By Faith.

Christianity, Religion

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” ‭‭ Hebrews‬ ‭11:1-3‬

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews‬ ‭11:39-40‬

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews‬ ‭12:1-2‬ ‭

The Letter to the Hebrews is a beautifully-written piece of Christian theology and doctrine. Though there are numerous speculations as to who its author was, the true identity is still unknown. What is known, however, is the purpose for which this letter was written. In the years following Christ’s ascension into Heaven, there was the belief that His return would be imminent. However, as time carried on, and Christ had yet to return, some Jewish believers began to think that maybe Jesus had not been the promised Messiah. These people began to go back into their old rituals and practices and started to once again wait for the coming of the Messiah. The author of Hebrews, determined to correct this fallacy and “falling away” (Hebrews 6:4-5), gives detailed teaching about the Jewish rituals and observances, and how Christ fulfilled all of these things in His life and death. The author of Hebrews uses the traditions and teachings of the Old Testament to make the fact that Jesus is the Messiah crystal clear.

In chapter eleven of Hebrews, this systematic approach of teaching through the Old Testament is on full display. In this chapter, the author highlights the importance of faith, and how it was by faith that the heroes and heroines of the ancient days, of the Old Testament, were gained their approval from God, and it was through a life of faith that they bore witness of God. It was by faith, by the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1) that the people of old lived; they never saw God in the flesh, and many of them never lived to see God’s promises to them fulfilled, yet they trusted in God nonetheless. The writer of Hebrews goes through the Old Testament, person-by-person, to demonstrate how the figures in this “ Hall of Faith” lived out their faith in God, regardless of the cost. For some, like Noah and Abraham, this life of faith did not cost them their lives. For many of the prophets, their faith in God cost them everything: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:35-38). None of the people mentioned by the author of Hebrews received what was promised to them in their lifetime–they did not live to see their inhabitants become a great nation or live to see the coming of the Messiah–and yet they persisted in their faith, knowing that God would keep His promise in His time.

Where Hebrews 11 ends with those who did not live to see God’s promises come into fulfillment, Hebrews 12 begins with those who are living after the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Though the promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled, we must still live a life of faith. We must always press forward in life toward the promise of eternal life with God in His Kingdom. The heroes and heroines of the Old Testament, that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), surround us and they have modeled for us how we are to live. We are to live as they did; with our eyes to the future and our faith firmly rooted in God. Christ, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, is now seated at the right hand of God. Since He endured our shame and punishment, He has enabled us to continue in the race that is life, and through our faith in Him, we can put aside the sins which so easily trip us up and drag us down. 

As we run our race, we must keep our eyes focused on Christ–as those of old focused on God the Father–because without Him and His help, we cannot finish the race. The race before us is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is a race that will push us to our very limits; it is a race that will be long and arduous. Like those of old, our race might end painfully, and it might end without us seeing all of God’s promises coming into fruition. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” While we live, we run the race that is before us; when we die, our race is done, and we are with Him.

Our lives today are just as much rooted in faith– rooted in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”–as were the lives of those in the Old Testament. We have not seen God, nor have we seen Christ. While we can look back at our individual lives before Christ saved us, and see how God worked in us and changed us, it is our faith that lets us know that the things that happened were done by God and not by chance or karma. It is by faith that we believe the Bible to be true. It is by faith in the hope that there is a better life to come that we continue forward–sometimes trudging–in this life. Most importantly, it is by faith in Christ, in Christ alone, that we are saved.

Those who came before us lived by faith, so too must we. Those who came before us left us a witness and a model to live by, we must do the same for those who will come after us. We can only do this by keeping our eyes focused on Jesus. We can only live by faith.

Draw courage from those who went before you. Keep your eyes on Christ. Live by faith. Leave a witness for those who come after you.

Artwork: Marc Chagall Tapestry in the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, c. 1960-1970 

Rest.

Christianity, Religion

“And He said, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.’” Exodus‬ ‭33:14‬

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and ‘You will find rest for your souls.’” Matthew‬ ‭11:28-29‬ ‭

Rest is a precious commodity. As our daily routines run together into weeks that turn into months, and months that turn into years, and we find ourselves exhausted and worn out. Rest is one of the most necessary items we require in our lives, and yet it is the one thing that we so often fail to get or choose to go without. We run ourselves ragged, never taking time to rest and to enjoy all the many things in our lives that God has blessed us with, and then we wonder why we are so miserable and spiritually drained. We do not rest like God desires us to, or as He modeled for us to do through His own actions. 

God rested from His own creative work, so that He might enjoy it. The Sabbath itself was for man to worship God through resting from the mundane. Rest serves as a positive interruption from the grind of our daily lives. Rest is the small break from the toil that sin chains us to as a result of the Fall. 

