Monday, November 30, 2015
Last week we began a journey that will take us through the Old Testament and examine several different foreshadowings of the Christ Child that we celebrate in a special way during the Christmas Season. Last week we looked at the earliest prophecy of Christ in Genesis and learned that as soon as sin was born in the world, so too was God’s plan to eradicate it by means of Jesus. When we asked the question, “What Child is this?” of Genesis 3:14-15, we discovered that He is the seed of the woman who was miraculously conceived of the virgin Mary to right the wrongs of humanity and totally destroy the program of evil led by the cursed serpent, Lucifer. Today we turn a few pages in our Bible to Genesis chapter 22 where we confront an entirely different kind of spectacle—a holy ritual that, at first, seems to spell disaster. The tension mounts in this scene we are going to observe today by means of four stages that can be witnessed in verses 9-14. Today, when we ask, “What Child is this?” we will learn that the Christ child is the only begotten Son of God and the substitutionary atonement for our sins.
I. STAGE 1: The Preparation-22:9-10
Imagine being 99 years old and having a name like Abram (father) with no children. Now imagine that God comes to you and promises that a great nation would be made from you and your barren wife! Imagine taking on a new name, “Abraham,” (father of a multitude) as a token of good faith that God would make good on this promise. Imagine that after some time you and your barren wife give birth to a miracle child. So tickled are you by the events that have unfolded that you name him Isaac (laughter). All is great in Abraham’s house. Sure, they were old, but having a young son would keep him and Sarah young. After all, he was the beginning of a great nation.
Now imagine that God comes to you and says, “take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen. 22:3). Would you do as Abraham did and immediately, rise early in the morning, saddle your donkey, pack wood, call Isaac to join you, and go? Though I question my own willingness to be faithful in the midst of such a test, Abraham was obedient without hesitation.
We pick up the story in verse 9 when “they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood” (22:9a). Everything was prepared, that is, everything but the sacrifice. Who is the first to notice this? Young Isaac who says in verse 7, “’Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’”.
I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around what took place next as the sacrifice was prepared. After Abraham built the altar and arranged the wood, he “bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood” (22:9b). Remember Abraham is by now over 100 years old and Isaac is a teenager (i.e. very capable of getting free and running away—fearing that perhaps his dad was suffering from an acute case of psychosis or dementia). However, as mysterious as it was for Abraham to be obedient to God’s unusual command to sacrifice Isaac in the first place (without any hesitation), so too is it mysterious and yet altogether true that Isaac took his place on the altar and allowed himself to be bound in preparation for the sacrifice that would soon commence.
The tension of the scene reaches its critical mass as the writer continues by saying, “Abraham stretch out his hand and took the knife to slay his son” (22:10). So much of this does not make sense. This was the promised son Isaac from whom would come a great nation (see Gen. 18) in response to the covenant promise God made to Abraham (see Gen. 12:1-3). And yet, here is Isaac strapped on top of an altar with a knife hovering over his neck. Who is wielding this weapon but none other than Abraham! Somebody stop this!!!
II. STAGE #2: The Prevention-22:11-12
Thankfully, at that very moment and at the very last second, “the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am’…” (22:11). Whew! It is at this crucial moment in the story that it becomes exceedingly clear that God never intended to have Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. Instead, this was a test. In fact, that this was a test of Abraham’s obedience and resolve was intimated in verse 1 of chapter 22, “Now it can about after these thing, that, God tested Abraham, and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ and he said, ‘Here I am’”. This familiar call occurred at the beginning of the test and marked its end in verse 11, “But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ and He said, ‘Here I am’…”.
After preventing the sacrifice from happening, the angel of the Lord provides some instructions, “’Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him’” (22:12a). In other words, “put down the knife and walk away slowly.” If Abraham did not seem bothered by the unusual request to sacrifice his son Isaac, I’m sure that Abraham had no problem following these new set of orders.
Once these instructions are articulated, the angel reveals the results of the test that Abraham had just passed with flying colors, “for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me’…” (22:12b). To fear God means to reverence Him as sovereign, trust Him implicitly, and obey Him without question. This Abraham had done by following God’s unusual command without hesitation. Likewise, a true worshiper of God holds nothing back from God but obediently gives Him what He asks, trusting that He will provide. Abraham accomplished this when he strapped Isaac to the altar and nearly followed through with what God had originally instructed.
In his willingness to offer Isaac, Abraham demonstrated that he was willing to hold nothing back in obeying the Lord. Isaac represented everything to Abraham. He was Abraham only legitimate son, the key to the promise God had made him, and his joy. Yet even Isaac was something that Abraham was willing to part with in order to follow the Lord. Abraham passed the test that none of us would sign up to take and because of this, he was awarded with provision.
III. STAGE #3: The Provision-22:13
“Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns” (22:13a). There, just a little ways off was God’s substitute for Isaac. No longer would Isaac have to be offered for the sacrifice. God had placed a ram in their midst for this occasion.
