Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 3 August 2017

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  Hebrews 11, verses 13.

Today’s verse is a powerful conviction of the human race and an even more powerful demonstration of the grace of God.   It’s kryptonite to the world thinking of itself as Superman.  It’s a grace bomb.

Up until now, the writer of Hebrews has mentioned Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham as paragons of faith.   They were men who lived out what God asked them to do.   They weren’t better than anyone else in their day; they weren’t better than you or me.   They simply did a better job at putting all their faith in God.  He said then they believed.  They had faith that, if God said so, it would be so no matter what.  No matter what it cost them (even their lives), no matter what had to happen in the world, no matter anything, if God promised something, it would be so.   His word is more reliable than anything else.  I’ll ask you to back up a bit and consider the unspoken implications of what the verse is really saying.

Faith in God is worth dying for because when you have faith in God you’re a stranger in this strange land.

God created this place to be perfect.   It was perfect for a time, though we don’t really know how long Adam and Eve lived in Eden.  God created Adam and Eve to be perfect and they were for a time, existing in harmony with God and the nature He created.   In the Garden there was perfection and there was even evil.   Yet Adam and Eve lived perfectly with evil present until they accepted evil’s lying proposition.  After that, they (and we) embraced evil in corrupting the perfection of what God had created.   As a result, they (and we) fell out of harmony with God and the perfection He intended for us.

Sin, evil, corruption, sickness, deterioration, death:   those weren’t what the world was created for.   They are the abnormalities that have overtaken the world and made the normal perfection for which it was created abnormal.  We have become abnormal in a world that considers things truly abnormal to be normal.  The way around all this dysfunction, this frustration of God’s good plan, is faith in Him.   Putting our faith in God, in His Son, Jesus, changes the equation of abnormality back into one of true normality.   Disharmony becomes harmony again.

And to have that harmony in full again, unless Jesus returns, we have to die for it.   Loving Jesus fully means being willing to die for Him.  After all, He died for us.

The world of hate that we inherited from Adam and Eve’s idolatrous rebellion thinks itself to be above God.   The men cited here in Hebrews saw past that.   They didn’t have the benefit of the knowledge of Jesus for Jesus wouldn’t be incarnate for thousands of years.   Yet they still put their faith in this unseen God, trusting that He would redeem them from the hatred of sin.  They put their faith in Him doing what they couldn’t.   They hoped He would redeem them in this life, but trusted He would keep His promise whether in this life or the next.

My friend, Bill Brimer, likes to talk about ‘grace bombs.’   This is a big one.   It dropped right in front of you and exploded in your face.   Blew you away, in fact, with it’s power of love.  The ‘you’ that revels in the sensuality of our world is paled by the ‘you’ who is better than all that.   You’re better than all that because God re-made you to be better.   He remade you by redeeming you even when you and I distrusted Him.  His grace overcame our grudges.  He exploded his grace in your face by being His Word, by giving His word, by keeping His word, by being Himself for us.   All we have to do is believe because He does everything else and He does it because of love.   He proved it to these biblical forbearers.   He does it still.   BOOM.   Take that, wannabe Superman.

For further reading:  Matthew 13:17, Genesis 23:4, Leviticus 25:23, Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 1:17.

Lord, thank You for exploding Your grace in my face, for all You have done and do today.

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Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 28 July 2017

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.  Hebrews 11, verse 7.

Even unbelievers know the story of Noah.  The account of Noah and the great flood is perhaps more famously known than even many stories about Jesus.  God made a number of covenants with mankind, and the one he made with Noah was the second.   God first ‘covenanted’ with man through Adam.   The covenant with Adam consisted of blessings before and after the fall.   In Eden, God promised to bless mankind; after Eden, God promised to curse the ground because of mankind while sending a redeemer to redeem mankind.   Noah lived under that covenant, awaiting that redeemer…until the day God confided to him that He was going to wipe out all living things because of man’s sin.   That’s when Noah’s faith had to kick in.  So what exactly did Noah do by faith?

He built the ark.  Some scholars think it took almost 100 years to build the ark.   Up until the mid-1800s, Noah’s Ark, a craft of Biblical ‘legend,’ was considered to have been the largest ship ever made.   Noah, his 3 sons, and their families worked for decades to build the ark that would protect living creatures from extinction.   They did it based on a promise made by an unseen God.  I get frustrated if it takes me longer than a few days to complete a project on my farm.   Imagine how I would feel working on something, full time, for an entire century.   Morning, noon, and evening, for days, weeks, months, and years…then decades.   Imagine how Noah’s neighbors must have ridiculed him for what he was doing, all the more so when he answered “because God said so” when they asked him why he was building this thing out in the middle of nowhere.

