Saturday, August 18, 2012

Some Lessons from Hebrews

A few years ago, I was privileged to be a part of a learning community that met together once a month in Denver, Colorado. The group came together to wrestle with the question, "How does the gospel advance in a society that is both secular and religious?" We first met to brainstorm what scriptures would shed the most light on this question. After some time it was agreed that we would study  the book of Hebrews since it appeared to address an audience that came from both a Jewish background and a pagan one. The learning community was incredibly diverse. We had people ranging in age from their twenties to their seventies. We had people from multiple nationalities, ethnic groups, and denominational traditions. The six months we spent studying Hebrews and comparing our findings was a significant blessing to me and informs much of the way I look at our mission as the people of God in the U.S. At the conclusion my own study of Hebrews, I wrote several documents summarizing lessons that I had learned. Below is one of those summary documents - a case study really - looking at a very real situation (names changed) in light of some lessons that I had learned through my study of the book of Hebrews. It is below:

God led Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and into the wilderness all the while meeting their every need. He gave them leadership, miraculous provision, and tremendous victories. The evidence of his presence was with them every day in a pillar of cloud and every night in a pillar of fire. Why did they turn from God and fail to enter His rest?

The recipients of the Epistle to the Hebrews had received the message of salvation from the Son of God, had it confirmed by those who heard Him, and saw God testify to the message by signs, wonders and various miracles. They also had received gifts distributed by the Holy Spirit.  Why were they in danger of having a sinful unbelieving heart, which turned from the living God?

Tim and Amanda became Bob's friends even though they were nervous about Bob’s strong faith. As they got to know Bob and the small group of believers that Bob belonged to, they saw something different from the abusive religiousness that they had both suffered in their past. At first they were curious about whether in could be possible to actually know Jesus. They began to read the Bible and respond to the words of Jesus. Their lives were changed through a miraculous encounter with Him. They began so well, but somewhere along the line they quit responding to Christ, trading the relationship for religious formality, lost their marriage and lost their faith. What happened to Tim and Amanda?

There is such a danger of starting off on the right track and then failing to reach the ultimate goal. From where does the danger come? Can we who are engaged in the ministry of the Gospel see the beginning danger signs and respond with truth that will make a difference and keep people from turning away from the living God?

Christ is superior; Christ is preeminent. God has spoken through Jesus; He is the heir of all things. The universe was made through him and he sits at the right hand of God. He came both as the perfect High Priest and as the perfect sacrifice. He is the fulfillment of God's promise, the mediator between man and God, and the substance to which all shadow pointed. Jesus has accomplished everything needed to allow us to move into an intimate, dynamic relationship with God.

Jesus fulfills every spiritual longing that man has ever experienced. Yet, it is this very longing that can lead man in the wrong direction. Man is a spiritual being, yet he also is a physical being living in a physical world. He is constantly trying to work out the dual nature of things. How does the spiritual reality of God work itself out in the physical world?

When the spies returned from spying out the promise land, the report of the ten fearful spies was based solely on what they had physically seen. They reported that the land did indeed flow with milk and honey (they even brought physical evidence of some of the fruit of the land).  They also reported that the cities were fortified and very large and that there were giants living there. Caleb had seen all of the same physical characteristics of the land, yet he believed that Israel could take the land.  He saw something that must be seen through the eyes of faith. Caleb saw that the protection afforded to the Canaanites had been removed by God.

The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews had experienced the reality of Christ, but they were now experiencing the reality of persecution. They were suffering the confiscation of their property and other forms of mistreatment because of their faith. Additionally, they were feeling a sense of loss because they saw the tradition, ritual, and physical realities of Judaism slipping away from them. They could not see clearly the physical dimension of following Christ apart from the traditions inherent in Judaism. They were in grave danger of hardening their hearts and turning away from God.

Tim and Amanda, as they grew in Christ felt that they needed to find a church beyond the small group of friends that had introduced them to Christ. Shadows from their religious past (that they had previously rejected) created uneasiness with the less formal group of believers, even though it was these friends who had led them to Christ. Although they had received Christ and grown in Him, they still felt that they needed to be in a more formalized fellowship. Before long, they were attending church multiple times a week, attending various functions and orienting their lives to the religious community that they had joined. Over time, religious activity replaced the reality of a relationship with Christ. They were “doing”, but they quit “being”. Their God-given longings for community and contribution had somehow turned their hearts from the living God. The problem was not that they chose to join a fellowship with more traditional forms than the community that had led them to Christ. The problem was that subtly they had replaced the power of a relationship with Christ with activities simply related to Christ. It was a subtle shift of the heart with dangerous consequences.

The author of Hebrews responded to this situation by constantly highlighting the depth and reality of Jesus; who He is, what he had done and what he continues to do. These deep teachings on the person and work of Christ are bridged by exhortations. Exhortations are an important part of this process, they answer the "so what" and provide a pathway for what it means to follow Christ in the real world. The writer even refers to the Epistle as a "word of exhortation" (Hebrews 13:22). The nature of the exhortations fall into three themes that are the dominant outcome of a dynamic relationship with Christ: Faith, Hope, and Love.

Hebrews 10:19-24 captures all three of these exhortations, although they are broached in numerous ways throughout the epistle: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Faith, hope and love are the means by which the spiritual reality of Christ's presence touches the physical world through the believer.

Faith comes as a response to the message of Christ (4:2). It must be held onto through the power of the priesthood of Jesus in heaven (4:14). Christ-followers learn to exercise their faith by imitating those who have gone before them in the journey of faith (6:12, Chapter 11). Faith enables God's people to have the confidence to draw near to God and experience the power of a cleansed conscience. (10:22). Through faith a person can see the unseen and prioritize life not based on physical things, but on spiritual. “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It's our handle on what we can't see” (Heb. 11:1 MsgB).

Like faith, hope is a gift which must be grasped firmly. The writher urges the Hebrew believers to hold unswervingly to the hope they professed. Hope is an anchor for the soul. It is the longing and earnest expectation that God is in control and that we are connected to God. Hope offers a refuge and is a source of great encouragement.

Love, like faith and hope comes as a response to the love of Christ in the believer’s life. Love is a proactive thing, practiced toward fellow believers and people in the world in concrete ways. Living a life of love gives a sense of meaning and purpose while spreading the love of Christ to those without Him.

The life of faith, hope, and love in the world addresses the natural longing for meaning and purpose that can never be really met through rule keeping or religious tradition. So, instead of sacrificing animals, God’s people are urged to offer the sacrifice of praise. Instead of offerings for sin, they are urged to do good and share. Instead of rule and ritual, Christ’s followers are urged to entertain strangers, visit prisoners, honor marriage, obey and submit to leadership, avoid sexual immorality, and pray. These are the practical, physical things that matter in the eternal kingdom of God.

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