Sunday, November 25, 2018

Hosea, Day 6: Hosea 2:8-20 - Why is the Lord So Harsh to His People Sometimes?

Why is the Lord So Harsh to His People Sometimes?
Hosea, Day 6

Now I will uncover her lewdness
    in the sight of her lovers,
    and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.
And I will put an end to all her mirth,
    her feasts, her new moons, her Sabbaths,
    and all her appointed feasts.
And I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees,
    of which she said,
‘These are my wages,
    which my lovers have given me.’
I will make them a forest,
    and the beasts of the field shall devour them.
And I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals
    when she burned offerings to them
and adorned herself with her ring and jewelry,
    and went after her lovers
    and forgot me, declares the Lord.

“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
    and bring her into the wilderness,
    and speak tenderly to her.
And there I will give her her vineyards
    and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth,
    as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.

“And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’
- Hosea 2:10-16, ESV

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says, "I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?" Have you even wondered why the Lord can be so harsh to His own people at times? While Tevye's theology leaves much to be desired, it does seem like God appoints extra measures of hardship for His own people. If you read the prophets, God has some very harsh things to say to His people, too. Verses 8-13 of Hosea 2 contain some very harsh pronouncements against Israel. Why? 

Have you ever seen an intervention? What do you do when someone you love is bent on self-destruction? Sometimes addicts have to hit rock bottom before they'll see their desperate need for help clearly enough to do whatever it takes to get freedom. Sadly, too many addicts have enablers in their lives who prop them up and allow them to keep feeding their addiction, instead of getting the real help they desperately need.

God loves His people too much to leave us alone in our sin. He loves us too much to abandon us to our idolatry. Israel was addicted to the Baals, a series of false Canaanite gods that made empty promises and demanded heavy sacrifices. Their idolatry was spiritual adultery, and God was determined to have His bride for Himself, not to share her with others.

We are in the same condition as Israel when we turn to the world instead of the Lord. As we saw on Day 2, James makes our condition very clear:

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (James 4:4-5, ESV)

Thankfully, the passage doesn't end there. R.C. Sproul said the most important word in the Bible is "but." Verse 6 begins, "But he gives more grace." In Hosea 2, the "but" turning point comes in the words "Therefore, behold" at the beginning of verse 14.

Why does God use the word "therefore" and not the word "but" here in Hosea 2? Because the Lord is telling Israel why He is being harsh to them. He wants them to know the reason for His discipline. He takes away what is precious to them so He can fill their emptiness with Himself. He wants to break them of their love for the Baals so He can replace that love with His own love.

If you are choosing to love the world more than your Lord, He will love you enough to break you of your idols. The breaking will be painful, but He does it in love, to win your heart back to Himself.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Hosea, Day 5: Hosea 2:1-13 - Who Should Proclaim God's Mercy and Call God's People to Repentance?

Who Should Proclaim God's Mercy and Call God's People to Repentance?
Hosea, Day 5

Say to your brothers, “You are my people,” and to your sisters, “You have received mercy.”

“Plead with your mother, plead—
    for she is not my wife,
    and I am not her husband—
that she put away her whoring from her face,
    and her adultery from between her breasts." 
- Hosea 2:1-2, ESV

The most motivated and effective missionary in the history of Christianity was the Apostle Paul. Paul planted churches and spread the Gospel over the entire eastern half of the Roman Empire, enduring hardship and bearing fruit for God's glory unlike anyone else before or since. What motivated Paul to strive and persevere and preach, despite all the many obstacles he faced? He never forgot who he was without Christ and what God's mercy had saved him from.

In 1 Timothy, written later in his ministry life, Paul writes:

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17, ESV)

Paul saw himself as the foremost of all sinners. He knew what he had been without Christ: a wicked man who blasphemed God and persecuted His people. He also knew that it was the grace of God alone which had saved him.

In Hosea 2, we find another shocking passage of Scripture. The language is strong, the imagery vivid and appalling. But if we look carefully at what God is doing here, we will see the richness of His grace at work, even in the face of shocking sin.

Hosea first speaks to his own children and tells them to talk to Gomer's illegitimate children. It seems from verse 1 that Hosea and Gomer must have had more than just the three children named in chapter 1. It seems that Hosea is talking to those children that were truly his and telling them to proclaim to their illegitimate brothers and sisters - children Gomer had conceived in her adultery and prostitution - that they are loved and cherished as Hosea's own children. Thus, verse 1 is a continuation of the good news reversal that closed chapter 1. But note who is called to deliver the good news of mercy: Hosea's children.

Who is called to take the good news of God's mercy to the world? The children of God, who have already received that mercy. Those who, like the Apostle Paul, know the riches of God's grace, are best in a position to proclaim that grace to others.

But the call to proclaim is not always a nice, easy one. Together, all of Hosea's children, his natural and his adopted children, are told to plead with their mother to put away her whoring. These are all Gomer's children, some she bore to Hosea and some she conceived immorally, but they all plead with her to repent and return to her husband in faithfulness. She is not living like a wife, and she is endangering all of her children, for if she continues her immoral ways, she could be put out by Hosea and her children could all be put in danger.

Remember that Gomer represents Israel. Thus, she represents the people of God, the church, in their faithlessness to God. And who is called to call the church to repentance? Her children. In other words, Christians not only have the responsibility to call the world to come and see the mercy of God, but they also have a responsibility to call the church to repentance and faithfulness to the Lord.

Sadly, Gomer is not going to listen to the pleading of her children. Often, the church hardens its heart against its Lord and faithful husband. But what Hosea will do in chapter 3 will display the pursuing grace of God powerfully.

As children of God who have received His mercy and been forgiven of our sin, we are called to do two things: To proclaim His mercy to others who need to hear the good news of the grace of God and to call the church of Jesus Christ to repent of worldliness and idolatry and return to faithfulness to the Lord. These are great privileges we have as children of God, ambassadors for Christ, and citizens of His heavenly kingdom. Let's embrace them and pray that God would use us to bring unbelievers to mercy and His church to greater faithfulness.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Hosea, Day 4: Hose 1:8-11 - Why Such Dramatic and Unexpected Good News?

Why Such Dramatic and Unexpected Good News?
Hosea, Day 4

When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. And the LORD said, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.”

Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel.
- Hosea 1:8-11, ESV

A sudden and dramatic turn of events for the good can catch you by surprise and turn a tragedy into victory in a flash. Great movies make the most of these sudden plot twists: The hero seems defeated, only to emerge from the smoke of the collapsed building, victorious over evil at last. We all love such moments, and if they’re done well, they can cause us to shout for joy.

It’s hard to find a more sudden, dramatic and unexpected turn of events than what happens between verses 9 and 10 in Hosea 1. We have just heard the very strange and depressing names of Hosea’s second and third children – No Mercy and Not My People – when suddenly, the word “yet” changes everything.

