The joy of God’s master plan – Hebrews 1, 1 Peter 1

On the radio today I heard a rather new book being advertised about how the Old Testament predicted the coming of Jesus Christ!  Really?!?  Wow … who knew? Breaking news! Astonishing findings!

I jest a bit, as actually the book is probably pretty good, though it is not from a theological scholar.

In fact, there are multiple hundreds of allusions to Christ the Messiah in the Old Testament. And a number of these are especially familiar to us in the Christmas story, such as:

  • Isaiah 7:14 — The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
  • Micah 5:2 — “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
  • Genesis 49:10 — The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

There was great anticipation of the coming of a promised Messiah in Israel, though most people looked toward a political sort of power solution, not to a baby born to a common family in the garage of a Motel 6.

God spoke through the prophets over and over about the coming of the Christ, and finally the pinnacle moment arrived, and God was speaking not through prophets or ancient texts, but through the Divine Son …

Hebrews 1:1 — In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.

After centuries of waiting and anticipating, the time had come. And it was the occasion of great joy, as Peter wrote of it in his day and era, just years after the work of Christ …

1 Peter 1:8 — Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

The joy was so great because the times were so dark. The promises of God were many, but the fulfillment was illusive and existed only in the faith and hope of those who believed in such assurances.

Even for God’s varsity “A” team — the Old Testament prophets, they had bits and pieces but not the whole picture. It was as if they had 300 pieces of a 1,000-piece puzzle, and no box cover!  The pieces were REALLY interesting. But exactly how did they go together … and when … and what did it look like … and how did the “kingly” sorts of pieces fit in with the “suffering” fragments?

Peter continued in this writing …

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

Now, with the history of the coming of the Christ child, his life, death and resurrection, now it all came together. And wow — what a story of grace, redemption and eternal life. Even the angels are amazed to see and understand fully these truths. So it is no surprise that they broke out into song …

Luke 2:13 — Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Our series of Sunday themes and songs, and our devotionals over these two weeks, are to connect you intellectually and emotionally to the unspeakable joy of the Christmas message. You may recall the scene in the Chronicles of Narnia (a place that was always winter but never Christmas) where a change is happening to the long-standing order of things due to the curse of the white witch. The snow was melting and crocuses were seen coming to life. And finally came a sled with Father Christmas, and he said…

“I’ve come at last. She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The witch’s magic is weakening.”

And Lucy felt that deep shiver of gladness that you only get if you are being solemn and still.

Feel that deep shiver of Christmas joy this year … that unspeakable joy.

Advertisements

“Calling All Angels” (Hebrews 1:14)

Do you believe in angels?  If so, you’re hardly alone.  According to a 2005 study conducted by Baylor University, something like half of all Americans believe in angels, and a surprising number of respondents expressed a belief in personal “guardian” angels that intervene to keep us safe.

In the first chapter of Hebrews, the writer describes Jesus as superior to the angels.  After citing a collection of Bible verses to emphasize this point, the author describes angels as “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14).  At the close of the book of Hebrews, the author suggests that one of the motivations for Christian love to “strangers” is that by doing so “some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).  So we actually see a significant overlap between popular belief about angels and the first-century world.

But what more can we say about angels?   Let’s take some time today to unpack this a bit further.

POPULAR BELIEFS

While beliefs about angels appear to be longstanding, there was a period in the mid-1990’s when their popularity really peaked.  We’d moved on from the self-esteem movement of the 1980’s to invest in personal spirituality.  TV shows like Touched by an Angel only revealed one avenue that we yearned to explore: connecting with the spiritual world through the world of angels.

In 1993, an article in Newsweek magazine reports:

“[T]hose who see angels, talk to them, and put others in touch with them are prized guests on television and radio talk shows.  Need inspiration?  There are workshops that will assist you in identifying early angel experiences or in unleashing your ‘inner angel.’  Tired of the same old spirit guide?  New Age channelers will connect you with Michael the Archangel.  Have trouble recognizing the angels among us?  Join an angel focus group.”  (“Angels: Hark!  America’s Latest Search for Spiritual Meaning Has a Halo Effect.”  Newsweek, Dec. 27, 1993, 52-53)

But why angels?  I mean, if you want to be “spiritual,” why not connect with God directly?  I think we can cite several reasons.

