The Sovereign Hand of an Almighty God (Esther 10)(The Whole Bible)

And so we come to the end of the story and the book of Esther, and I hope you know more about it than you did at the beginning. I can say that I do. I have seen new perspectives I had not previously considered.

Even though this Bible book is not written from a religious viewpoint of prominently mentioning God at all, it is clearly assumed that he is behind all of the myriad circumstances and providential events. And that is a timeless truth of God’s sovereign hand in all of the ebb and flow of history, down to our very lives.

Of all the nations and peoples of the world, what other has endured through multiple attempts of being wiped off the face of the earth, other than the Jewish people and nation? A writer I read on this subject said that Israel has attended the funeral of every nation that has attempted to eliminate them.

God has a future for the nation of Israel, and I invite you to the upcoming 11:00 series that I will be doing on last times teachings of Scripture if you want to delve into this further.

The final three verses of the book of Esther speak of the greatness of the empire of the Medes and Persians, noting also the effective contributions of Mordecai to its greatness. The author says that this may be verified in the official records of the kingdom (though these are lost and unavailable, yet it demonstrates the author’s confidence in his accuracy). Mordecai was blessed because God was with him and he worked for the good of God’s people.

That is a timeless truth. God blesses and honors those who labor to serve his people, be they of antiquity, or the people of God in this age — the church of Jesus Christ. I love the verse in Hebrews 6:10 where it says that ”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.”

10:1 — King Xerxes imposed tribute throughout the empire, to its distant shores.2 And all his acts of power and might, together with a full account of the greatness of Mordecai, whom the king had promoted, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Media and Persia? 3 Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.

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Benediction (Hebrews 13:17-25)

Closing words are hard—especially after a sermon.  Usually it’s the time when everyone starts gathering together their newsletters and belongings to make a dash for the local IHOP.  And sometimes—much to our collective horror—the pastor starts to seem to wind down only to get started all over again (not that I’ve ever done this) and you can only hope no one heard your stomach growling just now.

But while the closing words of New Testament letters often read like something of a formula, we can’t ignore the real gravity of their words.

The writer of the letter of Hebrews winds down his letter first by concluding some of his earlier thoughts regarding church leaders:

17 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. 18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. 19 I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner. (Hebrews 13:17-19)

Today’s world assumes that all hierarchy must be abusive.  “Hierarchy promotes an underground,” I’ve heard it said—meaning that if some people have power over a larger group, the larger group becomes oppressed and/or embattled against their leaders.  But the view promoted here in the Bible is of church leaders—pastors, elders—who show love to those in their care.  Further, these leaders are under the ultimate authority of God, and will one day have to answer not just for themselves (and their families, for those that are married) but also those under their spiritual care.  So it makes sense, then, that the writer would urge his readers to pray for them (v. 18).  Now, you might have caught the phrase “restored to you sooner” in verse 19.  What this means is unclear, especially since we don’t know who the author is.  But there seems to be a deep relationship here, one currently challenged by geographic separation; he longs for reunion, one that could be expedited through God’s intervention.

Finally, now, he turns to the matter of the “benediction” of this letter:

20 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, 21 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.

22 I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. 23 You should know that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon. 24 Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings. 25 Grace be with all of you. (Hebrews 13:20-25)

You probably noticed the reference to Timothy—apparently he had been confined (imprisoned?) at some point, but some of the details here are left only to scholarly speculation.  You might also have been amused that the author describes this sermon as “brief.”

What can we learn from the close of letters like this?

  • First, that theology is deeply relational. Yes, the letter/sermon of Hebrews was complex, but ultimately was intended to be anchored in the day-to-day realities of human experience and Christian community.
  • Second, that the application of Christian principles is an ongoing process. We tend to think of “amen” as the conclusion of “church”—but it’s really just the beginning.  The benediction isn’t about the end of something, but about the commencing of the church’s mission.  We would do well to think of the benediction as the starter’s pistol rather than the bell that concludes a school day.
  • Finally, that worship and “equipping” are one and the same. We tend to associate worship with emotion so strongly that we fail to recognize the clear necessity that worship is both the goal and driving force of mission.  John Piper once famously wrote that “mission is not the goal of the church; mission is.  Evangelism happens because worship is not happening.”  Even if you think he overstates his point, you must agree: worship lasts forever.  Our mission is to reach the unchurched and to equip others to participate in the life of the kingdom.

We hope that you’ve enjoyed this journey through the book of Hebrews.  We certainly have great things planned for the rest of the Spring as well as through the summer, so please stay tuned and keep tracking with us.