The late R.C. Sproul famously said the most important word in the Bible was “but,” because it’s the word God uses to change the bad news of our sin and misery into the good news of His love and redemption. That’s what the word “yet” is doing at the beginning of verse 10.

God had made precious promises to Abraham that the number of his offspring would be as countless than the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore. But here was God in Hosea 1 indicating His utter rejection of His people in a very dramatic and troubling way. He was not going to have mercy on His people. In fact, God went to far as to stunningly reverse the great covenant promise. Instead of “You shall be my people, and I will be your God,” He had said, “for you are not my people, and I am not your God.”

But just when the scene seems to be as black as it could be, the light begins to shine with that wonderful word “yet.” God’s judgment against His people for their sin would not cause Him to forget His covenant promises. While He would judge His people for their sin, He would not utterly forsake them. In judgment, the LORD would indeed remember mercy.

Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by our sin. We may find ourselves in a dark time, under the heavy hand of God’s discipline. We may lose sight of our hope in these dark times, but God never loses sight of His promises. We may fail, but God never fails. That’s our hope, no matter how dark the night and no matter how deep our sin. The LORD is merciful, and He will indeed have mercy!

Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint for themselves one head. And they shall go up from the land, for great shall be the day of Jezreel.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Hosea, Day 3: Hosea 1:3-9 - Why Such Strange Names for These Children?

Why Such Strange Names for These Children?
Hosea, Day 3

So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.
And the LORD said to him, “Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. And on that day, I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.”

She conceived again and bore a daughter. And the LORD said to him, “Call her name No Mercy, for I will no more have mercy on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all. But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen.”

When she had weaned No Mercy, she conceived and bore a son. And the LORD said, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.” – Hosea 1:3-9, ESV

Naming your children is one of the most important things new parents do. It’s exciting, and sometimes a bit overwhelming. When we named our first-born son, it was easy: Andrew is my middle name and is also the name of the first evangelist named in the Gospel of John, my favorite Gospel. Andrew brings his brother, Simon Peter, to the Lord. This expressed our hope for our son, that he would be an early and enthusiastic disciple of the Lord Jesus. Our second son is named Jeremiah, and we struggled more over his name, going back and forth between Jeremiah and Luke before settling on Jeremiah, a name that fits him well.

Hosea didn’t get to choose what to name his children. God told him what to name them, and God gave Hosea’s kids some very strange names. Yet what’s even more poignant is the fact that two of Hosea’s three children likely weren’t even his, as their names and the account of their births seem to make clear.

The account of the birth of Jezreel is pretty straightforward. Hosea took Gomer as his wife. She conceived and bore him a son. God told Hosea to name him Jezreel, as a word of warning and judgment against northern Israel. Jezreel is perhaps not the name Hosea would have chosen, but it all seems clear and sensible enough, for a prophet. Then things get strange.

Gomer next conceives and bears a daughter, but the text leaves out a key word - “him.” She did not bear him a daughter, as was said regarding Jezreel, “she conceived and bore him a son.” The idea that this girl is not Hosea’s biological daughter is also captured by her name, No Mercy. This name means no compassion, no sympathy, no tender affection or love. What dad names his daughter that? One who was commanded to do so by God, yes, but also one who knows the girl is not really his daughter.

This trend continues and is intensified with the third child born in chapter one, a son named Not My People. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. These two, No Mercy and Not My People, are the “children of whoredom” God told Hosea he would have by “a wife of whoredom.” An unfaithful wife has illegitimate children. Ouch!

If you feel badly for these children, just wait. The story gets better. Hosea is a redemption story after all. But for now, we’re meant to see something clear: Our unfaithfulness to God has real and lasting consequences. Our sin brings disastrous consequences into our lives. Also, we’re to not only identify ourselves with Gomer but also with No Mercy and Not My People. We have no natural, legitimate claim to be called children of God. Our sins separate us from God, cutting us off from His mercy and from being His people. This stunning, sobering truth should cause us to repent and seek the Lord for redemption.     

Friday, November 2, 2018

Hosea, Day 2: Hosea 1:1-3 - Are We Really That Bad?

Are We Really That Bad?
Hosea, Day 2

The word of the LORD that came to Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel.

When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. – Hosea 1:1-3, ESV

Sometimes, we need to take a step back and look at our actions from a more objective perspective, so we can see what we’re really doing. God did this for King David when He sent Nathan the prophet to confront him over his sin with Bathsheba and against Uriah the Hittite. When Nathan came to confront David in 2 Samuel 12, he first presented David’s sin to him in the form of a story about another man who had wronged his neighbor. Only when David’s righteous sense of justice was aroused by the story of a man who stole a precious only lamb from his neighbor did Nathan turn and make his confrontation more direct and bold: “You are the man!” he told David. And David saw his sin and repented.

I don’t know what excuses David was making for his sin, but I do know how easy it is to minimize and excuse gross sin. Sadly, that is one area of life where I have too much personal experience. The rationalizing usually involves the words, “it was only” and “I had to” and maybe “if they had only.” So, for David: “It was only an impulsive act of passion. If only she wasn’t bathing on her rooftop. I tried to give Uriah a chance. If only he had been more like normal men and gone in to sleep with his wife. Once he refused, I had to save face. I had to cover up our act of passion. He left me with no choice.” Nathan’s words cut through the rationalizing denials like a sharp sword: “You are the man!”

The Book of Hosea does that for us. We are shocked and horrified by the story of Hosea marrying a woman who was habitually unfaithful to him and who even bore children with other men. We’re outraged, and our sense of righteous justice is aroused. This isn’t right! But then God says: “for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” In other words: We are the adulterous woman!

Do we believe it? Or do we recoil from such an association and say, “No, Lord, we can’t be that bad.” Really? What does James say? “You adulterous people! Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.” (James 4:4, ESV) Have we set our affections on the things of the world? Of course, we have! Do we have worldly idols in our hearts, deep and desperate longings for wealth, status, reputation, comfort, illicit pleasures? Of course, we do! Then we need to look at ourselves in the mirror of God’s word and realize that we are, indeed, the adulterous people.

We will not come to repentance until we realize the depth and horror of our sin. Until we see our sin for the ugly unfaithfulness it is, our hearts will not be broken. May the Lord be pleased to break us, that He may be pleased to heal us in Christ.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Hosea, Day 1: Hosea 1:1-3 - What Do You Do When God Calls You to Do Something Really Hard?

What Do You Do When God Calls You to Do Something Really Hard?
Hosea, Day 1

The word of the LORD that came to Hosea, the son of Beeri, in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel.

When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. – Hosea 1:1-3, ESV

Have you ever been called by the Lord to do something really hard? Forgiving someone who doesn’t deserve it is one of the hard tasks the Lord calls us to do. Have you ever been convicted by the Word and the Spirit that you really needed to forgive someone, but you just didn’t want to do it? Maybe the person had sinned against you too many times or in a seriously damaging way. Whatever the reason, you knew you needed to forgive them, but you just weren’t sure how.

