings freedom from the curse of sin for everyone who believes.

In 279 words I have told you the gospel. Here’s the summary: You are a sinner. God loves you. Jesus died to save you. Beloved, won’t you come to Jesus?

I [Don’t] Got This!

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“You hang in there, girl. God will never give you more than you can handle.” I never wanted to call someone a liar as much as I did the woman who made that statement to me.  But I’m southern and we don’t call our elders liars, so I thanked her and hugged her, and flushed her counsel from my brain. While that may sound full of warm fuzzy faith, there’s not a shred of support for it in Scripture. The Bible is clear that God often gives us more than we can handle.  Paul said, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia.  We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” (2 Cor 1:8-9a). Not so warm and fuzzy, is it? Friend, if you’re hanging onto that opening statement as a rock for your life, you are going to be very disappointed.

If you’ve walked with Him for very long you know that God indeed allows situations and hardships that are more than we can handle. He does it so that we will turn to the only One who can. Paul continued, “This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (v. 9b). I almost stopped that verse after the comma but I realized that those last four words are pivotal to the passage. What is harder to handle than death? And who is it that overcame death? If you’ve got a problem that’s bigger than raising a dead man to life, then you may have reason to worry.

Paul goes on to say, “He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. On Him we have set our hope that He will continue to deliver us” (v. 10). He has. He is. He will continue. He has been faithful. He is still faithful. He will continue to be faithful.  Your circumstances do not define Him. He defines your circumstances. I can’t stress this enough – God WILL give you more than you can handle. But He will never give you more than HE can handle. Stop trying to carry it all yourself, Beloved. Hold tightly to God and He will carry it – and you through. That’s why it’s called FAITH.

Hebrews: A Strong, Healthy Body

In the modern west are individualists. We take great pride in self – too much pride if we’re honest. In fact, we believe that everything revolves around the unholy trinity – me, myself, and I. You can see that clearly in this culture that takes offense at every innocent thing and turns it into a cause for protest. The church is no different. (And again, I’m speaking of the western church, which most of us are.) Our tendency when reading Scripture is to ask “What does this mean to me?”. That’s the wrong question. The Bible was written to God’s people – plural.

When the author of Hebrews declared: “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees” (12:12), our first thought is “I need to work harder at being a strong Christian.” But look at verse 13: “Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” He is speaking to the collective church.

One of the challenges of being a preacher or Bible teacher is bringing the Word of God to a group of people that are all over the spectrum in knowledge, growth, experience, and motivation. Some people are young in their faith – mere babes. Some have grown into full, mature Christians. This has nothing to do with age and even little to do with how long they’ve been in church.

Read this passage with Paul’s “Body” imagery in mind – in fact, stop right here and read 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. We are a Body, not individual parts. Some of our arms and knees and feet are not as strong as our back and thighs. Some of us are immature and need training, some are wounded and hurting, and let’s be honest, a few of us are a bit lazy. The author is calling for the stronger believers to strengthen the weaker ones and clear away any obstacles for those who are struggling. The goal is a healthy church serving Christ together. Strong parts benefit the whole Body.

So are you a strong back or a weak knee? Do you need some spiritual training? Then seek out a mature believer. Might you be the mature believer they need? It’s time to look across the aisle, Beloved, and ask “What can I do to make the Body of Christ whole and healthy?

Mirror Image

I’ve been a Bible student for at least thirty years, a Bible teacher for more than twenty, and a Bible writer for ten. I’ve taught, studied, or written about every book in the Bible. I have a bachelor’s degree in Theology and Biblical Studies and have almost completed my master’s. But I’ve barely scratched the surface of biblical truth. I have only a minuscule glimpse of God. There’s far more to discover than my finite middle-aged, deep-southern mind can grasp. Still, I will keep digging until I draw my last breath. And then I will know more.

