Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Final Remarks

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. You should know that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon. Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings. Grace be with all of you. (Hebrews 13:20-25, ESV)

Whereas we might put the benediction at the very end, the custom in this century was to put greetings and travel information at the end.  It has long been debated who these Hebrew Christians were but the final words of this letter leave us somewhat dissatisfied.  Was the author in Italy, perhaps Rome, and therefore sending greetings from Italian believers, or was he somewhere else and yet in touch in that locality with Italian believers who wanted to greet their fellow Italians?  If the latter is the case then perhaps we have a clue that these believers were in Rome or at least from Italy.  But that is only supposition.  They did know Timothy, Paul’s trusted companion, but this author cannot be Paul since Paul always stated that he was the author of his letters, even signing the letter in his own hand (Galatians 6:11).

The author characterizes his letter as an encouragement, an exhortation, written briefly.  We may have different standards of “brief” but for sure this implies that there was much more he could have shared.  He hoped to come personally and do so.

His benediction extols the God of peace who resurrected Jesus, and it extols Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep whose blood sealed God’s eternal New Covenant with His people.  He asked God to equip this congregation through Jesus Christ with the ability to do His will and so be pleasing in His sight.  That is the way of the New Covenant.  It is God’s demands being met because God works in us the ability to fulfill His demands (Philippians 2:12,13; Deuteronomy 30:6).  This is what makes the covenant unconditional.  We must obey to enjoy its’ benefits, but He makes us obedient.

Are you at peace with the God of peace?  Is He at work within you equipping you to do His will?  Is the Son, Jesus Christ, the love and joy of your life?  Don’t accept anything less!!

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Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Leaders

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner. (Hebrews 13:17-19, ESV)

It would seem that the leaders of the Hebrews congregation were in agreement with the author of this epistle and faithful adherents to the true gospel.  They were also urging their congregation to abandon this idea of abandoning Jesus and returning to their former practice of Judaism.  As those charged with keeping watch over the souls of these believers they had no doubt spent many a night groaning in prayer for them.

How much better that our pastors/shepherds should watch over us with joy.  And how important that we pray for them.  Our author asks for prayer that he might continue to act honorably in all things.  Perhaps he is experiencing persecution as well and wants to keep a brave testimony.  He wants to be restored to this congregation, also, and we cannot fault him for asking prayer to survive whatever trial he is going through.

But what if their leaders were not faithful to the gospel?  Should they obey and submit to them then?  As much as we need leaders, true followership must not abdicate responsibility for maintaining the gospel’s purity to leaders.  We are all responsible.  That is why this letter was addressed to the congregation, not to the leaders.  All of us must wrestle with the arguments, with the Scriptures, and with our own consciences.  I won’t be able to make a case on judgment day that I listened to a bad leader and so I plead “not guilty.”

The apostles Peter and John refused to obey their spiritual leaders, the Sanhedrin, when this court required them to quit preaching in Jesus’ name (Acts 5:27-32).  They said, “We must obey God rather than men.”  A leader’s authority is God-given but therefore always God-subservient.  A leader’s authority with people will necessarily be located in his or her example of godliness and faithfulness to the gospel (1 Peter 5:1-3; Acts 20:28-35).  The apostle John commended Gaius  who helped traveling evangelists who arrived at his church in contradiction to Diotrephes, who “liked to put himself first,” rather than telling Gaius to submit to Diotrephes.

Still, the general requirement is for church leaders to be obeyed.  And we should pray for them.

PERHAPS the most central characteristic of authentic leadership is the relinquishing of the impulse to dominate others. [David Cooper, Psychiatry and Anti-Psychiatry]

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: The Grace Test

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:7-16, ESV)

I remember the young man who led me to faith in Christ.  He came to our church one Sunday night to speak to the youth, and then led the evening worship service for everyone after.  I never saw him again,  but he was part of the leadership who spoke the Word of God to me, and I can consider their way of life and imitate it.  I know what happened to me that night and I remember how life changing it was.  For the first time I got what it meant to know God.

