Promises, Promises.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion
Gravestone St. Domitilla catacomb in Rome depicting two fish anchored to the anchor of hope. Courtesy of https://earlychurchhistory.org/

“Because God wanted to show His unchangeable purpose even more clearly to the heirs of the promise, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that through two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope as an anchor for our lives, safe and secure.” Hebrews 6:17-19

In Hebrews 6, we read some of the author’s most reassuring words. These words of hope and comfort come in the middle of a discussion of the eternal and unchanging nature of God’s promises. Here, we see the author demonstrate how faithful God is to keep His promises by using Abraham’s example. We are reminded of how God kept His promise to bless Abraham with many descendants. This stands as a reminder to us that God will also keep His promises to us.

What are the promises that God is going to keep to us? They are His promises to redeem us from sin, to offer us forgiveness, to make us His people. They include Christ’s promises to never leave us nor forsake us, to be with us each and every day until the end of time, and to return for us to take us to be with Him in heaven. These are the promises that will be kept to us. The author reminds us that these promises give us hope and that they anchor our souls.

The imagery of an anchor is especially important in this passage. Think about what an anchor is used for–they used to keep a boat from being blown off course or blown into danger during a storm. When the seas rage and the storms overwhelm the boat, the anchor holds the boat steady. This is what Christ does for us; He holds us steady during life’s trials and troubles. He is with us in the midst of the storms. Our anchor is securely fastened to His throne of mercy, and He secured it there when He blazed a trail through the heaven. Regardless of what we might encounter in this life, our anchor will hold firmly.

It is important to point out that Christ did not promise us smooth sailing, nor did He promises is a comfortable life. Christ did not promise us health, wealth, or prosperity. Christ did not promise us happiness. Many people started believing these things along the way, but these are not promises that Christ ever made. These are lies that were fabricated by false teachers.

The promises that Christ made are more important and more incredible than comfortable living, health, wealth, prosperity, and happiness. He promised to be with us and to hold us amid life’s storms. He called upon us to be willing to give up our health, wealth, and prosperity for His sake, and in return, He promised to sustain us and provide for us each and every day. Christ has promised to bring us peace and comfort during the times when we have no happiness, when we are surrounded by pain and sorrow, and when our tears are drowning us. He has promised to give us a joy that endures even the darkest days. Christ promised to anchor us throughout everything we endure, and this promise will never be broken.

Compassion and Confidence.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus the Son of God—let us hold fast to the confession.” Hebrews 4:14

In Hebrews 4:14-16, we see the author of Hebrews offer us some words of hope and encouragement. In these verses, the author returns to a discussion about Christ as our perfect high priest. In these three verses, the author explains to us how Christ’s compassion allows us to live life with confidence and hope.

Following the author’s solemn words of warning about falling into unbelief and God knowing the motives of our hearts, the author reminds us that we still have hope. This hope is grounded in the fact that Christ is our great high priest; He is the high priest who is superior to all other priests.  What makes Christ superior to the other high priests? The author tells us that Christ is the Son of God and that He has “passed through the heavens.” This phrase, “passed through the heavens,” is unique, and it has two significant meanings. On the surface level, it refers to the fact that Christ is the Son of God who came from and returned to Heaven, which means that He enjoys a relationship with God that no other high priest could. 

The phrase “passed through” can also be used to describe a person going through a door, or in a more specific usage, going behind a curtain or veil. This is the same phrase used to explain how the earthly high priest would pass through the veil in the Jerusalem temple and enter into the Holy of Holies, which was the place where God’s presence dwelt. The Holy of Holies was the most sacred space in the temple; it was the place where His domain overlapped with ours. Due to its sacred nature, the Holy of Holies was separated from the rest of the temple by an enormous veil, and the high priest was the only person allowed to enter it. Even then, the high priest was only allowed to do so on one day a year–the Day of Atonement. On that day, the high priest would sprinkle the blood of a goat upon the Ark of the Covenant. By doing this, the high priest brought forgiveness to the people.

In the same way that the high priest passed through the veil to go into the Holy of Holies to bring forgiveness to the people, Christ passed through Heaven to go directly into God’s presence to make atonement for us and to make forgiveness available for us as well. This ability to go straight into God’s presence, to go before His throne in Heaven, makes Christ the greatest of all the high priests. 

Not only is the fact that we have the greatest high priest pleading our case before God is a source of great hope for us, but it is also a source of great confidence. Since Christ has paid the price for all of our sins, we no longer have to be afraid of God’s wrath; we are no longer under sin’s penalty of death. Our sentence has been commuted; we have been acquitted. Even more incredible than that, when Christ went behind the veil to make atonement for us, He left it open so that we can go directly before God’s throne to receive mercy and grace when we repent from our sins. This is fantastic news! No longer do we have to fear God’s wrath, no longer do we have to hide in our sin and shame as Adam and Eve did. Now, we can go confidently before God and receive the mercy and grace that He gives us when we repent. Instead of running from God when we sin, we can now run to Him and receive His mercy and grace.

As long as we live in this world, we will struggle with sin. But we now have the hope of forgiveness and mercy. Do not try to hide your sins from God; go confidently to His throne in repentance and receive the grace and mercy that He will give you. Stop living a life of shame and fear; live the life of hope and confidence that only Christ can provide.

Stop running from God. Put the faith you profess to have into action and run to Christ.

The Cost of Unbelief.

Christianity, Hebrews, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Eager to Hear.

Christianity, Nehemiah, Religion, Worship

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

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

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

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

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

We see the people are eager to worship

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

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

We see the people are reverent in worship.

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

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

We see the people were moved by their worship.

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

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

We see the people are confronted by their worship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restore.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

He restores my strength.

He leads me down the right paths

for the sake of his reputation.

Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no danger,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff reassure me.

You prepare a feast before me

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

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

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

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

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

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