A Prayer of Purpose

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Hebrews 13:20-21

The author of Hebrews is now in the final part of the letter, and he opens it with a prayer of purpose.  Let’s take a closer look, for it is quite instructive.

Our God is identified as the God of peace, something we might want to keep in mind, and then goes on to an interesting statement that has a way of summarizing the letter. “The blood of the eternal covenant” is a reminder that God has committed Himself to the New Covenant and its promises.  Notice that it was through the blood of the covenant, the superior sacrifice of our superior high priest, that brought Jesus back from the dead; you don’t see that spelled out very often, for usually we see God’s power cited for this.  Think about it: Jesus arose from the grave by the power of an indestructible life, He was raised by the power of God… and now He is brought back by the blood of the covenant.  What does that tell you about His blood?

I don’t know about you, but it strikes me as pretty powerful stuff.  It is the same stuff that all of our hopes are based upon… so what does that tell you about our hope and God’s promise?

“Powerful” is one word I can think of.

Next, Jesus is called “the great shepherd of the sheep,” reminding us that He is our Lord, our Master.  Here we come into the “what” that the author is praying for: May God “equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him”.  Notice that the author is asking only for things that accomplish God’s will and that please Him. He is not asking anything for himself. This, dear reader, is a prayer of power and purpose.  Jesus told us many times that whatever we ask for in His name will be given to us, but each time He said this, the context was clearly upon doing God’s will.  I have no doubt whatsoever that God answered this prayer directly. Obviously, praying in Jesus’ name is what follows when the author adds, “through Jesus Christ…”

I wonder how often we pray like this: Boldly for God’s purposes to be done and not our own; in power for God’s will in our lives, as opposed for our list of goodies.

Yes indeed, this is a prayer of purpose and power, may all of us pray such prayers.

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Leaders

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

Hebrews 13:17

This is a tough verse for me to comment about; I have been in church leadership for roughly 30 years, and I doubt I ever once quoted it unless I was teaching Hebrews 13:  We live in cynical times…

Over the years, there have been great leaders in the church; there have also been some who were not so great; leaders can suffer from the same issues that everyone else may suffer from. Some may be in leadership for all of the wrong reasons, some may think that being a leader in the church makes them a big shot or an important person, and yes, I have met a few like that.  In my experience, many church members are critical of their leaders, no matter what those leaders do, but I must tell you that in my experience, that sort of criticism usually said much more about the critic than the leader.

This simple verse has two points to it. First is the injunction for us to submit to Biblical authority within the church. Dear reader, if we cannot do this, there will never be unity in our churches. The second is that leaders must understand that they will give an account for their leadership tenure, for it is a heavy responsibility.  It occurs to me that I should say that when I speak of leaders in the church, I refer not to leaders within a denominational structure somewhere, but rather at the local congregational level, and this is because these are the ones this verse refers to, not denominational authorities. I can say this because at the time of writing, there were no denominational structures or authorities.

To be a leader in the church is not for everyone; it means that you become the servant of all. It involves making sacrifices that few will give you credit for, few will ever even know about. It means that you may be unfairly criticized by those you serve, and it will result in many sleepless nights and lots of prayers for guidance. In short, it is possibly the most wonderful experience anybody can have on the earth… but it isn’t for most people.

It is a whole lot easier if people complain and criticize less and focus on Jesus Christ more, that’s for sure.

Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.

Hebrews 13:18-19

Please read these 2 verses carefully, and you will detect a heart that yearns to be with the people of the church, apparently a church in which the author has served as a leader.  In verse 18 it is clear that he fully comprehends the responsibility of leading, the parental love he feels for his people, and in verse 19 you can easily see his longing to return to them in these difficult times of testing through which they are travelling. I can tell you from experience that this is how it “feels” to have been a leader in the church.

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Pleasing Sacrifices

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

Hebrews 13:15-16

Wonderful verses! Our author is wrapping up his exhortations now, thus the “therefore.” A sacrifice of praise; this isn’t really an Old Testament concept as much as it is a recognition of the reality that has come in Christ.  What is left to do but praise Him?  This is a sacrifice that pleases God…

But there is something of a “catch” in the second part of the sentence. This pleasing sacrifice is the “fruit of lips that openly profess his name.”  Think about those original recipients in Rome during Nero’s persecution.  Wouldn’t it make sense to keep your mouth shut if you were in their situation? Of course it would, there’s no need to invite trouble, right?

