Hebrews: Turn Around

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“Turn around. Don’t drown.” “Turn back. Bridge out.” Road signs tell the driver one thing: you need to reverse course. You need to change your direction. You are on a dangerous path. They are signs we would do well to heed. The Bible also puts up signs that call us to make a change in the way we are going. Scripture calls it “repentance” and we would also do well to heed these warnings.

The writer of Hebrews focuses on one aspect of repentance in his discussion of elementary teachings: “Repentance from acts that lead to death” (6:1) Remember that he has been talking to “lazy” believers who are unwilling to grow in the matters of the faith. They are content with surface knowledge – just enough to make sure they escape hell. You know, fire insurance.  Our author says that this is a foundational truth. I wonder if 21st-century Christians understand it at all.

What is repentance? Paul described it like this: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret . . .” (2 Corinthians 7:10). It is a spiritual and moral change of attitude toward God which turns an individual from sin to God. It is recognizing the dangerous road we are on, how we got on it, and turning back to God. Repentance must have both sorrow and turning. We are often sorry for our behavior (well, let’s be honest, we’re sorry we got caught), but that doesn’t mean we turn back to God.  The Prodigal Son is the perfect expression of repentance.

So what does “acts that lead to death” mean? Other translations may say, “dead works.” This is referring to anything man does in an attempt to save himself. Remember that the readers were largely Jewish, and Judaism had 613 commandments – expounded from the original ten commandments that God had given Moses. These – including circumcision – were the Jew’s “gateway” to salvation. Do all the right things in all the right ways and you will be right before God. The problem was, no one could be right before God even if they followed every jot and tittle of those 613 rules. In the same way, non-Jews cannot be right with God by being “good enough.” Because we never will be.  

Salvation has never been about what we do or don’t do. It is always and only about the work that Jesus has done on the cross. Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Christus. Grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Beloved, it’s not too late to turn around. God will always welcome repentant sinners home.

Hebrews: Why Did Jesus Come?

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Over the past several weeks in Hebrews, we’ve focused on eight theological reasons why God sent His Son from glory to this sinful earth. Let’s put them all together for a recap.

  1. God sent Jesus to “bring many sons to glory” (v. 10). To bring lost human beings – now redeemed – into His eternal family.
  2. He sent Jesus to earth to “Make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering” (v. 10b). Remember that “perfect” means complete and doesn’t imply that Jesus was every imperfect. His role as “the author of [our] salvation” was completed by his suffering on the cross.
  3. Jesus came so that He could present us to God as “the children God has given me” (v. 13). Children who were set apart for Him and transformed into His own image.
  4. God sent Jesus to “destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” v. 14). Jesus came to fulfill God’s first promise “to crush the head” of the devil (Genesis 3:15).
  5. In destroying the devil, Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (v. 15). As children of God, we do not fear the end of this life because we know that we have eternal life with Him in heaven forever.
  6. God sent Jesus to be for us “a merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17). He is the only high priest who does not need to make atonement for His own sins before He can atone for ours.
  7. As our high priest, Jesus came to “make atonement for the sins of the people” (v. 17b). By His death, He made us “at one” with God as we were “me[a]nt” to be.
  8. God sent Jesus “to help those who are being tempted” (v. 18).  He suffered from the same demonic temptation you and I face. He understands and He is able and more than willing to help us.

All of this comes back to one core reason God sent Jesus to earth: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God loves His creation. He wants to redeem sinful humans and restore the relationship for which we were created. He did that through His Son. He did that for you and me. Beloved, God gave the most precious thing in heaven to save you forever. Because He loves you.

I’m Sorry

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We’re trying to teach Joy to apologize when she does something wrong, especially when she hurts someone. She’s picking up that lesson pretty well. Tonight during her bath she was playing with finger paints again (it’s a bribe to get her in the tub) and she started to stick her paint-covered finger in her mouth. I said, “No Joy! Don’t put the paint in your mouth!” She looked up at me and said “Sorry, Nana.” “It’s okay,” I said, “You didn’t do anything wrong. Just don’t put the paint in your mouth – it’s yucky.” That was different from the other night when she got mad at me for taking something away from her that she was misusing. She lashed out – literally – and scratched me with her fingernails (that need trimming). Let me tell you – it hurt! Her mommy took her to time out in the other room and told her she had to tell Nana she was sorry. After a few minutes, I came into the room, and she lifted her tear-streaked face and said, “I sorry Nana.” I scooped her up in my arms and this time I said, “Thank you for saying ‘Sorry’ Joy. Nana loves you.” I didn’t tell her it was okay because what she had done was definitely not okay. It was wrong, and she needed to know it was wrong. But she also needed to know that saying “Sorry” was the right thing to do – and that Nana would always love her no matter what.

