Hebrews: Grace to the End

And so we come to the end of Hebrews and fittingly the author says, “Brothers, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written you only a short letter” (Heb 13:22). It may have been “a short letter” (I’d hate to see his long letters) but we’ve been working through this book for 19 long months. We’ve examined Hebrews like a jeweler turning over a gemstone, marveling at its every facet. We’ve discussed a lot of deep doctrines and theology. We’ve pondered the humanity and deity of Jesus and His role as both our Great High Priest and the perfect sacrifice for our sins. We spent a lot of time in the Old Testament, looking at the law, the temple, and the lives of God’s faithful heroes of the past. We’ve covered some difficult passages, even some very controversial texts, and I’ve upset a few folks along the way. We’ve had our toes stepped on so much we wear boots every time we open our Bibles.

But like the unknown author, my intent with every devotional has been to give you a “word of exhortation” – to encourage you in your faith journey. Remember that the original recipients of this letter were Jewish believers who had transferred their confidence from the law to Jesus Christ. They trusted in the better sacrifice that came through the blood and body of the Son of God. But their faith put them under attack and some abandoned Jesus and returned to the law that could never save them. It was easier that way. Just like those who compromise their faith to get along with the culture today. But easier isn’t always best in the long run. And the long run is eternal.

After the good news of Timothy’s release and the author’s pending visit with their beloved brother, and after passing greetings back and forth, he writes a closing word that I offer to you as well. “Grace be with you all” (v. 25). Grace. The mercy and kindness of God which draws lost souls into an eternal love relationship through Christ Jesus. Grace saves us and keeps us. Grace strengthens us, and grows us up in faith, knowledge, and love. Grace moves us to live as Jesus lived and walk in all His ways. The grace of God brings us Joy, peace, hope, and sweetness. May His grace claim you, fill you, hold you, and delight you, Beloved. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Hebrews: A Sacrifice of Praise

Several years ago I had a serious mental and emotional crash. It was the most terrifying experience of my life. I descended into a pit of depression and despair that was so deep I thought I would never see the sun again. Oh, I continued to go to church every Sunday and stood with the congregation during praise and worship. But I couldn’t sing. I wept. One day as I was driving, Crowder’s song, “Oh Praise Him” came on the radio. I felt a nudge in my spirit, “Sing child.” “I can’t” I replied, as tears began to burn my eyes. “Sing anyway.” So I choked out the first chorus, “Oh, praise Him. O praise Him. He is holy. He is holy.” I kept singing – or croaking – to be honest. But by the end of that song, I was singing clearly, “Oh, la, la, la, la, la, la” with tears streaming down my face. That was the day my healing began.

The author of Hebrews wrote, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His name” (Heb 13:15). I understand this verse. Sometimes praise is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Remember, this was written to Jewish believers in Christ who were facing extreme oppression and persecution for their faith. Many were turning away from Christ and abandoning the faith because it was just getting too hard. The author implored them to instead offer praise to God in their suffering, even if it came at a high cost.

I won’t deny that life is hard and pain is real. But God is still worthy of praise. He is still good. He is still sovereign. He is still awesome in power. He is still holy. And He is with us in our pain. David said, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted . . .” (Ps 34:18). If that’s you today, let me assure you that God is near. He has not abandoned you in your heartache. He has tenderly drawn you close. If you’re still you can feel His breath ruffling your hair. If you listen you can hear His heart beating. Then you may hear Him say, “Sing, child.” I know. It’s not easy. But sing anyway Beloved, even if all you can do is whisper through your tears. He’ll hear you. He’s not listening to your words; He’s listening to your heart.

Hebrews: Just Be Kind

I love kind people. They are some of my favorite people in the whole world. When someone is kind, I am immediately drawn to them like a kid to a candy store. I believe kindness was one of Jesus’ most attractive traits.

The writer of Hebrews was thinking about kindness when he said, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:2-3). The early Christ-followers were often persecuted for their faith. At best, they were ostracized, and some suffered grievous physical abuse and even death. Many believers were driven from their homes, lost their jobs or businesses, and they certainly weren’t welcome in their former places of worship. Some were even thrown into prison.