Well dear reader, that’s why the author called it a sacrifice; it was truly a dangerous thing to do.

Fast-forward to the 21st century…  How is it exactly that so many who live in freedom justify not speaking out in praise of Jesus Christ…? Yeah, I know, I’ve heard all of the excuses.

There is another new sacrifice mentioned in verse 16. We must “do good” and “share with others.”  Please take careful note of the word “do.”  As I’ve mentioned previously, the whole faith versus works argument is an argument based entirely on a false premise, for the two are not mutually exclusive.  We don’t earn anything by what we do… clearly!  We “do” because we love.  We love because He first loved us, therefore the “do” part is a response to His love.  Stop fighting it; it has nothing to do with earning something, it is a sacrifice that is pleasing to God.

As true as that is, there is more, for in serving others and “doing good” there is an added benefit, we grow closer to Him in relationship when we humble ourselves and put others ahead of ourselves. When the Body of Christ lives this way, the testimony to the world is powerful to say the least, and many more come to receive His love.  You see, dear reader that is what Christ’s Ambassadors are here to do in this strange and foreign land we call earth.

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Do not be carried away

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

Hebrews 13:9-10

As he continues in his exhortations, the Hebrews author now moves into the area of “strange teachings.” This follows from his remarks in verses 7-8 in which he told us to “remember” our leaders who “spoke the word of God to you.” Strange teachings seem to refer to teachings that are at variance with the Truth, that are at variance to the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Very clearly, any teaching that re-imposes the Old Covenant Law onto the New Covenant would count as “strange” indeed. He continues by pointing out that it is better for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, rather than by eating ceremonial foods which are of “no benefit.”  In trying to follow this, we might keep in mind that Jesus, the Living Word came to us “full of grace and truth.”  He didn’t bring us ceremonial regulations like those contained in the Old Covenant, He brought “grace and truth.”  The reality of grace and truth replaced the ceremonies, feasts and festivals; why put any reliance upon these things now that the New has come? In light of this, it always strikes me as interesting when I think of our special days, special meals and special ceremonies today…

The author underscores this with his comment about the altar that we have, that the Old Covenant priests have no access to; the real one in heaven that they cannot approach, as opposed to the “illustration” in the Temple. And now, the author has set up what comes next:

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. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Hebrews 13:11-14

In this little paragraph, the author makes a comparison between the sacrifice made in the earthly Temple and the fire consuming the sacrifices outside of the earthly camp, with the New Covenant sacrifice outside the city… with our being “strangers” on earth.  In order for us to fully appreciate this, recall that contrast of Covenants: The Old Covenant is an earthly exercise in every respect. It has outward laws, outward sacrifices and outward, physical promises.  It has a physical Temple and a physical earthly nation.  The New Covenant brings the reality of what was pictured in the physical aspects of the Old Covenant.  We are no longer citizens of an earthly realm, being now citizens of a heavenly Kingdom. We no longer have human priests presenting animal sacrifices in a physical Temple, we have the superior sacrifice of Christ, and we can now present ourselves in the heavenly Temple, in the actual presence of God. With this in mind, let’s look at verses 13-14:

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

We leave the earthly city and go outside to where Jesus bore our sin and its disgrace in perfect humility, as servants.  We have no city here, for we are not citizens of earth, but citizens of heaven, and we look forward to the day when we will go “home” to our true heavenly home. Think about the impact of this to his original readers, in their trial of persecution.

Now, think about what this means for us…  Only our earthly circumstances are different, the Truth of these things is the same.

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Sunday Sermon Notes: April 18, 2021

Title: Images, Form and Spirits

Text: Gen. 3:8-9

God is spirit and so are we− that was demonstrated when God first created Adam out of the dust of the ground, and then breathed His breath of life into the man (Gen. 2:7-8). We also know that we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Christ, so clearly, we are both physical and spirit; the Scripture references of this are familiar to us all. That we are embodied is also obvious to all; what is not obvious is whether or not God has a form, a body, and appearance.

There are two theological terms I have used many times, that describe visual appearances of God. What’s more, there is a third theological term that is used to refer to comparisons of human references to describe or explain God’s attributes. These terms are:

Theophany: A temporary and visible manifestation of God in a human or other form.

Christophany: A pre-incarnation appearance of Christ.

Anthropomorphism: The attribution of human characteristic to God in order to explain or express His attributes. (Theological definition, there are other applications in science).