Hosea was called by the Lord to do something most of us would consider nearly impossible. Hosea was a prophet of the Lord who lived and prophesied at the same time as Isaiah and Micah, around 750 years before Jesus was born. While the calling of any prophet is never easy, since they are called to speak God’s word to a people in rebellion against Him, Hosea had a particularly difficult call: God told Hosea to take “a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom.”

Don’t miss the clear truth here: Hosea was not just to marry a woman who had a shady past but who would nonetheless be faithful to him. No, he was called to marry a woman who had been sexually promiscuous and who would be unfaithful to him. He knew before he said his marriage vows to Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, that she was going to be an adulteress. Even more difficult, she would have children through her sexual immorality, children born to Hosea that were not Hosea’s.

Can you imagine being called to such an impossible calling? I don’t think I would be able to do it. Yet Hosea obeyed the Lord.

Why would the Lord ask Hosea to do such an unthinkable thing? Because he wanted a prophet to speak to the people who truly understood God’s perspective on His people. God had taken His people to be His bride. He had entered into a sacred covenant with them and had showered them with goodness, but His people had repaid His kindness and faithfulness with idolatry, which God calls spiritual adultery.

God never calls anyone to do anything which He Himself is not willing to do. God was not calling Hosea to do anything harder than what God Himself was enduring with His people generation after generation, century after century. As we explore Hosea in the coming weeks, we will see the heart of God for His people and we will also see ourselves on open and ugly display in the actions of Gomer, the wife of whoredom. May the Lord convict us and change us through our time together in His word. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Hebrews, Day 57: Hebrews 13:20-21 - How Can We Please God?

How Can We Please God?
Hebrews, Day 57

Audio Version

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. - Hebrews 13:20-21, ESV

Have you ever known someone who was really hard to please? If you've ever been the parent of a teenager, you probably have. People who are really hard to please are typically a combination of picky and unpredictable. They have a very narrow idea of what they like, and their preferences can shift with their moods and the day of the week.

As Christians, our highest goal should be to please God with our lives. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:9, "we make it our aim to please him." The longing of every believer's heart is to reach heaven and hear Jesus say, "Well done, good and faithful servant."  (see Matthew 25:21-23)

So, is God really hard to please? Well, as the holy, holy, holy God and Lord of heaven and earth, His standards are very high. In fact, His standards are perfection, and they really could not be anything less.

But here's the wonderful thing with God: He does all the work to make us His, and then He works in us that which is pleasing to Him. This wonderful benediction which closes out the Book of Hebrews shows us both of these truths. It reflects back on the work of redemption God has done to make us His - "He bought back from the dead the Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep" - and it looks at what God does in and through us now.

The faithfulness of God kept His covenant promises by raising Jesus from the dead and exalting Him to the highest place of authority. And now, the faithful love of God applies the merits of Christ to our hearts and souls. "By the blood of the eternal covenant" - that is, by the perfect satisfaction Christ made for our sins - God equips us to do everything good. As Peter says in 2 Peter 1:3, "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence."

So God not only provides salvation for us through Jesus Christ, but He also applies that salvation to us in a powerful way. He applies the merits of Christ to us so that we are now equipped with everything good to do His will. But God doesn't just redeem us and equip us. No, He also works in us that which is pleasing in His sight. And He does all of this through Jesus Christ - through His merits applied to us and His intercession for us.

So, is God difficult to please? No! As we trust in Him, He redeems us, equips us, and works in us that which pleases Him. In other words, He makes us pleasing by His grace, and then He takes pleasure in us to the eternal glory of Jesus Christ!

These wonderful truths should give us great encouragement and confidence of our worst days and great humility and gratitude on our best days. God is pleased with us, and that should raise our heads with confidence when we're drooping. But God is pleased with us because He has done all the work to make us pleasing in His sight, from beginning to end. That should keep us humble and grateful when we're tempted to be puffed up. In the end, we can rejoice with confidence, and Jesus can get all the glory! Amen.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Hebrews, Day 56: Hebrews 13:18-19 - Do Our Prayers Really Make a Difference?

Do Our Prayers Really Make a Difference?
Hebrews, Day 56

Audio Version

Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner. 
- Hebrews 13:18-19. ESV

Do you ever wonder why we need to pray? After all, if God is truly sovereign and He knows all and has everything planned out from before the foundation of the earth. what difference could our prayers make?

One way to think about and respond to these kinds of questions is to realize how much prayer changes us when we pray. We need to pray, because we need our hearts to be changed, and as we pray, our hearts are shaped profoundly. When we pray for someone, we come to love them more. When we pray about an issue or problem, we learn to trust God more for the outcome of the situation.

In one my favorite scenes of one of my favorite movies, Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins) explains why he prays in these terms. Lewis' wife, Joy Davidman, is suffering from cancer, and Jack (as C.S. Lewis was known to his friends) has been praying earnestly for her. She begins to get better, as the cancer heads into remission, and his friend affirm that God is answering his prayers. Lewis responds, "That's not why I pray. I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me.”

C.S. Lewis never said or wrote those words, as far as we know. But it does seem to capture well what he might have said. It's a great thought, really. Of course our prayers don't change God. What a horrible thought that would be. Imagine if I, by my thoughts or words, could change God? How would God change? Would I be telling Him something He doesn't already know? Could I convince Him to change His mind and give in to my superior wisdom? Not!

So, if prayer doesn't change God, does that mean that all prayer does is change us? Is prayer entirely a matter of growing us in love, humility and trust? No. At least, not if we're going to take verses 18-19 of Hebrews 13 seriously. Here the author of Hebrews is asking for prayer, and is even earnestly urging the readers of his letter to pray for him. Why? "in order that I may be restored to you the sooner."

He doesn't say, "Pray for me, so that you'll come to love me more." He doesn't say, "Pray for me, so that you'll learn to trust God more during our separation." No, he believes, and it's in God's inerrant word, that their prayers can speed his return to them. So, do our prayers make a difference? Yes. How? We can't say exactly and fully, can we?

We know our prayers don't change God, but it does seem our prayers can affect the timing of God's work and can shape other things in important ways. We pray for people's salvation because we believe God alone can save, and we believe God will answer prayer and save them. How is this possible? Because God ordained it that way. God's plans for the world include us. Our prayers, our preaching, our sharing the Gospel, our service and love, and our obedience to God all are part of the plan of God and are genuinely used by Him for His glory and the fulfillment of His plan for the world and His people.

So, yes, our prayers really matter. We are called to pray, and even eagerly urged to pray, because "The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working." (James 5:16) So keep praying. Pray for me, and pray for one another.

More on this topic from Dr. Guy Richard of Reformed Theological Seminary -

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Hebrews, Day 55: Hebrews 13:15-16 - What Sacrifices Please God?