Paul said that in this life, “we know in part . . .” (1 Cor 13:9). We know fragments of truth, and that makes it hard to believe because there is so much we don’t know. The world thinks of us as fools for trusting in what we cannot see and cannot fully comprehend. Yet. One of the most important things God has been teaching me is to keep an eternal mindset. That’s not a Pollyanna “it’ll all turn out okay in the end” attitude. An eternal mindset isn’t focused on the circumstances, it’s focused on the sovereign King of the universe. The Lord God Almighty. The Creator of all that is.

Here is what I believe is at the heart of an eternal mindset. You and I – and every human that was, is, or is to come – is made in the Imago Dei – the image of God. Before He scooped up the dust of the earth God said, “Let us make man in our own image” (Gen 1:26). And that is what He did. We are walking, talking, breathing expressions of our Creator. But sin separated us from our Creator and marred the perfect image we were meant to bear. It’s what Paul meant in verse 12: Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror . . .” We look at our spiritual reflection, knowing we’re supposed to see God, but we see only ourselves – our sinful human selves.

But one day, because of Jesus, we will see that perfect image. No, we won’t be looking into a divine mirror, we will be looking at the Divine Himself. Paul says, “then we shall see face to face.” We will see God. Face to face. I can’t even imagine. But I long for it. It’s my heart’s highest desire. I hope it’s yours too, Beloved.

Get Out of the Ruts

I am convinced that the biggest detriment to faithful, Joyful, holy living is between our ears.  Our thoughts can make or break us. And here’s what you and I need to grab hold of: our thoughts are just that – ours – we choose what we think about. And whatever we choose to dwell on makes an indelible impression on our hearts. I used to be a very negative person. But God showed me that was because my mind was filled with negative, critical, anxious, and discouraging thoughts. Just as wagon wheels always find their way into the ruts in the trail, my thoughts always found their way back into the ruts I had dug out in my mind. Friend, I’ve seen your posts. We’ve had many conversations. The honest truth is, you’re doing the same thing. And it’s time, for the health of your mind and your heart, to stop digging those ruts.

Paul gave us two prescriptions we would be wise to heed:

“Take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Here’s the root of the issue: we’re not paying attention to what we’re thinking. The enemy is counting on that and the culture feeds it. Like putting our car on cruise control, we let our thoughts run wherever they will. And let’s be honest, our thought default rarely runs to the positive.  We need to reject thoughts that do not follow Paul’s other remedy: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). We must fill those negative ruts with – not just positive thoughts – but godly thoughts.

It takes discipline, it takes purpose, it takes intention, and it takes practice. But Beloved, nothing has the power to change your heart and your attitude like changing your thoughts. Here’s my challenge: Write these two verses on notecards and put them on your mirror, your fridge, in your workspace, and beside your bed as a continual reminder to take control of your thoughts. Then do it.

The Scripture says, “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast because he trusts in you” (Isaiah 26:3). It’s your choice, Beloved. Wherever your thoughts dwell, your heart goes. Maybe it’s time to take it out of the rut and onto a new, healthy path.

Know Thine Enemy

Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher in the early 6th Century wrote the classic, “The Art of War,” From which we have taken the phrase “Know thine enemy.”  Paul cautioned believers with similar words saying that satan will not outwit us if we are aware of his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11 paraphrased). We need to know our enemy to the degree that we recognize his evil hand in situations we face.

I thought of this yesterday as I was writing out a passage from Job. “God has found fault with me;” Job 33:10. This is one of Job’s detractors summarizing Job’s lament. Yet in the very beginning of his story, God said of him: “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8; 2:3). The truth is, God didn’t find fault with Job. Satan did.

One of Satan’s favorite schemes goes like this: he presents a temptation, dangling the carrot of pleasure or power or wealth before us, enticing us until we bite. And as soon as we do he changes his tactic from temptation to condemnation. “Look at you! You call yourself a Christian? God is disgusted with you! He will never love you after what you’ve done!” Pretty soon we’re crying, “God has found fault with me.”  Sound familiar?