It is here where we must ask the question that is guiding us through the entire series leading to Christmas, “What child is this?” This passage affords two answers to this inquiry. First, Jesus is the willing sacrifice that was placed on the altar by His Father. Though He had the power to remove Himself from the cross, just as Isaac is assumed to have had the strength to break free of the altar, He followed His Father’s instructions all the way to certain death. The only difference is, Jesus was offered and sacrificed, while Isaac was spared. Abraham so loved God that he was willing to give his only son so that by trusting in Him in this way, he might honor God. Sound familiar? “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).
In so doing, Jesus satisfies the criteria for another image found in this ancient story. Not only is Jesus foreshadowed in Isaac, but He is also intimated in the ram caught in the thicket. This is made clear in what is revealed next in the second part of verse 13.
“And Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son” (22:13b). The ram was Isaac’s substitute. Because the ram was caught in the thicket and available for the offering, Isaac no longer had to occupy the place on top of the firewood.
It is here where we catch the second type for Christ. Not only is Jesus the willing and only son of promise—He is the substitutionary atonement for the sin offering. Like this ram caught in the thicket, Jesus allowed Himself to be caught by the authorities at the right time and place, and was led like a lamb to the slaughter so that He might take our place and satisfy the punishment that we all deserve. The truth is, we all deserve a fiery end for the many sins we commit. However, because Jesus went on our behalf as our substitute, we do not have to (just as the ram took the place of Isaac).
What child is this? Jesus is the only Son of God and the substitutionary atonement for sin.
IV. STAGE #4: The Praise-22:14
The fourth stage of this saga involves praise being given by Abraham to God, “Abraham called the name of that place The Lord Will Provide, as it is said to this day, ‘In the mount of the Lord it will be provided’…” (22:14). God had indeed provided for Abraham—He provided a substitute for his only son and a way for his promise of a great nation to progress. However, one gets the sense from reading the whole story that this came as no surprise to Abraham. While on the way up the mountain Abraham turned to those who were traveling with him and his son and said, “stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and WE will worship and return to you” (22:5). It appears that Abraham’s faith that trusted God enough to obey the Lord’s unusual command to sacrifice his only son also trusted that God was going to do something like this in the end so that Isaac would be spared. Now that is faith!
When one considers who originally wrote this and to whom, one can begin to understand how this is rightly applied to us today. Genesis (along with Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy for that matter) were all written by Moses while those he led wandered in the desert following their incredible journey out of Egypt. Waning in the wilderness for some time had made some groan and complain about their present situation. In fact, many began to question Moses and God altogether. They doubted the Lord’s provision even though God had executed multiple plagues, signs, and wonders in their favor and miraculously supplied food and water every step of their long journey to the Promised Land. What better way to remind them of God’s enduring provision for the faithful than with this story of Abraham and Isaac? God is pleased to provide for those who completely trust Him with every part of their lives. This is just as true today as it was for Abraham and for the Israelites in the wilderness. We can expect God to provide for our needs when we entrust everything to Him through total obedience.
However, the even better news is that when God provides for those who completely trust Him, He provides His Son Jesus. Just as God provided a ram in the thicket to solve Abraham’s problems, God provided Jesus Christ for the sinner to solve his problems. What child is this? He is God’s only begotten son and substitutionary atonement—the stand in for us who is only ours if we surrender our lives over to Him, completely trusting and totally obeying Him with all parts of our lives. Just for a moment this Christmas season , let us pause and consider what we might give to God—all of our lives, knowing that in so doing, we can expect to be taken care of for whatever He has called us to do.
Friday, November 27, 2015
As we enter into the Christmas season ,we are going to take a brief break from our series in Hebrews to, like the wise men two thousand years ago, trace Christ all the way to the manger by asking and answering one simple question of a couple of famous passages throughout the Old Testament—“What Child is This?” The passages we are going to be perusing throughout the next couple of weeks each in their own way point forward to the Christ child and ultimately to the redemption that He alone provides from sin and death. This is nowhere more typified than in the first ever prediction of Christ in all of the Scripture—Genesis 3:14-15. Here, in one of the most disappointing episodes in all the Bible, God shines His bright light of redemption. In fact, much as God was able to use the uninviting rural town of Bethlehem to welcome His only Son and cradle the God Child in the confines of a horse trough, God has always been about the business of bringing hope in the midst of despair. In Genesis 3:14-15, the blessing of God is found as He utters a curse! Today, we are going to witness two implications of the curse placed on the Serpent in the Garden of Eden and, more importantly, behold that this curse spells for believers.
I. IMPLICATION #1: PRESENT HUMILIATION-3:14
Before we look at the implications of the curse placed on the serpent let us ask a question that I often raise to my two-year-old daughter—“what happened here?” How in the world did this mess come about in the book of Genesis? In the perfect world God created, The Lord allowed Adam and Eve free range over the planet and the free will to choose to obey His only rule—not to eat of the tree of knowledge. This one stipulation was necessary, for, in order for freedom to exist there must be a choice. It was one thing for Adam and Eve to enjoy perfection. However, it was another thing entirely for them to choose God freely when given the choice not to.
