Hebrews: A Costly Trade

Warning: this post is not culturally correct.

Sin is such an antiquated notion. Its meaning has changed from generation to generation. The present generation – if they consider sin at all – see it as causing offense by denying someone’s right to celebrate their personal truth. But previous generations rightly understood sin as an action that is offensive to God.

While sin isn’t limited to one specific action, sexual immorality seems to be the favorite. And we don’t have to ask why. But we do need to understand what it means. The Greek word is pornos – you know what English word that corresponds to. It comes out of a root word that means “to sell into slavery,” and that gives sexual immorality a whole new tone. Sexual immorality is any sexual act that deviates from the biblical presentation of the loving physical intimacy between a husband and wife.

The author of Hebrews tied that sin to Esau, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. He said, “See that no one is sexually immoral, or godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son” (Heb 12:16). Even though he was a twin, Esau made his entrance minutes ahead of his brother Jacob, making him the elder. By rights, he got the blessing of their father and a greater portion of the inheritance – called “the birthright.” But Esau came in from a hunting expedition one day, “famished.” He smelled the food his brother was cooking and sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. He threw away who he was – the eldest son – and all he stood to gain – the birthright – to fill his belly momentarily. He didn’t have proper regard for the gift that was rightfully his. When it was time to bestow the blessing, Jacob cashed in. “Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears” (v. 17).

Sex between a husband and wife is a beautiful, God-honoring thing. But any other expression of sex is sexual immorality. It is a moment of pleasure that will cost you dearly. In a culture where anything goes, Beloved, don’t sell your blessing to satisfy your flesh. God has so much more for you than that.

Hebrews: How to be a Christian Neighbor

The culture knows Scripture – at least a few verses that they are passionate about. “Judge not” (Matt. 7:1), “God is love” (1 John 4:16), and “Let him who is without sin . . . cast the first stone” (John 8:7). I found them a new one that I think they will really like: “Make every effort to live in peace with all men” (Heb 12:14). What’s interesting about these cultural favorites is that they are only partial verses or plucked out of their context so that their meaning is skewed. It is a favorite ploy of the devil, who knows more Scripture than most people in the pews. When he came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, he quoted from Psalm 91:11-12, but he stopped just shy of his own demise in verse 13. (You should go look that up. In fact, I encourage you to look up all of these verses and read their surrounding context.)

Hebrews 12:14 has a second part that colors the whole verse differently. “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness, no one will see the Lord.” Oh. When you add verse 15, it becomes clearer: “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” Now, before I started digging deeper into this verse, I thought it meant something like “let no ill feelings take root” but I was wrong (that’s not easy to say!). First, the word “bitter” metaphorically means “extreme wickedness” and literally means “poison”. Poison kills.

This reaches directly back to Deuteronomy as Moses was reiterating the covenant they had made with the Lord God. He said, “Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those [pagan] nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison” (Deut 30:18).

I’ll be honest, I’ve wrestled with this all week. It’s not an easy passage. But I believe it means to live in peace with your neighbors, especially your unsaved neighbors, don’t condemn them or harasses them over their lifestyle. Don’t cause them to turn to wickedness because of your self-righteousness. But you – and remember, the writer is speaking to the community, not to individuals – live a holy life, set apart unto God. Because Jesus showed us that a truly holy life is attractive and winsome to a lost world. And so must we be.

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?

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.

So Help Me God

*Steel-toed boot warning.

Court scenes in movies, television, and books generally show witnesses and defendants swearing to tell the truth with their right hand on a Bible. The practice of swearing an oath goes back to antiquity. In twelfth-century England the practice of swearing on the Word and name of God to declare one’s truthfulness became law. The custom came over with the pilgrims but was never made law as it was one of the many reasons they left the oppressive religious rule of England.
In the day when the Bible was considered sacred text and God was revered, the practice of swearing an oath “on the Bible” was the norm. That is no longer the case and the courts have determined that a witness could simply “affirm” to be honest. But putting one’s hand on the Bible has never been a guarantee of truthfulness, has it? People swore on the Bible and still lied. Even claiming to be a Christian these days doesn’t mean a person will be godly. So what good is the Bible anyway? And who needs it if it can’t make you a better person?
Here’s the ugly truth: we often use the Bible to comment on the ungodliness in our culture and to point out sin in the world. But remember, the Bible was written to the people of God, not to the world. The Old Testament was written to the Israelites and the New Testament is written to the church. Who needs the Bible? I do. You do. The Pastor and the deacons and every member of the Church. Every person who claims the name of Jesus Christ. Because God is speaking to His people. God is calling the church back to Himself. He is telling His people to stop living in sin and repent. He is drawing those who claim the name of Christ into holy living. We can’t hold the unsaved world to biblical standards not following. We can’t rant about homosexual marriage when the divorce rate in the church is the same as outside the church. We can’t judge unwed mothers when pornography addiction is rampant in the church. We can’t demand righteousness we don’t have ourselves. Don’t read the Bible to convict the culture, read it to convict your own heart. “For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household . . .” (I Peter 4:17).