You and I have done wrong – we have sinned against God (Romans 3:23). We have broken His laws and offended His holiness. What we have done is not okay. Our actions deserve punishment – much more than a time-out. According to the Bible, we deserve death (Romans 6:23).  But God is gracious to us sinners (Romans 3:24) and that grace cost Him everything – “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed . . . but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18, 19).

Beloved, of Jesus, when you and I sin, we can look to God and say “I’m sorry,” and know that, while our actions are not okay, our relationship with God is. Because Jesus paid the highest price to make us okay. Because God loves you – no matter what.

Hebrews: No Sting in Death

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My mom passed away 34 years ago at the very young age of 57. In her last months, I was able to spend almost every day with her.  We talked about so much – sewing projects and her flower garden and recipes and memories. We talked about my friend who was expecting a baby. But we didn’t talk about heaven or Jesus or eternal life.  There’s no doubt in my mind and heart that my mom was saved and I believe I will see her – and my brother – in heaven someday. But she tried to keep our conversations light and I didn’t have the courage or knowledge to broach deeper subjects with her. After she died, I cleaned out her room – my last act of service from a daughter to her mother, I found a poem she wrote. The only line I remember is: “I looked into the darkness and no tomorrow could I see. . .” There was so much sadness in those words. She knew where she was going, but she also knew what she was leaving behind.

The author of Hebrews highlighted yet another reason why the Father would send His Son to earth to take on human flesh: “ . . . so that He might . . . free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15).  Who it is that fears death? The one who believes that life ends. The one who believes that there is nothing beyond this life. But for the believer, life doesn’t truly end. We simply change addresses – an earthly zip code for a heavenly one. 2 Corinthians 5:8 says “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (KJV).” And in the presence of the Lord is eternal life.  Jesus declared, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Paul asked, “Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).  It has lost its prick in the promise of eternal life. Even though my Mom didn’t want to leave her loved ones, she was not afraid to die. There was sadness in her poem, but the sting of death was gone. She may not have had another earthly tomorrow, but she has an eternity full of them.

Hebrews: Don’t Ignore Jesus

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Have you ever received a message and found another message lurking “between the lines?”  Sometimes reading the Bible is like that. That’s why careful observation is vitally important in Bible study. Hebrews 2:1-4 is one of those message-behind-the-message texts. You recall from our last devotional when the author of Hebrews cautioned his readers to “pay more careful attention . . . to what [they] have heard” because they were in danger of drifting away from the truth. They were about to forsake Jesus for a false “salvation.” He wanted them to think about the reality of their salvation in Christ and stand firm in the truth. The underlying message throughout Hebrews is a warning not to abandon faith in Christ.

“For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation” (Heb. 2:2-3a). The “message spoken by angels” was the Old Testament Law, which carried tremendous weight. Violation of even a single command brought punishment and demanded an elaborate system of sacrifice and atonement. What’s more, those who deliberately violated God’s Law faced death (Num. 15:30).  The gospel story is that a new covenant is now in place and Jesus has taken on the punishment we deserve, even to the point of death. If we ignore this great salvation Christ offers, we will not escape our due punishment. What a terrifying prospect to face a holy God without the blood of Jesus!

If, the author continues, the old covenant that came via angels was binding and every sin was punished, rejecting the salvation of the new covenant carries an even higher penalty – eternal condemnation – because it came through the Lord Himself. He added, “God also testified to it by signs, wonders, and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will” (v. 4). It’s as if he said, “Don’t take my word for it, look at the evidence of all Jesus did and all His followers did through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

The message of salvation through Jesus alone has the weight of heaven behind it, the authority of Christ within it, and the power of the Holy Spirit Spirit through it.  Beloved, I implore you – do not ignore Jesus. “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Hebrews – God speaks

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Hebrews is one of the most challenging books of the Bible for contemporary Christians. It is full of references that would be familiar to a Jewish-Christian congregation but less so for you and me. To grasp the author’s original intent, we will be dipping frequently into the book of Leviticus to understand the many references to the Old Testament sacrificial system. Don’t worry, it won’t be boring!

