The Cost of Unbelief.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Stretching.

1 Peter, Christian Living, Christianity, Love, Religion

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

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

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

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

that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity;

then your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams.

I will even pour out My Spirit

upon My male and female slaves in those days,

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

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

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

“Love is patient, love is kind.

Love does not envy,

is not boastful, is not conceited,

 does not act improperly,

is not selfish, is not provoked,

and does not keep a record of wrongs.

 Love finds no joy in unrighteousness

but rejoices in the truth.

 It bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, endures all things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.