Blueprint of a Better Covenant.

Bible, Christianity, Hebrews

“Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” Hebrews‬ ‭8:1-2‬ ‭

In Hebrews 8, we see the author’s focus shift toward discussing the new covenant that Christ enacted for us. The author tells us that Christ is qualified to be the high priest of this new covenant because He serves in the true tabernacle in heaven, and not in the earthly tabernacle which is only a “sketch and a shadow” of its heavenly counterpart. The earthly tabernacle serves only to give us a glimpse of what we will see when we are in God’s presence in heaven.

In this same fashion, God’s old covenant with Israel is but a sketch, or a blueprint, of the covenant that He would make with us through Christ. To support this position, the author quotes Jeremiah 31, a passage in which God explains the new covenant’s coming. But before we can understand the new covenant, we must first understand the old covenant that preceded it.

After God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, He led them to Mt. Sinai. At Sinai, God gave Israel the Law, and He told them that He had called them to be His people and that He would be their God. Israel would show their commitment to keeping the covenant by keeping God’s commandments. But this proved to be a problem, for Israel could never live up to these terms. They were never able to live according to God’s standard. As soon as they settled in the Promised Land, there arose a generation who did not know the Lord. From there, the situation only became worse. With each generation, Israel strayed further and further from the Lord. By the prophet Jeremiah’s time, God had decided it was time to make a new covenant.

In Jeremiah 31, the passage that the author of Hebrews quotes from, God tells Jeremiah that this new covenant would not be like the previous one, it would be better. God ensured that the new covenant would be better by vowing to fix the old covenant’s major flaw—us. Israel could never keep the law and keep the covenant because of their fallen nature. They were sinful beings, just the same as we are today. They couldn’t keep the law because their sinful nature made them incapable of doing so.

But God would do something different in the new covenant; He would change us. To ensure the success of the new covenant, God would change our human nature. He would give us new hearts upon which He has written His law. He would fill us with His spirit, and He would make us capable of living up to His standard and being His people. When God brings us to Himself through Christ, He makes us new creatures who seek only Him.

Living as the people of God requires us to be incredibly honest about what is in our hearts. We cannot be God’s people if we are still holding on to things from our old lives and from our old, sinful hearts. We must thoroughly examine our hearts, and if we see that we are holding on to sin, we must humbly go before God and ask for His forgiveness. We must pray that He remove that sin from us, and we must ask that He give us the strength we need to live as He calls us to live.

Guaranteed To Be Better.

Bible, Christianity, Hebrews

“So Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant.”  Hebrews 7:22.

There are so very few guarantees in life. In this world, things break, become obsolete, or fail to live up to our expectations. Because of this, we often demand quality guarantees, money-back guarantees, repairs guaranteed, or even satisfaction guarantees. We recognize just how temporary things are in this life, and we are constantly looking for reassurance and peace of mind that things will be repaired or corrected when everything in our lives begin to fall apart. Try as we might, we cannot find in this world anything that will give us the hope and comfort that we are searching for. We can find nothing that comes close to the sort of guarantee we so desperately crave.

Or can we?

At the end of Hebrews 7, the author reveals to us that there is a guarantee that will give us hope, comfort, confidence, and peace of mind. It is the salvation guarantee that God gives us through Jesus. 

The author has been building to this point throughout Hebrews, and especially in chapter seven. We have seen how Christ is superior to the priests of Levi and Aaron. We have seen how the Law and the priesthood were designed to make us understand how dependent we are upon God’s mercy, and how these things point us to the Gospel and to Christ. We have seen that we are under a new Law–the Law of Grace–and that we now have a new priesthood with a new high priest, who is none other than Christ. 

At the end of chapter seven, the author reveals to us why God has enacted all these new things; the author finally tells us what this is all building up to. The author tells us that God has created a new covenant, and that this new covenant would be the one through which He redeems the world and brings humanity back to Himself.

To prove that this new covenant was superior to the old covenant, God sent us Christ. Jesus is the guarantee that this covenant is the final covenant, the perfect covenant. By shedding His blood to atone for us, Christ sealed this guarantee. God gave us His word that this covenant would bring us back to Him, and Christ delivered upon this guarantee by giving His life for us. 

