Posts filed under ‘Word for Today’

“Word for Today” – Hebrews 11 –

The year was 431.  The Christian Church had called an ecumenical council at Ephesus to address the teaching of its Archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius.  Nestorius taught that although Mary was the mother of Christ the man, she was not the mother of Christ, the Son of God.  Rather, Mary gave birth to a mere mortal who was subsequently “occupied,” as it were, by God.  Under the leadership of Cyril of Alexandria, pictured above, the council declared this teaching heretical and affirmed a doctrine known as the hypostatic union – that Christ is completely God and completely man.  He is not merely occupied by the Divine, he is the Divine.

The word “hypostatic” is from the hypostasis, meaning “substance.”  The hypostatic union, then, is a doctrine that declares that two natures – Christ’s divine nature and his human nature – are contained in his one person, or substance.

It is this Greek word which we encounter today in our reading from Hebrews 11: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (verse 1).  The Greek word for “sure” is hypostasis.  Thus, this verse might be translated, “Now faith is hope with substance.”  Accordingly, faith is not just wishful thinking, it is substantive.  It hopes in something, or more precisely, someone, who is tangible and true.

The church father Bernard of Clairvaux comments on this passage thusly:  “The substance…of things hoped for [is] not a fantasy of empty conjectures…Under the name of substance something certain and fixed is put before you” (Some Letters of Saint Bernard, 272-273).  What is this “certain and fixed” substance put before you?  The One in whom the hypostatic union comes together, of course – Jesus Christ.  This is why the preacher of Hebrews finishes his exposition on faith by exhorting us to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).  Jesus is the one who gives substance to our faith.  Therefore, he is to be fixed before our eyes at all times.

It is fashionable these days to extol a faith which, rather than having Jesus as its substance, finds its substance elsewhere.  Pastor Josh recently shared with me an article from USA Today in which a researcher from the Pew Foundation hailed the syncretism of Americans as a sign of “spiritual and religious openness.”  This article chronicled how more and more people are meshing nominal Christian beliefs with other false beliefs, such as a belief in reincarnation, or Kabbalah, or pantheism.  These people take a smorgasbord approach to faith – you choose whatever doctrines from whatever religions you desire and then synthesize them into your own personal faith.  This kind of faith does not find its substance in Jesus, but in the personal whims, preferences, and desires of its believer.

The orthodox Christian faith is most certainly different than this kind of cafeteria Christianity.  For orthodox Christian faith finds its substance in Christ and Christ alone, as the apostle Paul passionately declares: “For I resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  This is the faith for which those at the Council of Ephesus, and many since then, have so earnestly contended.

What is the substance of your faith?  Is it your own personal whims, which can change and shift according to your mood and will?  Or is it the rock solid, never-changing, ever-faithful Jesus Christ, who is both God and man?  I hope it’s the latter.  For faith in Christ – and faith alone in Christ – is the sole source of true hope for salvation.

December 17, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

“Word for Today” – Hebrews 10 –

Thursday is laundry day at our house.  When we get home, Melody and I throw a couple loads of laundry into the washer, into the dryer, and then dump the freshly washed clothes onto our bed to fold and put away.  It’s usually a team effort.  But every once in a while, if one of us has a commitment, the other is left doing laundry alone.  Indeed, this happens to me from time to time.   However, I never mind doing laundry myself.  I wash, dry, fold, and put away the clothes.  At least, I used to put away the clothes.

It’s happened again and again.  I would fold the laundry, put away my clothes, and then put away Melody’s clothes – except I could never remember which articles of Melody’s clothing went where.  I would inevitably put things in the dresser I should have hung in the closet and hang things in the closet I should have put in the dresser.   Melody, upon noticing that her clothing was not where it should be, would chide me:  “You’ve seen me put my clothes away a hundred times!  You can remember all sorts of theological minutia, but you can’t remember where my clothes go?”  And as much as I hate to admit it, she’s right.  To this day, I cannot remember which articles of Melody’s clothing go where, although I can remember lots of other, more complex, information.

