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.

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Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Lose Some Weight

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV)

Our author now gets directly in the face of his readers, the Hebrews, and includes himself and by extension, us too.  We have a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, cheering us on in our faith, urging us with their own testimony, not to give up on the promise in Jesus and to run our race with endurance.  At the end of the race, the finish line, is Jesus, our greatest cheerer, the one who founded our covenant relationship and by his sacrifice perfected our faith.

Our job is to lay aside the weight that would hinder our running.  The added pounds could include listening to worldly arguments for going back to our old lives, fears about the persecution that might come our way, and sins that entice us to give up faith and pursue self-determination.  This will free us to run with endurance.

Jesus himself had to do the same thing.  The promise of joy in the Father’s presence and of many brothers and sisters brought to faith enabled him to endure the cross, a most ignominious and shameful death.  God rewarded him with a seat at His right hand where his once-for-all sacrifice completely secured our forgiveness and cleansed conscience forever.

There is a tradition in Prague that the annual Spring Festival ends with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  In 1963 the Czech Philharmonic asked Zubin Mehta to conduct the symphony in the Cathedral of St. Vitus.  Mehta had never conducted it before, and he would be performing for Czechs who knew how they wanted it.

Looking out from the sacristy, Mehta saw the front pews fill up with officials of the city and the resident diplomatic corps.  Behind them were perhaps 8000 people, all standing.  One of the music-festival directors whispered to Mehta, “Did they tell you there would be no applause?  It is against tradition to applaud in the church.” Everything had gone wrong during the rehearsals; maintaining his aplomb that night was one of Mehta’s most difficult assignments.  But if ever music had been written to inspire confidence, it was the Ninth Symphony.  By the time he led the assembled forces into their final Freude, schoner Gottenfunken, he was feeling some of the “divine spark” of joy himself.  It would have been nice to hear a thunderous ovation, but there was at least a glow inside him from knowing he had pulled it off.

Mehta waited for the audience to file out, then went to his waiting car.  As the car rounded the front of the cathedral, he was greeted by an incredible sight.  The 8000 members of the audience, diplomatic corps and all, were lining both sides of the street.  They began to applaud and cheer.  Like a visiting monarch, Mehta waved to the crowd that stretched from the cathedral steps down the hill and onto the old bridge of the Moldau River. As the car crossed the river, the driver looked into his rear-view mirror and observed a curious sight. Mehta’s head was thrown back against the seat.  Tears were streaming down his face.  (Martin Bookspan and Ross Yockey, Zubin: The Zubin Mehta Story, Harper and Row)

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Yellow Beauty Roses

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For,

“Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls. (Hebrews 10:32-39, ESV)

Though our author has given a very stern warning to those who “shrink back” from following Christ and treat his sacrifice as worthless, it is not his opinion that his addressees are of that ilk.  He must warn them just in case, because a servant of God must always follow the Lord in His desire to warn the world of His judgment.  Just as Yahweh sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn them of impending doom, knowing they would repent at the warning, so He has sent our author to write to this congregation and warn them lest there be any among them who are unclear about the consequences of rejecting the faith.

The evidence the author of Hebrews has that this congregation of Christ followers are genuine followers after all is the affliction they endured for becoming Christ followers and how they endured it with the assurance that this world was not their final home but a better one awaited them, an eternal one.  They didn’t throw away their confidence then, so he doesn’t believe they will throw away their confidence now, though it has been a temptation.

When someone we know acts like an unbeliever but we have seen evidence in their lives and behavior that they know the Lord, we may need to speak to them about the consequences of not knowing the Lord in order to call them back to their senses.  True believers will respond and be called back.  Unbelievers, who only embrace Christianity in a surface way, will not repent.  God uses our warnings, our admonitions made in love, to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Our confrontations are part of His disciplinary action.

Professor Williams received yellow beauty rose bulbs and planted them and cared for them.  As the plant grew he watched eagerly for the flower.  If the flower had been red, when might Professor Williams have assumed that the flower stopped being a yellow beauty rose?  If it bloomed yellow, was it a yellow beauty rose, being yet only a bulb?

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Fair Warning

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31, ESV)

Doesn’t everyone sin deliberately?  I don’t steal something from a neighbor and later say, “Oops, I didn’t mean to steal that.”  But that is not what our author means in this passage.  He has already talked about how sacrifice was for “unintentional” sin (Hebrews 9:7).  This is contrasted with “high-handed” sins in the Old Testament for which there is no sacrifice provided.  The sense is sins that are committed with a deliberate defiance of God and His laws.  This depicts a hardened heart like our author describes in chapter 6.

Chapter 6 shows the person who tastes of the heavenly gift, shares in the Holy Spirit’s affect upon the congregation, sees the miracles of the age to come and defiantly declares that Jesus is not the Savior, that his sacrifice did not avail for us, and in this particular case for this congregation, that Jesus is not sufficient reason to keep to Christianity.  It is impossible, our author says, to renew such a person to repentance.  This is the unpardonable sin Jesus talked about with the Pharisees, where they saw his miracles and could not deny them but attributed them to Satan.

If the author’s readers are going to reject Jesus’ better way into the heavenly tabernacle as a better priest of a better covenant, they are defiantly rejecting God’s new covenant and there is no sacrifice for defiant sin.  If there is no sacrifice, there is only fiery judgment for trampling underfoot the Son of God and treating his sacrifice as unholy.  God will not spare that person.  The true believer will never go here.

