Monthly Archives: March 2012

Well Done!

If you have been able to stay on track with your reading, we are one-fourth of the way through the year and the New Testament.  Great job!  We have read five books by five different authors, and read the largest book in the New Testament (Acts).

Three more short chapters in James, then we go back to the life of Jesus by way of Matthew.  I really like the quarterly return to the gospels.  We will also read the majestic book of Romans before the summer gets going too strong, and finish up June with the Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon).  This will be a great quarter of reading.

I appreciate the time you take to read these posts and I am especially encouraged and stretched by your comments and questions.  I enjoy knowing I am part of a reading community.

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James 2: Doing Faith & Love

“Talk is cheap” is what they say, and today James enthusiastically agrees.

“Love” is a lot of things, but let there be no mistake, love is active.  Love is a verb.  Love is something you do.

So too is “faith.”  We may “believe” certain things to be true.  We might give “mental ascent” to a concept.  We can even intellectualize fine sounding arguments for why something is true (like a lot of things on this very blog, right?).  But until action is added into the mix, what we have isn’t “faith.”  Faith is something you do.

You keep the royal law, as it is written, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; if you do this, you will do well. (2:8)

Supposing a brother or sister is without clothing, and is short even of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; be warm, be full!” — but doesn’t give them what their bodies need — what use is that?  In the same way, faith, all by itself and without works, is dead. (2:15-17)

Since the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God there have been people who have focused only on what one does.  This compartmentalization can be convenient.  We get to lay out the right way to live and once we have accomplished that we can pat ourselves on our self-assured backs.  There have also been people who have focused on what one believes.  One, therefore, does not have to worry about how those beliefs should shape one’s actions.  We get to go about life our way not getting too involved in other people’s problems nor letting our religious views interfere with the rest of our life.

Both of those extremes are problematic.  Focus on “doing” and it becomes easy to think you have done it all.  This becomes a religion of self-reliance and that which only God can do is forgotten.  Focus on “believing” and it becomes easy to think God has done it all.  That can easily become a religion of complacent “cheap grace” and our role is forgotten.

People have noted that the views of Paul and James seem to be at odds, especially when you talk about the role of faith and works in salvation.  But could the solution to this perception be this simple?  Paul was talking to people who overemphasized actions to the point where grace and the need for Jesus had been eliminated (like what we saw in Galatians).  James was addressing people on the other end of the spectrum who were quick to tell you about their great faith (2:18-19) but didn’t do much to show it (2:15-16).  When dealing with people holding extreme views, you play up the part they are neglecting in order that they may come back to the middle where all parts are present and appreciated.  Had we an opportunity to talk to Paul and James together and ask them about their own personal views on faith and works maybe we would find they actually held very similar views.  And both would likely remind us that over and above this whole conversation about faith and works we have to remember that the Spirit works through us, so without the Spirit our works don’t amount to much.

In today’s passage James describes “faith” as something that has to have belief (2:19) and works (2:18) in order to be alive (2:17, 20, 26), full (2:22), and justifying (2:24).  Belief by itself is not enough; works by themselves are not enough.  Maybe for too long our definition of faith has been too small.  Faith and works aren’t two separate things.  “Faith” only exists when works are present.  In other words faith is this larger idea that contains the smaller component we call works.  Belief would be another component as well.  Bottomline, James reminds us that faith is something we do.

Likewise, love is more than just a feeling that creates actions, as if love and actions are separate things.  “Love” has within it feelings, but also actions.  It is not enough to feel some sort of fellowship with people who calls themselves Christians.  One has to allow those feelings to shape our actions, for instance, in such a way that favoritism is banished from the way we deal with others (2:1-10).  We are loving when we do love to others.  Until we treat our neighbors like we would want to be treat we have no business claiming to be loving (2:8).  Love is something we do.

What do you think?  

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BONUS: James 1:14-15 – Sin Strikes One DEAD

I know some of you don’t read comments so I wanted to take a snippet posted today in the comments on James 1 and move it here.  Roberta Pledge offered this great acronym for remembering how sin originates and how to avoid becoming trapped in it.  Thanks Roberta!  Very memorable.

D for DISTRACTION, sin begins by  simply taking our eyes off of God

E for EVIL DESIRE, soon this distraction becomes an evil desire

A for ADDICTION, then it totally consumes our thoughts and actions

D for DEATH, whether spiritual, physical or both, the end result of sin is death

Roberta says: “When we understand where sin begins, we can pray regularly to see the distractions in our lives and stop our sin at that point.  A weed is much easier to pull before it is deeply rooted!”

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James 1: Learning to Rejoice in Suffering

Scholars who study the book of James say this letter defies any attempt to structure and organize James’ thoughts.  Again like Proverbs, James jumps from topic to topic.  This is the kind of book where one verse or small passage in a chapter will catch the eye and speak to the heart.  Because of that, I imagine each of us will have different reactions to each chapter.

In chapter one I was drawn to the way Wright worded verse 2:

My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy.

I remember reading this verse for the first time, in the New International Version:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.

I remember thinking, “What? Are you kidding?  Be glad about hard times?  No way!  Surely not!”

But I had missed the first two words, “consider it.”  In other words, choose to think of it as a blessing.  This is not a reaction that comes naturally.  That is why I like Wright’s way of saying it, “Learn to look at it with complete joy.”  This is a frame of mind that comes with time and training.

May we learn little by little that the fires of life aren’t meant to burn us up, rather they refine us and make us pure!

When did a hardship turn out to be a great blessing?

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BONUS: An Introduction to James

I can remember studying the book of James at summer camp for a week back when I was around twelve.  With James’ practical focus, it was the first time I ever realized the Bible actually did relate to everyday life.  This great little book, written most people think by Jesus’ own brother James (Gal. 1:19), will yield a week full of wonderful lessons once again so many years later.

James is typically classified as a “general epistle,” meaning it was likely written to be circulated amongst several churches and therefore had a broader focus as opposed to most of Paul’s letters which seem to have been written to address a particular situation going on in one specific church.  This does seem to be true.  James has no personal details at all.  However, as I read through the book with a group of students recently I was struck by how many times proper relationships between rich and poor Christians occurred in the book.  That has to be related to something going on in the background of this letter, though the details may be lost forever.