A Lasting City (Hebrews 13:9-16)

Sometimes it seems as though the world has lost all sense of fixed points.  Truth, we’re repeatedly told, has become relegated to matters of personal perspective.  As John Dominic Crossan once put it, “There is no lighthouse keeper.  There is no lighthouse.  There is no dry ground.  There are only people living on rafts made from the own imaginations.  And there is the sea.”

In his book Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller paints us a picture of life at sea.  He calls it his “lifeboat theory.”  Huddled together, we tend to identify ourselves with stronger people, and distance ourselves from others.  Socially, this might mean we try and look and act like those we consider our social betters—and try not to let ourselves get associated with the socially awkward or the outcasts.

But Jesus did the opposite.

In Hebrews 13, the writer presses home the idea of identifying with Jesus:

9 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. 10 We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. 11 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. 12 So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.13 Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. 14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. 15 Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. 16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:9-16)

Our world is indeed swirling with an ocean of “diverse and strange teachings.”  Those of us in the lifeboat would fare socially better if we found the strongest and most socially acceptable teachings and followed then.  And you can bet that today we have our fair share of those who construct a whole set of code words to define the religion of the day.  Tolerance.  Justice.  Privilege.  Equality.  Such noble words can hardly be argued against, right?  Yet to believe in Jesus is certainly to be associated with a backwards way of thinking, to be labeled a bigot—or worse.

It’s not going to get better.

Perhaps instead we should be grateful to endure mere mockery and not martyrdom—though all the while remembering that many around the world (and in the Middle East during this era) who have indeed shed blood for their faith.

But no, even for us, it hurts—to lose friends, to experience ridicule. But we can be confident that Jesus—our perfect sacrifice—suffered “outside the gate,” on a hilltop known as the place of the skull.  And it’s there that we find what social analyst Peter Berger once called “a confrontation of our perception of society with the figure of Jesus Christ.”  It’s safe inside the Christian bubble, Berger would say.  Safe to think that if we keep ourselves safe and secure, manage to raise moral children we can remain unspoiled by the harsh edges of a hurting culture.  But this “figure of the crucified one…continues to haunt both the oppressors and the oppressed.”  Christians are therefore faced with “the demand to follow this figure of the crucified one.”

“This demand calls us to an exodus, not only out of Egypt of social mythology but also out of the Zion of religious security.  The exodus takes us out of our holy city, out past the scene of cross and resurrection, and beyond the desert in which God is waiting.  In this desert, all horizons are open.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the writer of Hebrews tells us that good works “are pleasing to God” (13:16), because there’s a good chance your faith will make everyone around you uneasy—if not angry.  And we, united with Christ in his death and resurrection, are given the soul-stirring power to endure.  Endure ridicule.  Endure suffering.  Endure hardship.  Jesus will not make life better—but he promises a “lasting city” to come at the time of his return.

For now we occupy dust-swept streets and the driving rains of cultural opposition.  We look not to man for our approval, nor to our earthly city for comfort.  We look instead to another set of streets, streets where joy flows like a river from heaven’s throne.  A city where persecution and suffering fall from our eyes like scales, that we might behold the risen Savior with gladness.  When we go there, we go there with Him, a Savior who shows us a place with neither sorrow nor shame, and we walk on the streets that have no name.

The cross-shaped church (Hebrews 13:1-8)

Love’s become something of a “bankrupt” word in today’s society.  Not that we use it too little, but that we use it far too easily and too cheaply.  I can “love” anything.  I love music.  I love tacos.  I’m suddenly thinking of Steve Carrell’s character from Anchorman who so boldly proclaimed: “I love lamp.  I love lamp.”

Yet I sincerely doubt that our affection for music, tacos, or…lamp…should be compared to the love we might cultivate for our families, our close friends, or from God.  And if you’ve spent any amount of time in Christian community (or any community, for that matter), you know that love can often be a struggle.  Love demands personal choice, and it can only be made visible through action.

Think about the way we often “do” church.  We become easily focused on externals—on presentation, design schemes, quality of music.  Don’t misunderstand; God certainly calls us to labor to present excellence before him.  But when Jesus shares his final meal with his followers, he tells them that “if you have love for one another” then “all people will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35).  Don’t miss that.  He didn’t say: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples: if you have a really great ‘visual brand.’” He didn’t say: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples: if you create really successful Christian films.”  He didn’t say: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples: if you have a great bumper sticker or t-shirt slogan.”  Love is Christianity’s guiding principle.

It’s only fitting, then, that the author of Hebrews turns his attention to the believers of the community.  Previously, he’d spent quite some time explaining what Christian character looks like under pressure from outside; now he focuses on the love that is cultivated from within Christian community itself.  Hebrews 13 verse 1 even serves as something of a summary verse for the text that follows:

Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. 4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. 5 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.” 6 So we can confidently say,

“The Lord is my helper;

I will not fear;
what can man do to me?”

