No Blood, No Forgiveness.

Bible, Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Hebrews 9:22

In Hebrews 9:15-22, we read as the author continues to unpack how Christ enacted the new covenant for us. We are told that Christ is the mediator of the new covenant, meaning that Christ is the medium or the avenue through which God chose to bring this new covenant to humanity. In many ways, the author’s argument here echoes Christ’s own words in John 14:6 when He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.”  The author intends for us to understand that Christ is the way God brought salvation and the new covenant to humanity and that Christ is the only way that humanity can return to God.

The author then explains a point that is fundamental to our faith, that being the necessity of Christ’s death. The author is emphatic in communicating to us that Christ had to die in order for us to have salvation. First, we are told that the new covenant is like a last will, and for a will to be enacted, the one who made the will has to die. Without the death of the will-maker, the will has no power or authority. Since Christ is the mediator and guarantor of the new covenant, His death was required for this new covenant/will to come into effect. Without Christ’s blood, the new covenant would have no authority and no power to save.

As the author explains the necessity of Christ’s death, we are presented with one of the most important verses in all of Scripture. In Hebrews 9:22 the author writes,  “According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” This verse explains to us everything we need to know about God’s plan to redeem humanity. We see this illustrated throughout the Old Testament–God gave Israel the sacrificial system to allow them a way to be forgiven of their sins. Though this system seems barbaric and grotesque to us, it was designed to show us God’s mercy and grace. The truth of the matter is this: the penalty for sin is death. For us to be forgiven of our sins, something has to die in our place. Something has to die to atone–to cover–the sins that we have committed. In the system of the old covenant, God allowed animals to take our place. The blood of a lamb or a calf could pay our sin-debt. But these sacrifices had to be offered every time we sinned, and they did nothing to fix our sinful hearts or our sinful nature. God, in His infinite love and mercy, sent us the perfect sacrifice. He sent us a sacrifice that could atone for all of our sins for all of time, and He sent us a sacrifice that would actually transform us from the sinful creatures that we are. That sacrifice was His son, Jesus. But, for that atonement to be made, Christ had to die. Without Christ’s death, without His blood, there would be no forgiveness and no pardon. Without His blood, we would still be condemned to death.

In Hebrews 9, it becomes absolutely clear that there is no other avenue to salvation, other than Christ. He came to earth and blazed a trail for us back to God. That trail, however, is covered in His blood. The only way we can return to God is if we submit to Christ and are covered in His blood. His blood purchased our pardon and our salvation, and without His blood, there is no forgiveness or hope.

Artwork: “Crucifixion II” Stephen Oliver, 2011 (in the style of Graham Sutherland).

How Much More Will the Blood of Christ?

Bible, Christianity, Hebrews

“For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a young cow sprinkled on those who are defiled consecrated them and provided ritual purity, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.”  Hebrews 9:13-14

Through chapters eight and nine of Hebrews, we have seen the author discuss the old and new covenants. Most of this discussion has come by contrasting the two covenants–by focusing on the things that the old covenant could not do and alluding to the new covenant correcting these shortcomings. With all of its regulations and rituals, the old covenant was not designed to give us salvation. Instead, the old covenant pointed us to the God who, out of grace and mercy, gives us salvation.

Beginning in Hebrews 9:11, the author tells us how the new covenant was enacted and how it fixes us. We are told very emphatically that everything has changed with Christ’s arrival, and that His coming to the world signaled the arrival of the new covenant. We see that Christ does four things: He came, He passed through the veil into the true tabernacle, He entered the Most Holy Place, and He secured eternal redemption. Christ enacted this new covenant by passing through the true heavenly tabernacle and entering directly into God’s presence in heaven. Christ’s actions–passing through the tabernacle, entering into the Most Holy Place–are the same actions performed by the high priest on the Day of Atonement. However, Christ’s actions are more significant and more powerful. The priests work in the earthly tabernacle, but Christ works in the real tabernacle in heaven. Not only that, but Christ’s work of atonement for us and the purchasing of our salvation is eternal. The author says that Christ’s actions are “once and for all,” meaning that they never need to be renewed or repeated. The same could not be said for the atonement made by the high priests since they had to repeat the same ceremony year after year. 

The covenant made by Christ is eternal, and His sacrifices cleanse us of our sins. He does for us what the old covenant never could–He fixes the problem of our sinful nature. The cleansing rituals of the old covenant only gave us external relief, but they could not fix our hearts. Through the Holy Spirit, Christ purges us of our sins, and He declares us clean. He gives us new hearts and new natures that seek Him instead of seeking sin. Christ makes us alive and able to worship the living God, and Christ frees us from the dead works and rituals of the old covenant. 