Capitalizing on this opportunity, a tempter enters the garden named Lucifer who, again, is introduced in order to provide an opportunity for mankind to choose God over and above themselves and/or others. He approaches Eve, misconstrues God’s words, and deceives her into believing that she knew better than God. As a result, she eats of the very fruit her Lord forbade her to consume. Where was Adam? His sin was worse and maybe even first! He was right there watching the whole thing and did absolutely nothing to stop it, protect his wife, and honor the Lord’s wishes. Instead, he eventually took a bite of the fruit himself!
Ashamed by their sin, both Adam and Eve run and hide from God (I guess once you introduce stupid into the world it only goes downhill from there!). God finds them (surprise, surprise) and after everyone blames everyone else, God has enough and begins to spell out the consequences of each party’s actions. This is where we pick up the story in verse 14. The first one to receive what is due is the serpent who instigated this entire spectacle. The first implication of the curse dealt to him is present humiliation.
Verse 14 is introduced with “the Lord God said to the serpent” (3:14). Though this introductory phrase is normally glossed over, consider the comparison made in these words. On the giving end of this curse we have the “Lord God” (Yahweh Elohim) whose proper name is juxtaposed alongside His Trinitarian plurality. On the receiving end we have a serpent. This is significant in at least one regard. Many in this world believe that the tension between good and evil involves two opposite and equal forces (thinking that God is as good as Satan is evil). This could not be further from the truth. God is Yahweh Elohim—Satan is a snake compared to Him! The comparison between God’s exalted status and the humiliation of the snake is something that will continue to permeate the rest of this passage.
God begins by saying to the snake, “because you have done this” (3:14). Done what? Believe it or not, he has done a lot to deserve what he is about to receive in punishment. First, he was motivated to destroy God’s perfect paradise. Second, he approached the woman with the intent to deceive her. Third, he misrepresented God’s ordinance about the tree. Fourth, we was successful in getting these two individuals to choose themselves over God just as he had done in the heavens (wanting to be equal to God—see Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14). All of this the serpent (Lucifer) had already accomplished.
Because he had done all of “this” God issues this curse, “cursed are you more than all cattle and more than every beast of the field” (3:14c). Though the entire world and all of creation would suffer under the curse of God following this sin, the judgment issued on this snake would be more severe than any other beast.
Normally, people’s response upon seeing a snake is one of two extremes—love or hate. I’ve never understood a person who loves a snake because in my view the good kind of snake is a dead one. There is no other animal I’m more turned off by than these slithery creatures. Maybe, at least here, I’m sympathetic to what the Bible says about their cursed status (me and Indiana Jones!). Throughout history, the snake has been the subject of scorn and ridicule. Only in pagan religions is it exalted and revered.
God continues and says, “On your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life,…” (3:14d). This was not the proudest posture this creature would assume—especially considering that earlier the serpent was described as “more crafty than any beast of the field” (3:1). How fitting it is that this serpent would spend the rest of his days slithering around, literally eating the rest of God’s creatures’ dust. The verbs used in this verse suggest an ongoing state of affairs—i.e. from now on, the proudest creature would be the lowest creature.
Here, the justice of God is exceedingly poetic. In putting his cleverness to nefarious use, the serpent earned himself a life in the mud—where no proud creature would want to spend much time at all. However, God’s curse is not yet over and if you thought the serpent’s present humiliation was bad, consider verse 15.
II. IMPLICATION#2: FUTURE DEFEAT-3:15
The second implication of the curse laid out on the serpent is future defeat. From this point on, there will be conflict between the serpent and the woman—representing wickedness and mankind respectively, “and I will put enmity between you and the woman” (3:15a). Before this ordeal the world existed in perfect tranquility. Now, conflict will ensue between mankind and evil.
This conflict will continue through the ages, “between your seed and her seed” (3:15b). Inasmuch as mankind multiplies and fills the earth, so too will evil multiply and fill the same earth with wickedness by means of demonic activity and moral decay. “Seed” is often used in the Old Testament to describe descendants (this is especially true in the book of Ruth both figuratively and literally) in connection with men and their sons. Evil sows seeds of evil and men sow their seed in the production of more men and women. However, this is the ONLY time in the entire Bible in which a woman is said to have seed. Why? Because women do not have seed nor is it their responsibility to provide the “seed!” in the populating process. However, God says to the serpent here that one day a descendant will emerge solely from a woman—miraculously—who will see the conflict between wickedness and the human race come to a head.
This passage of Scripture is known as the protoevangelium—the “first good news” as it is the first prediction of Jesus Christ who would be born of a virgin woman (“seed of the woman”) and defeat the forces of evil once and for all! Leave it to God to redeem a moment of darkness in history with the bright light of the gospel! Here, even as early as in Genesis 3, man’s failure is promised to be overwhelmed by Jesus’ victory, and Satan’s victorious moment is promised future and forever defeat.