7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:1-8)

Biblical writers described love in a variety of ways.  Here, we can see three distinct categories of love—which we can than compare to other writings of the first-century Bible:

  • Love for others (Hebrews 13:2-3): This command comes not just from verse 1, but becomes all the more specific in extending compassion to “strangers” (v. 2). The writer even suggests that in so doing, we might even have extended mercy to God’s “undercover” agents—that is, to “entertain” angels without ever realizing it.  Secondly, the people are commanded to not only “remember” those in prison, but to suffer with them.
  • Love for God (Hebrews 13:4-6): This is a bit more implicit than explicit, in that the author focuses on personal idols, including lust (v. 4)—that is, pursuing sex outside of God’s design in marriage—and greed (v. 5). Why is this important?  Because wealth and pleasure can be powerful forces.  The danger of idolatry is not only that we worship the wrong thing (such as sex and money), but that we fail to allow God to be our ultimate source of comfort, joy, and security.
  • Love for church leaders (Hebrews 13:7): Finally, the writer endorses a love for one’s church leaders. And if you think about this, in the first century world this would have referred almost exclusively to local church ministry.  If you’re like me, you probably can name some pastors that speak to your heart and mind in a way that stirs your affections for Jesus and sharpens our minds for service in his kingdom.  But our affections (at least for church leaders) should primarily rest on the leaders of the local church—not just your pastors, mind you, though we are each appreciative of the support of our folks at Tri-State Fellowship, but also the series of other leaders including elders, administrative staff, community group leaders, the wide array of volunteers that serve inside and outside the walls, and that’s not even to mention the unsung heroes devoted to children’s ministries.

In his book Cruciformity, Michael Gorman uses an elaborate word to describe the church.  The church is “cruciform” he says—meaning “cross-shaped.”   Look at the list again; what do you notice?  Well, love for others is a horizontal relationship.  Love for God is a vertical relationship.  Put them together and what do you have?  The shape of the cross.  Church leaders have a role in helping maintain this shape.  And finally (v. 8), Jesus becomes not merely the object of the Christian faith; he becomes the model of the Christian faith.

I can appreciate the fact that for many of you, the words “church” and “love” don’t seem to belong in the same sentence.  It’s rare for me to meet anyone who doesn’t have some “horror story” of past hurts from their prior experience in a church.  There might be more than a few times when it’s tempting to say you “love” church but don’t even mean in half as much as you might love tacos.  This, I think, is why we need to see Jesus as faithful even when we feel faithless.  United with Christ, I can pray and rely on his power to help me love the unlovely.

At Tri-State Fellowship, we can never have too many volunteers.  Children’s ministries in particular will always have ongoing needs—though there are many other areas as well.  If you’re waiting for a “more qualified” person to step in ahead of you, then I’d gently suggest that you haven’t properly applied the gospel to this area of your life.  If you’re waiting for when “things settle down” in your life, then I’d suggest that perhaps you haven’t properly applied the gospel to this area of your life.  The faithfulness of Jesus carries us through; therefore even if I feel unqualified Jesus is able to show his love through my humility and my weakness.  And even if I feel overwhelmed with other duties, the Holy Spirit supplies me with strength to commit to the task ahead of me—plus, if we all work together we can share in this kingdom labor.

If you attend Tri-State with any regularity, we would welcome and value your service.  Would you consider showing love by serving with us?

A Tale of Two Mountains (Hebrews 12:18-29)

Are there places that hold special meaning for you?  I don’t use the term “place” in any metaphorical sense—I mean are there places that evoke deep-seated memories?  For some, maybe it’s the restaurant where you met your spouse for the very first time.  Maybe it’s the smell of the halls of the old high school you visited for your reunion.

There’s a field of research out there called “environmental psychology,” which in turn describes something called “place attachment.”  As the name suggests, place attachment is the deep emotional connection between an individual and a specific geographic location.  For some, this brings back fond memories; for others, they remember past failures, or rejections, or pain.

The audience of Hebrews was stuck, it seems.  They felt a strong attachment to God’s promises—promises of peace and provision, of life abundant—yet they were increasingly treated as strangers in a culture that had become openly hostile.  And in that environment, the question that began to increasingly dominate their minds was one of hope.  What destiny could they count on?  Could God be relied on to keep his promises?

