Hebrews 10: Not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on.
All the heavy lifting to provide my salvation has already been done by Jesus. It’s his obedience to the cross that’s opened a new, living way to God. It’s his blood that’s been shed, providing the final, ultimate sacrifice. Now, the way to God is opened and I have sure, absolute promises upon which to take my stand. So, that’s what I do. I respond in belief and then do all I can to nurture that hope I’ve been so graciously given. One of the ways I do that, according to the writer of Hebrews, is to worship with fellow believers. In spite of the fact that some folks don’t think it is necessary or worth the time, I’m to see it as a valuable component of the life of faith. As part of a worshiping community my connection to Jesus is strengthened, my understanding of the things of God is deepened, and opportunities for serving the Lord are provided. Some may think they know better or that they have bigger fish to fry. I see it as one of several ways in which I more firmly grasp my hold on the things of God. After all, Jesus has already done the heavy lifting here. My being faithful to his Church and all the other disciplines of the Christian life is nothing in comparison to his bleeding and dying on the cross.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for the gift of the Church, the Body of Christ.
No more blood needed
Hebrews 9: He brought together God and his people in this new way.
It was a bloody religion. Even the giving of the Law was accompanied by the sheading of the blood of innocent animals. Through the centuries the blood continues to flow and on one day each year, in particular, the blood is taken behind the curtain into the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of the High Priest and all the people. Then, Jesus, the Son of God, comes to make the ultimate blood sacrifice: his own. This High Priest gives himself, and in so doing, finishes the old bloody system once and for good. No more blood and no more curtain. These things that stood as a barrier between God and man are abolished for good, belonging in history books and museums rather than in real life. Jesus creates a new connection between God and man, the curtain removed and no more blood necessary. Today, we follow the Lord’s command to “remember” by receiving the Lord’s Supper. In the cup though, we don’t need blood. The absence of blood is, in itself, a lesson. Because Christ’s blood was shed long ago, just a bit of wine (in my church tradition, its “new wine”) is all that’s needed.
Take Away: Christ’s sacrifice was what was needed all along and it never needs to be made again.
My brother is King
Hebrews 2: It’s logical that the savior took on flesh and blood in order to rescue them by his death.
Once the awful persecution of the ancient Church ended, it turned its attention to formalizing the doctrines of Christianity. What beliefs are required to be “Christian” and what beliefs are outside of the boundaries of Christianity? Creeds were debated, created, and adjusted as Christians tried to better understand what was and what was not “Christian.” It’s no surprise that the main focus in all this was Jesus, himself. Who was he? What does it mean for him to be the “Son of God”? What does it mean for him to be the “Son of man”? Some people focused on his humanity and decided Jesus was a very good man who was picked by God to be the Savior of the world. Others focused on his divinity. They decided that Jesus appeared to be human, but was actually God dressed up in human flesh. Ultimately, the Church abandoned mathematics in favor of faith. It was concluded that Jesus was, at the same time 100% man and 100% God. Never mind that this adds up to 200% — we’d just believe that that’s how it is. Here we are, way down the road and so comfortable with this approach that we don’t think much about it. Today’s passage played a role in this understanding of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews describes one who was so human that he died a very human and real death for all. At the same time, he’s positioned in the loftiest of realms. For human beings, this is good news indeed, it’s great having one we call “brother” also be our Lord and Savior.
Take Away: Jesus is 100% man. He’s also 100% God. This God-man is the Savior of the world.
Life in the middle
Titus 3: Stay away from mindless, pointless quarreling over genealogies and fine print about the law code.