He built the ark out of fear.  Noah built the ark because God told him to, and Noah walked with God.   He knew God and pursued God’s heart.  To do that, like his ancestor Enoch, Noah feared God and respected Him.   He understood his place as a man yet also his place as God’s cherished creation.   A thousand or more years before Moses recorded Genesis, Noah listened to stories told by his ancestors about the Father’s indescribable power and love.   Yes, Noah built the ark out of fear:   a healthy fear born in love.

He had faith that God hadn’t forgotten him during the long days on the ark.   Noah and his family lived on the ark, floating on the world-wide ocean, for nearly a year.   Imagine how it must have felt hearing things crash up against the side of the ark.   Think of how they must have felt to hear the muffled screams of people pounding to get in as the rains poured and the waters rose.  Think about the somber loneliness when those screams stopped.  I can’t imagine taking care of dozens, maybe hundreds of kinds of animals for all that time.   Perhaps the eight people on the ark kept so busy that they didn’t have much time to think about it, but I imagine there must have been times on the ark when they wondered if God had forgotten about them.   Noah probably clung desperately to his faith because that faith of 500 years had persisted through a century of building, and a year on the waters, and all through everything that happened afterward.

After the flood, when God caused the waters to recede and it was safe to leave the ark, God covenanted with Noah to never again destroy the world in a flood.  God made Noah the heir of righteousness so that, through him, the world would eventually know redemption.  Noah had faith that God would use all this to change things for the better.  And that’s exactly what happened, even as it would take many generations before Noah’s descendant, Jesus of Nazareth, would come to make it so. These days, in America, the rainbow has been co-opted by the gay rights community as their ‘pride flag.’  Yet even this serves God’s purpose for He gave rainbows to the world as a reminder of his ancient promise to Noah:  to love and sustain us and never again destroy the world in the way He had once done.  What mankind would twist for his own ungodly devices our God is still overseeing for His better purposes.   Perhaps that’s part of what kept Noah going all those years ago.   Even unbelievers can understand that.

For further reading:  Genesis 6:13-22, 1 Peter 3:20, Genesis 6:9, Ezekiel 14:14-20, Romans 9:30.

My patient Lord, thank You for the life and account of Noah.   Thank You for the rainbow reminder of Your love.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 7 March 2017

For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. But God found fault with the people and said:  “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.  This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord.  I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.  I will be their God, and they will be my people.  No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.  For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”  By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.  Hebrews 8, verses 7-12.

It’s like God was saying “folks, you just don’t get it.   In fact, that is what He was saying, and doing, and is why He kept instituting new covenants to benefit mankind until, finally, one could be instituted that would be eternally complete.   Keep this thought at hand:   this was for our benefit, not His.   This was to prepare us, NOT because God had to practice to get it right.   All throughout human history, since the fall in Eden, God has been reaching out, preparing us for the ways and the time when He would restore a clear path to Himself again.   In Eden, Adam and Eve were without sin.   They lived in full harmony with God, seeing Him face to face, talking with Him one on one.   It’s how God designed people to live.

Enter sin.   Enter the serpent.   Enter falling into temptation.   Enter the divide.   Millenia later, we’re still in that divide.   Many thousands of years after Adam, 4500 years after Abraham, 4000 years after Moses and even 2000 years after Jesus, mankind is still in the divide between himself and his God Almighty.   You and I can disagree with that, and we can rail against the fact of it.   We don’t like it when people confront us with ugly truths, but they’re still truths.   We’re full of sin and unable on our own to walk with God.   It’s true for you.   It’s true for me.  It’s true for your saintly mom, Billy (and Franklin) Graham, Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict), the heroes fighting for freedom in Afghanistan, and even my minister friend, Raymond, in Africa who does practical Godly ministry better than anyone else I know.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus built the bridge.   Jesus serves as the path between sinful men and our perfect God.  Jesus forgives all our sins and teaches us how to turn from them.   And He clothes us in Himself so that, when the perfect Father sees us, He sees us through the prism of His perfect Son.   Without Jesus, God (who sees everything) sees an unholy person who can’t be in His presence because His holy presence requires holiness.   Without Jesus, sins aren’t forgiven.   Without Jesus, the old covenants of Moses and David still hammer us with unachievable law, requirements that we still misunderstand and can never fully comply with.   Without Jesus, there is no path to God.  Mohammed can’t get you there.   Buddha and years of navel-gazing can’t get you there.   Paiute, chanting to Mother Gaia, praying to your ancestors, and a thousand Hindu gods can’t get you to God.  Only Jesus.