Jesus has not changed.  “Diverse and strange teachings” have since paraded themselves past me but I was given the anointing (1 John 2:20) that all Christians have that enables us to know the truth.  I recognized it that night when that young man spoke it, and I heard it in the leaders who brought that young man to our church.  It’s not a bad test of false doctrine to see if the leaders who first spoke the Word of God to you embrace a teaching or not.  It’s not the only test, of course.

Grace must always be at the core of the true gospel.  Restrictions on foods are just one example of the world’s hatred of grace.  As long as you are committed to saving yourself grace will be a cuss word.  But for those who have tasted grace, no other food can satisfy.  And no altar but the heavenly one can draw our allegiance.

To embrace grace is to go outside the camp of human endeavor, a very unsafe place to be.  We will experience reproach and it may cost us our lives.  But our camp is not of this world.  Our lasting city is the heavenly Jerusalem.  Yes, that’s pretty Jewish.  So is Jesus.  So our sacrifice cannot be offered on any human altar in any human camp.  It belongs to God alone whose grace has made possible our praise, our doing good, and our sharing what we have, not as a way of earning His love but of reacting to it.

And yes, that pleases Him.

The movie Dead Man Walking is based on Sister Helen Prejean’s mission to care for the soul of death row inmate Matthew Poncelet. Poncelet awaits execution for brutally killing a young man and woman. Throughout the movie Poncelet vehemently denies any wrongdoing, even though the evidence contradicts him. At one point, Sister Helen gives him a Bible and tells him to read the Gospel of John. She persistently tries to help him face the truth, but he resists, blaming anyone else he can think of.

One emotional scene—the climax of the movie—shows Poncelet finally admitting his guilt.

Poncelet recalls, “My mama kept saying, ‘It wasn’t you, Matt. It wasn’t you.'”

“Your mama loves you, Matt,” responds Sister Helen.

Grieved by guilt, Poncelet begins to confess, but lapses as tears flood his eyes. As Sister Helen probes him further, Poncelet admits, “I killed [the boy].” Sister Helen then asks about Hope, the raped and murdered girl. Again, Poncelet forthrightly confesses.

“Do you take responsibility for both of their deaths?” probes Sister Helen.

Poncelet responds, “Yes ma’am.… When the lights dim at night, I kneel down by my bunk and pray for those kids.… I’ve never done that before.”

Sister Helen comforts Poncelet, saying, “There is a place of sorrow only God can touch. You did a terrible thing, Matt, a terrible thing. But you have a dignity now. Nobody can take that away from you.… You are a son of God, Matthew Poncelet.”

Sobbing deeply, Poncelet says, “Nobody ever called me no son of God before. They called me a son-of-you-know-what lots of times, but never no son of God.… I just hope my death can give those parents some relief. I really do.”

“Well,” continues Sister Helen, “maybe the best thing you can give to the Percys and the Delacroixs is a wish for their peace.”

Poncelet says, “I never had no real love myself. I never loved a woman or anybody else.… It about figures I would have to die to find love.… Thank you for loving me.”

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Modern Ethics

Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say,

“The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:1-6, ESV)

It seems abrupt to us, but a common feature of Christian letter writing from teachers and leaders was a segment with concluding “exhortations” or encouragements to holy living.  And it is fascinating to see what is emphasized as part of the ethic of Christianity in the early church.  Should it not comprise our ethical message as well?

