Hebrews: The Day of Atonement

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“Keep out!” I stood there with my hands on my hips staring at the signs on my brothers’ fort. “Boys only!”  I yelled into the curtained doorway, “I don’t want to go in your fort – it should say ‘Stupid boys only!’”  But the truth is I did. I wanted to go in just because they said I couldn’t. I wanted to go in to show them they were not better than me and they couldn’t shut me out.  But mama said “No. Give the boys their space.” Fine. It was probably full of stupid boy stuff anyway. 

In the center of the people of Israel stood an elaborate tent – a tabernacle, the dwelling place of the Lord God. Not just anyone could enter the tabernacle. Only “the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry” (Heb 9:6). Within the tabernacle was another space, and it was even more exclusive than the outer space. “Only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year” (v. 7a). There might as well have been signs saying, “Keep out!” “High Priest only!” Why so particular about who entered and when? Because this was the Holy of Holies, the place where the Lord God dwelt. Admittance was strictly limited and access carried great responsibility. The writer of Hebrews noted that when the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement he was “never without blood which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance” (v. 7b). It was a ritual that had to be followed to the letter with the high priest bathing and putting on his holy garments, presenting the blood of animals first for himself and then again for the sins of the community (see Leviticus 16). The people were declared clean for another year, but they were still kept out of God’s presence. Why? Because, while the sins were atoned for by the blood of the sacrifices, the guilt of their sin remained.  They would never have “a clear conscience.” The memory of their sin would always be with them, like a stain that could never be washed away and no one can enter God’s presence with stains. Something more was needed, something that could do what the blood of goats and bulls could not – make men clean enough for God.

Love One Another

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It is very compelling to me that in all the Gospels, there is only one time that Jesus declared a commandment: “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17). A command means it’s not up for debate. Ah, but we do debate it, don’t we? “Who are the ‘others’?” “Did Jesus just mean fellow Christians?” “Did He mean everyone everywhere?” “And what did He mean by ‘love’?” We are much like the lawyer who asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus told Him the story of the Good Samaritan. You know this parable from Luke 10: 25-37.

A man was beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road where two very religious men passed him by on the way to do their religious duties. But a Samaritan, whom the Jews despised, stopped and helped the man, took him to an inn, and paid for his care.  When the lawyer asked the question, “Who is my neighbor?” he wanted to know whom he was “required” to love. Jesus turned his question around by defining the neighbor as the one who gave love, not the one who received it. The one giving love is living out the second great commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

So love your neighbor. But God doesn’t allow us to pick and choose our neighbors. He commands us to love the person He places in front of us. Sometimes that’s a hard love because they are prickly and unpleasant and downright hateful. They take and never give. They growl and complain. Does that mean we are excused from the love command? I think they are the very ones Jesus had in mind.

Several years ago I read something in “Reader’s Digest” that has stuck with me ever since: “Don’t be afraid to be the one who loves the most.” I think sometimes we withhold love because are afraid we will be “cheated” – giving more love than we receive. But the very act of loving others fills the one who gives it all away. Here’s how John said it: “If we love one another, God lives in us and His love is made complete in us” (1 Jn 4:12).  Beloved, the more love you give away the more of God’s love you have to give. Love each other – all the others – the way Jesus loves you (John 15:12).

By Faith . . .

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In the generations of Adam’s descendants, I found the person I most want to be like: Enoch. While I love the great stories of the biblical heroes – the simple description of Enoch’s life is the one that I want most to copy: “Enoch walked with God.” There are no great feats listed, no battles fought, no mighty victories. He walked with God – period. We do get a clue in Hebrews 11 where we find that as he walked he “pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5b). What was his secret for pleasing God? It’s right in the next verse, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). Faith pleases God and Enoch clearly had faith. So what is faith? Faith is believing that God exists – that He is who He says He is. But the demons believe that God exists (James 2:19), so there must be something more. Faith is also believing that He rewards those who seek after him earnestly. How do we seek God earnestly? “You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart” (Jer 29:13). Enoch walked through life seeking the face and presence of God with his whole heart. And Enoch’s faith was rewarded. What is the prize for faith? Jeremiah 29:14 says, “I will be found by you.” Enoch found God – he didn’t die but was taken from this earth and into the very presence of God.

