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.

Compassion and Confidence.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus the Son of God—let us hold fast to the confession.” Hebrews 4:14

In Hebrews 4:14-16, we see the author of Hebrews offer us some words of hope and encouragement. In these verses, the author returns to a discussion about Christ as our perfect high priest. In these three verses, the author explains to us how Christ’s compassion allows us to live life with confidence and hope.

Following the author’s solemn words of warning about falling into unbelief and God knowing the motives of our hearts, the author reminds us that we still have hope. This hope is grounded in the fact that Christ is our great high priest; He is the high priest who is superior to all other priests.  What makes Christ superior to the other high priests? The author tells us that Christ is the Son of God and that He has “passed through the heavens.” This phrase, “passed through the heavens,” is unique, and it has two significant meanings. On the surface level, it refers to the fact that Christ is the Son of God who came from and returned to Heaven, which means that He enjoys a relationship with God that no other high priest could. 

The phrase “passed through” can also be used to describe a person going through a door, or in a more specific usage, going behind a curtain or veil. This is the same phrase used to explain how the earthly high priest would pass through the veil in the Jerusalem temple and enter into the Holy of Holies, which was the place where God’s presence dwelt. The Holy of Holies was the most sacred space in the temple; it was the place where His domain overlapped with ours. Due to its sacred nature, the Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the temple by an enormous veil, and the high priest was the only person allowed to enter it. Even then, the high priest was only allowed to do so on one day a year–the Day of Atonement. On that day, the high priest would sprinkle the blood of a goat upon the Ark of the Covenant. By doing this, the high priest brought forgiveness to the people.

In the same way that the high priest passed through the veil to go into the Holy of Holies to bring forgiveness to the people, Christ passed through Heaven to go directly into God’s presence to make atonement for us and to make forgiveness available for us as well. This ability to go straight into God’s presence, to go before His throne in Heaven, makes Christ the greatest of all the high priests. 

Not only is the fact that we have the greatest high priest pleading our case before God is a source of great hope for us, but it is also a source of great confidence. Since Christ has paid the price for all of our sins, we no longer have to be afraid of God’s wrath; we are no longer under sin’s penalty of death. Our sentence has been commuted; we have been acquitted. Even more incredible than that, when Christ went behind the veil to make atonement for us, He left it open so that we can go directly before God’s throne to receive mercy and grace when we repent from our sins. This is fantastic news! No longer do we have to fear God’s wrath, no longer do we have to hide in our sin and shame as Adam and Eve did. Now, we can go confidently before God and receive the mercy and grace that He gives us when we repent. Instead of running from God when we sin, we can now run to Him and receive His mercy and grace.

As long as we live in this world, we will struggle with sin. But we now have the hope of forgiveness and mercy. Do not try to hide your sins from God; go confidently to His throne in repentance and receive the grace and mercy that He will give you. Stop living a life of shame and fear; live the life of hope and confidence that only Christ can provide.

Stop running from God. Put the faith you profess to have into action and run to Christ.

Work Hard for the Rest.

Christian Living, Christianity, Hebrews, Religion
“Rest” 1956 Reginald Brill

“Therefore, while the promise to enter His rest remains, let us fear that none of you should miss it. For we also have received the good news just as they did; but the message they heard did not benefit them, since they were not united with those who heard it in faith.” Hebrews 4:1-2

In Hebrews 4, we see the author continue using the example of Israel’s failure in the wilderness to underscore the importance of being steadfast in our belief. Just like Israel, we have also had the “good news” of God’s rest promised to us, but the author tells us that Israel’s failure was that they did not have faith in what they heard. This lesson is an important one for us to learn: hearing the good news preached is useless if we do not believe what we hear. The author of Hebrews wants us to understand that we must have both belief and faith.  While this sounds simple enough, what does it mean?

Today we use the words “belief” and “faith” in ways that are very different from the way we see them used in the Bible. We might use either term to describe something that we think might happen or what we want to happen. Still, neither of these uses reflects Biblical belief or faith. In the Bible, to believe in something means that you put the entirety of your hope, trust, and confidence in that thing. It means you believe in that thing with the fullness of your being. When we say we believe in Christ, what we are honestly saying is that we have put all of our hope, confidence, and trust for our salvation in Him. Faith is related to this; faith is the living out of the belief we profess. Biblical faith involves living a life that reflects the things we believe. It means living in a way that shows we truly do mean what we say we believe. Faith is putting our belief into practice; it means we walk the walk, and we talk the talk. As we all know, if you want to know what a person truly thinks or believes, you watch how they act. The same is true for us as well; if you want to see if a person truly believes in Christ, you see if their actions reflect that belief.