James was likely written to Jewish Christians.  James says their meeting place was a “synagogue” (2:2), the Jewish law is discussed with great familiarity, and the recipients are called “the twelve tribes,” probably a reference to Israel (1:1).  The recipients are said to be “scattered among the nations” (1:1).  James played a leading role in the church in Jerusalem so likely he is writing to Jewish Christians who had to flee from Judea when persecutions of Christians started (see Acts 11:19).  Ever the leader, James is pastoring his scattered flock.

James is best known for the strong argument in the second half of chapter two that faith is only real if it is active.  If one comes to James with a belief that faith is purely a matter of the mind and that good works are of no worth to God, he or she would probably join Martin Luther in disparaging the book of James; Luther called James “an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”

James 1:27 nicely puts together these ideas and serves as an appropriate theme verse:

As far as God the father is concerned, pure, unsullied devotion works like this: you should visit orphans and widows in their sorrow, and prevent the world [from] leaving its dirty smudge on you.

Over the next week we are guaranteed some very practical lessons from this part of Scripture that in my mind is closest to the teachings of Jesus or the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.  How appropriate that James would sound a lot like his brother Jesus!

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Galatians 6: Focused on the Cross

We come to the end of our fourth book today.  These shorter books of Paul go quickly.  We are on to James tomorrow.  Good place to jump back onboard if necessary.

So much of Galatians has been anchored in the interplay between law and grace, slavery and freedom.  In the third to last paragraph of the book Paul tells us why the law is futile to make us righteous, why we are free from slavery, why we are alive in Christ, and why we can have the Spirit:

As for me, God forbid that I should boast — except in the cross of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.  Circumcision, you see, is nothing; neither is uncircumcised!  What matters is new creation.  Peace and mercy on everyone who lines up by that standard — yes, on God’s Israel. (6:14-16)

Ritual makes us focus on ourselves.  The cross of Jesus focuses us on the work of Jesus.  The law offers guidance for right living, but leaves us without the power to do it.  The cross made spiritual power available with the coming of the Spirit at the ascension of Christ.  The law was spoken into the world of the old creation.  The cross vanquished all powers set against God’s Kingdom and started a new creation.  The law enslaved us to sin, guilt, and the death that is the consequence of failure.  The cross frees us from all such tyrannies.  The center of the way of Christ is the cross.  A cross-less Christianity is just one more way to end up enslaved.

As a result, the cross becomes our focus for how we live life each day.  We “carry each other’s burdens” or crosses (6:2).  This may leave the “marks of Jesus” on our bodies (6:17), but we are okay with that because we are certainly not the ones who want to “avoid persecution for the Messiah’s cross” (6:12).  Daily, we “sow in the field of the spirit” and as a result “harvest eternal life from the spirit” (6:8).  Focused on the cross as our power we take up the cross as our service — to God and to others.

Let’s try this again because it worked well last time: please summarize in one sentence the message of Galatians as you heard it this time around.

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Galatians 5: Live By the Spirit

Why don’t we need a system of laws and rules to “babysit” us anymore, as Paul said in chapter 3?

Paul gives us an unmistakable answer in today’s reading.

If you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law. (5:18)

In fact, the word “spirit” is used seven times in this chapter, punctuating Paul’s point (though I wish Wright had not chosen to leave “spirit” and “holy spirit” uncapitalized in his translation).

A system of laws, a list of rules, or a handbook of standards and dictates is comfortable for a lot of people.  Everything is stated and known.  It is also a good tool to have when dealing with children.  The problem, though, is that all of these exist outside of the person.  Someone made some laws or rules and published those and now we are expected to adhere.  The handbook is sitting over there on the table.  We can choose to know, learn, and follow it or we cannot.  While these systems of law do provide guidance, they don’t give power to meet those expectations.  And expectations without empowerment usually lead to failure.

Now, with the coming of the Holy Spirit into the life of Christians, there is both guidance and power.  And all of this exists within.  Temptation is still with us, of course.  It was right there with us when we operated by a system of dos and don’ts too.  The difference is that, unlike any system of law, the Spirit is alive and personal.  The Spirit wishes to “make us alive” (remember chapter 2) and empower us past the temptation and on to righteousness (5:5).  That Spirit guides us and if we will choose to “live by that spirit” (5:16) we find that progressively, little by little, the Holy Spirit puts to death the “flesh” (5:17) and truly “makes us free so that we [can] enjoy freedom” (5:1).

Free people are able to make the choices that truly liberate their souls.  It is not that the lifestyle our rules are trying to produce is bad.  Not at all.  The whole law really came down to one principle: love your neighbor (5:14), and that is as good a lifestyle as they come.  True Christian love requires an emptying of self, putting other before oneself (5:13).  It takes true freedom to choose to do that.  Freedom from requirement, from having to love others.  It isn’t love if it is done by obligation.  But when we step out in faith, trusting that the best way to happiness is to serve others, counterintuitive as it is, and that faith shows itself through love (5:6), one more crucifying nail is driven into the self (5:24), and the Spirit is able to produce fruit in our lives (5:22-23).

We don’t need a babysitter when we have the spirit of the Father inside us.

What verse stood out to you in this chapter?

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Galatians 4: Children of Freedom

However, at that stage [before coming to Christ] you didn’t know God, and so you were enslaved to beings that, in their proper nature, are not gods.  But now that you’ve come to know God — or, better, to be known by God — how can you turn back again to that weak and poverty-stricken lineup of elements that you want to serve all over again? (4:8-9)

Most who study the background of Paul’s letter to the Galatians agree that the Christians addressed in this book were originally Roman pagans.  Before Christ they “didn’t know God.”  They worshiped “beings that . . . are not gods,” though the Galatians would have thought they were.  They worshiped “elemental spirits,” some translations say, that is supposed spiritual powers that were tied to the elements of nature.  These Galatians were likely those converted in Antioch, Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium.  Remember, when Barnabas and Paul arrived in Lystra they were first thought to be Zeus and Hermes respectively (Acts 14:8-20), a reaction that makes sense when we consider their paganism.