You and I sin, and we should not, and we know we should not and that it is a way of dishonoring God.  But that is not “deliberate” or “high-handed” sinning, the kind that says I will not have God or anyone telling me what to do.  The high-handed sinner raises his fist to God and refuses to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over him.  If you, like possibly some of the Hebrews, are willing to say that Jesus’ sacrifice means nothing and that your old way of life was perfectly fine, you are in danger of falling into God’s hands for payment.  Not good!  This passage stands as your warning from God.

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: The Senility of the Law

For he finds fault with them when he says:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.  For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.  For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord:  I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.  For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:8-13, ESV)

The Law of Moses is an old covenant in doddering senility.  Just as Aaron’s priesthood was never meant to be the final priesthood (Jesus is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek), so the covenant that give’s Aaron’s priesthood life was never meant to be the final form of the covenant.  From the very beginning God was committed to bringing a new phase to His covenant that is implied in Genesis 15, mentioned in Deuteronomy 30 and Ezekiel 37, and most clearly delineated in Jeremiah 31.  And that is where our author goes to make his next point, that the old covenant is obsolete.

He merely quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34.  Yahweh declares that He will establish a new covenant with Israel and Judah that is different from the old one in that it does not depend on the sinful hearts of people to keep it but instead puts His laws in their minds and hearts to enable them to keep them.  And, He promises forgiveness of sins forever.  These are the two provisions of the New Covenant, a new heart and total forgiveness.

If God only forgave us but did not give us the ability to keep His commands, we would continue in sin.  If He only gave us new hearts but not forgiveness, we would continue in guilt.  Just giving us a law does not enable us to keep it.  In fact, Paul found the law to be death to him because of his inability to keep it (Romans 7).

When the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 the old covenant in essence vanished away.  Though Jews still celebrate the festivals there is no provision for the sacrifices required because there is no place they are allowed to offer them.  Messianic Jews, on the other hand, who still celebrate the festivals, know that Jesus has provided the sacrifice.  One day all Israel will recognize what Christ has offered and repent and be saved (Romans 11).  The New Covenant’s other provisions, a land for Israel in which God dwells and Israel leads the nations, will also be fulfilled.

Our author is demonstrating that in Christ we have become partakers of the New Covenant.  There is no benefit in returning to life under the old covenant.  It is obsolete.  For Gentile believers who are in Christ, we, by virtue of our relationship to Jesus, have been brought under the New Covenant as well.  We have been given new hearts and forgiveness.  Our covenant relationship with God can never be broken because He has made it unbreakable.  True believers will persevere in faith because of God’s Spirit within us.

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Land Drunk with Rain

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted 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, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:1-12, ESV)

What if the immature spiritual life of these readers, the Hebrews, persists and they leave the moorings of Christian faith, leave Jesus their Savior, for their previous way of life?  The author urges them to leave, that is, go beyond the elementary doctrines to more mature teaching.  But they can only do this if God permits.

They might be those who have only been enlightened, who have heard the gospel and understand it, and so have tasted if not fully dined upon the heavenly gift of life in Christ, even experienced the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in their midst, hearing the good news from God’s word over and over and even seen the miracles of the age to come, the kingdom, happening around them.  They might be the soil Jesus described where the seed results in immediate growth but when trouble comes growth withers.

He warns them that if they are these kind of people they will fall away from Christ and it will be impossible for them to be restored to repentance since they knew the truth and rejected it, in essence crucifying the Son of God again, as if his initial crucifixion did not avail for them.  They will have committed the unpardonable sin.  It will no longer be “today” and they will not hear the voice of God inviting them to enter into His rest.  They will be the useless land that cannot bear anything but thorns and thistles and so is in need of burning.

The author does not believe this is a true assessment of who this congregation is.  He believes better things of them, things belonging to salvation.  In other words, he believes they are genuinely saved, are that soil that Jesus said produces fruit a hundred fold, and therefore will not fall away but will heed his warning and repent.  He has seen evidence of God’s work in their souls via their work and love for the saints.  They need to push on and inherit the promises of God.

What about you?  Is there evidence that you have done more than tasted the heavenly gift?  Are you maturing or are you teetering on the brink of truly living for Christ?

For further study:

Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Rest, Glorious Rest

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,

“As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’”

although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said,

“They shall not enter my rest.”

Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,

“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:1-10, ESV)

Rest!  What a concept.  God did not make our bodies relentless machines that never need a break.  Part of the rest our bodies require is even in a semi-conscious mode called sleep.  He modeled “rest” when He ceased His work of creating and “settled” into the role of preserving His creation, ruling it.  This established a pattern for our week of work followed by rest.  But this Psalm 95 is also suggesting that there is a spiritual rest for us.

The author of Hebrew’s logic is this:  If Joshua’s leading the people of Israel into Canaan after their 40 years in the wilderness had actually given them this spiritual rest then God would not have offered it again and urged His people to enter His rest.  And it is His rest that is being offered “today.”

The only reason we might not enter God’s rest is if, like Israel of old, we do not unite ourselves with those who by faith receive the gospel.  Those in Israel who did not really believe the gospel died in the wilderness.  Only those who believed entered with Joshua into Canaan.  Only those of us who truly believe will enter God’s rest, a rest from our works, our efforts to appease God through self-righteousness.

Aren’t you tired of trying to establish your own righteousness before God?  Is it like the way some of us approach our jobs: “If I don’t show my worth to my employer by working more than anyone else I won’t make it”?  The gospel is not about working harder but about resting from work.  It is about finding our righteousness established by Christ, not us.  We’re crazy to depart from that, but the pull to prove our worth seems strong.  God has already determined our worth and offered us rest.  Will you take it?

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30, ESV)