Holy Father

When I pray, whether written or spoken, I use my favorite name for God: “Holy Father” (John 17:11).  It comes from Jesus’ prayer just before his arrest. I love that name because it is expressing the two most important aspects of who God is. Taken separately, each word speaks volumes.

“Holy” describes the highest moral quality, something or Someone set apart and sacred. I think of the Most Holy place in the Tabernacle where God dwelled among His people. It was a sacred space and entry by man was forbidden – except once a year and then only by the high priest who came to make sacrifices for the sins of the nation. A holy thing would never be used for common purposes by common people. The angels in Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne room constantly called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” (Is 6:3). Not just holy, but thrice holy.

“Father” is, of course, a male parent or significant leader to a family, a nation, or an individual. It is a title of honor and reverence. It is also a title of endearment – at least for some. My Dad and I didn’t have the best relationship when I was growing up and we were estranged for much of my adult life. (We did reconcile a few years before his death.) “Father” was not a warm fuzzy thought for me. But coming from the lips of Jesus, the affection was deep and sincere. Most Jews would not dare refer to God in such familiar ways. Remember He is holy – set apart from common, sinful people. But after His resurrection, Jesus told the disciples, “I am returning to my Father and your Father . . . (John 20:17). And He is our Father.

But together “Holy Father” serves as bookends with all the wonder and awe and majesty of God in between.  And together they are the complete picture of this God who is both holy and dear, who both demands perfection and makes us perfect through the blood of His own Son. The words speak to my heart of a Father who will never wrong me, never leave me, never hurt me or shame me but will always love me with the holiest of love. With perfect love (1 John 4:18). Because He is a perfect Father (Matt 5:48). Yes, “Holy Father” says it all.

Hebrews: The Living Way

In our last Hebrews devotional, we talked about the confidence we have to come to the Lord with all our needs and concerns – all because of the blood of Jesus (Heb 10:19). The author went on to call Jesus’ sacrifice “a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body . . .” (v. 20).  There is so much here, we could spend days unpacking this one verse. The old covenant was built on the sacrifices of dead animals, whose blood had been drained away. But Jesus shed His blood on the cross and rose from the dead – He is a living sacrifice and a living Savior. And He is The Way (John 14:6) – the only way – to the Father.

But I want to focus your attention on “the curtain, which the writer says is “His body.” Picture Jesus on the cross, his hair matted with blood, His body beaten and broken, life draining from the holes in his hands and feet and side. And as death begins to crush the life out of Him, an unseen hand reaches down from heaven, into the Temple, and tears the tall, heavy curtain in two – from the top down (Matt. 27:51). The curtain had long separated sinful man from holy God. Now the perfect blood sacrifice had been given and God Himself tore the curtain and opened the Way into His presence.

Do you see the beauty here in Jesus’ broken body and the torn curtain? For centuries there was separation between God and man. But through the blood of Jesus, we are invited to “draw near” and “approach the throne of grace” (James 10:22; 4:16). Paul confirms that we have been reconciled to God in his great doxology: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword. I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35, 37-39).

Do you know who Paul was talking to? You, Beloved. The one scrolling through this devotional on your phone. God loves you. Jesus died for you. If you trust in Him, there is nothing – not even your sin – that will keep you from God.

Hebrews: One Life, One Death, One Savior

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If it seems like we’ve been in the tabernacle with the high priest for a long time now, you would be right. The writer of Hebrews has repeatedly contrasted the earthly tabernacle and the human priest with the heavenly tabernacle and the divine great high priest to prove the point that Christ is the better way – the only way – to salvation and eternal life. Don’t forget that he was writing to a people steeped in the traditions of Judaism, the Law, and the sacrificial system. All they had ever known was the yearly atonement and they struggled to accept another way. Every year they watched the high priest going into the holy of holies wearing his ritual garments. On his breastplate, near his heart,  he bore the names of the twelve tribes of Israel (Ex 28). On his shoulders, he also carried the names of the sons of Israel, so that he symbolically  “bore the sins of Israel” on his shoulders before the Lord. Every year he carried the same burden into the holy of holies and repeated the necessary sacrifices because one sacrifice was never enough. Until . . .

