How Long?

Christianity, Psalms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork: “Boy Singing,” Worship Art.

Turn Your Eyes to Jesus.

Christian Living, Christianity, Hebrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of Us.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested.” Hebrews 2:18

Following the word of warning that is given in the first four verses of Hebrews 2, the author spends the remainder of chapter two making a case for Christ’s humanity. The author explains to the reader why Christ had to come to earth in the form of a human. This is a significant undertaking; the belief that Christ was God in the form of a human is one of the central beliefs of our faith. Here in Hebrews 2, the author explains to us why this had to be so. In unpacking and explaining this crucial point, the author presents three reasons why Christ had to come into the world as a human. Let’s explore the author’s points.

1. Christ had to be human to recapture our lost glory and honor, and to defeat death (5-9) 

The author begins explaining why Christ had to be a human by reminding us of humanity’s place within creation. To do this, the author of Hebrews quotes from Psalm 8. In this particular psalm, the psalmist writes about the glory of creation, and also of the remarkable fact that God placed humanity in charge of creation. The psalmist refers back to Genesis 1, where God commissioned humanity to subdue and rule over creation. It was God’s original intention for mankind to rule creation along with Him; we were meant to be God’s regents over the created world. God made us to be rulers; He created us and gave us dominion over all the world.

But there is a problem: creation is not under our control. Sin and the Fall ruined this. Everywhere we look, we see evidence that we have no control, no authority over anything. This was the situation that Jesus entered in. He came into the world as one of us, as one who is human. But we now see Jesus crowned with glory and honor. In His complete obedience to God, in His total submission to the Father, Christ became the first human to recapture the glory and honor that we lost in the Fall. He recaptured our lost authority, and He used that authority to defeat death for us. But Christ did not defeat His enemy–death–in the way we would imagine someone with power and authority would defeat an enemy. Christ did not battle death, He did not overpower death, He did not force death into submission. Christ defeated death by allowing it to destroy Him. Christ defeated death by fully submitting to the Father and completely trusting in God to restore Him to life. In doing this, Christ became our model for how humanity was supposed to live, and he showed us how His followers, the new humanity, are supposed to live.

2. Christ had to be human to become our “trailblazer” and “hero” (10-13)

In verse 10, the author tells us that it was fitting for Christ to be the one to come and recapture for us our lost glory and honor because He was the one who had given it to us in the first place. This fact makes Christ especially qualified to be the one to lead us back to our former position and relationship with God. The author also introduces us to a significant word in verse 10; depending upon your chosen translation, the word made be translated as “author,” “captain,” “source,” or “leader.” Each of these words hints at the meaning of the original Greek word, archagos, that the author used. Archagos means “leader, pioneer, trailblazer,” and in some ancient Greek writing, it is also used to mean “hero.” By defeating death and reclaiming our lost glory and honor, Christ becomes our hero, and He becomes our trailblazer. He leads us on the path back to God; He shows us the way. In showing us the way to salvation, Christ is also leading us back tot he family of God–back into His family. He leads us back home, and when we become His followers, He calls us His brothers and sisters.

3. Christ had to be human to know what it’s like to be us (14-18)

The author tells us that Christ is the perfect, the complete hero for us because He has suffered just as we do. He knows temptation, He knows trials, He knows pain and hardship. While Christ was on the earth, He lived a fully human life, and He experienced everything that we experience as humans. Christ, however, overcame all His temptation and suffering; He lived a totally sinless life. This allows Christ to be our perfect High Priest. He could offer atonement for us because He knows firsthand the trials and sins we struggle with. He was able to go to God on our behalf and bring us forgiveness for those sins. Christ had to be human so that He could know what it is like to be like us; so that He could know how to minister for us, and how to minister to us. He knows our pain and our struggles firsthand, and He knows how to help us when we are struggling with our pain, suffering, and sin.

Christ had to come to earth as one of us. He had to live as one of us so that He could save us from our sins and from ourselves. He knows everything that we endure; He knows what it is like to be tempted, to be tested, to hurt, to suffer, to be alone. There is nothing that we can endure that He has not experienced for Himself. He came to the earth so that He could lift us up out of the filth that we have sunken down into, and so that He could restore us to the glory and honor that He created us for. He came to show us that we were meant to live better, that we were designed to live for so much more than what we are currently living for. He came as one of us so that in those times when we feel alone–when we feel as if we have no hope or nothing to live for–we can remember that our Hero has battled the same sorrows, and has overcome them. We can remember that our Creator has felt the same things and that He is offering us His hand to lead us on the path back to Him. Christ came to earth to take all of the darkness humanity brought upon itself–all the hurt, shame, grief, sorrow, dishonor, sin– and that He took these things upon Himself. He did this so that He could shine His light into the darkness and illuminate for us the path back to Him.