The author of Hebrews calls on us to work hard to enter the rest that God has prepared for us. We must be diligent in living out the belief we profess to have. We must commit every day to live by faith so that we do not develop evil hearts and fall into unbelief as Israel did. 

The author also reminds us that God’s word is living and active, and is sharper than a double-edged sword. When we hear God’s word, when we read the Bible, those words are acting on us. They are piercing us to our souls and searching the thoughts and motives of our hearts. God knows if our talk matches our walk; we cannot hide anything from Him. If we are hiding things in our hearts, if we are holding on to things that we should not be holding on to, God will use His word to convict us. We cannot ignore this conviction. We must not harden our hearts to it. God does not convict us so that He can shame us or belittle us; He convicts us so that we can let go of the things that are leading us away from Him and so we can repent of those things. The conviction we feel from God is how He helps us stay on the path that leads to the rest that He wants us to have.

Loved Ones, we must honestly look at ourselves and be sure that our walk matches our talk. We must acknowledge and listen to the conviction we might feel when confronted with God’s word. We must examine our hearts and allow God to rid them of the things that will lead us away from Him. We must work hard each day to faithfully live out our belief in Christ. If we do this, we will one day enjoy the rest that God has prepared for us.

One of Us.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested.” Hebrews 2:18

Following the word of warning that is given in the first four verses of Hebrews 2, the author spends the remainder of chapter two making a case for Christ’s humanity. The author explains to the reader why Christ had to come to earth in the form of a human. This is a significant undertaking; the belief that Christ was God in the form of a human is one of the central beliefs of our faith. Here in Hebrews 2, the author explains to us why this had to be so. In unpacking and explaining this crucial point, the author presents three reasons why Christ had to come into the world as a human. Let’s explore the author’s points.

1. Christ had to be human to recapture our lost glory and honor, and to defeat death (5-9) 

The author begins explaining why Christ had to be a human by reminding us of humanity’s place within creation. To do this, the author of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 8. In this particular psalm, the psalmist writes about the glory of creation, and also of the remarkable fact that God placed humanity in charge of creation. The psalmist refers back to Genesis 1, where God commissioned humanity to subdue and rule over creation. It was God’s original intention for mankind to rule creation along with Him; we were meant to be God’s regents over the created world. God made us to be rulers; He created us and gave us dominion over all the world.

But there is a problem: creation is not under our control. Sin and the Fall ruined this. Everywhere we look, we see evidence that we have no control, no authority over anything. This was the situation that Jesus entered in. He came into the world as one of us, as one who is human. But we now see Jesus crowned with glory and honor. In His complete obedience to God, in His total submission to the Father, Christ became the first human to recapture the glory and honor that we lost in the Fall. He recaptured our lost authority, and He used that authority to defeat death for us. But Christ did not defeat His enemy–death–in the way we would imagine someone with power and authority would defeat an enemy. Christ did not battle death, He did not overpower death, He did not force death into submission. Christ defeated death by allowing it to destroy Him. Christ defeated death by fully submitting to the Father and completely trusting in God to restore Him to life. In doing this, Christ became our model for how humanity was supposed to live, and he showed us how His followers, the new humanity, are supposed to live.

2. Christ had to be human to become our “trailblazer” and “hero” (10-13)

In verse 10, the author tells us that it was fitting for Christ to be the one to come and recapture for us our lost glory and honor because He was the one who had given it to us in the first place. This fact makes Christ especially qualified to be the one to lead us back to our former position and relationship with God. The author also introduces us to a significant word in verse 10; depending upon your chosen translation, the word made be translated as “author,” “captain,” “source,” or “leader.” Each of these words hints at the meaning of the original Greek word, archagos, that the author used. Archagos means “leader, pioneer, trailblazer,” and in some ancient Greek writing, it is also used to mean “hero.” By defeating death and reclaiming our lost glory and honor, Christ becomes our hero, and He becomes our trailblazer. He leads us on the path back to God; He shows us the way. In showing us the way to salvation, Christ is also leading us back tot he family of God–back into His family. He leads us back home, and when we become His followers, He calls us His brothers and sisters.

