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.

Hebrews: By faith Abraham . . .

“Abraham! Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love . . . and sacrifice him as a burnt offering . . . (Genesis 22:1-2).

As I meditate on Hebrews 11:17-19 (grab your Bible and read it) two questions come to mind: Why would God make such a horrific demand of Abraham and why would Abraham obey it? As I pondered those questions, two points emerge about Abraham and Isaac’s story.

To the first question, the author says that “God tested [Abraham],” (v. 17) and, as He often does, the Spirit whispered in my heart: “what does that mean?” The word “tested” actually has two meanings: to temp or to examine. How can you know which is happening? The difference is in the tester’s purpose: the devil tempts that the believer might fail God’s standards of faith and sin; God tests that He might determine and sharpen true character, with no desire of making the believer fail. God was examining Abraham’s willingness to obey Him, even in the most difficult requests.  Sometimes it’s difficult to understand who’s behind the test, but the way through is always the same. Keep your eyes on Jesus and your heart firmly planted in the Word. In either case, you will emerge with deeper roots of faith and a testimony of God’s power and goodness.

As to Abraham’s part, I never understood how he could willingly sacrifice his son until I studied his story alongside this Hebrews passage and Romans 4:18 – 20: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed . . . he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God.”  Did you catch it? Abraham believed the promise because of Who made it. He fully expected that God would still build a nation through Isaac and that meant Isaac would have to live. In his reasoning, he expected God to raise Isaac from the dead after the deed was done. But God stayed his hand at the last moment and provided a replacement sacrifice instead. The point is that Abraham’s faith was not in the promise – it was in the Promise-maker. And so must ours be.

Those are two solid truths you can build your life upon. God will never test you to make you fail and He will never make a promise He doesn’t intend to keep. Abraham is known for his great faith. Beloved, are you? Am I?

Hebrews: Don’t Turn Back

“I wanna go home!” Joy wailed in my arms.  It was the last day of VBS and everyone was in the “big church” for the grand finale. She wanted no part of it.  I coaxed her into sitting on my lap, but it didn’t last long.  She was trembling when her mommy took her out after just a couple of minutes. It’s not unusual when facing challenges to want to run back to what we know is safe. Even if safe is not God’s will for us.

Hebrews says the heroes of the Bible considered themselves “aliens and strangers” not just in the new lands they settled, but “on earth” because they were “looking for a country of their own” (Heb 11:13b-14). The place of promise. Abraham was given that very promise and he did settle in the land of Canaan, though it was not his possession. The writer added, “If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return” (v. 15). They could have gone back home at any time. Case in point:

Abraham realized that he needed a wife for his son, Isaac, but not from the local, pagan women.  He tasked his servant with going back to his hometown to bring back a woman from his own people for his son. The servant asked, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back . . . shall I take your son back to the country you came from? (Gen 24:5). Abraham answered an emphatic “No.” “Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” (v. 6). Why? Because the promise of God was tied to the land of Canaan. If he went back the promise would be lost. Abraham was protecting the promise by his obedience (Gen 24: 6-8).

The writer of Hebrews was addressing Jewish believers whose conversion had caused heartache and struggle. Many abandoned their faith in Christ and returned to the laws and life of Judaism. They returned to a dead end. This world is the domain of the evil one; it will never be home for those who love and follow Christ. But our promised land is coming (more on that later). It’s tempting to take the easy way and return to the world. But the easy way is not the eternal way. “A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.”1. Beloved, you were made for eternity.

  1. John A. Shedd, 1928

Pray Like Jesus

Paul said, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).  James counseled, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2).  And our Lord told us to “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  He assured us: “For everyone who asks received; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). We have God’s approval to “approach the throne of grace with confidence,” (Hebrews 4:16).  And nothing is off-limits – we are encouraged to pray about everything.

So what happens when we pray and the situation goes the other way?  The fact is, prayers don’t always get answered the way we hope.  What do we do with that?

We go to the garden with Jesus.  Just before his betrayal and death, Jesus prayed with deep earnestness for this cup of suffering to pass from Him.  He knew His Father had the power to take it away.  He said, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for You.”  Everything – curing cancer, healing broken bodies, taking away suffering.  But he came to the one prayer that God will always answer: “Not my will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  This has become my prayer too.  It is not a prayer of resignation – it is a prayer of trust and of confidence that God’s will, whether it agrees with my desire or not, is “good, pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Sometimes we pray and God miraculously answers.  But sometimes we pray, and God says, “No.” which, by the way, is still an answer.  I don’t know why some prayers are fulfilled and some are not.  What I do know beyond any shadow of a doubt is that I will continue to bring every petition to God, I will ask, and seek, and knock, and then I will put it all in His hands and surrender it to His will.  And I will trust that He is good.  Beloved, I encourage you to make Jesus’ prayer the prayer of your heart – may the Father’s will be done.