THE TWO MOUNTAINS

The Jews had enjoyed a strong sense of “place attachment.”  They had a place to look to—a mountain where Moses had once encountered God in a powerful way:

18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them.20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” (Hebrews 12:18-21)

Even if you’d only seen the Charlton Heston movie, you recognize this as the momentous giving of the law.  The author of Hebrews uses this to contrast with the giving of the gospel:

22 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, 23 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, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)

Yes, the Jews had a physical place to look to in the past—but God’s present followers had a place to look to for the future. Originally Mount Zion was the site of David’s Jebusite stronghold—captured in the seventh year of his reign.  1 Kings 14:21 describes it as “…the city that the LORD had chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, to put his name there.”  Note that Jerusalem and Zion are often used interchangeably in scripture to denote God’s special earthly dwelling.  When Solomon built his temple on the hill to the north, the name Zion was extended to include this further area as well.

Now, the heavenly Zion would be the meeting place of all God’s people.  Paul writes that “…the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother (Gal 4:26).”  In Revelation, the New Jerusalem is seen as descending from Heaven to earth (Rev 21:2).

So the people of God have something to hope in indeed—a new promise and a fresh view of their destiny.  What would this mean for them?

CONSUMING FIRE

Borrowing some imagery from the Sinai story, the author of Hebrews issues another cautionary notice—that they remain not only committed to God’s kingdom, but grateful that they indeed do have a destiny:

25 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. 26 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.” 27 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. 28 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, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:25-29)

“Home” is a tough thing to understand.  Some of us live a lifetime of “place attachment,” placing too great a significance on the past.  Have you never caught yourself thinking: “If only things were the way they used to be.”  Spiritually, this might mean we look back at our earlier experiences with God, wishing we could recreate those seasons of spiritual growth and passion.  We chase after worship albums and Bible studies in the vain hope that this passion might be rekindled by another religious project.  But the fire comes not from ourselves; God is a “consuming fire.”  Our faith can’t be defined by life experiences, therefore our sense of “belonging” will never be found in external practices.  That’s not to say that life in church community is unimportant.  On the contrary; this community can often be a crucible in which the fire of God is cultivated as you and I rub shoulders with other followers of Jesus.  But this also means that church—at least its external things—can never satisfy my soul.  God is my home.

See, when you’re young—and I’m talking about babies here—everywhere is new.  You haven’t developed any human sense of “place attachment.”  You doze off in a carseat.  You wake up somewhere you’ve never been.  This can go on for days.  See, for a young child, home isn’t a place; it’s in his father’s arms.  The same can be said of our heavenly Father—the same Father who disciplines us likewise becomes our source of security and joy.  Do you miss the past?  Are you skeptical of the future?  Could it be you’re looking toward your own story of faith rather than its Author and Perfecter?  Set your eyes forward.  Set your eyes on Jesus.  Set your eyes on Zion.

Of hunger and bitter roots (Hebrews 12:12-17)

hebrewsOf what use is pain?  What value can be found in personal discomfort?  If you were living in the first-century world—more specifically, the audience of the letter to the Hebrews—this might be a question that lurked in the corners of your mind.  Earlier we’d pointed out that while some Christians had lost their lives for their faith, most early Christians had not yet experienced this full measure of sacrifice (Hebrews 12:4).  Still, the shame that they bore as followers of Christ surely gave them pause.  Would God’s promises endure?  Was faithfulness still valuable?  Could an end be seen other than pain?

Previously the author had pressed upon his readers the simple truth that yes, there are times in which God allows personal suffering and persecution to fall on his children as a way of pushing them into his grace and his loving provision.   Pain is therefore never positive, though it can be enriching.  Now the author draws a conclusion from this simple truth: that God’s people would endure both as individuals as well as a community:

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 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; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 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)

The author recognizes that—like Esau—many would face a time of testing, when one’s physical desires have to be weighed against the duties and virtues of life in God’s great kingdom.  You do remember Esau, don’t you?  It’s an important story, so let’s take a crash course.

Something like 2,000 years before the birth of Jesus, God chose a man named Abraham.  Abraham was chosen to be blessed by God, and to share this blessing with future generations—effectively becoming the father of the entire nation of Israel.  Much of the text of Genesis focuses on the story of Abraham and his offspring.  In Genesis 25, we witness the birth of Abraham’s grandchildren, Esau and Jacob:

24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. (Genesis 25:24-28)

Got it so far?  These two were fraternal twins, but were worlds apart.  Esau, the firstborn, was the Grizzly Adams of the family—and so garnered his father’s favoritism.  Jacob, from birth, was grabbing at his brother’s heel—hence his Hebrew name literally meant “heel-grabber” or, more symbolically, “cheater.”