3. Christ had to be human to know what it’s like to be us (14-18)

The author tells us that Christ is the perfect, the complete hero for us because He has suffered just as we do. He knows temptation, He knows trials, He knows pain and hardship. While Christ was on the earth, He lived a fully human life, and He experienced everything that we experience as humans. Christ, however, overcame all His temptation and suffering; He lived a totally sinless life. This allows Christ to be our perfect High Priest. He could offer atonement for us because He knows firsthand the trials and sins we struggle with. He was able to go to God on our behalf and bring us forgiveness for those sins. Christ had to be human so that He could know what it is like to be like us; so that He could know how to minister for us, and how to minister to us. He knows our pain and our struggles firsthand, and He knows how to help us when we are struggling with our pain, suffering, and sin.

Christ had to come to earth as one of us. He had to live as one of us so that He could save us from our sins and from ourselves. He knows everything that we endure; He knows what it is like to be tempted, to be tested, to hurt, to suffer, to be alone. There is nothing that we can endure that He has not experienced for Himself. He came to the earth so that He could lift us up out of the filth that we have sunken down into, and so that He could restore us to the glory and honor that He created us for. He came to show us that we were meant to live better, that we were designed to live for so much more than what we are currently living for. He came as one of us so that in those times when we feel alone–when we feel as if we have no hope or nothing to live for–we can remember that our Hero has battled the same sorrows, and has overcome them. We can remember that our Creator has felt the same things and that He is offering us His hand to lead us on the path back to Him. Christ came to earth to take all of the darkness humanity brought upon itself–all the hurt, shame, grief, sorrow, dishonor, sin– and that He took these things upon Himself. He did this so that He could shine His light into the darkness and illuminate for us the path back to Him.

You are not alone, Loved Ones. Our Hero is in the trenches with us. Christ knows what you are enduring. Take His hand, let Him guide you. Trust in Him fully and completely. Live as the new humanity that He calls you to be, and let Him restore you to the glory and honor that we lost.

Artwork: “Ecce Homo,” by Antatoly Shumkin

Long Ago and in Various Ways

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” —Hebrews 1:1-3

Hebrews is one of the most mysterious books of the Bible. We do not know who wrote it, we do not know when it was written, nor do we know who the book was written to. An early church leader, Origen of Alexandria, said that there is much about Hebrews that “is known only to God.” That statement is entirely accurate.

Despite what we do now know about Hebrews, this book is still one of the most theologically rich books within the Bible. No other book does a more complete job of taking the teachings of the Old Testament and explaining how those teachings are fulfilled by Jesus Christ. In fact, that is the central message of Hebrews–showing that Jesus has fulfilled and is superior to the teachings of the Old Testament. The author of Hebrews goes to great lengths to prove this point.

The author begins this argument with one of the most poetic lines contained in Scripture. In that first verse, we are reminded that God has been speaking to humanity since the beginning of time itself. Not only has God been speaking to us, but He has also revealed, little by little, His plan for redeeming the world. These revelations came through the prophets, first Abraham, then Moses, and numerous others, and each revelation built upon the previous one. Each message sent by God gave His people a clearer understanding of how they are to live as God’s people. In the eyes of the Hebrew people, God’s ultimate revelation was to Moses upon Mount Sinai. It was at that time and place that the Lord gave Moses and Israel the Law. As far as the Hebrews were concerned, there had been no message from God, no revelation, that surpassed the giving of the Law.

The author of Hebrews, however, begs to differ. In verse 2, the author tells us that there has been a new message given and that this message was so important that it had to be delivered by God’s Son. No person, no prophet, was capable of delivering this message, because it would stand has the ultimate revelation of God’s plan for salvation. The message spoken to us by the Son would be superior to all of the previous messages spoken by the prophets. 

To show us just how important this message is, the author of Hebrews presents several points, seven to be exact, proving just how special the Son is. The author tells us that Jesus–the Son–is the heir of all things, that God made all things in the universe through the Him, that the He is the radiance of God’s glory, that the He is the exact expression of God’s nature, that the He sustains all things in the universe through His word, that the He has made atonement for us, and He has sat down at the God’s right hand.  

Each of these characteristics of Christ is important. Each point presented by the author of Hebrews is grounded in the Old Testament scriptures. The author uses an interesting word when telling us that Christ is the exact expression of God’s nature. The word there in Greek is charaktayr, from which we get “character.” This word, charaktayr, means “exact copy.” By using this word, the author wants us to understand that Christ is just that; He is the exact physical copy of God’s nature. 

