Milk and Maturity.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

” We have a great deal to say about this, and it’s difficult to explain, since you have become too lazy to understand.  Although by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the basic principles of God’s revelation again. You need milk, not solid food.  Now everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced with the message about righteousness, because he is an infant.  But solid food is for the mature—for those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil. Therefore, leaving the elementary message about the Messiah, let us go on to maturity…” Hebrews 5:11-6:1.

In chapters 5 and 6, the author of Hebrews takes a brief pause from discussing the topic of Jesus being our high priest. This break comes because the author is worried about the people receiving this letter. The author feels that the people have stopped growing spiritually and that they are not ready to hear this vital lesson. 

The author believes that it is in the best interest of the people to make them aware of their spiritual apathy and to encourage them to seek growth. The people are told to stop being content with spiritual “milk” because such things are for “infants” or new believers. Instead, these believers have been following Christ long enough that they should have progressed on to “meat,” or to more profound and more meaningful spiritual lessons. The author goes as far as to let the Hebrew believers know that many of them should have become teachers by now, but they haven’t because they’ve chosen to stop growing. These believers have refused to graduate from the spiritual nursery instead of growing deeper spiritually and helping to train the next generation of Christ-followers.

This is a trend that the author of Hebrews desperately wishes to correct. The author does so by giving a clear call to grow up. The author tells the believers to “leave the elementary things,” or the basic things, behind and to move on to maturity. The Greek word for “move on” is phero, and this word means “to be carried, as by a boat.” Phero is where we get the English word “ferry” from, and this conveys an important point to us. We do not press on to maturity under our own strength or power. Instead, we are ferried to maturity by Christ and the Holy Spirit. 

We cannot make ourselves grow; only Christ can. The only thing we can do is to get in the boat with Him and allow Him to steer us toward maturity. Once we get in the boat, He will enable us to grow, and then we will be ready to do the work before us. When we begin growing toward maturity, and when we start seeking meat instead of milk, we can start teaching others how they might do so. But we can do none of this if we do not first leave the nursery and get in the boat.

Artwork: “Glass of Milk,” by Verrier.

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.

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

How Long?

Christianity, Psalms

How long, Lord, will you continue to ignore me?
How long will you pay no attention to me?
How long must I worry,
and suffer in broad daylight?
How long will my enemy gloat over me?
 Look at me! Answer me, O Lord my God!
Revive me, or else I will die.
 Then my enemy will say, “I have defeated him.”
Then my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
 But I trust in your faithfulness.
May I rejoice because of your deliverance.
 I will sing praises to the Lord
when he vindicates me. —Psalm 13

Our time here on earth is often difficult and filled with pain. There are times that it seems as though hope itself is lost, and we look to the heavens and wonder where God is and why He’s not doing anything. There are times when our sorrow, our frustration, our fear, our suffering, our anguish, and our sadness overwhelm us. These things close in upon us and begin to suffocate us. Often in these moments, our only response–the only thing we can do–is to cry out to the Lord before our voices are forever stifled. We cry out because it is the only thing left to do; we cry out because we are powerless.  We cry out because we are in desperate need of help. We cry out and plead for God to hear us and to take action because, without His intervention, all is truly lost.

We see such a moment in Psalm 13. As we read through this heart-wrenching lament, we see that the author, believed to be David,  is in a moment of crisis. He is in the depths of suffering; he is being hunted by those who wish to kill him.  David surrounded by enemies, and his closest friends have deserted him. He has been abandoned by man, and seemingly, by God as well.  In this situation, David can do nothing but cry out.

In his pain and fear, David cries out to God and asks where He is, and for how long will God forget him. The situation before David made it appear as though God was no longer watching over him, as though God had forgotten about his servant. David rightly understands that he can do nothing about this situation.  He knows that he is powerless and that his enemies will destroy him if God does not take action. And so, David cries out to God; he pleads for God to look at him–to see his sorrow, to see his suffering, to see his loss, to see the danger that surrounded him–and for God to do something. In his desperation, David does the only thing he can do; he cries out and says, “Look at me! Answer me, O Lord, my God. Do something, or I will die.”

Even in his sorrow, pain, and desperation, even while he is questioning if God has forgotten about him, David understood that God was his only hope. Though his enemies were boasting and rejoicing about his defeat, David knew that God was faithful and that God would deliver him one way or another.  Though things were bleak, God was still faithful.  Though the situation was desperate, God was still faithful. Though David was terrified and on the verge of death, God was still mighty to save, and He was still faithful. Though David was overcome, God would not be. As desperate as David seemed, in the depths of his heart, he knew that God had not forgotten him. He knew that God was faithful to keep His promises. David might suffer, but God would not forsake him or break His promises to him.