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.

You Asked for it – You Got it!

As I was reading the book of Amos an old commercial from the 70s came to mind.  You might remember the jingle: “You asked for it, you got it. Toyota!” Amos was a prophet to Israel just before the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians. God sent him with a message of warning and destruction because Israel had rejected Him. But they told Amos, “Do not prophesy against Israel and stop preaching against the house of Isaac” (7:16). In other words, stop giving us God’s Word.

Well, they asked for it and they got it. The Lord said he was sending a famine – “not of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord” (8:11). That chills my heart. I do not think I could survive without God’s Word. But the present culture is making the same demands. “Don’t tell us what that antiquated fairy-tale book says! It has no authority over us. It is intolerant, racist, and sexist.” Isn’t it strange that the generation that shouts for “tolerance” is intolerant of the truth?

But let’s flip this. What would our world be like – what would our churches and homes and hearts be like if we sought the Word of God? If we store it up in our hearts (Ps 119:11), rejoice in it (v. 14), and meditate on it (v. 15), What if we delight in and never neglect it (v. 16)? What if we choose the way of truth and set our hearts on the Scriptures (v. 30)? What if we obey it with all our hearts (v. 34)? How might it change us if we love the Word of God (v. 47)? What if we put our hope in God’s Word (v. 81) and let it light our way (v. 105)? What if we stand in awe of the Holy Scriptures (v. 120)? What if we faithfully walk in God’s Word (v. 133)?

My goal as a Bible teacher is to teach myself out of a job. It is to help you see the wonder and beauty and truth in the Scriptures and fall in love with the Bible all on your own. Do you want that kind of passion for God’s Word? Ask Him for it, Beloved. And you’ll get it.

Jesus and John Lennon

The Beatles sang it in the mid-’60s and it is the mantra of our culture today: “All you need is love, love, love.” In a world of mass shootings, child abuse, hatred, racism, and war, love is the only antidote. And the Bible agrees. The problem is our definitions of love. John Lennon’s lyrics are empty. He called for love but said nothing about how to love. The culture deems love as permissiveness and approval to indulge in every kind of earthly attraction. But is that truly love?

In a sense the Beatles and the culture are right. Jesus said that the second most important commandment, after loving God, is to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). But what does that look like? Whose meaning is right?  I believe the Author of love is the best one to define it.

“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honor one another above yourselves” (Rom 12:10).

“Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather, serve one another in love” (Gal 5:13).

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2).

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you” (Eph 4:32).

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19).

“Bear with each other, and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another (Col 5:13).

 “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)

“Love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

Does that look like the kind of love the culture is touting? Do you see that in Lennon’s lyrics? No and no. But can you imagine how this love would change the world? How about just your family? Love is much more than an ethereal notion. It is practical. It has substance. It has hands and feet. It has a voice. Your hands and feet. Your voice. And mine. Truly, all we need is love – love for God and love for one another. Yes, John, you were right – love is all we need.

Hebrews: Faith

Several years ago I posted a question on social media and asked, “What is faith?” The answers ranged from a shield to a conviction to a gift. But the most consistent answer was “trust.” And I believe that is the essence of faith in a single word. As we (finally) come to the well-loved “Hall of Faith,” we are greeted by the writer’s summary first: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” (Hebrews 11:1-2).

“Faith” gets used a lot in churches and Christian circles – so much so that it has lost its meaning. In the modern Christian culture, we say we have faith because we think about God and talk about Bible verses. But biblical faith is not just sitting around with our ethereal musings. By definition, faith is a belief that leads to a corresponding action – even when the reasons for that action are unclear and the results are uncertain.

Mind you, faith isn’t “blind” either. It sees the improbability of what God is asking. Faith does it anyway. Because faith “sees” God. This thing that we “hope for,” that “we do not see” is God. The NLT says “faith shows the reality.” The reality is God is trustworthy. He is faithful. He is true. Faith allows us to step out into the unknown, confident that He knows the end from the beginning and every step we will take along the way.

What has God asked of you that requires great faith? Trust Him and do the thing whether you understand the reasons or not. Do it when it doesn’t make a bit of sense. Do it even though you can’t see the outcome. If your knees are knocking – do it afraid, but do it. Then when God slides His hand in place just as your foot reaches the empty space, you will stand on the most solid ground you’ve ever known. Have faith Beloved. Just do it.

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.