The author also gives us two important clues about Christ’s role in the world. First, it is mentioned that Christ has made atonement for us. This points to Christ’s role as our High Priest. In Leviticus, God outlines all the various ways in which the High Priest can make atonement for himself and for the people. As believers in Christ, we know that He performed this same act for us upon the cross. Secondly, we are reminded of Christ’s kingship, and that Christ does rule the universe at the right hand of God. Christ is not only the King of Israel; He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  We are told all of this information because the author of Hebrews wants us to understand just exactly who is speaking to us today. Christ is not just another prophet; He is God. The message Christ brings to us is one that we must listen to; we cannot afford to ignore it or disregard it. Christ’s message is one of hope, salvation, and redemption, but we may only experience these things if we listen to Him. So, are we doing just that? Are we listening to the message Christ has for us?

Artwork: “The Prophet and the Angel,” Marc Chagall, 1979.

The Lord is Near!

Christianity, Philippians, Religion

Philippians 4 is, without a doubt, one of Paul’s most famous pieces of writing. Any Christian worth their salt knows Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” by heart. Chapter 4 is also where we find Paul’s exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). Though these verses are sure to be included in any list of Paul’s “greatest hits,” they are not the only pearls of wisdom that can be found in this chapter. 

 Among the more overlooked verses of Philippians 4, we find verses 5 and 6, “Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is near!  Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God.” In these two verses, Paul gives some of the most significant theological and practical advice for Christian living. We can break his advice into three parts:

 1-Treat everyone gently.

 2- Don’t be scared, for Christ is with us.

 3- Don’t stop praying.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at each of these.

  1-Treat everyone gently. The word that Paul uses in verse 5 can be translated as “fairness,” “mildness,” or “gentleness.“ When he calls upon the Philippians to let everyone “see their gentleness,” he is calling on them to treat people gently and mildly. Followers of Christ are not to show unfair treatment to others, nor are we to treat anyone in a harsh or unkind manner. We are called, as Paul reminded us, to show meekness, mildness, and gentleness. These characteristics should come naturally to believers because they are the same traits Christ demonstrated to those whom he encountered. As we seek to be more Christlike, we should strive to show more gentleness and fairness to everyone we meet.

 2- Don’t be scared, for Christ is with us. Are there any more comforting words written in all of Scripture? Let’s take a moment and review everything Paul has told us about Christ in this epistle. In Philippians 2, Paul writes of Christ’s humility. He said that Christ’s entire life was a demonstration in humble living. In chapter 3, Paul wrote of Christ’s sovereignty over all everything in heaven and earth. Here in chapter 4, however, Paul quickly reminds us that Christ is not distant from us; He is not far removed from us. Paul tells us that the opposite is true that Christ is close to us! Though He has ascended back up to the Father, Christ is very much still near to us. He is still Immanuel, “God with us.” He is near to us, and He is seeing us through every situation, every trial, every tribulation that we face. When we realize that Christ is with us, we recognize that we have nothing to fear. There is no fear in sickness, no fear in plague, no fear in death. Since Christ is with us, and since He is giving us the strength to endure every trial, we have nothing to fear at all.

 3- Don’t stop praying. Paul called upon the Philippians to continuously take their prayers, petitions, and requests to God with thanksgiving. In every situation, we are to be committed to prayer. God knows all of our needs, and He will meet them. He also wants us to demonstrate that we trust in His provision for our lives through prayer. Praying to God to meet our needs is a demonstration of humility on our part. It shows that we are no longer trying to control things ourselves and that we are trusting in God alone to meet our needs. 

 Paul’s words in chapter 4 are as practical as they are reassuring and beautiful. In the days ahead, take time to reflect upon them. Find your hope and comfort in the fact that Christ is near to us. Whatever might be going on in your life, you are not alone. The Lord Himself is with you. Though things might be tough and painful, He is with you, and He is in control. He is with you just as He was with Noah during the flood. He is with you just as He was with Joseph in prison. He is with you just as He was with Israel in the wilderness. He is with you just as He was with Jonah in the belly of the fish. He is with you just as He was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

He is with you just as He was with Daniel in the lion’s den. He is with you just as He was with Paul in prison. He promised never to leave us nor forsake us. So trust His promise, and do not be afraid.