When we answer the question, “What child is this?” of this passage, the answer is clear. This child is Jesus Christ who is promised to come and right the wrongs that mankind brought on itself.
This promised child and coming Savior will solidify His victory over the serpent and all that he represents by dealing a death blow to Satan’s head, “he shall bruise you on the head” (3:15c). Bruising of the head is euphemistic for total destruction. In fact, the word used here for “bruise” can also be translated “crush.” Jesus would accomplish this by means of His incarnation, ministry, passion, and glorification—demonstrating once and for all that death has no sting and has been swallowed up in victory.
1 Cor. 15:54b-55- "Death has been swallowed up in victory, O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?”
Though the promised victory spells complete and total defeat for the serpent, rendering his efforts to undermine God ultimately unsuccessful, Satan would in fact be allowed to bruise the seed of the woman on the heal. This image foreshadows the crucifixion of Jesus Christ which, although a horrific spectacle of pain and anguish, was a temporary ordeal that was later eclipsed by a bodily resurrection. Jesus’ bruise was temporary, Satan’s crushing would be irrecoverable. Ultimately, the curse that God issues this serpent involves his ultimate and total demise. The only victory this serpent will ever know would come when he temporarily and superficial wounds the seed of the woman.
The serpent and all that he stands for by the end of this passage is humiliated and promised future defeat at the hands of a promised seed that will one day crush his head. Satan, to this day, wreaks havoc on the world not as someone who believes he has a shot at victory, but as someone who knows it is just a matter of time before his time is up. His only consolation is the possibility of misdirecting as many people into following his failure of a program all the way to hell, where he already knows he has to spend eternity. However, the victory of the seed of the woman is available to all who know the identity of this “seed” and as a result have a relationship with Him. Who is this seed? What child is this? His name is Jesus! He is the promised victor over sin and death and the miraculous Messiah who, born of a virgin, lived a perfect life so that we could know life in the first place. This is what we celebrate this Christmas season—that God from the very moment the problem of sin was introduced, put a plan in place to save us that has everything to do with Jesus.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of attending the last A&M home football game in College Station, Texas with my brother and his girlfriend Randi. Because I knew this would be a rare treat, I wanted to experience as much as I could throughout the day leading up to the game itself. We got up early, drove the two-and–a-half hours to College station, stopping at a popular Aggie hub along with way were I saw a sea of maroon and white shirts buying food and retrieving supplies for tailgating. Smiles and friendly “howdys” were exchanged by those who were on their way to the game. Once in College Station my family and I went to a popular taco place where Aggies congregate for lunch and enjoyed some authentic cuisine, everyone was hospitable, friendly, and welcoming. Thereafter we perused the tailgating scene, walking among the decked-out trailers and barbeque pits that peppered the entire campus. Thousands of people, all in maroon and white, were out in force, ready to cheer their team to victory. As game time approached we lined up along the street near the enormous stadium where the band would parade before the game—that is the band and the entire core made up of thousands of students in full military attire. As we waited, a canon went off in the distance that took my breath away, and immediately everyone sent out an aggie “whoop” simultaneously as if on cue. Following the parade we entered the huge stadium (seating over 102,000) and made our way to our seats, via the escalators provided. Once we found our resting place, things really began to pick up the pace. Students filed in and took their seats—only, the 40-45,000 students in the student section did not sit. A newbie to this spectacle, I stood by my brother in amazement as I watched the entire student section respond to cues from the announcer, band, and yell leaders (their version of cheerleaders) with carefully articulate chants and cheers throughout the game. No one needed to be reminded what to say. Everything seemed to be second nature to them—all of them. It was a sight I had never before beheld. These were more than just fans of the Aggies, these were Aggies through and through. Everything from the Aggie greeting I heard numerous times throughout the day (“howdy”), the hospitality that is enforced around the entire city, to the “whoops” offered upon cannon fire, a first down, or at the end of a cheer, confirmed that being an Aggie for these students went way beyond casual association. It was who they were.
In the midst of this synchronized display of total allegiance and camaraderie, I couldn’t help but wonder, what if the church bought into Jesus the way these Aggies bought into their team? What if people in the church were more than just fans of Christianity and lived it, spoke it, breathed it, etc. What if following Christ was as second nature as it is for Aggies to respond to the hand signals the yell leaders offer for the field below? I cannot help but think that this world, this state, this city, would look very different. I believe that the preacher in Hebrews wanted the church to be full of followers—not fans. In Hebrews 6:9-20, he offers two encouragements to this end that might compel us out of superficial association and into the way of life God provided for us through Jesus.