I suppose like many guys, I suffer from selective memory.  There are certain things which seem to naturally lodge themselves in my brain while there are other things I cannot recall, no matter how hard I try.

In our reading for today from Hebrews 10, we are met with a case of selective memory.  The preacher of Hebrews begins with that which is easily remembered:

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (verses 1-4)

The preacher says that the very Old Testament sacrifices which were meant to cleanse from sin, sadly, served only as a “reminder of sins” (verse 3).  In other words, these sacrifices lodged in the brains of the ancient Israelites the sins they had committed against God.  Indeed, the Greek word for “reminder” is anamnesis, meaning “remembrance.”  To sacrifice is to remember the very things you would most like to forget.

Thankfully, in the New Testament, we receive another anamnesis:

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

The Greek word for “remembrance” in these verses is anamnesis.  A new sacrifice has been given to help us remember.  But it is not the sacrifice of “bulls and goats” (verse 4) which only serves to remind us of our sins.  Instead, it is sacrifice of “the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (verse 10) which reminds us that we have a Savior.  It is this sacrifice that we remember in Communion.  And marvelously, through the reception of Christ’s body and blood, there is not only a remembering, but also a forgetting.  As the preacher of Hebrews promises, “Their sins and lawless acts God will remember no more” (verse 17).  God, it seems, has a selective memory.  He remembers his love, his faithfulness, and his grace toward us, but forgets all our sins.  And there is no greater and more blessed selective memory than that.

December 16, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

“Word for Today” – Hebrews 9 –

The story is told of a pastor who had a group of children gathered around him one Sunday morning for a special children’s message.  He asked the kids, “Who wants to go to heaven?”  Every child raised their hand eagerly.  “And what do you have to do to get to heaven?” the pastor continued.  The expected answer, of course, was, “You must believe in Jesus Christ who died on the cross and rose again for the forgiveness of sins.”  But that is not the answer little Timmy had in mind.  No, Timmy pursued a different route.  What do you have to do to get to heaven?  “You have to die!” Timmy proudly pronounced.

Death is never a desirable thing.  And yet, there are some instances in which death is a necessary thing.  If I want really good deer sausage, a deer must die.  In order for us to enjoy beautiful foliage in the fall, leaves must enter into senescence, on their way to death as they eventually fall to the ground.  And in my house, if I don’t want pesky ants raiding my kitchen, I must put out ant baits so that the ants will die.  Death is not desirable.  But it is sometimes necessary.

In our reading for today from Hebrews 9, we read of something else which necessitates death:  “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (verse 22).  Death – the shedding of blood – is a prerequisite for sins to be forgiven.  As the preacher of Hebrews explains:

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance – now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. (verses 15-17)

The Greek word for “covenant” in verse 15 and “will” in verses 16 and 17 is the same:  diatheke.  This word describes a last will and testament.  In other words, it is a word connected to death.  The covenant of forgiveness that God has made with us, therefore, can only be put into effect upon a death.  In this case, it is the death of God’s Son that enacts God’s covenant.  Death is necessary to our forgiveness.  Yes, death is at the very heart of the gospel.

But it’s not just Jesus’ death that is at the heart of the gospel.  No, our deaths are vital as well.   As the apostle Paul says in Romans 6:8, “We died with Christ.”  But this death, counter-intuitively enough, leads to life:  “We died with Christ so that we will also live with him.”  Death to sin, death, and the devil is a prerequisite for eternal life with Christ.

I suppose Timmy was right after all.  You do have to die to go to heaven.  But the good news is, when you die, you don’t stay dead.  For you are raised to new life in Christ!