Artwork, “The Lord is Near,” from “Devotions Sketchbook,” by Aaron Zenz, 2013. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/161988917824843128/

Eager to Hear.

Christianity, Nehemiah, Religion, Worship

“All the people were eager to hear the book of the law.” Nehemiah 8:3

“‘This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people had been weeping when they heard the words of the law.” Nehemiah 8:9

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of what happens to the people of Judah when they return from the seventy years of captivity in Babylon. This focus puts them entirely out of place in the order of non-Hebrew Bibles, for Ezra and Nehemiah come before the books of the prophets that describe the coming of the exile to Babylon. When reading Ezra and Nehemiah, you see how the story of the exile ends, with the first meager waves of returning arriving back in their homeland. These books tell you the story of a people who had grown up in as exiles, captive in a foreign land, returning home to the ancestral land that they had never known.

The Book of Nehemiah focuses specifically on the story of the book’s namesake, Nehemiah, as he helps lead the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. When arriving back in Jerusalem, the returnees found the once-great city still lay in ruins. Nothing had been rebuilt since the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar had razed the city. The walls–the symbols of the city’s security–were crumbling and useless, and the Temple–the symbol of God’s presence with His people–was but a heap of rubble. Jerusalem was still in disarray, both physically and spiritually. To make matters worse, many of the returning Hebrews were being exploited–by Persian officials and by Hebrews who were complicit with supporting their new Persian overlords. Nehemiah endeavored to bring legal order and justice back to Jerusalem, and he vowed to begin this–and a long list of other reforms–by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s quest to bring law and order back to Jerusalem was paralleled by his associate, Ezra the Scribe, who sought to bring religious and spiritual order back to the city.

Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild the city’s walls has hindered and opposed by his adversaries. Still, he persisted, and he and his followers successfully rebuilt the walls. The completion of the walls coalesced with a sense of revival and renewal for the returned exiles. This highlighted by the celebration that took place when the walls were completed. In chapter 8, we find a celebration of dedication for the walls. At this celebration, the people of Jerusalem asked Ezra to come and read the Torah, the Book of the Law, to them. We are told that all the returnees are assembled there to hear it–men, women, and children who are old enough to understand. We are also told that all the people are eager to listen to the reading. Ezra is on a high platform, built just for this purpose so that all the people might hear him and see him. Throughout this service of worship and dedication, we find four essential characteristics that denote true, sincere worship:

We see the people are eager to worship

Everyone who was able to attend this service was there. It was of the utmost importance that the corporate body of believers was assembled for this moment. This was a family affair–both in the sense of the family of God being together and also in that entire families worshipped together.

The eagerness of the people is highlighted in verse 1, where it says the people requested Ezra read the Book of the Law at this ceremony. The people understood the significance of the moment. They had returned to their ancestral home–the home that their forefathers had forfeited by forsaking the Law. As such, the returnees wanted to recommit themselves to the Law so that they might not repeat the same sins as their fathers.

We see the people are reverent in worship.

When Ezra takes the platform to read, the congregation stands to hear him. They stand out of reverence for God and the importance of the words that Ezra will be reading to them. We are told that Ezra was reading the Book of the Law from dawn until noon, and the whole time, the people were there standing and listening. When Ezra completed reading the Book, the people cried out, “Amen! Amen!” and bowed their faces down to the ground and worshipped the Lord. Again, this sign of prostration is a sign of respect for God. The people realize the majesty of God and their unworthiness to approach Him, and so they bow their heads in somber reverence. 

Ezra also had the foresight to appoint several of the Levites–those who would be working in the Temple–to be out among the crowd, teaching the people as Ezra was reading the Law. Keep in mind that the returnees had grown up in exile in a society that was alien to their native culture. The returnees grew up in Babylon, speaking the language of that land, and their native tongue, Hebrew, was lost. Only those who grew up hearing Hebrew and were taught Hebrew could understand it. These Levites grew up being taught Hebrew, in the off chance that they would be able to go home and return to their positions in the Temple, and their study of the Law. So the Levites in the crowd translated the Law to the people so they could learn and gain insight about what they were hearing. The people were hearing words that they could understand so that they could learn and benefit from it.

We see the people were moved by their worship.

The significance of this ceremony, of this moment, was overwhelming to the people. They were once again in the Promised Land, in the holy city, hearing the words of God read to them in their ancestral language. They had returned home. The long and horrific ordeal of exile had ended, and they were the first ones to come home. It was a moment that moved the assembly to tears. They were weeping because their nightmare had ended, they were weeping because God had been faithful to them and returned them home, they were weeping because they were hearing the Law that their forefathers had forsaken thus bringing the horror of God’s judgment and exile.

Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites reminded the people numerous times not to weep, not to mourn, for this was a special day. This was a holy day–it was a day of rededication and renewal–and the people should rejoice and celebrate. The past was the past, mourning over it wouldn’t change anything. Instead, the people must rejoice in this day. The people must celebrate this day, rejoice in their return, and commit each and every subsequent day to follow the Lord. This day was not a day for mourning the sins of their fathers; it was a day for celebrating the faithfulness of God.

We see the people are confronted by their worship.

As the people learn more about the Law, they discover that they are already guilty of breaking the Law. We are told this assembly gathered on the first day of the seventh month, and in their reading of the Law, the people find that time is appointed for the celebration of the Festival of Booths. During this festival, the Hebrews were to live in tents for a week to commemorate the forty-years their ancestors wandered in the desert before coming into the Promised Land. So, the people went out and gathered the required items for the celebration, and they observed the Festival of Booths. 

The writer of Nehemiah tells us that this was the first time the festival had been observed since the days of Joshua–and this is a startling revelation. Over nine hundred years had spanned since the death of Joshua and the day in which the returning Hebrews observed the festival. The very generation who entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua–the very generation who vowed to keep all the laws and commandments of God–was guilty of not observing this festival. As soon as they entered the Promised Land, they began to become complacent and neglected to teach the next generation how to honor God and keep His commandments, and within a generation or two, the observance was lost. This might seem like a minor offense, but is a sin nonetheless. The Hebrew word for sin is khata (חָטָא), which simply means to miss the mark. God gives us the standard by which to live, and when we miss the mark–when we khata–it is sin. One miss–one sin–quickly leads to another, and pretty soon, the original target is lost altogether. Such was the case with the Israelites; they missed the mark by neglecting to observe one festival, and subsequent generations strayed farther and farther from the mark. The people of Nehemiah’s day realize this, and they vow not to repeat the same mistakes, not to miss the mark. They committed themselves that day to striving for the target God set and to live for God.

When we read Nehemiah 8, we must reflect very objectively on our own worship. Can we find the same four characteristics in our worship, week in and week out? Are we eager to worship? Do we look forward to going to the Lord’s house each and every Lord’s Day, or is our Sunday morning more routine and mechanical? Are we eager to worship, or are we dragging ourselves to our pew, and merely riding worship out? 

Are we reverent in our worship? Do we realize that we are in the presence of the almighty God, the King of the Universe? Is our view of God such that we understand our insignificance and our unworthiness to approach Him? Do we give Him respect and reverence, or do we come to worship thinking that God should be grateful to us for giving Him one hour of our time? Do we approach worship as the holy time that it is, or do we treat it as though it were yet another social function? Are we more concerned about being seen, shaking hands, and slapping backs than we are about being in the presence of the God who made us and who died for us?

Are we moved by our worship? Does our time in the presence of the Holy God move us to tears? Do we realize how illogical it is that He should want to commune with us? Do we comprehend how faithful He has been to us, despite all of our infidelities against Him? Does His love overwhelm us? Does it bring us joy to know that God has given us salvation, even at the cost of His Son? Or are we cold and rigid and unfeeling? Are we more concerned about getting out of church exactly at noon? Do we even care to feel the Spirit’s presence with us? Do we want to be moved by God, or are we satisfied just to slink into a pew and slink out when the service is over?

Does our worship confront our sin? Are we being told when we missed the mark? Are we forced to feel the Spirit’s conviction? Or is our worship just a pep rally to pump us up for the week ahead? Are we told of the target that God has set for us, are we forced to examine if we are on target or not? When we sin, are we told we must repent and ask forgiveness, or are we told that we are “good people” and given sappy stories to make us feel better about ourselves?

If our worship does not do for us what it did for the people in Nehemiah 8, then it is not worship. God does not want cold, dead, rigid, ritualism. God wants our sincere, genuine, heartfelt worship, both in spirit and in truth. We must examine how we might be missing the mark in our approach to worship. God sent His Son to die for us so that we might be forgiven for all of our many sins. He died so that we might once again be in communion with God. If that doesn’t motivate us to offer Him sincere worship in return, we are missing the mark. Christ died to end our nightmare of spiritual exile, to return us home to God, and we must approach worship with that in mind. How could we offer Him anything less than our most sincere worship? How could we not be moved by that? How could we not desire to be reminded when we miss the mark so that we can get back on target?

