Hebrews: See You on the Mountain

When last we met over the book of Hebrews I told you about my childhood neighbor, Mr. Estes. Tall, broad-shouldered, and gruff of voice. I was terrified of him. One day I kicked my ball to my friend and it rolled across the road, down his driveway, through the open gate, and into his backyard. Right where he was watering Mrs. Estes’ plants. It stopped when it bumped his foot. Well, that’s one ball I would never see again. Petra was so terrified she ran back to her house at the end of the street. I started walking toward my house when I heard him call out to me. At least his lips were moving, but it wasn’t his gruff voice. This voice was kind and gentle. “Hey little girl, your ball rolled over here. Come get it, I’ll meet you at the end of the driveway.” Something in this different voice told me I could trust him and so I cautiously walked over. He handed me the ball and then asked me about school and my baby brother and stuck his hand in his pocket to pull out a butterscotch candy – my favorite.  We stood there for several minutes chatting and when I walked back to my yard I had a new friend who always kept a pocket full of butterscotchies for me.

The writer of Hebrews had talked about Mount Sinai, the mountain on which God descended with “fire, darkness, gloom, and storm” and the fearsome voice of the Lord (Heb 12:18-21). But he contrasted that mountain with another – Mount Zion. “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.  You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in Joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (Heb 12:22-23a). Mount Zion is a reference to the heavenly Jerusalem that will be the eternal home for all God’s people in the coming age. This is the place that John saw in Revelation 21:1-2. Unlike Mount Sinai, Mount Zion was a place of absolute Joy – “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (v. 23b ).

Here we will be welcome to approach God – not just in prayer (Heb 10:22) but physically – even face to glorious face. This is where believers will dwell in the presence of God, where we can once again walk in the cool of the day with our Creator (Gen 3:8). This is where my mom and dad and brother wait for me. This is where I will meet my heroes of the Bible: Deborah, Dorcas, Anna, and Ezra. And this is where I will throw my arms around my Savior’s neck and thank Him for saving a wretch like me. I have a question for you: Will I see you there too? Beloved, is your name written in heaven?

Hebrews: Your Cheering Section

When I finally pulled the trigger on college I was blessed with a great support system. My husband was my #1 cheerleader and was so patient with the time I spent on my studies. My best friend covered me in prayer all the way through. But there was one particular friend who was the most helpful because she had just completed the same course of study at the same school. She was a Godsend, full of experience and wise counsel. I called her with a thousand questions and more than a few panic attacks. She knew what I was dealing with and how I could get through it. She shared her wisdom and kept me going when I wanted to quit. I am so grateful to you, Merideth Middleton.

That is the same spirit behind Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” For several weeks we have studied the “greats of the faith” – Enoch, Noah, Moses, Abraham, and even Rahab – a prostitute.  They are all part of the “great cloud of witnesses” who serve as encouragement and inspiration for us today.  Add to that list Peter, James, John, and Paul, plus the martyrs who stood in the face of torture and death and praised the Name above every name. It is indeed a “great cloud” of faithfulness.  They are models and examples to us and they are cheering you and me on in our Christian journey.  They paid the price for being a Christ-follower and they want us to know that it is worth it.

There is another in that great cloud who is particularly watching and encouraging us.  Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  The Scriptures tell us that Jesus is praying for us; He is asking His Father to give us faith that will not fail (Luke 22:31, Romans 8:34).  He is speaking to our hearts through His Spirit.  And when the battle is the hardest and we think we have been forgotten, He who sits at the right hand of the Father stands to bless and encourage us (Acts 7:55, 56).  You have all the saints of the ages cheering you on.  You have brothers and sisters in Christ to support and encourage you.  And you have the very Son of God praying for you. Keep running, Beloved, victory is ahead.

Hebrews: Be Faithful

The Bible is the perfect, infallible Word of God. It is complete and lacks nothing. But we’re going to add something. Hear me out before you hang me as a heretic.

For several weeks now, we’ve been studying the Hall of Faith in Hebrews, the stories of men and women whom God found faithful. I hope it has been as rich and encouraging to you as it has been to me.  But here’s my question: did faith end with these ancient saints? Is there room for your name and mine on this list?

Maybe we haven’t built a massive boat or nearly sacrificed our children or led two million plus people out of slavery. I suspect none of us have witnessed the seas part or shouted down a stone wall or defeated your nation’s enemy with a sling and a stone. I don’t believe we’ve faced off against hungry lions or walked out of a fiery furnace. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been faithful.