What Sacrifices Please God?
Hebrews 13:15-16
Hebrews, Day 55

Audio Version

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
- Hebrews 13:15-16, ESV

My wife's birthday is December 12th, less than two weeks before Christmas. We've been married for 20 years, and for most of those 20 years, I have struggled to figure out a good birthday present for her and then to also come up with a good Christmas present idea within just a few days. My wife is not a picky person, not hard to please. But sometimes I'm just lacking in the creativity to come up with something original and interesting twice in such a short period of time. 

The worst birthday present I've gotten her was probably David Brainerd's journal, edited by Jonathan Edwards, accompanied by John Piper's lecture on the life of Brainerd. She was gracious, but I have to admit I was being purely selfish with that one. I had heard Piper's lecture, and I really wanted to read Brainerd. I still haven't. I think I feel too guilty every time I pick up the book. 

Many Christians over the centuries have thought they needed to do something creative for God, to show Him how much they love Him or to somehow get Him to smile on them and bless them. One extreme example from the Middle Ages were the flagellants, men who would whip themselves, leaving their backs bleeding and scarred, in a mixture of repentance and devotion to God. Another, perhaps equally extreme example, were the crusades, in which people went to kill and be killed in the name of Jesus. And what about the grand cathedrals of the late Middle Ages, which kings and bishops built at extreme cost to themselves and their people, seeking to leave a lasting legacy to honor the Lord? Martin Luther went to Rome as a young man and climbed the stone steps on his knees, saying the Lord's Prayer with each stair climbed. Was God pleased with all these sacrifices? No! 

Lest we look down our noses at the Middle Ages, our modern evangelical world is full of people who make offerings to the Lord that the Lord never commanded or encouraged. It's an old problem. More than 3,000 years ago, God commanded King Saul to wipe out the Amalekites and to leave nothing alive, but Saul let the people keep the best livestock alive, as an offering to the Lord. God told Saul through the prophet Samuel:

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
    as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to listen than the fat of rams.  - 1 Samuel 15:22, ESV

So, God is obviously not pleased with just any sacrifice, especially with sacrifices that involve disobedience to His word. But what sacrifices do please God? Hebrews 13:15-16 tells us very clearly.

Hebrews has already established the foundation truth that no sacrifice we offer atones for our sins. Christ has already paid the price and made the once-for-all sacrifice for all our sin. We cannot add to His offering for sin. What we can do is offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving in two ways: by praising His name and by doing good to others.

In response to Christ's perfect salvation, we are to "continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name." We don't just praise God on Sunday mornings but all throughout the week. We are also to do good and to share what we have with people in need. We're told God is pleased with these sacrifices.

These may not feel sacrificial enough for some people. They may want to do more for Jesus. They may not seem grand or life-changing or earth-shattering, but they actually are. If God's people were to consciously praise Him and acknowledge His name at all times, and if we were to really give and share with others, these sacrifices would change us deeply and would speak loudly and clearly to a world that desperately needs to see more of Jesus in His people.  

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Hebrews, Day 54: Hebrews 13:11-14 - What Should We Expect in This World?

What Should We Expect in This World? 
Hebrews, Day 54

Audio Version

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 
- Hebrews 13:11-14, ESV

"Join the Navy! See the World!" 

The recruiting poster caught the young man's eyes and he started dreaming of laying out on beautiful beaches in exotic locations all around the world. Six months later, he found himself peeling potatoes and washing dishes deep in the bowels of a huge ship, helping prepare food for hundreds of hungry sailors. He turned to his kitchen mate and said sarcastically, "'Join the Navy,' they told me. 'See the world,' they said. All I've seen are potatoes and dirty dishes!" 

Expectations are critical in life. When our expectations are disappointed, we feel frustrated. The gap between the good experience we expect and the not-so-good experience we live instead can cause much heartache. 

What did you expect from the Christian life in this world? Did you believe those who promised prosperity and happiness? Have you been disappointed? Did you think that following Jesus would win you friends and admirers, because people would see you as good and respectable? Have you instead been ridiculed or rejected by the world? Did you think the Christian life would get easier as you got older, only to find that you're still dealing with temptations and frustrations that seem overwhelming? 

The Bible is very honest and fair about what we should expect in the Christian life. Following Christ in this world will get us hated by the world and engaged in a lifelong war against our own sinful nature, the rebellious world, and the devil who hates us. Jesus said, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me before it hated you." (John 15:18) Paul said, "Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Tim. 3:12)

In today's Hebrews passage, we have the same message: Christ was rejected and suffered for our sins outside the camp. We need to be prepared to endure the same rejection. We must remember that we have no abiding city here in this fallen world.

We must choose: We can either try to win approval from the world by denying Christ and failing to be faithful to Him, or we can accept the world's scorn for following Christ. We cannot have both the praise of the world and faithfulness to Christ. History is littered with the remains of people and institutions that have chased the approval of the world and abandoned Christ. Harvard, Yale, Brown and Princeton were all founded as Christian universities whose primary calling was to train ministers of the Gospel.

As you face the decision today to choose between Christ and the world, remember this: Jesus rejected the crowds that wanted to make Him king and instead chose to go outside the camp to the shameful death of the cross - for you and for me. Can we say we follow Him if we choose otherwise? 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Hebrews, Day 53: Hebrews 13:8-10 - How Can We Avoid Being Led Astray By False Teaching?

How Can We Avoid Being Led Astray By False Teaching?
Hebrews, Day 53

Audio Version

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 
- Hebrews 13:8-10

Have you ever been behind a car that was wandering in its lane, perhaps even crossing over the line toward the shoulder or into another lane? Do you ever wonder what's distracting the driver? Cars that wander are driven by distracted drivers, drivers whose eyes have been taken off the task in front of them and diverted onto something else. In the Christian life, believers who wander from the gospel into false teachings have taken their eyes off Jesus and have become distracted by something else. 

The author of Hebrews has been laboring throughout his masterful letter to bring believers back to a strong focus on Jesus. The recipients of this letter had become distracted. Persecution and difficulties had pressured them into seeking social conformity above gospel faithfulness. They were in danger of drifting away from Christ back into a Christ-less Judaism, grounded in the ceremonial law and Levitical worship. 

How does the author of Hebrews address their distraction? He reminds them that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. He then warns them against being drawn away from Christ by "diverse and strange teachings." What is the substance of these diverse and strange teachings? It seems clear they had to do with the ceremonial sacrificial system of old covenant worship. 

Under the old covenant, worshipers who brought an offering to the Tabernacle gave their sacrifice and then received part of it back, which they then ate. Thus, they ate from the altar of burnt offerings. Yet it was never this sacrificed meat which strengthened their souls. Those who believed they were strengthened in their spirits because they ate the meat of a sheep or an oxen that had been offered on the altar were mistaken. That's never been the source of spiritual blessing for God's people.