God has given us the only guarantee that we will ever need. He has guaranteed our salvation, but this guarantee is only valid for those who place their faith and trust in Christ. Jesus is the only one through whom people can come to God. With this guarantee from God, we have all the hope and comfort we could ever desire. Why would we dare seek guarantees anywhere else?

Artwork: “Suffering of Jesus,” Vladomir Stevanoic

A Better Priesthood.

Bible, Christianity, Hebrews

“So the previous command is annulled because it was weak and unprofitable (for the law perfected nothing), but a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.” Hebrews 4:18-19

After re-introducing us to Melchizedek in 7:1-3, the author of Hebrews spends the next several verses explaining Melchizedek’s superiority to Abraham. The author’s argument is this: if the author could demonstrate that Melchizedek was superior to Abraham, it would follow that Melchizedek was also superior to Levi and Aaron. With that being the case, the author could also explain how Melchizedek’s priesthood was superior to those of Levi and Aaron.
How did the author explain that Melchizedek was superior to Abraham? There are two pieces of evidence in the Genesis account that the author used. The first bit of evidence presented was that Abraham gave Melchizedek a tithe of the spoil from killing the kings of Canaan. Abraham did this out of homage and respect for Melchizedek. The author also reminded the readers that this act of tithing is just what the Israelites would later do for their own priests. They were legally required to give ten percent of their goods to the priests to support them, and this tithe was given out of respect for the work that the priests did. Secondly, the author points out that Melchizedek blessed Abraham. The author tells us that only a blessing can only be given by a person of superior standing. A person of lesser status cannot bless someone greater than themselves. For Melchizedek to bless Abraham, both he and Abraham would have to know that Melchizedek was the more important person.
So, how does Melchizedek’s superiority to Abraham relate to the Israelite priesthood? According to the author, if Melchizedek was superior to Abraham, he was also superior to Levi and Aaron. This would mean that Melchizedek’s priesthood was more significant than Levi and Aaron’s as well. This is a vital point because it reveals that the Law and the priests could not make salvation complete. These institutions were merely designed to point us toward the Gospel and toward the greatest high priest, Jesus Christ.
The author spends so much time explaining this to understand that only Christ can give us salvation. Christ alone is sufficient for our salvation. There is nothing that we can do on our own for salvation, and there is nothing that another human can do for us. Only Christ can do the work of atonement that we need. There is nothing we can do, and there is nothing that we can add to the work that He has already done. So we must put all of our trust and hope in Christ, and in Christ alone.

Artwork: “Aaron the High Priest,” William Etty (1878-1849).

High Priests.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“After He was perfected, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him,” Hebrews 5:9.

Starting in Hebrews 5, the author spends a lot of time explaining how Christ is our high priest. Though the concept of a high priest is somewhat foreign today, it was the most sacred and holy position within the Hebrew religious system. This one person, the high priest, acted as the mediator–the go-between–between God and the people. This seems worlds away from us today, and in many ways it is, and it is easy to wonder why this is important; it is easy to wonder why we need a high priest in the first place. But, if we take the time to understand why we need a high priest, we better understand the work that Christ did for us, and we develop a better understanding of the Gospel.

We need a high priest because of sin. Due to the fall in the garden, we are not good, we are not just, we are not righteous. We are all fallen. Our fundamental nature is to seek sin instead of seeking God, and because of this, we are separated from God. Due to sin and this separation, we are deserving of God’s wrath, and we are awaiting the penalty of death. As if this wasn’t bad enough already–not only are we separated from God, but we are also unable to approach God because of our sins. This means that, even if we were somehow to desire to begin pursuing God, we would not be able to come near Him because He is holy and we are not. Even simply entering into His holy presence in our sinful state would destroy us. Furthermore, we are incapable of cleansing ourselves of our sins.

So we need someone righteous, we need someone who is just to speak on our behalf to God. We need a mediator who can bridge the divide between God and us, and we need someone who can cleanse our sins for us because there is no way that we can do this on our own.

Here’s the beautiful thing, here’s the thing that defies all the logic of this world: even though we have chosen to turn away from God, even though we actively rebel against Him and we chose sin at every opportunity, God still gave us that mediator. He gave us a way to have our sins cleansed and forgiven and removed from us.