The importance of rest is further reinforced by the promise thereof in the two passages we see today. In Exodus 32, the Israelites committed their sin of idolatry with the golden calf. As a result of this, at the outset of Exodus 33, God told Moses to carry on leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. God went on to tell Moses that He would  send an angel before them to clear the way for them, but that He would not accompany the Israelites to the Promised Land. God would not be going any further with them because of their obstinacy and continual desires to test Him and stray from Him. The people heard this news and mourned greatly, and Moses pleaded with God on behalf of the people for Him to remain with them. God then promised Moses that He would go with them, and that He would grant them rest—He would lead them to the place He promised to them, and He would allow them to enjoy it. 

This promise of rest is repeated throughout the Old Testament. God reiterated it to Joshua when he began to lead Israel after the death of Moses. God promised to give Israel rest from their enemies as long as they remained faithful to Him. After the conquest of the Canaanites, it was said that even the land itself had rest. The message of rest was continued by the prophet Jeremiah; he told the Israelites that if they had remained in the ways of those of old who had followed God, then they would have received rest for their souls (Jeremiah 6:16).  Instead, they strayed and became even more enslaved to sin, and thus had to experience God’s judgment. Israel’s infidelity voided their promised rest. 

The reward for faithfully following God was not prosperity in this world, nor was it a promise of being spared from pain and suffering. God’s promise was to give His people rest, so that they might endure whatever they encountered. 

Jesus’ own preaching touched on this same promise of rest. In Matthew 11, after calming the fears of the imprisoned John the Baptist, and preaching in honor of John, Christ turned His attention to the cities in which most of His ministry took place. He denounced Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for their hardheartedness—or obstinacy—-and said that if Gentile cities had witnessed such miracles, they would have  been immediately repentant. Those who thought they knew how God operated and thought they had God figured out were blind and missing what He was doing, while the infants—those who were untaught and uneducated in the Law or how God worked—were the ones who were witnessing and partaking in the miraculous works of the Messianic Age. 

Christ then called on all who are weary and heavy-laden to come to Him and that He would give them rest. Christ is not a cruel and demanding task master, the yoke He offers is not one which will bear the wearer down; it is not a yoke of oppression like that of sin. Instead, the yoke offered by Christ is one which is easy and light, for He is meek and gentle. Those who come to Him and learn from Him and live like Him will find rest for their souls. Christ here  quoted directly from Jeremiah 6:16, saying that those who yoke themselves to Him and follow Him will walk in the paths that lead to rest. 

Christ will give to His followers the rest that God promised throughout the Old Testament. He will grant them  peace and an interruption from the constant and hectic pace of life. Christ promises to His followers the thing they need most in this life. It is not prosperity, nor is it a lack of trials. His promise is that of rest, so that we might worship Him and enjoy His blessings, and so we might be able to endure this world. 

Go to Christ. Allow Him to break your chains of slavery to sin and bondage to this world. Take the yoke that He offers you, and let Him lead you in the ways which lead to rest.  

Artwork: “Noon Rest From Work After Millet,” Vincent van Gogh, c. 1880. 

Strange Fire.

Christianity, Religion

“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them.  And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the Lord spoke, saying,

By those who come near Me, I will be treated as holy,

And before all the people I will be honored.

So Aaron, therefore, kept silent.” –Leviticus 10:1-3

Leviticus is one of the most unique books in the canon of Scripture. This book contains God’s detailed instructions about the Law and how it is to be implemented and lived out. Leviticus is comprised mainly of long passages of quotes from God explaining to Moses how the Law is to be followed, how sacrifices are to be offered, and the penalties for disobedience and breaking the Law. Given the content of the book–God’s instruction regarding the Law– Leviticus contains more of God’s direct speech than any other book in the Bible. 

A second unique characteristic of Leviticus is that it represents a break in the narrative that had been unfolding in Genesis and Exodus. Before that narrative could continue, we must first learn about the sacrificial system, the dietary laws, the Day of Atonement, and other observances that would make the Israelites unique from all the other nations–we have to understand what Israel had to do to be holy as  God commanded them to be. If we ignore the theology found in Leviticus, we cannot grasp the theology in the rest of the Bible–Christ’s atoning death and the importance of being cleansed from sin cannot be understood without Leviticus.

The only major break in the legal teachings of Leviticus can be found in chapters 8-10, where we find the description of Aaron and his sons being consecrated as the priests of Israel and descriptions of the first offerings they made. Aaron and his descendants would forever make up the priestly class in Israel. Additionally, Aaron and his offspring were from the tribe of Levi, thus giving the book of Leviticus its name, roughly meaning “for the Levites.”