You and I need to know the difference between satan’s guilt trips and the Spirit’s conviction. When the Spirit speaks to us about our sin he does so with the goal of restoration. Conviction from the Holy Spirit brings “godly sorrow [which] brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. But satan brings “worldly sorrow [that] brings death”  (2 Cor 7:9-10). Satan just wants to tear us down and bury us under a load of shame. Here’s how you can recognize one from the other. Satan’s attacks turn our attention to ourselves and what horrible creatures we are. The Spirit will always turn your attention to God and His mercy, forgiveness, and grace. And love.

In heaven, satan is called “the accuser of [God’s people], who accuses them before our God day and night” (Rev 12:10). But God’s not buying it. And neither should you Beloved. If you are in Christ, God sees His Son when He looks at you. Not your sin. And so should you.

When Misery Becomes Ministry

“Lord, why do I have to go through this? It is awful. It is painful. It is scary. Why?” Ever thought that? Yeah, me too. More than once. And recently. I’ve also wiped tears from someone’s face who said much the same. The question looms large in our minds: “Is there a purpose for all this pain?” Let me encourage you friend – I believe there is. Paul put it this way, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).

Alcoholics Anonymous understands that a recovering alcoholic is uniquely qualified to help another find sobriety. Bosom Buddies brings a breast cancer survivor alongside one who is newly diagnosed. I have a dear friend who has a powerful ministry to post-abortive women because she made that same choice years ago. Because of my past experiences, I can sit across the table from a someone dealing with childhood bullying, sexual abuse, divorce, rejection, ridicule, depression, self-esteem issues, financial failure, a wayward child, uncertainty, and the fallout of their own sinful and foolish choices and say, “Been there, done that, and let me tell you how God got me through it.”

Paul continued his thought saying: “For just as the suffering of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows” ( 2 Cor 1:5). It’s like that old game of “Barrel of Monkeys,” where you link the arms of plastic monkeys to see how many you can pull out of the barrel in a conjoined string. All these things I’ve been through make me uniquely qualified to link arms with another and help them out of the barrel. In the end, we hopefully become a long string of survivors pulling more and more people out of despair, depression, and hopelessness.

One thing of which I am certain to the marrow of my bones: God wants to take your misery and turn it into ministry. He wants to use you and your story and your scars to speak hope and life into another suffering soul. You can sit and stew in your pain or you can help Him pull monkeys out of the barrel. Beloved, which will it be?

In Christ

“I am so disappointed in you.” She could have hit me, grounded me, and taken away my car, and it wouldn’t have cut me as deeply as knowing I had disappointed my Mom. Her words stuck with me for many years and colored my life and my relationships. I have always feared disappointing others – teachers, bosses, friends, family, even strangers. And most especially God. Oh, I know I am saved and have eternal life – that is rock-solid. But I have carried this sense of being a disappointment to God for as long as I can remember. Until this morning, and something the Lord impressed on my heart.

Paul wrote often about being “in Christ,” meaning to trust in Him for salvation and eternal life. And I have. That also means that Christ is “in me” (John 17:23). I in Christ and Christ in me. By that, God considers me as one with His Son and all that the Son has is mine (Corinthians 3:21), including His righteousness before God (Romans 3:22). Now come stand with me at the water’s edge and hear the Father’s words as Jesus emerges from the Jordan River: “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). This, too, is mine in Christ. This rocked my world this morning: God is never disappointed in His Son. And because I am in Christ and Christ is in me, God is never disappointed in me. Friend, the same is true for you – if you are in Christ, He is never disappointed in you.

“But,” you argue, “Jesus was perfect and sinless, and I am not.” It doesn’t matter. You and Christ are one in God’s eyes. “But I am disappointed in myself.” That doesn’t change the truth. You are in Christ and Christ is in you. God is not – will never be – disappointed in you.

