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 – Back to Elementary School

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I hate math. I always have and I always will. I know it’s important to a functional society, but it has always been a huge struggle for me. I have a word-brain, not a numbers-brain – and whose bright idea was it to put letters in numerical equations?  I cried my way through math homework, from first grade through college. My math pre-test was so poor I had to take two “remedial” math courses before I got to the one that actually counted toward my grade. I had to go back to the basics – addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division – before I could move on to College Algebra.

When the author of Hebrews wrote about the lack of spiritual development among his readers, he said, “Let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity” (6:1). Just as I had to relearn elementary math, they had to relearn some basic stuff about the Christian faith. So what were these elementary, foundational teachings? “repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (6:1-2). I dare say that believers in the modern era don’t even grasp these “elementary” concepts of the faith. For contemporary Western Christians, the basics are things like, “Jesus loves me,” having devotional time a few days a week, learning about disconnected Bible stories, and showing up at church at least two Sundays of the month (at least we’re not Chreasters, right?). We only want to know about how God desires to bless us and how just much we can flirt with sin and still take the Lord’s Supper. If verses 1-2 are describing “elementary truths,” then our churches are filled with toddlers today.  If those subjects are spiritual “milk” then it’s no wonder the 21st Century church is dangerously malnourished.

The writer has said, “Let us leave the elementary teachings . . . and go on to maturity. And God permitting, we will do so.” (v. 1,3). Oh, Beloved, God permits. It is His desire for us to be mature and complete – which the Greek renders as “perfect” – in our faith. But before we can get there, we have to start here, in elementary school. Over the next few devotionals, we will fill our cups with milk and try to grow up in Christ.

This is Huge!

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Sometimes I can read a verse a hundred times and on pass 101 something clicks and blows my mind. Last night was #101 for Hebrews 5:14. The writer had been admonishing his readers for refusing to grow up in their faith and take in the rich, nourishing “meat” of biblical truth. They were satisfied to know just enough to ensure their salvation. “What’s wrong with that?” you may ask. “Isn’t that what Christianity is all about?” The core of Christianity is the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. But for the spiritual babies among us, and for this “mature” teacher, there is something huge that we’ve been missing.

“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Pay attention to “by constant use have trained themselves.” Remember that the writer had declared that they were lazy and undisciplined in their spiritual growth. He was urging them to consistently and vigorously “exercise” in the Word of God. For what purpose?” And this is where I have holy goosebumps. “to distinguish good from evil. “Yeah, yeah, that’s good.” But wait, there’s more – and the only reason this caught my attention is because I wrote a school paper recently that made this very point.

Go back to the Garden of Eden, and Genesis 3 where Eve is having a foolish conversation with a serpent who said, “God knows that when you eat [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge good and evil] your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v. 5). And it happened just as he said; they ate and they suddenly knew things they’d never known – evil things. But it was knowledge they could not bear for they did not have God’s divine capacity, in knowing good and evil, to distinguish good from evil. There’s a difference. That’s why I am so excited about this verse. Hebrews 5:14 says that by consistent, disciplined training in God’s Word we can distinguish one from the other.

 “Good and evil” is used only five times in the Bible – four of which appear in the Fall narrative. “Good from evil” only appears once in the entire Bible – right here in our key passage. Do you see it? This evil knowledge that was unleashed on the human race by Adam and Eve’s sin can only be brought under control by consuming and applying the Scriptures diligently and purposefully.

In my spirit, I am standing on a table shouting: “YOU CAN OVERCOME EVIL THROUGH THE WORD OF GOD!” You can and you must or you will forever struggle with the sinful nature you inherited from the first sinners. This is huge! This is life-changing. I implore you, take this to heart. Pick up your Bible Beloved, and be set free.

Hebrews: Are You Ready to Eat?

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My mom said when I was a baby and she fed me baby food at the supper table I would get mad that I couldn’t have the stuff everyone else was eating. I wanted chicken and corn and beans and potatoes too! When I got my first taste of real mashed potatoes, I refused to go back to gray mushy cereal. I was a big girl with a big appetite. You can look at me now and see that I haven’t changed.

