Work Hard for the Rest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eager to Hear.

Christianity, Nehemiah, Religion, Worship

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

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

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

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

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

We see the people are eager to worship

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

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

We see the people are reverent in worship.

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

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

We see the people were moved by their worship.

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

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

We see the people are confronted by their worship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restore.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

He restores my strength.

He leads me down the right paths

for the sake of his reputation.

Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no danger,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff reassure me.

You prepare a feast before me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Stretching.

1 Peter, Christian Living, Christianity, Love, Religion

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

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

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

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

that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity;

then your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams.

I will even pour out My Spirit

upon My male and female slaves in those days,

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

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

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

“Love is patient, love is kind.

Love does not envy,

is not boastful, is not conceited,

 does not act improperly,

is not selfish, is not provoked,

and does not keep a record of wrongs.

 Love finds no joy in unrighteousness

but rejoices in the truth.

 It bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, endures all things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Apology for Hope.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Milk.

Christianity, Religion

“You have purified your souls by obeying the truth in order to show sincere mutual love. So love one another earnestly from a pure heart. You have been born anew, not from perishable but from imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God…So get rid of all evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation,” -1 Peter 1:22-23, 2:1-2 New English Translation (NET)

Peter pulls no punches in his letter to the dispersed believers in Asia Minor. Though they were experiencing persecution due to their faith in Christ, Peter encouraged these believers to remain focused on living differently from the world. He urged them to continue living as Christ had called them to live. Throughout this letter, Peter reminds the believers of what Christ suffered in order to bring salvation to them, and as such, they should be ready to suffer for Him when called to do so.

The believers are reminded by Peter that this call to holy living is a required demonstration of their faith. The followers of Christ are commanded to love one another and to show this love, for they have been born anew and given new, pure hearts. This calls to mind the prophetic promises of the Old Testament in which God promised to replace His people’s hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. The giving of a new heart is itself a sign of the Christian’s rebirth; Peter reminds these believers that this rebirth is not from any ordinary seed. This new birth is from the imperishable seed of God’s eternal and enduring word.

A few verses later, Peter gives very straightforward advice about how the believer is to demonstrate both their new heart and holy living. Peter implores the believers to get rid of all “evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.” There is to be no room in the believer’s new, pure heart for these worldly traits, regardless of who the recipients of these feelings may be. The believer is not to harbor such feelings for non-believers, and especially not for fellow believers.

The believers are to instead “yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk,” which will aid in their growth as followers of Christ. This call to pursue “spiritual milk” is interesting on a few levels. First, the word that is translated in English as “spiritual” is the Greek work logikos (λογικός), as in “logical.” This word, logikos, is related to a significant Greek word, the word logos (λόγος). Logos is the Greek word for “word.” Despite its seemingly ordinary translation, logos is one of the most important words of the New Testament.  

So, how does this relate to Peter’s call to pursue spiritual milk? Peter made reference to the word (logos) of God in 1:23 when he reminded the believers of their new birth of the imperishable seed of the enduring word of God. He then used a similar and related word, logikos, and uses a little bit of word-play to encourage the believers to yearn for the word of God. It is almost as if he is saying, “yearn for the word of God milk.” This idea fits into the context of the statement: just as a newborn child yearns for milk to grow, the newborn believer is to yearn for the word of God so that they may grow in their faith.

There is, however, a more profound message here. We must remember that the word logos is one of the most important words of the New Testament. Logos is used as a code word for Christ, and it is often used to refer to Christ being the means through which God communicated to humanity. In the same way that humans use words to communicate with each other, God used Jesus to communicate with humanity and to tell the world how it could have a renewed relationship with the Father. Jesus is the literal word of God, and this is best illustrated in the opening verses of John’s gospel account. In John 1:1-4, we read the following, and we know that John is referring to Christ everywhere we used the word “Word”: 

 In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word (logos) was with God, and the Word (logos) was God. He (the logos) was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him (the logos), and without him (the logos) was not any thing made that was made. In him (the logos) was life, and the life was the light of men.

