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.”

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Daily Thoughts from Hebrews: Real Salvation

Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people. By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the holy places is not yet opened as long as the first section is still standing (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation. (Hebrews 9:1-10, ESV)

Our author is showing still the superiority of Jesus and his priesthood with the covenant it represents to the old covenant with Moses.  This covenant had regulations for worship and a place that God’s presence made holy.  The Tabernacle was a tent with two compartments, the holy place with the lampstand and table of bread, and really, also, the altar of incense standing before the veil that separated the holy place from the most holy place.  The most holy place “had” the altar of incense in that this altar “protected” the most holy place as did the veil or curtain.

Priests went regularly, daily, into the holy place to make sure the lampstand stayed lit and the bread of the presence was replaced with fresh bread and the altar of incense was kept burning.  But only the high priest could go into the most holy place and that once a year on the day of atonement to offer the blood of sacrifice for unintentional sins.  These were the sins that people genuinely wanted forgiveness for, not hardened rebellion against God’s law that had disregard for forgiveness, indeed scoffed at it.  Our author is preparing his readers to think about whether they will repudiate the cross of Christ and following him, a very high-handed or intentional and hardened sin.

God was teaching the people by His Spirit in this Tabernacle arrangement with its sacrifices and cordoned off most holy place that these sacrifices weren’t the ultimate sacrifice in the heavenly Tabernacle.  The people’s consciences witnessed to this as they realized time and again through the years that they needed yet another day of atonement to cover their sin.  They didn’t experience perfected consciences, consciences that were free of condemnation, fully acquitted of all sin.  And their regulations focused their attention on a lot of externals rather than what was going on inside them.  A time of reformation was needed and the readers should have recognized that this took place with Jesus’ coming.

Are you relying on rituals to rescue you?  You’ve been baptized, perhaps, and take the Lord’s supper.  But without a conscience that acquits you of sin you are not realizing a real entrance into heaven’s holy place.  If this is the religion you feel ready to abandon, please do.  This is not genuine Christianity.  Christianity is about the New Covenant blessings of a changed heart and total forgiveness.  Real salvation awaits you.

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)

Daily Thoughts from Exodus: The Glory of God in Us

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “On the first day of the first month you shall erect the tabernacle of the tent of meeting…Then you shall take the anointing oil and anoint the tabernacle and all that is in it, and consecrate it and all its furniture, so that it may become holy…Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the entrance of the tent of meeting and shall wash them with water and put on Aaron the holy garments. And you shall anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve me as priest.

This Moses did; according to all that the LORD commanded him, so he did. In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was erected…Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys. (Exodus 40, ESV)

Can you imagine getting up in the middle of the night in your encampment in the wilderness, walking outside your tent and seeing a burning fire in and around the Tabernacle, or during the day seeing a cloud emanating from it?  From the first day that the glory of Yahweh filled the Tabernacle there was powerful evidence that God was with His people in demonstrative form.  If the cloud was lifted off of the Tabernacle it was the signal that it was time to move and you packed up all your belongings and your tent, while the Levites attended to dismantling the Tabernacle and preparing it for transport.  Perhaps you hoped you could stay longer rather than shorter.

God showed in the way He displayed His glory in the Tabernacle that He really did want to dwell with His people and that His dwelling with them was not going to be a passive one.  He is always about pursuing the purpose of restoring His kingdom in this fallen world.  He went after a nation that He would use to be a witness to all nations of His greatness.  He is leading this nation through the wilderness after having judged Egypt for its wickedness and with a judgment for the nations of Canaan who have filled up their iniquity to the fullest (Genesis 15:16).

We are to pray daily for His kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10).  We are to move when He moves and stay when He stays as we look for opportunities to redeem the time because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:16).  We are the Tabernacle of God on earth today, His temple, His people, from whom He wants to demonstrate His glory.  People ought to see an evidence of His glory permeating our lives, fire and cloud.  The most obvious evidence of that glory, according to Jesus, will be our love for one another and for our neighbors (John 13:35).