God first did this when He called Israel to be His people. He called for them to be a nation of priests that would show other people how to live. God then gave Israel the Law. The Law was the standard that clearly defined what He says is right and wrong. God gave Israel the Law so that humankind would know what is good and what is evil. No more would humanity be choosing for ourselves what is good and what isn’t. No more would we be doing what we began doing in the garden. With the Law, we would know once and for all what is right and what is wrong.

Along with the Law, God gave Israel the sacrificial system. He did so because He knew that regardless of how hard we might try, we humans can’t stop sinning. This is important, because we can’t stop sinning, and the penalty for sin remains death.

 As foreign and old-fashioned as it sounds, as barbaric as it seems, the sacrificial system is a sign of God’s mercy. It is a show of God’s compassion. He allows us to keep our lives despite our sins. God allowed our sins to be transferred to another creature, to a tiny lamb without blemish, and the lamb’s blood would cover the price of our sins. We have to remember that sin requires death, and though our sins require our lives to be taken, God allowed the life of the slain lamb to satisfy our debt. Within this system, who was it that was in charge of making these sacrifices? Who was it who did the dirty work of killing the lamb? Whose hands would be the ones to get blood? Who would be the one to go into God’s presence on our behalf to offer atonement for us? It was the high priest.

The high priest’s sole duty was to be righteous so that he could offer sacrifices to atone for our lack of righteousness.

But here’s the catch–the high priest was from among the people. He was one of the people, which meant that he, too, was not able to always be righteous. He, too, would struggle and succumb to sin. Because of the priest’s flawed human nature, the atonement he offered wasn’t final–it wasn’t perfect, it had to be continually reapplied.

The atonement that the earthly high priest offered was the same as suffering from a terminal disease and being treated only with band-aids. It did nothing to get to the root of the problem; it was only a most temporary fix.

When we start to understand it that way, we realize that the earthly high priest and the sacrificial system were never intended to be the solution. Instead, they were designed to point us to the solution. These things were to lead us to the Messiah, to the Priestly King, who was the son of God. The high priest pointed us to the one who could make perfect the work of salvation. It led us to the one who could offer eternal and everlasting atonement, to the one who could cure us of our sinful nature.

The high priest and the sacrificial system pointed us to one who could be the truly righteous mediator between God and us. The high priest’s purpose was to point us to the greater high priest who was to come, to the one who could offer eternal atonement and salvation.

Christ did just this. He accomplished this very thing: He is the superior high priest, the eternally righteous priest who could make atonement for us. He made this ultimate atonement. He paid the price that our sins required, not by offering sacrifices of unblemished lambs, but by living an unblemished life. He did so by never straying from God’s standard of good and evil, by being completely and totally obedient to God, by never sinning, and by dying in our place. Our sins required our lives, but Christ gave His life in our place. By giving his life for us, Christ bridged the divide between God and us. He became the perfect mediator that we needed.

When He rose from the grave, He proved that death and sin had finally been defeated and He showed that all who listen and submit to Him can have eternal forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.

So, the answer to our question is this: we need a high priest because we could never have done any of this for ourselves. We could never have accomplished this for ourselves. Because of this fact, we must trust in the high priest who accomplished salvation and atonement for us.

Artwork: “Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus, Marc Chagall, 1966.

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.

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

Salvation Is His Name.

Christianity, Religion

“And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21

Matthew and Luke both record in their respective gospels the narrative of Jesus’ birth. Each account gives a distinct perspective of how Christ’s birth came to be and took place, and each gospel writer gives unique details about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. For example, in Luke’s account, we are given the familiar story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, Caesar Agustus’ census, the birth in the stable in Bethlehem, and the appearance of the heavenly host to the shepherds.

While Luke’s account is focused mainly upon Mary, Matthew gives us a version that deals with Joseph’s side of the story. This focus on Joseph is essential because one of Matthew’s intention is to show how Jesus is the promised messiah, or king, from the line of David. To accomplish this, Matthew lists Jesus’ family tree, from Abraham to King David, all the way to Joseph. We learn from this that Joseph is a direct descendant of David, and as such, Jesus would be adopted into the Davidic line.

