For the joy set before us … Hebrews 13

Joy, Unspeakable Joy – that has been our theme these two weeks and these three Sundays of Christmas 2015.

There is Joy at the beginning of that title, and Joy at the end. And in like fashion, there is joy at the beginning of time (the angels sang for joy at creation – Job 38:7) and at the end with the restoration of all things in the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom.

The problem for us, of course, is that we are caught now in the middle of those bookends. We experience seasons of joy, and there is a deep-seated inner peace and confidence that even in the sorrows and sadnesses, we know what the future holds. And any pain in this sojourn is worth it all in light of that greater truth.

So we should rejoice especially in this season and time on the calendar when these truths percolate again to the front of our minds and consciences. And even in a world that increasingly rejects truth, peace, and the king of peace, we should not fear or hesitate identification with Jesus.

In the passage that begins in Hebrews 12 (see yesterday) that talks about the joy set before Christ, the path to the joy involved suffering along the way. This too shall be our experience. And as the writer to the Hebrews brings this thought to a close in chapter 13, he encourages the readers (and us by extension) to be identified with Christ and his sufferings …

11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

In this world that hates Christ, yes, bear that disgrace. Don’t hesitate to be identified with him. Any city here, and gain or glory here, it is all fading … but another greater city is yet to come that will never perish.

In the meantime, be quick to openly profess Christ. And note also that immediately following this exhortation is the command to not fail to think of others in doing good and sharing with them. There’s a Christmas theme!

I’ll finish the series with this story. I was listening recently to a podcast by Dallas Seminary of a talk with a seminary professor in an evangelical school in Jordan. One can imagine the complications of being so openly Christian in that context. While noting the difficulties as very real, this theological scholar also said that there are many in that region of the world who are attracted to and are coming to know Christ. And he said that a big part of it is the wonderful Gospel message that stands opposite the theme of the majority religion in that corner of the earth. Whereas they have been told that they are to give up their lives for God to gain eternity, the Christian message is that God has come in Christ and given up his life for them. That is a message of incarnational joy.

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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.