Hebrews: The Beauty of Baptism

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I was baptized when I was about 9 years old. And 10 years old. And 12 years old. And 35 years old. I constantly thought I was too dirty for God, so I would be dunked again. Baptism became a ritual for me. I would have made a great Pharisee. That is the idea behind the author of Hebrews’ inclusion of baptism in his “elementary teachings” in Hebrews 6:2: “Let us leave  the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of . . . instruction about baptistms.” 

Once again, remember that he is writing to Jewish Christians who were raised in all the Jewish traditions. The Jews were a people of The Law –the Mosaic Law and the Levitical laws as given by God, but also the additional laws that were established by the Pharisees and Sadducees. And they were BIG on cleanliness.  They had a ritual of washing their hands before eating bread. Of course, handwashing before meals is simple hygiene, and the origin is biblical and reaches back to the tabernacle and the requirement of cleanliness for Aaron and his sons.  But they had turned it into an elaborate ritual that became a law unto itself. The Jewish Christians had come to regard baptism in the same way. It was a ritual – a spiritual routine that had been elevated to a much higher priority than intended. You can see the first notes of this in John 3:25-26.

Jesus was baptized at the start of His earthly ministry. Matthew 3:13-17 details the event. But John was baptizing “for the repentance of sins (Acts 19:4) and Jesus was sinless – in fact, John at first refused and said that he (John) needed to be baptized by Jesus. Yet Jesus said, “Let it be so now, it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15). At His baptism Jesus identified Himself with the sinners He came to save and the Father identified with the Son He sent to be man’s Savior.

A young girl was baptized at our church on Sunday and our Pastor reminded us that baptism doesn’t save us or make us right with God, but it publically identifies us with Jesus whose blood is the only saving power in heaven and earth.  Beloved, don’t count out the beauty of baptism, but don’t count on it to save you. The blood of Jesus is enough.

Hebrews: Faith in God

In June of 1995, British actor Hugh Grant was arrested in Los Angeles, California for hiring a prostitute for a sexual encounter. After a few weeks of hiding out with his PR people, Grant went on an “apology tour,” which famously led to an appearance with Jay Leno who called the actor out. Grant sheepishly said, “I think you know in life, pretty much, what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing. I did a bad thing, and there you have it.” Come to think of it, Grant acknowledged his “bad thing,” but never apologized for it.

It’s one thing to be sorry for our actions. Lots of people have apologized publically and privately for things said and done (or not said and not done). Lots of people have even prayed for forgiveness, but few follow that prayer with “faith in God” (Hebrews 6:1).  In our last Hebrews study, we talked about “repentance from acts that lead to death.”  We defined repentance as a spiritual and moral change of attitude toward God which turns an individual from sin to God.  And we pointed out that true repentance must have both sorrow and turning.  If repentance is turning away, faith in God is turning to. Repentance for the Jewish readers of this message was turning away from the Law as a means of righteousness and turning to God through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.

But I’m pretty sure the vast majority of you reading this devotional are, like me, not Jewish. We’ve never been a slave to the Mosaic Law. So what does this mean for us?  The same thing. It means we must come to God with both a sincere heart of repentance and faith in God through the work of Christ.  It is saying, my old way of life, my selfish, self-centered, it’s-all-about-me attitude is wrong and the ways of God are right. It’s saying I am a slave to sin and I cannot redeem myself, but I trust that God can through His Son.  And remember, the writer contends that this is an “elementary, foundational teaching.”

I love to expound on things in Scripture, to take you deep into the truth of God’s Word and help you grow, but you and I have to get this right first. Beloved, “today is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Have you, will you, turn away from sin and turn to faith in God through Jesus Christ?

Hebrews: Turn Around

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“Turn around. Don’t drown.” “Turn back. Bridge out.” Road signs tell the driver one thing: you need to reverse course. You need to change your direction. You are on a dangerous path. They are signs we would do well to heed. The Bible also puts up signs that call us to make a change in the way we are going. Scripture calls it “repentance” and we would also do well to heed these warnings.

The writer of Hebrews focuses on one aspect of repentance in his discussion of elementary teachings: “Repentance from acts that lead to death” (6:1) Remember that he has been talking to “lazy” believers who are unwilling to grow in the matters of the faith. They are content with surface knowledge – just enough to make sure they escape hell. You know, fire insurance.  Our author says that this is a foundational truth. I wonder if 21st-century Christians understand it at all.