After connecting Joseph and Jesus to David, Matthew’s attention shifts to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, specifically with the issue that Mary has become pregnant in the middle of her engagement to Joseph. Jewish engagements of this era were almost as binding as the marriage itself; to break the engagement, one party would have to receive a bill of divorce. Matthew tells us that Mary had conceived her child by the Holy Spirit, but Joseph still found himself in a precarious situation. For Mary to be pregnant with a child that was not Joseph’s during the engagement could have raised accusations of adultery. With that charge, Mary could be put to death, as was the prescribed penalty under the Law of Moses.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man and that he did not want to disgrace Mary publically. Joseph did not want to do anything that would endanger Mary; he was prudent. He has a man who followed the Law, but he also cared for Mary and did not want her to be hurt. She was going to have enough difficulty ahead being pregnant and unwed, there was no need to add to her burden. So Joseph decided to handle everything secretly and let everyone go their separate ways.

Though Joseph might have thought he was handling everything, this was not God’s plan. God was still going to use Joseph to be the earthly father of His Son, and Joseph was going to provide Mary’s child with the necessary Davidic lineage. He did not know it yet, but Joseph was going to play a vital role in God’s plan to redeem humanity.

So God sent a messenger to Joseph; an angel came to him in a dream. This angel spoke to Joseph and told this very important descendant of David not to be afraid to marry Mary. This was not just any ordinary child that she was carrying, this was a child that was conceived by the Holy Spirit. In the same way that God created everything in Genesis from nothing, He had created a baby in Mary from nothing. The angel continued to tell Joseph that Mary would have a son and that they must name this son Jesus. The angel then gives a critical detail about why this child must be called Jesus: it is because this child will save the people from their sins.

But what does this mean? What is the connection between the name Jesus and saving the people?

The English name “Jesus” comes from the Greek name Iesous (Ἰησοῦς), which is the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Yeshua (יֵשׁוּעַ). Yeshua is a shortened version of the Hebrew name Joshua, or Yehoshua (יְהוֹשׁוּעַ). In essence, Christ’s first name would be Josh. Both Yeshua and Yehoshua have the same meaning: YHWH is Salvation. So, our first step in understanding why Jesus must be named Yeshua is because that very name means “YHWH is salvation.”

There is a relationship between the name Yeshua and Hebrew words relating to salvation; they call come from the same root. For instance, the term “salvation” is yeshu’ah (יְשׁוּעָה) which sounds nearly identical to the name given to Christ. Likewise, the phrase “he will save” in Hebrew is yasha (יָשַׁע), which is an even more compact form of the name Yeshua. This all helps us to understand that salvation is at the very core of the name being given to Mary’s son. The baby must be named “Salvation,” because He is bringing salvation, and He Himself will do the saving.

This also sheds light on the identity of Jesus. His name, Yeshua, means “YHWH is Salvation,” but according to the angel’s explanation, Jesus is the one who will be doing all the saving; Jesus Himself has become the agent of salvation. Therefore, if Jesus’ name means “YHWH is Salvation,” and if Jesus is the one bringing salvation to the people-brining redemption from sin–then Jesus must be YHWH; He must be God. Proving that Jesus is God is why Matthew includes the quote from Isaiah 7:14– since Jesus is God, He is the fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy given by Isaiah. Jesus is Immanuel (God with Us) because Jesus is God, and He has come to be with His people.

God spared no attention to detail in His plan to redeem humanity. He sent the world His Son, and that Son was named Salvation because He would save the people from their sins. That baby, who was both fully human and fully God, grew up to be a man who led a perfectly obedient life to God, and that man died so that salvation could be given to the world. Three days later,  Salvation–who is God with Us– rose from the dead, defeating sin and death once and for all.

Place your trust in the one who is both fully God and fully man. His name is Salvation, and there is no other name that you can call upon to be saved.

Artwork: “The Nativity,” from “Derriere le Miroir” Marc Chagall, 1950

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.

Seed of Hope.

