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: It’s for Your Own Good

My parents had very different approaches to discipline. Dad grounded me once for the rest of my life. I guess he didn’t notice that at some point I snuck out of the house, got married, and lived my own life. Mom, however, did not play so loosely with me. She grounded me once for two weeks and I was stuck at home with no t.v. until I had served my time – to the minute. Yep, she wrote it down and held me to it. Dad disciplined in anger, and once his anger had passed, he stopped paying attention. Mom disciplined with a purpose, to teach me that I had best plan to make it home by curfew.

The writer of Hebrews said that, as hard as it may be, God, too, disciples with a purpose. We touched on verse 10 last time: “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness.” Verse 11 says that God’s discipline “produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.” So God’s purposes are holiness, peace, and righteousness. But look at one other thing in verse 11 – these are benefits “for those who have been trained by it.” My Dad’s discipline was reactionary, Mom’s discipline was to train me to pay attention to the clock. God’s discipline is a training ground.

Now you can look at me and see that I’m not into physical training, but I sure need to be. I need to develop the discipline of exercise and better eating habits so that I enjoy the benefits of more energy and strength.  But I’m flabby and out of shape. The writer has a word for me: “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees” (v. 12). Now we know he is not talking about the physical but the spiritual. This comes as Isaiah is prophesying the Babylonian captivity for the nation of Judah. The first part of this book is warnings and woes, but then the tone changes as God promises comfort and restoration. And Joy. He declares to the fearful and weary captives, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come . . . He will come to save you” (Is 35:4).

So as we’re lifting weights let’s lift high the name of Jesus. While we’re running in place on the treadmill, let’s run away from temptation. When we exercise to strengthen our core, we need to also “be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power” (Eph 6:10). The benefits of God’s discipline are worth all the sweat and strain. As my Mom would say – this is for your own good Beloved – and also for God’s glory.

Hebrews: Daddy’s Hands

Parents aren’t supposed to play favorites with their children, but sometimes they do.  Just ask Esau or all of Joseph’s brothers. Or me. My Dad’s favorites were my two older brothers. They loved to tinker on cars just like he did. My Mom’s favorite was my younger brother. He was sick a lot as a kid and so she was closer to him. I always felt like nobody’s kid.  Until God told me His special name for me in Luke 8:48.

Before we dig in, please grab your Bible and read Hebrews 12:5-10. The heart of this passage is the believer’s position as a child of God. How do you know that you are God’s child? The writer said we know it because He disciplines us. In the first-century world, it was common for men to have wives and concubines and to father children with both. But they did not involve themselves in the lives of the children of the concubines. These were illegitimate children and they were on their own as far as their “father” was concerned. He did not take any responsibility for their care or discipline. It’s not unlike our culture today, is it?

Good fathers discipline their children. They don’t berate and abuse their children but they also don’t let them run amuck, getting into all kinds of trouble and danger. Good fathers guard and guide their children. They teach them the right way and then redirect them when they get off track. Good fathers pay attention to their children and notice when they need help or correction. (Dad – put down your cell phone/game controller/remote control!)

Discipline involves both training and punishment. A good father will use both, in the correct measures. Paul reminded fathers to “not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Now, this is not a parenting devotional – I am far, far from the expert on raising kids. I want you to see how God “parents” us – His children. He follows the counsel He gave to Paul – He uses correction as well as positive reinforcement. And sometimes, the writer says He has to use punishment. Because He loves us too much to let us run headlong into self-destruction.

The goal of a good father is to raise mature, healthy, responsible children. The goal of our Heavenly Father is to raise children who reflect His Son (Rom 8:29) and share in His holiness ( v. 10). How does our Father know when He has succeeded? When He can say, “I have no greater Joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 Jn 4).

Hebrews: Kill That Sin!

Last week as I was driving I spied something in the road up ahead. When I got closer I realized it was a vulture enjoying his road kill. I thought he would fly away when I got closer but all he did was take two hops to the other side of the road until I passed by and then he hopped back to his feast. I guess his appetite was greater than his sense of danger. Or he was just a fool.

The writer of Hebrews warned them about the dangers of ignoring the gospel, rejecting Jesus, and falling into apostasy and unbelief. Now he warns them about becoming lax about sin. He said, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). The fight against sin is a life-long struggle. We cannot let our guard down, even for a moment. We must remain diligent and ready for battle. Armor on. Sword and shield in hand.