It stands to reason, does it not, that if we have theological terms about the “appearance” or visual manifestation of God, that God has an appearance, and if human attributes can be used to describe the attributes of God, that humans do indeed carry His image or likeness in some way. The only thing is, is the “form” in which God appears is temporary… or does He have a permanent form?

Let’s look at some texts:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:8-9)

These verses come in the story of the fall and its aftermath (Gen. 3:1-24); both Adam and Eve had disobeyed God, and now they sought to hide from Him, and they “heard the sound” of God

walking in the Garden. God is Spirit, of that we can be certain, but on that fateful day, He was walking through the Garden, a physical act, making noise that could be heard by the physical ear, and spoke in language with a voice that could also be physically heard by humans. The text also implies that the sound of God walking through the Garden was recognized as Him walking, as though this was not unusual, and if it wasn’t unusual, then why were the two hiding? Why wouldn’t God relate to Adam this way when Adam was in his sinless state? God had a form and appearance in the physical sense in the Garden. 

Shall we try another text?

Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When the two of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words:

“When there is a prophet among you,     I, the LORD, reveal myself to them in visions,     I speak to them in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses;     he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face,     clearly and not in riddles;     he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid     to speak against my servant Moses?”

Numbers 12:5-8 (full context Num. 12:1-16)

Who can forget the time when Miriam and Aaron were called out for daring to oppose Moses?

For our purposes, did you notice that God seems to think that He has a visible form?  With other prophets, God deals in visions, dreams and riddles, but He gets with Moses face to face, in person. 

The Hebrew word used is temuna (H8544) which means “form, image, likeness, representation, semblance” and is found ten times in the Old Testament (Ex. 20:4; Num. 12:8; Deut, 4:12, 15, 16, 23, 25, 5:8; Job4:16; Ps. 17:15) with consistent meaning and application. 

It is beginning to be clear to me that God does in fact have a form, and He may from time to time, at His sole discretion, choose to be seen by humans, and it is also becoming clear to me that we cannot discount this as though it were some sort of a fluke. Yes indeed, God is Spirit, that fact is not in despite, but as I’ve long suspected, it is beginning to appear as though our understanding of what that means has been a bit short-sighted. Ask yourself a question: How many times have we read passages of Scripture in which someone saw an angel of the Lord? Angels are also spirit beings, and yet when the occasion arises, they too can be seen to have a form. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m intrigued. Let’s continue to follow this trail; there are more passages to examine…

Take a look at Exodus 33:18-21:

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock.  When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

At this point in his experience, Moses wanted to see God, but that was not permissible, for no one could see God’s face and live. In order for this to be true, wouldn’t God need to have a face? So, God decided to let Moses see His back… Wouldn’t He need to have a back? Of course, it would also appear that He had a hand, since He was going to us it to cover Moses’ eyes…

The real question presented by these two verses is: What happened between Exodus 33 and Numbers 12 that made it possible for Moses and God to talk face to face? Nothing in our discussion thus far negates the fact that God is Spirit, nor does anything negate the fact that humans also have a spirit:

Humans as we know already have both form and spirit, and if God also has both form and spirit, then there is more significance for us in the here and now of being created in His image, than there would be otherwise, for it results in far-reaching implications.

 

The Image of God and the Western Mind

So far, our journey of exploration has found that God’s image, and our having been created in His image, runs headlong into the inescapable conclusion that it covers the whole package of human existence, body, soul and spirit. For many people, the idea of God having a form is a tough one to grasp, leading to difficulty in understanding that His image is also reflected in our human form. Certainly, there are many who would argue against this notion, and yet looking at Scripture, it’s hard to miss.

The difficulty that many of us have in seeing this is that most of us are Western in our orientation, and this makes quite a lot of Scripture hard to understand, for the Scriptures were not written by Western minds or in a Western mindset; they were written from an ancient Hebrew perspective, which is quite different.

In the early years of the church, the dominant mindset was Hebrew; even the Gentile believers learned to view things in the Hebrew manner, but as time moved forward, and Christianity became more and more populated by Gentiles, and Christianity became dominant in Europe, there came an impetus to move in a direction more akin to the traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and away from that of the Jews. With time, even pagan ceremonies and observances were incorporated into the church because the church had become part of the State, beginning with Constantine making Christianity the State Religion of the Roman Empire.