When you grab hold of that, it will change everything. It will become your mantra when the enemy tries to dump shame on you. “There is no condemnation for me because I am in Christ Jesus!” (Romans 8:1). You will “approach the throne of grace with confidence,” (Hebrews 4:16) because you know He gladly welcomes you into His presence.

Beloved, when God looks at you, He doesn’t see the foolish, sinful person you think you are. He sees His Son in you. And He says – “This one is mine, the one I love, with whom I am well pleased.” Not disappointed. Ever. Christ in you and you in Christ. It’s a beautiful combination.

Death vs. Love

“In all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” Romans 8:37.

It was the rallying cry of the martyr in the early church, the prayer of the saint drawing his last breath. It is the hope and promise for God’s people. “We are more than conquerors.” But what does that mean? And what are “all these things,? Trouble. Hardship. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Danger. Sword. Death. Where does your life fall on this list? Do you have trouble? Do not despair – God will help you. Are you under hardship? Do not faint – God will bring you through. Are you being persecuted? Do not shrink back – God will give you strength. Not many of us are experiencing famine or nakedness – most of us live in plenty to one degree or another. Nor do we face danger or threats to our lives, though that day seems not far off.

But all of us – sooner or later – will meet death. And here is where our Conquering Hero leads the way. Jesus made an astounding promise: “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). The greatest threat we face is death – but not the end of our mortal lives. No, our enemy is eternal death – separation from God forever.

Jesus drew a final breath. His heart stopped beating. He was placed in a tomb. But He rose from death to complete life. And in doing so, He conquered our chief enemy. Because of His resurrection, we too have the promise of eternal life. Oh, most of us will likely draw a final breath, and our mortal heart will cease its beating. But another life is coming for those who believe in Jesus – a life that cannot end. A life that will never be taken away. A life that cannot be touched by trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. Not even by death.

What is the power that overcomes? Love. Holy love. Love that went to the cross. Love that succumbed to death. Love that lay in the tomb. And love that rose again. Paul said that “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). The empty tomb proves it. In Christ, dear one you are more than a conqueror – you are the Beloved. What could possibly be greater than this?

Power

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The words escaped my lips without thought, “God I am so tired of…” How would you fill in that prayer?  Tired of financial struggles or health problems. Tired of battling family members.  Tired of too many responsibilities. Tired of the struggle against sin. It is so easy to get overwhelmed and feel powerless.  But God wants you and me to know that we are not powerless.  Quite the contrary, as believers in Jesus Christ, we have “incomparably great power (Ephesians 1:19),” power that comes from God.  But do we really understand what that means?

The Bible speaks of God’s eternal power” (Romans 1:20), His “power for the salvation of everyone” (Romans 1:16), “overflowing hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13), and “[God’s ]power made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).  He said that God’s “power is at work within us-[doing] immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), and “by His power, He [will] fulfill [our] every good purpose and act of faith” (2 Thessalonians 1:11).  “God [strengthens us] with all power according to His glorious might” (Colossians 1:11). And Peter declared: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).

But perhaps the most powerful statement about the power of God is found in Ephesians 1:19-20, where Paul writes about God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe.  That power is like the working of His mighty strength, which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead.”  Stop.  Go back and read that again. The same power that God exerted to raise Jesus Christ from the dead now lives in you and me through the Holy Spirit.  That is the power that will enable you to accomplish everything God has called you to.  Do you have a problem that is bigger than death?  No, and neither do I.  Whatever the problem, whatever the challenge, whatever the work you and I are called to do – in Christ, we have the power we need.

You possess the power to love others, to forgive every wrong, to endure trials and suffering, to fight for justice, to remain firm in the face of opposition, and to be Christ’s light in this dark world. You have the power to resist temptations, turn away from sin, and walk in righteousness.  God’s power strengthens your faith so you can be His hands and feet in a world filled with lost and weary people. His power is real and it is mighty. And it is all yours Beloved. What a powerful promise!