When Christ went into the heavenly tabernacle He entered into the literal presence of God and offered Himself for “the sins of many people” (Heb 9:28). He didn’t just carry the names and sins of a single group of people, He carried them all, including the Israelites. But the Jewish believers weren’t sure they could trust their eternal security to a “one and done” Savior. What if His sacrifice wasn’t enough? They would be left with their sins uncovered and would be forever condemned. The choice was to throw their whole life on Christ or turn back to what they had always known. To make the point clearer, he said, “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (v. 27). Human life is a one-time thing and so is the judgment that follows. But so was Christ’s sacrifice – once was enough. He will come again to take the judge’s seat and render the final verdict for all who trusted in Him: “not guilty.” Beloved, make sure your one life is safe in the nail-scarred hands of Christ.

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.

Hebrews: The Tabernacle

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Have you ever found a recipe on social media you wanted to try, but when you clicked on the link you had to wade through pages of extra content about why the dish was a family favorite, how Grandpa loved it with extra sauce and Aunt Betty Sue always wanted to tweak the ingredients? By the time you got to the actual recipe, you lost interest. “Just get to the point!” you wanted to say. Why do they do that? All the extra stuff pads the article and allows you to be exposed to lots of ads. Ads are where online writers of blogs and stories and recipes make their money.

The writer of Hebrews starts out the 9th chapter (remember that the original content wasn’t broken down into chapters and verses) talking about the tabernacle which he had mentioned in chapter 8. He described its physical layout and some of the elements that the priests used. He noted the outer room – called the Holy Place – with the lampstand (Ex 37:17-24) and the table (Ex 37:10-16) with the concentrated bread. This was separated by a curtain from the Most Holy Place which held the Ark of the Covenant, God’s dwelling place (Ex 37:1-9). The Ark contained three things – a jar of manna from their days in the wilderness (Ex 16:32-33), Aaron’s staff which was covered in buds to identify God’s chosen priest (Num 17:10), and the tablets of stone on which were etched the ten commandments for the people (Ex 34:28). The Ark featured two cherubim (not the little pudgy baby angels of Valentine’s Day, but mighty warrior angels) who stood guard over the atonement cover (Ex 37:7-9) where God sat to receive offerings once a year.

One of the most fascinating studies I’ve ever done was of the Tabernacle. It’s every element, even down to the colors in the tapestries had incredible symbolism and everything about it and in it pointed to Jesus Christ. And that is where the author wanted to go when he said, “But we cannot discuss these things in detail now” (Heb 9:5). Like the recipe seeker – he wants to get to the point of the Tabernacle – Jesus Christ. But first, he will zero in on the work of the priest, particularly the high priest to set the stage. We will look more closely into his role and work in the next devotional.

Hebrews: The Tabernacle

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Lovely Lane Chapel at Epworth by the Sea, St. Simons Island, Georgia

I love church buildings. I visited some beautiful, ornate cathedrals when I lived in Germany.  My late brother’s high school graduation was held in one in Worms. I didn’t see him walk for his diploma because I was looking at the intricate carvings and high, soaring ceilings. I met for a weekly Bible study in a church with incredible wood beams that always spoke peace to me.  I worked in a church in Florida with beautiful stained glass windows. I loved to sit in the sanctuary and watch the light cast colors across the room. But the church I fell in love with was a small chapel in Georgia on St. Simon’s Island called “Lovely Lane Chapel” at Epworth by the Sea. It is an unassuming white building in the traditional style of the late 19th century set on the banks of the historic Frederica River. But when you open the doors and step inside the all-wood interior will take your breath away. It is an impressive work of architectural art. But it’s just a copy and shadow of the true tabernacle in heaven (Hebrews 8:2, 5).  St. Peter’s Basilica and the pre-fire cathedral at Notre Dame, even the gold walls of Solomon’s temple pale in comparison to the divine original.