First, God seems distant.  And if you come near him at all, you risk being judged.  He’s like the distant angry stepfather.  Angels seem like the cool aunt or the cleaning lady that you get along with even when Dad gets upset about your report card.

Second, angels have a universal appeal.  They appear in many forms of religions—Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, to name a few.  So angels are a way of being spiritual in a way that doesn’t exclude or offend anyone.

Finally, angels—in our minds—are all about comfort, especially in the face of suffering and death.  I’m thinking of Sarah McLaughlin’s song in which she sings: “in the arms of an angel, may you find comfort here.”

BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE

Let’s not be too hard on the modern world; even the characters of the Bible express some confused beliefs about angels.  In the book of Acts, Peter is delivered from prison.  But his closest family and friends believe him dead.  So when he knocks on the door, they don’t know what to think.  “Maybe it’s his angel,” one of them speculates (Acts 12:15)—does this reflect some early belief that each person has  a “guardian angel” that looks like them?

Belief in angels has always been around, and angels are recorded in the earliest beliefs of ancient civilizations.  God’s first followers—and I’m talking like 2000 B.C.—inhabited a world that believed in some sort of “council of gods.”  Spiritual beings were sort of everywhere.  But as the Jewish religion developed, a clearer understanding emerged of a separation between the one true God and the angels that served him.

The Bible mentions angels roughly 350 times—in 33 of its 66 books.  Both the Hebrew word (malakh) and Greek word (angelos) means “messenger,” though we only see this term used of angels.

Yet despite all these references, we have few texts that really helps us understand who they are and what they do.  So much of our understanding comes from surveying the whole story of scripture and making a few observations.

  • They were created by God. God eternally exists; no one created him.  Yet at some undisclosed point in history, God created an untold number of angels (Deuteronomy 33:2; Psalm 69:17; Hebrews 12:22; Jude 14; Revelation 5:11).  Did this happen only once?  That is, does God ever create more angels?  The Bible doesn’t say.  But we can be sure that God created angels.  So while it may be comforting to think that a loved one was taken because “God needed another angel,” people don’t turn into angels when they die.  Rather, they enter God’s presence for either judgment or for entrance into eternal joy.
  • They look nothing like their pictures. Most art tends to show angels as chubby infants or—perhaps more often—women with feathery wings and a halo.  But the Bible usually describes angels as adult men.  So telling your wife she has the “face of an angel” might not be the wisest idea.  There are two exceptions we might note, however.  First, Zechariah 5:9 describes two-winged females, though the word “angel” is never used.  Just who these creatures are is never specified.  Second, when Isaiah has a vision of God’s throne room, he sees a collection of six-winged creatures called seraphim that hover around the throne praising God (Isaiah 6).  However, these creatures seem specifically assigned to heavenly worship, not earthly service.
  • They’re highly organized. Apparently not all angels have equal roles—1 Thessalonians 4:16 tells us of the reality of “archangels.”  Michael is an archangel (Jude 9) and “one of the chief princes” (Daniel 10:13), a title that seems to have some relationship to Israel.  Gabriel is the principle messenger both before and after the birth of Jesus (Daniel 8:16; Luke 1:18).
  • They’re highly purposeful. Angels seem to have a range of duties.  They exist for heavenly worship and service (Psalm 103:20-21; 148:1; Isaiah 6:2-6; Daniel 7:9-10; Revelation 4:6-5:12); to carry out God’s judgment (Genesis 19:13; Exodus 13; 2 Samuel 24:16; 2 Kings 19:35; Matthew 13:39; 25:31; Acts 12:21-23; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9); and to communicate with and guide God’s followers (Genesis 16:11; 18:9; Judges 13:3; Matthew 2:13; 4:11; Luke 22:43).
  • Yes; there are guardian angels (sort of). Scripture affirms that there are angels that watch over and protect human beings (Hebrews 1:14; Daniel 6:22; 10:13, 20; Psalm 34:7; 91:11).  But whether this means that there’s an angel assigned to each of us (like Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life) has more to do with human imagination than scripture.  Still, we also see angels intimately involved with death and the afterlife (Luke 16:22; 2 Kings 2:11-12; Acts 6:51; Jude 9).  Testimonies abound of Christians who experience the presence of angels ushering them into heaven.  While we don’t want to place undue weight on human experience, such testimonies are a possible, biblical, though not necessarily normative experience.

