Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Hebrews 6:13-15 Soon and very soon. . .

Before we move into today's passage, I want to remind you of the context of this letter, Remember that the author is warning the Hebrew believers not to be sucked back into the emptiness and futility of religious ritual. They were being tempted to return to their traditions, which lead to legalism and bondage. Why are we always so eager to do things in our own strength and by our own will? Give us a tangible ritual to perform and we will feel like we have done something to help our spiritual state. If we just complete this ritual or recite this prayer, God will hear us and be pleased.

So this letter, then, is a strong warning to the Hebrew believers to continue to walk in grace. The work that Jesus completed on the cross and continues to do as He intercedes for us, is the ONLY thing which brings us to the Father. In this way, Jesus is the superior high priest; He is the only priest we need.

The first century believers, like us, lived in constant expectancy of the LORD’s return. This is our great and glorious hope - that one day Jesus WILL return as promised! Those believers were thinking it would be any day, and they were becoming a bit impatient to see it. The author may have thought that this delay in Christ’s return was influencing some to turn back to Judaism. So, he reminds them that God ALWAYS keeps His promises:

When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself,  saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. (Hebrews 6:13-15 NIV)

What promise did God make to Abraham? Well, He made several, but this one specifically quotes the one made in Genesis 22, right after Abraham had taken Isaac to Mount Moriah, where he was prepared to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. God had kept Abraham from slaying Isaac, and provided the lamb for the sacrifice. So the LORD made this promise to Abraham:

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:15-18)

When I first read this passage, I thought, “Wait a minute? Abraham waited patiently? What about taking Hagar, who was offered by Sarah, because they were tired of waiting for the promised son? The birth of Hagar’s son, Ishmael, brought nothing but problems between the Arabs and the Jews since then! However, last week I heard a radio pastor and then read in Jon Courson’s New Application Commentary the same idea that applies here: when the New Testament mentions Old Testament people, it’s always the positive side of that person - what they did by faith - not how they failed. This is a powerful demonstration of God’s grace in their lives. Their past failures and sin, just like ours, have been forgiven. So, when God sees them, and us now, it is through Christ! Hallelujah! We will see that clearly when we get to chapter 11.

We will spend more time on this passage next time. There is much to be mined here!  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hebrew 6:9-12 Keep at it!

Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation.  God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.  We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (Hebrews 6:9-12)

In the previous passages, the author of Hebrews has been speaking some harder words about the need to mature and the sad state of those who reject Christ. But he turns in this next passage to assure them that he knows that these believers will indeed persevere in their faith. He will continue to remind them of the superiority of Christ and His sacrificial death for us.

However, in these few verses it could be assumed that these believers were being justified to God by their works. From the whole of scriptures we know this is not what the writer is saying. He IS saying that their works for God do not go unnoticed. God WILL remember our works done for Him, and, in fact, will reward us for them. But the only work that saves us and reconciles sinful man to our holy God is the work of Christ on the cross. But our works do justify us before men. They prove our faith to others - not to God, who already knows our hearts - but to men who can only judge our faith by what they see in our actions.

The other day I heard that wonderful radio preacher, J. Vernon McGee, though now deceased, still preaching it out in old recordings, quoting John Calvin on the tension between faith and works:

Faith alone saves - but faith that saves is never alone - John Calvin

This just sums it all up for me. We have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Period. However, real saving faith will ALWAYS result in works, because it comes from the heart of God. Our hearts should be moved by His to reach out to a lost world. Our faith in a compassionate, loving God should compel us to demonstrate that love to others in tangible ways. They should be able to look at us and see Jesus.

Notice that the author of Hebrews says that the Christian life will require diligence to the end. This is not a faith for the lazy, but will require patience in order to inherit what has been promised. The closer I get to the end, the more I see the need to not rest but to keep on moving and doing. It’s not a time for the “younger folk” to take over while I sit on the front porch. My work for Christ won’t be over “til it’s over.

My job is now to pass on what I’ve learned, to pour myself and my energy into getting out the gospel, and, indeed, living out the gospel - to my grandchildren, to my coworkers, to my neighbors, to anyone God puts in my path! Am I doing it? Not nearly enough or boldly enough! In teeny-tiny ways, maybe. But I’m getting restless to do MORE! Pray with me that we will all want to be more, grow more, and demonstrate more of Christ. 