Since Paul’s somewhat critical of the average resident of Crete I assume that his warning to Titus here isn’t based on some natural tendency of Titus to get caught up in trivial matters. It seems to me that Paul thinks that the people of that island do share this tendency and if he isn’t careful Titus will get bound up in it too. Paul wants Titus, and all believers, to focus on the big picture. The Lord has graciously and in mercy reached out to us in our sinful state to establish us in a new relationship with him. He stepped into this world and knowing full well that we don’t deserve it, loved us anyway and went to work transforming our lives. Now, we’re made new, cleaned up by Jesus, recipients of God’s gift of himself to us. These are the things we’re to think and tell about. We’re to let others, outsiders, have the corner on worrying about the minutia of the law. They’re welcome to it. After all, if such things provide salvation, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have been Jesus’ best friends. Paul tells Titus to “put his foot down” and insist that the business of the Church is declaring Jesus and to provide evidence of what he does in people’s lives by being “bighearted and courteous,” law-abiding citizens. On one side of us are those who are “ordered every which way by their glands.” On the other side are those who focus on debating the finer points of the Law. Here in the middle, we just live for Jesus, telling our story to all who will listen.
Take Away: It’s easy to major on the minors – but to do so is to fail to live the life to which the Lord calls us.
I’ve been changed
1Thessalonians 1: Something happened in you.
The Apostle writes two letters to the church at Thessalonica, a city of Greece that still exists today: Thessaloniki. Bible scholars tell us that these letters are some of the earliest writings of the New Testament, penned a mere 20 years or so after the ascension of Christ. Jesus promised that he’ll come back and it’s that promise that drives these letters. When the gospel was preached at Thessalonica a few years earlier it was wonderfully received. People believed and in believing their lives were changed right then. As our Lord put it, they were born again and thus made new. Not only were they changed in the present, but their view of the future was changed too. Now, every day contains in it a sense of anticipation as they “expectantly…await the arrival of…Jesus.” That expectancy drives them, flavoring their lives in positive ways. No life situation is forever and a better day will begin any moment now. This has made these made new people into optimists who are admittedly curious as to exactly how it will all come about. Today, I’m 2000 years distant from these believers. Still, I have this in common with them: I too look forward to that day with both optimism and a certain measure of curiosity as to how it will all play out in the end.
Take Away: Christians anticipate the Second Coming even though we admit we don’t know exactly how it will all play out.
Wandering in the wilderness
Ephesians 2: You’re no longer wandering exiles.
We know the story of how under the leadership of Moses the children of Israel refuse to enter the Promised Land and end up wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years. In this passage, Paul describes the Gentiles as also wandering out in the wilderness, separated from God. Now, thanks to Jesus, the way into the Promised Land, the “kingdom of faith,” has been provided. Everyone is invited, both Jews and Gentiles, to make the crossing into that place of peace, at home with God. The reason, of course, that the children of Israel even make that long detour in the first place is that they didn’t trust God. Having rejected him, they turned away to the misery of the desert. For the Gentiles, the situation’s a bit different. Because of Jesus they’re experiencing their first opportunity to come to God and they’re taking full advantage of it, coming in by the thousands and tens of thousands. For those who respond, the wandering days are ended and the days of spiritual abundance have begun. On a personal level I’ve seen more than one respond to what Jesus has done. They’re rewarded with new, everlasting life for their decision. Sad to say, I’ve seen a few who have opted for the wilderness instead. Decisions have been made, priorities have been set, and they’ve followed the road out into the desert. Happily, God is the God of Second Chances. At some point, I hope and pray that they’ll find themselves once again at the point of decision. I sincerely pray that at that time their wandering days will end.
Take Away: Jesus provides us all the way to God.
Galatians 3: Anyone who tries to live by his own effort, independent of God, is doomed to failure.
It’s astounding to read the writings of this once exemplary Pharisee as he takes on the failure of rule keeping. Paul was, at one time, a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He was cheered for his dedication to a thousand-and-one rules; zealous for that way of life to the point that he hunted down and imprisoned any who threatened it. Now, years later, he’s making a lawyerly case against that approach, urging his friends at Galatia back from the brink of yielding to a “Jesus-and” approach to God. When a past Pharisee says rule keeping dooms a person to spiritual failure I’m wise to listen. Paul says the key to spiritual life isn’t trying harder, rather it’s trusting God more. He says this secret has always been out there, hidden in plain view. After all father Abraham is counted as righteous, not because he’s so good at always doing just what God wants (in fact, he’s notoriously bad at it) but rather because he trusts God. Rather than creating a human powered way to God the rules prove to me once and for all that that approach will never work. I’m left in a hopeless condition unless a superior way is made available to me. And that’s exactly what happens. Jesus, the Son of God, accepts my failure as his own. What rule keeping can’t do, he does. The door to righteousness is opened wide. To surrender to a “Jesus and” approach is to take a step backward to a failed system. My hope is firmly fixed on “Jesus only.”
