Hebrews: The Day of Atonement

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

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

Love One Another

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

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

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

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

A Pure Heart

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When my son was younger, he was determined to do something he knew was wrong. When I caught him before he could put his plan into action he protested, “But Mom I didn’t actually do it!” “That’s not the point.” I told him, “You wanted to do it – that’s the heart of the problem.

Human nature has reduced “sin” to an act – a thing we do, while the Bible tells us that sin is a condition of the heart – our desires. When Jesus taught about adultery in Matthew 5:27-28 He said that the sin of adultery is committed when the desire arises – “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” James identified the pattern of sin in 1:14-15 as a progression from one’s “own evil desire,” to enticement, then to the action. Sin clearly starts in the heart. After his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Urriah, David pleaded for God to “create in me a pure heart” (Ps. 51:10) for he knew that it was his heart that had led him astray. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mat. 6:21), meaning we will pursue at all costs what our heart desires. If that desire is for sin, you can bet your hands, feet, and body will follow. Jesus also said only “the pure in heart . . . will see God” (Mat. 5:8). That should be incentive enough.

A pure heart recoils at the thought of disobeying and dishonoring God and breaking fellowship. It pursues the heart of God, which never leads to sin. A pure heart runs from temptation (2 Tim 2:22). Does that mean if you struggle with sinful desires You don’t have a heart for God? No – Paul attested to the battle within himself (Rom. 7:15-23) and I know well my own tug-of-war with sin. But it’s not unwinnable. You just need some Help.

Beloved, Are you weary of toying with the sinful desires of your heart? Victory comes as you allow the Word of God and the Spirit of God to purify your heart day by day. God isn’t just after your behavior Beloved, He is after your heart.  When you “delight yourself in the Lord,” that is when He is all your heart longs for, then “He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps 37:4). He will give you Himself.

By Faith . . .

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

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

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.

A Brand New You

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“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone the new has come!”  2 Corinthians 5:17

I don’t like reminders of my past – I tend to bristle at memories of my rebellion and selfishness, and sin.  That is why I love Paul’s words.  He wrote in his letters, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world” (Ephesians 2:1-2).  He gives a list of sinful and wicked behaviors in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and says, “That is what you were. (1 Corinthians 6:11)” In Ephesians 5:8 He says, “You were once darkness…”  Paul is coloring in the shadows of his readers’ past to highlight the contrast when he says “but now…you are light in the Lord.”  He is painting a before and after portrait.  “You were once…but now you are.”   He is saying, “You were dead in sin and rebellion and selfishness. But that is not who you are anymore.  Now you are in Christ.”

One of Satan’s favorite ploys is to assault us with our past, to tell us that we will always be who we were and there is no point in trying to resist those old familiar sins.  “You know deep down, you still want it.  You haven’t changed. You are bound to your past.  You are bound to me.”  But if you belong to Jesus Christ, Satan has no authority over you. You are free from your past; you are free to choose not to give in to sin.  You are a child of light, purified from all your sins (1 John 1: 7).  Where you were once bound to your sin, you are now bound up in God’s love.

In Philippians 3:13, Paul gives us the secret to walking in our new identity when he says, “one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on…”  We can forget what is behind because “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)” If only we could understand that because Jesus Christ has completely removed all our transgressions our old sinful desires have no authority over us any longer.  Yes, they still call to us, but we are no longer captive to do their bidding.

Beloved, look at yourself in the mirror.  You are a new creation in Christ.  You have light in your eyes, and God’s love shines on your face.  You are free to choose all the wonderful things God has planned for you.  You are no longer bound to a painful, sinful past. You are not who you once were.  Now you are His.

Proven Faith

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

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

What is God Worth to You?

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When I sit down to write every morning, I ask the Lord, “What do you want to say?” Some days it’s a word of encouragement. Everyone seems to like those. Some days it’s a Scripture lesson (like the Hebrews series). And some days God directs me to a passage of Scripture and I think, “This is not exactly a heart-warming story.” This is one of those days. I almost changed it, but God can be very insistent.

King David took a census of the men of  “fighting age” in Israel, a sign that his trust for his nation was in the strength of his army and not in the strength of his God. He soon realized his census was a slap in the face to the Lord God (2 Sam 24:9). He confessed his sin and pleaded for the Lord to take away his guilt. God gave him three options.  Israel could face three years of famine, David could spend three months running from his enemies, or there could be three days of plague in the land.  David decided on the last option and seventy thousand citizens of Israel died. The Lord finally stayed the hand of the death angel “at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite” (v. 16). The king approached Araunah to purchase the threshing floor that he might “build an altar to the Lord, that the plague on the people may be stopped” (v. 21). Araunah offered the threshing floor free of charge but David would not hear of it. He said, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (v. 24).

Here’s what I hear from God: “Why are my people so stingy towards me?” In the little book of Malachi, God said He would prefer that the temple doors be shut than for the people to give Him meaningless offerings – “injured, crippled, blemished or diseased animals” burned on “useless fires” (1:10-13). But above all, the people considered their gifts and service to Him to be “a burden” (1:13). Jesus talked about the cost of being His disciple (Luke 9:57-62) and Matthew recorded His parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price (13:44-46) to express how valuable the kingdom of God is. 

This is not about money, although giving is an important part of the relationship. This is about giving God our hearts, our time, our thoughts, and our whole selves. Is the kingdom worth giving up sleep to spend time every morning with the King? Is it worth turning off the T.V. to read His Word to your kids? Is it more valuable than having them excel in sports or dance? Is God your heart’s first desire, or your fifth or twentieth?

Beloved, my toes are throbbing too, but the question stands: What is God worth to you?

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.

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.