This is true because God instituted the new covenant that He promised in the verses above (much of which are quoted from the prophet Jeremiah).   What men couldn’t make right through our insufficient means and petty pagan religions God made right through the selfless sacrifice of Himself in His Son.   We didn’t ‘get that’ when it happened.  Far too many of us still don’t today.

For further reading:  Jeremiah 31: 31-34, Exodus 19:4, 5, 20: 1-17, Romans 11:27, 2 Corinthians 3:3, Ezekiel 11:20, Zechariah 8:8, Isaiah 54:13, John 6:45, Luke 22:20.

Lord God, I praise You for making things right, for Your selfless sacrifice that purchased salvation for all of us.   Thank You more than I can say.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 6 March 2017

But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.  Hebrews 8, verse 6.

Super.   It’s Monday and that’s just super; uber rah rah already.

Let’s talk supersessionism.  Up until this morning, I hadn’t even heard of that word, but some online research about this verse brought it up.  In a nutshell, it’s the concept of the new covenant superseding the old covenant.  Islam has a similar tenet, namely in how Islam says it supersedes every other faith (sort of like arguing with a kid and they say “no, you are” over and over until they finally say “no you are infinity”).  But the long and short of it is that, when you come to faith in Jesus, you begin to understand how Jesus superseded any and all prior covenants with His redemption of mankind.  That doesn’t invalidate those earlier covenants; God still promises unconditionally.   But, legally speaking, all the conditions of them are complete with the resurrection of Christ.

So, another thing that happened this morning was that, yet again, I was grousing about church hymns.   I like all kinds of music but am turning into a curmudgeon about hymns.   Yesterday, as is the wont of many music leaders, the leader at our church in Paris changed the words to a beloved hymn.   He isn’t the only one to do this; Chris Tomlin and other Christian musicians frequently do this in their new music, altering the lyrics to beloved songs.  The bottom line is that it irritates me.   It annoys me, especially if said altered song is one dear to me (as this one was.   We sang it at my dad’s funeral).

Let’s be clear about this:   this is a first world problem.   Compared to North Korean missiles, hunger in Africa, and non-existent anthropogenic climate change, this is a problem that only a spoiled first worlder such as myself could air.  Yet air it I did and found that, not surprisingly, some agreed with me and some didn’t.  A pastor friend of mine reminded me that pastors will sometimes do this to reinforce the message they’re communicating that week; that’s true.   And, quite honestly, if it gives constructive praise to God – which it did – then even if a few feathers are ruffled it can be a good thing; that’s true as well.

What’s the point?   Do newly doctored songs replace the old ones (I hope not).   No, the point is that we’re free to debate this.   We can talk, agree to disagree, and still be in unity as believers & friends.  That freedom is ONLY possible because Jesus superseded all previous covenants that His Father had made with men.  The covenants of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David were loving efforts by God to bring man into unity with Him.   Not surprisingly, mankind messed them up.   We NEED a covenant from Jesus, the God-man, to restore full balance between ourselves and our God.  We need Him to redeem us; we need Him to make us righteous in front of a Father who can tolerate only righteousness; we need Him to make us clean again and take away the consequences of our sins.  Just like we need air and water, we need Jesus.

That need could only be satisfied by Jesus making us truly free.   In fact, the more you study Scripture, the more you begin to see that faith in Jesus is the only foundation for true liberty.   Our Founders knew this, even as not all of them were practicing Christians.  Freedom through legalism isn’t freedom at all.   No government or contract really makes you free.   If anything, governments and legal contracts are supposed to protect one’s freedom even as they more frequently limit it.  Being bound by the constraints of a human contract limits your ability to say or do what you do.  Thus, when people implemented the old covenants, the result was legalism.   When you do that, you get the Pharisees (or American academia).

Enter Jesus who, as the verse reminds us, mediates a new covenant between ourselves and our God.  The former covenants, misunderstood by we humans, had been twisted to be constraining.   Jesus makes a new covenant that removes those constraints by simply asking us to believe He is God, and He takes care of everything else.   Life?  Done; it’s yours.   Provisions for living?  Done; they’re yours.   Forgiveness of all your sins and the guilt that dog-piles on with them?   Done; yours again.   All we do is believe.   From there, Jesus takes the load and leads us now in His better way.  The goal of life isn’t to toe the line:   the goal of life becomes loving others to help them with their burdens in life.