Christ does for us what nothing else could; He frees us from our sins and our sinful natures. Through Him, we are enabled to live as the people of God.  Being washed in His blood and being transformed by Him requires our lives to reflect this change.  If our lives do not reflect the transformation we have experienced, we must repent, and we must allow Him to free us from the sins to which we so foolishly cling.

Artwork: “Crucifixion,” Graham Sutherland OM, 1946

Guaranteed To Be Better.

Bible, Christianity, Hebrews

“So Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant.”  Hebrews 7:22.

There are so very few guarantees in life. In this world, things break, become obsolete, or fail to live up to our expectations. Because of this, we often demand quality guarantees, money-back guarantees, repairs guaranteed, or even satisfaction guarantees. We recognize just how temporary things are in this life, and we are constantly looking for reassurance and peace of mind that things will be repaired or corrected when everything in our lives begin to fall apart. Try as we might, we cannot find in this world anything that will give us the hope and comfort that we are searching for. We can find nothing that comes close to the sort of guarantee we so desperately crave.

Or can we?

At the end of Hebrews 7, the author reveals to us that there is a guarantee that will give us hope, comfort, confidence, and peace of mind. It is the salvation guarantee that God gives us through Jesus. 

The author has been building to this point throughout Hebrews, and especially in chapter seven. We have seen how Christ is superior to the priests of Levi and Aaron. We have seen how the Law and the priesthood were designed to make us understand how dependent we are upon God’s mercy, and how these things point us to the Gospel and to Christ. We have seen that we are under a new Law–the Law of Grace–and that we now have a new priesthood with a new high priest, who is none other than Christ. 

At the end of chapter seven, the author reveals to us why God has enacted all these new things; the author finally tells us what this is all building up to. The author tells us that God has created a new covenant, and that this new covenant would be the one through which He redeems the world and brings humanity back to Himself.

To prove that this new covenant was superior to the old covenant, God sent us Christ. Jesus is the guarantee that this covenant is the final covenant, the perfect covenant. By shedding His blood to atone for us, Christ sealed this guarantee. God gave us His word that this covenant would bring us back to Him, and Christ delivered upon this guarantee by giving His life for us. 

God has given us the only guarantee that we will ever need. He has guaranteed our salvation, but this guarantee is only valid for those who place their faith and trust in Christ. Jesus is the only one through whom people can come to God. With this guarantee from God, we have all the hope and comfort we could ever desire. Why would we dare seek guarantees anywhere else?

Artwork: “Suffering of Jesus,” Vladomir Stevanoic

A Better Priesthood.

Bible, Christianity, Hebrews

“So the previous command is annulled because it was weak and unprofitable (for the law perfected nothing), but a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.” Hebrews 4:18-19

After re-introducing us to Melchizedek in 7:1-3, the author of Hebrews spends the next several verses explaining Melchizedek’s superiority to Abraham. The author’s argument is this: if the author could demonstrate that Melchizedek was superior to Abraham, it would follow that Melchizedek was also superior to Levi and Aaron. With that being the case, the author could also explain how Melchizedek’s priesthood was superior to those of Levi and Aaron.
How did the author explain that Melchizedek was superior to Abraham? There are two pieces of evidence in the Genesis account that the author used. The first bit of evidence presented was that Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe of the spoil from killing the kings of Canaan. Abraham did this out of homage and respect for Melchizedek. The author also reminded the readers that this act of tithing is just what the Israelites would later do for their own priests. They were legally required to give ten percent of their goods to the priests to support them, and this tithe was given out of respect for the work that the priests did. Secondly, the author points out that Melchizedek blessed Abraham. The author tells us that only a blessing can only be given by a person of superior standing. A person of lesser status cannot bless someone greater than themselves. For Melchizedek to bless Abraham, both he and Abraham would have to know that Melchizedek was the more important person.
So, how does Melchizedek’s superiority to Abraham relate to the Israelite priesthood? According to the author, if Melchizedek was superior to Abraham, he was also superior to Levi and Aaron. This would mean that Melchizedek’s priesthood was more significant than Levi and Aaron’s as well. This is a vital point because it reveals that the Law and the priests could not make salvation complete. These institutions were merely designed to point us toward the Gospel and toward the greatest high priest, Jesus Christ.
The author spends so much time explaining this to understand that only Christ can give us salvation. Christ alone is sufficient for our salvation. There is nothing that we can do on our own for salvation, and there is nothing that another human can do for us. Only Christ can do the work of atonement that we need. There is nothing we can do, and there is nothing that we can add to the work that He has already done. So we must put all of our trust and hope in Christ, and in Christ alone.