Hebrews 11 – the hall of faith – is filled with men and women who did many things in the name of the Lord, but they are all commended for one thing above all others: their faith. Name after name is preceded by the words: “by faith.” These saints worshipped, built, led, sacrificed, and remained true, but they are remarkable for the faith, not their acts. Faith motivates God’s people into action, whether it is great exploits or simple gestures – but it is not our deeds that please God, it is our heart that believes and seeks after Him. I want to do great things for God. I want to study and teach His Word, I want to write to encourage others. I want to share Jesus everywhere I go. But more than all these, I want to walk before God in faith, just as Enoch did. I want to please Him and seek Him with wholehearted devotion and walk through life with Him – side-by-side and heart-to-heart – all the way into His presence.

Proven Faith

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A “proving ground” is a military term – a place or situation used to demonstrate whether something, such as a theory or product, really works. Say a company has created something they want to market to the United States military. Do you think Uncle Sam is just going to take their word for it, buy this thing, and put it into a soldier’s hands? No – they are going to take it into situations and places in which it will be used and they will put it through rigorous tests. They may discover a weakness and will work on that area to strengthen it. And they’ll test it again. Only after it stands up on the proving grounds will it be purchased and put into use.
When God wants to “prove” the faith of His child He uses the fires of adversity, struggle, trial, heartache, disappointment, discouragement . . . I think you understand. The Apostle Peter wrote from very personal experience: “These [trials] have come so that your faith – of great worth than gold . . . may be proved genuine” (1 Peter 1:7). Remember the scene outside the house of the high priest? Peter denied three times that he knew his friend and Lord. But Jesus had warned him, “Simon, Simon, satan has asked to sift you (plural) as wheat, But I have prayed for you (singular), Simon, that your faith may not fail. (Luke 22:31-32).  But it did fail – for a moment – but in the end, Peter’s faith proved true. Why did the Lord allow satan to “sift” Peter? Because there were things in him that would prevent him from fulfilling God’s plan for his life. Jesus assured Peter, “When [not if] you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (v. 32). The Lord was molding Peter into a mighty leader in His Kingdom.

Beloved, when hard seasons come God is not out to destroy you, He is preparing you. He is proving your faith, finding the weak places so that He can strengthen you, making sure you are fit for the good work He has for you. The proving ground is the place where your faith takes root so you can produce fruit – fruit that will last. Fruit that will glorify the one who brought you all the way through the fire.

Saving the Best for Last

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I always eat the least favorite thing on my plate first and save my most favorite thing for last. When I have chores to do I do the hardest one first then do the easiest last. Why? Because I know that if I eat my favorite food or do the easiest chores first, I will give up before I do the rest. It’s a discipline I learned as a kid: “save the best for last.”

I think that is a very simple explanation for Paul’s message to the churches in Rome.  He said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (8:18). Let’s get the truth out on the table – this life is hard. And the Christian life, I believe, makes it harder. Christians are constantly at odds with the culture of the world. Our priorities are very different. Our desires are (or should be) counter-cultural. Our sense of right and wrong rubs against the ever-changing “morals’ of the day. And our worldview is 180 degrees from the ethos of the world. Sometimes we wonder why we continue to swim against the stream and make ourselves a target of the enemy. Wouldn’t it be easier to just go along with the world and save ourselves the struggles and pain? Maybe. But at what cost? “Glory.” The reward for endurance and perseverance is glory. And not just a glory we can see at a distance. Paul said the glory to come is “in us.” He told the church in Corinth that this is “an eternal glory that far outweighs our light and momentary troubles” (2 Cor. 4:17).

Maybe you don’t consider your troubles “light and momentary.” You may have lost a job or a friendship because of your commitment to your faith. You won’t be the first. The history of the church is written in the blood of men and women who died for the name of Christ. It still happens today in certain parts of the world, and I believe it is coming to the Western church soon Paul isn’t dismissing these hard things. But he is saying there is something better coming, something that makes all our difficulties in this life pale in comparison. He said, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Those are not just fluffy words – they are a rock-solid promise from the heart of God. You and I cannot imagine the glory that is coming. Hang on Beloved, the best is yet to be.