By the time of the Reformation, Christianity in the West was dominated by Western thought, and many of our doctrinal traditions of today came out of this period when some of the greatest theologians of all time wrote from an entirely Western point of view, including such names as Luther and Calvin. To the Western mind, God is most notable for His free exercise of power, while to the Hebrew, God is most notable for His restraint. The Western mind sees the physical realm as fallen, corrupt and depraved, while to the Hebrew it is God’s perfect creation. To the Western mind, the human body is inherently evil, to the Hebrew the human body is inherently good; God’s own image. To the Western perspective, a spirit having a form is hard to conceive of, but for the Hebrew mind, it is a given.

The Scriptures are more difficult for those of us who were raised and trained in the West; we miss things like the proper role of covenants, the nature of our own beings and how to understand apocalyptic texts; we even understand writers like the Apostle Paul as Western, when in fact, Paul was a Pharisee among Pharisees, trained by Gamiliel; the intellectual antithesis of Greek philosophy.

Jesus and His Father

Last week we looked at the issue of images, form and spirits through the lens of a few Old Testament passages; here are a few from the New Testament in Jesus’ words,:

See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. (Matthew 18:10)

This falls within a larger section in which Jesus was “discipling the disciples”, teaching them about what it means to follow Him, and focusing in on His messianic mission. Remember also that this was a transitional verse that moved into the parable, and it was all about how a disciple should not disdain or diminish anyone. This transitional verse has a way of flying past us without much notice, but for our purposes have a look. Jesus speaks of the angels in heaven who “see the face of my Father” almost in passing, really as a given, as though it would be so obvious that it really didn’t deserve any attention of its own, as He moves onto His larger point. Yet for our present adventure, we need to see that God has a face means that even in heaven, God has some sort of a form.

If this were simply a turn of phrase or an idiom, wouldn’t we expect to see it in other places? Jesus only used this phrase once, thus it would appear that Jesus means the words literally. Shall we try another one?

I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

John 5:36-40 (emphasis added)

This passage falls within the context of 5:1-47, beginning when Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. The man told the Jewish leaders who had done the shocking deed, and beginning in verse 16 they confront Jesus about His unlawful behavior. Jesus’ defense in vv. 19-30 is essentially that He is doing His Father’s work when the Father sees fit to do it, and then in 5:31 ff. Jesus is citing that He has two witnesses to prove this: John (the Baptist) and the Father Himself. Contextually speaking, His words in verse 37 (You have never heard his voice nor seen his form) are an integral part of His defense in which the fact that the Father has both a voice and a form are understood to be facts. If this were not the case, then Jesus is making a very poor defense and opening Himself up to further accusations.

To be quite candid at this point, the first time I looked at these passages, I was a little uneasy for even though the way I had been taught never rang true for me, and I could easily see its flaws, I find myself struggling at this point because I don’t understand how this works, and I am the sort who likes to understand how things work. Then, a certain statement that Jesus made, that we can all quote, came to mind; a passage that made the whole thing sensible to me.

The Scriptures contain God’s complete revelation of Himself to Mankind; everything He has revealed to us. Yet this is not to suggest that He has revealed to us everything that there is to know. When my kids were young, there was a time when I had taught them everything they knew about politics, but I hadn’t come close to teaching them everything I knew about politics. At that time, I was right in the middle of the fray, and I knew things they simply were not ready for or capable of handling responsibly. God, our Creator, our loving heavenly Father has not revealed everything He knows to us, simply because He knows things that we can neither handle nor properly comprehend; He has revealed to us what we need to know.

So, for the purposes of our exploration into the image of God, there are aspects of it that we will most likely not fully comprehend, and one of those is how a spirit can have a form which, on occasion, can be seen by a person. Yet Scripture does reveal that they do, and that God, who is Spirit, has a form and that we have been created in His likeness, as we have already seen. 

As I mentioned earlier, this was a tough one for me to grab a hold of, to get my brain around, until I recalled this verse:

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

John 14:9

Contextually speaking, this verse falls within Jesus’ final discourse with His disciples (John 14-17) on the night of His arrest. He is giving them encouragement and guidance for the trials that lay ahead, and in this particular part of the discussion, He is telling them that He is in the Father, the Father is in Him, and that He is in us, another little concept that is not easy to comprehend the mechanics of. 

So, imagine you are there with Jesus that night, and He says this, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”: What do you see when you look at Jesus? (Try to picture this in your mind)

If you are honest, the first thing you will see is His physical presence, His body, but knowing who you are looking at, you will perceive much more than that, for Jesus embodied the power of God, healing the sick, making the lame whole again, giving sight to the blind, chasing out demons and bringing justice and the Kingdom to the people, and just as we cannot separate

Jesus from the Word, we also cannot separate His humanity from His divinity. When Paul said that Christ was “the image of God” in 2 Corinthians 4:4, he spoke of the complete package.