Artwork: “Aaron the High Priest,” William Etty (1878-1849).

High Priests.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“After He was perfected, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him,” Hebrews 5:9.

Starting in Hebrews 5, the author spends a lot of time explaining how Christ is our high priest. Though the concept of a high priest is somewhat foreign today, it was the most sacred and holy position within the Hebrew religious system. This one person, the high priest, acted as the mediator–the go-between–between God and the people. This seems worlds away from us today, and in many ways it is, and it is easy to wonder why this is important; it is easy to wonder why we need a high priest in the first place. But, if we take the time to understand why we need a high priest, we better understand the work that Christ did for us, and we develop a better understanding of the Gospel.

We need a high priest because of sin. Due to the fall in the garden, we are not good, we are not just, we are not righteous. We are all fallen. Our fundamental nature is to seek sin instead of seeking God, and because of this, we are separated from God. Due to sin and this separation, we are deserving of God’s wrath, and we are awaiting the penalty of death. As if this wasn’t bad enough already–not only are we separated from God, but we are also unable to approach God because of our sins. This means that, even if we were somehow to desire to begin pursuing God, we would not be able to come near Him because He is holy and we are not. Even simply entering into His holy presence in our sinful state would destroy us. Furthermore, we are incapable of cleansing ourselves of our sins.

So we need someone righteous, we need someone who is just to speak on our behalf to God. We need a mediator who can bridge the divide between God and us, and we need someone who can cleanse our sins for us because there is no way that we can do this on our own.

Here’s the beautiful thing, here’s the thing that defies all the logic of this world: even though we have chosen to turn away from God, even though we actively rebel against Him and we chose sin at every opportunity, God still gave us that mediator. He gave us a way to have our sins cleansed and forgiven and removed from us.

God first did this when He called Israel to be His people. He called for them to be a nation of priests that would show other people how to live. God then gave Israel the Law. The Law was the standard that clearly defined what He says is right and wrong. God gave Israel the Law so that humankind would know what is good and what is evil. No more would humanity be choosing for ourselves what is good and what isn’t. No more would we be doing what we began doing in the garden. With the Law, we would know once and for all what is right and what is wrong.

Along with the Law, God gave Israel the sacrificial system. He did so because He knew that regardless of how hard we might try, we humans can’t stop sinning. This is important, because we can’t stop sinning, and the penalty for sin remains death.

 As foreign and old-fashioned as it sounds, as barbaric as it seems, the sacrificial system is a sign of God’s mercy. It is a show of God’s compassion. He allows us to keep our lives despite our sins. God allowed our sins to be transferred to another creature, to a tiny lamb without blemish, and the lamb’s blood would cover the price of our sins. We have to remember that sin requires death, and though our sins require our lives to be taken, God allowed the life of the slain lamb to satisfy our debt. Within this system, who was it that was in charge of making these sacrifices? Who was it who did the dirty work of killing the lamb? Whose hands would be the ones to get blood? Who would be the one to go into God’s presence on our behalf to offer atonement for us? It was the high priest.

The high priest’s sole duty was to be righteous so that he could offer sacrifices to atone for our lack of righteousness.

But here’s the catch–the high priest was from among the people. He was one of the people, which meant that he, too, was not able to always be righteous. He, too, would struggle and succumb to sin. Because of the priest’s flawed human nature, the atonement he offered wasn’t final–it wasn’t perfect, it had to be continually reapplied.

The atonement that the earthly high priest offered was the same as suffering from a terminal disease and being treated only with band-aids. It did nothing to get to the root of the problem; it was only a most temporary fix.

When we start to understand it that way, we realize that the earthly high priest and the sacrificial system were never intended to be the solution. Instead, they were designed to point us to the solution. These things were to lead us to the Messiah, to the Priestly King, who was the son of God. The high priest pointed us to the one who could make perfect the work of salvation. It led us to the one who could offer eternal and everlasting atonement, to the one who could cure us of our sinful nature.

The high priest and the sacrificial system pointed us to one who could be the truly righteous mediator between God and us. The high priest’s purpose was to point us to the greater high priest who was to come, to the one who could offer eternal atonement and salvation.

Christ did just this. He accomplished this very thing: He is the superior high priest, the eternally righteous priest who could make atonement for us. He made this ultimate atonement. He paid the price that our sins required, not by offering sacrifices of unblemished lambs, but by living an unblemished life. He did so by never straying from God’s standard of good and evil, by being completely and totally obedient to God, by never sinning, and by dying in our place. Our sins required our lives, but Christ gave His life in our place. By giving his life for us, Christ bridged the divide between God and us. He became the perfect mediator that we needed.