God's people have always been strengthened by God's grace. The offerings on the altar were always pictures pointing beyond themselves to Jesus, the source of all of God's grace. So, the author of Hebrews reminds these believers about our superior position - "We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat." What does he mean? It's tempting to see this as a reference to the Lord's Supper, but that's not a sacrifice, and the worship of Christians today has no physical altar. No, he is referring to the heavenly altar, and even to Christ Himself, who feeds us with Himself when we come to Him in faith. 

What false teachings threaten to distract you today? Is it the prosperity gospel with its unbiblical emphasis on material and physical abundance? Is it the moralistic humanism that says we're all basically good people, and so we should just be nice and do good? Is it political activism, in either in its left-wing or right-wing variety? 

Satan distracts God's people with a myriad of lesser substitutes for Christ. If we understand his tactics, we can see that the cure for all false teaching distractions is, in essence, the same: a renewed focus on Christ and Christ alone. Not material prosperity but Christ. Not do-good morality, but Christ. Not politics and power, but Christ. And not the Christ of our imaginations, but the Christ of the Bible and the biblical gospel. 

Our sinful hearts, the sinful world, and the enemy of our souls all want to keep us from the only One who can save us. We defeat them by relentlessly returning again and again to Jesus. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Hebrews, Day 52: Heb. 13:7 & 17 - How Can We Love Our Leaders?

How Can We Love Our Leaders?
Hebrews, Day 52

Audio Version

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
- Hebrews 13:7 & 17, ESV

Leadership is lonely, but it's not supposed to be - at least, not in the church. The old saying about how lonely it is at the top really shouldn't apply to church leadership for two reasons:

1. Church leaders should not see themselves as being "at the top" of anything, but rather as called by Jesus to serve the church.

2. Church leaders should not lead alone, but should always be part of a team, a fellowship of elders and deacons. 

We can see clearly the idea of a plurality of leaders, and not a one-man rule, throughout the New Testament. In today's verses, the reference is to "your leaders," a plural reference to a group of servant-leaders.

Still, while leadership in the church is not supposed to be lonely, it often is. Leadership teams often don't function the way they should. Even when the leadership teams are cohesive and mutually supportive, leadership is hard, in any context. Just look at the hard time Moses had with the Israelites, and he was "more humble than any other person on earth." (Numbers 12:3)

How can we love and support our leaders and how can leaders lead faithfully? We get several practical points of Gospel application from these two verses in Hebrews 13:

1. Remember your leaders. In Bible language, when you "remember" someone, you remember to pray for them and to support them. In your day-to-day life, remember to pray for your pastor, elders, and deacons. Take time to encourage them, too, as you're able. 

2. Imitate their faith. Leaders are called to their office within the church because their faith has been fruitful in their lives. They have been trusting in Christ, and it shows in their character, conversation, and conduct. So, imitate the faith of your leaders. Don't imitate them in everything, as if they were super-heroes or idols, but imitate their faith, their trust in Jesus as they follow Him.

3. Obey your leaders. Leaders have the difficult responsibility to make decisions as they seek to shepherd and serve the flock of God under their care. Support them as they do so, by obeying their decisions.

4. Bless your leaders. Hebrews says to ensure that your leaders can lead you "with joy and not with groaning." This means we should seek to bless and encourage our leaders. Thank them, help them, encourage them, bless them.

So, what about leaders? What do these verses say to them? Well, the verses don't directly address leaders, but we can draw three conclusions from them:

1. Leaders, have a faith worth imitating. Keep your eyes on Jesus, trust in Him, and follow Him. That way, when people look to follow your example, they will be following Christ.

2. Leaders, watch over the souls under your care. Remember your primary responsibility is to serve and care for people and for their spiritual well-being. Programs, budgets, and facilities are all necessary means, but they are not the goal of leadership. 

3. Leaders, remember that you will be called to give an account to the Lord for your leadership. This is sobering and should help leaders keep a level head and a clear focus. The Lord is watching you lead, and you will give an account to Him for the stewardship of leadership. 

Together, under-shepherds and sheep can work together to make life in the church a blessing for all, for those who are called to serve and lead and those who are called to be led well. When we love each other and work together, God is glorified and the whole church is blessed!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hebrews, Day 51: Heb. 13:4-6 - How Can We Be Content?

How Can We Be Content?
Heb. 13:4-6
Hebrews, Day 51

Audio Version

Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say,

“The Lord is my helper;
    I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”
- Hebrews 13:4-6, ESV

Two areas of constant struggle for most adults are their marriage and their money. Getting married, going through a divorce, and having financial troubles are three of the top 5 causes of major stress in people's lives. The other two are the death of a loved one and the loss of a job. [Source

Why are marriage and money so stressful? Because they are two places where our real theology is put to the test on a daily basis. Everyone has a real theology, a theology they possess, which is not always the same as the theology they profess. We can profess to believe in God and yet live as if He has nothing whatsoever to do with our lives. This gap between the theology we profess and the theology we possess is regularly exposed in how we handle money and how we relate to our spouses. 

Hebrews 13 gives two very simple commands regarding marriage and money:
  • Let marriage be held in honor and the marriage bed be undefiled.
  • Keep your life free from the love of money.

Another way to express these two truths is that we need to treasure our marriage relationships as precious and not our money.

So, why do we get these things mixed up? Why are we so constantly tempted to not treasure and protect our marriage relationships as precious, and at the same time to covet and guard money as highly precious? I think the root problem in both cases - our undervaluing of marriage and our overvaluing of money - is a lack of contentment. 

We are not content with the spouse God has given us, and so we are tempted to sexual immorality or lust. We are not content with the financial resources God has given us, so we horde what we have and covet what we don't have. To be satisfied with our spouses and not overly value money, we need more contentment. 

But how can we be content? Should we just "count our blessings, name them one by one," as the old song says? Or is there a better way?

Hebrews 13 points us to the Lord's constant presence and help as the key. If we understand and trust that the Lord will never leave us and never forsake us, and if we can say with confidence "The Lord is my helper," this can free us from fear and make us more content. This connection between contentment and the abiding, helping presence of God contains a key insight for us: A lack of contentment is really a form of fear.

Why do we lack contentment? Because we're afraid that we're being neglected, left behind or left out. We're afraid we're going to be left lacking and suffering want, and so we're constantly looking around for what we might get for ourselves. But if we know God is always with us as our helper, it frees us from this paralyzing anxiety and this restless discontent. It gives us security and peace, knowing that God has given us our spouse and our finances as part of His constant, abiding lovingkindness to us. This frees us to receive these gifts for what they are and not try to make them our security or our identity, but to find our security and identity in God alone!

God never leaves us. He never forsakes us. He is indeed our helper. We need not be afraid. Let those truths sink deep into your heart and lead you to peace and contentment in Him alone. 