You are not alone, Loved Ones. Our Hero is in the trenches with us. Christ knows what you are enduring. Take His hand, let Him guide you. Trust in Him fully and completely. Live as the new humanity that He calls you to be, and let Him restore you to the glory and honor that we lost.

Artwork: “Ecce Homo,” by Antatoly Shumkin

Superior to the Angels

Christianity, Hebrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Ago and in Various Ways

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” —Hebrews 1:1-3

Hebrews is one of the most mysterious books of the Bible. We do not know who wrote it, we do not know when it was written, nor do we know who the book was written to. An early church leader, Origen of Alexandria, said that there is much about Hebrews that “is known only to God.” That statement is entirely accurate.

Despite what we do now know about Hebrews, this book is still one of the most theologically rich books within the Bible. No other book does a more complete job of taking the teachings of the Old Testament and explaining how those teachings are fulfilled by Jesus Christ. In fact, that is the central message of Hebrews–showing that Jesus has fulfilled and is superior to the teachings of the Old Testament. The author of Hebrews goes to great lengths to prove this point.

The author begins this argument with one of the most poetic lines contained in Scripture. In that first verse, we are reminded that God has been speaking to humanity since the beginning of time itself. Not only has God been speaking to us, but He has also revealed, little by little, His plan for redeeming the world. These revelations came through the prophets, first Abraham, then Moses, and numerous others, and each revelation built upon the previous one. Each message sent by God gave His people a clearer understanding of how they are to live as God’s people. In the eyes of the Hebrew people, God’s ultimate revelation was to Moses upon Mount Sinai. It was at that time and place that the Lord gave Moses and Israel the Law. As far as the Hebrews were concerned, there had been no message from God, no revelation, that surpassed the giving of the Law.

The author of Hebrews, however, begs to differ. In verse 2, the author tells us that there has been a new message given and that this message was so important that it had to be delivered by God’s Son. No person, no prophet, was capable of delivering this message, because it would stand has the ultimate revelation of God’s plan for salvation. The message spoken to us by the Son would be superior to all of the previous messages spoken by the prophets. 

To show us just how important this message is, the author of Hebrews presents several points, seven to be exact, proving just how special the Son is. The author tells us that Jesus–the Son–is the heir of all things, that God made all things in the universe through the Him, that the He is the radiance of God’s glory, that the He is the exact expression of God’s nature, that the He sustains all things in the universe through His word, that the He has made atonement for us, and He has sat down at the God’s right hand.  

Each of these characteristics of Christ is important. Each point presented by the author of Hebrews is grounded in the Old Testament scriptures. The author uses an interesting word when telling us that Christ is the exact expression of God’s nature. The word there in Greek is charaktayr, from which we get “character.” This word, charaktayr, means “exact copy.” By using this word, the author wants us to understand that Christ is just that; He is the exact physical copy of God’s nature. 

The author also gives us two important clues about Christ’s role in the world. First, it is mentioned that Christ has made atonement for us. This points to Christ’s role as our High Priest. In Leviticus, God outlines all the various ways in which the High Priest can make atonement for himself and for the people. As believers in Christ, we know that He performed this same act for us upon the cross. Secondly, we are reminded of Christ’s kingship, and that Christ does rule the universe at the right hand of God. Christ is not only the King of Israel; He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  We are told all of this information because the author of Hebrews wants us to understand just exactly who is speaking to us today. Christ is not just another prophet; He is God. The message Christ brings to us is one that we must listen to; we cannot afford to ignore it or disregard it. Christ’s message is one of hope, salvation, and redemption, but we may only experience these things if we listen to Him. So, are we doing just that? Are we listening to the message Christ has for us?

Artwork: “The Prophet and the Angel,” Marc Chagall, 1979.

Crushed.

Christianity, Easter, Religion, Resurrection

“‘He shall crush your head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.’” Genesis 3:15

After creating the world and everything in it in six days, God placed Adam and Eve in the midst of paradise—Eden—and gave them dominion to rule over all of creation.  Man and woman enjoyed direct communion with God in Eden and free reign over everything in paradise. Adam and Eve had but one rule to live by; not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for eating from that tree would lead to their deaths. Eating from the tree wouldn’t kill them, but being disobedient to God would. The serpent, as Genesis recounts, was the most cunning of all the creatures, and deceived Eve into eating from the prohibited tree, and Adam followed after her lead and ate of the tree of his own accord. 