The writer was urging Christ-like kindness in practical ways such as hospitality and compassion. Genesis 18 tells of Abraham who, following the custom of the day, offered rest, food, and refreshing for a group of travelers. Only they weren’t nomads, they were angels – and one of the trio was the Lord Himself. The wandering Christians needed a place to land when they were driven out. They needed refreshing and rest. Those who had been imprisoned for their faith needed encouragement and human contact. In all of these, the writer called for empathy – put yourself in their sandals. What would you need? Go, and do likewise.

Do we still “entertain angels?” I wouldn’t be surprised. God is certainly still at work in His world and He often sends angels to get the job done. But you and I don’t have to wait for celestial beings to be kind. When we had to move back home a few ago during a difficult season, my sister-in-love opened her home – and even gave up her bed –as we traveled back and forth trying to put our lives back together. She took me to her house when I was very ill and shuttled me to doctors and clinics. And she fed us well. That was gracious hospitality. But hospitality can be as simple as a cup of coffee and a listening ear. If you add some cheesecake, I’m your friend for life.

Maybe you don’t know anyone in prison, but you may know a shut-in or a caregiver, or a stay-at-home mom with no transportation. That can feel like a prison. My husband had major surgery several years ago and many friends texted their support, but the ones who stuck their head in the door of his room brought us some much-needed sunshine. One friend brought plates from the church’s fellowship meal to us in the hospital. Several other friends took in my son while I was tied up with the patient. A double dip of kindness!

Kindness is Christlikeness. It doesn’t cost a dime, but it is incredibly valuable. Don’t wait for angels, Beloved. Be hospitable. Be compassionate. Be generous. Be kind. Be like Jesus.

For the Name of Jesus

She looked at me with disgust, “Keep that stuff to yourself” she snarled. “God bless you!” I called out to her as she stormed away. I was young in my faith and bold – maybe brazen is the better word. I was sitting in the food court of the local mall with a friend who was giving witness to God’s work in her family. I raised my hands and shouted, “Wooo! Praise God!” That’s when the woman at the next table picked up her bags and launched her bomb at me. I wasn’t fazed. In fact, I wore it as a badge of honor. I counted it as “religious persecution,” and for the time and the culture, I suppose it was.

But what I called persecution was not even a slap on the wrist compared to believers in China, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Nigeria, Cuba, and dozen more. There the threats are not merely verbal but physical, economic, and relational, and often end in violence and death. I dare say their faith has been forged in the fire. Just as the apostles’ was.

Even after being ordered to stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus, His followers didn’t quit. The religious leaders were filled with jealousy and ordered them to be arrested (Acts 5:17-18). They responded by escaping jail with the help of an angel who said, “Go, stand in the temple courts and tell the people the full message of this new life” (v. 20). After being brought again before the Sanhedrin – the ruling council of the Jews – they declared, “We must obey God rather than men!” (v. 29). In return they were flogged and the Bible says they “left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (v. 41).

In our modern, western culture, religion is regarded as a personal preference, not a life-giving entity.  It is kept private and should not be allowed to spill over onto others.  In schools, workplaces, among our peers, and even in the food court at the mall we are told to keep our religion to ourselves, or “save that stuff for church.”  And we do because we don’t want to rock the boat.  But true Christianity – the kind that changes the world – is all-or-nothing. Beloved, it’s time for you and me to not only rock the boat but get out of it and walk on the water.

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.

What Has Happened to the Church?

Charles Spurgeon said, “If we cannot be torn in pieces by the roaring lion, we may be hugged to death by the bear.”

(I hope you’re ready for a history lesson)

In the earliest centuries of the Church, Christians faced unfathomable persecution. Their property was confiscated, their jobs taken away, and they were subject to physical attacks. Steven, the first martyr was stoned to death for the name of Jesus. James was beheaded for His commitment to Christ. Paul wrote of “troubles, hardships and distresses, beatings, imprisonments and riots, hard work, sleepless nights and hunger” (2 Cor 6:4-5). He was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19), shipwrecked three times (2 Cor 11:25), and in constant danger everywhere he went (2 Cor 11:26). We’re all familiar with the stories of Christians facing lions in a public arena for the amusement of the Romans. These men and women gladly surrendered their lives rather than deny the name of their Lord, Jesus Christ. The faith of the martyrs shone brilliantly and boldly against the dark backdrop of persecution.

