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

Superior to the Angels

Christianity, Hebrews

“After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. So He became higher in rank than the angels, just as the name He inherited is superior to theirs.” Hebrews 1:3-4

The author of Hebrews spends the majority of chapter one explaining how Christ is superior to the angels. This may seem like an unusual argument for the author to have to make; we have no issues today understanding that Jesus is superior to all the beings in heaven. We know that Christ is the Creator and that the angels are part of His creation. As such, it is easy for us to see that Christ is superior.

The early Jewish believers, however, did not have the benefit of 2,000 years of Christian theology and thinking to aid them, as we do today. In fact, they were trying to make sense of thousands of years of their own religious tradition and teachings in light of the Gospel and God’s new revelation through Jesus. The early believers were the ones who were having to figure out Christian theology as they went along. The author of Hebrews wrote this letter, in part, to help the early believers do just that.

The claim that Jesus was superior to the angels was a necessary claim for the author to make. There had long been a belief within Judaism that the angels were the peak of God’s creation. It was believed that angels were superior to humanity because the angels resided in Heaven with God and served Him. Due to this close proximity to God, it was thought that the angels had to be better than humans; they would not be allowed so close to God if they were not. There was another reason for this lofty view of angels. Throughout the Bible, especially the Old Testament, there are numerous episodes in which God communicated messages to certain men and women, and these messages were communicated through angels. Time and time again, God would send an angel to tell people a message that God needed them to hear. This led, over time, people to think that angles must be important–for if they weren’t, then why would God use them to do such important work?

This is the mindset that the author of Hebrews was writing to correct. The author needed the Jewish believers in Christ to understand that Christ is God. Jesus is not less than God, He is not inferior to God, but that He is God. Jesus was the incarnation of God; He was God in the form of a man. The author also needed these believers to understand that when Christ became a man, He did not lose any of His divinity. Jesus was not 50% man, and 50% God. In taking on flesh, Christ did not put away His power and authority. As hard as it is for us to comprehend, Christ was both fully man and fully God. The author of Hebrews wanted the Hebrew Christians to understand this so that they could see that Jesus is the God that the angels serve and worship. Once they grasped that, they would realize that Christ is superior to the angels.

After explaining how Christ is superior to the angels, the author of Hebrews then gives a word of warning in chapter 2:1-4. The author warns the readers to pay closer attention to the words that Christ is speaking to us now than had bee paid to the previous messages from God. The message being spoken to us now is superior to the old messages, and because of that, the believers had to be all the more diligent in listening and obeying it. If the message was ignored, they would “drift away” from this important message of salvation and would float away into judgment.

Though the tradition of believing the angels were superior to Christ may seem silly to us today, it was a real issue that had to be addressed and corrected. The core issue was that the Hebrew believers were coming from a tradition that put an unnecessary focus on the angels. They were focusing on beings who were not meant to be focused upon. After all, the word “angel” comes from the Greek word angelos, which simply means “messenger,” and that is all that the angels are: they are God’s messengers. They are not beings that should be revered or worshipped. 

The mistake that the Hebrew believers were making was that they were paying more attention to the messengers than to the One who sent the messengers. This is an issue we still wrestle with today. While we might understand who Christ is, we often make the same mistake of focusing more on the messengers that are sent to us than on Christ. We have our preferred theological views and systems and approaches, and we tend to focus only upon making Scripture fit our understanding of what it should say. Often we prefer to listen to how other individuals interpret the Bible instead of allowing the Biblical texts to speak for themselves. 

This highlights the danger that the author of Hebrews hinted at.  We must pay close attention to what Christ says to us and not only listen to what people tell us He said. If we only listen to the interpretations of other people, we run the genuine risk of drifting away wherever the currents of bad teaching carry us. We must, instead, focus upon Christ and listen diligently and intently to what He says to us. We must pay close attention to Him and not allow other voices to distract us. We must listen to the message that is sent to us by Him, and not focus on the messengers who brought it to us.

Artwork: Detail of an Angel by Giotto, c. 1300

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/

Keep Calm and Carry On.

Christian Living, Christianity, Philippians, Religion, Worship

“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write to you again about this is no trouble for me and is a protection for you.” Philippians 3:1

“…but our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself.” Philippians 3:20-21

In the opening of Philippians 3, we see Paul again call upon the believers of Philippi to rejoice. Paul’s repetition is intentional, and he states this. He is not merely saying the same thing again and again out of laziness; in fact, he tells the Philippians that it was for their benefit, for their safety, that he repeats this call to rejoice. 