Likewise, the ministry of the priests who served in the temple in Jerusalem was significantly less than that of Jesus Christ, the great high priest. The writer of Hebrews pointed first to the gifts and sacrifices presented by generations of human high priests (8:3-4), and later we will see why those gifts and sacrifices fell short of the perfection the Law and the Law-giver demanded. But Jesus’ ministry “is superior to theirs” (8:6) because the gifts and sacrifices He offered were superior.

Jesus’ ministry did not happen in the earthly tabernacle and the sacrifice He offered was not given to a diety shrouded in smoke and incense. Jesus went personally before the Lord with His own pure blood.

Ornate buildings and animal sacrifices don’t make men holy. Neither do programs and weekly services. None of these satisfy the demands of a righteous God. But there is a way. It’s through the better tabernacle and the better offering – through Jesus, the Son of God, the Great High Priest, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Who takes away your sin, Beloved. He will make you holy.

Hebrews: Jesus is Greater

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Every nation has its heroes – men and women who left an indelible mark on history and are remembered for generations. Alexander the Great. William Wallace. George Washington. Winston Churchill. And the list goes on and on. The Jewish people also had a hero. His name was Moses and he is still revered and lauded by Jews. It was Moses who led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage, across the Red Sea, through forty years in the wilderness, and to the edge of the Promised Land. It was Moses who delivered God’s Law to the people and built the tabernacle, the place where the Lord God dwelt among His people. He was a pretty big deal to the Jews. But the writer of Hebrews said there is someone who is an even bigger deal. Jesus.

Two points were raised about Jesus that exalted Him above their hero – He was faithful and He was worthy. “He was faithful to the one who appointed Him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house” (Hebrews 3:2). Both Moses and Jesus were faithful to their God-given tasks. Moses was faithful in His role as the leader of “God’s house” – the people of Israel. Jesus was faithful in His role as the redeemer of God’s creation. But, he noted, there is a significant difference between them. Jesus is “worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything” (vs. 3-4). Moses built the tabernacle, but Jesus is the Creator of everything that exists (John 1:3, 10).

The author then brings it all down to one main point: “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house” (vs. 5-6a). Moses was a servant, Jesus Christ is the Son. Moses served God’s people; Jesus redeemed God’s people.  The readers were contemplating giving up their faith because of persecution. If they abandoned Jesus and went back to Moses, they were turning away from the greater for the lesser.

But don’t we do the same? Don’t we trade Jesus for lesser things like pleasure, wealth, power, popularity, and fame? Don’t we give our affection and attention to temporal things that hold no worth? Jesus is greater than everything this world has to offer. Beloved, I implore you don’t trade Him away for anything.  

Immanuel – God with Us

 

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“They will call Him Immanuel, which means, ‘God with us’” (Matthew 1:23).

One of the most beautiful hymns of Christmas is Emmanuel, Emmanuel:

Emmanuel, Emmanuel,
His name is called Emmanuel.
God with us, revealed in us,
His name is called Emmanuel.[1]

In our modern, New Testament mind the idea of “Immanuel – God with us” is a great comfort as we endure the struggles of life in this fallen world.  To know that God is with us means we are assured of His presence and help.  I am so grateful that God was with us through this difficult year that we experienced.  His presence gave me strength day-by-day and bolstered my faith.

But to truly understand the name and its significance, we have to go back to the Bible.  But don’t stop in Matthew, go back even farther to the book of Exodus, to the most incredible statement by God: “Have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:9).  In the ancient near east, the pagan gods of the time did not dwell with human beings.  No, the “gods” were far too important to be bothered with mortals and their petty lives.  But the God who created and sustained and ruled over all things wanted to dwell with His people.  So He gave them instructions to build Him a sanctuary where He could be present with them.  When the structure was built, the Lord came and took up residence in the place.  The same was true of the temple Solomon built for the Lord in Jerusalem to replace the tabernacle.  When the temple was completed, and the ark of the covenant was put in place in the Holy of Holies, “the cloud [of the Lord’s presence] filled the temple of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:11).  And the Lord dwelled among His people there.