Walking into the New Year

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I had no clue on January 1 what 2021 would hold, but God knew everything thing that was to occur in the next 365 days.  And as 2022 begins, He is equally aware of how it will unfold.  How can I be so confident?  Because Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega. Alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet and Omega is the last, and they are used to express completeness from beginning to end.  Three times in Revelation Jesus declares, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” and each time He adds a little more to His self-proclamation.

“I am the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8).

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (21:6).

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (22:13).

Jesus is the Beginning of time (Genesis 1:14) and the End of time; because He is timeless (1 Peter 1:11). He called forth the first light (Genesis 1:3) and He will extinguish it and replace it with Himself (Revelation 21:23). He is the Beginning of all righteousness and the end of all evil (Matthew 25:46).

If you are in Christ, He is also the Alpha and the Omega of your life.  He is Beginning and the End of your day—He is there with you when you wake in the morning and when you lay your head down at night and every hour in between. He continues to watch over you through the night.  He is the First and the Last over your life—He was there when you drew your first breath, and He will walk with you into heaven when you draw your last, and He will never leave your side all the days of your life.

We do not know what 2022 will bring, what blessings and struggles, hellos and goodbyes, joys and sorrows.  But we can greet the coming year confident that the Alpha and Omega is already there.  Beloved, I invite you to begin the New Year with words of this beautiful old hymn:

I don’t worry o’er the future

For I know what Jesus said

And today I’ll walk beside Him

For He knows what is ahead

Many things about tomorrow

I don’t seem to understand;

But I know who holds tomorrow

and I know who holds my hand.

I Know Who Holds Tomorrow – words and music by Ira F. Stanphill, @ 1950.

But . . .

Have you ever asked the age-old question, “Why?”  Perhaps you had enough spiritual understanding to wonder “What is this all about?” Or maybe it was so hard all you could do was cry out for relief. Oh, I have been there – the truth is, I’m still there. “God, why have you allowed these things to happen?” “What is your purpose in this?” “God, help me, I cannot take anymore!” I may look strong in this blog, but after a very long season of struggle, heartache, and enemy attacks, I am about worn out. And yet, something tells me to keep going and keep trusting the Lord. Maybe it’s Joy’s letter magnets. Yesterday I found one as I swept the floor and stuck it on the fridge. This morning, I found two more: “T” and “B” and I carried them to the kitchen and realized yesterday’s find was the “U.” BUT. I knew exactly what that meant. I went to the box with the rest of her letters and found the “G,” “O,” and “D.” BUT GOD. Next to “Jesus Christ”, they are my two favorite words in the Bible.

Over and over in the Psalms David and the other psalmists share their woes honestly and always come back to the “But” – “But You, O God,” (Ps 10:14) which then becomes “But I trust in Your unfailing love” (Ps. 13:5). Or “But you, O Lord” (Ps. 22:19) which is followed by “[those] who seek the Lord will praise Him” (v. 26). When Joseph confronted his brothers who sold him into slavery he said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

In grammar, the word “but” is a conjunction, joining two phrases or clauses together (“Conjunction Junction,” anyone?). In the Bible “but” is a hinge. Like a door, “but” causes the whole trajectory of a sentence – or a life – to swing in the other direction. “But” enables us to pause and remember who God is and what He has done and can do. “But God” can change our feelings, our emotions, our thoughts, and our circumstances, and our lives – that’s what the cross is all about.

Beloved, I know it’s been a hard year for you too. BUT I am convinced that GOD is able and He is faithful and He will help us get through – not limping along, like wounded warriors, but leaping and dancing with Joy and hope and praise. I hear the music warming up!

Don’t Pack Up the Christmas Spirit

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Christmas Day has come and gone and my living room looks like a toy store exploded all over the place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So what now? Well, I’ll clean up the blast zone and eventually pack away the ornaments on the tree. We’ll finish off the last of the Christmas dinner leftovers today. But, where does the Christmas spirit go for the next 11 months?

You probably know by now that Joy abides in my house year-round in my precious granddaughter. But what of the peace the angels declared? According to Jesus, that peace was His gift to me, something the world can’t offer (John 14:27). It doesn’t belong in a box in the shed. It belongs in my heart to rule over my relationships (Col. 3:15). 