The Charge-”BE DILIGENT IMITATORS OF CHRIST”-6:9-12
In verse nine of chapter 6, the author changes tones very abruptly. The harsh warning and deeply compelling thoughts of 6:4-8 (in the hypothetical scenario painted earlier), are eclipsed here by a word of confidence in the listening audience when the preacher says, “But beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way,…”(6:9). This is the only place in the entire sermon of Hebrews in which the preacher calls the audience his “friends.” Perhaps he is doing his best to reassure the audience of their place in the fellowship of believers. For the preacher, he is convinced that those to whom he is writing enjoy a better state of affairs than do those who are described earlier (see 6:4-8) because they are truly saved. Their existence is “better” because of the salvation that accompanies their lives. Here, as is the case elsewhere in Hebrews, “salvation” calls to mind not just one’s present state of right relationship with, but also one’s future hope of glory in heaven. Rather than a cursed outcome (as can be expected by unbelievers and apostates) those the preacher is writing to are enjoying and will one day enjoy in full the salvation that was provided in Jesus Christ.
However, what convinces the preacher of his congregation’s salvation? The answer is articulated in verse 10, “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints…”Good works and genuine love are the hallmarks of true faith.
James 2:15-17-“If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
1 John 13:35-"By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another."
Because this congregation has ministered in the past and is ministering in the present through love and good works, the preacher is confident of their salvation.
Given their present condition of work and love, the preacher encourages them to press on—to keep on keeping on—and continue this faithful living—“and we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end” (6:11). In a subtle way, the author affirms here that while work and love demonstrate saving faith, so too does diligent perseverance until the end. While works and love should give any believer confidence in their salvation, if these become absent, this confidence goes away. Works and love must be of a lasting quality if they are going to inspire confidence in a believer.
This first-century preacher encourages his congregation to continue to exhibit the “same diligence” shown in work and love. This word “diligence” means “eagerness,” or “haste” and suggests the state of being meaningfully engaged in something. Those who are diligent in their faith, as witnessed in the work that they do and the love that they show, are those whose lives are characterized by hope in the future, no matter what goes on in the present. This hope would be key if the young church to which this preacher is writing, was going to remain effective in the midst of persecution.
While hope was the desired result of true salvation manifested in good works and fervent love, the preacher also wants to be sure to demonstrate that one purpose of this kind of life was to prevent laziness, “so that you will not be sluggish.” The world cannot afford a sluggish church! The world cannot afford lazy believers! Too many people in the first century and in the 21st century are dying without Jesus for Christians to lay down on the job. Instead, in good works and in love, believers ought to be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:12). The greatest of these is Jesus Christ, who, upon His work of redemption and love witnessed in HIs passion, inherited the world. In the disciples’ work and love, they imitate Christ’s example and are assured of their inheritance of the Kingdom of heaven.
Again, the first statement given in this passage is a positive charge—“Be diligent imitators of Christ!” This was accomplished by good works and genuine love which reveal true faith in Jesus Christ. Such a life would prevent a sluggish church in a world that desperately needs the Lord.
The Promise- “AS I WAS FAITHFUL TO ABRAHAM, SO I AM WITH YOU”-6:13-20
There is no greater example of faithful perseverance for those oriented to the Jewish Scriptures than Abraham. This is especially true of the story involving the sacrifice of his son Isaac. This familiar account provides the backdrop for the discussion taking place here in Hebrews 6:13-15. As it revealed in Genesis, Abraham is caught in a crisis situation in which the promise God had made with him, that is to make of him a great nation, seemed to be in jeopardy. However, Abraham’s faith in the promise of God allowed him to be faithful, even under the greatest of all tests, sacrificing his own son.
What made Abraham so sure of God’s promise to him? The answer is given in verse 14, “For when God made the promise to Abraham, since He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, saying, ‘I will surely bless you and I will surely multiply you.’…” (6:14). Abraham knew God and knew that if He had promised a great nation from him, from him a great nation would arise, even if Isaac was sacrificed. God’s promise to Abraham was assured for, God swore on Himself—the greatest ever being.
Convinced of God’s blessing in spite of His unusual request to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham was faithful to the last second until an angel interrupted the sacrifice ritual and spared Isaac’s life. In response to Abraham’s faithfulness under fire God said in Gen. 22:15-18, “‘By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.’” God blessed Abraham’s faithfulness with His presence. When all seemed lost, God intervened and blessed Him with an incalculable victory and sure promise.
The author emphasizes that when God repeated his promise to Abraham, he confirmed it with an oath in order to underline the certainty and solemnity of His words. God’s word is as good as He is, as true as He is, and as binding as He is. There is none greater than He. What a sweet assurance it must have been for Abraham to know that the promise he received was as good as done—God swore this would be the case.
Drawing from this example, and arguing from lesser to the greater, the preacher continues by making a connection between God’s promise to Abraham because of his faithfulness, to the promise made every faithful believer, “in the same way God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath” (6:17). The same God who promised blessing for Abraham promises all His children the blessing of heaven and makes it certain, “interposes” this the only way He can, by swearing on himself, “with an oath.”
The hope and blessing promised to believers by God is confirmed by the greatest oath ever made. In fact, you have hear it said by people when they are making a promise that they are “giving their word.” However, when God “gives His word” to His followers, He literally gives His Word—Jesus Christ! He came, died, and rose again and His resurrection confirms the hope of all believers—signaling that death and defeat is not the end for those who faithfully follow Him. This is the preacher’s point to those listening. The promise God has made to those listening to this sermon is even more compelling than the one given to Abraham in light of what Jesus Christ has done.