The most prominent subject in Hebrews is Jesus.  His Name – and names (more than twenty) –  and roles are the core of this message. There are also significant warnings we’ll discuss, warnings that may not sit too comfortably with the 21st-century church. But we will be faithful to the Scriptures and will sprinkle no sugar on the text to make it go down easier.

Hebrews opens with the reminder that God has been speaking faithfully for a very long time.

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways,” (Hebrews 1:1). The forefathers would be Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their descendants – the earliest generations of the Jewish people who would become the nation of Israel.  The prophets were men like Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and all the rest. 

In the days of the first humans, God communed and communicated with Adam and Eve, “walking in the Garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). Wouldn’t you love to hear those conversations? I like to imagine God telling them about how He created all the things they saw as they walked. I wonder if they laughed together over the platypus? But then along came a snake with an apple and the gentle conversations were over. From then on, the Lord God had to talk about sin and death. And, thankfully, redemption. The Bible tells the story of our Redeemer. With every word in the Scriptures,  God spoke about His Son, and then “in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:2a – emphasis added). And what the Son speaks is important. At the transfiguration, while Peter was rambling about booths, a bright cloud surrounded them, and “a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him.’” (Matthew 17:5). (When we finish Hebrews, we’re going to study the Red Letters.) John opened His gospel by saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” . . . “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:1, 14).

This study of Hebrews is all about what God said in His Word – the Bible – and through His Word – Jesus. Are you ready to hear the Word of God speak, Beloved?

More Than Just a Name

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Do you recognize any of these people? Vincent Damon Furnier, Barry Alan Pinkus, Harry Lillis Crosby, Robert Allen Zimmerman, Paul Hewson, Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPiere, Reginald Dwight, Steveland Judkins, and Columcille Gibson. You may know them better as Alice Cooper, Barry Manilow, Bing Crosby, Bob Dylan, Bono, Cher, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and Mel Gibson. It’s not uncommon to change one’s name to fit a particular persona or just because you don’t like the name you were given at birth.

I have a love-hate relationship with my name. Dorcas is not exactly a common moniker. It is frequently mispronounced and often misspelled. It was the cause of a lot of teasing and unkindness when I was a kid. I toyed around with nicknames, “DeeDee,” “Dory,” and “Dixie” until I borrowed Beth from my middle name, Elizabeth. That’s how I’m known from Tallahassee to Tuscaloosa to Graceville. When we moved back home after 22 years away, I had to reacquaint myself with Dorcas again.

But I discovered the story of Dorcas (Tabitha in the Greek) in Acts (9:36-43) and found beauty in my name. Dorcas was a seamstress who made clothes for the widows and the poor. She fell ill and died and the townspeople sent for Peter who prayed, and she was restored to life. Naturally, I identify with her because of our shared name, and because I also sew. But recently a new parallel came to light that makes me love my name. Dorcas was dead. I was once dead in my trespasses and sins. Dorcas could not raise herself to life. I could not raise myself out of my sinful, dead state. Peter came to help Dorcas. Jesus came to help me. God raised Dorcas back to life through Peter’s intercession. God raised my dead spirit to everlasting life through Jesus’ death and resurrection. He used the same divine power to raise us both from death to life.

Dorcas’ story ends by saying “this became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord” (v. 42). I want to tell the world what Jesus did for me so that many people will believe in the Lord. It doesn’t matter to me if you call me Dorcas or Beth, as long as you let me tell you about my Jesus who brings life out of death.

But Can I Trust Him?

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Today I came across a Scripture that is bittersweet to me: “Therefore I [Jesus] tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Matthew 11:24).  Today of all days it touches a deep place in my heart. Today is my Mom’s birthday. No, this is not a “Happy birthday to my Mom in Heaven” post. If heaven really is heaven, God has banned social media completely. She will never see it. She doesn’t need to. I’m pretty sure they don’t celebrate earthly birthdays in heaven. My Mom was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1982. After all kinds of treatments, the doctors told her there was nothing left they could do for her. Matthew 11:24 came to my attention so I boldly asked God to heal my Mom. And no one on the face of the earth ever believed more than I did. As she grew progressively worse, I didn’t allow myself one single doubt. I knew my Mom was going to be okay. She died on April 5, 1987.  So who failed – me or God? Jesus said, “ask and believe” and I took Him at His Word. I believed with every fiber of my being. For more than thirty years, every time I come across this verse, it takes my breath away.