We can go deeper, of course—to say nothing of the fact that Satan and his demons are fallen angels—but this helps to give us a general sense of what angels exactly are and what they do

USE IN HEBREWS

So why is the writer of Hebrews using angels so frequently?  Because his first century world needed to hear and understand that Jesus stood superior to the angels.

Our world’s longing for connection to the spiritual world represents an opportunity to further the conversation.  In 2005, Peter Steinfels, religion reported for the New York Times, wrote that our world was not just becoming postmodern or post-Christian, but postsecular.  What does that mean?  In a secular world, there was a clear division between heaven and earth.  But in a postsecular world, there is no such division.  Heaven invades earth.  Spirituality permeates all of existence.

When Jesus began to call his first followers, he promised that they “will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51).  Jesus came to erase the division between heaven and earth.  You wish to be spiritual?  Then look to Jesus.  You wish to connect with God?   Then look to Jesus.  That’s the point of the early part of Hebrews.  And that’s why we need a vision of Jesus that goes beyond our usual conceptions of personal spirituality, and expands our minds into a broader and more joyous kingdom.

“Christ clothed in his gospel” (Hebrews 1:6-14)

Jesus is my homeboy.

Or, at least, that’s what a popular t-shirt reads.  They sell them not at Christian bookstores, but at places like Urban Outfitters, right next to ones that say things like: “Jesus surfs without a board.”  But Jesus isn’t just relegated to a t-shirt slogan.  Rap artist Kanye West made waves a few years ago when he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns.  And—most recently—“Jesus” has actually appeared onstage at Kanye’s performances, offering forgiveness and love.

Today’s world has a genuine fondness for Jesus.  It’s just that they fear his message has been perverted and corrupted by institutional Christianity—an organization that has co-opted Jesus’ message and bent it for a personal and political agenda.

The love for Jesus fits broadly into a post-everything world, one wear “spirituality” has more fashionably superseded “religious” as a means of describing oneself.  A generation or so ago, we lived in a modern world.  We asked modern questions, like: “Should I believe in Jesus or not?”  Scholars told us of a “Christ of history,” so different from the “Christ of faith” we grew up admiring.  These two “Christs” were separated by what one scholar called “an ugly, broad ditch.”  But in a postmodern world, we’re asking different questions.  We’ve crossed that “ugly, broad ditch” only to find ourselves standing in a hall of mirrors.  If yesterday’s question was: “Should I believe in Jesus or not?” today’s question is: “What kind of Jesus should I believe in?”  We long for a vision of Jesus that is not merely a distant shadow cast by the dim light of religious tradition.  We want a Savior that can empathize directly with our experience.

We’ll find this Jesus in Sussex, England.  Above the door of a church hangs not a panel of stained glass but a seven-foot-tall statue of Jesus sporting a pair of jeans.  Many—including journalist Steve Case—readily identify with this “Jesus in jeans.”

“I’d like to have a cup of coffee with Jesus someday,” Case writes.  “Not the guy in the clean white robe who speaks in King James English…just a ‘guy.’  A son of God who laughs, hangs out with the outcasts, breaks the rules that need breaking, and calls the finger-pointers on the carpet.”

For Case, this earthy version of Jesus is essential to the future of faith.

“If we can find a way for people to see and touch and hear and smell Jesus, it might make it a little easier when we ask them to have faith in a Jesus that is beyond our senses.  Yes, what Jesus did…was an act of immeasurable compassion and love.  But isn’t it easier to hug someone whose arms aren’t nailed down?”

The writer of Hebrews gives special attention to explaining who Jesus is to his readers.  After his introduction (Hebrews 1:1-4) he turns his focus to the splendor and majesty of Christ.  More specifically, the author of Hebrews takes the time to explain that Jesus is superior to the angels.  Why?  Some have speculated that the original readers had become preoccupied with the worship of angels.  Others have speculated that maybe—in their confusion—they might have suspected that Jesus had been an angel.  But we really don’t have any historic basis for either suggestion.  Instead, we can read between the lines to see that the author of Hebrews is simply trying to further reveal the incredible supremacy of Jesus.  And he does so in two distinct ways.