December 15, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

“Word for Today” – Hebrews 8 –

I know I really should, but I don’t always update my computer and other electronic devices as regularly as possible.  It seems that every time I log on, my laptop is asking me to download a software update or my iPhone is asking me if I want to update a whole host of apps.  Speaking of my iPhone, I have a “restaurant app” which gives me nutritional information for a slue of popular restaurants to assist me in making healthy choices when I got out to eat.  I had not used this app in quite a while, but the other day, I decided I wanted to look at some information on a burger.  So I brought up the app.  No sooner did the program appear than I was met with a message:  “There is updated restaurant information available, would you like to download it now?”  I hit “download.”  Next came the message, “Downloading 1 of 2734 items.”  “Hmm,” I thought to myself, “Maybe I don’t need to know the nutritional information on that burger after all.”

In our reading for today from Hebrews 8, the preacher of Hebrews speaks of an update.  But this update is not for some computer program; rather it is an update for the covenant God has made with his people:

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers 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 make with the house 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 a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, “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. (verses 8-12)

God has declared, “It is time for an updated covenant.  A better covenant.  A covenant which cannot be broken by the sins of men, but instead is written on the hearts of men and is upheld by my forgiveness as I remember the sins of my people no more.”  And this updated, better, new covenant, of course, is fulfilled by Christ.  The preacher then concludes concerning this new covenant:  “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ God has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” (verse 13).  The updated covenant has superseded the old.

A few key words need to be noted in order to understand the full punch of the preacher’s polemics.  First, the Greek word for “obsolete” is palaio’o, which carries with it the sense of something that is worn out and used up.  This is the word Jesus uses in Luke 12:33 when he says, “Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out (Greek: palaio’o), a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”  The old covenant, then, is worn out and broken down.  It is time for a new model.  But the preacher is not done yet.  He also calls this covenant “aging.”  The Greek word here is gerasko, from whence we get our English word “geriatric.”  This old covenant is so old that it belongs in the geriatric ward!  Finally, the preacher says this covenant will “soon disappear.”  The Greek word for “disappear” is aphanismous, loosely related to our English word “phantom.”  Upon the coming of Christ, the old covenant becomes nothing but a phantom.

All of this is to say that the old covenant has received a major update in Christ.  Indeed, it has not just been updated, a whole new model has arrived!  But in a world where updates race toward us so fast that we could probably spend days just updating our electronics, this may hardly strike us as good news.  However, this update in Christ, blessedly, is the only update there is, for it is given by a “Son who has been made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:28).  No more updates are needed.

This time of year, we celebrate the advent of God’s updated covenant.  For God’s updated covenant came not as a download off a website, but as a baby in a manger.  And this updated covenant does not need our maintenance, for it is maintained by Christ’s faithfulness and not ours.  Praise be to God for his updated – and forever perfect – covenant!

December 14, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

“Word for Today” – Hebrews 7 –

To this day, people still think of him every time they hear the finale of Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture.  You know who I’m talking about.  He was one of six Texas Rangers, riding in the sun.  They rode into an ambush, and all were killed but one.  This single survivor laid there on the trail, and was found by Tonto and lived to tell his tale.  He wore a mask as a disguise and thus began his fame, and rode a silver stallion – the Lone Ranger is his name.

For all of the Lone Ranger’s fame, his identity has remained a mystery.  Some people think that behind his trademark mask is the historical Western hero Wild Bill Hickok.  And yet, in episode after episode, distressed damsel after distressed damsel would be rescued without ever learning his name.  Indeed, it even became customary at the end of each episode to ask, “Who was that masked man?”  And the answer would always be the same:  “Why, he’s the Lone Ranger!”

In our reading for today from Hebrews 7, we are introduced to a lone ranger of sorts.  He is a curious and cryptic fellow, being “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life” (verse 3).  At least we know his name, though:  Melchizedek.  Melchizedek was the king of Salem, an ancient name for Jerusalem.  In Genesis 14:17-20, after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Melchizedek appears to Abraham and brings his some bread and wine and blesses Abraham.  In gratitude, Abraham offers him a tithe.  After this, Melchizedek simply recedes into the pages of history.