Hebrews: Broken Promises?

I’ve wrestled with a lot of Scripture in my lifetime. Some have been difficult to understand. Some have been hard to submit to. Some say things that just grate on my nerves. But the passage we’re looking at today has been one of the most challenging. The writer of Hebrews said, “All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised, they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance” (Heb 11:13). “But,” you wonder, “I thought you said that the foundation of faith is the faithfulness of God.” I did, I still do, and I always will.

So what are we supposed to do with this seeming contradiction? God is faithful, but these people didn’t receive what they were promised. There are things that I am convinced God has promised to me. Salvation for a lost loved one. A future as a real writer. From my current vantage point, neither seems likely, much less possible. What do I do? I wait. And I hope. How do I keep my hopes up in the waiting? By looking beyond what I can see and looking ahead to what I cannot see.

Abraham was promised a nation of descendants that outnumbered the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the beach. He died with eight sons (Ishmael, Isaac, and the sons Keturah bore to him – see Genesis 25:1-4) – and only one of those was the “promised son.” Not exactly a nation. He was promised land on which his family could settle. Abraham died in a tent owning nothing more than the plot where his wife was buried. Doesn’t sound like God kept His promises, does it?

One reason I struggle with this is because of the western perspective of individuality. In Abraham’s world, the deceased lived on in his descendants. Promises made were not limited to fulfillment in the individual’s life. It would be the sons of the sons of the son of the son of Abraham who would become a nation. It would be many more generations after that before they would take possession of the Promised Land. Abraham didn’t see it happen, but he believed with all of his heart that it would. That’s the kind of faith God can build on. Beloved, is that the kind of faith you have?

Hebrews: Believe God

I was 31 years old when my son was born. I was considered “high-risk” because of my age. It’s not so uncommon now, but thirty years ago it was a cause for concern, for good reason.  He and I both faced several serious health issues before we brought our baby boy home. Old people shouldn’t be having babies. Abraham knew all about that.

Hebrews 11:12 said that “. . .from this one man, and he as good as dead came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” Abraham was seventy-five and childless when God declared that he would become “a great nation” (Gen 12:2,4). Twenty-five years later Sarah bore Abraham, at a hundred years of age, a son. One son. But that one child was enough for God’s promise to be fulfilled. Fast forward several hundred years and Abraham’s descendants were making their escape from Egypt. The Bible says “There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children” (Ex. 12:37). Scholars figure more than two million people made that journey. From one son. From an old man and woman who were “as good as dead.”

In those twenty-five years between the promise given and the promise fulfilled, Abraham had a choice: believe God or give up. He did stumble in his faith when he agreed to Sarah’s plan of surrogacy, but ultimately, “[Abraham] did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Rom 4:20-21).

As I meditated on that verse just now the Spirit brought another to mind: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, not any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38). The word “convinced” is almost identical to the phrase “fully persuaded.”

You and I need something constant upon which we can build our lives. Abraham was persuaded that God is able and faithful to fulfill His promise. Paul was convinced of the unfailing love of God. Beloved, are you?

Hebrews: The Faith of Abraham

I prayed for seven years for a baby. Seven long, lonely, heartbreaking years of expensive fertility drugs and tears on Mother’s Day, hosting baby showers for my friends and making baby blankets to give away. I clung to one verse: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when dreams come true at last, there is life and Joy” (Pvb 13:12). And then it happened. To say that I was overjoyed would be a huge understatement.

Abraham and Sarah could relate. They waited a lot longer than I did, and did some pretty drastic things to fulfill their desire. Things that are still rocking our world today. But in his heart, Abraham never gave up. “By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered Him faithful who had made the promise” (Heb 11:11). Did you see it? The key to faith is knowing that God is faithful.

Faith isn’t some mystical quality that we conjure up within ourselves. In fact, faith has little to do with us. It has everything to do with God. The writer of Hebrews said, “[Abraham] considered God . . .” The word “considered” means to think and esteem. Abraham’s faith was built on thinking about God. And his thoughts naturally led him to esteem God – to see Him as great and mighty and thus, believe Him to be trustworthy.  Abraham heard the promise of God and, after thinking about the character of God, determined that God would do what He had promised. That is faith in a nutshell.

I’ve been told I am a woman of “great faith.” I don’t agree. What I am is a woman with a great God. Any ounce of faith I have is because God has proven Himself trustworthy in situations that demanded I either trust Him or get devoured by the enemy. He has never let me down. Not. One. Time. I’m in another one of those battles right now. I will either trust Him or I will be one more bleached skeleton in the desert. I’m putting my confidence in the one who has been faithful again and again and again. Beloved, whatever your circumstances I encourage you to have faith. Put your hope in the One who is forever faithful. The one who brings life and Joy.