When He rose from the grave, He proved that death and sin had finally been defeated and He showed that all who listen and submit to Him can have eternal forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.

So, the answer to our question is this: we need a high priest because we could never have done any of this for ourselves. We could never have accomplished this for ourselves. Because of this fact, we must trust in the high priest who accomplished salvation and atonement for us.

Artwork: “Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus, Marc Chagall, 1966.

The Cost of Unbelief.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.”
‭‭Hebrews‬ ‭3:12‬ ‭

In Hebrews 3:1-6, we read how the author of Hebrews argued for Jesus’ superiority to Moses. Beginning in verse 7, however, we see a shift in the author’s focus. The author takes a detour from discussing Israel’s greatest leader, Moses, and instead discusses Israel’s greatest failure. This shift is intentional. The author uses the cautionary tale of Israel’s sin in the wilderness to highlight the importance of holding fast to our belief in Christ.

Once again, we see the author of Hebrews dig deeply into the Old Testament to present scripture to support the importance of belief. In verses 7-11, the author quotes from Psalm 95. This particular psalm is a re-telling of the story of Israel’s rebellion and refusal to enter the Promised Land. We find this story first presented in Numbers 14. To understand the message of Psalm 95, we must understand the events of Numbers 14. So let’s take a moment to discuss those events.

In Numbers 14, we find the Israelites and Moses on the border of the Promised Land. They had come through the Exodus. They spent a year at Sinai. Now, they are on the threshold of entering into the land that God reserved for them. Moses sent twelve spies into the land to check it out, and the spies returned to Moses after forty days. Ten of the spies did not think that Israel could take the land. They did not believe that God would keep His promise to give them the land, even though He had already repeatedly told Israel that He would. These ten evil spies convinced the rest of Israel not to go into the Promised Land, and Israel rebelled against God and Moses. Israel rebelled and fell into unbelief, and they fell away from God. The results of this rebellion were disastrous for Israel. They would not be allowed to go into the Promised Land. They would have to wander in the desert for 40 years until the rebellious generation died. This is the story we see re-told in Psalm 95, and this is the story that the author of Hebrews uses to drive home the importance of belief.

The author introduces the quote from Psalm 95 in an interesting way, saying that the psalm’s words are the words of the Holy Spirit. The author of Hebrews says that the Holy Spirit is currently speaking these words today through the Scriptures. When we read the Bible, we hear God’s Spirit speaking to us. What is it that the Spirit is saying to us in Psalm 95? It is an urgent plea to learn from the tragic mistake of Israel’s rebellion and to not fall into the same trap. The Spirit tells us to listen to God’s voice today and not to harden our hearts as Israel did. 

In verse 12, the author adds another plea, one that calls upon us not to beware of having evil hearts. The word used there for “evil” can mean “bad” or “wicked,” but it can also mean “full of toil, labor, or annoyance.” We learn from this that the first step in falling into unbelief and rebelling against God is having a heart that is full of ingratitude. To combat developing such evil hearts, the author calls upon believers to encourage and exhort one another every day. The Greek word the author uses is parakaleo, which means “to encourage or admonish.” We are to encourage and, if need be, admonish our brothers and sisters every day so that they might not develop evil hearts. We are to keep each other focused upon God and not upon the toil and strife of this world.

The author presents the story of Israel’s rebellion against God to highlight to us the importance of holding on to our belief in Christ. Israel broke their covenant agreement with God and forfeited their right to enter the Promised Land as the result of that rebellion. If their rebellion against God and Moses was so severe, how much more would the punishment be for those who rebel against the one who is greater than Moses–Christ? If they lost their right to enter the Promised Land, what might we lose if we fall away into unbelief? 

We must learn from this cautionary tale, and we must hold tightly to the belief that we have placed in Christ. We cannot be distracted by the toil of this world, nor can we become ungrateful. We must focus on the spiritual health of our hearts, and we must be committed to encouraging our brothers and sisters to do the same thing. Though we are in the wilderness today, the Promised Land is just before us. We must be wholly devoted to following Christ so that we might enter into that special place that He has prepared for us.

Artwork: “Wanderer in the storm,” by Julius von Leypold, 1835

Keep Stretching.