How are we doing?

Daily Thoughts from Exodus: The Tabernacling God

“Moreover, you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns; you shall make them with cherubim skillfully worked into them…

“You shall also make curtains of goats’ hair for a tent over the tabernacle; eleven curtains shall you make…

“You shall make fifty clasps of bronze, and put the clasps into the loops, and couple the tent together that it may be a single whole. And the part that remains of the curtains of the tent, the half curtain that remains, shall hang over the back of the tabernacle. And the extra that remains in the length of the curtains, the cubit on the one side, and the cubit on the other side, shall hang over the sides of the tabernacle, on this side and that side, to cover it. And you shall make for the tent a covering of tanned rams’ skins and a covering of goatskins on top.

“You shall make upright frames for the tabernacle of acacia wood…

“You shall make bars of acacia wood, five for the frames of the one side of the tabernacle, and five bars for the frames of the other side of the tabernacle, and five bars for the frames of the side of the tabernacle at the rear westward…

“And you shall make a veil of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. It shall be made with cherubim skillfully worked into it. And you shall hang it on four pillars of acacia overlaid with gold, with hooks of gold, on four bases of silver. And you shall hang the veil from the clasps, and bring the ark of the testimony in there within the veil. And the veil shall separate for you the Holy Place from the Most Holy. You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place. And you shall set the table outside the veil, and the lampstand on the south side of the tabernacle opposite the table, and you shall put the table on the north side.

“You shall make a screen for the entrance of the tent, of blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, embroidered with needlework…” (Exodus 26, ESV)

Why a tent?  Israel had been formed as a nation from nomadic people, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob each being sheep herders who moved from place to place in Canaan to maintain their herds.  The tent conveyed at once home and the ability of home to move with you.  Israel was on the move from Egypt to Canaan and once in Canaan would have its various tribes moving through the land to conquer and occupy the portions assigned to them.  God would symbolically be “with” them the whole way.  He told Israel that in the future He would select a place as His center of worship (Deuteronomy 12) and we know that place He chose was Jerusalem.  The nomadic form would no longer be needed.

He creates within the tent two compartments, one when you immediately enter called the Holy Place, where the table with show bread on it is, and the golden lampstand, and the altar of incense, and then, with a veil separating it, the Most Holy Place (Hebrew says most by saying holy of holies, the holiest place).  Here resides the ark of the covenant where the blood is sprinkled on the atonement or mercy seat to atone for the sins of the nation.  No one but the priests get to see the inside of the tent or Tabernacle, though the Levites, who carry and take down and set up the Tabernacle will see its components as could anyone watching as the tent is disassembled.  But when it is functioning as a sanctuary it is hidden to obscure the glory of God.

There are ways in which God both hides and manifests Himself.  The tent itself is a manifestation of His presence among Israel, but the inner workings of His worship and atonement are hidden.  Everyone knows the truth about who God is (Romans 1:18-26) from what has been made but God doesn’t always demonstrate His power with miracles.  There is a fine line between compelling faith through power demonstrations and inviting faith.  God could open up the sky right now and force all who rebel against Him to acknowledge Him, however reluctantly, but that does not serve the greater purpose of wooing people’s hearts to acknowledge the greatest single fact of the universe that they already know but wish to run from.  Only God knows how to walk this line.

Daily Thoughts from Exodus: Don’t Delay

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go in to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will plague all your country with frogs. The Nile shall swarm with frogs that shall come up into your house and into your bedroom and on your bed and into the houses of your servants and your people, and into your ovens and your kneading bowls. The frogs shall come up on you and on your people and on all your servants.”’”  And the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the rivers, over the canals and over the pools, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt!’” So Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land of Egypt. But the magicians did the same by their secret arts and made frogs come up on the land of Egypt.

Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said, “Plead with the LORD to take away the frogs from me and from my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.” Moses said to Pharaoh, “Be pleased to command me when I am to plead for you and for your servants and for your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses and be left only in the Nile.” And he said, “Tomorrow.” Moses said, “Be it as you say, so that you may know that there is no one like the LORD our God. The frogs shall go away from you and your houses and your servants and your people. They shall be left only in the Nile.” So Moses and Aaron went out from Pharaoh, and Moses cried to the LORD about the frogs, as he had agreed with Pharaoh. And the LORD did according to the word of Moses. The frogs died out in the houses, the courtyards, and the fields. And they gathered them together in heaps, and the land stank. But when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.  (Exodus 8:1-15 ESV)

Heqet…is an Egyptian goddess of fertility…represented in the form of a frog. To the Egyptians, the frog was an ancient symbol of fertility, related to the annual flooding of the Nile. (Wikipedia).  Who was God, Yahweh or Heqet?  Though the magicians of Egypt were able in a small way to duplicate Moses’ and Aaron’s calling up of frogs from the waters, Pharaoh obviously believed that their power was greater than his magicians and so he agreed to release the people to go worship Yahweh if Moses would remove the frogs.  He had had too much of his frog goddess.

Moses asks Pharaoh to set the time, and it is amazing that he chooses to wait a day, but Moses wants it to be clear that nothing happens to these frogs except at Yahweh’s command.  But once there is relief Pharaoh reneges on his promise, even as God predicted he would.  Pharaoh’s people suffer because of his hard heart, a common problem even to this day among leadership.

What are you putting off for a day?  What “respite” are you getting that hardens your heart to dealing with the problems  in your life?  Who is lord of your life, you or Yahweh?  You cannot duplicate the power of God.  Ask someone to pray for you that God’s power would release you from what you are putting off and then look for how He gives you His respite.

 

For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.”  I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.

(2 Corinthians 6:2)

One Way to Respond to the Jehovah’s Witness Who Comes to Your Door

I just had a Jehovah’s Witness come to the door.  She seemed like a nice lady.  She had a Jamaican accent (or at least that is as sophisticated as I am at judging Caribbean accents).  I could have listened a long time.  She was inviting me to a convention downtown that would take no offering and was free.  I said I wouldn’t be going and she asked if I was acquainted with Witnesses.  “Yes,” I said, “I had not too long ago met with some of your people and gone through the little book.”  She knew exactly what book I was talking about and said, “Yes, it is a very nice book.”  I immediately answered, “No, it is not a nice book.  It does not give Jesus the honor he deserves.”  “Oh, we believe in Jesus,” she said.  “But you don’t believe he is God,” I said.  Her instant reply was, “But Jesus never called himself God.”

I didn’t go further with her but I wish I had responded this way:

“Ma’am, if you have the slightest openness to hearing contradictory evidence to your claim, I would be happy to share it with you.  Are you open to receiving an opposite viewpoint?”  If she said yes I would have directed her to Revelation 22:12,13, which reads,

Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.

The speaker is identified in verse 16 as Jesus.  And he calls himself the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.  So I would direct her attention then to Revelation 1:8,

I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.

Do you see the dilemma for the Jehovah’s Witnesses here?  Jesus takes the same titles as the “Lord God.”  That is blasphemy unless Jesus is actually God.

I remember sitting across the table from the Witnesses with whom I went through the little book and I remember laying out this passage to them.  It was at this point that the woman (it was a couple I was meeting with) took a book out of her purse and began looking up the answer to this passage.  I never heard what that answer was, though I am sure they have one.  It must not have sounded convincing to her.

Now let me be clear about something.  Even if Jesus never did directly say, “I am God,” (though he has indeed by claiming these titles), the rest of the New Testament very clearly proclaims it (John 1:1, for example, which, by the way, cannot be translated the way Jehovah’s Witnesses translate it in their New World Translation, see John 1:1 translation).  And if the apostles and prophets of the New Testament teach it, it is true.