This hope should provide the believers with the added encouragement needed to live rightly in a world gone terribly wrong—to persevere in the midst of perversion—to snatch victory from the clutches of defeat.
The tradition of the Twelfth Man was born on the second of January 1922, when an underdog Aggie team was playing Centre College, then the nation's top ranked team. As the hard fought game wore on, and the Aggies dug deeply into their limited reserves, Coach Dana X. Bible remembered a squad man who was not in uniform. He had been up in the press box helping reporters identify players. His name was E. King Gill, and was a former football player who was only playing basketball at the time. Gill was called from the stands, suited up, and stood ready throughout the rest of the game, which A&M finally won 22-14. When the game ended, E. King Gill was the only man left standing on the sidelines for the Aggies. Gill later said, "I wish I could say that I went in and ran for the winning touchdown, but I did not. I simply stood by in case my team needed me."
This gesture was more than enough for the Aggie Team. Although Gill did not play in the game, he had accepted the call to help his team and provided much needed encouragement He came to be thought of as the Twelfth Man because he stood ready for duty in the event that the eleven men on the gridiron needed assistance. That spirit of readiness for service, desire to support, and enthusiasm helped kindle a flame of devotion among the entire student body; a spirit that has grown vigorously throughout the years. The entire student body at A&M is the Twelfth Man, and they stand during the entire game to show their support. The 12th Man is always in the stands waiting to be called upon if they are needed.
What a great encouragement it was to the players to have E King Gill standing on the sidelines ready to come in and save the team at any moment. However, what a greater encouragement it is now for the team to see 40,000 students standing tall, offering the same promise to their beloved Aggies. What God promises His disciples in light of what Jesus has accomplished on their behalf is much the same way. Though it was a great encouragement for Abraham to hear the promise he was given from God, it is a far greater encouragement for today’s believers to know the promises of God as realized in Jesus Christ and confirmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The difference between Abraham’s world and the disciples’ world is Jesus—and in Him is the greatest encouragement of all.
This is confirmed by verses 19-20, “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus is the anchor of the soul which provides safety and a reliable basis for living in the very presence of God. He is uniquely qualified to anchor the believer’s vessel in God’s presence because He Himself is in God’s presence, standing even now before the Lord as the believer’s Highest High Priest—advocating winsomely on his or her behalf. That this is the preacher’s point is confirmed with the image used of “within the veil.” Under the old covenant only the high priest could go behind the curtain separating the outer part of the Holy Place from the inner, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. This barrier keeping the broader people of God from entering into the presence of God, however, has been torn away because of Jesus’ death on the cross. Now, all believers, including those to whom this was originally written, may enter the presence of God. These know that the security of their souls rests firmly in the work of Christ who stands forever in God’s presence, making their case and defending their legitimacy for being there in the first place.
The first encouragement of this passage—the be a diligent imitator of Christ—is supported by the assurance that God will make Good on His promises of hope to those who are faithful. These two statements—the challenge and the promise—were given by the preacher to motivate a church to not just be a casual fan of the Christian life, wearing its colors and adopting it cheers on game day only (which, for the believer is Sunday morning and Wednesday night). These encouragements were given so that believers in both the first century and in the 21st century would be more than just fans of Jesus—they were to be followers. Although I would call myself a fan of the Aggies, I in no way claim to be one. I stood out like a sore thumb, not knowing what to do with my hands or what to say when given cues I didn’t understand to begin with. Similarly, we cannot just be fans of Jesus who, in reality, do not really know what they are doing. We must be followers. This means imitating Christ (adopting a certain and distinct way of living, speaking, loving, working, etc.) and holding fast to the promises that have been sworn to us by God Himself and confirmed in the resurrection of Jesus. This world will not be in any way affected by Christians who are just fans of Jesus. But this world will be changed by those who truly follow Him. Churches in the face of persecution will not make it if those who attend on Sunday mornings are just fans of what goes on there. Churches that will flourish in the face of persecution are those made up of followers who are contributing in multiple ways to the mission of God in their good works, love, and remembrance of the hope they have in Jesus.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
As a preacher of God’s Word, I firmly believe that God has a message for His church every time I get up to proclaim the Scriptures. Let me assure you that if I did not hold this belief firmly, I would be in another profession and probably wouldn’t waste my in church to begin with. I pray that our church would have a heart that longs to hear God’s intended message for us week after week and that our mindset would be, “I can’t wait to hear what God has to say today!” Well, if it is true that God has something to say each time we meet together, this week it is not only doubly true, but triply true, for in Hebrews 6:1-8, three messages are presented to three different groups. To be sure, these groups may overlap and some people might belong to two, or even all three. Therefore, there is at least the potential for us all to learn a lot in today’s message. If you have ever wondered what you should be doing in the Christian life, or whether or not you can lose your salvation, or how many different kinds of people there are in the world, you are in luck. The preacher in this passage answers all three of these! Therefore, let’s not waste any time.