Who is this masked man?  And how can he be without father or mother, without genealogy, and without beginning of days or end of life?  Such obscurity has led some biblical interpreters to the conclusion that Melchizedek was a Christophany.  That is, he was a preincarnate appearance of Christ.  This is why, these interpreters would say, he is described so mysteriously by the preacher of Hebrews.

I am not sure this is the best interpretation of Melchizedek’s identity.  A common Jewish interpretive principle – and really, a common Jewish interpretive trick – involves looking at what is not mentioned in a text and then assuming that because it is not mentioned, it did not happen.  The Jewish philosopher Philo, for instance, argued that since Cain’s death is not mentioned in the Scriptures, Cain did not die.  Such arguments are, of course, utterly arbitrary since no written account contains every possible detail of any given happening.  But this seems to be the tact that the preacher in Hebrews is taking.  Because Melchizedek’s origins, birth, and death are not mentioned, he must not have any origins, birth, or death, says Hebrews’ preacher.  This description of Melchizedek, in turn, helps him connect Melchizedek’s identity closely to Christ’s:  “[Christ] has become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life” (verse 16).  Like Melchizedek, Christ has no beginning and no end.  He is our ultimate high priest who “does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (verse 27).

We will never get full insight into the identity of Melchizedek.  He will forever remain a “masked man.”  The good news, however, is that while Melchizedek the priest remains masked, Christ the priest does not.  For Christ has been “revealed in these last times for your sake” (1 Peter 1:20).  The mask is off.  Jesus’ goodness, life, and salvation have been revealed.  That is why the preacher of Hebrews later says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).  We can fix our eyes on Jesus because he is not enigmatic and hidden, but glorified before our very eyes through the cross.  He is our great, unmasked high priest.

December 11, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

“Word for Today” – Hebrews 6 –

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses, and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

You know the rhyme, but did you know that it was originally a riddle?  Before the identity of Humpty Dumpty was so well known, children, after hearing this poem, would be asked, “Who is Humpty Dumpty?”  They would then have to decipher the clues.  What kind of a thing is so fragile that, once it takes a great fall, it cannot be put back together again?  The picture above, taken from a 1902 Mother Goose storybook, gives us the answer to this rhyming riddle in parentheses.  Humpty Dumpty is an egg.

The truth of the human condition is that we all have a bit of Humpty Dumpty in us.  We are all more fragile than we care to believe or admit.  That is why a stinging comment can cut so deeply.  Or a public failure can embarrass so monumentally.  Or a broken relationship can hurt so horribly.  We are all fragile.

It is this sobering recognition of humanity’s fragility that leads the preacher of Hebrews to offer a stark warning in our reading for today from Hebrews 6:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (verses 4-6)

The preacher of Hebrews reminds us that there are some who have taken a great fall.  But this is not a fall off a wall, this is a fall from faith.  The Greek word for “fall away” in verse 6 is parapipto.  This is the only place in the New Testament that this word appears.  It is from the verb pipto, meaning, “to fall,” and intensified by the preposition para.  In other words, it denotes someone who has not just fallen, but fallen hard.  They have taken a great fall.

The preacher of Hebrews warns that a person who takes such a parapipto cannot be put back together again:  “It is impossible…if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance” (verses 4, 6).  But this is not because God does not desire to put them back together again.  Indeed, he would love nothing more than to see them repent and restored.  But these people will have none of God’s restoration.  Instead, they violently and vociferously “crucify the Son of God all over again and subject him to public disgrace” (verse 6).  The problem, then, lies not in the will of God, but in will of these men.  For they do not want to be put back together again.  Instead, they rail against God and seek to destroy him.  Indeed, the Greek word for “public disgrace” in verse 6 is paradeigmatizo.  Like parapipto, this is a compound word consisting of the verb deigmatizo, meaning, “to disgrace,” and then the preposition para which serves to intensify the main verb.  These people, then, do not just want to disgrace Jesus, they want to radically disgrace him.  They want to subject him and his message to as much scathing ridicule as they can marshal.