1 Peter, Christian Living, Christianity, Love, Religion

“Above all, maintain an intense love for each other, since love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” 1 Peter 4:8-9

In 1 Peter 4, Peter transitions into a discussion of what is one of the believers’ highest obligations–to love for one another. He states that the believers must continue to do this, to continue to love one another and continue to live in a Christ-like manner, for the end of all things–the end of days, the end of time–is approaching. Now, Peter is not telling the believers that the end is near to incite fear or panic, but rather to state a simple fact: that they are living in the last days.

We must understand that the last days began with Christ’s resurrection; from that moment, the clock has been ticking down to the end. We even see that Peter makes mention of this in his famous sermon at Pentecost. There Peter quoted from the prophet Joel and said the following about the arrival of the Holy Spirit that had just occurred:

And it will be in the last days, says God,

that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity;

then your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams.

I will even pour out My Spirit

upon My male and female slaves in those days,

and they will prophesy,” (Acts 2:17-18).

Peter understood that the arrival of the Holy Spirit meant one thing: that the last days had finally arrived. As such, believers must be all the more diligent about the work that they have before them; the believers must be disciplined, self-controlled, on watch, sober-minded, clear-headed, and committed to prayer. Given the unique nature of the times, Peter was emploring the believers to finish strong, to see the job through unto the end. Peter also wanted the believers to remember that, above everything else, more important than finishing the job well, is the duty to continue loving one another.

In the Greek, Peter calls upon the believers to keep their love ektenes (ἐκτενής), or “stretched out,” because love covers a multitude of sins. The idea here is that the believers keep stretching their love for one other out,  and to demonstrate forgiveness to one another. We see Paul reflect a similar idea in 1 Corinthians 13 when he wrote 

“Love is patient, love is kind.

Love does not envy,

is not boastful, is not conceited,

 does not act improperly,

is not selfish, is not provoked,

and does not keep a record of wrongs.

 Love finds no joy in unrighteousness

but rejoices in the truth.

 It bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, endures all things.

 Love never ends,” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

There are several words in Greek for love, and Peter uses in his letter the most familiar word– agape (ἀγάπη). Agape can mean unconditional love, a love that will love you regardless of being loved in return, a non-stoping love, the sort of love that God demonstrates to the world, a sacrificial love. Agape can also be used to mean a deeply devoted, brotherly love. 

Here, Peter is telling the believers to have a non-stoping, unconditional, non-grudge-holding love for their brothers and sisters; that they are to love one another no matter what.

This lesson on love and forgiveness is one that Peter himself received a crash course in, and his words here show us how far this Galilean fisherman grew in his understanding of love and forgiveness. It was this same Peter who asked Christ how many times a brother must be forgiven, who asked if forgiving a brother just seven times would suffice. It was this same Peter who denied Christ three times and cursed His name after Jesus’ arrest. It was this same Peter who sat upon the beach with the resurrected Christ–the very Christ whom he had cursed just three days before–and it was this same Peter who Christ asked three times if Peter loved Him. It was this same Peter who responded three times that he did love Christ, and it was this same Peter whom–out of love– Jesus forgave for his denials, his cursing, and the rest of his sins.

Here, in this letter, we see this same Peter–a man who has grown dramatically in the Spirit–who encouraged his fellow believers to resolve to love one another.

We hear in Peter’s exhortation echoes of Christ’s words at the Passover meal when Christ said to the disciples, “a new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” (John 13:34-35). Peter wanted the believers to understand that the love they demonstrate for one another is the most persuasive witness to the world of their commitment to Christ; that love is the hallmark of the believer. The love that Christ commands means believers must look out for each other. Believers must take care of each other. This love requires believers to carry one another’s burdens, and it requires them to use the gifts and talents they all have to serve one another. In everything they do, the believers are to demonstrate their love for God and their love for each other. In doing this, the believers will bring glory and honor to God and Christ

In many ways, what Peter calls on us to do here in chapter 4 might be more challenging than any of the other exhortations he gives in this letter. This call to love is difficult because it forces us to take a look in the mirror. We have to check our resolve; we have to ask if we are really as determined and committed to living like Christ as we ought to be? Are we as committed to loving one another as we are supposed to be? When we start asking ourselves these questions, they open a whole litany of other questions that we must answer. The truth is that we might not like the answers we get when we really start being serious about being followers of Christ and asking ourselves if we are truly living out our faith, or if we are merely going through the motions. This examination is something we must do; it is crucial–it is imperative–that we understand the importance of resolving ourselves to loving one another. Loving one another is a foundational aspect of being a follower of Christ. It is a fundamental practice, and if we cannot do it properly, we will not ever grow in our faith; we will always be hindered, we will be hobbled.