The Message to the Immature-Press On To Maturity-6:1-3
Having assessed the spiritual condition of his listeners in 5:11-14 (that they are spiritual infants in need of some growing up), the preacher begins to point the way to maturity in chapter six saying, “therefore, leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity” (6:1a). He knew how important it was for the spiritual babes in this church to matriculate to the adult table to take in better sustenance, for, it was the only way for them to have any chance of responding to their perilous circumstances of persecution as spiritual grown-ups. This required leaving the fundamentals (lessons 101-104), and graduating to higher levels of learning. Who could/would help them make this change? Not the pastor, nor themselves—only God was able to carry them on to maturity. This is intimated by the passive verb for “let us press on” which, more woodenly translated would say, “let us be carried on.” That the preacher includes himself in the discussion here with the word “us” demonstrates that everyone has a degree of maturing to do and only a dependency on God can accomplish it.
It is not as though that by leaving these fundamental teachings the church was going to forget them all together. These teachings were “no more dispensable than are letters of the alphabet for moving children beyond the first steps of education” (Guthrie, 204). Instead, the elementary truths of the faith are presupposed in the continued trek toward maturity just as letters are presupposed by higher grade levels when they read and learn new vocabulary words.
However, what exactly were the fundamental/elementary-level teachings they needed to move past? The preacher provides a list of six in verse 1b-2: “not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment…” “Repentance from dead works” and “faith toward God” illustrate the beginning of salvation which involves the turning away from a former lifestyle and turning toward faith/dependency on God. For many of these new Jewish Christians the life they needed to turn away from was a works-based salvation. Therefore, one of the fundamentals they needed to both master and move past was understanding that salvation comes by grace through faith and this, not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast (Eph. 2:8-9). Third, the preacher wanted them to be carried beyond considerations of baptisms. The plural form of the word here may mean that the author is referring to repeated ceremonial washings as found in expressions of first-century Judaism. These were largely unnecessary and a new baptism—a singular Christian post-conversion baptism had taken their place. Fourth, “laying on of hands” was a practice associated with the beginning of Christian commitment, especially as it pertained to the coming/anointing of the Holy Spirit for ministry. Though this was perfectly appropriate, becoming singularly focused on this was un-preferred and kept people from actually growing and being used as these were preoccupied with whether or not they had received the Spirit. The final two instructions the preacher identifies involve “the resurrection of the dead” and “eternal judgment.” These are foundational to considerations of one’s personal destiny and the end of the entire world. If the believers to which the preacher is writing did not know what their ultimate fate was, they could be of very little use. This is why he encourages them to move beyond this and all of these other considerations.
In sticking with the theme of God carrying them all beyond these elementary truths, the preacher qualifies his encouragement with “and this we will do, if God permits” (6:3). This entire program that the preacher is forwarding to this congregation could only take place if God’s will permitted it (This was an important reminder lest any of them be tempted to bring their pharisaic self-confidence into the Christian faith).
The Message to the Fearful-If You have it, you could never lose it-6:4-8
By way of moving them beyond the elementary things and on toward maturity, the preacher moves in verses 4-6a to discuss a very mature message—in fact, a message involving one of the scariest passages in all of Scripture, “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.” (Heb. 6:4-6). How is this for getting them out of the floaties? Just throw them into the deep end of this difficult series of verses!
Ultimately, though this verse is used by some to suggest that people can, in fact, lose salvation, while others believe it to be saying something about apostasy, the evidence within the passage itself seems to suggest that the preacher is presenting an impossible hypothetical scenario in order to make a point. He does this by giving a fairly robust description of a person who has first been “enlightened” (6:4). Inasmuch as Jesus is described elsewhere as the light of the world, this is referring to those who have been illuminated by the bright light of His gospel. This is especially appropriate considering the only other use of this word in Hebrews is in 10:32 when the author encourages the church in saying, “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light…” Both are in the perfect tense, suggesting a past act with present and ongoing implications. Truly, being enlightened by the gospel and its Christ would have a significant impact on one’s life going forward.
However, not only is this hypothetical person said to have been enlightened, they are also said to “have tasted of the heavenly gift” (6:4b). Though one use of this term “tasted” suggests “sipping” or “trying” something, in other cases the term is used metaphorically as in 2:9 where Christ is said to have “tasted” death for every person. Here and there, the verb means to experience something. That this is the appropriate choice is made absolutely clear when the object being “tasted” is identified—“the heavenly gift.” These include, according to many commentators, the blessings of God surrounding salvation (i.e. forgiveness, justification, hope, peace, relationship, spiritual gifts, fellowship with believers, etc.). One cannot literally taste these. Instead, they can experience them. Again, the perfect tense is used to suggest someone who has experienced these blessings and has been and will continue to be profoundly impacted by that experience.