THE SON OF GOD

First, the writer uses scripture to point to the reality of Jesus as the Son of God:

5 For to which of the angels did God ever say,

“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”?

Or again,

“I will be to him a father,
and he shall be to me a son”?

6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

Mind you, “Son of God” was a term used frequently of ancient kings.  In neighboring cultures, kings saw themselves as either the gods’ representatives or some sort of demigod come to earth (if you saw the film 300, the Persian King Xerxes was an example of this—even in spite of Hollywood’s creative license).  But here the author of Hebrews cites three specific passages (Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel 7:14; and Deuteronomy 32:43) to directly point to Jesus.  Even if kings like David had ever been “sons of God” in some political sense, only Jesus is the “Son of God” in the divine sense.  Even the term “firstborn” is heavy with meaning, showing that Jesus is the emphatically eternal revelation of God.

THE KING OF ISRAEL

Secondly, the writer points to the reality of Jesus as the true King of Israel:

7 Of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels winds,
and his ministers a flame of fire.”

8 But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.
9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

10 And,

“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.”

13 And to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?

14 Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

This section begins and ends with a brief reflection on the nature of angels.  Yes, he says in verse 7, they are powerful and devoted servants (he quotes Psalm 104:4 to illustrate this), but they pale in comparison to the king of Israel.

So in verses 8-13 the author again draws from the wealth of scripture to reveal that Jesus is the ruler of all (Psalm 45:6-7; Psalm 102:25-27; and Psalm 110:1).  Psalm 110—the last psalm quoted—is a favorite among writers of the New Testament to emphasize Jesus’ superiority.

CLOTHED IN HIS GOSPEL

In one of his works on the life of Christ, N.T. Wright devotes considerable attention to the ways that the early Jews longed for two specific things to happen.  First, they longed for a day when God would physically be among them.  Second, they longed for the day when—once again—a King from the line of David would rule over them.  But, Wright observes, in the years surrounding the arrival of Jesus, no one seemed to ever expect that both of these expectations would be fulfilled in the same person.

Why should this matter?  Because Christianity insists that the identity of Jesus is anchored not in popular imaginations or t-shirt slogans, but instead it is deeply embedded in Israel’s history.  When we open the pages of Scripture, we find not a “Jesus in jeans” but instead what John Calvin once called a “Christ who is clothed in his gospel.”  The good news for folks like Steve Case is that we still get a Savior who identifies with us, who shares in our every human experience—both bad and good.  But if Jesus identifies with me it’s not because he’s “just another guy.”  I don’t want just another guy I can have coffee with.  Left to my own devices, I can only make my life a greater disaster.  I need a Savior with the capability and desire to lift me from the ruins and expand my vision of his Kingdom.  I need a Jesus clothed in his gospel.

 

Why Jesus? Spirituality and the gospel (Hebrews 1:1-4)

“We’re never gonna win the world,” sings contemporary blues artist John Mayer.  “We’re never gonna stop the war.  We’re never gonna beat this if belief is what we’re fighting for.”  Mayer’s 2006 song resonates with much of America’s contemporary spiritual state.  With so many religious and spiritual voices out there, why even bother trying to unite everyone under one belief system?

The irony, of course, is that much of America has at least begun to unite in their beliefs—the only difference is that we’re largely unwilling to give it a name.  According to data from 2012, roughly 1 in every 5 Americans is “religiously unaffiliated”—though the number will soon skyrocket, as roughly 1 in 3 Americans under 30 also considers themselves “unaffiliated.”  Mind you—these people believe earnestly in God; they’ve just lost their faith in traditional religion.  For many, religion is the problem—not the solution—to our social problems.

What we’re left with is what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls our “populist creed”—the beliefs that largely unite those who’d prefer to label themselves “spiritual” than overtly “religious.”  In Douthat’s 2012 book Bad Religion, he says that this “populist creed” takes the following form:

  • No religion offers a complete picture of God. Therefore God is not experienced through manmade teachings, but personal encounters.
  • God is everywhere—but he is best encountered by looking inside oneself. Self-discovery marks both the means—and the destination—of man’s spiritual quest.
  • Sin and evil—if they exist—will one day be reconciled, rather than defeated. Douthat cites Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, in which she writes: “There is no such thing in this universe as hell, except maybe in our own terrified minds.”
  • Perfect happiness is available right now—not in some distant heaven. What’s important is taking care of the world we currently inhabit.