All because Jesus’ covenant of life superseded all those before it in the ultimate act of supersessionism.   That includes curmudgeon grousing about church music.  Pretty super after all.

For further reading:  Luke 22:20, Galatians 3:20.

My Lord, I praise You for superseding the old covenants that blessed all my ancestors (and even me).   Thank You for making it possible to walk and talk with you and my brothers and sisters.

 

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 6 December 2016

In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.”  And he says in another place, “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”  Hebrews 5, verses 5-6.

First let’s discuss the Son and Father:  there is nobody else in all of human history who can hold that title other than Jesus Christ.   Christ is the only Son of God the Father while still being one with the Father.  He could have taken on the glory of accepting God’s calling to be an ordained high priest of the Jewish faith, but He didn’t.   He could have assumed God’s glory for Himself, but He didn’t.   If He had done these things, He wouldn’t have been the perfect Christ who satisfied the hundreds of Old Testament Biblical prophecies about the Christ.   And yet Jesus did become the ultimate priest, the ultimate pastor and Good Shepherd of God’s flock that is the church.   It is only Jesus who intercedes for us with the glorious Father, who demands perfection to satisfy His just holiness.   It is only Jesus who sacrificed Himself so that something could be done that had never been done before and couldn’t have been done since.   Only Jesus could atone for all of humanity’s wrongdoings; nobody before or since has so satisfied all the requirements of being the penultimate and perfect Passover lamb.

And then there’s Melchizedek.   Verse 6 quotes Psalm 110, which says “you are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizidek.”  Perhaps ancient Jewish discussions focused a lot on Melchizidek, who is a minor, almost obscure figure in the early part of Genesis.   But he was important.  Melchizedek is the “king of Salem” who came out to meet Abraham and to whom Abraham gave a tenth of all he owned (providing precedence for our practice of ten percent tithing).   Historically, almost nothing else is known of him though it’s interesting to note that “king of Salem” likely means that Melchizedek was the ruler or high priest of Salem.   That location was, according to some scholars, what became Jerusalem.  How fascinating is it, then, in knowing this considering the later importance of Jerusalem to the stories of King David, King Jesus, and even in our world today.

Some Bible scholars say that Melchizidek may have been a pre-incarnate Jesus, come to reside for a short time with His people but, as the author of Hebrews notes, “a priest forever” (and the only priest forever).  Other Bible scholars think Melchizekek may actually have been Shem, the son of Noah.   Shem had been on the Ark with Noah and the rest of their family, and is regarded as the father of the line of Semites (“Semite” being derived from the name Shem).   Shem was the son whom Noah blessed after Noah’s post-Flood sin of drunkenness.  He lived an extraordinarily long life both before and after the flood; after the flood he and so many others bore many children to repopulate a lonely and empty earth.  If you flow out the timeline, you find that there is a short period of overlap in the lives of Shem and Abraham, so the theory becomes possible, maybe even plausible.  That about exhausts my non-internet-researched knowledge of the topic; if more is to be known, we’ll have to consult Google, Bible scholars, or both.

In a few chapters we’ll talk more about Melchizidek; much of Chapter 7 is about him.  Whether he was the pre-incarnate Jesus or Shem or someone else altogether, if we navel-gaze about who he was we miss the point of what he represents in this verse (and in Psalm 110).   Melchizidek was the example of an ultimate high priest, one who would be able to intercede for man on man’s behalf.   Pastors do this.   They are men of character who both minister to us in ways we need, and pray to God on our behalf, which we also very much need.   The priesthood was and is a necessary function to human existence even when we don’t hold it in regard.   Pastors and priests, other than Joel Osteen, don’t make much money.   We hold them in high esteem yet we insist that the most effective of them live in near poverty.  Like God Himself, when times are good most of us don’t seem to want our pastors around, but when we fall on hard times we want them there immediately.   Whether he was Jesus, Shem or someone else, this is the kind of person Melchizidek must have been.   He must have been a deeply spiritual man who sought God’s will and God’s wisdom.   He must have been a man of impeccable character.  Melchizidek is a man from whom we can learn much even if we actually know very little about him.

Hold on to these thoughts…we’ll need them in a little while.

For more reading:   Genesis 14:18, Hebrews 6:20, Hebrews 7:1-22, Psalm 110:4.

Lord Jesus, thank You for the life of Melchizidek, and for the example He set in how You want Your priests and pastors to live here.   Indeed, Lord, for how You desire all of us to live.