A more complete picture of this hypothetical person comes into view when one reads the end of verse 4, “and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit” (6:4c). Ancient authors used the word “parktaker” with reference to either a companion or to an associate in a legal or moral context (Guthrie, 218). It is often used in Hebrews and Psalms to speak of a companion (see Ps. 45:6-7; Heb. 1:9; 3:1, 14; 12:8). This person that the preacher is describing has become a partaker of the Holy Spirit—i.e. a companion or close associate of the Holy Spirit.
You have heard it said, you can’t be a little pregnant. You either are or you are not. Well, I’m here to tell you, you cannot be a casual companion of the Holy Spirit, you either are or you are not. This hypothetical person is a companion of the Holy Spirit.
The final descriptive phrase on the positive end of things for this hypothetical individual is that he has “tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” (6:5). The Word of God and the power of God are closely linked and again, as in verse 4, this hypothetical person has experienced both and is presently experiencing the natural results thereof.
However, against all of these positive clauses assigned to this individual, the author shocks the reader by next revealing that this individual has “fallen away” (6:6). What?! After being enlightened by the gospel, experiencing the gifts of salvation, having the Holy Spirit as a companion, and tasting the goodness of God’s Word and power, someone could fall away? No way! The word “have fallen away” means to “abandon a former relationship” or “dissociate from.” According to our author, this person he is describing has, in spite of all the experiences he has had, abandoned his relationship with God!
However, is this possible? Can someone lose their salvation? No! May it never be! No one who has been enlightened by the gospel, become the recipient of salvation’s blessed gifts, been made a companion to the Holy Spirit, and tasted God’s power and Word in a genuine way could ever fall away as described here. However, if it was possible for this to happen, what could this individual expect?
If anyone could fall away as described above, in spite of all of their circumstances, it would be “impossible to renew them again to repentance” (6:6b). In other words, if anyone could, in fact, lose their salvation, they would never be able to get it back again. Why?
Because they “again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (6:6c). In other words, anyone who could lose their salvation, to get it back again would have to put Jesus back on the cross for another sacrifice. This would subject Jesus to public disgrace again and again, thereby diluting the sufficiency of his Passion 2000 years ago.
If someone was truly saved and the sacrifice of Jesus was rightly applied to them because of their faith but then they could abandon Him altogether and lose their salvation, what does that say about Jesus’ salvation? It would at least suggest that it is not as “once for all” as the preacher will suggest in 9:28 or as sufficient/efficient as Peter asserts in 1 Peter 3:18 (“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit”). The “good news” of the Gospel would not be so great if people could lose the salvation they attain in Christ. This is the preacher’s point: no one who has really been saved can ever fall away. If they did, they could never be saved and this does not comport well with Scripture –1 Tim. 2:3-4 “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Rom. 10:13 “for ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
A Message to the World-There are Two kinds of People in this World-6:7-8
The last message the preacher in Hebrews gives in this passage is directed to the world—there are two kinds of people. The first kind of person is described in verse 7, “For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God;…” (6:7). Most people in the ancient world were heavily involved in agriculture as it was essential to everyone’s livelihood. In today’s world, we do not often think about things in terms of yielding a harvest and how integral this is to life. Why? Because unlike the ancient world, we have canned vegetables and freezers that can preserve food no matter what the growing conditions have been. These luxuries were not known in the ancient world. In fact, there were only two ways things could go down in a growing season. On the one hand, as described in this verse, seeds could be planted in the earth, rain could fall, and a crop could be produced leading to a harvest. This was indicative of God’s blessing and a fitting analogy for those who are truly saved by God and grow in His likeness as witnessed in the way that they are a blessing to others.
However, the other possibility is witnessed in verse 8, “but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.” Rather than evidencing the blessing of God, this land proves accursed (Gen. 3:17-18) and leads to devastation. In the ancient world, the only recourse a farmer had was to burn off the area and start again. Such is the plight of the lost who are planted in the same world the saved are planted in, but produce thorns and thistles.
Ultimately, there are two kinds of people in the world—the lost and the saved/curses and blessings. There is no middle ground suggested here and it was important for the early church and remains important for the church today to know the difference.
This passage is rich with important messages for different groups of people. To the immature, the preacher says, “press on to maturity” (6:1-3), to the church he says, “if you have salvation, you can never lose it” (6:4-6), and to the world he says, “there are two kinds of people in this world: the lost and the saved” (6:7-8). For those who are most challenged by the first message, continue to mature in your faith by moving beyond the fundamentals and into the greater truths of God that will inevitably help you persevere in this ever-darkening world. Lazy/ uninformed Christians will make very little if any difference in today’s world where more and more are asking “why?” and demanding proof for what we believe. The world needs a smart church, not a spoiled baby. For those who wonder if they could ever lose their salvation, I say along with the preacher in Hebrews 6, “may it never be!” If you could lose it, you would never get it back! Jesus’ sacrifice paid your penalty past, present and future. His passion and resurrection settled your debt once and for all! Praise the Lord!!! For those who do not know where they stand, consider what is being yielded from your life. Is your life producing a blessing of God or adding to the thorns and thistles of this world?