The writer of Hebrews said, “though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truth of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness” (Hebrews 5:12-13) After confronting his readers with their spiritual laziness, he chastises them because they have refused to move past the “elementary truths” of God’s Word and sink their teeth into something solid. What would he say to the church today?

I have long felt that we are missing something important in the way we do Sunday School, and it shows clearly in the lack of biblical literacy in the church (specifically the church of the west). I “taught” preschool Sunday School when my son was small and we stuck with the very simple lessons of “Jesus loves me,” “God made the world,” “God made the animals and stuck them on a boat with Noah.” I moved up to elementary students and we progressed to selected Bible stories. Then I taught Sunday School to college-aged students for a season and I was saddened that many of them still saw the Bible as a string of disconnected narratives.  I recently started teaching a ladies’ Sunday School class at my church as was given the requisite quarterly, but I never use it. I prefer to teach the Bible from – get this – the Bible. We’re starting in Genesis and working our way through. It will take us several years to reach the end, but I want to show the ladies that the Bible is not just 66 unconnected books, but one seamless, beautiful account of God’s sovereignty, power, righteousness, and love. It’s the story of the ages for the ages.

Friend, you can’t survive spiritually on pablum. You need meat to sustain you. You need food that will stick to your ribs – deep truths that take a while to digest. Beloved, are you ready to come to the table?

Hebrews – The Deep Things of God

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I remember it like it was last week, even though it was some twenty years ago. I stood in the doorway of my pastor/boss’ office and said, “I’m content to know the basics about the Bible. I don’t need all that deep stuff. ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’ is good enough for me.”  I thought at the time that Pastor Mike was the one chuckling, but all these years later I realize it was the Lord. He – the Lord, that is – was laughing because He was going to unleash a fire in me to study and know His Word beyond anything I ever imagined. He was going to take me deep – so deep that I would need a spiritual oxygen tank to survive. The passion to dig and study and mine for “buried treasure” hits me every time I open my Bible. It has propelled me through eight years of seminary. It has compelled me to be a Bible teacher. I will never be satisfied with anything less.

The author of Hebrews understood that surface knowledge of the things of God will not sustain us for long. He said, “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn” (5:11). I touched on this verse when I launched this study, but I think it bears repeating. The phrase “slow to learn” is not referring to a learning disability, but a learning disinterest. “Slow” means “lazy and undisciplined, no longer trying to understand.” The writer said there’s more they could know but they didn’t care to learn it. They were content to know just enough to get into heaven. I suppose that’s okay if your goal is eternal fire insurance.  But why would you deny yourself the deeper things of the faith? Why would you not want to know all you can about God? What could the world possibly teach you that is more important, more thrilling, more breath-taking than knowing the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16)?

You don’t have to go to seminary to learn the deeper things of the faith. But you do have to invest time and attention in God’s Word.  I love being a Bible teacher. But honestly, my goal is to teach myself out of a job. I want you to have that hunger for yourself. Beloved, there is no greater quest than to know God. Won’t you let Him captivate your heart?

Hebrews: Jesus Understands

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Joy helping Nana make “pankins”

Every Saturday Joy and I make “pankins” (pancakes) for breakfast. She loves to dump all the ingredients into the bowl and “crush” the eggs” then stir the batter. It is our tradition and I love it probably more than she does. I handle the skillet, which is positioned out of her reach, always telling her, “Don’t touch the skillet, it’s very hot. It will hurt you.” This past Saturday, she discovered that for herself. Before I could stop her, she stretched across the counter and barely touched the edge of the skillet. She didn’t have a mark on her fingers but it sure scared her. Later, watching me clean up, she said, “Careful Nana, dat skillet is hot.” I’m pretty sure I won’t have to tell her again not to touch it.

The writer of Hebrews, in discussing Jesus’ final hours, said “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from what He suffered and, once made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him . . .” (5:8). Just as we saw back in 2:10, Jesus was, is, and will forever be the perfect Son of God. So why would the Scriptures say He had to “learn obedience” – wasn’t He already obedient? Absolutely. He didn’t learn obedience for His sake. He learned it for ours.