If you know much about ancient culture you may be familiar with the practice of prima geniture, the practice of giving a double portion to the firstborn male.  So if the text of Genesis was concerned with the passing of God’s blessing along generational lines, then the birthright went beyond mere material possessions, but dealt deeply with God’s plan accomplished through Abraham’s biological descendants.  This makes the events of Genesis 25 all the more unnerving:

29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:29-34)

First of all, Esau had endured a hard day’s work; his life was hardly in danger.  Still, he was willing to trade in his entire inheritance—including the promises of God—for a can of soup.

So when the author of Hebrews appeals to this story, it’s as if he’s saying: Don’t allow your temporary physical discomfort to diminish your view of God’s eternal plan.  Because the truth is we’re tempted to do this all the time.

Notice that the author accuses Esau of sexual impropriety.  When did that happen?  If you read the whole story in Genesis, you know Esau defied his parents’ wishes by marrying Hittite women, so maybe the accusation fits there.  If you lived in the first century, you may be familiar with a long tradition of stories that added sexual immorality to the list of Esau’s crimes.  Or maybe the author is using sexual sin as a metaphor for spiritual “adultery,” the act of sourcing one’s purpose, pleasure, and security in something other than God.  Like soup.

Here’s what I think—and I’ll point out that of all the books I’ve read no one completely agrees with me(!).  I think the author of Hebrews is blending these concepts together, and I think he does so to specifically highlight the way that young people especially have a unique calling to endure and be faithful.  Why do I think that?  Several reasons: first, the earlier reference to Proverbs deals (largely, though not exclusively) with instruction to Solomon’s children.  Second, the passage above deals with instructions for the community—and young people would have a unique role in leading the community through the birth and raising of future generations.  And third, because our choices of sexual expression are typically solidified during our younger years—that is, through marriage.

So what’s the danger?  The danger is that we might sacrifice the eternal things of God on the altar of temporal satisfaction.  Young people, hear me: few things in life have more horsepower than romance.  You will be faced with the temptation to date a guy or a girl that is absolutely amazing in every imaginable way—yet has no interest in Jesus or your spiritual development.  If marriage is meant to be a reflection of Christ’s love for the church (Ephesians 5:25ff), then you have set yourself up for a lifetime of failure.  I realize that stings, but consider it this way: if you place Jesus at the center of your life, but you commit yourself to someone who doesn’t share that, what do you expect to happen?  Your partner may care about you, but without this deep, shared connection you will never experience true intimacy, he or she will never be able to invest in you spiritually, nor will he or she ever pour themselves into the spiritual development of your kids.  Yes, the pain of breakups and singleness may hurt, but these tears are nothing—nothing—compared to the lifetime of being strangled by the roots of bitterness that grow from seeds sown out of temporary hunger.

Some of you may already know this—because whether by choice or circumstance you find yourself yoked to a spouse whose spiritual interest is minimal if it exists at all.  You attend church alone, you disciple your children without your partner’s assistance, and you spend night after night pleading for the soul of the one that shares your bed.  Don’t give up.  This, too, can be a source of God’s loving discipline, and the means by which you are ever encouraged to press into the grace of God.

MismatchBecause I recognize that some of you are facing this challenge as a daily reality, I close with the suggestion of a book that you may find helpful.  Lee and Leslie Strobel’s Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage has been valued highly by those who wish to remain faithful to God (and teaching their children to do the same) when their partner simply does not share this faith.

 

Discipline and Learning (Hebrews 12:3-13)

No one likes being told what to do.  It’s my life, after all.  Personally I’m profoundly passive aggressive in this area.  I mean, I don’t even like it when Netflix recommends movies I should watch.  In school, the surest way to get me to lose interest in reading anything was to assign it for class. It could have been the greatest book ever written—like, The Illustrated Guide to Fireworks, Candy, and Puppies—but as soon as I realize I have to read it I lose all interest.

It’s one thing when these things are to our obvious benefit.  It’s another thing when we’re asked to live contrary to what our society dictates.  That was the situation in the first century.  The writer of the letter to the Hebrews was pleading with his fellow Jesus-followers to hang on—to endure the pressures of a society that saw Christianity as a source of shame, not honor.

So while Hebrews 12:1-3 had used the image of a distance runner to illustrate the need for endurance, the writer now switches things up a bit, moving from the imagery of an athlete to a student.

He starts by shaming them just a bit—reminding them that their current suffering can’t be compared to what Jesus endured on the cross:

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  (Hebrews 12:4)

Now, from a purely historical point of view, this is quite helpful—it tells us that the letter was written before the Christian persecution rose to a crescendo.  And this also means that while yes, some early peoples had witnessed displacement and the loss of material property (recall that at one point in the first century, Jews had basically been evicted by the Roman government), this was nothing compared to the actual shedding of blood.  In a way, their persecution was cause for joy—not sorrow.

The writer then moves directly into his central argument.  In this next section, pay close attention to a word that he repeats in nearly every sentence (we’ll highlight it in bold to make it easier):

5 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.