We are told here to imitate those who have modeled this diligence for us.  Later in this letter the author will list off for us the heroes of the faith who did persevere, but next he will turn to the certainty of the promise of God. Good stuff ahead! Stay with me here!  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Hebrews 6:1-8 Impossible?

In Chapter 6 of Hebrews, the author continues his insistence that they move forward in their understanding, continue to grow in their faith. He includes himself by using the pronoun “us” and “we.”

So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God. You don’t need further instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.  And so, God willing, we will move forward to further understanding. (Hebrews 6:1-3 NLT)

And then he makes a disturbing statement that could, and probably does, confuse many.

For it is impossible to bring back to repentance those who were once enlightened—those who have experienced the good things of heaven and shared in the Holy Spirit,  who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come—  and who then turn away from God. It is impossible to bring such people back to repentance; by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame. (vs. 4-5)

Is he saying that it is possible to lose your salvation? I think not. He is clearly not talking about a true believer here, but about someone who has tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come—  and who then turn away from God. Matthew Henry, in his commentary on these verses, suggests that this is like the person at a street fair who tastes a sample of something, possibly likes it, but decides not to buy and moves on. This is someone who has heard the gospel, maybe even liked what he heard, maybe even started coming to church, but when things got a little difficult, this person turns away disillusioned, because he never counted the cost.

The Apostle John seems to confirm this view of those who fall or turn away:

These people left our churches, but they never really belonged with us; otherwise they would have stayed with us. When they left, it proved that they did not belong with us. (1 John 2:19)

Jesus indicated that there were several reasons why people will fall away in His parable of the Sower:

The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message about the Kingdom and don’t understand it. Then the evil one comes and snatches away the seed that was planted in their hearts.  The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy.  But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word.  The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced. (Matthew 13:19-22)

The writer of Hebrews says it is impossible to bring back to repentance those who were once enlightened. . . and who then turn away from God. Yes, it is impossible for man, but ALL things are possible with God. (Matthew 19:26) We should never give up on anyone - even if his heart appears hardened to us. Only God knows the hearts of men. Our job is to keep presenting the gospel and to pray for the Holy Spirit to do the work in the heart.

However, the author of Hebrews also indicates that there is a point of no return for those who continue to reject Jesus Christ, because by rejecting the Son of God, they themselves are nailing him to the cross once again and holding him up to public shame. (Hebrews 6:6b) And there is a cost for that: 

When the ground soaks up the falling rain and bears a good crop for the farmer, it has God’s blessing.  But if a field bears thorns and thistles, it is useless. The farmer will soon condemn that field and burn it. (vs.7-8)

We all know and could probably recite John 3:16, which spells out the good news:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (NIV)

But do we know what comes after this? Here’s the “bad news:”

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:18)

Do you have loved ones who have turned away from or rejected Jesus? Don’t give up! Keep praying! Ask the Lord to send believers into that person’s life who will be able to show him Christ - maybe in a way that you can’t. I cling to the wonderful example of the thief on the cross next to Jesus who made the last minute confession of faith before dying, and Jesus promised him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) That’s amazing grace!  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Hebrews 5:11-14 Bring on the Cheerios!

There is much more we would like to say about this, but it is difficult to explain, especially since you are spiritually dull and don’t seem to listen.  You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food.  For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right.  Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong. (Hebrews 5:11-14 NLT)

My youngest grandchild, Georgia, now ten months old, got her first two baby teeth early on. Then next six came in all at once! That girl wants to chew on things! She is not satisfied any longer just having baby food. She wants to eat what everyone else is eating! Bring on the Cheerios! She’s even beginning to mimic words. She will say, “Hello,” “Dada,” something that sounds like “Mama,” and even “Nanny,” which sounds more like “NahNah.” These little milestones delight us. However, if when she is five years old this is all she can do, believe me, we would be alarmed! It would mean that she was developmentally delayed and not growing as she should. We would be bringing in experts to help!

There is a time, when we first come to Christ, that we are just overwhelmed by the fact that God is our Father, and that He has saved us, just as we were by His amazing grace. We will gladly tell everyone around us about what Jesus did on the cross. We could recite the basics of the gospel easily: Jesus, the unique Son of God, came to Earth as a man to die, taking the punishment for our sin on the cross; He was resurrected and is at the right hand of the Father, always interceding for us!