Remember, the author has been building a case that Jesus is a worthy, compassionate high priest who can sympathize with us in all of our human struggles. He had previously said that “He had to be made like His brothers (us) in every way” (2:17). Including obedience. He didn’t need to learn obedience to keep him from the harsh consequences of disobedience like my granddaughter learned. No, it was to give us a high priest we could identify with. Perfect people are not much help to imperfect folks like you and me. His struggle to submit to the Father’s plan gives us the confidence to call out for His help when we are in the same battle. The best high priest is the one who can help us out of His own experience.

Beloved, what is that thing you’re clinging to that is so hard to submit to God? What has God called you to that you’re not sure you’re willing to do? Jesus understands. He can help you be obedient. He’s not so far above you that you can’t reach Him. He’s right there in the garden, on His knees.

Hebrews: When God Says “No.”

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“We’re going to pray, and God will give us the funds for this new building,” the preacher bellowed, and the crowd, whipped into a frenzy shouted their agreement. “Yes!” “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” I, however, did not. The woman beside me said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you believe God can do it?” “Oh, I believe God can do it, I just don’t believe He’s obligated to do it.”  She looked at me like I had two heads and turned her back to me. Please don’t misunderstand me, I absolutely believe that God answers prayers – He’s answered more than a few of mine recently.  But some of my prayers are still hanging, and for some of my prayers, the answer was “No.” God knew better. God always answers according to what He knows is better – what fits His good, pleasing, and perfect will (Romans 12:2). Sometimes that means we don’t get what we pray for. Even Jesus got a “No” from His Father.

In our last Hebrews devotional, I left you in the Garden of Gethsemane, listening to Jesus plead with His Father, “Take this cup from me . . .” Let’s leave quietly and head back to Hebrews 5 to see how it came out. The writer said, “He was heard.” Jesus’ word did not fall to the ground nor fall on deaf ears. His Father heard His prayers and pleading. So Jesus got what He wanted, right? After all, the Father listened to His Son “because of His reverent submission” (v.7b). Yet you know the rest of the story. God said “No” to Jesus. And He knew He would – the eternal fate of the entire human race hung in the balance. If God had saved Jesus from the cross, you and I would be lost forever.

What do we do with those “Nos?” The same thing Jesus did. “He learned obedience from what He suffered,” (v. 8a). We accept the “No” as coming from the heart of our loving, gracious, all-knowing Father and submit to Him in obedience without grumbling. Are we disappointed? Sure – and we can take that disappointment right back to Him and say, “I’m surrendering this to You because I trust You, but my heart is hurting.” God honors honesty and “He heals the brokenhearted” (Psalm 147:3).  Whether the answer is “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait,” you can trust the heart of your Father, Beloved. It’s the same heart that said “No” to His Son so that He could say “Yes” to you.

Hebrews: Jesus, Man of Sorrows

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I’ve been told I am a “strong” person. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I appear strong because I do a pretty good job of hiding when I am falling apart, although some of you have learned to read between the lines. Like you, I have cried and yelled and begged God to change certain things in my life. Like you, I have struggled with depression and anxiety and despair.  But you and I are in good company.  Even the strongest person in human history came under the weight of emotional affliction.

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the One who could save Him from death . . .” (Hebrews 5:7). If you didn’t know who Jesus was, you would probably think that this guy went into whatever he was facing kicking and screaming all the way. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Luke said, “As the time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (9:51). Jesus walked toward the cross with determination. But the Scriptures are clear that it was a terrible strain on Him.

Of course, you know that this verse is speaking of His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His arrest. Jesus was “very sorrowful and troubled,” even “to the point of death” (Matt. 26:37, 38). He said, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). Luke said His anguish as He prayed produced “sweat like drops of blood falling to the ground” (22:44).  He pleaded, Abba, Father, everything is possible for you Take this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). I’ve prayed much the same thing, and I am sure you have as well.  The difference is, you and I bear much smaller burdens compared to Jesus, who was feeling the weight of the sin of the entire human race being piled on His shoulders. Isaiah called Him “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3). So when the author of Hebrews says that Jesus, our great high priest can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). it is because He also felt the weight of despair. It was one of the most “human” moments in Jesus’ life.