With this in mind, let’s look again at Peter’s call to pursue logikos milk. Considering the connection to logos and Jesus, we see that when Peter is telling us to hunger for and be nourished by the word of God, he doesn’t only mean the written word–the Scriptures. He also means for us to hunger and yearn for the real logos itself– to hunger and yearn for Christ. It is then, when we yearn for Christ, and seek to be nourished by Him, and by the Scriptures, we can put away all the fleshly desires and habits of this world. When these desires and habits are put away, we can live just as He called us to live– as His holy people.

Hunger and thirst for Christ; seek the nourishment and growth that only He can give. Pursue Christ above all else, and let Him work in you to remove all the evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander that infests each of us. Let Him give strength to your new, pure heart. Then use that new heart to exhibit His love to all you encounter.

Artwork: “Milk Bottles,” by Ollie Tuck, https://www.saatchiart.com/print/Painting-Milk-Bottles/1088026/4264596/view

Roll Your Sleeves Up.

Christianity, Religion

“Therefore, with your minds ready for action, be serious and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:13

In the days surrounding the New Year, it has become customary to look back over the year that is closing and to review its highs and lows. At the end of a  year, we take stock of that year, and we look forward with hope to a better year to come. With this hopeful anticipation comes another New Year’s custom–that of making resolutions. These resolutions are frequently related to self-improvement–eating healthier, losing weight, reading more–so as to improve the “success” of the upcoming year.

The trouble with New Year’s resolutions is that after the celebratory fervor of the New Year wears off, so too does the commitment to one’s resolutions. Frequently, as January closes out, we often find ourselves sliding into old habits–cheating on those diets, sleeping in when we should exercise, choosing to watch another episode of a show instead of reading that book that’s been living on the nightstand.

Sadly, we often experience such variations and fluctuations of commitment and apathy in our lives as followers of Christ. We may have had an emotional experience that resulted in our making a commitment to Christ, but as time goes on, that initial enthusiasm fades away. If time does not cause our faith to lose its luster, the advent of trials and hardship certainly can. Many people have bought into the lie that believing in Jesus will give them health, wealth, and success. The Bible says nothing to this effect; in fact, it says the opposite. In John 15, just before Jesus was betrayed and arrested, He says, “if the world hates you, you know it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, the world hates you. Remember the word I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than its master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:18-20). Following Christ does not mean one will be free from experiencing heartache, grief, and suffering. Following Christ means being buffeted on all sides by the world and by the powers of the world.

Peter understood this firsthand. He endured prison and beatings because of his commitment to Christ. He wrote a letter of encouragement to believers in Asia Minor who were also suffering through trials and persecutions that befell them due to their faith. This letter, 1 Peter, was written roughly 2-3 years before Peter’s own death during the persecutions in Rome under Emperor Nero. In this letter of encouragement, Peter exhorts the Christians to remember that this world is not their home; that they are citizens of a land that is to come. He reminds them that these sufferings are only for a little while, but that God’s promise of salvation to them is eternal.

Peter also gives the suffering Christians a bit of advice: He tells them to be “ready for action and serious-minded.” Peter’s words in Greek literally translated are “gird up again your loins.” This phrase refers to the practice at this time of taking one’s robe and tucking it into a belt, so one could do work unencumbered by the robe. To use the language of our day, Peter told the believers to roll their sleeves up and stay focused on Christ. Peter encouraged these believers to continue in their faith, to stay focused on Christ, and to continue living as He called them to live, despite what it might cost the believers. If they lived, glory to God. If they died, glory to God– for their faith would become sight.

Millions of Christians today live in places where their faith costs them significantly. We must continually lift up these brothers and sisters in prayer, and those of us who are fortunate to live in places where we can freely practice our faith must ask ourselves if we take our faith as seriously as those who are dying because of their faith in Christ.

For those of us who are not persecuted: we must also heed Peter’s exhortation. We cannot let our faith be so weak that we allow setbacks, hardships, heartaches–no matter how minor or severe–diminish our faith. When times are good, we must be serious-minded and set our faith in Christ. When times are bad, we must roll up our sleeves and continue being serious-minded and focused upon Christ.

Resolve this year to being an obedient follower of Christ. Commit each and every day to serve Him and seeking to do His will. No other resolution is of any importance or relevance if you are not first focusing daily upon Christ. So roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Artwork: “Blacksmith’s Boy – Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop),” Norman Rockwell, c. 1940.

The Lion King of Kings.