Now, at the behest of the Judaizers, the Galatian Christians were adopting a form of Christianity that practiced Jewish ritualism.  In fact, the Jewish laws and customs had become their real source of confidence, not the grace of God made available through Jesus.  Though this passage above says the Galatians were turning “back,” almost all agree they were not returning to paganism and that Paul is saying that their adoption of Jewish ritualism is really just turning back to a system that is akin to paganism is fundamental ways.

We could diagram it this way:

How was Jewish ritualism so akin to Roman paganism that Paul would see this as turning back, as if we have a boomerang effect like in the diagram above?  How could Jewish ritualism be closer to Roman paganism than to the gospel of Jesus?

The answer in one word was slavery.  In Paul’s mind both Roman paganism and Jewish ritualism enslaved a person.  Yes, they did this in different ways and their rituals and beliefs were radically different, but they ended up enslaving the worshipper just the same.  Whether one was offering a long line of seasonal sacrifices to the deities of Rome or one was doing the same to God, the result was the same.  The worshipper always had to do more, always had to curry favor with the gods or God, always paid off a debt, and always had to keep the angry gods or God happy.  There is no end to that “weak and poverty-stricken” system of slavery, whether done in Rome or Jerusalem.  On the other hand, true freedom could only be found in the grace of Jesus.  In Christ there is no more slavery (3:28).

I would like to assert that this same dynamic happens in Christian circles today.  We too have the boomerang of legalism.

It is easy to point out religious legalism when you see it.  This would be a legalism that says there is a highly religious routine or ritual that has to be done in order to achieve acceptance with God.  Religion is the way to salvation.  One is right with God because they have done particular religious rituals, as if the communion elements or baptismal waters have magical powers to cleanse.  One earns brownie points with God as he attends the prescribed worship services, serves in a public way in the correctly-performed church service, and gives a set amount of money to the church.  In religious legalism there is a correct set of beliefs and pattern for worship, and it is of utmost importance to discover and conform to these if one wants to be considered a true Christian.  Of course, the problem with religious legalism is the attitude with which these things are done, not the actions themselves.  Religion legalism trusts in human action.  It says the power of salvation rests in the efforts of the person to think and act correctly.  As futile as it is, religious legalism only leads to slavery.

For many of us religious legalism was an early trap we were able to escape from long ago.  It was our first religion, so to say.  But I see another legalism, though, that develops later that is just as enslaving.  For lack of a better term, let’s call this one progressive legalism (can you think of a better name?).  Let me stipulate that I would describe myself (and many would agree) as a progressive Christian, though I try to avoid legalism.  Nonetheless, I have seen how the practice of spiritual disciplines can become another list of things that must be done by good Christians in order to curry favor with God.  I have seen in others and experienced in myself a sense of self-satisfaction (or guilt and despair) in a list of benevolent efforts done for the poor.  There is within some progressives a set of required beliefs too, and those who do not hold these are considered inferior.  And that is when the slavery begins — to lists, earned favor, human actions, an expected way of thinking, an air of superiority, and the never-ending need to keep doing.

Though we might be tempted to place religious legalism and progressive legalism on the opposite ends of a continuum, in reality they are too alike for that.  This is the boomerang effect again, as we realize they are plagued by the same flaws.  Both are ritualistic.  Both rely on human actions.  Both are impotent and cannot change human beings.  Both rob us of freedom.

As Paul reminds us at the end of chapter four using Abraham and the mothers of his two sons as examples,

We are not children of the slave-girl, but of the free. (4:31)

Freedom is only found in Christ.

Where else have you seen this dynamic?

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Not My Doing

I am assuming most of you figured this out already, but those ads that are now showing up at the bottom on my posts are not my doing.  I do not place them, I do not endorse them, and I wish they were not there.  They are a feature that WordPress has added to those of us who are still using the free version of this otherwise great blogging platform.  I can pay $30 per year to go ad-free but I guess I am cheap and I don’t want to.

I would ask that you ignore them and certainly do not click on them.  I don’t want the powers that be to get the idea that my blog is a fruitful place to put ads.  By all means, if you see any ad that is objectionable, lewd and truly contradictory to the spirit of this blog, please let me know (as the ads don’t show up until after I publish a post).  I’ll bit the bullet and cough up the money if they get too out of line.

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Galatians 3: No Need for a Babysitter Anymore

Before this faithfulness [of Jesus] arrived, we were kept under guard by the law, in close confinement until the coming faithfulness should be revealed.  Thus the law was like a babysitter for us, looking after us until the coming of the Messiah, so that we might be given covenant membership on the basis of faithfulness.  But now that faithfulness has come, we are no longer under the rule of the babysitter.  (3:23-25)

I had many a babysitter growing up.

There was Debbie from down the street.  She introduced me to Deborah Harry (aka Blondie) right at the height of the punk rock rage.  Then it was Debbie’s sister and several teenage girls from church.  After that, being five and seven years older than my brothers, I became the babysitter.  I remember the time, though, I thought I was too cool to babysit my brothers, so my parents got one of my classmates named Renee to babysit.  I was told that if I were too cool to babysit, then I was also too cool to stay in the house while they were away.  I was exiled to the nearby park.  There was also the summer we had a procession of “nannies,” all college girls from the local Baptist church.  The most memorable of those was the one who was visiting from Zimbabwe for the summer.  She made us hotdogs one day and buttered the buns.  Didn’t toast them or anything.  Just butter right up on the hotdog.  Okay.

Babysitters are great . . . for a time.  But it would be kind of weird, however, having a babysitter when you are 32.  When your children are approaching the teen years you kind of get a sense that if they need a babysitter still, they might be a bit behind the curve.  There is a time for the babysitting to stop.

When maturity comes, parents have faith in their children.  Faith too in their parenting.  They trust that the growing child has the inner guidance to go the right way themselves.  Once you have experienced the freedom of adulthood, you don’t need a babysitter anymore.

What verse really got you thinking?

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Galatians 2: Made Alive in Christ

Have you heard this riddle before?

They have not flesh nor feathers, nor scales nor bone; but they do have fingers and thumbs of their own.

How about this one?

This household object used to be alive but now is dead but can come alive again.

Answer?  A glove.  A leather glove for the second one (though leather doesn’t work with the first riddle).  A leather glove used to be a cow, and it “comes alive” when a hand is placed inside it.  Some of us who work together only have to think back to last year’s chapel theme and a friend’s use of this same glove image.