What is repentance? Paul described it like this: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret . . .” (2 Corinthians 7:10). It is a spiritual and moral change of attitude toward God which turns an individual from sin to God. It is recognizing the dangerous road we are on, how we got on it, and turning back to God. Repentance must have both sorrow and turning. We are often sorry for our behavior (well, let’s be honest, we’re sorry we got caught), but that doesn’t mean we turn back to God.  The Prodigal Son is the perfect expression of repentance.

So what does “acts that lead to death” mean? Other translations may say, “dead works.” This is referring to anything man does in an attempt to save himself. Remember that the readers were largely Jewish, and Judaism had 613 commandments – expounded from the original ten commandments that God had given Moses. These – including circumcision – were the Jew’s “gateway” to salvation. Do all the right things in all the right ways and you will be right before God. The problem was, no one could be right before God even if they followed every jot and tittle of those 613 rules. In the same way, non-Jews cannot be right with God by being “good enough.” Because we never will be.  

Salvation has never been about what we do or don’t do. It is always and only about the work that Jesus has done on the cross. Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Christus. Grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Beloved, it’s not too late to turn around. God will always welcome repentant sinners home.

Jesus

“. . .the One and Only, who came from the Father full of grace and truth”  John 1:14b

Who is this Jesus?

Matthew said He is “God with us” – “Immanuel” (Matthew 1:23).  For thirty-three years He was “God-in-the-flesh with us,” walking among His people, touching them with hands they could feel, speaking words their ears could hear.  Yet He was very much God, performing miracles and speaking with divine authority.  Twice Matthew reports a voice from heaven saying, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him, I am well pleased” (3:17; 17:5).

Mark expands the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, showing His uncommon power to heal, raise the dead,  give sight to the blind,  multiply a few loaves and fishes, calm the raging sea, and drive out demons who recognized Him as “the Holy One of God” (1:24).  He also shows Him to be a King who endured uncommon suffering to rescue His people from the sentence of death.

Luke revealed Jesus as the salvation of all people (2:32).  He wrote to give an ordered account of Jesus from reliable eye-witness testimonies.  Luke offers the most detailed version of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, and tradition holds that these were Mary’s own memories.   How incredible that we have the testimony of Jesus’ Father, and the recollections of His mother to confirm that this Jesus was fully God and fully man.

From his opening testimony – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1) – John most powerfully proved Jesus as the Son of God, the One and Only, divine in nature and one with His Father.  John records Jesus’ “I AM” statements, a direct connection to God’s own self-revelation (Exodus 3:14). He recorded Jesus’ statement:  “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father” (14:9).  John also devotes half of his gospel to Jesus’ final week, His death, burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. (John 12-21).

Paul said that He is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and the writer of Hebrews said “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being’ (Hebrews 1:3).  Jesus. “God with us.” “The Son of God.” “The Salvation of God.” “The Word of God” “One with the Father.” “The image of God.” “The radiance of God.” “The exact representation of God.” And that barely scratches the surface. Jesus is . . . everything. Beloved, what more do you need to believe?

This is Huge!

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Sometimes I can read a verse a hundred times and on pass 101 something clicks and blows my mind. Last night was #101 for Hebrews 5:14. The writer had been admonishing his readers for refusing to grow up in their faith and take in the rich, nourishing “meat” of biblical truth. They were satisfied to know just enough to ensure their salvation. “What’s wrong with that?” you may ask. “Isn’t that what Christianity is all about?” The core of Christianity is the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. But for the spiritual babies among us, and for this “mature” teacher, there is something huge that we’ve been missing.

“But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Pay attention to “by constant use have trained themselves.” Remember that the writer had declared that they were lazy and undisciplined in their spiritual growth. He was urging them to consistently and vigorously “exercise” in the Word of God. For what purpose?” And this is where I have holy goosebumps. “to distinguish good from evil. “Yeah, yeah, that’s good.” But wait, there’s more – and the only reason this caught my attention is because I wrote a school paper recently that made this very point.

Go back to the Garden of Eden, and Genesis 3 where Eve is having a foolish conversation with a serpent who said, “God knows that when you eat [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge good and evil] your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (v. 5). And it happened just as he said; they ate and they suddenly knew things they’d never known – evil things. But it was knowledge they could not bear for they did not have God’s divine capacity, in knowing good and evil, to distinguish good from evil. There’s a difference. That’s why I am so excited about this verse. Hebrews 5:14 says that by consistent, disciplined training in God’s Word we can distinguish one from the other.