Is there a box in my shed for the “Hope” of Christmas? The Hope that God is who He claimed to be, that He is trustworthy and faithful (2 Thess 3:3), that His love is unfailing (Ps. 136) and His promises are as sure as His Name (Heb. 6:13). Hope that His eye is ever on me and His ear is tuned to my cries (Gen. 21:13, 11). Hope that one day this wicked world will be turned right-side-up (Rev. 21:5). I am hanging on to hope – it is my word from the Lord for the coming year. I need it desperately; this past year has drained most of my hope.

And then there is love – the greatest of all gifts (1 Cor. 13:13). Love slept in a manger (Luke 2:7). Love walked the dirty streets, healing and lifting up the downtrodden (Matt. 8:1-3). Love died on a cross (Mark 15: 37) and love brought life from death (Mark 16:6). Love must never be packed away for the world needs it more than any other thing. Love – holy love – is the only thing that can save mankind. And it is the only thing that will draw men out of darkness into the light.

I don’t know if your Christmas was merry or jolly or less than you’d hoped, but I know that the spirit of Christmas lives in the hearts of God’s people all year long. Beloved, pack up the decorations but don’t pack away the Joy and peace and hope and love. Set it out for all the world to see.

The Day Jesus was Born

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A friend asked me about the validity of celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25th. The Bible doesn’t put a date on a calendar, and while we can get a good idea from tracing the astronomical records of a unique star, no one wrote the exact date into the annuals of human history. Many people have commented that shepherds would never have their flocks out in a field or on a hillside where they would be exposed to frigid temperatures. But several scholars have noted that generally, the temperature does not drop to those levels until after our traditional Christmas season, so there is reason to assume we’re pretty close.

I did say that the Bible doesn’t give us a precise date, but it does actually tell us when Jesus was born. Galatians 4:4 says, “When the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman.” I find so much comfort in that. The Bible is chock-full of references to time, from the record of Creation to “the day [when] His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives.” God actually does have a calendar of sorts – a divine calendar – and all of human history flows according to the plans He made before the creation of the world. Everything will happen “when the time has fully come.”

I hope you take that personally. Because the same God who established the universe’s timeline has your name on His calendar too. He is moving in your life according to His purpose and design. He is making things and people and events come together just as He planned. Beloved, your life is not some crazy quilt with pieces of all shapes, sizes, and colors haphazardly sewn together. It is a work of beauty, precision, and exactness, stitched firmly together with blood-red cords. Every moment of your life has been leading up to the magnificent finished project that will be revealed, “when the time has fully come.”

The point is not to know when He came, but to know that He came and why He came. To set you free from your bondage of sin and to give you eternal life. So feel free to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th with joy and thanksgiving for God’s perfect, divine plan. And remember that He’s an “on-time” God. It won’t be a second late. Nor will it be a second early. It will be “when the time has fully come.”

A Baby Changes Everything

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“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first-born, a son” (Luke 2:6).

They say that having a baby will change your life completely, and every parent knows that is true. You give your whole self away to your child and you never get yourself back. Your time is no longer your own – your days are filled with feedings and diaper changes, and more of the same through the night. Your money is not yours anymore – whoever imagined someone so tiny would need so much stuff? Your priorities are different, your goals are reshaped, and your entire identity is redefined. And you wouldn’t have it any other way.

There is a baby who will change your life in far greater ways. This baby will give your life direction and purpose. This baby will bring you peace in the midst of a storm. He will comfort you when you are weary and broken. He will lift you up when you fall. This baby will bring you immeasurable Joy. He can wash away the stain of guilt and shame and make you new. This baby brings hope where all hope is faded. He brings light into the darkest night. This baby brings healing of body and mind and heart. This baby will change the way you think and the way you live. He will transform your heart and cause you to love in ways you never expected. And if all that wasn’t enough, this baby will change your life beyond this life.

This baby left the glory of heaven to save the entire human race. He brought peace between God and man. He broke the chains of sin. He erased the curse of death. This baby took on your sin and mine; He bore the punishment that you and I rightly deserved. He surrendered His body to the cross and the grave. He did it all so that you and I could have life – full and abundant and eternal. He gave Himself away so that you could get yourself back. This baby – the Lord Jesus Christ – changes everything.