  • Love your fellow Christian:  This is our most basic ethical requirement as believers.  And in light of the struggles of this congregation it was a needed reminder.  Love for one another is what Jesus said would set us apart as belonging to him (John 13:34,35) and the one thing we seem to most often find missing in our testimony for Christ.
  • Love your fellow man:  Showing hospitality to strangers has always been a hallmark of believers.  We were helpless strangers and God showed us compassion.  This is not quid pro quo, an exchange of help for payback.  It is offered freely and genuinely with no expectation in return.  Who knows if God is not testing our love by sending angels to pose as strangers (see Genesis 18&19).
  • Empathize with your fellow man:  Some of the Hebrews were in prison, not for crimes but for their faith.  But even if they were there for crimes, or were people who were not believers, this was a call to identify with the horrible experience prison was as well as with other ways in which people were being mistreated.
  • Maintain sexual purity through marriage:  In our present culture the living out of the first three ethical demands would make it much easier to focus on this one, but as it is we often don’t speak compassionately about sexual purity.  We must hold ourselves to contentment with one spouse.
  • Maintain financial purity through contentment:  Love for money is a problem in any culture but all the more so in the United States, where we’ve come to expect a level of wealth as a pre-requisite to happiness.  It is hard to be free from the love of money, but that is the Christian ethic.  It is made possible by the knowledge that God will undertake to meet our needs.  We don’t need to live in fear when God is our helper and protector.

Suffice it to say that the Christian ethic is all a response to God’s work in our lives to rescue and redeem us.  It all hinges on the reality of His righteousness and loving requirements of His children.  His holiness is best for us.

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Shaken, Not Stirred

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:25-29, ESV)

Just as surely as God was speaking from Mount Sinai He is speaking from Mount Zion, the heavenly version, and our author cannot help but make one more warning.  Do Not Refuse Him Who Is Speaking!  He has spoken in His Son and there is no escape if we neglect this warning from heaven.

Expositing Haggai 2:6 and 21, in which Yahweh tells Israel, as He urges the rebuilding of the temple of Solomon after their return from exile, that He will shake the heavens and the earth, the author of Hebrews speaks of another shaking to come.  He shook the earth at Sinai.  But there is a shaking of the heavens that will yet take place as well.  God’s kingdom will upset the entire order of things in the cosmos.  This will be the last shaking because only earthly and temporary things can be so shaken.  They will be replaced by a kingdom that can never be shaken.

The Hebrews, and we ourselves, must worship this God who shakes heaven and earth in the way He deems acceptable, that is, through Jesus Christ.  There is none other than the Son through whom we must approach the Lord.  Failure to do so will be a devastating decision.  Our God is a consuming fire.

God doesn’t speak of judgment to torment us with the inevitable. When someone sets a trap to catch something or someone, he doesn’t announce it, put up a sign to warn him. And God has announced a day of judgment so that we might escape it, which means he has provided a way of escape. [John Walvoord]

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Going Home

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24,ESV)

Judaism, and, for that matter, the world systems, offered something touchable with its sacrifices and other rituals.  Though these were meant to foreshadow a greater reality, the clues to which our author has carefully laid out, sinful humans still want to cling to what cannot really save.  And yet as Israel experienced at Mount Sinai, the touchable mountain was not to be touched on pain of death and the thundering voice of God made their knees knock with terror.

But with Jesus’ coming, the mediator of the New Covenant, we are come to another mountain, Mount Zion, God’s city in the heavenlies, and no, we cannot touch it yet.  Like those before us who believed but did not receive the promise without us (chapter 11), we are awaiting our entrance to that promised land.  And oh, how different it is from Sinai.

The heavenly Jerusalem has a constant party going on and angels are leading the festivities.  Also present are all believers from all generations who are now treated as firstborns because we are connected to The Firstborn Son.  God Himself is there and He will judge us all.  That will not be a negative judgment for those of us enrolled in heaven.  In fact, we will find our spirits have been made perfect and we will await only our resurrected bodies to be complete.  And Jesus is there, the one who sprinkled his own blood, shed like Abel’s blood was but with such a more blessed result.

Why would the Hebrews want to miss this?  Why would we?  When we came to Christ it was like our lives before him were meaningless.  We found our true purpose in the universe.  We were reconciled to our Creator.  How could we stand to go back!