There is much pain and sorrow and anguish today. There is injustice and suffering in broad daylight. All around, there are people in desperation, asking where God is, asking how long He will continue to be silent to the sin, sorrow, and injustice that is rampant. Some might mock and say there is no God; they point to the abundance of evil around us and say that a good God would not allow such things to occur.  For the faithful, it seems as though the gloating forces of evil have surrounded them. For many, it seems as though all hope is lost. For many, it seems like God may have truly forgotten and forsaken them. For many, the only thing they can do is cry out in their pain and anguish and pray for God to hear them.

For you who are in this situation today, for those of you who are overcome with anger, grief, pain, sorrow, despair– cry out to God. Cry out to Him and know He hears you. Know that He has not forgotten you; He has not forsaken you. Cry out to Him and know He sees the situation before you. Cry out to Him and know He sees the oppression. Know He sees the injustice. Know He sees your sorrow and your pain. Know that He feels your hurt. Cry out to Him and know that you are not alone. Cry out to Him and know that many others are crying out alongside you.

 Though you are suffering today, know that He is faithful and that He will keep His promises. Long ago, He swore that He would have His vengeance upon the sin, oppression, and injustice of this world, and He will keep His word. He sent us His son to give us hope, and to declare war on the forces of evil and this world. He will keep His word. His day will come.

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.  

Do not lose hope. Do not give up. Remember that the Lord will keep His promises. His day will come, and on that beautiful day when the glory of the Lord finally comes–when He destroys evil once and for all–we will stand together, as brothers and sisters, and we will cry out to Him together “glory, glory, Hallelujah! Glory, glory, Hallelujah!”

Artwork: “Boy Singing,” Worship Art.

Turn Your Eyes to Jesus.

Christian Living, Christianity, Hebrews

In Hebrews 3, the author of Hebrews begins explaining Jesus’ superiority to Moses. This was no small undertaking, and this point was one that had to be explained. The purpose of the Book of Hebrews was to explain how Christ was superior to the Old Testament figures and traditions, and there was no way to argue this point without dealing with the issue of Jesus’ superiority to Moses. 

For us today, this appears to be an easy argument to make. We have grown up steeped in the Christian tradition, we know that Jesus is the Son of God and that He is God Incarnate. It is evident to us that Jesus is superior to Moses. However, those who had grown up steeped in the Hebrew faith had been taught to revere Moses. He was the most important figure in the Scriptures, second only to God. Moses was the great redeemer and lawgiver. He led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. He was the mediator, the middleman, between God and Israel. It was Moses who pleaded Israel’s case for forgiveness every time they sinned and faced God’s punishment. For the Hebrew people, Moses was the template, the model, for the Messiah. Moses was also the standard by which all other Hebrew prophets and leaders would be measured.

The author of Hebrews begins this argument in verse 1 by telling the readers to “consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession.” Here the author used the Greek word katanoeo, which means “to look upon” or “to focus upon.” After we are led to salvation by Christ and brought into the family of God, our focus and attention must be upon Christ. We must look to Him for our guidance and hope. We must do this because He is both our apostle and high priest. The word “apostle” means “one who is sent forth;” we might today use the word representative or diplomat. Christ is an apostle because He was sent here by God to be God’s representative on Earth. Christ was God’s diplomat to humanity. 

Christ was made an apostle to humanity so that He might be our high priest. He would be the one who would go into God’s presence and make atonement on our behalf. He would be our mediator, the one who pleaded our case, to God. In doing this, Christ would free us from slavery to sin and death.

  When we understand what Christ did for humanity, we see how He is superior to Moses. While Moses redeemed Israel, Jesus redeemed humanity. Moses taught Israel how to be God’s people, Christ taught the world how to be the people of God. God spoke to Moses as a friend, but God spoke to Jesus as a son. All the work that Moses did for Israel pointed forward to the more incredible work that Jesus would do for all the world.

The work that Christ did as the apostle and high priest of our confession brought us into the house–the family–of God. Christ gives us hope and confidence that we can rejoice in and take pride in. Through Jesus, we have the assurance of salvation and the forgiveness of our sins. But, as the author tells us, we must hold hast, hold tightly, to this hope and confidence. We cannot be tempted, as some of the Hebrew believers were, to go back into the old ways and traditions. Instead, we must cling to Christ, we must focus on Him alone, and hold to the hope that He gives us.