But in later years, when Emperor Constantine of Rome (272-337) declared Christianity as the state religion, persecution in the west ended and every citizen became a “Christian”–whether they believed or not. Being a Christian was all about nationality, not grace as Christianity was fully embraced by the civilized world. It could be considered the worst thing to ever happen to the church. The standards for Christians became more and more lax over the centuries, and by the twentieth century “Christianity” looked nothing like the faith that men and women once died for.  It had been smothered in a bear hug of cheap grace as the church preached a “light” version of sin and salvation.

But I believe we’re coming back full circle to the days of persecution for true believers. Once again, Christians – Bible-believing, Christ-following Christians are persona-non-grata. Christianity has become the enemy once again. Even in the church.  As churches embrace every sin that the culture can dream up, they also reject the truth and those who live by it. Subtly, degree by degree, hatred for true believers is growing and they are being forced out. It’s happening in churches right now in your own community. The days of the bear hug are coming to an end – and it may be the best thing for the church. It’s certainly following in the footprints of Jesus who said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matt 16:25). The lion is stirring again. Beloved, are you ready to stand firm?

Hebrews: The Disgrace of being a Christian

I became a Christian at nine years of age. I still remember sitting in the pew after I was baptized and feeling the water dripping from my hair and down my back. I remember standing in front of the church and receiving “the right hand of Christian fellowship.” One of my teachers hugged me in class on Monday and congratulated me on my decision for Christ. But for first-century believers, being a Christian was vastly different.

The writer of Hebrews said, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publically exposed to insult and persecution, at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated” (Hebrews 10:32-33). For a Jew to make a public profession of faith in Jesus was, at best, to open yourself to public ridicule and often worse. Many lost their employment or the community would cease doing business with them. Sons were disowned by their fathers and wives faced severe repercussions from their husbands, including beatings. They were stripped of their possessions, even their homes, and many were imprisoned just for taking hold of new life in Christ.

How did these early believers respond to such awful treatment? Better than I would have. “You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property . . .” (v. 34a). They found Joy in the persecution they faced. Why on earth? Because they weren’t thinking about earth. “You knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions” (34b). They were thinking about heaven and eternity. They were thinking about what Peter called, “an inheritance that can never perish spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet 1:4).

They remind me of the apostles who, after being beaten by the Sanhedrin for preaching the name of Jesus, rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

I live in the US where the cost of being a Christ-follower is mild compared to the early Christians and to believers today in places where faith in Jesus is tantamount to a death sentence. We might get insulted on social media, and some factions are working through the liberal courts to shut down Christian businesses, but on the whole, being a Christian here is not a hardship. And maybe that’s the problem. But I am certain it’s coming. The cultural winds are shifting to the left and blowing in real hatred for God and His people. You and I need to be ready. It takes a firm faith and an eye to eternity to rejoice in the face of persecution. Beloved, are you willing to suffer disgrace for the Name?

When the Heat is On

A woman read in the Bible that God refines His people like silver and gold so she visited a silversmith and asked about the process of refining the precious elements. The smithy said he put the silver in a kettle and exposed it to extremely high heat that caused the dross, or impure elements, to rise to the surface where he could scoop it out. This process took intense heat and so she asked, “how do you keep from burning it?” The man replied, “I lean in very closely to the kettle and watch it carefully, using only as much heat as necessary until it is just as I want it.” She asked, “How do you know when it’s ready to be removed from the heat?” The smithy answered, “When I can see my reflection.”