6  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,

and chastises every son whom he receives.”

7 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? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 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 land live? 10 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. 11 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 12:5-11)

Discipline.  The Greek root is paidea—if you’re a teacher, you might recognize it as the root of the word pedagogy, referring to the methods of teaching.  If you trace it’s meaning over time, you see a clear evolution in the way “discipline” was understood.

For the Greeks, the term related to intellectual instruction—primarily of young men.  The ancient Jews (during the time of the Old Testament) saw “discipline” as related to a person’s moral development—such as when Proverbs 1:7 emphasizes “wisdom and discipline,” and a “wholesome discipline” that is related to a person’s “integrity.”  By the time of the first century, the Jews’ many years of struggle led them to connect God’s “discipline” with their own suffering—a writing from the years shortly before Jesus said that “[God’s] discipline consists in fire and pain” (Shadrach Apc. 4:1).

So when the writer quotes from Deuteronomy’s lessons on discipline (Hebrews 12:5b-6, above), what is he saying?  He’s telling his readers: if you think your current struggle is arbitrary, you have it all wrong.  Don’t merely endure this—learn from it.

If you’ve ever been skeptical about religious belief, passages like this must surely throw you for a loop.  Religion is man-made, we’re repeatedly told; but who would make up a God like this?  A “Santa Claus” God who gives me what I want—that makes sense.  But a God who disciplines?  Who allows me to become wounded?  Who would want that?

Sigmund Freud thought he knew the answer.  Though much of his ideas have now been lost (or rejected), Freud gave the world permission to understand the human soul without God’s help.  Freud believed that religion provided a way to help us cope with immoral behavior and guilt.  Freud essentially said that when thinking about morals, the human mind could be split into two categories: (1) conscience (“Don’t do that!”) and (2) guilt (“I can’t believe I did that!”).  If I violate my conscience by doing something immoral, then I feel guilty.  But if I am punished, my guilt is relieved (think about the Dobby effect we learned about earlier in this series—where people feel less guilty if they experience pain or displeasure).  So if I want to justify my wrong behavior, all I need to do is accept my punishment.  Religious “penance” becomes the cost of doing business.  Did you see the movie The Godfather?  Remember the final scene?  The Godfather is in church, taking communion.  But the director splices in scenes from the streets, where the Godfather’s hired guns are committing heinous crimes.  Freud never saw the movie, but if he did, he’d say: See?  Religion can be a powerful way of justifying the most heinous things imaginable.  In other words, there are times when yes, I want a God who punishes me, because this punishment liberates me to act immorally as long as my crime brings more pleasure than my punishment brings pain.  Freud would see this as a great irony: the punishment designed to correct behavior ends up enabling it.

If Christianity were any other religion, we might need to concede this point.  Karma makes more sense than grace.  But Christianity offers a different message altogether.  And the cross scandalizes the extremes at both ends.  The cross defies my desire to see God only as a cosmic Santa Claus with a bag full of blessings; the cross challenges me to see God’s punishment resting on the shoulders of Jesus.

At the cross, Jesus absorbed the wounds of God’s anger so that we could absorb the wounds of God’s mercy.  Both are forms of God’s justice—it’s just that while Jesus absorbed God’s retributive justice we experience God’s restorative justice.  I don’t know if I can always draw a straight line between suffering and God’s restorative discipline.  What I do know is that our every human experience—even the ones that seem “painful” not “pleasant” can be opportunities for learning and spiritual growth.

The writer of Hebrews concludes that there is nothing more empowering than self-forgetfulness:

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:12-13)

Are you going through a rough season?  A hard time at work?  Problems in a relationship?  Don’t waste your suffering.  Don’t waste your childlessness, don’t waste your heartbreak, don’t waste your grief.  Instead, allow God to use even the harshest of seasons to sharpen you and strengthen you into a better agent of his kingdom.

 

 

The Endurance Race of Life (Hebrews 12:1-3)

So, would there be even one person out there who would not believe that this is my #1 favorite passage in the Scriptures?  Yes, what is not to like about it? It is all about the elements of long distance and endurance running! Oh, what I would give to be able to run again! But of course, this is an illustration of running the life of faith; and I can still do that with you, and you with me.

12:1 – Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Before I talk about the four directives we may take from these verses, there is first for us to note the connection to what has preceded – the heroes of faith, those who are now called “a great cloud of witnesses.” Seeing this as a stadium full of spectators who have completed their race and who are now cheering us onward as we run our own is to press the analogy a bit too far. We should not think of these “witnesses” as watching us from heaven and yelling “go baby go, you can do it,” but rather as those who by the stories of their lives can testify what it means to be successful in the marathon of life.