Friday, September 21, 2018

Hebrews, Day 50: Hebrews 13:1-3 - Why Don't We Love Better?

Why Don't We Love Better?
Hebrews, Day 50

Audio Version

Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.
- Hebrews 13:1-3, ESV

We could all make a list of things we wish we did better than we do. I wish I was a better husband and father, more consistently loving and leading my wife and children. I wish I had more self-control in my diet, resisting the urge to stress-eat junk food. I wish I was more disciplined with my exercise program.

So, why am I not better at these things? Well, almost always, some other desire or drive overpowers my desires to be better in these areas of my life. My desire to be productive and work hard takes away from my time with my family. My desire to scratch the itch of stress by eating junk outweighs my desire to continue to get healthier. My felt need to be busy doing other things keeps me from exercise.

I'm sure you can probably relate to my experiences, although your list may be different than mine. People make New Year's Resolutions and break them by January 5th every year for a reason. But one thing should be at the very top of our lists and should get our undivided attention as believers: Why don't we love better than we do?

Hebrews 13 is a practical application chapter, giving a list of everyday ways that the Gospel should change the lives of believers in matters of marriage, money, leadership, worship, hospitality, suffering, and perseverance. The chapter is introduced with a short and direct exhortation: "Let brotherly love continue."

It may seem strange for an exhortation to brotherly love to follow right after the words "consuming fire," but the call to love is the first outworking of the closing call of Hebrews 12: "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fireLet brotherly love continue." Let us be grateful and let us worship acceptably. How can we show our gratitude and our right worship in our daily lives? By loving one another well.

We need to actually love the brothers and sisters who are fellow citizens with us in God's heavenly kingdom and fellow worshipers of the same holy God. One practical way we can show that is through hospitality, even sacrificial hospitality that would entertain strangers, travelling Christians in need of a place to stay and a good meal to eat. 

We all know we should love each other better in the body of Christ, but we don't really. Why not? I think many factors are involved: busyness, selfishness, laziness, worldliness, etc. However, one key factor I think we often overlook: We're not very good at loving one another because we're too busy fearing one another.

Why would we hesitate to open up our home to a travelling brother or sister in Christ? Maybe we're afraid they'll turn out to be some crazy person who could hurt us. Why don't we invite others into our homes more often? Maybe we're afraid they'll see our mess and judge us or reject us as inadequate, disorganized failures. We're afraid of being seen, rejected or harmed by others, and so we play it safe by locking our doors and keeping the world out.

Paul Tripp explores these ideas very effectively in When People Are Big and God is Small. If we find our fears and insecurities outweighing our desire to love our brothers and sisters, we need to replace those fears and anxieties with the fear of the Lord and love others out of gratitude for the love of God.

That's exactly what Hebrews 12:28-13:3 calls us to do: Fear the Lord. Be grateful that He has given us an unshakable kingdom instead of condemnation. Worship Him with reverence and awe. Love one another. Only a God-shaped and God-empowered love will be big enough and strong enough to overcome our fear of man. So, let's worship Him with trembling gratitude, and let's love one another, risking rejection because we're unshakable in Him. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Hebrews, Day 49: Hebrews 12:25-29 - How Can We Be Unshakable?

How Can We Be Unshakable?
Hebrews, Day 49

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. 
- Hebrews 12:25-29, ESV

On Monday night, intense thunderstorms surrounded our house from midnight until around 4:00 a.m., as the remnants of what had been Hurricane Florence moved through our area. The thunder shook me awake several times, and it reminded me of the intense thunderstorms we would get when we lived in South Carolina. Sometimes, the thunder would be so loud and so sustained, I thought it was going to shake the roof off our house.

Being shaken is a frightening experience. When our first son was born 10 weeks early, we were shaken to our core. We didn't know what to expect or what we could do to help him, and so we prayed and clung to the Lord. He was faithful, and He saw us through, as He always does. 

Many things in life can shake us in many ways - finances, health, relationships, politics and natural disasters. How can we remain unshaken through these storms? 

At the foot of Mount Sinai, the people trembled as the mountain shook with the furious presence of the holy God of the universe. The Israelites knew they needed to take God seriously, and they quaked in fear. 1500 years later, the earth shook again, as Jesus died on the cross. The sky grew dark, the earth quaked, and the veil in the Temple was torn in two. 

The shaking of Mount Sinai at the giving of the law and the shaking of Jerusalem at the death of Jesus are nothing compared to the shaking that is coming. "Yet once more," God says, "I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." What a day that will be! The Bible tells us that on that day of great shaking, people will beg to have the mountains fall on them and crush them, to spare them from the day of God's wrath. 

In the day of the great and final shaking of all things, how can we remain unshaken? How can we stand?

We have only one sure anchor and one way to remain stable in the storms of this life and in the coming day of wrath. Only One is strong enough to hold us and shelter us in the face of both earthly calamity and eternal condemnation: Jesus Christ.

Jesus alone sits on a throne that is unshakable, ruling over a kingdom that is unshakable. Jesus is the One whose coming will shake all things, and His kingdom is that which will stand when everything else has crumbled away. 

The good news for us, according to Hebrews 12, is that, if we belong to Jesus by faith, we are "receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken." If we are His, then we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ of all things eternal and unshakable. If we receive His kingdom because we are part of His kingdom, then we, too, are unshakable, and we will stand in the end, forever. 

So, let the thunder shake the roof. Let the storms of life blow. Let the great day of judgment come. If we belong to Jesus, we are safe through it all. Do you know that security for yourself? 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Hebrews, Day 48: Hebrews 12:18-29 - How Should We Worship?

How Should We Worship? 

Hebrews, Day 48

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
 - Hebrews 12:18-29, ESV

How would you describe your worship? Lively and joyful? Exciting? Reverent and sober? Grave? Half-hearted? Superficial? It seems that many churches either have worship that is rather formal and stiff or else worship that seems entertainment-driven, like a rock concert. Today's passage in Hebrews 12 is a stirring call to a deeply joyful, obedient, awe-struck, grateful and reverent worship that is as exalted and life-changing as the God we worship.

First, we're given a stirring contrast between the Old Covenant worship at the foot of Mount Sinai and the New Covenant worship at the foot of Mount Zion. The contrast could not be clearer, and yet the God we worship remains the same. Mount Sinai was a literal, physical mountain, one that could be touched. The scene of God's descent upon Sinai was so terrifying that Moses trembled with fear. God is holy, holy, holy, and He showed Himself on Sinai to be awe-ful in His holiness, as the senses of the people were overwhelmed with "a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them."

Now, in Christ, as the gathered church, when we worship together on the Lord's Day, we do not gather around a physical mountain. Instead, we gather with the saints of God by the Holy Spirit at the foot of Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. We worship God together with the myriads of angels gathered around His throne in the great festal gathering. We worship with the glorified souls of the redeemed. We gather in the very presence of God and Jesus Christ, our mediator and high priest. Our gathering is both more joyful and more awe-ful, and our worship should reflect such transcendence.