We must ask ourselves if we are resolved to love our fellow believers, our brothers and sisters, unconditionally? Is the love we exhibit to our brothers and sisters eager to forgive and patient and kind and sincere? Or do we keep a record of wrongs and hurts and grudges? Do we only love when it is convenient for us to do so? When it is easy for us to do so? Do we only love when we get something in return? Do we love all our fellow believers or just those who are like us?

We must understand that there may come a time when our church–the people, the community, the family of believers–might be all that we have in this world. With this in mind, we must demonstrate a love for each other that shows our brothers and sisters that we will be there for them through thick and thin, for better or worse, ’til death do us part. 

We must also remember that for a Christian to not love their brothers and sisters is hypocrisy: it shows no thankfulness for the grace and mercy and love of God. It shows a disregard for the commands of Christ, who called upon us to love as we have been loved. For a Christian not to love is a waste. We have the hope of the world, secure and eternal, that can never be taken away from us regardless of what situation in which we find ourselves. This hope was given to us out of God’s unconditional love. We have been given hope and received a love that the world does not have. Out of love, Christ suffered and died so that we can have freedom from slavery to sin and death–how then could we not love? We must remember that we are to resolve ourselves to live like Christ and to love one another.

Resolve yourself to live like Christ. Resolve yourself to love like Christ. Love your brothers and sisters, and keep stretching that love and showing forgiveness, for this is how the world knows we are His disciples.

Artwork: “Love One Another III,” Ivan Guaderrama, 2015. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/love-one-another-iil-ivan-guaderrama.html

Salvation Is His Name.

Christianity, Religion

“And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21

Matthew and Luke both record in their respective gospels the narrative of Jesus’ birth. Each account gives a distinct perspective of how Christ’s birth came to be and took place, and each gospel writer gives unique details about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. For example, in Luke’s account, we are given the familiar story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Caesar Agustus’ census, the birth in the stable in Bethlehem, and the appearance of the heavenly host to the shepherds.

While Luke’s account is focused mainly upon Mary, Matthew gives us a version that deals with Joseph’s side of the story. This focus on Joseph is essential because one of Matthew’s intention is to show how Jesus is the promised messiah, or king, from the line of David. To accomplish this, Matthew lists Jesus’ family tree, from Abraham to King David, all the way to Joseph. We learn from this that Joseph is a direct descendant of David, and as such, Jesus would be adopted into the Davidic line.

After connecting Joseph and Jesus to David, Matthew’s attention shifts to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, specifically with the issue that Mary has become pregnant in the middle of her engagement to Joseph. Jewish engagements of this era were almost as binding as the marriage itself; to break the engagement, one party would have to receive a bill of divorce. Matthew tells us that Mary had conceived her child by the Holy Spirit, but Joseph still found himself in a precarious situation. For Mary to be pregnant with a child that was not Joseph’s during the engagement could have raised accusations of adultery. With that charge, Mary could be put to death, as was the prescribed penalty under the Law of Moses.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man and that he did not want to disgrace Mary publically. Joseph did not want to do anything that would endanger Mary; he was prudent. He has a man who followed the Law, but he also cared for Mary and did not want her to be hurt. She was going to have enough difficulty ahead being pregnant and unwed, there was no need to add to her burden. So Joseph decided to handle everything secretly and let everyone go their separate ways.

Though Joseph might have thought he was handling everything, this was not God’s plan. God was still going to use Joseph to be the earthly father of His Son, and Joseph was going to provide Mary’s child with the necessary Davidic lineage. He did not know it yet, but Joseph was going to play a vital role in God’s plan to redeem humanity.

So God sent a messenger to Joseph; an angel came to him in a dream. This angel spoke to Joseph and told this very important descendant of David not to be afraid to marry Mary. This was not just any ordinary child that she was carrying, this was a child that was conceived by the Holy Spirit. In the same way that God created everything in Genesis from nothing, He had created a baby in Mary from nothing. The angel continued to tell Joseph that Mary would have a son and that they must name this son Jesus. The angel then gives a critical detail about why this child must be called Jesus: it is because this child will save the people from their sins.

But what does this mean? What is the connection between the name Jesus and saving the people?

The English name “Jesus” comes from the Greek name Iesous (Ἰησοῦς), which is the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ). Yeshua is a shortened version of the Hebrew name Joshua, or Yehoshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ). In essence, Christ’s first name would be Josh. Both Yeshua and Yehoshua have the same meaning: YHWH is Salvation. So, our first step in understanding why Jesus must be named Yeshua is because that very name means “YHWH is salvation.”