Christianity, Religion


“Then Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Gather around, and I will tell you what will happen to you in the days to come.

Come together and listen, sons of Jacob;

listen to your father Israel…’” Genesis 49:1-2.

“Judah is a young lion—

my son, you return from the kill.

He crouches; he lies down like a lion

or a lioness—who dares to rouse him?

The scepter will not depart from Judah

or the staff from between his feet

until He to whom they belong comes

and the obedience of the peoples belongs to Him.” Genesis 49:9-10.

We find a gripping scene presented in Genesis 49; it is one which is moving in both its emotion and in its scope and importance to the rest of Scripture. We find the last patriarch, Jacob–who had been renamed Israel by this point in his life–on his deathbed. He was living in Egypt, with his twelve sons, including his long-lost son, Joseph. Israel had come quite a long way, both in geography and also in his spiritual life. It had been many years since he tricked his brother Esau into giving him his birthright, and then stole Esau’s blessing as the firstborn. Many years had passed since Jacob wrestled all night with the Angel of the Lord and had his name changed to Israel. Now he was an old man, full of years, preparing to return to the land and be with his fathers.

The story of Jacob/Israel allows us to see God’s promise to Abraham take a significant step forward. Jacob was Abraham’s grandson; the once childless patriarch, Abraham, left his home and family and followed after God when He called him to do so. Abraham believed in the promise God made to him– that God would make him the father of many–and that from Abraham all the nations would be blessed. By the time we find Israel in Egypt on his deathbed, that family had already begun to blossom.

On one note, the scene found in Genesis is touching. We see here a dying father calling to his beside his sons so that he might give them his last bits of wisdom and advice; it was the time for Jacob/Israel to leave his last will and testament. Undoubtedly, this was a bittersweet moment, one filled with immense emotion. This family, members of which had long been separated from one another, had finally been reunited. Now, the family would once again be divided, this time by death and the grave. 

As Jacob/Israel speaks to his sons, we see something interesting in his words. He begins to offer up a blessing upon each of them, something that was customary for an ailing father to do before his death. But, in the pronouncement of the blessings, Jacob/Israel says that he will tell his sons about what will “happen to them in days to come.” The phrase “days to come,” is significant–the Hebrew word from which it is translated is “achariyth” (אַחֲרִית). This word can also be translated as “the end of days,” meaning at the end of time. It is also interesting to point out that “achariyth” is the corresponding opposite word to the phrase that is found at the very outset of Genesis; there we find the word “re’shiyth” (בְּרֵאשִׁית), which means “the beginning.” In the very first book of Scripture, we see the account of how the world began, we find at the close of that same book a prophecy about what will occur at the end of time.

The fact that Jacob/Israel is referring to things that will occur at the end of time is a clue that the events detailed in his blessing upon his sons will come into fruition long after all of them have died. From this, we can intuit that this is not merely a blessing that Jacob/Israel is giving to his sons; instead, it is a prophecy from God about events of the end of days.

Jacob’s prophetic blessing to his fourth son, Judah, is the most significant of the blessings. Judah would become the head of the family, a right that his older three brothers had forfeited through various actions. Judah, who is loyal and brave and valourous, like a lion, is told that his descendants would be revered, and they would be kings over their kinsmen. The line of Judah would rule over the children of Israel until the end of days, at which time, a special ruler from Judah would appear. This prophetic figure would be a king above other kings, for the scepter and staff that the kings of Judah hold rightly belong to this future promised Lion King of Kings. To this promised future king of kings belonged the obedience of all the nations. This promised coming Lion King of Kings would rule over not only Israel but all the peoples of the world.

The arrival of this promised king would be marked by agricultural abundance and bounty that had never before been seen. Grapevines would grow so thick that the Lion King of Kings would be able to use their branches as a hitching post for his donkey steed. There would be so many grapes and wine that he would use them to wash his garments. This agricultural bounty is supposed to call to mind images of Eden, where the land yielded its produce freely and without toil. 

This connection to Eden helps us to see that the arrival of the Lion King of Kings signals a breaking of the curse upon the land that was handed down as a result of the Fall in the Garden. If the Lion King of Kings is able to break the curse upon the land, then he must also be the one who crushes and defeats the Serpent. If the Lion King of Kings is the one who overcomes the Serpent, then he is also the one who brings blessing to all the world, as God promised Abraham.