Many scholars have observed, and I think rightly so, that Jesus was the Holy Spirit in a body. You and I are earthen vessels that contain the Holy Spirit, for in Christ, we have the Holy Spirit indwelling our mortal bodies, for we have been created in the image of God, body, soul and spirit, and it is the entire package that comprises God’s image and likeness.

I think I should give you some time for reflection on this, for it truly is a really big deal to be made in God’s image. I will conclude for now by simply saying that the more I think about this, the more I realize that the implications of this are beyond huge; they are profound and vast.

When we come back, I think we need to take a look at a few things Paul wrote about that will shed some more light on this line of thinking as we continue in this series.

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In the Stillness of the Morning

I guess that I am what you might call a morning person; I get up earlier than most. I don’t have to, I just like it. Morning is my favorite time, I like to be up long before the sun. Early morning is the time most of the posts on this blog are written, the time when the mind is clear, creativity is greatest, and when God seems so very near. I don’t want to miss such a glorious time!

I remember taking this photo six years ago. It was shortly after sunrise, the air was warm and still, and the only sound was the birds singing in the trees; it was glorious. My mind was full of praise and thanksgiving for God and His amazing creation, for His mercy, for His faithfulness.

Listen to my words, Lord,
consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly.

Psalm 5:1-3

Yes indeed, glorious is only word for it. I remember when I was much younger, hearing an older preacher say that everyone should rise early to pray as Jesus did. I didn’t want to do it, for in those days I was of the opinion that getting up around 7 am was pretty early.

Boy, was I wrong.

I suppose we’re all different, and God will meet us where ever we are, but for me, the early morning is by far the best time of any day…. There’s just something about it that’s hard to describe, something different, something… special.

One time I read a letter George Washington wrote to an associate in which he spoke about his daily routine. In it he made several interesting comments, things that kind of made him come alive, seem like a real human. One of them was that he always went to bed early and rose before the sun, because people who are happiest in this life, and people who are most productive in this life, skip the foolishness of the night, and enjoy God’s presence in the morning.

George Washington was a very wise man.

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Persevere!

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,

“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence,

“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?”
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:4-8

The Hebrews author continues to wind up his letter to Rome with exhortations, and at first glance this selection seems a little random, almost out of context, in fact.  We’ve been going through the amazing reality of the New Covenant, sweeping through redemption history, coming into the very presence of God… in a context of remaining faithful to the end, even through terrible persecution; even unto death.  Then the author suddenly begins to tell us to respect marriage, be pure, not to love money and to respect our leaders in the faith.  Circle the piece in the picture that doesn’t belong…

But don’t be too hasty!

You could say that these things are mentioned to remind the recipients not to slip into sin, and who could argue with that?  Yet it still doesn’t quite fit in context, does it?  Yes, yes, not slipping into sin is the correct Sunday school answer, but it hardly gets to the point; Sunday school answers usually don’t get to the point.

Remain faithful to the end, even unto death.  Faithful is a covenant term meaning to keep covenant.  Adultery is a violation of the marriage covenant. Have you ever known (or been) someone who is involved in an extra marital affair? These things seem to require a web of deceit and deception to keep them going, and there seems to be a certain drive to keep them going.  When the guilty party is found out, there is great carnage in their homes, relationships and in their lives in general. These things take a lot of work and attention, and I can say with great confidence that they do not promote or advance anybody’s relationship with Jesus Christ.  Sexual immorality tends to have the same kinds of attributes even if there is no marital issue involved.  How about the love of money and things?  While this may not always require secrecy, it does require attention and effort; a great deal of it, actually. Does it enhance one’s relationship with our Lord?  Hardly!

The author has been teaching us not to neglect our covenant relationship he has been encouraging us to remain faithful. Sexual immorality of whatever kind and the love of money are things that can become so all-encompassing in a person’s life that they can easily cause one to slip away from Christ, their faith and even to “fall away” entirely; thus, these are not random exhortations at all. The quotations from Deuteronomy 31 and Psalm 118 take the exhortation to the next step, for they remind us that in Christ, we have the help we need to stand firm in our faith, to remain faithful and to persevere. Even the mention of our leaders who stand tall in their faith to teach, encourage and exemplify what it is to live in Christ is there to give us encouragement.  Leaders, this should also remind you of your responsibility to emulate Jesus Christ in everything that you do and say.