In context, the writer was speaking against the sin of apostasy, of walking away from Jesus. His readers were facing persecution and even death for their faith in Christ. Many would sin by turning away from Christianity. They chose not to struggle with the temptation of apostasy, they just abandoned Jesus. They loved their lives more than they loved the Lord. But most of us (at least in the west) do not face the prospect of death for being a Christian – yet. But we do face sinful desires.

And let’s be honest. We don’t really struggle with our sin, do we? Oh, we may give a wimpy word of protest, but we still give in to it more often than we want to admit.  We call it a “stronghold” a “lifestyle” or even a “right.” David called it cherishing sin in our hearts (Ps 66:18). We also don’t look for “the way out” that God provides, because we don’t want to escape it (1 Corinthians 10:13).  Like the vulture on the road, we want to stay close by. And that’s dangerous. Deadly even.

It is time to be brutally honest about your pet sin.  It is not your friend.  Paul said we must, “put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” (Col 3:5). You need to kill it, Beloved, before it kills you.

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).

Silver Vases and Chamber Pots

When I was a very young girl, and we visited my grandmother we experienced true “country living.” We slept on real feather beds (John Denver anyone?), helped granny pick and snap beans for supper, slopped the hogs, and on cold mornings huddled around the coal-burning stove.  And during the day – when [ahem] the need arose – we visited the outhouse.  But at night, no one wanted to traipse out in the dark and cold, so granny had pans that sat under the bed for our nightly needs. 

Where am I going with this? To Paul’s second letter to Timothy. He said, “In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:20-21). 

Keep in mind that Paul is addressing Christians – not the world. He is talking to people God desires to use in Kingdom work on earth. He is saying that how God uses us largely depends on how we live.  We can be “an instrument of noble purposes” if we strive for holiness in our daily lives. Think of a silver vase that holds beautiful flowers in God’s throne room or the golden goblet from which He drinks each day. But if we pursue “ignoble purposes” – if we live for the world and our flesh we will be good for nothing more than an iron dustpan, or a tin mop bucket in the King’s great house. Or the pan under my granny’s bed.

So how do we endeavor to be vessels for noble purposes? Paul continued: “flee evil desires and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (v. 22). We run from things that lead us into sin. We cultivate desires for the things of God, and we align ourselves with believers who are on the same path. If you are in Christ the Father has cleansed you with Jesus’ blood, clothed you in robes of righteousness, anointed you with the Holy Spirit, and set you apart for a holy purpose.  Beloved, how will you be used in the house of God?

Footprints

I came across “The Footprints” poem the other day. You know the one about the person who dreamed of seeing two sets of footprints in the sand – one was their own and the other belonged to Jesus. At certain points, the second set of footprints disappeared and the dreamer was dismayed that Jesus would abandon them at the hardest points in their life. The Lord assured them that He would never leave them, especially during trials and testing. He said, “When you saw only one set of footprints, It was then that I carried you.” That is a beautiful and encouraging image and expresses the heart of our Savior in our times of suffering.

Later, as I was studying 1 John I read this: “Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did” (2:6). A different thought came to mind.  What if, when I questioned Jesus about that single set of footprints in the sand, He said, “That is when you followed me so closely that you stepped right into My footprints.” Oh! What a commendation that would be! That’s the goal of the Christian life, to emulate Christ in every way. To walk as He walked. To speak as He spoke. To give as He gave. To love as He loved. To be holy as He is holy. The first believers were called “Followers of The Way” until were dubbed “Christians” meaning “little Christs.” Not just because they claimed allegiance to Him but because they patterned their lives after Him.

I’m sure you know Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” Have you ever wondered what His purpose is? It’s right in the next verse, “to be conformed to the likeness of His Son” (v. 29). To be “little Christs” in our generation, walking in His very footsteps so that there’s nothing of us left behind –  only Jesus. That’s my desire, especially as I see my granddaughter following me everywhere I go.

How do we do that? How do we “walk as Jesus did?” By keeping our eyes fixed on Him. By knowing Him through His Word. By living according to His Spirit (Rom 8:5-16). One footfall at a time. Beloved, what do your footprints say about your life?

Hebrews: What is God’s Will?

“What is God’s will for my life?” I think every Christian has asked that question at least once. The goal of the believer is to do the will of God.  But there are so many possibilities and options – how do we know which one to choose? We’ve really made it much more complicated than it is.  God’s Word is very clear as to His will. The writer of Hebrews borrowed from David to explain Christ’s mission, “I have come to do your will” (Heb 10:7, 9).  “And by that will,” he added, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (v. 10).  There it is. God’s will is that we would be made holy. It’s as simple as that. Of course, God has a path for you and me that encompasses our career and spouse, children, and ministry, but all of that is secondary to holiness. And while we can go to college to prepare for our career, holiness is not something we can accomplish for ourselves. Holiness is a work of Christ on our behalf.