Hebrews: A Forever Home

I don’t own a home. We rent a very nice house and love where we live, but now and then I wish I owned a place of my own. Homeownership is the “American dream.”. Renting seems like throwing money away, but really – all I need is a stable roof over my family’s head, and I have that now. And years of moving around as a military brat make me want to put down deep roots. But the truth is, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” The author of this song is unknown, but it could have been Abraham. 

Hebrews says that “By faith [Abraham] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents . . . For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (11:9, 10). Abraham had the promise from God of a land – “All the land that you see I will give you and your offspring forever” (Gen 13:15). It was a physical place, real ground he could set his feet upon, a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 33:3). But for Abraham, it wasn’t “home.” Nor is it for those who follow Christ.

Philippians 3:20 reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven.” And Peter said we are “aliens and strangers in this world” (1 Pet 2:11; also Heb 11:13). “Home” for the believer is nothing less than heaven. Jesus said because we belong to Him, we “do not belong to the world” (John 15:19).

He also said he was going to prepare a home for all who will believe and trust in Him.  “In my Father’s house are many rooms…I am going there to prepare a place for you, [and] I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3). You can bet it will be better than any house man could build. And did you catch the reference to “foundations?” John’s description of heaven in Revelation 21 noted that our heavenly home has a twelve-layer foundation – each one of precious stones (vs. 19-20). You can’t get more stable – or opulent than that.

I’ve seen some pretty impressive homes and I confess to a twinge of jealousy. But then I remember that “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop.”* My forever and ever home. (*Ira Stanphill – 1949)

Hebrews: The Way to the Promised Land

Roger Easton, Ivan Getting, Bradford Parkinson, and Dr. Gladys West are my heroes. Why? They are the creative minds behind the  Global Positioning System. Oh, how I thank God for my GPS. I am directionally challenged. My mom said you could take me to the backyard, spin me around twice, and I couldn’t find my way back to the house. My husband would agree. His favorite thing to do is take me on unfamiliar roads and ask – “Do you know where you are?” And I never do. I depend on my GPS like a drowning man depends on a life preserver.  No matter where I am, I can punch in where I need to go and this magical device not only shows me the way but tells me what lane to get in and says, “Turn right.” Thank you, Roger, Ivan, Bradford, and Gladys!

There is a man in the Bible who could have used a Garmin. The author of Hebrews said, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (11:8). Genesis reposts that all God told him was, “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you” (12:1). And Abe went just like that. “Okay God, lead the way!” Literally, every step he took was a step of faith.

Abraham takes up a lot of space in this Hall of Faith. We’ll be keeping company with him for a while. He did some pretty amazing things in his lifetime. He is the father of the Hebrew people. He truly is a hero. But his life points to the one he followed and trusted. The one who led him step-by-step-by-step. Sure, he did some foolish things along the way but even his mistakes speak of a Redeemer and Rescuer. And so can yours.

You probably won’t be called to leave everything and everyone behind and set out on an unknown path, but you will be called to live a life of faith. It seems overwhelming at first, maybe even frightening, but you’re not doing it alone. Just as God led Abraham, He will lead you. And just as Abraham did, you will find the Promised Land. For him, it was a physical plot of ground. For you Beloved, it’s so much more. It’s your Father’s heart.

Hebrews: Noah and (more than) the Ark

I grew up on Bible stories: Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Joshua and the Battle of Jericho (if you’re my age you just sang that one), and Noah and the Ark. Bible stories are great – when you’re a kid, but at some point, we have to grow up. We have to dig deeper into the familiar stories of our childhood and find the treasures under the surface. Noah and the Ark is a good place to start.

The writer of Hebrews placed Noah in this chapter of heroes – not for the ark that he built, but for the reason he built it.  “By faith, Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family” (Heb 11:7). What was the “thing not yet seen?” Rain. Since creation “streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground” (Gen 2:6). So when God comes to Noah and says, “I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights” (Gen 7:4), Noah had no idea what “rain” was. He had to believe in something he had never seen. Noah obeyed because he was sure that God was going to do what He said He would do.

But there’s another phrase in the verse that gets overlooked: “in holy fear.” Wait – Why was he afraid of God? He is all love, love, love. “Holy fear” means Noah reverenced God. He was in awe of His greatness and power. He respected God. That has been lost and it shows. Noah believed when the Lord said, “I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens . . .” (Gen 6:17). He also believed in God’s promise to save him and his family (Gen 6:18). He did what God told him to do because he believed in God’s power and authority to destroy all living creatures and in God’s salvation.

That’s the foundation of the gospel. I know we’re not supposed to re-write the Bible, but I want to tweak John 3:16 just a little: “For God so loved the (sinful, disobedient, condemned) world that He gave His one and only (perfect, holy) Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish (as he deserves to) but have eternal life.” The gospel of love is incomplete without the truth of man’s sin and condemnation. We have to tell people why they need to be saved. Noah believed in both the judgment and the mercy of God. Do you, Beloved?