Understandably, Christianity runs against the current of today’s culture.  Christianity teaches that only in Jesus do we see a complete picture of God.  God is found not within ourselves, but in the Truth he reveals most specifically in the Bible, and in Jesus.  Christianity teaches that sin and death are realities defeated through the work of Jesus, and that perfect happiness awaits us when God finally sets the world right.

This is hardly the first time in which Christianity has experienced conflict with the broader culture.  As we explore the book of Hebrews, we begin to see the ways in which early Christianity generated conflict with the culture around them.

You may recall that in the first century, the Roman government tolerated the Jews—but only barely.  So when Christianity emerged, it did so under threat of persecution from the Romans (who didn’t tolerate this new faith) and from the Jews (who feared a new faith would upset their uneasy peace with Rome).  At one point, Rome reacted against this “Jewish cult” by expelling Jewish Christians from their homes.  But regardless of whether any particular incident sparked the writing of Hebrews, one thing is certain: the early culture—one that placed high value on the categories of honor and shame—generated enormous external pressure for early Christians.

Cultural pressure hebrews hierarchyThis culture pressure gave birth to two dangers addressed in the letter to the Hebrews.  First was spiritual burnout—that the time seemed long between God’s promises and fulfillment.  What joy was there to be found in being social outcasts?  Second was functional atheism—that is, believing that God is real, but acting as if he’s not.  The early church struggled with those who abandoned the gospel for a life of pleasure-seeking.

Sound familiar?  Today we face similar kinds of cultural pressure.  It’s tough standing for the gospel in a world that sees Christianity as a social threat.  We may similarly face spiritual burnout—after all, is there any real value in going to church these days?  Aren’t I just as well-off staying home with my family?  Alternately we may face our own form of functional atheism.   We go to church faithfully, but our lives are ruled by devotion to the lesser gods of career, sexuality, money, power, and so on.

Thus the message of Hebrews is as clear as ever: endure.  But how?  Over the years a long litany of solutions have been raised, all of which seem to focus on technique.  But in his book God in the Wasteland, David Wells observes that this focus has been woefully inadequate:

“[T]he fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to staunch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds.  The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church.  His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.”  (David Wells, God in the Wasteland, p. 30)

What we need, then, is an “uncommon” Christ.  A Savior that transcends the boundaries of rationality and inward-gazing spirituality.  So it’s only fitting that the letter of Hebrews opens by directing our full attention at the person of Jesus:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:1-4)

In his commentary on Hebrews, Paul Ellingworth takes note of how the author opens with “an interweaving of themes, as in musical composition.”  There’s music to be heard here, if we listen closely enough.  What is the writer saying?  He’s saying that the Bible serves us well in its ability to reveal God—but now that we have Jesus, we no longer see God embedded in a text, but embodied in flesh and blood and sinew.

Of course, this cuts both ways.  Why?  Because it also tells us that if Jesus is the perfect embodiment of God, then it doesn’t render our scriptures obsolete.  On the contrary; it infuses them with new meaning, because they all point to this magnificent Son.

To know Jesus is to know God, and what you think about Jesus you also think about God.  The original Greek here uses the term charakter—translated in verse 3 as “the exact imprint of [God’s] nature.”  It’s easy to see where we get the English word “character” here, though in the ancient world they also used the term to refer to the stamps on coins.

The whole passage resonates with other early Christian thought, such as that of Paul in writing to the church in Colosse:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by[f]him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

Barry Taylor—artist and professor at Fuller Seminary—has observed that today’s world seems bent on “rescuing” Jesus from the clutches of religious conservatives “who, the consensus s seems to say, have done Jesus a grave injustice by making him out to be just like them – uptight, overly religious in the pejorative sense, lacking a sense of humor, and disconnected from the way things really are.”  (Barry Taylor, Entertainment Theology, p. 153)

But in the world of the New Testament we find a Jesus who is fully and emphatically God.  In the sixteenth century Philip Melancthon—one of Luther’s students—wrote that “God indeed dwells in other holy people, but dwells spiritually.…But in Christ he dwells bodily…the very divine nature has poured itself into the flesh, with all its power.”  He eternally exists.  He is intimately involved in creation.  He holds authority over his followers—the church.  And only through his saving work can man find his way back to God.