There is a relationship between the name Yeshua and Hebrew words relating to salvation; they call come from the same root. For instance, the term “salvation” is yeshu’ah (יְשׁוּעָה) which sounds nearly identical to the name given to Christ. Likewise, the phrase “he will save” in Hebrew is yasha (יָשַׁע), which is an even more compact form of the name Yeshua. This all helps us to understand that salvation is at the very core of the name being given to Mary’s son. The baby must be named “Salvation,” because He is bringing salvation, and He Himself will do the saving.

This also sheds light on the identity of Jesus. His name, Yeshua, means “YHWH is Salvation,” but according to the angel’s explanation, Jesus is the one who will be doing all the saving; Jesus Himself has become the agent of salvation. Therefore, if Jesus’ name means “YHWH is Salvation,” and if Jesus is the one bringing salvation to the people-brining redemption from sin–then Jesus must be YHWH; He must be God. Proving that Jesus is God is why Matthew includes the quote from Isaiah 7:14– since Jesus is God, He is the fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy given by Isaiah. Jesus is Immanuel (God with Us) because Jesus is God, and He has come to be with His people.

God spared no attention to detail in His plan to redeem humanity. He sent the world His Son, and that Son was named Salvation because He would save the people from their sins. That baby, who was both fully human and fully God, grew up to be a man who led a perfectly obedient life to God, and that man died so that salvation could be given to the world. Three days later,  Salvation–who is God with Us– rose from the dead, defeating sin and death once and for all.

Place your trust in the one who is both fully God and fully man. His name is Salvation, and there is no other name that you can call upon to be saved.

Artwork: “The Nativity,” from “Derriere le Miroir” Marc Chagall, 1950

Seed of Hope.

Christianity, Religion

“I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” Genesis 3:15

The Genesis 3 account of humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden is a story with which many of us are familiar. It is a Bible “story” that we’ve heard time and time again: in Sunday School, in children’s ministry, in Bible school, and in any other place where children learn the Bible. Given how many times many of us have heard this story, it is possible that a degree of “blindness” has come along with familiarity. We’ve become so used to hearing that Genesis 3 is about how humanity ruined things and brought sin into creation, and was then punished by being expelled from Eden. This approach makes sense and helps us to comprehend the nature of the world, but we miss the most crucial part of the narrative if we only focus on how the man and woman failed.

This passage is not about how Adam and Eve failed and received punishment; this account is about so much more than humanity’s failures. This passage is about how God showed mercy, how He didn’t punish them as wholly as He should have. This passage is about how God–right from the very moment of humanity’s first wandering from Him–already had a plan to bring humankind back to Him. 

This passage is about undeserved mercy and the promise of hope of redemption.

Adam and Eve, despite their disobedience, receive an incredible outpouring of God’s mercy. They had both been told by God what the penalty was for eating from the forbidden tree–death. Yet, when God confronted their sin, He did not kill Adam and Eve. He did not destroy creation and begin anew. God punished them justly. Death did come to the scene–something did die for Adam and Eve’s nakedness to be covered–but God did not demand their lives there at that moment as He could have.

God shows even more mercy to Adam and Eve by sending them away from the Garden. Eden was the place where God’s realm and creation overlap; it was the place where God would come and walk among His creation. Adam and Eve, who were now sinful and fallen, could not be in God’s presence; His mere presence would destroy them. God is so perfect and so holy that anything infected with sin cannot survive being near Him. To protect Adam and Eve from being killed, God sent them away from Him. The man and woman were also exiled from Eden to protect them from themselves. Now that they had fallen and become sinful, God did not want Adam or Eve to eat from the Tree of Life, and then live forever in their fallen state. To protect humanity from itself, God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. We often think of the exile from Eden as punishment; we fail to see that God sent humanity away from Eden to protect them. In exiling Adam and Eve, God had their best interests in mind; He did what was best for them.

We also see in Genesis 3 something which further shows the compassion that God displayed: the promise of hope. While He was levying the curses upon the Serpent, Eve, Adam, and the land, God made this promise to the Serpent, “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel,” (Genesis 3:15). The Serpent, who had orchestrated mankind’s rebellion through his deceit and deception, was told that there would come one who would avenge the woman. This Avenger would be from the woman’s seed–he would be human–and he would deliver a death blow to the Serpent. The Serpent would hurt the Avenger, but He would not succumb to the Serpent. For the rest of his days, the Serpent would crawl on his stomach, eating dust, knowing that the Avenger was coming to destroy him; the Serpent knew his destruction was sure.

When the Avenger came and finally destroyed the Serpent, the curses would be broken. The Avenger, through His injury from the Serpent, would atone for humanity’s rebellion, but He would break the curses through destroying the Serpent. By breaking the curses and atoning for humanity, the Avenger would end humanity’s separation from God and end their exile.