 “Good and evil” is used only five times in the Bible – four of which appear in the Fall narrative. “Good from evil” only appears once in the entire Bible – right here in our key passage. Do you see it? This evil knowledge that was unleashed on the human race by Adam and Eve’s sin can only be brought under control by consuming and applying the Scriptures diligently and purposefully.

In my spirit, I am standing on a table shouting: “YOU CAN OVERCOME EVIL THROUGH THE WORD OF GOD!” You can and you must or you will forever struggle with the sinful nature you inherited from the first sinners. This is huge! This is life-changing. I implore you, take this to heart. Pick up your Bible Beloved, and be set free.

Hebrews: Do You Need Some Rest?

My sleeping angel, Joy.

I kept my phone close, anticipating a call about a test I had undergone. Cancer took my mom away too soon – and I knew that increased my risk. The call finally came late in the afternoon. “The images were clear. There was no sign of cancer.” Relief filled my heart and that night I got some much-needed rest.  But what if I decided the doctor was wrong? What if I doubted the results? What if I continued to worry and toss and turn at night?

The writer of Hebrews drew from the Psalmist’s recollection of the Israelite’s in the wilderness and God’s declaration that this unbelieving people “Shall never enter my rest” (Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 3:11; 4:3). At the threshold of the Promised Land, Moses sent out twelve spies into Canaan to explore the territory and assess the inhabitants from a military standpoint. They returned with a glowing report of “the land of milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27), and an alarming report of the people they would have to defeat to take the land. They said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are!” (13:31) The people grumbled and wanted to turn back to Egypt – to slavery. Only Joshua and Caleb urged them to trust the Lord and proceed – and only Joshua and Caleb survived God’s judgment.  Because of their unbelief, the whole company would wander for forty years until the last of the unbelieving generation fell in the desert.

The author used them as an example of people who “had the gospel . . . but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith” (Hebrews 4:2).  Faith, as the Bible uses it means belief and trust – with the implication that actions based on that trust will follow. Faith is not just ethereal thoughts – it is acting with confidence in what God has said. The Israelites heard about the Promised Land, but they doubted they could get the victory so they gave up on God’s rest. When the gospel is declared some will have faith and some will not. Some will rest in the promise of salvation and eternal life and some will live in hopelessness and anxiety.  The author adds, “Now we who have believed enter that rest . . .” (4:3a).

Beloved, are you weary? There is rest for those who trust in Jesus. Today and eternally.

Hebrews: Why Did Jesus Come?

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Over the past several weeks in Hebrews, we’ve focused on eight theological reasons why God sent His Son from glory to this sinful earth. Let’s put them all together for a recap.

  1. God sent Jesus to “bring many sons to glory” (v. 10). To bring lost human beings – now redeemed – into His eternal family.
  2. He sent Jesus to earth to “Make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering” (v. 10b). Remember that “perfect” means complete and doesn’t imply that Jesus was every imperfect. His role as “the author of [our] salvation” was completed by his suffering on the cross.
  3. Jesus came so that He could present us to God as “the children God has given me” (v. 13). Children who were set apart for Him and transformed into His own image.
  4. God sent Jesus to “destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” v. 14). Jesus came to fulfill God’s first promise “to crush the head” of the devil (Genesis 3:15).
  5. In destroying the devil, Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (v. 15). As children of God, we do not fear the end of this life because we know that we have eternal life with Him in heaven forever.
  6. God sent Jesus to be for us “a merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17). He is the only high priest who does not need to make atonement for His own sins before He can atone for ours.
  7. As our high priest, Jesus came to “make atonement for the sins of the people” (v. 17b). By His death, He made us “at one” with God as we were “me[a]nt” to be.
  8. God sent Jesus “to help those who are being tempted” (v. 18).  He suffered from the same demonic temptation you and I face. He understands and He is able and more than willing to help us.

All of this comes back to one core reason God sent Jesus to earth: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God loves His creation. He wants to redeem sinful humans and restore the relationship for which we were created. He did that through His Son. He did that for you and me. Beloved, God gave the most precious thing in heaven to save you forever. Because He loves you.

Hebrews – Jesus and Angels

To the Jewish people, angels were just a notch below God Himself in power and authority, and that’s not far from the truth. Angels are God’s messengers and advocates between heaven and earth. They are His instruments of judgment and Scripture shows them engaging in warfare against satan’s angels. In heaven, they constantly praise and glorify God and rejoice as they witness God’s perfect plan unfold. Like humans, they are created beings – thus they are never to be worshipped, even though humans are “a little lower than the angels” (2:7). But humans have a distinct advantage over angels – we can experience God through His saving grace. That’s a perspective of the Creator that angels will never know. In speaking of our salvation through Christ, Peter said, “even angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:12).