Every syllable of God’s Word is true. My belief that God would heal my Mom was as well. How do I resolve this?  I don’t. But here’s what I’ve come to understand. God is sovereign and reserves the right to answer my prayers according to His will, even when it differs from mine. I do not always understand His will. But He is God and I am not.  I could have let my Mom’s death push me away from Him. Instead,, it pushed me closer, because, despite missing my Mom for thirty-plus years, I know that my Father is still trustworthy and loving and good and He is perfectly faithful to His Word. I wish I could wrap this up in a nice, neat bow of encouragement. This is not that kind of devotional. I don’t have any profound words today. This is just the heart of a daughter who misses her Mother and trusts her Heavenly Father.

Death to Life

You may not know this, but I have a granddaughter – I know, I rarely ever speak about her. 😊 She is awesome. Funny, loving, generous, a wonderful dancer, brilliant conversationalist, and gives hugs that can cure whatever ails you. She is so very sweet and precious. Almost perfect – but not quite. At 17 months, she can be rebellious and stubborn. She knows she is not to stand on her toys. But she will do it while looking you dead in the eye. She also has a temper. I may know where that comes from. Bottom line: she has a sin nature. She got it from her parents. They got it from their parents, who got it from their parents, and on and on it goes all the way back to the original sinners, Adam and Eve.

This semester I’ve been digging deep into their story.  Uniquely made above all God’s creation, they were fashioned by His own hands out of the dust of the earth and given His own breath to bring them to life. They were also given His image to enable a relationship between the Creator and the created. They were perfect. But sin entered the picture through a chatty serpent who deceived them into doing the only thing they were forbidden to do: eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That one act condemned every human being ever born to share in their punishment – death (Romans 6:23). Not merely the ceasing of life, but death in the sense of separation from God. He alone gives life, and apart from Him, there is no life. Oh, we’re breathing and walking around in this world, but spiritually, we are dead. Dead people walking in our sin nature. Meanwhile, the image of God has been put to sleep in man.

We need to reverse that. Paul wrote, “Wake up, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14). The sin nature needs to be put to death and the image of God in man reawakened. It’s the only hope we have. I can’t do it and neither can you. But Someone did. Paul said, “Those who received God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:17). Through faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the sin nature is put to death and the image of God is awakened. It’s not just the only hope you have Beloved, it’s the only hope you need.

God Doesn’t Make Watches

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“I’ll see you in heaven,” I said to my Mom as peace fell over her still face. It’s the same thought I had when I got the call several weeks ago that my brother had passed away. For the believer, to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Truly, I envy them. I long to be home – eternally home. But it occurred to me that I never have to tell Jesus, “I’ll see you in heaven.” Yes, I will “see” Him in the sense that I will, like my mother and brother, gaze into His face in heaven. But I am not separated from Him at all. Over and over in Scripture, He promised, “I am with you,” and I know that He is.

There was a theory espoused in the late 18th century called “the Watchmaker Analogy.” Just as watches are set in motion by watchmakers, after which they operate according to their pre-established mechanisms, God created the world, set the laws of nature in motion, and then sat back on His heavenly throne to watch it all unfold without His regular involvement unless there was a catastrophic need to intervene. (2020 would be a good time.) It allowed for theism – the belief in the existence of a Creator – and evolution – the natural process of selection – to coexist without firmly standing in one camp or the other.

That’s not the God of the Bible, nor is it the God of my life. The God I know is not sitting back with disinterest, He is actively engaged in the world and even in the minute details of my everyday life. He is passionate about His creation and especially about His children. Recently I cried to God over hard stuff in my life, and He assured me of His ever-watchful eye and His hand poised to act at the right moment.

This life is hard. It’s doubly hard when you think you’re alone. It is comforting to know that the God who promised His presence to Abraham and Moses and Joshua and David and the Apostles and Paul has also promised to be present and active in your life as well. Beloved, you don’t have to wait for heaven. God is with you now, today. He is El Hayyay – the God of your life.