Oh, men tried to make themselves holy through the law, but they failed. First, because they could not – would not – be faithful. Their sinful desires drove them to worship other gods. Then after God punished them by taking away their land, they went to the other extreme of strict obedience to the law resulting in legalism. They were like a pendulum that swung all the way from one side to the other. And neither end brought about holiness. Only one thing could – the sacrifice of Jesus – the God-man who stepped out of heaven and into human flesh.

But there is one point I want you to see – the writer said that by the will of God, “we have been made holy . . .” It’s a done deal. We complicate holiness because we believe we have to do something to be holy. Jesus has already done it all.

Ah, but we’re not done with this idea of holiness. There’s more ahead to consider and we’ll talk about that in a future devotional. In the meantime, Beloved, I pray you can rest in knowing that, if you are in Christ Jesus, God has already declared you holy – and His.

The Lord spoke to me

See the source image

“The Lord spoke to me with His strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people. He said, “The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, He is the one you are to fear, He is the one you are to dread, and He will be a sanctuary” (Isaiah 8:11, 13-14). The Lord commanded Isaiah – as He commands us – to reject the way of the people and to fear Him alone. To stand firm against ungodliness and unrighteousness. To stand courageously when all around you bows to the gods of this world. That same command has run through the history of Christianity since the resurrection of Christ. It is the heartbeat of the saints through the ages till today who faced beatings, prison, exile, stonings, lions, burnings, beheadings, and all manner of persecution for their faith. It has always been the rallying cry of the people of God.

But for Isaiah and the martyrs of the faith – and for you and me – this word is not a call to arms, it’s not a call to protest and public rebuttal. It is a call to personal holiness. Notice that the prophet says “The Lord spoke to ME, with His strong hand upon ME, warning ME . . . the Lord Almighty is the one YOU are to regard as holy . . . the one YOU are to fear . . . the one YOU are to dread . . . This is first and foremost a command for the individual to stand firm in the faith in the solitary moments of our lives when no one else sees or hears. Who we present to the world is rarely who we are in our private moments. Which should give us pause before we speak. Before I call out the sins of the world, before I confront the ungodliness around me, I must call out the sin in my own life and confront the ungodliness within me.

Beloved, we have a command to shine the light of Christ wherever there is darkness, but we must first let it shine in the darkness of our own hearts. The message we carry is too valuable and too important to bury it under our own sin. The Lord spoke to ME . . .

The King is Coming!

See the source image

In the first-century world, before a king came to visit one of his cities, the call would go out to prepare the roads on his path – to make the way level and straight and free from any possible danger. When God prepares a people for a great move on His part, He always calls them to make themselves ready by repentance – confessing and turning away from sin, and consecration – setting oneself apart exclusively for Him. “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy” (Lev 11:44).  Before Jesus began His earthly ministry John the Baptist was sent to “Prepare the way for the Lord, [to] make straight paths for him” (Mark 1:3).   John was calling for the people to prepare their hearts for the Lord by repentance and consecration. He declared a clear warning of the coming wrath of God – but you might be surprised to know his comments were aimed directly at the “religious leaders.” 

Christians have pleaded with God for a great move of His Spirit in the world.  We want Him to “do amazing things among us.”  But are we hearing the call to prepare the way for Him?  Are we heeding the call for repentance?  Am I carefully examining my life for habits, desires, laziness, distractions, and selfishness that serve as a quiet rebellion against God?  Are our lives straight paths for the King? Are we consecrating ourselves unto the Lord?  Are you willing to let go of everything that draws your heart away?  Are you getting rid of the things that compromise your testimony and drag you into the world?  What T.V. shows, movies, music, magazines, and websites need to go to make your heart ready for the Lord?  What attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, rights, and worldly influences do I need to turn from in order to be used for the Kingdom of God?

I believe God is getting ready to do a great work in the world.  But it will require His people to will set everything aside and prepare the way.   That means wholehearted devotion to Christ and an unwillingness to compromise with the world.  I also believe a great battle is coming in this nation; the lines have already been drawn in our culture and our courts.  Only people with pure, consecrated hearts will be able to stand firm in the face of it.   Beloved, how will you get ready?