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.

Consider it Pure Joy (part 1)

Check this out – James says that as believers we are to greet every trial as a cause for Joy.  “Consider it pure Joy, my brothers [and sisters], when you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). Excuse me? Joy is not my default reaction when life gets hard. I don’t like trials and I’ll bet you don’t either.  But the Bible says that we can have Joy because our trials are not without purpose.  God has a reason for every trial we face.

James follows up our key verse by saying, “Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4).  We know that we become physically stronger when we work our muscles, and any trainer will tell you that resistance training is the best strengthening exercise.  Our faith becomes stronger when we have opportunities to exercise it as we strain against some resistant force – like a trial.  How will you know that you can trust God if you never have to?  Trials strengthen our faith and lead us into spiritual maturity.

Trials also accomplish God’s wider purposes.  Joseph was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape, and unjustly imprisoned.  But all of those very hard things positioned him to be in the right place at the right time – God’s place and God’s time.  Joseph was used in Egypt to save thousands of lives during the famine, most importantly the life of his own people – the Jews, through whom our Savior, Jesus, would come. Through some pretty hard trials in our life, God moved us back home positioning us for many good blessings including placing me in a great job with the opportunity to further my education – for free.  Trials often become the catalyst for a God-ordained redirection into His good plan.

Our trials prepare us to minister to others.  Paul said, “The Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). I have benefited greatly from the wise counsel and comfort of others who have “been there, done that” and survived.  Their testimony brought me hope and confidence in God and they gave good advice drawn from their own experience.  Perhaps your trial today will give you the wisdom to come alongside someone in a similar situation one day and offer them hope.

This is part one. Part two will post tomorrow.

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.

God, I Don’t Understand!

One of my favorite ways to study the Bible is digging into one book and examining it passage-by-passage, verse-by-verse, and even word-by-word. There is so much wealth in every word of Scripture – and you know how much I love word etymology. But I also want to consider the context so I pull back from the close-up of one word and see the bigger picture of the passage. Pull back a little more and I can see how the passage fits into the theme of the section and even the entire book I’m studying. If I  take this macro-vision even further I can see the bigger-bigger picture of the Old or New Testament and finally the whole Bible.

That’s also how we need to look at our lives. Right now, you may be dealing with something very difficult and all your attention is centered on this one thing in your life. It’s all you can see. You are hyper-focused on this single issue, person, or struggle. May I encourage you to pull back just a little and look for the bigger picture? This issue, person, or need is one word in one sentence of one paragraph on one page of your entire life story. But it isn’t your whole story. God has a much bigger picture in mind. The Bible tells stories of people who had a challenge—infertility, oppression, imprisonment, slavery, rejection, even lack of basic life necessities—and God moved in such a way that the resolution to their challenge became a much larger and more God-glorifying part of their story.

I keep going back to Jesus’ words in the upper room: “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (John 13:7). When I want to say, “God I don’t get this; I can’t figure out what happening.” I hear my Lord say, “You can’t grasp it now child, but you will understand when you see the bigger picture.” Beloved, there is a bigger picture. There is a higher purpose. There is so much more to your story than you can see in the moment. Give God your troubles, your struggles, your difficulties, and watch Him unfold something you never imagined. Your life is so much more than this moment. Trust the Author of your life story. He has an eternal ending in store for you.

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: 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: Everything Old is New Again

New Testament writers often referred back to the Scriptures – what we know as the Old Testament to confirm the fulfillment of prophecy. The writer of Hebrews is one of them. One key I learned in hermeneutics (how to study the scriptures) is to go back to the OT reference to gain the writer’s context.

In Hebrews 10:38 the author loosely borrowed from one of the OT prophets when he wrote, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.”  Verses 19-39 are a call to persevere in Christ. The promise of Jesus’ return was given in verse 37 and is followed by this “gentle” warning. So what was happening in the OT that influenced this NT verse?

Habakkuk prophesied to Judah in the final days before Jerusalem fell. He lamented the injustice, violence, strife, lawlessness, and wickedness in the land. Does that sound familiar? God’s answer was to announce judgment – the nation would be destroyed and taken captive by the Babylonians, a “ruthless and impetuous people . . . bent on violence . . . guilty men, whose own strength is their god” (1:6,9, 11). Habakkuk questions God’s plan and the Lord responds by contrasting the evil Babylonians with “the just” – the one who remains righteous despite the circumstances. The one who perseveres.