Until.  Until their idolatry and sin became unbearable.  Until God said, “Enough.”  Approximately four hundred years after He filled the temple, the Lord withdrew His presence.  The prophet Ezekiel records the terrible sight of the cloud drawing up and away from the Holy of Holies and from the temple and from Jerusalem and the nation of Judah.  God was no longer with His people.  Shortly afterward the people were taken into exile and the temple was destroyed.  And though it was rebuilt when the exiles returned to Jerusalem, the Lord’s presence did not return to the second temple.

Until. Until the angel visited a carpenter, betrothed to a young woman and proclaimed the return of Immanuel.  Joseph would instinctively know what this name meant – God with us.     God came to once again dwell among men – this time in the humblest way – as a human baby born to peasant parents and laid in a feeding trough for animals.  The name “Immanuel” recalls the glorious presence of God in the midst of His people.  But not only in the temple.  No, this time Immanuel would walk among them, eat with them, touch them with human hands – and die for them.  God had been absent and silent for hundreds of years, but now He had returned to His people.

Immanuel was the promise of God’s presence.  And He is still present with His people today.  He is present in the Holy Spirit that dwells in every believer.  He is present in our worship.  He is present when we pray.  He is present when we rustle the pages of the Bible.  He is present when we reach out to touch a suffering soul with His love.  He is present in holy, divine moments and in the everyday events of our lives.  Because He is Immanuel, He is always present. Because He is God with us, we are never alone.

[1] Emmanuel, Emmanuel was written by Bob McGee in 1976 and published by C.A. Music.

The Lovely Dwelling Place of God

“How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!” Psalm 84:1

Home décor and aesthetics are big business today – and with good reason.  Who doesn’t want a well-appointed home worthy of a magazine cover.  If your family is like mine, that look wouldn’t last more than a day past the photo shoot. What really makes a home beautiful? It’s not the paint or the furnishings or the landscape – it’s the ones who dwell there. It’s the people who call it home.

The Old Testament pointed to the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, as the dwelling place of God. The Tabernacle was made with the finest wood, the richest tapestries and was adorned with gold and silver elements. When Solomon built the Temple, the walls were covered with gold and only the finest stones were used throughout. It was necessary and fitting for the dwelling place of the Lord God to be the very best.  After the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Jewish people rebuilt it and the older generation grieved the smaller, less opulent structure. In time Herod remodeled and expanded the Temple to appease the Jews but, as Jesus predicted,[1] it was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans.

There are many awe-inspiring structures of worship throughout the world. Have you seen St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris? Maybe you’ve seen pictures of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. They are all awe-inspiring structures of worship. But the most beautiful of all God’s dwelling places is YOU. The Scriptures says that if you are in Christ Jesus “The Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you” (Romans 8:11). You are the place where God chose to reside through His Spirit. You are the place God calls home. Whether you are tall or short, light or dark-skinned or any other color in between, no matter your weight or the color of your hair (even if you have none!), despite any scars or imperfections you may see, you are the lovely dwelling place of God in the world today. It’s not your physical appearance nor your clothes and accessories but it is the One who lives within that makes you the beauty you are.

Beloved, if you struggle with your physical image, may I suggest you look deeper than the surface? Look past the garments and flesh and see yourself as the exquisite abode of the Lord of heaven and earth. See the beauty within and let others see it too. My but you’re looking lovely today!

Holy Father, anything good in me is because your Spirit dwells within and makes me into someone beautiful, inside and out. Thank you for moving in – please make Yourself at home in me. Amen

[1] See Matthew 24:2.