Douglas Coupland is best-known for coining the term “Generation X” back in the 1990’s.  But he has also written a number of other books, including Life After God, a collection of short stories of what life looks like through the eyes of an atheist.  But at the book’s conclusion, he startles readers by revealing his “secret:”

“My secret is that I need God—that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.” (Coupland, Life After God, p.359)

Do you need God?  Then read on.  The book of Hebrews may have something significant to say to you…

Nothing More Relevant than Studying the Book of Hebrews (Hebrews 1, Hebrews 4)

I am not exaggerating and just pumping you up at all when I say that I’m excited about our study of the book of Hebrews over the next 10 weeks. It really is a favorite for me and always has been, and it has been awhile since I’ve done this with a church.

The precision by which the writer to the Hebrews ties together the Old Testament and the work of Christ is simply so amazing and with such detail – it really bolsters one’s faith to see the incredible parallels in the master plan of God.

Yes, Hebrews is at times a bit on the academic and geeky side of biblical study. Yet at the same time, if you understand the background and the author’s purpose in writing, it really makes the book come alive in a most practical way.

Understanding the background and setting for the writing of any Bible text is important, but this is especially true for the book of Hebrews. And that is why I am sharing this devotional with you today even before we kick off the actual study on Sunday.

We do not know who wrote the book of Hebrews, and we don’t know the exact people who were the recipients. That doesn’t sound like a good start!  But this does not take away from the great writing that has been treasured by Christians since the dawn of the church age.

There are some people who believe it is the Apostle Paul who wrote the book. But the style is rather different, though proponents of Pauline authorship would say that such is accounted for by the different topical nature of what is written. Ultimately we just don’t know for sure. I would bet rather on it being the biblical character Barnabas. There was some early tradition that tied his name to this writing; and as a Levite by background, he would understand deeply all the details of the Old Testament system and how Christ was the perfect and true reality of those truths pictured and foreshadowed by the OT sacrificial system.

Another reason I am betting on Barnabas is the theme of encouragement that comes along with the deep teachings of the text. He was called the “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). And this leads us to discuss the purpose of the author’s writing.

Those receiving this letter would be a group of people who were Jewish Christians – having come to trust in faith in Christ as the Promised One. It had changed their lives; it was exciting at first. But then, over time, difficult times had come upon them. They were persecuted for their faith and there was great suffering. Life was hard.

These folks began to look back at the old days of the Jewish system when their lives were easier, almost longing for the good old days. Maybe they should go back to that time and that belief. Life would be easier, that was for sure. They could go to the Temple and actually see the priest; they could talk to him!  And so the writer says things like…

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Does not understanding that background make this familiar text “pop out” for you a bit more?  It is not just a biblical writer saying “pray to Jesus because he’s right there with God.”  It is rather a writer saying something like, “Don’t whine about what you can’t see on earth, but rather be thankful that you are represented by and in connection with someone who fully understands you and who is right there at the throne of God to help you … so why would you want to do something so incredibly stupid as to walk away from a resource like that?”

Over and over the writer is saying to the readers to hang in there, to stick with it … in a word to “endure.”  And that is why we chose that single word as the title for our series!

It is difficult to endure in a sinful world. Sometimes you want to just give up … throw it all in and quit. But the book of Hebrews says to stay the course and finish the race … just as others have ahead of you … that the reward is worth it all.

This is a timely message for us. It is a good writing for us to devour anew as we look at a world where 21 of our brothers in Christ were beheaded a few days ago for being Christians – the same thing we are. Will someone someday come to the Tri-State area and desire to detach our heads from our bodies?  That may seem remote, and maybe it is. But to live increasingly in a world where our faith is rapidly becoming a despised minority is our lot in life, and will be even more for the generations following us. There is a need for endurance.

So 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.