Following this call to rejoice in verse 1, Paul gives a stark warning to the Philippian believers. He calls on them to watch out for false teachers who are promoting a false gospel of works. These false teachers were telling believers that salvation was only obtained through circumcision and through keeping the Old Testament Law, not through belief in Christ’s sacrifice and God’s grace. Paul does not mince any words when he aims at these imposter teachers: he calls them “dogs” and “those who mutilate the flesh.” Both of these put-downs are intentional; Paul used them for a reason.  “Dogs” was a common slur used by the Israelites to refer to Gentiles; it was a way for the Israelites to look down upon those who were not like them. Likewise, the phrase “mutilators of the flesh” was used in the Old Testament to refer to the evil prophets of the false gods that the people of Israel so often pursued instead of God. By using these specific phrases, Paul is showing the Philippian believers that these false teachers are not of them. These false teachers are evil and that their teachings should be avoided.

Paul wants the Philippians to avoid these false teachers because their doctrines will rob the Philippian believers of the joy of their salvation. Instead of rejoicing in God’s grace and mercy, these false teachers would have the believers think that salvation could be earned. They taught that salvation was only obtainable if people kept the Law in a manner that was “good enough.” Paul quickly tells the Philippians in verses 4-6 that personal credentials and works mean nothing when it comes to salvation. He offers his resume as proof. Paul lists his credentials and tells us that he was born a Hebrew, from the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the Pharisees, and one who did all he could to persecute those who believed in Christ. Paul tells us that if salvation were based on works and keeping the Law, he would be blameless. He was the most Hebrew of all the Hebrews; he was a man who did everything right. But, as Paul points out, works are meaningless; he even goes on to say that all his works and credentials are as worthless as manure!  What was of real value and importance was knowing Christ and seeking after Him.

It was important for Paul to explain to refute this false teaching. He explained to the Philippians that their salvation was based entirely upon God’s grace and mercy. Christ’s death atoned for the sins of the world, and when a sinner professes faith in Christ, their sins are forgiven and removed from them. The sinner is then “justified,” meaning that, in God’s eyes, they are acquited of any wrongdoing. Christ’s righteousness is then imputed, or given, to the believer, and this enables the believer to pursue a lifestyle of godly living. 

This pursuit of living for God, of living a Christian lifestyle, is called “sanctification,” and Paul refers to it as being “mature” or “perfected.” As a believer grows in faith and grows closer to Christ, they become more capable of living according to His commands. Paul told the Philippians that sanctification was his goal and desire. He hadn’t achieved it yet, but he was striving continually toward it. He said to the believers that the first step in sanctification was “forgetting that which is behind” (verse 13), meaning forgetting and letting go of the past. It does the believer no good to dwell on past sins and failures, for dwelling on the past prohibits the believers from moving forward in their pursuit of Christ. As simple as this advice may be, it is often the hardest part of our Christian journey. Instead of dwelling on the past, the Christian must continually reach for Christ and rely upon Him to enable them to live as He demands.

Chapter 3 concludes with Paul reminding the Philippian believers not to succumb to the false teachings of the false teachers. Instead, the believers are to remember that their citizenship is not of this world, but is of Heaven. As such, they should not look to themselves or to people from the world to save them; they should look to a savior from Heaven to deliver them from the trials of this world. That savior is Christ, and Paul reminds the Philippians that Christ is coming once again. When He comes again, Christ will use His power to transform the believers. He will transform their fallen, sick, and sinful bodies into glorious bodies like that of His own. With this assurance, and with their salvation and the hope of eternal life secure, how could the Philippians–or any believers–not rejoice?

Paul’s advice to the Philippians in chapter 3 can be summarized as “keep calm and carry on.” He encouraged the Philippian believers to not be distracted by false teachers, but to remain resolute in their pursuit of Christ and sanctification. This advice applies to us today. Not only do we have to beware of false teachings, but we also have to contend with any number of distractions and fears that might prevent us from continuing in our pursuit of Christ. It is so easy, at times, to become overwhelmed at what is going on in the world and to lose sight of that our goal of sanctification. In those difficult times, we must remain resolute; we must keep calm and carry on. We must remember that our citizenship is in Heaven and that we serve the risen Savior who reigns over Heaven and earth. We must remember that Christ has defeated death, that He bore our sins and shame to Calvary, and that we carry them no more. We must remember that Christ has given us the hope of life eternal with Him, and because of this, there is nothing to fear in death. Even in the darkest times, we have reason to rejoice and be glad. We can face any trial, any tribulation, any situation, any circumstance with hope and with confidence. Regardless of what we are faced with, we can keep calm and carry on.

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

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