Christ is worthy of our trust and our hope. He alone can save us. Why then are we so slow to put all our hope and trust and confidence in Him? Why do we seek to put our hope and confidence in other people or institutions? The Hebrews made the mistake of believing their traditions and heritage and nationality could save them. Often, we too make this mistake. We put our hope and confidence in our families, in our traditions, in our heritage, in our nationality. These things, however, are insignificant. These things cannot save us. They do not make us the people of God. Only faith in Christ can save us. Only His blood can make us God’s people. So why are we not trusting Him?

Turn your eyes to Jesus. He alone can save you. Focus upon Christ, place the entirety of your hope and confidence in Him alone, and watch the things of this world grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.

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.

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

I Will Trust You.

Christianity, Psalms

“My heart is in anguish within me;

    the terrors of death have fallen upon me. 

Fear and trembling come upon me,

    and horror overwhelms me.

And I say, ‘Oh, that I had wings like a dove!

    I would fly away and be at rest;

yes, I would wander far away;

    I would lodge in the wilderness;

I would hurry to find a shelter

    from the raging wind and tempest.’

…But I will trust in you.”  Psalm 55:4-8, 23.

Psalm 55 represents one of David’s most heart-wrenching poems. Though there is no way to date when David penned this particular psalm, it was written in response to a terrible betrayal by someone close to him. The psalm reflects the emotions–grief, anger, pain– that David experienced as a result of this treacherous betrayal. There is no shortage of theories regarding the betrayal David is referring to in this psalm; some believe it was written during the time David was fleeing from Saul.  Others think it was written about the rebellion of David’s son, Absolam. There are even many who believe it was written about the horrific rape of David’s daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother, Amnon. Whatever the situation was, David was deeply impacted and found no solace apart from God.

Throughout the text of Psalm 55, David bounces from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. He begins his prayer to God with an earnest petition for God to hear his pleas for help and deliverance. David goes on to ask for God to smite his enemies for their treachery and their sin. The fact that a friend committed this wrong–someone whom David trusted–is particularly difficult for him to reconcile, and it made the wounds of this betrayal all the more painful to bear.

The honesty with which David expresses himself makes this psalm all the more understandable and relatable. The pain that engulfed him, the anguish that overwhelmed him, caused him to experience one of the most human reactions to difficulty: the desire to run away. David longed to be able to remove himself from the sorrow and heartache of this betrayal. He wished that he could be a bird and fly far away to the isolation of the wilderness and forget all the grief he had experienced. He was amid a stormy trial longing for an escape, for a shelter where he could hide, for a safe place to which he could flee.

David, however, could not run away from this problem. Though he wanted to, and though it would have hurt less, he could not flee. He had to endure.

David comes to this realization at the end of Psalm 55. He remembers that God will not only repay the wicked for their injustice but that He will also sustain David through this trial. God is equally committed to preserving the righteous through their ordeals as He is to measuring out His judgment upon the wicked. The assurance of God’s control of the world–including the fates of both the wicked and the righteous–gave David hope. It also reminded him of a fundamental truth: that God’s sovereignty makes Him trustworthy. 

Regardless of the situation, God is still all-powerful and in control and, because of this, He can be trusted. He can be trusted to sustain us, He can be trusted to deliver us, He can be trusted never to abandon us. He alone is worthy of this trust. Friends, family, loved ones may hurt us, may break our trust, may–as in David’s case–betray us. But God never will. In those times, when we are overwhelmed to the point of wanting to run away, we must turn to Him. When we are looking for any way to flee our pain and heartache, we must remember that He can be trusted to sustain us and to see us through the trial. He will be there for us because He knows the pain of betrayal firsthand. God felt the wounds of betrayal in the Garden of Eden when humanity disobeyed Him and chose to pursue the knowledge of good and evil instead of pursuing a life with Him. God felt the pain of betrayal in the Promised Land when Israel scorned Him time and time again with their spiritual adultery with false gods. God felt the agony of betrayal again in another garden when Judas Iscariot approached Him with armed men and kissed Him on His incarnate cheek. Yes, God knows betrayal firsthand, and because of that, He can be trusted not to betray us.

There are situations in life that make us wish that we could run away. These situations are painful, often to the point of being more than we can bear. As in David’s case, these situations may be caused by people we trusted, which adds a deeper layer of hurt for us to wrestle with. There is One, however, that we can always trust; there is One who will never betray us, even though we are guilty of having betrayed Him. God is worthy of our trust, and while the world may turn its back on us, we can trust Him to sustain us and never forsake us.

Do not be overwhelmed by your circumstances. Do not grow weary and bitter because of your wounds. Trust in God, for He is in control. Trust in God, for He will see you through.

Artwork: “Colorful King David” Marc Chagall, 1956.

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