Within this brief bit of narrative in Leviticus, there is a significant scene of God dispensing judgment for improper behavior upon two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Following their consecration as priests and Aaron offering the first sacrifices under the newly enacted sacrificial system, Nadab and Abihu take it upon themselves to offer a sacrifice of their own to God. Up to this point in the book, God had spent a great deal of time–seven chapters, if we use the chapter system as a measuring rod–explaining the proper way in which to offer sacrifices, both for sin and for worship. There were to be no deviations from these rules which God had made quite clear to His people. The fact that these sacrifices that Nadab and Abihu offered were not under the mandated system is plainly pointed out; Moses–the author of Leviticus–refers to them as “strange fire.” Nadab and Abihu–men who were just ordained and consecrated as priests and obligated to know and practice the Law better than anyone else–went out of their way to offer a sacrifice which was not commanded; they offered an illegal sacrifice. This offense resulted in their deaths; fire came from the presence of God and consumed them. If this penalty seems harsh, we must remember that God values–above all else–obedience, and those whom He had called to be the spiritual leaders of His chosen people were expected to be obedient. Straying from His rules, even out of religious zeal and enthusiasm, is unacceptable. In disregarding the Law and offering their own sacrifice, Nadab and Abihu showed disrespect to God and little regard for His commandments. In their actions, Nadab and Abihu dishonored God.

Christ’s atoning death fulfilled the demands of the Law and lifted its burden from our shoulders. However, we are still called to be God’s holy people. There is much in Leviticus which is foreign to us and, in the light of Christ’s actions on the cross, unnecessary for us to adhere to; for instance, we are no longer expected to offer animal sacrifices–to do so would be unorthodox, heretical and inappropriate. Yet, throughout the New Testament, we see that we are called to live differently from the world, to imitate Christ, to offer our lives to Christ as living sacrifices; we are called to complete and total obedience to Christ and to God. 

We are the nation of priests that God called out from every nation to draw all peoples to Him. This requires us to be exceedingly mindful of how we conduct ourselves in every way. We must always remember that God is holy, and we must always show Him honor; to do anything short of this is to commit the same sin that Nadab and Abihu were guilty of. We offer God that same “strange fire” when our worship is insincere, when our lives are not in obedience to Him, or when we attempt to usurp the glory which is rightfully His for ourselves. We fool ourselves–just as Nadab and Abihu did–when we think that God will make exceptions for our actions–whatever they may be.

God is a holy God, and He will be honored and glorified. He will not be mocked or taken lightly. Do not offer Him “strange fire;” offer Him what He demands: your genuine and sincere and humble obedience.

Artwork: “Nadab and Abihu Cast into Flames,” etching from Icones Biblicae, c. 1630.

Cut.

Christianity, Religion

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” Acts 2:37.

 Jerusalem was crowded with Jewish pilgrims visiting the city for the celebration of Pentecost fifty days after Passover, and the time was right for a mighty movement of God.  The Holy Spirit had just descended upon the followers of Christ who were assembled there together.  Being led by the Spirit, Peter got up to preach to the masses.

Peter’s sermon was powerful. He began with the prophet Joel and described how the coming of the Spirit fulfilled prophecies made by Joel and signaled that the “last day” had now been reached. He continued on through the Psalms and showed how David pointed forward to Jesus in his writings; showing that Jesus is Adonai and Messiah. Peter proclaimed the good news–the gospel–that this Jesus who was crucified and died was now alive, and that all who called upon His name would be saved.

Peter had come a long way; fifty days earlier he was cutting off the ear of one of those who had come to arrest Christ in Gethsemane. After that, he had denied knowing Jesus–not once, not twice, but three times; he even cursed Jesus’ name with his third denial. Peter was bold and brash, he acted before he thought. Now, only fifty days later–and after being filled with the Holy Spirit–he was preaching the first sermon of the Christian era. He was a fisherman from Galilee, utterly untrained as a teacher, yet he was teaching the Scriptures better than any rabbi had. He had been transformed by the Spirit.

The Spirit moved mightily in those hearing Peter’s words. Acts 2:37 tells us that they were “cut,” literally pierced, to the hearts. They were filled with the conviction of their sins and allowed to see the truth before them that Jesus is the Messiah. This cutting to the heart echoes the Old Testament prophets and is connected to the most fundamental of all Israelite customs: circumcision. We see this merger between the two when Moses commanded the Israelites to “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn,” (Deuteronomy 10:16). Jeremiah echoes this appeal in his prophecies when pleading with the people to repent of their sinful ways.  People needed to change their hearts–cut away the sin and excess– and follow God, yet they could not make this change through their own strength or actions.

The Spirit was the tool by which God would change the hearts of His people. The Spirit is transformative and regenerative. It provided the means of circumcising their hearts, and it presented them with a renewed spirit. Those whose hearts the Spirit cut and transformed would now be able to walk according to God’s statutes and commandments. They would now be able to be His people.

The Spirit is still at work and cutting hearts today. It can still transform lives. It has been poured out upon all mankind and is seeking to circumcise the hearts of those who feel the pierce of conviction. Submit to it, be baptized in the blood of Christ, be filled with the Spirit, and let it prune away the dead sinful skin of your heart. Allow it to transform you, just as it transformed Peter, and just as it transformed 3,000 people who heard him preach that day.