I’m going to leave you right here, Beloved, in the Garden with Jesus, watching Him cry to His Father. But know that He was not lost to despair, nor are you and I. When we return to Hebrews, we will see that this very human moment is also a moment of divine glory.

Hebrews: Jesus – The Forever High Priest

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I used to be so star-struck when I was younger. I bought every magazine that would tell me all about my favorite singers and actors. I watched every award show and marveled at the beautiful people. Then I grew up. I began to see how egotistical these stars were. I lost interest in the glory-hogs of the entertainment world. Those who seek fame and notice will gladly sell their soul to get it.  I wish we could say that preachers and people in ministry are immune to the lure of fame, but we know that’s not the case.

In our last Hebrews devotional, we discussed the calling of the priestly line of Levi and especially of the high priest. The author said, “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God” (5:4). The office of the high priest became increasingly political as foreign rulers appointed high priests who would best serve their purposes. But Jesus was called to the position.  “So Christ did not take upon Himself the glory of becoming a high priest” (v. 5). Jesus didn’t go after the position of the high priest out of ego or political ideology, but, in keeping with the nature of the role, out of humility and obedience. The author quoted a verse from the Psalms: “You are my Son, today I have become your Father” (v. 5b; also Psalm 2:7). This is a reference to the resurrection of Jesus which authenticated His claim to be the Son of God. He also identified Jesus as “a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (v. 6; also Psalm 110:4). Melchizedek was an Old Testament king and priest who appeared in the account of Abraham in Genesis 14:18-20. We’ll dig into his story in chapter 7, but the point is that Jesus, like Melchizedek, was appointed to the priesthood – and in Jesus’ case anointed as a high priest by God Himself. The high priest served until his death – but Jesus is alive forever so His priesthood lives on eternally. That means in His role as high priest He forever advocates for us before the Father (1 John 2:1). I find a lot of comfort in that because I am very human in my weaknesses and failures.

Beloved, you are never without your great high priest. When you fall, Jesus leans over to the Father, shows Him the scars on His hands, and says, “She’s covered by my blood.” I believe that makes the Father smile.

Hebrews: Church Secretaries and High Priests

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Me and Carol Dehner hard at work at Tallahassee Heights United Methodist Church

I worked in church administration for more than 25 years. I often considered myself a Levite. Levi, one of the sons of Jacob, would become the priestly line for all of Israel. It was “the family business.” God called Aaron to be the first high priest, his sons to be “assistant” priests, and the remaining Levites to be their assistants “doing the work at the Tent of Meeting” (Numbers 8:19). They managed the mundane details of the tabernacle so Aaron and his sons could perform sacrifices and offerings to the Lord. Like a Levi, I was the creator of bulletins and newsletters, handler of mail, and keeper of the membership records. I freed up the pastor to focus on the ministry of the Word, care of the members, and leading the church as God directed. It was not the weighty stuff the pastor did, but it helped the church run (fairly) smoothly.

Like a pastor, the high priest had a serious responsibility and it was not a job for just anyone. It was a divinely given role. In our ongoing study of Hebrews, the writer said, “Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin.” (Hebrews 5:1). It was the most important position in Israel. The high priest represented the people before God and represented God before the people. In addition to interceding for them, He also taught them about righteousness. “He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray,” (v. 2a). Because of who he represented, the high priest was expected to be holy – to be set apart from the common and certainly from sin. But at the end of the day, he was still a flesh-and-blood man like every other man. Listen to the second half of verse 2-3: “since himself is subject to weakness.” The high priest had ”to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people.”

A Christian pastor is likewise called to his position. “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was” (v. 4). After many years of working with pastors, I can testify to the fact that it is not a job; it is a holy calling. (I could rant about pastors not being fit for the position, but I won’t.)

You’re probably wondering, what does my career and an OT history lesson have to do with the church today? I’m glad you asked, and I will answer – in our next Hebrews devotional.