In Jacob/Israel’s prophetic blessing upon Judah, we see the promises made to Eve and to Abraham narrowed just a bit more. God told Eve her promised avenger, the Snake Crusher, would be from her seed–that he would be human. Abraham was promised that his offspring would bless the world, and here Judah is told it is his line that would bring this blessing. God’s plan to save and redeem humanity took another step forward, and all would be waiting for the Lion King to come and free them from the curses.

Many years later, that very distant descendant of Judah would be born in a small town called Bethlehem. He would be from the line of a great king, and the heavens would burst open to proclaim his birth. He would grow up into a man who taught others how to live as God desires. But most importantly, that man–Jesus Christ–would willingly give His life to atone for the sins of the world, to redeem humanity, and to bring blessing to the nations. Jesus Christ is the Lion King of Kings. He rose again from the grave, and He is coming once more to bring those who trust in Him into His messianic kingdom.

Bend your knees before the Lion King of King. Submit to Him and be washed in His blood.

Artwork: “Lion of Judah,” Janet Latham–Fesmire Art Studios, 2015. (http://janetfes.blogspot.com/)

Blessing.

Christianity, Religion

“The Lord said to Abram:

‘Go out from your land,

your relatives,

and your father’s house

to the land that I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation,

I will bless you,

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,

I will curse those who treat you with contempt,

and all the peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.’” Genesis 12:1-3

The calling of Abram (later to be Abraham) is one of the most critical chapters in the Bible. In this scene, we read of God choosing Abraham to be the father of His chosen people, and Abram is told that these people will be a great nation. Abram is seventy-five at this point, and he and his wife, Sarai, are childless. Despite this crucial fact, Abram does not question God. Abram demonstrates faith.

God commanded Abram to leave his family and his land and everything that he knew and to go to the land that God would show him. Abram’s role in God’s plan, aside from being the father of a great nation, was to go into exile. This makes us recall Genesis 3, where God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden, both as a punishment for their sin, but also to protect them from the Tree of Life and God’s holy presence. Here in Genesis 12, we see Abram being commanded to go into exile to help bring about God’s redemptive plan to bring humanity back to Him. In leaving his land and people, Abram would walk with God as did Enoch and Noah, and he would suffer exile to help bring humanity back to God.

Perhaps the most crucial part of God’s promise to Abram was that all the people or nations of the earth would be blessed through him. Again, we think back to Genesis 3 to the Fall in the Garden, and how humanity was cursed toil with the land to eke out an existence, and also cursed with pain in bearing children. God’s promise of blessing to the nations isn’t a blessing of wealth or might, it is a promise of relief–that the curses of the Fall would be broken; that no longer would there be toil or grief or separation from God. The blessing that would come from Abram would be a reversal of the curses. For the curses to be broken, the important prophecy of Genesis 3:15 would have to be fulfilled–the Promised One from the seed of the Woman would have to crush the head of the Serpent. What God has promised to Abram is that one of his innumerable descendants would be that Promised One who defeats the Serpent and makes all things right again.

Abram would not see this fulfilled in his lifetime, but he still followed God.

So often, we get sidetracked and worried about details and things in our lives that are beyond the scope of our control. We worry, and we stress, and we don’t heed God’s call to follow Him because we can’t see how the pieces of His plan all fit together. We think–as the Serpent tricked Eve into thinking–that we can handle managing our lives ourselves, without God’s help. More often than not, when we try to take control of our lives, we only make the situation worse. It is only through submitting to God and His plan, and in doing what He calls upon us to do, that we can have any semblance of peace in this life.

We have to trust that if God has called us to do something that He has ordained to do, then there is nothing that can thwart or foil His plan; His will shall be accomplished. Likewise, we should have no fear of following His will. We know that the Promised One–Jesus Christ– has come, and the Serpent has been defeated. No longer are we banished from God’s presence; instead His Spirit lives within us. What then is there to fear in this world? Death and the grave are defeated, our slavery to sin broken, and our God is alive and lives within us. We have no reason not to have faith in Him and to follow wherever He calls us. Our blessing has come, but there is still work to be done and calls to be obeyed.

Artwork: “Abraham Leaves Haran,” Francisco Bassano the Younger, c.1560-1592.