This was the author’s theme throughout Hebrews. The Babylonians would take the Jews that survived the onslaught and either enslave them or indoctrinate them into their culture and completely erase their way of life in God. Just as the enemies of the believing Jewish community were trying to do. Just as the world, satan, the culture, and our own sinful nature are trying to do today.

“But,” said the author, “we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved” (v. 39). He expressed his confidence in their faith and their ability to persevere in it under the most dire circumstances. Our enemies may look different today, but they all spring from the same root – satan, the devil, the enemy of God and God’s people.  The call to persevere is as important today as it was thousands of years ago. Only those who stand firm in their faith please God and inherit eternal life. I want that.  And I want that for you, Beloved. Let’s hang on to Jesus together.

Hebrews: Persevere

I’ll be honest, some days I just want to quit. Quit school. Quit writing. Quit trying. Life is full of some precious – but heavy – responsibilities right now. Everything revolves around my granddaughter and her needs right now. I don’t have much time for me and what I need to do. I stay up late doing schoolwork. I get up very early to write. I try to snatch 30 minutes here and there to prepare a Sunday School lesson. I’m tired. But I can’t quit. Not school, writing, or teaching, and certainly not being a grandmother. And so I press on.

The Bible has a lot to say about not giving up; the two words that biblical writers used most frequently in their encouragement were endure and persevere. Both of these words share the same root meaning: “to be in a state that begins and continues, yet may or may not end.” But they each have another word attached that makes all the difference: endure includes the word hypo meaning “under”; while persevere attaches the word epi, which means –“on” or “over.” The writer of Hebrews said, “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what He has promised” (Heb 10:16).  He is exhorting his readers to overcome the pull to walk away from Jesus in an environment that was hostile to Christians. Not unlike ours is becoming.

His statement begs a question: “What, exactly, is the ‘will of God’?” Jesus spelled it out plainly: “My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life” (John 6:40). To believe and keep on believing until you receive the eternal life that Jesus promised. Believing – faith – is not a one and done in the Christian life. It’s not some decision you make one day when you walk the aisle and get baptized. It is an every day, moment-by-moment decision you make and continue to make to take one more step with Him and one more and one more.

I am a busy person, but school and teaching and writing and even being a Nana are not God’s will. All the things I’m doing are God’s call on my life, but His will for me is to believe in His Son till He brings me home. And never give up. I know a lot of you are busy like me. Just make sure, Beloved, in all the things you do to serve Him, that you are in His will all the way to the end.

Hebrews: We’re Better Together

A few years ago I worked in retail and had to pull some Sunday shifts – usually every other Sunday. However, at one point, I worked four Sundays in a row and missed a whole month of church. I felt it. I felt my spirit shriveling up a little more each day. I felt the pull of sin getting stronger. I felt the weight of the world getting heavier. I felt disconnected and alone. The writer of Hebrews understood the need for Christian companionship when he wrote “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (Hebrews 10:25).

It sits in the middle of a passage that calls for perseverance. The Hebrew Christians were under extreme persecution from both the Roman government and the Jewish religious community for their faith. The entire book of Hebrews is a call to remain firm in the faith and one of the most dependable ways to do so is to stand together in one accord. The author says that Christian fellowship has several purposes: to “spur one another on toward love and good deeds,” to encourage one another,” and to hold each other accountable, (vs. 24, 25, implied in v. 26). Over the centuries, many martyrs of the faith were imprisoned, publicly tortured, and put to death. But they went through those abuses united in heart and faith, and they drew strength from one another. In 1555 two faithful Bishops, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer we burned side-by-side at the stake for their testimony of Christ. As they embraced before the place of burning, Ridley told Latimer, “Be of good heart, brother, for God will either make the fire less painful or strengthen us so that we can endure it.”

Beloved, we may not be facing a fiery death for our faith (yet), but we still need one another to endure the struggles and challenges of our lives. I need you. I need your encouragement. I need your prayers. I need your witness. I need you to remind me to remain faithful. You need me for the same reasons. Church is not just something we do as long as the kids don’t have a soccer match or the beach isn’t calling our name. Church – Christian fellowship – is something we need for the sake of our spiritual lives. I hope to see you, Beloved, in church tomorrow.

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.