After forty years of faithful service to the Lord as a missionary to Africa, Henry Morrison and his wife were returning to New York.  As the ship neared the dock, Henry said to his wife, “Look at that crowd.  They haven’t forgotten about us”.  However, unknown to Henry, the ship also carried President Teddy Roosevelt, returning from a big game hunting trip in Africa.  Roosevelt stepped from the boat, with great fanfare, as people  were cheering, flags were waving,  bands were playing, and reporters waiting for his comment, Henry and his wife slowly walked away unnoticed.  They hailed a cab, which took them to the one bedroom apartment which had been provided by the mission board.

Over the next few weeks, Henry tried, but failed to put the incident behind him.  He was sinking deeper into depression when one evening, he said to his wife, “This is all wrong.  This man comes back from a hunting trip and everybody throws a big party.  We give our lives in faithful service to God for all these many years, but no one seems to care.”

His wife cautioned him that he should not feel this way.  Henry replied “I know you’re right, but I just can’t help it.  It just isn’t right.”

His wife then said, “Henry, you know God doesn’t mind if we honestly question Him.  You need to tell this to the Lord and get this settled now.  You’ll be useless in His ministry until you do.”

Henry Morrison then went to his bedroom, got down on his knees and, shades of Habakkuk, began pouring out his heart to the Lord.  “Lord, you know our situation and what’s troubling me.  We gladly served you faithfully for years without complaining.  But now God, I just can’t get this incident out of my mind…”

After about ten minutes of fervent prayer, Henry returned to the living room with a peaceful look on his face.  His wife said “It looks like you’ve resolved the matter.  What happened?”

Henry replied, “The Lord settled it for me.  I told Him how bitter I was that the President received this tremendous homecoming, but no one even met us as we returned home.  When I finished, it seemed as though the Lord put His hand on my shoulder and simply said, ‘But Henry, you are not home yet!’”

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Rehab

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Hebrews 12:12-17, ESV)

If ever there was a New Testament letter that called for a decision, it is this one.  This congregation is, in the eyes of the author, in need of convalescence.  Their hands are useless, their knees weak and unable to hold them up, and if you gave them a course to walk they would have trouble.  Yet he is asking them to strengthen themselves.  He has given them plenty of “massaging” if you will, arguments for Jesus’ superiority to strengthen their intellectual concerns, corrections of their misconceptions (like about whether they were being disciplined or punished), and warnings of the dire outcome of failure to stay linked to Jesus.

They don’t need to go to war with their Jewish friends and relatives who are seeking to woo them back into the fold.  “Strive for peace with everyone,” he urges, and that is a part of the holiness to which God has called us and without which we won’t see God, because God disciples and works holiness into those who are His genuine children.  But they need to remove the root of bitterness that is in danger of defiling many.  It is bitterness against God and against those who led them to faith and to what they now perceive as their unnecessary troubles.  This bitterness must go.

If they don’t deal with this and decide to follow Jesus they will be like Esau who treated his birthright as Isaac’s son and heir of the promise worth only a bowl of soup.  And like Esau they will not be able to come back to Christ in repentance after so despising his sacrifice for our sins (ch.6, ch.10).  Our author is not cutting this congregation any slack.

And God is not cutting us any slack, either.  If we keep toying with the trappings of our former life before Christ we too will end up lame and in need of healing.  We too will find it easy to justify sin.  We too will develop bitterness in our souls and it will spread to others.  We’ll have to be angry at God and Christians for duping us into Christianity.  This will be our rationalization, that God promised us so much more than we have gotten in Christ, and we must find our own way to make life work for our benefit.  And we will have despised the abundant life Jesus gave us.

There is an old hymn that pictures Jesus “softly and tenderly” calling sinners home.  It says, “See, on the portals he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me.”  And this may be the posture of Jesus for some who have never come to faith.  But for those who have “tasted of the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” the request is not so tender.  It is more a warning of the dire consequences of failure to “come home.”  It’s decision time.