I grew up singing a song based pretty much word-for-word on verses 19-20.  Maybe you did too.  I love scripture songs.  They plant God’s word in my heart.  At the same time, they pose a problem for me, as I discovered again today.  I find a song more easily divests the words of their meaning and I forget what the passage is about.  I guess the passage just becomes too familiar.

So I enjoyed reading Wright’s rendering of 2:19b-20 because he made these words fresh again with meaning.

I have been crucified with the Messiah.  I am, however, alive — but it isn’t me any longer; it’s the Messiah who lives in me.  And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

I go back to the image of the leather glove.  I am dead, crucified.  This isn’t my life, or at least it is not supposed to be.  So whatever life one does see in me is really the life of Jesus who is in me.  My strength is not in my own power to do good (what so much of the latter half of chapter 2 is about).  My life doesn’t even rest in my own faith, rather I have my assurance because of the faithfulness of Jesus (a major theme in Wright’s theology).

Oh, to be more glove-like!

What struck you in this diverse chapter?

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Galatians 1: No Other Gospel

“Good news,” she said.  “You’ve qualified for twice as much as you are asking for!”

“She” was the woman at the bank where my wife and I applied for a mortgage loan to buy the house in which we presently live.

Naturally, thoughts of a bigger house, a better zip code, second and third bathrooms, a guest room, a workshop in the garage, and more modern amenities flew through our minds.

I am very thankful today that we had enough sense to balk at her suggestion and proceed with the modest amount we had originally been seeking.  I can’t imagine how we could have afforded the monthly note had we listened to her “good news.”  I still wonder what she was thinking, but then the word “predatory” comes to mind.  It was the early 2000s after all.

Not all “good news” is really all that good.

Slavery is a perfect word to describe what my wife and I would be experiencing had we taken on a mortgage payment twice what we pay right now.  Working long hours and extra jobs to pay the mortgage company.  We would be truly house-poor.  Feel free to sit in the corner over there where a couch should be, had we the money!  In fact, I have noticed that any time I do something largely or completely for money, I end up regretting it.  It is never worth it.  Anything but good news.

The resounding theme of Galatians 1 is “gospel.”  The word is used six times in this short chapter, and the phrase “good news” — the literal meaning of the word “gospel” — is used twice more.  But back then as much as now, not all good news is really all that good.

I’m astonished that you are turning away so quickly from the one who called you by grace, and are going after another gospel — not that it is another gospel. (1:6-7a)

Bear in mind the context of Galatians (see the bonus post below).  The Galatians are new Christians, some of the first converts of Paul’s first missionary journey.  But just as quick as they accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ laced all the way through with grace as it should be, they were being told by a group of hardline Jewish Christians — typically called the Judaizers — that good Christians are good Jews as well.  If you really want to follow God, you have to follow the Jewish law and customs.  Step right up for your circumcision, sir.  Stop cooking that filthy swine, madam.  Family, stop, it’s the Sabbath.  This was the new “gospel” they were hearing, and it seems from this verse above that some of the Galatian Christians were persuaded.  Jesus was a Jew after all.  God did come first to the Jews, didn’t he?  Paul himself was a Jew.

In no uncertain terms, Paul made it clear that not all gospels are truly good news:

If anyone offers you a gospel other than the one you received, let that person be accursed. (1:9)

Paul will tell us more later about why all gospels are not equal.  Simply put, some “good news” enslaves.  Well, that’s no good news after all.  Are we made right with God by grace or by law?  Because if it is by grace, you are free.  All debts are paid.  No obligations are in place.  One obeys out of gratitude and love.  But if it is by law that we are made righteous, then we are enslaved to a system of our own best efforts, which sadly always come up short.  There is always more to do.  We can always be better.  And we are obligated, for sure.

That’s slavery.  And that’s no good news!

What modern day “good news” isn’t really as good as it sounds?

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BONUS: An Introduction to Galatians

Galatians was a favorite of the Reformers.  Martin Luther said of the book: “This is ‘my’ epistle.  I am wedded to it.”  Galatians has also been a favorite of evangelicals, given our focus on salvation.  As we start the epistles of Paul, there may be no better start.  Paul gives us the gospel, stripped down and simple, and leads us to the Holy Spirit as our power for spiritual living.

Almost no one questions whether Paul wrote Galatians.  In fact, Galatians may be his first letter, or at least one of the earliest.  Whether Christians have to be circumcised is a big question in the letter, and this was an issue that was settled definitively in Acts 15.  Strangely, Paul never cites that decision in Galatians, possibly suggesting this letter was written even before the events of Acts 15.  That would mean that the events of Galatians 2 refer to Paul’s visit to Jerusalem in Acts 11:30.  Regardless, what we have here is some of Paul’s earliest thinking.

Historically, there has been no agreement on whether Paul is writing to Galatian Christians in the northern part of that Roman province or to Christians in the southern cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, converts from his first missionary journey.  Remember back to Acts 13-14, how Paul had quick success in this region only to be followed by fast opposition from the Judaizers, Jewish Christians who believed that one had to become a good Jew in order to be a good Christian.  It makes most sense to me that Paul is writing the Galatians in the southern province as a rapid rebuttal to the Judaizers who are jeopardizing his work.

What do you have to do to really be considered a Christian?  What is it that truly saves a person?  These are the questions Galatians will take up in a big way.  They are also questions we often ask today as well.  There will be much that is helpful in this short book.

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Hebrews 13: True Sacrifice

“Just give me something to do!  Enough with the philosophy, tell me what to do!”

This exhortation is one I have heard a lot in my life as a teacher, especially when teaching busy, pragmatic adults.  My teenage students have a much higher tolerance for the theoretical, ironically.

The book of Hebrews ends well for those who are looking for something to do.

Our part, then, is this: to bring, through him, a continual sacrifice of praise to God — that is, mouths that confess his name, and do so fruitfully.  Don’t neglect to do good, and to let “fellowship” mean what it says.  God really enjoys sacrifices of that kind!  (13:15-16)

There is a real threat that religion — any religion — will replace the true relational worship God is truly seeking.  For the Hebrews, that meant substituting law observance and religious rituals for a true faith in and imitation of Jesus.  For us that substitution might come in a variety of forms:

  • Letting our assurance rest in our baptism or church involvement
  • Defining our goodness by charitable giving
  • Assuming that Bible reading, prayer, and listening to Christian music are the activities God most want from us
  • Thinking that the greatest things we do for God happen in a church building

This has been a common chorus as we have meditated on Hebrews.