If you’ve trusted God in hard circumstances, you’ve been faithful. If you endured insults for being a Christian, you have been faithful. If you have resisted temptation or been truthful when a lie would have been easier, you have been faithful. If you’ve wept on your knees and got up and pressed on, you, my friend, have been faithful. If you’ve been gentle in the face of anger or loved the one who hated you, or been patient with the grown kid who keeps failing over and over, you have been faithful. If you’ve kept at your calling, even if no one else notices, you are faithful. If you’ve walked into unknown territory because God said go, if you’ve gone the extra mile (or several miles) – you’ve been faithful. If you have looked into an empty pantry or an empty gas tank and said, “God I will trust you to provide” – there’s no doubt you are faithful. If you’ve gotten up early to spend time in the Word and prayer – you have been faithful.

I want you to do something this morning. Open up your Bible to the end of Hebrews 11 and write (yes, it’s okay to write in your Bible) “By faith (your name) . . . ” then ask Him how you have been faithful and how you can be even more so. Beloved, it’s time to add our names to the Hall of Faith and continue the legacy of God’s faithful people.

Hebrews: How to be a Hero in God’s Eyes

What makes a person a “hero?” That word is thrown around these days without any concept of heroism. I always think of military men and women when I think of heroes. Or teachers facing a battlefield every day. I consider missionaries as heroes and anyone who braves oppression and persecution to preach the gospel. Merriam-Webster says that a hero is a person with “heroic conduct especially as exhibited in fulfilling a high purpose or attaining a noble end” (www.merrian-webster.com). There is no higher purpose or more noble end than bringing people to Christ.

The author of Hebrews grouped together several people that are considered heroes to the people of God – “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets” (Heb 11:32). I’m going to ask you to stop right here and read Hebrews 11:32-38. Don’t skip it.

Talk about some heroes! These are the Bible stories we tell to children – their feats are renowned and their names are synonymous with courage, valor, bravery, and victory. They faced lions and giants and flames and swords. They fought and won in the power and Name of the Lord. Well not all of them won. Some of them were tortured to death, imprisoned, beaten, impaled, beheaded, and lived destitute lives of abuse and poverty. And the author said they were just as heroic and valued as the warriors.

It’s one of the great conundrums of the Christian faith – why do faithful obedient people face abuse and struggle? Isn’t life in Christ supposed to be goodness and blessings all the time? Let’s ask Him – the one who said, Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty (Matt 5:3-6). He said their reward is comfort, filling, even earth and the kingdom of heaven.  Check out what he said about those who endure persecution and insults and character assaults: “Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward in heaven (v. 11-12).

Suffering is the norm for the Christ-follower, not an easy-peasy life. I wish I could say I have some magic ball into all the reasons for it. What I do have is faith that God will keep His promises. You can too. Beloved, it’s faith, not heroics that God is looking for. 

Hebrews: The Blood of the Lamb

As a Christian, I am fascinated by the history of Israel and the people of the Jewish faith – after all my Savior was a Jew. Every person God used in Israel’s history has an important story to tell. Like the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the great kings, David and Solomon. And don’t forget the rescuer of the Hebrew people. Every Jewish person knows the story of Moses. Christians who want to know the Lord better should too because he was a “type” of Christ, an early example of Jesus and His ministry. Maybe that’s why the writer of Hebrews devoted so much of “the Hall of Faith” to telling his story.

One point of Moses’ story that most parallels Jesus is in the Passover – an eight-day festival that celebrates the Jews’ escape from Egypt. It especially remembers the protection of the Lord from the tenth plague when God sent the death angel to every house in the land, and every firstborn son was slain – unless the mark was present. This is where Moses stood tall. “By faith, he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel” (Heb 11:28). It’s not just a dramatic story for Cecil B. DeMille’s movie. It is the most powerful, important truth in human history: personal deliverance only comes through the blood of the Lamb.

The Passover (pesach) lamb, a spotless, yearling, was slain and the blood was applied to “the sides and tops of the door frames of the houses” (Ex 12:7). When the “destroyer of the firstborn” went through Egypt, he “passed over” the Hebrews’ homes where the blood was applied. Consider the placement of the blood – on the top and sides of the door frame. Think about the cross where Jesus’ bloodied head and hands were positioned. The blood on the door frames foretold the blood of Jesus – the Lamb of God – on the cross.

What does all this mean for you? It means that if you have been covered by that blood, you are spared the condemnation due all sinful people. Moses had faith that the blood of the paschal lamb was enough to save the people. You and I can have faith that the blood of Jesus is enough to save us. God has made the way through the blood of the Lamb. He did it for His people. He did it for you, Beloved.

Hebrews: Perseverance

I didn’t come from wealthy folks so there wasn’t any inheritance for me or my brothers. But I do have some treasures that were passed along to me like some of my dad’s military memorabilia and my most precious possession – my mom’s Bible with notes in her handwriting. I also “inherited” bags and bags of fabric, much of it leftover scraps from clothes my Mom made us when we were kids. One thing she and I have in common is our refusal to give up on half-done craft projects. Notice I didn’t say we finished them, we just tucked them away to “come back to later.” I have boxes now of hers and my own.