They had disobeyed God and brought sin into the created world, and with sin came heartache, hard labor, grief, greed, anger, jealousy, insecurity, anxiety, and ultimately, death. Creation had been tainted because of mankind’s sin against God. They could no longer live in Paradise in communion with God; Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden and sent away from God’s presence. This was for their own good; God is the epitome of holiness, and sinful creatures cannot be in His presence and live.

Before banishing Adam and Eve from Eden, God made Eve—the mother of all humanity—a promise. There would come from her one who would fix all of this; one who would make things right once again and restore humanity to its intended relationship with God. From her seed will come one who could erase the mistake she and Adam had made. This Promised One would also come for the serpent—the deceiver who helped usher in sin and death. The serpent would wound the Promised One, possibly even hurt him badly, but the Promised One would destroy the serpent. God was not caught off guard by man’s actions; He was already prepared with a plan in place to make things right again.

So humanity was exiled from Eden, forced to be separated from God’s presence. But God had given humanity a most powerful gift as He exiled them: the promise of the hope; hope that redemption would come.

Generations came and went, creation seemed to spiral ever further into sin and evil. Man continually sought after the dark and depraved desires of his own heart. God watched as mankind—His creation—forsook Him and scorned Him and made themselves to be their own gods. Everywhere upon the Earth, sin ran wild, and death and the grave consumed humanity.

God’s promise of hope persisted. Though each generation seemed to fall further away from Him, there were still those who sought God and His righteousness, and for their sake, His promise was sustained. Promises were made to specific people to help carry on this initial promise made in Eden, and covenants made to make these promises binding. God abided by His promises, and the faithful in each generation lived with hope: hope that the Promised One would soon come and make all things right again.

Still, generations came and went, and God would continue to unveil His plan a little at a time. This Promised One would be descended from Judah; He would be like a lion and would be a king (Genesis 49). He would be from the Line of David (II Samuel 7). He would be a suffering servant, led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53).  He would be Immanuel, God with Us (Isaiah 7).

The original promise—the promise of hope—echoed with every new prophecy and re-affirmation of the coming of the Promised One. He will crush your head, and you will bruise his heel.

Generations came and went, lived and died, and waited. The righteous waited for the Promised One though all around them turned to idols and sacrificed their children to false gods. The righteous waited through judgment and exile and silence from Heaven. The righteous waited while sin and death and the grave and the Serpent-Deceiver continued to claim usurped authority on the Earth. The righteous waited because they had the promise of hope and the assurance of God’s faithfulness to His promises. The Promised One would come, and He would make all things right.

This was the backstory to the story of Jesus of Nazareth. He was sent to be the Promised One and crush the head of the serpent—to destroy the Deceiver—and restore humanity’s relationship with God. As Jesus taught and performed miracles, people began to wonder if He might be the Promised One, but many had lost sight of the promise that the Promised One was to fulfill.  They had developed ideas of what the Promised One would be and what He would do that satisfied their own views and beliefs. Jesus, however, knew what His mission was, and He knew what He must do to fulfill God’s promise of hope and redemption.

He would have to be wounded.

He would have to be wounded because, to defeat sin and death and the grave and the Deceiver, Jesus would have to die.  Without dying, Christ could not provide a sacrifice that would atone—forgive—our sins. Without dying, Christ could not invade the grave and conquer it. To defeat death, Christ must die.  Most importantly, to destroy the Deceiver—to crush the serpent’s head—Christ must die. He must die so that He could come back to life.

When Christ was taken off the cross on Good Friday, half the battle was won. During His moment of glorification and exaltation, He had offered the sacrifice of atonement and settled humanity’s account before God. Now, Christ the King was on the path of conquest, invading the territory of the enemy: death and the grave.  As He once said, “No one takes my life away from Me. I have the authority to lay it down and I have the authority to take it up again,” (John 10:18).

On the first day of the week, when the mourning followers of Christ came to His grave, they were expecting to anoint the body of a man they had hoped to be the Promised One. They had forgotten that the Promised One would have to be wounded by the serpent and led like a lamb to the slaughter. They surely did not expect the Promised One to die, and especially did not expect the Promised One to be crucified. So they came to mourn; mourn for Christ and their dashed hopes, and to begin the process of waiting and hoping again.

His grave, however, was empty. Christ had risen. He had invaded death and the grave and returned. He had conquered them. He had destroyed them.

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

It may have been the slain Lamb who was laid in the grave on Friday—reviled and forsaken by man—but, it was the roaring Lion of Judah who emerged that  Sunday morning and who was victorious over sin, death, and the grave; who crushed the head of the serpent. It was the Lion of Judah whose victory shook the very Earth down to the pit of defeated Hell, and it is the Lion of Judah who lives and reigns today and forevermore at the right hand of God.