A question that I am regularly asked about passages like this one is, “How do I know if I’ve fallen away?  What if I have taken a great fall, never to be brought back to faith?”  My response to each anxious inquiry is the same:  “If you’re worried about your faith, then you have not fallen from your faith.  For your very concern betrays that you have not rejected your faith, but instead desire to grow in it.”  The people the preacher of Hebrews addresses are those who hate God and show no concern for their sin, not those who desire God and are worried about their sin.  This is why the preacher continues:  “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case – things that accompany salvation” (verse 9).  In our case, the preacher reminds us, we have better things – salvific things.  Salvific things which come from the one who was once paradeigmatizo-d on a cross for us and for our salvation.

The promise, then, is that even when we take a giant parapipto into sin, when we trust in God, we can have the full assurance that even if all the King’s horses and all the King’s men cannot, the King can put us back together again.  And when he does, we are stronger than ever.  For we rest in the strong arm of the one who conquered all – even death on a cross.

December 10, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

“Word for Today” – Hebrews 5 –

It was the summer of 1918 and Belleau Wood, France.  A brigade of US Marines was facing off against some five divisions of German soldiers.  The fighting was fierce and the battle was bloody.  But the Marines were gaining ground.  Then came the order:  “Take the hill.”  And take the hill they did.  Wearing gas masks to protect themselves from the mustard gas being flung at them by their German enemies, the Marines charged the hill, scrambling on all fours, with eyes that were bloodshot and sweating profusely from the summertime heat.  The German soldiers, seeing these grizzly Marines coming at them, are said to have yelled that they were being attacked by “teufel hunden,” poor German for “dogs from hell.”  To this day, Marines still proudly tout the moniker “Devil Dog” as a tribute to their determination to “take the hill” in battle, no matter what.

Hills are taken not only literally in battle, but also figuratively in life.  One company may try to “take the hill” of another company in a hostile takeover.  At a game, one football team will try to “take the hill” of another football team as it seeks gridiron glory.  And what child hasn’t played “king of the hill” where he seeks to “take the hill” of another child?  We have all tried to take one hill or another at one time or another.

But some hills cannot be taken.  This is the lesson in our reading for today from Hebrews 5.  While companies can be bought and games can be won and positions can be secured, the things of God cannot be taken like a hill in battle.  Rather, they must be granted.  This is why the author of Hebrews writes:

Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God, just as Aaron was. (verses 1-4)

You cannot take honors from God.  Instead, such honors must be bestowed by God.  The author of Hebrews offers the example of the Old Testament office of high priest, of which he says, “No one takes this honor upon himself; he must be called by God” (verse 4).  Indeed, in Exodus 16, when a man named Korah seeks to forcibly obtain this office when it has not been given to him, the ground opens up and swallows him and his family in divine judgment.

What, then, does all this mean?  In the words of the apostle Paul, it means, “Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him” (1 Corinthians 7:17).  Our lives should not be marked by incessant attempts to “take hills” and obtain power.  Yes, there are times when hills must be taken.  Most notably, we are called in the mission of God to take the hill of hell by proclaiming the gospel to the lost (cf. Matthew 16:18).  But at the same time we are called to take some hills, others are better left alone.  For we are also called to be content with the positions in which God has placed us.  There is no need to live our lives greedily yearning for the next hill not yet taken.  For such yearning saps our hearts of thankfulness.

Are you content with the hill you’re on?  Or do you live your life always trying to take the next hill?  Today, thank God for the hill you are on right now and seek contentment on that hill.  After all, it is a gift from the One who died on a hill called Calvary.  And that makes your hill a great hill, worthy of your deepest gratitude.