Approach worship with eagerness. Give God your most sincere worship, and let Him move in you.

Artwork: “Ezra Reads the Law,” Marc Chagall, 1960

Restore.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

“And, after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

Peter’s first epistle is often classified with the ‘general epistles,’ meaning that it contains information that is general, or broad, in scope. The epistles in this category focus on addressing many big-picture themes, such as faith, hope, works, love. They differ somewhat from Paul’s letters that often are directed to a single congregation or individual and often focus on thoroughly explaining a single topic in great detail. Both sets of epistles, the general and those by Paul, provide something of a ‘how-to’ manual for living the Christian life. It is in the epistles that we see the theology and doctrine of the gospels unpacked and explained and applied to everyday life.

While 1 Peter is general in scope, there was still a specific context in which it was written. This letter was addressed to the exiled believers living in Asia Minor. These Gentile followers of Christ were living in their homeland, but Peter addresses them as exiles. This theme is one that is repeated throughout 1 Peter; the Apostle wants his fellow believers to understand that this world is not their home. As followers of Christ, believers are living in this world in a spiritual exile. This “exile” is made real to the believers of Asia Minor in the form of persecution that they experienced because of their faith in Christ.

Throughout the letter, Peter discusses how these believers are to respond to this persecution. He implores them to continue being law-abiding citizens, to look out for one another, to love each other, and to seek to do good to those who are persecuting them. Again and again, Peter calls on the believers to not repay evil for evil, to endure their suffering as Christ endured His, and to remember that they have the hope of a better life to come in God’s kingdom.

Peter focuses on this hope at the close of the letter. In the final lines of the letter, he assures the believers that this suffering is only temporary, that it won’t last forever, that it will be over in a little while. He goes on to provide them with more hope and encouragement by reminding them that when this suffering is over, God Himself will comfort, restore, sure up, repair, and strengthen the believers. Peter’s letter to the persecuted believers of Asia Minor closes with the hope of God Himself comforting and repairing them after the struggle is over.

This hopeful message of restoration reverberates with the echoes of other Scripture. Numerous psalms come to mind. We think of the psalm penned by David in which he pours out his heart and soul upon the page, begging God to comfort him amid his trials. In Peter’s words, we hear echoes of Psalm 23:

He restores my strength.

He leads me down the right paths

for the sake of his reputation.

Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no danger,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff reassure me.

You prepare a feast before me

in plain sight of my enemies. (Psalm 23:3-5)

We hear whispers of Psalm 119, where the psalmist pleads with God for Him to restore the grief-stricken author as God promised to do. “My soul melts away for sorrow;

strengthen me according to your word!” (Psalm 119:28) The psalmist knew that God would nourish and restore him after his trials, and he pleaded for God to keep that promise.

Peter’s words mirror those of his contemporary, Paul, who wrote, “but the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen you and guard you against the evil one,” ( 2 Thessalonians 3:3). In each of these passages and countless others, the believer is continually reassured and reminded that after their suffering is complete, God will restore, repair, strengthen, and nourish them. Whether it be on this side of the grave or the other, God will shepherd the believer in green pastures, will lead them to still waters, and will restore their soul.

Trials and troubles are too many to count in this life. Without the hope we have from Christ, this world is bleak, and its burdens will grind us down. Christ, in His atoning death and defeating the grave through His resurrection, has given us new hope. This hope comes from the prospect of a renewed relationship with God. To those who have faith in Christ, the promise of God’s comfort and restoration never goes void. Place your faith in Christ and allow God’s promise of future restoration to give you strength for the trials ahead.

Artwork, Cover for the Bible, Verve No. 33-34 (Mourlot 117), Marc Chagall

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

An Apology for Hope.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

“…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” 1 Peter 3:15.

Peter’s first epistle is focused on encouraging believers to remain steadfast in their commitment to following Christ, despite the persecution they were enduring. Throughout the five chapters that comprise this letter, Peter reminds the believers that they do not belong to this world, that they are exiles and wanderers who are citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. As such, they must continue to seek to live as God called upon them to live. Peter repeatedly exhorts the believers to live differently from the world around them, and his letter is peppered with calls for the believers to be a holy people, a holy nation, living stones, living temples, and a holy priesthood. 