Christianity, Religion

“I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” Genesis 3:15

The Genesis 3 account of humanity’s fall in the Garden of Eden is a story with which many of us are familiar. It is a Bible “story” that we’ve heard time and time again: in Sunday School, in children’s ministry, in Bible school, and in any other place where children learn the Bible. Given how many times many of us have heard this story, it is possible that a degree of “blindness” has come along with familiarity. We’ve become so used to hearing that Genesis 3 is about how humanity ruined things and brought sin into creation, and was then punished by being expelled from Eden. This approach makes sense and helps us to comprehend the nature of the world, but we miss the most crucial part of the narrative if we only focus on how the man and woman failed.

This passage is not about how Adam and Eve failed and received punishment; this account is about so much more than humanity’s failures. This passage is about how God showed mercy, how He didn’t punish them as wholly as He should have. This passage is about how God–right from the very moment of humanity’s first wandering from Him–already had a plan to bring humankind back to Him. 

This passage is about undeserved mercy and the promise of hope of redemption.

Adam and Eve, despite their disobedience, receive an incredible outpouring of God’s mercy. They had both been told by God what the penalty was for eating from the forbidden tree–death. Yet, when God confronted their sin, He did not kill Adam and Eve. He did not destroy creation and begin anew. God punished them justly. Death did come to the scene–something did die for Adam and Eve’s nakedness to be covered–but God did not demand their lives there at that moment as He could have.

God shows even more mercy to Adam and Eve by sending them away from the Garden. Eden was the place where God’s realm and creation overlap; it was the place where God would come and walk among His creation. Adam and Eve, who were now sinful and fallen, could not be in God’s presence; His mere presence would destroy them. God is so perfect and so holy that anything infected with sin cannot survive being near Him. To protect Adam and Eve from being killed, God sent them away from Him. The man and woman were also exiled from Eden to protect them from themselves. Now that they had fallen and become sinful, God did not want Adam or Eve to eat from the Tree of Life, and then live forever in their fallen state. To protect humanity from itself, God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. We often think of the exile from Eden as punishment; we fail to see that God sent humanity away from Eden to protect them. In exiling Adam and Eve, God had their best interests in mind; He did what was best for them.

We also see in Genesis 3 something which further shows the compassion that God displayed: the promise of hope. While He was levying the curses upon the Serpent, Eve, Adam, and the land, God made this promise to the Serpent, “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel,” (Genesis 3:15). The Serpent, who had orchestrated mankind’s rebellion through his deceit and deception, was told that there would come one who would avenge the woman. This Avenger would be from the woman’s seed–he would be human–and he would deliver a death blow to the Serpent. The Serpent would hurt the Avenger, but He would not succumb to the Serpent. For the rest of his days, the Serpent would crawl on his stomach, eating dust, knowing that the Avenger was coming to destroy him; the Serpent knew his destruction was sure.

When the Avenger came and finally destroyed the Serpent, the curses would be broken. The Avenger, through His injury from the Serpent, would atone for humanity’s rebellion, but He would break the curses through destroying the Serpent. By breaking the curses and atoning for humanity, the Avenger would end humanity’s separation from God and end their exile.

The Avenger would not defeat the Serpent with might or through force, nor would He do it through confrontation; He would defeat the Serpent through the most curious and most unusual means: He would defeat the Serpent by allowing the Serpent to kill Him. 

We see this play out many generations later, when the one from the seed of the woman, when the Avenger– Jesus of Nazareth–came to earth. He was born of woman and lived a life of complete obedience to God. He went willingly and of His own volition to the cross. Though He was perfect and never sinned nor disobeyed God at any point in His life, He allowed the ravenous, bloodthirsty animal of sin and its minion death to consume Him and to kill Him. Death, however,  could not hold Him; the Serpent could only bruise Him. Through this selfless act, through His sacrificial death, Christ stomped on the head of the Serpent with His bruised heel when He rose again walked out of the grave three days later.

Already here, at the very beginning of Scripture, here where humanity has just fallen, where sin and death have just been introduced to the story, Calvary is already on the horizon. The promise of the Avenger–of the Snake Crusher–is the first glimmer of messianic hope to the fallen world. This promise shows us that, from the very beginning, God knew how He would defeat sin and death; from the beginning, God knew how He would redeem humanity and bring them back to Him.

Artwork: “Mary consoles Eve,” Sister Grace Remington, 2003.