Notice what the Hebrews author says are the sacrifices that God truly desires: praise, witness, goodness done to others, and fellowship.  In other words, love God and love others.  The sacrifices God most desires are relational, not ritual.  They are the sacrifices of will, time, and energy.  It could be that the best sacrifice we could give today would be to forgive a friend who has wronged us or to take the risk involved in mentioning Jesus to someone.

As we finish Hebrews today, summarize in one sentence the overall message you have heard God speak into your life from this book.     

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Hebrews 12: Keep Running!

What an incredible chapter!  If you got off track last week with Spring Break (for many of us), pick up your Bible right now and read Hebrews 12.  It is a great way to start back.  There is something for everyone in this practical chapter.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is right here in verses 1-3, so I can’t help but be drawn to them.  Wright has done a nice job making them fresh in my mind:

What about us, then?  We have such a great cloud of witnesses all around us!  What we must do is this: we must put aside each heavy weight, and the sin which gets in the way so easily.  We must run the race that lies in front of us, and we must run it patiently.  We must look ahead, to Jesus.  He is the one who carved out the path for faith, and he’s the one who brought it to completion. (12:1-3)

I am certainly no runner, as all who know me in the real world know.  In the sports I played, running was punishment.  But from the comfort of the spectator’s spot I can say without a doubt that I have the utmost respect for runners.  By all appearances, it takes an extra level of inner fortitude to run long and run hard and not give up.

Of course, this passage fits the context of Hebrews perfectly.  These Christians are thinking about giving up, so the author pleads with them not to.  This is no 100-metre dash.  They will have to reach down deep inside for “patience” or endurance and run on.  Like some heavy backpack, they would do well to throw off their thinking that the right path to run is the way of the Jewish law and customs.  And they don’t need to let sin turn into hurdles on the track before them.  I am told by my students who run cross-country that it helps to run as a group, to have one strong leader in the race who helps the others keep pace and then runs back when he is done to encourage the others.  For the Hebrew Christians that leader was Jesus.  Why would they give up on him now?

Just keep running!

What verses did you need to hear today? 

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Hebrews 11: We Are People of Faith

For many of us, this is a very familiar chapter.  Maybe you grew up like me calling this the “Hall of Fame of Faith.”  With its definition of faith,

What then is faith? It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see. (11:1)

and its many examples of faith, this chapter is certainly that.  But hopefully now with an increased appreciation for the context of Hebrews, we can see that these are all examples of a certain kind of faith.

If you are a Jew (now or then), the people mentioned in this chapter are heroes.  It is their kind of faith you would want to have.  That is exactly what the Hebrew author is hoping his audience will realize.

Faith is defined here as pressing forward with confidence into a rewarding but unseen future.  This definition comes in four parts:

  1. Pressing forward: Faithful people don’t sit still in a comfortable place.  And they certainly don’t go backward, reverting to a comfortable past.
      • Abel proceeded to offer what he understood to be the right kind of sacrifice
      • Actively “seek” after God like Enoch
      • Noah actually built his preposterous Ark
      • Abraham picked up his family and moved to an unseen land
      • Sarah and Abraham did what was necessary to bear a family
      • Abraham actually took Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice
      • Both Isaac and Jacob promised his descendants land that his family did not yet possess
      • Joseph saw the coming slavery but could also see the Exodus
      • Moses preferred to suffer than enjoy the luxury of a pagan king’s palace
      • Moses kept God ever before him, even as he was chased by the murderous Pharaoh
      • The Israelites carried out their ridiculous battle plan at Jericho
      • Rahab betrayed her own people by welcoming the spies “in peace”
  2. Confidence:  Faithful people are sure of better things to come.
      • Like Enoch, faithful people “must believe that he really does exist”
      • Noah “took seriously” the warning of a flood
      • Abraham “looked ahead” with expectation
      • Sarah considered God “trustworthy”
      • Abraham figured God could raise Isaac from the dead
      • Jacob was so sure of the promise that he “worshipped” God for it ahead of time
      • Joseph made plans to be buried in a land they did not have
      • Moses’ parents were not afraid of Pharaoh
      • Moses “reckoned” the promise of God was better than the “pleasures of sin”
  3. Rewarding: There is every reason in place to have this sort of faith.
      • Abel was vindicated by God.
      • Enoch was taken directly to be with God
      • Noah and his family were saved from drowning
      • Abraham’s descendants inherited Canaan
      • Sarah conceived a child though barren
      • Abraham did not lose Isaac
      • Moses was rescued from death as a baby
      • Moses led the Israelites across the Red Sea on dry ground
      • The walls of Jericho fell
      • Rahab was spared death at Jericho
  4. Unseen: The unseen nature of faith is punctuated in this chapter by the many uses of “seeing” language — “seen” (11:3, 7, 13); “visible” (11:3); “bore witness” (11:4); “see” (11:5, 10, 14); “find” (11:5); “seek” (11:6); “not knowing where he was going” (11:8); “looking ahead” (11:10, 26); “looking” (11:14); “hidden” (11:23); “saw” (11:23); “invisible” (11:27); and “eyes” (11:27).  This would have been especially poignant to the Hebrew Christians who seem to be missing the tangible nature of their past Judaism.  Their heroes always pursued the unseen as well.

Maybe the astonishing thing in this chapter is how it ends:

All these people gained a reputation for their faith; but they didn’t receive the promise. (11:39)

Now, the Hebrew Christians have a chance to receive something their own heroes longed for but were never given: a true inheritance in God’s perfect city (11:10, 13-16).  What a privilege!  It is for them to simply press on as the “people of faith” (10:39) even if it stretches them past the tangible.

What struck you in this chapter?   

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Hebrews 10: Don’t Throw Away Your Confidence

Are you confident of your standing with God?