December 9, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

“Word for Today” – Hebrews 4 –

The other day, I was having a conversation with a co-worker about a vacation she and her husband had taken.  They had gone on an all-inclusive cruise.  And her acclaim of the cruise was ringing.  “It was remarkable,” she said.  “We didn’t have to do a thing.  All we did was relax.  You know how sometimes you come back from a vacation tired, feeling like you need a vacation from your vacation?  I didn’t feel that way at all.  I came back truly rested.”

I know the feeling of needing a vacation from my vacation.  I once went on a so-called “vacation” with some buddies to do some hiking in Big Bend National Park.  We hiked all day and slept for maybe five hours at night.  By the time I returned home, I was so sore and tired, I slept for fifteen hours straight.

The Israelites too knew the feeling a needing a vacation from their vacation.  In our reading for today from Hebrews 4, the author recounts how the Israelites were led to a veritable resort when they were led into the Promised Land.  After all, this was the “land flowing with milk and honey.” (Joshua 5:6).  Thus, it should have been a place of tranquil respite.  But instead, it became a place where the Israelites continually rebelled against God and his commandments.  As great as God’s Promised Land might have been, it did not offer the Israelites true rest because the Israelites belligerently toiled in their sin.  This is why the author of Hebrews writes, “If Joshua had given the Israelites rest, God would not have spoken later about another day” (verse 8).  Joshua could not lead the Israelites into true rest.  Thus, God had to promise rest for another day in another way.    What is this “other rest” that God promises?  The author describes it “a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” (verse 9).  The Mishnah, an ancient compendium of Jewish rabbinical teaching, explains this Sabbath-rest thusly:  “[There is a] time to come…that shall be all Sabbath and rest in the life everlasting” (Tamid 7:4).  The rest that is promised is life everlasting, when we, as God’s people, will enjoy unfettered fellowship with him.  In this world, we slog and sweat, but on the Last Day, we will rest from our work and with our God.  In the mean time, however, we are to “strive to enter that rest” (verse 11, ESV).

Although I enjoy going on vacation, I do not particularly enjoy preparing for vacation.  For there are always so many things to prepare before I leave the office.  Bible studies have to be drafted.  Guest speakers and teachers have to be scheduled.  Writings have to readied.  Work is always especially intense before I take time away.  I have to strive in order to go on vacation.  So it is with our salvation.  There is an eternal rest coming, but in the mean time, there is plenty to do.  There are our families to support and people to serve and lost people to evangelize.  And sometimes, it can all seem a little overwhelming.  But the author of Hebrews reminds us:  Do not fear such striving.  For such striving is fine preparation for the eternal rest you will enjoy with God.

Does your life involve some particularly severe strife right now?  If so, remember that your striving in the midst of stress is only temporary.  For on the other side of such strife, there lies rest.  And so strive away.  For your rest is coming.  And it will be the best rest you have ever gotten in your life.  Because it will be the rest that is eternal life.

December 8, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

“Word for Today” – Hebrews 3 –

Little Johnny was not happy.  Before every recess, his teacher, Mrs. Smith, would ask for a volunteer to be the line leader to guide the cavalcade of students from their classroom to the playground.  And before every recess, little Johnny would always wildly flail his arm in the air, begging to be chosen as the line leader.  But on this day, like on so many others, Johnny was passed over.  Instead, Mrs. Smith chose Suzy.  And Johnny could not contain his incredulity. “  But Suzy always gets to be the line leader!” Johnny protested.

Suzy does not always get to be the line leader, no matter what Johnny may say.  Other students, including Johnny, get to be line leaders as well.  Johnny, however, decided to employ some hyperbole to protest the inequity he perceived in the line leading system.

We all make hyperbolic statements from time to time.  If our stomach is growling, we may say, “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.”  Or, if rush hour traffic is especially slow one afternoon, we may announce to our family when we finally arrive at the front door, “It took forever to get home.”  Then, of course, there is this classic hyperbolic chiding of hyperbole:  “I’ve told you a million times not to exaggerate!”