Our worship must be obedient, responsive to the voice of the Lord speaking through His word. Our worship must be deeply thankful for the unshakable kingdom we have received by grace, that Christ has secured for us by His death and resurrection. Our worship must be acceptable, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire!

What is completely inappropriate in such a gathering? Boredom! Half-hearted, distracted, semi-engaged, partial praise has no place in the New Jerusalem, in the throne room of God. How many times do we show up late for church, are distracted by thoughts of a hundred and one other things besides God, lamely limp our way through the singing, only listen half-way to the sermon, and then chat with our friends before going home, wondering what difference it really makes if we go to church or not? If our worship was more like Hebrews 12:18-29 describes, we wouldn't need to wonder. We would know the life-changing reality of a true encounter with the one true holy, awesome, living, consuming God!

Friday, September 14, 2018

Hebrews, Day 47: Hebrews 12:12-17 - Why is Holiness So Vital?

Why is Holiness So Vital?
Hebrews, Day 47

Audio Version

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. 
- Hebrews 12:12-17, ESV

My dad taught me how to drive when I was 16 years old. I also took a driver's education class in school, but my dad was my primary driving instructor. I still remember, 28 years later, the things he taught me:

  • Look ahead of you down the road, not at the front of the car.
  • Keep a 3-second following distance between you and the car in front of you.
  • Anticipate light changes and be ready to stop when approaching intersections.
  • Let your foot off the brake slowly and look both ways when the light turns green.
  • Always check over your shoulder before changing lanes.

It is possible to drive a car without following the rules, and sometimes I have been driving and I have forgotten to do what I know is right. When I do that, I often pay the price with a consequence. If I were to blatantly ignore all guidance about driving, where would I end up? In a ditch on the side of the road? In the hospital?

As believers, we are running a race, the race of faith, in which we must persevere to the end. Hebrews has been instructing us in how to run well:

  • Lay aside sin.
  • Fix your eyes of faith on Jesus. Focus on Him.
  • Resist sin and temptation, even if it's painful.
  • Accept hardship as discipline from your loving Heavenly Father.
Now, the writer of Hebrews shifts from our individual race to our obligation to help each other by strengthening those who are weak and striving for peace with one another. We are not running alone. We are part of a team, part of a unified body. We have our individual responsibilities and we have responsibilities to each other. 

In our individual responsibilities and in our call to serve one another, holiness is centrally important. We need holiness, for without holiness no one will see the Lord. Here the author of Hebrews is probably building on what Jesus said in the beatitudes: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." (Matt. 5:8, ESV)

When we reach the finish line of our race, we will see God. We will see Jesus face-to-face and be miraculously changed into His likeness (see 1 John 3:2). Do you want that? Is it your earnest desire to reach the finish line and see Jesus? If so, then you need holiness. If so, then you need to take seriously everything we've been reading in Hebrews. 

What if you don't? What if it's not important to you whether you cross the finish line and see Jesus or not? What if you just can't be bothered? Well, that would make you like Esau, who thought so little of his birthright that he sold it for a bowl of stew. If your attitude is so casual and callous to the things of God, you may come to a place where you want to change but you cannot. 

So, pursue peace with one another and pursue holiness. Pursue them like your life depends on them, because it does. For only those who truly love Jesus and strive after His ways show that they belong to Him. They show by their hatred for sin, their commitment to Christ, and their pursuit of holiness that they are His and He is theirs. And, as we'll see next time, they can live in the confident assurance that they are citizens of a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and they will stand at the end with Christ, when all else has given way before Him. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Hebrews, Day 46: Hebrews 12:3-11 - How Can We Suffer Well?

How Can We Suffer Well?
Hebrews, Day 46

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
    nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. 

- Hebrews 12:3-11, ESV

I have never had chemo. I know several people who have had it, and from what they've told me, I hope I never have to have it. Chemo makes you sick, takes your energy, often makes your hair fall out in patches, and is generally a miserable experience. No one would ever want to have chemo, except for something worse than chemo: dying of cancer. When you're facing the prospect of dying of cancer, chemo suddenly becomes a life-saving, hope-giving gift! 

Life is hard. Often, life is good and full of joy and laughter, but let's face it: Life is also hard. People betray your trust and lie to you. You struggle against the weakness of your sinful nature, frustrated by your failures. People you love die, sometimes suddenly. No one would sign up for the suffering and heartache of this life willingly, except for something far worse: death. Alfred Lord Tennyson put it famously: "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

The hardships of life are especially worth enduring if we know they are working toward something good, some greater outcome. Then, the suffering of life becomes like chemo: It hurts, but it's helping in a more important way. For unbelievers, the suffering of this life is not accomplishing anything greater for them, except perhaps to make the joyful moments of life more enjoyable. But when this life is over for them, the joy will be over, too, while the suffering will just be beginning. 

For believers in Jesus, we have a better hope. Our suffering has a greater purpose. The Apostle Paul said, "For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison." (2 Cor. 4:17, ESV) 

Here in Hebrews 12, we see two kinds of purposeful suffering in the Christian life: the intense struggle against sin and the loving discipline of our Heavenly Father. The fight against sin is real and hard, but as we look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, we see One who endured much hostility against Himself and who, in the Garden of Gethsemane, resisted temptation so fiercely that He sweat drops of blood in His anguish. We are called to consider Him when our struggle against sin grows intense. 

Also here in Hebrews 12, we're told that much of the suffering we face in this life is the loving discipline of our Heavenly Father. No children like discipline. Discipline hurts. But discipline, done in love and applied with wisdom, works. If our discipline of our children bears fruit, despite our sin and foolishness, how much better is our Heavenly Father's discipline of us? 

So, when life gets hard, we need to remember three things:

1. We'll never have it as hard as Jesus had it, and He endured what He suffered for us, in our place, taking what we deserve. 

2. Our Father disciplines us in perfect love and with perfect wisdom. We can trust Him.

3. Our sufferings are only temporary. They will end when we step into an eternity of perfect joy and peace, never to suffer again!       

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Hebrews, Day 45: Hebrews 12:1-2 - How Can We Run the Race of Faith?

How Can We Run the Race of Faith?
Hebrews, Day 45

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, ESV

Eight years ago, I ran a half marathon. 13.1 miles is a long way to run, and I had trained for it for months, but the actual race itself was much harder than I anticipated. Running in Western Maryland through the Antietam Battlefield Park and then across into Shepherdstown, West Virginia, the race had several hills which challenged my endurance to the core. My finishing time was not great, and I finished in the bottom fifth of all racers, but I did finish.

The Christian life is a race, one which makes a half marathon seem like a Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. At the end of his life, the Apostle Paul said, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (2 Tim. 4:7, ESV) I'm sure all believers would like to be able to say the same thing as Paul at the end of their life race. So, how can we?