All of us are looking for wholeness and peace.  We want to know that God accepts us and His words to us should we die today would be “Well done, my good and faithful servant!”  And we want to have this assurance with an unshakeable confidence.

At the same time, we are fully aware of our own shakiness.  We know our frailty and duplicity better than anyone.  We look in a mirror and see flaws few others see.

So we try harder.  We get on the latest and greatest self-improvement plan.  We reach down deeper within ourselves to muster every ounce of self-discipline we have.  We make lists of things we should and should not do.  We grit our teeth when temptation comes, and just try to hold on.

And then we fail.  We always fail.

Really, we are trying to be justified by law.  He are relying on ourselves.  Sure, we will accept the advice of God on how to live, but really our sense of wholeness, peace, and acceptance is anchored in our own deeds.  Really, we are doing nothing different than any other works-oriented concept of salvation.  Like the Hebrew Christians were tempted to do, we are reverting back to system of holiness based on our own efforts and we make light of what Jesus has done, though usually we don’t outright reject our Savior.

As the Hebrews author winds up his ten-chapter long argument for the superiority of Jesus over the Jewish religion, he makes one last plea that his friends not let go of Jesus.  He summarizes many of his thoughts with a powerful statement that Jesus is the preeminent high priest who offers a superlative sacrifice:

Thus it comes about that every priest stands daily at his duty, offering over and over the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But Jesus offered a single sacrifice on behalf of sins, for all time, and then “sat down at the right hand of God.” . . . By a single sacrifice, you see, he has made perfect forever those who are sanctified. (10:11-12, 14)

If the Hebrew Christians — and we too — will hang on to our faith in Jesus and “not throw away our confidence” (10:35), we can have “boldness” (10:19) and a “complete assurance of faith” (10:22).  We need not worry, because God is “trustworthy” (10:24) and “our lives will be kept safe” (10:39).  We can have confidence in our wholeness, peace, and acceptance because it is anchored in the work of Jesus, not our own vacillating attempts at holiness.

But all of this will take faith.  More on that tomorrow.

Hold on with confidence!

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Hebrews 9: Inheritance Follows Death

What will you do about sin?

In one way or another, every human being answers this question.  Some are intentionally religious about their answers.  Others would prefer to call sin something like “mistakes” or “regrets” or “negative energy.”  Regardless, the topic is the same.  That is precisely the topic taken up in today’s reading, maybe the clearest and most sustained discussion of “atonement” we have come to this year.

By far, the most common answer to the sin question is that we will work it off through good works.  It is not always verbalized that way, but that is the point.  The solution is up to us.  Do more good than bad.  Straighten up your own mess.  Make better choices.  Try harder.  Religious people of all sorts answer the question this way, yes, even some that swear an allegiance to Jesus.

The Hebrew author is quite clear what he thinks of that answer:

Gifts and sacrifices are offered which have no power to perfect the conscience of those who come to worship. (9:9)

Good works won’t do it.  Offer whatever you wish.  Kill a hundred animals.  Rely upon yourself and the results will always be the same: failure.  We can’t solve the problem ourselves.

Then the writer offers his best answer later:

There’s no pardon without bloodshed! (9:22b)

This is not always a well-liked answer.  Some don’t see why God needs to have blood; he can simply forgive.  Some see this as barbaric and archaic.  Some paint this as the bloodlust of a neurotic, angry god.  Well liked or not, the Bible’s answer is always the same: forgiveness takes blood, or more to the point of the symbol of blood, it takes death.

The reason for the death and blood will be answered several different ways as we go through the New testament this year, so we will add to the answer as we go.  The point here is a legal or contractual one: we stand waiting for an inheritance (9:15).  We look forward to the fullness of the Spirit and the world where “everything will be put into proper order” (9:10).  Inheritances come from wills, and a will can only be executed when the death of the person promising an inheritance has been substantiated (9:15-17).  Thus, blood as a symbol of death is necessary.

What did you notice anew in this familiar chapter? 

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Hebrews 8: Heavenly Realities

I will vote for this verse from today’s reading as the theme verse for the whole book.  It sums up quite succinctly the writer’s point as I understand it.

Now, you see, Jesus has obtained a vastly superior ministry.  In the same way, he is the mediator of a better covenant, which is established on better promises. (8:6)

What is real?

I was also drawn to this verse:

They [Jewish priests, sacrifices, and law] serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly realities. (8:5a)

Jesus, the heavenly high priest in the true Tabernacle in heaven who gave the once-for-all sacrifice, is the reality that matters.  Everything else is a copy intended to point to him.  Here we are again at one of those 180° turns.  What we think is reality is only a shadow.  What is reality is unseen and seemingly shadowy.  Plato would like this!

Do we think of it that way? 

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Hebrews 7: Jesus, the Superior High Priest

Priests are a special breed.  Or at least they are often treated that way.

The Catholic Church was quite strong where I grew up.  Priests were common place.  You might come upon one at a restaurant or at the barber.  Even from an age too young to fully understand denominational differences and the like, I understood that priests were important people in my community, though I couldn’t understand how he was everyone’s “father.”  People would fall over themselves to please him.  I understood enough to know when people were trying to find favor with a person, and my neighbors were certainly doing that.

I am also reminded of “The Fiddler on the Roof” and the esteem the people of Anatevka gave their old rabbi, the closest thing to a Jewish priest these days.  Bless this or that.  Teach me the right prayers to pray.

The Hebrew Christians would have come from a background where that same sort of thinking would have been prevalent.  Priests are the best of the best. They are a step or two closer to God.  These men who can trace their ancestry back to Abraham’s great-grandson Levi, who receive tithes from the commoners, who are holy enough to mediate for others, who have access to the inner sanctum of the Temple, places they had only heard about.  Special people!

And now they were living a common life where all the people of God are equal.  Where they all are holy.  Where all have access to God in a world with no need for a Temple.  Where all can pray for the other, and no one needs their neighbor to mediate their needs to God.  Where ancestry doesn’t matter.

That would be a bit of change.  One could miss their priest a bit.  Demarcations like holy people and commoners do make life easier, at least on the surface.  They make life simple to diagram and spell out.  Everything is predictable and known.  It doesn’t take much depth to understand.