The Avenger would not defeat the Serpent with might or through force, nor would He do it through confrontation; He would defeat the Serpent through the most curious and most unusual means: He would defeat the Serpent by allowing the Serpent to kill Him. 

We see this play out many generations later, when the one from the seed of the woman, when the Avenger– Jesus of Nazareth–came to earth. He was born of woman and lived a life of complete obedience to God. He went willingly and of His own volition to the cross. Though He was perfect and never sinned nor disobeyed God at any point in His life, He allowed the ravenous, bloodthirsty animal of sin and its minion death to consume Him and to kill Him. Death, however,  could not hold Him; the Serpent could only bruise Him. Through this selfless act, through His sacrificial death, Christ stomped on the head of the Serpent with His bruised heel when He rose again walked out of the grave three days later.

Already here, at the very beginning of Scripture, here where humanity has just fallen, where sin and death have just been introduced to the story, Calvary is already on the horizon. The promise of the Avenger–of the Snake Crusher–is the first glimmer of messianic hope to the fallen world. This promise shows us that, from the very beginning, God knew how He would defeat sin and death; from the beginning, God knew how He would redeem humanity and bring them back to Him.

Artwork: “Mary consoles Eve,” Sister Grace Remington, 2003.

Hope for Tomorrow.

Christianity, Religion

“But this I call to mind,

and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

    ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”  Lamentations 3:21-24

The Book of Lamentations, as its title indicates, is not a happy book; it is a book of sorrow, sadness, and grief. The author, traditionally believed to be the prophet Jeremiah, composed the text in the immediate wake of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587-586 BC. The book is a funeral dirge for the lost city. As one reads Lamentations, it is easy to picture the author walking through the rubble and destruction of the city, through the ruins of the Temple, all the while weeping for the once-great city who turned away from God and met this tragic fate. 

It is easy to understand why the author would express sadness and sorrow in this situation. As far as the author can see, there was only devastation, destruction, death, and pain. The great City of David leveled. Solomon’s Temple destroyed. Scattered all around were the lifeless bodies of friends and loved ones. Many of the survivors were being shackled together sent off away from their homeland into exile in Babylon. This destruction happened as the result of Judah and Jerusalem’s wandering away from God–the same sinful wandering that Jeremiah spent his career preaching against and telling the people of which to repent. The people did not repent, and they followed after the debased desires of their heart, going happily and unashamedly down the path to destruction, mocking God and Jeremiah all the way. Sadness and sorrow are the natural emotions that one would experience when witnessing such a scene, and we see Jeremiah express these same emotions in the laments he wrote in the aftermath of this destruction.

The Lamentations, however, take a curious turn. In the middle of the book, the author turns from weeping and grief to an unexpected emotion–hope. In chapter 3, as he recounts all the sorrow and devastation and destruction he has witnessed, the author transitions into a message of hope for the future. Though all around Jeremiah is the devastation of God’s wrath, morning has come, and with it a new day. The prophet realized that, though God’s fury and judgment were severe, the people have not been destroyed. Though they are going into exile, God was not done with His people, and if God is still working with this rebellious and stiff-necked people, there was hope for the future. God would remain faithful to the promises He made to Abraham and David. He would remain committed to the people who are incapable of being loyal to Him. Since God was still working through His people, then there would be a future, and there was a reason to be hopeful. It was because of His lovingkindness that they were not utterly destroyed; He was merciful even in His judgment. Even in the worst of circumstances, Jeremiah found reasons to praise God and to be hopeful.

The destruction that Jeremiah witnessed in Jerusalem is only a preview of the destruction which sinful humanity deserves. God does not have to continue to sustain humanity, yet He does out of His love and mercy. As if that display of compassion was not enough, God does more for us. God came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ, and He took our damnation and our destruction upon Himself.  He did this so that we could have a future–not just the hope of one, but the assurance of one–with Him. Christ paid the penalty for our sin so that we might become His people. He gave us a future of hope when we deserved a future of destruction. The words of hope that Jeremiah cried out to God in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem ring even more valid now in the aftermath of Christ’s atoning death outside the walls of Jerusalem: 

“But this I call to mind,

and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

    ‘therefore I will hope in him.”

Regardless of what situation we may find ourselves in, we have a future of hope. Christ demonstrated the infinite depth of His love and mercy by taking our sin and our destruction. He is faithful to us even when our faithfulness wanes. He is our portion forever, and He is the only hope we have.

Artwork: “Jeremiah,” Marc Chagall, 1956