The promise that was first made so very long ago had been kept. The Promised One had come and He made all things right. He restored our relationship with God by paying our debt with His blood. He was wounded, but He crushed the serpent’s head, and He is coming again to return us from our exile from God’s presence.

artwork: “Lion and Snake,” Samuel William Reynolds, 1799.

The Lord is Near!

Christianity, Philippians, Religion

Philippians 4 is, without a doubt, one of Paul’s most famous pieces of writing. Any Christian worth their salt knows Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” by heart. Chapter 4 is also where we find Paul’s exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). Though these verses are sure to be included in any list of Paul’s “greatest hits,” they are not the only pearls of wisdom that can be found in this chapter. 

 Among the more overlooked verses of Philippians 4, we find verses 5 and 6, “Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is near!  Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God.” In these two verses, Paul gives some of the most significant theological and practical advice for Christian living. We can break his advice into three parts:

 1-Treat everyone gently.

 2- Don’t be scared, for Christ is with us.

 3- Don’t stop praying.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at each of these.

  1-Treat everyone gently. The word that Paul uses in verse 5 can be translated as “fairness,” “mildness,” or “gentleness.“ When he calls upon the Philippians to let everyone “see their gentleness,” he is calling on them to treat people gently and mildly. Followers of Christ are not to show unfair treatment to others, nor are we to treat anyone in a harsh or unkind manner. We are called, as Paul reminded us, to show meekness, mildness, and gentleness. These characteristics should come naturally to believers because they are the same traits Christ demonstrated to those whom he encountered. As we seek to be more Christlike, we should strive to show more gentleness and fairness to everyone we meet.

 2- Don’t be scared, for Christ is with us. Are there any more comforting words written in all of Scripture? Let’s take a moment and review everything Paul has told us about Christ in this epistle. In Philippians 2, Paul writes of Christ’s humility. He said that Christ’s entire life was a demonstration in humble living. In chapter 3, Paul wrote of Christ’s sovereignty over all everything in heaven and earth. Here in chapter 4, however, Paul quickly reminds us that Christ is not distant from us; He is not far removed from us. Paul tells us that the opposite is true that Christ is close to us! Though He has ascended back up to the Father, Christ is very much still near to us. He is still Immanuel, “God with us.” He is near to us, and He is seeing us through every situation, every trial, every tribulation that we face. When we realize that Christ is with us, we recognize that we have nothing to fear. There is no fear in sickness, no fear in plague, no fear in death. Since Christ is with us, and since He is giving us the strength to endure every trial, we have nothing to fear at all.

 3- Don’t stop praying. Paul called upon the Philippians to continuously take their prayers, petitions, and requests to God with thanksgiving. In every situation, we are to be committed to prayer. God knows all of our needs, and He will meet them. He also wants us to demonstrate that we trust in His provision for our lives through prayer. Praying to God to meet our needs is a demonstration of humility on our part. It shows that we are no longer trying to control things ourselves and that we are trusting in God alone to meet our needs. 

 Paul’s words in chapter 4 are as practical as they are reassuring and beautiful. In the days ahead, take time to reflect upon them. Find your hope and comfort in the fact that Christ is near to us. Whatever might be going on in your life, you are not alone. The Lord Himself is with you. Though things might be tough and painful, He is with you, and He is in control. He is with you just as He was with Noah during the flood. He is with you just as He was with Joseph in prison. He is with you just as He was with Israel in the wilderness. He is with you just as He was with Jonah in the belly of the fish. He is with you just as He was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

He is with you just as He was with Daniel in the lion’s den. He is with you just as He was with Paul in prison. He promised never to leave us nor forsake us. So trust His promise, and do not be afraid.

Artwork, “The Lord is Near,” from “Devotions Sketchbook,” by Aaron Zenz, 2013. https://www.pinterest.com/pin/161988917824843128/

Keep Calm and Carry On.

Christian Living, Christianity, Philippians, Religion, Worship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Will Trust You.

Christianity, Psalms

“My heart is in anguish within me;

    the terrors of death have fallen upon me. 

Fear and trembling come upon me,

    and horror overwhelms me.

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

    I would fly away and be at rest;

yes, I would wander far away;

    I would lodge in the wilderness;

I would hurry to find a shelter

    from the raging wind and tempest.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restore.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

He restores my strength.

He leads me down the right paths

for the sake of his reputation.

Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no danger,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff reassure me.

You prepare a feast before me

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

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

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

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

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

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