The Hebrew Christians seem to be toying with the thought that it might be easier to return to the systematic structure of Judaism.  This Jesus movement was just too egalitarian, too abstract, too spiritualized.

But what about Melchizedek, that strange non-Jewish priest and king from the first book in the Bible who met up with Father Abraham?  He was a different kind of priest, a superior version it seems:

  • With no father or mother, he arrives as some otherworldly being (7:3)
  • He lives eternally, with no “beginning or end” (7:3, 8)
  • He received tithes from Abraham himself, the great-grandfather of Levi from whom all regular priests come (7:6)

The Hebrews writer reminds his dear friends that they still have a priest.  Jesus is a priest too, a high priest at that.  Not a Levitical one; he comes from this superior order of Melchizedek.  They have the best priest they could ever find.

  • Jesus is an eternal, permanent priest because of “the power of a life that cannot be destroyed” (7:16, 21, 24)
  • Jesus offers a better law and better hope than what can be found elsewhere (7:18-19)
  • Jesus was sinless and did not even need to offer sacrifices for his own sins, something the Levitical priests would have to do (7:26)
  • Jesus’ sacrificed once for all time and for all people, making his ministry far more effectual than anything in Jerusalem (7:27)
  • Jesus offered himself, not a barnyard full of livestock (7:27)

Why would they return to an inferior option when they can have Jesus?

How is modern-day religion easier than following Jesus?

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Hebrews 6: No Turning Back

For once people have been enlightened — when they’ve tasted the heavenly gift and have had a share in the holy spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the coming age — it’s impossible to restore them again to repentance if they fall away, since they are crucifying God’s son all over again, on their own account, and holding him up to contempt. (6:4-6)

We don’t like the word “impossible in this passage, do we?

Is this really saying if a person rejects Jesus it is impossible for them to return to Jesus?  Once lost, always lost?

One commentator argued this passage is likely the most controversial passage in the whole book of Hebrews.  Absolutely!

We need to look to verse 10 for some guidance: “God is not unjust.”  I think most of us would say a god who is unwilling to rescue a person who wants to be saved is a rather unjust god.  By that point alone, I think we need to reject any interpretation of this passage that argues a second genuine repentance would be rejected by God after apostasy.

Some commentators have argued that the word “tasted,” used twice in this passage, means the hypothetical person only tried out Jesus, like a seeker who might try on religion for a few months.  This is the person who tastes the free samples at Sam’s but then walks on without buying a box.  He never really accepted Jesus in the first place.  But verse 6 does indicate this hypothetical person has previously repented and the idea of “sharing” or partnering in verse 4 connotes active participation in the life of the Holy Spirit.  This sounds like more than a seeker.

The best explanation I have read in my limited study of this passage comes from George Guthrie (Hebrews, NIV Application Commentary) who says the Greek construction of the last part of this sentence — “since they are crucifying God’s son all over again, on their own account, and holding him up to contempt” — is best interpreted in a causal (“because they”) or temporal (“while they”) manner.  So the last clause is best read: “as long as they are crucifying God’s son all over again, on their own account, and hold ing him up to contempt.”  Thus the point is that as long as people are in the act of rejecting Jesus they could not feasibly be turned back to him.  Their hardness of heart would not allow it.  Of course, if their hearts softened and they wanted to repent again, that would be possible.  It is not that God would not allow them to return, their own hearts would not allow it.

He was the angriest, most bitter student I have ever taught.  He made no bones about it.  He hated God, hated the Bible, hated my Bible class, and I suspect he hated me by virtue of association.  At first I was perplexed by him, then hurt, then angered, and by the end I just hurt for him.  I have never met someone so unhappy with anything and everything.  His anti-religious bent made more sense to me when I learned that he had been raised by a zealously religious parent who he claimed did not treat him in a very godly manner.  He had been raised to have faith, but then he rejected all he had ever been taught.  To him, Jesus was a disgraceful fake fit only for simpletons.  God was a lunatic’s dream at best.  All of it was an object of contempt.  Try as I might to share a different view of God, religion, and Christians it was like speaking to a wall.  He had one illogical argument after another for why what I was saying could not be true.  His perception of God, Jesus, and Christians could best be described as caricatures.  Everything was black and white, and religion was purely evil.  His heart was hardened like stone.  It seemed impossible to hope that he would ever turn again to Jesus.  I would like to say he did, but I don’t believe he ever has.

Sad to say, today’s passage makes more sense when I think of him.

What do you think?

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Hebrews 5: Experience Required

Although he [Jesus] was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.  When he had been made complete and perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, since he has been designated by God as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. (5:8-10)

Maybe it was because of the discussion I had with Umm Muhammad on yesterday’s post that I was especially drawn to these verses today.  Let me anticipate the questions: If Jesus is God, can God learn to obey (and does he need to)?  Was Jesus not already “complete and perfect” before the cross?  Are these verses somehow diminishing the moral quality of Jesus?

In his popular level commentary on Hebrews in the For Everyone series, N. T. Wright explains this passage using a story about a rich business owner and his son who has just graduated from college and is now ready to take his spot in the family business.  One might expect the father to place the son in a posh corner office with a high position and the pay grade to match.  But the father does not.  He puts the son at an entry-level position and has the son rise through the ranks learning the business as he goes.  As a result, when the son does rise to upper management he is a far better leader who understands his trade and his workers better.

Wright said it this way: blood made the man a son, but experience made him a boss.

"Christ in Gethsemane" by Michael O'Brien

Many scholars think the Hebrews author is thinking about Jesus’ Gethsemane experience when he or she writes this.  Jesus’ ultimate act of submission was to face the reality that within hours he would drink the cup of God’s wrath and to humbly accept this propitiatory role though he wished otherwise.  When he had “completed” the journey to that point or finished the course, he had arrived “perfectly” at the point of pure obedience.  Perfect in this context means everything was in place and nothing was lacking, not that Jesus was somehow imperfect or morally deficient before this point.  Furthermore, the Hebrew author emphasizes the point that obedience is a “learning” experience, even as it was for Jesus.  Through a lifetime as a human, Jesus was learning the ins and outs of obedience: that it truly is the best route; what it means to obey in a fallen world; what humans must face to faithfully obey; to feel the true temptation that comes with humanity but also the transformation that comes with obedience.  Can an omniscient God know these things?  That would seem logical.  So it seems the knowledge that comes through experience was still required, at least for Jesus.