You and I are called to be the reflection of Jesus Christ to the world and that image must be pure. God uses all sorts of “heat” – financial struggles, relational heartache, health problems, emotions, culture, rejection, persecution, consequences, and yes, often spiritual heat to bring the impurities in us to the surface where they can be removed. How do I know this? He’s been cooking some junk out of me for a while. Why would He do that to me? Because, like His friend Peter, some things in me need to be removed before God can use me for His Kingdom and His glory. Remember in Luke 22:31-32 how Jesus allowed His friend to be sifted by satan? He let His disciple go through the crucible of intense suffering to remove what was marring His image in Peter (Luke 22:54-62). Afterward, Peter became a mighty Apostle and preached the first Gospel message after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:14-41. The Lord used a humble Peter mightily in the birth and growth of His church.

None of us welcome the seasons of suffering and pain in our lives but know that God is at work, purifying your faith and refining you to be His witness to the world. And you can be assured that in this time of intense heat, He is leaning in close and carefully watching over you, allowing just enough heat to accomplish His purpose – to see His Son reflected in you. And don’t forget that Jesus is praying for you (Luke 22:32). In the end you, Beloved, will come forth a beautiful vessel for His glory.

Blood-stained Faith

I know, this is Hebrews Monday, but this morning the Holy Spirit has a different word from the Word. It is one of those Old Testament to  New Testament connections I love so much.

The psalmist said, “May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands” (Ps. 149:6). You probably picked up on that “double-edged sword” and recognized it from Hebrews 4:12: “For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword . . .” You may also recall John’s vision of Jesus in heaven: “out of His mouth came a sharp double-edged sword” (Rev 1:16). You know that this sword is none other than the Word of God – the Bible – the Holy Scriptures. You know that in the Armor of God the sword of the Spirit is the only offensive weapon we have (Eph 6:17) – but it is enough because the Word of God sends satan packing. This sword is powerful and purposeful.

But the Spirit made another connection for me as He reminded me of the scene in heaven. Under the altar dwelt “the souls of those who had been slain” – martyred saints. Why? “Because of the Word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (Rev. 6:17). And what was their testimony? The same writer said, “And this is the testimony: ‘God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son’” (1 John 5:11). Do you see the connection?

What is praise but declaring the great Name and work of Almighty God? The martyrs throughout the history of the church have held tightly to the name of Jesus and the Word of God as their source of strength and conviction. But martyrs are not only part of the church’s past. Believers are being slain for their faith today, and as the world moves farther away from God, more saints will face the same fate. Maybe even you and me. How will we endure? How will we not fail our Savior? The same way they did. With the name of Jesus on our lips and our hands frozen to the sword (2 Sam 23:10). Come to think of it, this verse is right in line with the message of Hebrews: stand firm in Christ Jesus and do not lose heart. Hard times are coming Beloved, but so is Jesus!

What a Ride!

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I remember hearing about a man from a country where it is deadly to be a Christian who was visiting the US. On his first stop at an American church, he talked about having armed men invade his house and threaten to kill him if he didn’t denounce his faith in Christ. After 3 three months of visiting around this country speaking in multiple churches and staying in church members’ homes, he prepared to return home. He spoke to the first church once again and what he said stunned the people. “I thought it was dangerous to be a Christian in my country, but it is more dangerous here. I am only in danger of being killed for my faith, but you are in danger of having your faith die a slow and miserable death because you are spoiled by comfort and ease. I am going home where my faith can grow strong again.”

When Moses was preparing the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, he told them, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land He has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God.” The danger of complacency was very real for the fledgling nation, and it is just as real, if not more so for us today. Moses warned them that when they are satisfied, “and “build fine houses and settle down,” when their wealth increases and they become a powerful nation, “then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God” . . .  “so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8:10-20, selected verses).

Remember, the Lord was talking to His people. I believe the Lord would say the same thing to Christians in the West today –people who claim to belong to Him. And He would be absolutely right.  Jeremiah spoke about a nation that was “like wine left on its dregs,” that had not been stirred as it fermented (Jer 48:11). It was ruined by excessive sweetness. And so are believers who become satiated by the pleasures and wealth of the world. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matt 16:25). I don’t want to hoard my life. My desire is to come sliding into heaven out of breath, armor all dinged up, shouting, “What a ride!” knowing I gave it all for Christ.