While calling upon the persecuted believers to be different from the world around them, Peter also gives practical applications of holy living to the believers for them to model in their lives. Peter provided insight and advice to Christian slaves, and also for Christian wives and husbands. Peter called upon all the believers to be good neighbors and respectful citizens. The believers were to demonstrate different characteristics than the world; they were to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1). The followers of Christ were to “have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Believers were also to be the “bigger people” in situations in which they were wronged,  just as Peter wrote, “do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing,” (1 Peter 3:9). It was of the utmost importance to Peter that the believers understood that they must be different; that they must live holy lives.

In chapter 3, Peter reveals the reason why believers must live differently. He reminds them that their very lives are living witnesses of God to the world. Due to this,  believers must always be ready to explain why–even in the midst of trials and persecutions–they have hope. Peter call on the believers to be ready to give an apologia (ἀπολογία), or an apology for their faith and their hope. This type of apology does not refer to showing remorse for doing wrong or asking for forgiveness; instead, this apology relates to a verbal argument defending or explaining one’s faith. Peter wanted these persecuted believers to understand that their holy lives would lead to people asking questions. These would be questions about how the believers could continue to be hopeful and serve Christ, even during their trials and persecutions. When these questions arose, the believers must be ready to explain precisely that–why they had hope and what that hope was rooted in.

If ever there was anything the world needs today, it is exactly what Peter here calls upon us as followers of Christ to do. We need people who are willing to be the bigger person. We need people who are not bent on returning evil for evil, people who bless others–even if those others are bent on harming or destroying them. We need people whose lives reflect the hope we have in Christ.

The world around us can be a frightening place; it often seems as though things here are getting worse and worse. Everything in the world around us is continually being questioned.  There are only wars and rumors of war; we are bombarded with news of heartache, and grief, and coming despair and destruction. It would seem as though there is no hope in the world.

But we, as believers, we have hope, and we know the source of our hope. While the world around us may be crying that the sky is falling and going into a panic–we carry on. We are not frightened by anything alarming; we have no fear and are not troubled.

Because of Christ, we have confidence in the future, not because the world will get better, but because–even if this world falls apart–we have a future with Him. This is why it is so vitally important that we live differently from the world. This is why we must lead lives that reflect our calm assurance of hope in Christ. For in this dark and seemingly hopeless world, we believers are the only sources of hope that the lost might see. We are the small, twinkling stars in a dark and moonless night; we are the nightlight put into this world by God to show others around us that things aren’t as dark and scary as they may seem. We were put here to reflect the hope that we have in Christ.

The fact that we are still here proves that there is still much work to be done. We do this, we reflect our hope in Christ, by doing just what Peter has encouraged us to do:

  • We do it by seeking always to do good to others.
  • We do it by modeling Godly marriages to the world.
  • We do it by being sympathetic and compassionate, and humble in all our relationships.
  • We do it by loving our fellow believers and helping them through their trials and ordeals.
  • We do it by demonstrating respect and gentleness in all our endeavors.
  • We do it by trusting in God and not being scared of what the future holds.
  • We reflect our hope in Christ by seeking to be like Him.

Through this–by living lives that are so radically different from all those around us–by reflecting our hope to them, we can draw them to that hope. When they ask us how we can possibly have hope, despite all the trials that are going on in our lives; 

  • How can we have hope now that our spouse has left us? 
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve received that terrible diagnosis from the doctor?
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve suddenly and tragically lost a loved one?
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve lost absolutely everything?

When asked these questions by the lost, we can look at them–at those souls who are so lost and disillusioned and desperately searching for something in which to hope–and we can tell them that our hope is not fixed upon anything in this world. We can say to them that our hope comes from the God who came to earth, who took our punishment and died for our sins, who then rose again out of the grave and ascended back into Heaven. We can tell them that our hope comes from the God who is alive today and sits upon His throne in Heaven; that our hope comes from the God who is above all the powers of this world. We can tell them that our hope is rooted in this God, who came and died and rose again and reigns on high today, and that He has promised that He will bring us to be with Him once again. We can tell them that, despite what happens to us, despite what goes on in the world around us, we have this promise from Him–we have hope.

The world is watching. Lead a life that reflects the hope you have in Christ. Let your life be a witness for Him and a living apology for all to see.

Artwork: “Blindfolded Hope Sitting on a Globe,”  George Frederic Watts, 1886.