To mimic Wright’s conclusion above, blood made Jesus a son, but experience made Jesus the perfect high priest.

Personally, I am ever so thankful that my Savior truly understands in the most intimate ways what my life is like.  That actually makes me love him and respect him all the more.

What caught your eye in this short chapter?

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Hebrews 4: There Is A Better Rest Coming

We are headed toward Spring Break.  Some of us will have that week off as teachers and students, others will take the week as vacation time because kids are out of school.  Some will head to the beach or Disney World or out west to ski if the man-made snow can hold out.  Others will simply sit still at home, catch up on the “honey-do list,” and truly rest.  These will be wonderful days of restoration.  Even if the week is filled with travel and fun-filled attractions, there is still a rest for the soul that is so precious.

I would guess most of us love those times of vacation and rest when they come.  We feel more sane, more centered, more whole.  Probably many of us are thankful for our jobs and feel a sense of purpose in those careers, but we love our breaks too.

The Hebrew Christians knew something about breaks too.  These thoroughly Jewish Christians would have likely still observed the Sabbath, a precious time of rest and reconnection.  In the Old Testament this idea of “rest” was also a way to talk about the kind of life that would be experienced in the Promised Land of Canaan, and this is how it is being used in today’s reading:

They will never enter my rest. (4:3, 5)

You may remember that during the forty-year Wilderness Wanderings from Egypt to Canaan, there were some Israelites who let go of their faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Punishment came and they died in the desert, far shy of the promised rest.

The idea of “rest” would have been precious to the Hebrew Christians.  Each week in their Sabbaths they were experiencing a small piece of the Promised Land rest of their ancestors.  But the Hebrews author reminds them,

There is still a future sabbath “rest” for God’s people. (4:9)

There is a new Promised Land we are journeying towards.  We will cross over Jordan, led by a new Joshua, to a land overflowing with milk and honey.  Better than any Sabbath will be the endless rest we experience in the New Creation with God.  So don’t give up on Jesus:

Today, if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts. (4:7)

Personally, I plan on enjoying my Spring Break.  But I am also remembering there is a rest coming that is far longer, richer, and better.

What sorts of “rest” do we long for that pale in comparison to God’s final rest? 

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Hebrews 3: Hold On!

I am not much for roller coasters, so when I muster up the bravery to ride one I remember it.  One time as my wife and I stood in a long line to ride some instrument of terror that she would have chosen not me, there were these two tween girls behind us.  They talked non-stop and laughed nervously the whole time we waited to board.  They stated several times they weren’t sure they could handle the ride.  They were afraid they would be thrown off or some other horrible fate they were more than glad to describe.  When we got to the front of the line and boarded, I looked back to see the two sitting side by side, close together, arms interlocked with a death grip on the bar in front of them.

Not a bad idea if you ask me!

Much of Hebrews is a detailed sermon about the superiority of Jesus over all things, especially the Jewish religion from which the Hebrew Christians had come.  Interspersed throughout the teaching sections are several pastoral sections of encouragement in which the author pleads with the Hebrews not to give up on Jesus.  Today’s section is largely one of those.

The Hebrews author is very clear:

We share the life of the Messiah, you see, only if we keep a firm, tight grip on our original confidence, right through to the end. (3:14)

There is no getting off halfway through the ride.  This is no leisurely no-hands bike ride down a peaceful street.  Hold on tight!  We will have some bumps and quick turns.

Because of that, the author makes a suggestion: hold on to each other.

Encourage one another, as long as it’s called “Today” (3:13)

We aren’t in this alone. Lash yourself to a friend.  Tell each other you can do it.  Then hold on tight for the ride of your life!

Whether you respond here or not, ask yourself: who is that one friend you need to hang on to on this ride?

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Hebrews 2: Why Worship a Man?

Maybe you are one of the over 20 million people who have viewed Jefferson Bethke “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” video in the two months since it was released and quickly went viral.  Since then, several take-off versions have been produced from Muslims, pro-religious Catholics, and even atheists.  Our friend Hifzan Shafiee, who has commented on here often, has collected on his blog the original Bethke video, the Muslim version, and the Catholic response. Check all three videos out on this one post of his.

Notice these lines from the Muslim version of the “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” video, because they express thoughts the ancient Hebrew Christians might have understood:

You [Christians] say Jesus was God, and that God had descended
We [Muslims] say Jesus was man, for Jesus was dependent
Our God is all great and cannot be comprehended . . . 

See, we used to worship the creator, until Satan turned us to the creation
You began to worship the people, and neglect the one who made them
We began to believe that God had died, but how could a God even be created? . . .

And know that just because you love Jesus, doesn’t mean he feels the same way about your affection
See, what you believe in is exactly what he resented, matter of fact it’s everything he despised
See, the worshipping of creation goes against the very message he supplied.

The Muslim hang up stated so strongly here, is the same objection that seems to be behind Hebrews 2:  Why would you worship a human man named Jesus?  To a Muslim that seems blasphemous.  To a first century Jew who favors angel veneration, a sentiment that had a bit of traction with the Christians being addressed in Hebrews, this idea would seem ridiculous.  Aren’t spiritual beings like angels a better object of your esteem than a man?

The answer for both the Hebrew Christians and detractors of Jesus today is the same.  Yes, there was a time when God made Jesus “a little lower than the angels” (2:7).  But this was for a purpose.  God did this so that Jesus “might taste death on behalf of everyone” (2:9).  But Jesus didn’t just die; that was a precursor to the much greater purpose God had in store: “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death — that is, the devil — and set free the people who all their lives long were under the power of slavery because of the fear of death” (2:14-15).  And in becoming a part of the human brotherhood, God in the form of Jesus became a truly sympathetic God (2:17-18).  After all, Jesus was far more than just a man.

It is a truly magnificent thing to have a transcendent, spiritual God, so majestic that he is surrounded and served by angels.  It is also a humbling honor to have an immanent God who understands what our life is like because He lived it and can show us the way to true holiness and submission.  In Christ, the Creator became like the Created.  In Jesus, God can be both.  Why settle for less of a God?

What struck you in this chapter?

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