The Jews held angels in very high esteem, but the author of Hebrews said there is one who should be held even higher – God’s Son, Jesus. “He became as much superior to the angels as the name He has inherited is superior to theirs” (1:4).

The Bible holds many accounts of angels coming to the rescue of humans, saving them from certain disaster. But angels cannot save a sinful soul from eternal death. Only Jesus can. Because only He is God’s Son. Glance back at the end of verse 4 – that “superior name He inherited” is “Son” (v.5) “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father?’ Or again, ‘I will be his Father, and he will be my Son.’”  (v. 5). Only the Son of God could save the world. Paul said that He is “seated at His right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given (Ephesians 1:20-21). That includes presidents, kings, priests, Imams, Muhammad, Brahma, Lucifer, and the angels in heaven and in hell. Jesus is superior to them all. 

That is why the author of Hebrews says that faith in any other being, even angels, is misplaced and unstable. Only faith in Jesus, the Son of God, can save you perfectly and eternally. Even the angels know that to be true.

What Does It Mean to Be a Christian?

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The world has many different views of what a “Christian” is.  In fact, the church is pretty confused about what it means as well. The title “Christian” was not coined by the Lord Himself or by His disciples. “Christian” was a designation given to the “Followers of the Way” – the first believers – by those outside the church (see Acts 11:26). It meant, “little Christs” because these people were keenly identified with Jesus by their words and actions. Not so much today.

To the culture, a Christian is someone who is filled with hate and intolerance. Strangely enough, the only ones the tolerant culture will not tolerate are true Christians.  In many churches today, a Christian is someone who shows up semi-regularly for church and throws a couple of bucks in the plate.  Oh, and they must not speak out against anything anyone chooses to do or be all for the sake of “love.”  Individually, a Christian is someone who posts Jesus memes on social media, right after posting something laced with profanity. They know just enough Scripture to prove themselves right in their own eyes.

Saying “I am a Christian” does not get you into God’s heaven. Paul said the key to heaven is a profession of faith. “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

There is an important distinction between saying “I’m a Christian” and saying “Jesus is Lord.” What we are to confess with our mouth is the Name, the identity, and the Lordship of Jesus. And it’s not just words we spout, it must be a confession of our heart. I tried an experiment with this when I had to interview several non-believers for my Apologetics class. I asked each one to say, “Jesus is Lord,” and every one of them refused because they said, “I don’t believe it.” Remember what Jesus said – “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). And the heart that believes that Jesus is Lord will lead the mind and body to act like it.

Claiming to be a Christian has no saving power. Professing the Name and Lordship of Jesus Christ does. The true confession of faith is not what I am, but what Jesus is.

A Song of Love

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On the weekdays when Joy stays with us, she goes to a terrific babysitter while I am at work. I know she is getting good care, but when I pick her up every afternoon she is tired and not too happy. I can relate. Yesterday was one of those days. She fussed as soon as we started driving away. She had a fresh cup of milk and a snack, and her favorite musical toy. Nope. Not what she wanted. The fussing got louder until her favorite song, “Good God Almighty” came on the radio. I turned it up and started singing along with Crowder. Almost immediately the fussing stopped and I heard a new, sweet sound from the backseat. Two little chubby hands clapping her delight. The rest of the ride home the car was filled with her happy chatter. It filled my heart with – you guessed it – Joy!

One of my favorite verses is Zephaniah 3:17. Let me give you some context. Zephaniah was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah, just before the nation would fall to the Babylonians. The people had been under a great deal of oppression because they had turned away from God to worship idols. Their sin had caused them great misery. That sounds all too familiar to me. God declared that He would bring punishment on them—and He would also bring gladness to them again. For a season, they would be removed from their beloved Jerusalem, but God promised to take away their chastisement and fear and to bless them once again with His presence. He said, “The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save.  He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.” Now, I’ve never heard His audible voice, but I always feel His love and comfort in songs of worship and praise. And yes, I’ve even sensed His delight as I lift (and clap) my hands in glad adoration.

Some days are just hard. God knows that. But He wants you to know that He is always near to you, always working on your behalf, lavishing love on you to quiet your anxious heart and rejoicing over you with songs of delight. Beloved, get still and quiet and see if you don’t hear the faintest melody in your spiritual ear. And maybe clap your hands to the rhythm of Joy.