As we pause here to reflect, can you see how this all fits together?  It is as though the author is telling us to keep our eyes on Jesus, not to be drawn off track by the temptations of this world, but to persevere through any kind of trial, whether it is a trial of persecution or a trial of temptation so that we can remain faithful to the end. What he is not really doing here is citing mere “violations”, for he is going much deeper than that. He is asking us to consider our innermost priorities, just as Jesus taught in His Sermon on the Mount.

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Continue in Love

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Hebrews 13:1-3

Chapter 13 is largely made up of exhortations, and from these, we can fill in any blanks we might have in our understanding of chapter 12.  Notice how it begins: “Keep on loving…”  As we saw at the end of the last chapter, this is really what the book is trying to teach us, to keep on doing the things we are supposed to do as Christians, no matter what happens in this life.  Obviously, this should have had a powerful impact on the original recipients of the letter who were having such a rough time in Rome, but let’s not think it doesn’t apply in our time as well.  Loving one another is one of the commands of Jesus that is repeated over and over again in the New Testament, and frankly it deserves more than lip service from us.

Showing hospitality to strangers is another common theme in the New Testament; have you ever wondered about it?  Does it mean showing hospitality to dangerous persons on the run from the police? Does it mean only for other believers?  Different people are led in different ways here… and for the record, I wouldn’t advise harboring fugitives from the law… I can only suggest that we all follow the Lord’s leading.  Some, especially those who have the spiritual gift of hospitality, will be led more than others. Certainly, however, those who habitually refuse hospitality might not seem like people who are sharing God’s love very freely.

Taking this verse in a broader cultural context sheds a better light on its meaning.  In that context, it would seem most likely that the author is referring to people who are believers, such as those sent from another church congregation. A travelling preacher or messengers might qualify more than just anyone who looks lost…

Finally, those in prison. I doubt the author is talking about random thieves and violent criminals. It seems more likely to me that he is referring to people being held in prison for their faith, as were many at the time of his writing. This would fit more clearly into the first verse and its injunction to keep on loving one another.

Whatever our personal views may be on these topics it is clear that these three verses are all about sharing the love of Christ with others.

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Photo of the Week: April 15, 2021

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Warning and Hope

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

Hebrews 12:25-27

This, is a powerful passage, one of amazing awe and wonder to ponder.  The author begins it with an imperative, “See to it…” Who is speaking, the one we aren’t supposed to refuse?  The answer is in the next sentence: Who warned the people from earth, and warns us from heaven?  God would be my answer.

Go back to verses 18-21, and you can get an idea of what the author is referring to here.  He recounted Mount Sinai, the fire, the darkness the smoke and shaking…  Yes, there was warning for the people in all of that: They were to take the Law that was given to Moses seriously.  Did they?  Well, some of the time.  Did those people get into the promised land?

No, they didn’t.

We have the reality that was to come, and yet we are being told not to turn away from Him.  Yes, that warning was for the Jewish Christians of Nero’s Rome, and it is for those who followed them as well.  The author continues his thought in the rest of this passage by making a comparison between God’s warnings on Sinai, and the judgment that is to come.  When that day arrives, all of creation will be stripped away, and only that which is entirely of God will remain, and the very strong implication is that those who are left standing will be the ones who remained faithful to God.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

Hebrews 12:28-29

Here the chapter draws to a close.  Look carefully and you see that it ends on an optimistic note.  Preachers over the centuries have often quoted verse 29 “for our God is a consuming fire.” to strike fear into the hearts of their congregations, and that is a pity.  They often left out verse 28 entirely, and verse 28 gives verse 29 its rich significance, for it reminds the readers of this letter that we have a great inheritance, that we are a heavenly kingdom and that we shall indeed stand on that day. Yes, we will stand for we will never turn away from Him. No!  We will worship Him properly, with reverence and awe in loving and faithful trust.

To wrap up the chapter, I just want to mention one final thought about judgment day.  What we have just read is not a literal description of the day.  It is told here in figure, as an illustration of the reality that is to come; sound familiar?  It probably won’t be a great earthquake that shatters everything except God’s people, but of course it will accomplish the same thing.  For us today, it is simply important to understand that no matter what the future may hold, we simply need to remain faithful to our Lord, to love Him, to trust Him and to share His love with one another… and not worry about the details of the great day.  We’ll come out just fine if we do that, and that is the point of the chapter.

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