The Bible has a lot to say about not giving up but I don’t think that is what Scripture means. The writer of Hebrews said that Moses “persevered” in his calling to rescue the Hebrew people out of slavery (Heb 11:17).  Remember that this letter is written to Hebrew Christians who are facing extreme persecution for their faith. Every one of them knew the story of Moses and the exodus out of Egypt. They knew that Moses had repeatedly gone before Pharaoh to demand the release of the Jews and he had refused. He made ten visits to Pharaoh – each more contentious than the last. But Moses persisted. Why? Because He had God’s name and promise. God had revealed Himself to Moses as “The Lord” and promised on that very name to deliver the people out of their misery. (Ex 3:15-17). Through all of the trouble that Pharaoh caused, God’s name and promise continued to give Moses strength.

That’s what the word “persevere” means – a strong, steadfast assurance that fuels endurance. It also means a word we often steer clear of. Patience. You’ve probably been told you should never pray for patience because the way to get it is through hardships, but Moses proved that the way to patience and perseverance is “by faith” in the name and the promise of the Lord.

When God calls you to a task, that calling comes with His promise to finish the work. Paul said, “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (1Thess 1:24). His calling and His promise rest on His Name. So can you, Beloved.

Hebrews: Life Lessons with Moses

I loved growing up a military brat but I secretly wished my family had been southern socialites. The schoolmates I most admired had that genteel southern way about them I longed for. I always thought my life would have been so different if I had grown up like them.

The writer of Hebrews noted that Moses had grown up in the royal palace in Egypt having been adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter (you know baby Moses in the basket floating down the Nile). He enjoyed all the benefits it offered. Wealth. Opulence. Education. Power. But he turned it all down to be obedient to the Lord and return to his Hebrew roots. The writer said, “By faith, Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time” (Heb 11:24-25).

The people of God – the Hebrews – were slaves in Egypt. Despite his Egyptian upbringing, Moses knew he was a Hebrew. His physical appearance gave him away. And no doubt, when Pharaoh’s daughter divinely chose Moses’ biological mother Jochebed to nurture him, he heard the story of his rescue out of the river. His first forty years were spent serving in the Egyptian bureaucracy. But he never forgot who he was. He made a life-altering decision to side with his people against their Egyptian taskmasters.

Some would say that Moses threw it all away but the truth is it was all preparation for God’s call. He learned skills in his Egyptian household – like leadership and diplomacy – that he could not have learned as a Hebrew slave that would benefit him as he led God’s people to freedom. I understand now that my childhood – as ugly as it was – prepared me for ministry. Abuse taught me to be compassionate and caring to hurting people. Loneliness pushed me toward books and a love for words that is reflected in what you’re reading right now. Even moving around every few years taught me how to adapt to change – a constant in my life.

Most of all, my life’s struggles make me long for the perfection of heaven. Moses understood. “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (v. 26). I am too. Beloved, God never wastes the experiences of your life, even – especially – the hard things.

Hebrews: Telling Our Faith Stories

I love being a Bible student and teacher and writer. But one of my most important roles is being Joy’s Nana and teaching her stuff. We’ve spent many Saturday mornings learning how to make pankins (pancakes). Last night she learned how to spin her pink bracelet on her finger by watching me do it.  But above all, I want to teach her my story with God – and how she is part of it. I didn’t grow up around my grandmothers, so I don’t know their faith stories. But I will make sure that Joy knows mine.

Sharing faith stories was how the Hebrew people taught their children and grandchildren about God. Joseph is a good example.  The writer of Hebrews said, “By faith, Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones” (11:22). There’s a lot packed into that verse. Joseph was Abraham’s great-grandson. Abraham was already deceased when Joseph was born, but he knew his great-grandpa’s faith story and he made it part of his own.

God promised Abraham, while he was childless and a nomad, that he would have countless offspring and that they would have possession of the very land on which he stood (Genesis 15). But He also told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved for four hundred years in a foreign land. Then He said, He would rescue them and “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here” (Gen 15: 13-16). Abraham told Isaac who told Jacob who told Joseph. On his deathbed, Joseph told his brothers, “God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . and you must carry my bones up from this place” (Gen 50:24-25). Joseph believed in the promise that had been passed down to each generation. More to the point, Joseph believed the Promise-Maker. Four hundred and thirty years later, “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him . . .” as he exited Egypt (Exodus 13:19). Promise made. Promise believed. Promise kept.

I don’t know the God-history of my ancestors, I don’t even know much about the faith stories of my parents. But Joy will know mine. She will know that God has been faithful, good, gracious, generous, and mighty in my life. Beloved, who needs to know yours?

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: 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)