The first of four directives is to get rid of anything that hinders running successfully. To run over a long distance for a long time, it requires the shedding of anything that is going to weigh down the competitor. Perhaps for the Hebrews it was ridding themselves of their heavyweight traditions and fears that had thwarted their progress. Beyond that is the issue of sins – described as entanglements, and sin certainly is that in terms of successfully running for the Lord. But the word here rather has the idea of something that is always hanging around nearby; and we know that sin is like that as well, always close and ready to hitch a ride like burrs that detach and stick to your clothing.

The second encouragement is to run the race with endurance. To be successful at a marathon, one has to prepare strategically for a long day on your feet. It helps to know the entire 26.2-mile course – where are the hills and more difficult sections to be found. I would sometimes go a day early to a city where I was running a marathon for the first time and take a map and drive the course route. As well, dehydration can be a problem, and a runner has to drink a lot early and often in the race, even if not thirsty at that point. It you wait until you really need it, it is too late. There are going to be difficult sections, and mental preparedness in advance is a necessary element. The Christian life is like all of these things – there are going to be tough times and difficult stretches. Keep moving! The crest of the current hill might be very near … just keep going and trusting.

The third encouragement is to have your eyes set upon the goal or prize at the end. The early part of a marathon is the easiest run in a runner’s life. It goes by quickly and easily. But after a while, fatigue begins to set in and difficulties emerge. As a runner you stop thinking about how far you have come, and next about how much remains. The goal is the glory of the finish line. The first marathon I ran was in Washington. And my fastest mile of the day was the last one – coming down off Capitol Hill to a finish in front of the National Gallery of Art. I was so excited to finish and complete my goal, I whipped through the final mile. And so should we in the race of life have the final goal in mind as we run.

And finally there is a consideration of the ultimate endurance example – Jesus Christ. His race was beyond anything that we will experience. He had a goal – the completion of his mission in obedience to the Father and the reward as the King of Kings. Christ’s life was full of suffering and difficulties, and at the end he carried the sins of all mankind upon the wretched cross. And even as we have encouragement from the faith of others such as the heroes of chapter 11, our ultimate example of encouragement unto full endurance is Jesus Christ.

So in conclusion (as Chris comes back to write the final six devotionals in this series) the plan for endurance in the Christian life is more than just avoiding the sinful things, but also denying lawful pleasures if they hinder spiritual progress. And it is the addition of a specific plan of growth. It certainly involves food – what one puts into one’s mind and life = God’s Word. And it certainly involves an action plan, with intermediate goals.

Just as a runner has no shot at being a champion without a long-term, well thought-out plan of training and racing, you have no shot at being a champion and enduring in the Christian experience without a plan of growth and development. We are talking about valuing the things that are eternal, and then making it happen a day at a time, a week, a month, a year … and before long, you’ve run a long way in the same direction and you can begin to count down to the glorious goal of finishing well and hearing the “well done.”

Endure. ENDURE.

 

Enduring as a Minority (Hebrews 11:32-40)

I was far from a blazing witness for Christ in my secular high school when growing up in New Jersey. Most classmates who knew me were aware that I valued my church and issues of faith, though it was not often much of a topic of conversation. And though there was a handful of youth group kids from my church who went to my high school, none were in my specific class. In fact, at the time, only one other of the 129 students in my graduating class was certainly known to me as a Christian. A few came to Christ later, but even today, most of my classmates are very far from my values system – many of them embracing naturalistic worldviews, along with quite a number who are oddly into Eastern mysticism. I really felt very, very isolated and outnumbered in those years.

This has been the feeling and experience of many of God’s people over the years. Some of Israel’s greatest leaders were not only isolated in the midst of a world of surrounding pagan religions, many of them had to stand often rather alone for God within the nation in times of spiritual declension and apathy.

In our increasingly post-everything world, we too may have a similar sense of isolation and loneliness in a sea of unbelief. It can be a challenge to live confidently in faith, but the reward for such is worth it … if we ENDURE.

After elaborating on the stories of a number of biblical characters of faith, the writer begins to list some other examples (indicating as well that there were more than time and space could allow). Verse 32 lists four men from the period of the Judges in Israel’s history, before speaking of the well-known characters of David and Samuel.

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets,

Without rehearsing each story, note the common theme of standing against larger powers and numbers: Gideon and his 300 against 135,000, David vs. Goliath, Samson pulling down the pagan temple walls, etc.  All of these characters were victorious in their high moments of life (most having some shameful low moments as well) by trusting God in the face of overwhelming opposition – impossible odds in which victory could only be accomplished by God’s divine strength and intervention. Going on about such biblical characters as these (and other unnamed) the writer says …

 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 

Many battles in Israel’s history could be in view here. And the “mouths of lions” makes us think of Daniel, while the “fury of the flames” reminds us of his three friends in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. Again, impossible victories by God’s strength and through their faith.