Take Away: There’s no other way to God than through faith in Jesus.
Rules and regs
Galatians 2: If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
Years earlier the council at Jerusalem came to a momentous decision. While it was okay for Jewish Christians to continue to observe the Jewish rules and regulations the burden of keeping those rules wouldn’t be placed on the Gentile believers. That was a very big deal, but it wasn’t the end of the subject. Some of the “rule keeping” Jewish Christians refused to accept that decision. Off they went to the Gentile churches to “re-educate” the new Christians. Their brand of Christianity was quite Jewish. Beyond that, even Jewish believers like Peter tended to walk on both sides of the road on this one. Around Jews they were very Jewish, but when they were with non-Jews, they relaxed and conducted themselves as though it is, indeed, faith in Jesus that alone makes a person right with God. Paul and Peter had a bit of a falling out about it when Peter, who had been getting along just fine with the Gentile Christians, quietly withdrew from them when a group of rule keeping Jewish Christians showed up. Clearly, in spite of the fact that there had been an official ruling on the matter, in practice, things were still up in the air. Paul, in this case, doesn’t appeal to the Jerusalem ruling, but, instead goes straight to the cross of Christ. He reminds his readers that if rules did the job, then the Jews, of all people, would be happily satisfied with their situation. He also tells them, that, if that was possible, then Jesus would have never gone to the cross. After all, his message to us isn’t “try harder and you’ll be fine.” Rather, his message is that he is the “way, the truth, and the life.”
Take Away: Even if we somehow managed to keep all the rules we’d still be unsaved outside of Christ.
Starting at the start
1Corinthians 2: God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion.
When Paul begins his ministry in the town of Corinth he knows that he needs to take it easy. These folks have little upon which to build. If he starts off dealing with the deeper things of God (like he does in his letter to the church at Rome) they’ll get nothing out of it and will likely turn back to their former way of life. Paul wisely sticks to the basics: Jesus died for our sins and is resurrected. This message speaks to their hearts and they give their lives to the Jesus they hear about from Paul. Still, there’s much more to learn about the Christian life. Now, though, they’re better prepared to learn of the things of God. The reason for this is that now the Holy Spirit is working in their lives. The Spirit, you see, isn’t into keeping secrets. Rather, he’s all about teaching us, leading us one step at a time into a better understanding of the things of God. To some extent we all start our spiritual journey by taking baby steps. It’s important that we, God’s people, remember that in dealing with those who haven’t a clue. There’s no need to argue the finer points of our faith with people who don’t yet have a handle on who Jesus is and what he’s done for us. We start our religious talk here: “Let me tell you about Jesus.” Once a person receives Jesus into their life, the Holy Spirit begins to commune with their spirit, helping them begin to grasp the deeper things of God.
Take Away: We need to start with the basics in dealing with people, and then trust the Holy Spirit to move them along at the pace he knows is right for them.
I’ve been included
Romans 9: They were so absorbed in their “God projects” that they didn’t notice God right in front of them.
Big issues are in play here. Paul says that while the descendants of Abraham are the people with the promise of God that promise remains under God’s control. Even among Abraham’s descendants some are excluded and have no part in the promise. For instance, twin brothers (Jacob and Esau), before they’re ever born are treated differently from one another by God. One will be part of what God is doing in the world and the other won’t. Some Israelites have the idea that salvation is uniquely theirs because of their lineage. Paul says that’s not how it is. The only real decision maker here is God, so when some of Abraham’s descendants have tried to take the ball and run with it, making salvation their personal property, they’ve run head first into the Almighty who reminds them that this is his doing and not theirs. Israel doesn’t own salvation – God does. This is Good News for those of us who would otherwise be considered outsiders and ineligible for this wonderful plan of salvation.
Take Away: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.