Hebrews 12:1-2 tells us. As we cross from Hebrews 11 to 12, we are heading into the closing application section of this marvelous book. Looking back at chapter 11, the Hall of Fame of Faith, we see many people who have run race before us: Abraham, Moses, David, Sarah, Deborah, and more. As part of the communion of saints, those who have gone before surround us and bear witness as we run our race. So, how can we run successfully?

We must run with endurance. The race of faith is a life-long race. It will challenge our endurance to the core. It will have steep hills we're not sure we are able to climb. It will have long lonely stretches where we ache for fellowship and feel the pain of isolation. To run well, we must "run with endurance the race that is set before us."

We can get the endurance we need for this race only one way: by looking to Jesus. Of course, we look to Jesus as our example. Of all who have ever run the race of faith, He is the only One who has run it perfectly. He never failed and never stumbled in any way.

Yet we look to Jesus as so much more than just our example. We look to Him as "the founder and perfecter of our faith." Jesus is the One who established the foundation of our faith in Himself, in His person and work. He is also the One who is the finisher and the finish line of our faith, the goal and the One who carries us to the goal.

The author of Hebrews highlights two aspects of Jesus' work as the founder and perfecter of our faith: His endurance on the cross, where He paid for our sins, and His sitting down at the right hand of the throne of God. In enduring the cross, Jesus founded our faith on the solid rock of His righteousness and His atoning work. In sitting at the right hand of the throne, Jesus finished our faith, giving us a sure, immovable anchor in heaven.

We need nothing and no one else for the endurance we need to run the race with preserving joy. Jesus is our complete sufficiency - our example, our coach, our trainer, our strength, our perseverance, our salvation. If we would run with endurance, we must run with our eyes relentlessly fixed on Him! 

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Hebrews, Day 44: Hebrews 11:29-40 - What Kind of Victory Does Faith Bring?

What Kind of Victory Does Faith Bring?
Hebrews, Day 44

Audio Version

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. 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—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

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 11:29-40, ESV

We love the Torchlighters video series, produced by the Christian History Institute and the Voice of the Martyrs. One of the most powerful videos in this series tells the story of Jim Elliot. The 30-minute animated story of Jim Elliot's life and death features two compelling and seemingly contradictory scenes: Jim singing joyously, "Faith is the victory that overcomes the world!" and then Jim lying face down in a river of his own blood, having been speared to death by the very people he hoped to reach with the Gospel.

"Faith is the Victory!" is a stirring hymn based on 1 John 5:4, but it's also the hymn that comes to mind when I read today's passage in Hebrews 11. This closing section of Hebrews 11 tells us of a rapid-fire succession of people who all personally experienced the truth of 1 John 5:4: "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith."

These verses tell some of the most powerful and encouraging stories of the Old Testament heroes of the faith: Rahab, who hid the spies; Gideon, who chased an army of over 130,000 Midianites with only 300 men; and Daniel, who safely emerged from the lion's den with the praises of God on his lips. It also recalls more problematic people of faith: Jephthah, who sacrificed his daughter to keep a vow he made to the LORD; Samson, whose sin with Delilah was his undoing, and whose redemption came only in his death; and Barak, who was too scared to go to battle until Deborah chided him.

Then, Hebrews 11 makes a very unexpected turn in, right in the middle of verse 35: "Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life." Wait! How can the victory of faith be seen in being tortured to death? Hebrews 11 goes on to talk about chains, imprisonment, mocking, flogging, destitution, wilderness wandering, and a bunch of other stuff no one would willingly sign up to receive. Few people would describe verses 35-38 as victory. But they are!

Here's the truth: God is not a cosmic ATM, and faith is not the PIN to tap into His glorious riches at our command! He is God. We are not in command of Him; He is in command of us. We do not get secret access to order the universe and our lives according to our plan. Faith comes to God and willingly submits our lives to His plan.

The glorious reality of this truth is that God's ways are indeed better than ours, and what faith gives us is a victory far more powerful than what we would order up from life's menu on our own. We would want health, wealth, power, prestige, and pleasure - all of which are fading and none of which truly satisfy our souls. God instead gives us forgiveness of our sins, a perfect righteousness, victory over death, and eternity with Him.

So, what kind of victory does faith bring? The only victory that is stronger than death, that can see being sawn in two as a win - eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord! By faith in Christ, our life is joined to His life and our life is made as inextinguishable and unconquerable as His life is and will always be! This is the reward which the Old Testament saints did not receive, because they were living in the days before Jesus' resurrection, but they will receive it together with us on the last day. And this victory - over sin and death and hell forever - is victory indeed!

Monday, September 3, 2018

Hebrews, Day 43: Hebrews 11:23-28 - What Brings True & Lasting Pleasure?

What Brings True & Lasting Pleasure?
Hebrews, Day 43

Audio Version

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king's edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them. 
- Hebrews 11:23-28, ESV

What would be a better life, living in a royal palace as a member of the royal family or suffering persecution at the hands of a harsh dictator? Honestly, if someone set that choice before you, which option would you choose? 

Moses could easily have ignored his Hebrew relatives and remained in Pharaoh's palace as a prince. It would have been easier, more comfortable, and more in keeping with everyone's expectations. Sure, it would not have been as impacting or meaningful, but here's the surprising truth of what it also would not have been: It would not have been more pleasurable or more advantageous for Moses.

Does that sound impossible? How could a life of persecution and wilderness wandering be more pleasurable and more advantageous than a life in a royal palace? Because by faith Moses learned to see the unseen, to live for the reality of God's promise rather than the deceitful seeming reality of sin. 

Hebrews 11 first commends Moses' parents for their faith. Moses' parents had faith that empowered them to not be afraid of the edict of Pharaoh. They took the risk of hiding their beautiful son, because they trusted God and, by faith, chose what was better over what was easier.

Moses followed in his parents' footsteps of faith. He chose what was better over what was easier, too. But we need to make sure we don't miss an important point Hebrews 11 is making: Moses didn't only choose what was better, he also chose what was better for him. So often, we hear people reason morally by saying things like, "You need to choose to do the right thing, even if it's not what would be best for you." or "You need to do what it right, even if it costs you more." 

That line of moral reasoning misses an essential aspect of faith: that God rewards those who seek Him (v. 6). Sin makes promises it never keeps, because Satan does not love us and does not want to see us happy. God makes promises He always keeps. In fact, He "is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us." (Ephesians 3:20, ESV)

The pleasures of sin are fleeting indeed, and so Moses chose to turn his back on them. Instead, he looked ahead to the reward, knowing by faith that God alone is able to give eternal and unfailing pleasure. When we are facing temptation, we would do well to remember this truth and to echo Psalm 16:11 - 

You make known to me the path of life;
    in your presence there is fullness of joy;
    at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (ESV)