35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

Again, there are backgrounds in biblical stories for almost all of these references of difficult situations – the prophets in particular being persecuted. There is no specific recorded instance biblically of anyone being sawn in two, though there is a tradition that this was the fate of Isaiah. Joseph was imprisoned for a number of years, Elijah was mocked and fled for his life, Obadiah hid 100 prophets in a cave from the wrath of Jezebel.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

All of these characters were worthy of commendation for their faith, though they did not receive the full benefits of it. Yes, they had mighty answers to prayer, but not a perfect ending. And how could they? The Messiah was yet to come and make the final sacrifice for sin.

Verse 39 talks about the Old Testament saints, whereas verse 40 is talking about us – those of the church age who have our faith in the finished work of Christ.

We have the greater advantage. We know historically and through our faith about the culmination of God’s redemptive plan in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So we are by God’s grace better off and better informed, yet we do not have the complete fulfillment either – not like we all shall have together at the consummation of time.

Whatever suffering or shame we endure, even if it is to be final, is not entirely unusual for those of God’s people at any time in human history. But the common denominator through all of time is the commendation and pleasure of God in those who trust him through everything. And the reward for that is “out of this world” and is worth it all. Nothing compares to it. Don’t cash in your faith for comfort or convenience. ENDURE.

Being Identified with Despised People (Hebrews 11:20-31)

After talking about the pre-patriarchal characters followed by Abraham, the list of faith heroes today picks up with the family that became Israel, highlighting selected heroes down through the time of the conquest of the Promised Land.

This laundry list begins with the son of promise, Isaac, who of course had two sons who were twins…

20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

What is interesting in these two generations of the family is that the younger is blessed over the elder. Birth order and genealogical blessing were a big deal in the Hebrew mind. But we know from multiple places in Scripture that the younger son Jacob received the blessing over Esau. As with Cain and Abel, one had a heart for God, whereas the other did not – all of which was fleshed out over time. The same is true of Joseph, who was next to last of the many sons of Jacob. Reuben was the oldest, but Joseph was the one who would save the family through trusting God in faith in Egypt. And the younger of his sons was the more blessed by their grandfather Jacob, and the tribe of Ephraim especially prospered – the name Ephraim sometimes being used synonymously of the northern 10 tribes in the way Judah was used of the southern kingdom.

22 By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.

OK, so what’s the big deal with this? Joseph wanted to be buried back in the Promised Land, back to the place where God was to bless the family and nation. Generations in advance, Joseph believed it would happen, though it would be another 400 years before it actually occurred. And it was the great character Moses who would lead them out of Egypt and back to Palestine…

23 By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

Moses had parents who could discern in some way that this child was destined to accomplish something great for the nation, and in hiding him from the edict of Pharaoh, they risked their own well-being.

You know the story of Pharaoh’s daughter finding Moses hidden in the bulrushes, thus saving his life and putting him into a place of prominence and privilege. The main idea of this entire long paragraph is that Moses could have chosen the easy life that was fully open to him, but he rather identified with the despised slave nation of Israel. This was a choice that was made in faith and confidence in the one true God, though it put him at odds with the most powerful nation of that time. It would mean a lifetime of hard living in wilderness areas surrounded by an ungrateful mob of people. But he obeyed God in faith, with eyes on the bigger picture of God’s work in the world.

Moses led the nation through some of the most incredible displays of God’s power …

29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

Would you want to pass through two columns of water standing up tall on two sides – with the wind blowing and the threat that it could all come crashing down upon you, as it did on the Egyptians?  Israel passed through that scene in faith.

30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.

31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

Jericho was a powerful city. The Israelites were told to march around it for seven days. Did this make sense … just walking around a city? It only would, if done in faith that God was going to do something incredible because you obeyed him.

Rahab risked everything. It would have been much more logical for her to have told the authorities of her own people about the spies she hid and about all that she knew from them. Instead, she believed in faith that the God of Israel was the one true God, and that she could trust him to deliver her.

By bringing up these stories to the Hebrews, the readers were reminded that they were far from the first to suffer for identification with Christ and with God’s plans. And they were not the last. We live in a time when there are actually more martyrs for Christ than in any other century or age.

It could happen even to us. Yes, it is a stretch to imagine, though not as much of a stretch as even just a few years ago. But in any event, it is not as if we hope for such to occur, but if it does, it is not something to fear or be shameful about – not if you have the big picture in mind of God’s greater eternal work and reward.