 Frankly, we should be marveling at this every day. The fact that He accepts us exactly where we are - with our strong wills, with our nasty tempers, in our addiction to drugs, or alcohol, or sex. Right where we are! Amazing. However, the writer of Hebrews tells us there is more. There is solid food waiting for us in God’s Word. More for us to know, more of HIM to know. While God receives us just where we are, He does not want to leave us this way. His goal is to transform us into His image. He wants us to be changed as we read His Word.

 Note in verse 14 that He wants us to do this through training. This would indicate a commitment to grow. It’s one thing to exercise occasionally. It’s another to put yourself through training. God wants us to exercise spiritually daily. He wants us to grow in our relationship with Him, to dedicate ourselves to learning who He is and what He wants us to do - how we fit into His Kingdom plans. This happens when we read through the entire Word of God - not just bits and pieces - and see the whole picture. Then we do it again and again, like repetitions in a training workout. And the truth is that we see something new every single time we read the Bible. This is the solid food that the author is writing about.

And it’s interesting that one of the outcomes is that we will gain the the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong. When we are babies in the faith, we don’t always make the best choices for ourselves. But once we dig in and start seeing who Christ is, we recognize that there are some behaviors that Christ followers are going to want to develop, and others that they are going to want to drop. This is the maturing process that comes from the training.

I get the feeling from this passage that the author is a little frustrated with this group, like a teacher might be when she’s trying to move on in a math concept, but can’t because her students are still stuck on their facts. Sigh. Let’s move on people! Bring on the Cheerios!  

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hebrews 5:4-9 Jesus Learned Obedience

Why is it that some children learn lessons quickly, while others need to be taught over and over? If you have more than one child, or if you have siblings, you know that, even though the children of one family are all raised in the same home by the same parents, each child has a unique personality and learns life lessons in different ways. And some of us remain that way into adulthood. While many just need to read the sign, “Wet paint,” to know to stay away from the freshly painted fence, others feel compelled to approach the fence and come away with a wet hand!

Being the youngest of four girls, I studied my sisters, and, while I copied much of their behaviors, I also learned that there were some places I did not want to go, some consequences I did not want to suffer. Yet, that didn’t prevent me from blazing my own trails of disobedience - and then suffering my own consequences! Every one of us has the same propensity to sin. I’ve often heard this illustration used: you do not need to train a child how to disobey. They do it intuitively! You have to train them how to be obedient!

Our scripture passage this morning tells us that Jesus learned obedience when He became a man. This is why the Bible tells us He was tempted in every way that we are. The difference is that He did not sin!

While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God.  Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.  In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him. (Hebrews 5:4-9)

When the Son of God left His glory in Heaven to come to Earth to save man, He willingly took on the limitations of men. He became fully man while still being fully God. Had He not been fully man, He would not have qualified to take our place in payment for our sins. So, as a man, He had to “learn” obedience. How did He do that. Our passage tells us specifically that he learned obedience from the things he suffered. It is in suffering that we learn how to obey God.

Think back to the wet paint. If you have a tendency to disobey (which we all do), then you will test the paint. When you experience the red paint all over your hand, you will learn to NOT touch wet paint. When you reach for the hot skillet without an oven mitt, you quickly learn from the blisters on your fingers that next time you’d better protect yourself. But more profoundly, when you are in the midst of deep suffering or loss, you learn to lean on your Father in a way that you never have before. Suffering changes your perspective.

People who have gone through excruciating trials will often say that the experience brought them to a much greater personal knowledge of God and His grace and love. Because of the suffering, they grew closer to God and their walk with Him became more intimate and real.

Jesus promised that we would have much tribulation in this world, but through His obedience to the Father, He has overcome the world. Please note the connection of the prayers of Jesus to His obedience: . . . he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God.

In order to be obedient as a man, Jesus committed Himself to His Father. He prayed and pleaded. This was no quiet, contemplative prayer. It was a desperate clinging to and relying on His Father in His great need to stay focused on the cross. His whole life’s purpose was to be obedient to the plan of the Father, so He drew on the strength of the Father to move toward the cross.

We, too, can learn obedience through suffering. Sometimes it is suffering we have brought on ourselves - through our own poor or rebellious choices. Sometimes it is suffering forced upon us by others - a financial loss or a divorce. And sometimes it is given us by God for our good and His glory. Whatever the source of the suffering you are in at this moment, rely on your Father to strengthen you in it, to transform you through it, and to use you because of it.

It’s good to be back in His Word!