In our reading for today from Hebrews 3, the speaker warns his hearers about the dangers of falling away from faith in Christ.  And to issue his warning, he quotes Psalm 95:

Today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, “Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.” (verses 7-10)

“Human hearts are always going astray,” God says.  Notably, the original Hebrew text of this Psalm does not include the word “always.”  Instead, it reads, “They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways” (Psalm 95:10).  But the author of Hebrews does not quote the Hebrew text of this Psalm.  Instead, he quotes a second century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint which does indeed include the word “always.”  But human hearts can’t always be straying from God.  Surely this is a bit of hyperbole.

Sadly, it’s not.  Rather, it’s a tragically precise diagnosis of the human condition.  For humans, as sinners, are not and cannot be completely devoted to God.  This does not mean that a person cannot trust in God for salvation and walk with him closely.  It simply means that a human’s heart will always be tempted and tugged by the wily ways of Satan.   Martin Luther explains aptly:

The human will is placed between [God and Satan] like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills…If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it. (AE 33:III)

The human heart is tempted and tugged by Satan – always. For Satan and God are always contending for human souls.

Thankfully, the “always” of our sinful hearts is not the only “always” of Scripture.  There is another “always,” which Paul so beautifully lays before us in 2 Corinthians 4:10: “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”  We not only always carry around a sinful heart, we also always carry around the death of Christ, which is the salvation of our souls.  And the “always” of Christ’s perfect death always conquers the “always” of our sinful hearts.  And that’s no hyperbole.  Praise be to God.

December 7, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

“Word for Today” – Hebrews 2 –

My wife Melody’s self control is impressive, especially this time of year.  Over these next few weeks, she and I will be attending several Christmas parties, all of which are bound to have a wide array of holiday treats and eats, from Christmas cookies to cakes to brownies to fudge.  It is in these times that Melody’s willpower most clearly shines through.  With a table of caloric temptation spread before her, she grabs a plate and takes hardly a thing.  When I ask her, “Don’t you want some more to eat?” her response is inevitably, “No, I just want a taste.”  Just a taste?  Just a taste of gooey chocolate chip cookies?  Just a taste of melt-in-your-mouth delectable fudge?

Unfortunately, I do not share Melody’s self-control when it comes to food.  To quote the old Lays Potato Chip slogan, “No one can eat just one.”  This is most certainly true of me.  If one piece of fudge is good, two must be better.  My plate will probably wind up piled all too high at these yuletide galas.

In our reading for today from Hebrews 2, Jesus takes just a taste.  But the taste that he takes is not of some holiday treat, but of a dreadful death: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (verse 9).  Jesus, the author of Hebrews says, is our “taste-tester.”  And he has tasted the bitter plate of death for you and for me.

But how can a person just “taste” death?  After all, death is not exactly something you can sample to see if it’s to your liking.  No, once you die, you have ingested the totality of death.  No leftovers of life remain.

But with Jesus things are different.  For Jesus did indeed die, but he did not stay that way.  His death was just a taste of death, for life awaited three days later.  And by his death and resurrection, Jesus also managed to destroy the very chef of death, Satan himself.  As the author of Hebrews says:  “By his death Christ destroyed him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil” (verse 14).  And now the promise is that because Jesus has tasted the eternal death of hell for us, we will never have to:  “If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death” (John 8:52).  Jesus has tasted – and trampled – death’s diner of hell.

Now, in Christ, we are invited to another taste.  But this taste is a taste of life:  “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).  Our Lord invites us to taste his goodness, savor his life, and sample his salvation.  We can taste him in his Word, which is food for our souls (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3).  We can taste him in Communion as he comes to us with his body and blood (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-25).  And one day, we will taste with him in a heavenly feast that will have no end (cf. Revelation 19:9).  This is the glorious taste of God.  And the best part is, you don’t just have to have a taste.  Go ahead, devour everything on your plate.  After all, it’s definitely good for you.

December 4, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

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