Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Beginning with the End in Mind

This past Christmas season was filled with all kinds of anticipation: seeing loved ones, opening gifts, witnessing performances, getting time off work, etc. However, many this holiday season also anticipated the release of certain motion pictures like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” How do I know this? The numbers don’t lie. This single movie has already brought in over $1 billion dollars and has broken nearly every box office record imaginable. In fact, just recalling these facts makes me wonder if I’m not the only one who hasn’t seen this motion picture.

Although I haven’t seen the movie myself, I am one of the near-82,000,000 (as of Dec. 30, 2015) to have watched the trailer on Nearly every movie nowadays puts out a trailer months before the picture hits theatres to give people a taste of what is to come and gin up as much excitement as possible. I’d say that Star Wars did a bang up job doing just this with its own 2-and-a-half minute preview.

However, I don’t want to spend much more time talking about a galaxy far, far away. In the spirit of blockbuster season, I want to draw your attention to a far greater trailer observed by a far wider audience that has existed no just for a few months, but for nearly 2000 years. This preview forecasts something more magnificent than anything you will see in the theatres this season, or in any other season for that matter, and its implications are of eternal significance. I am speaking of John’s preview of the end times via Revelation in general and Revelation 19:11-16 in particular. Today, as we kick off a new year, I’d like to take a moment to share with you a preview brought to you by this passage that I hope will fill us with great anticipation, encourage our hearts in an ever-darkening world, and inspire the kind of confidence that I pray will lead us not only into 2016, but for the rest of our lives. In this trailer we will hear three names for Jesus uttered—each with their own corresponding descriptions that speak of the end of the greatest story ever told.

I. NAME #1: Faithful and True-19:11-12

The immediate context of Revelation 19:11-16 finds itself in the denouement of the prophetic action described in Revelation 4-22:5. What is clear about 4-22:5 is that the distress witnessed and the acuity of the wrath poured out upon the world in the end seems to increase as the text progresses. The book reads like a piece of music that includes one large crescendo toward a climactic fortissimo. Here, the fortissimo is the victory of the Lamb in chapters 17-21 and the implications thereof (Babylon’s fall [18:1-24], and the celebratory worship of Christ [19:1ff], etc.). As when a dissonant chord resolves, this large section turns up the tension, only to have the Lamb of God resolves this tension in a way that puts the reader in a state of peace and hope.  Revelation 19 begins the peaceful closure following the rising tension and climax of the entire book and directs the plot toward the conclusion and applications found in Chapter 22.  

This passage is introduced with “after these things” (Μετὰ ταῦτα) and breaks up the rising action culminating in the climax and the falling action that leads to the resolution and conclusion of the entire book. Though what follows Revelation 19:11-16 eventually describes the bliss and long-awaited peace that many in the believing community are anticipating now and will on day experience, this peace must be brought about by means of a final and ultimate victory. This victory is portrayed in vivid Technicolor in verses 11-16 of chapter 19—introduced by “And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on is called Faithful and True,…”(19:11a).
The opening line of the passage portrays Christ as seated “on a white horse” (suggesting purity), and calls Him “Faithful and True.” In the first coming, Jesus’ ministry culminated in the Passion set in motion after He entered into Jerusalem on a young donkey—a beast of burden (humble, submissive, and a willing sacrifice). Here, in the description of His Second Coming, Jesus’ present ministry is predicted to culminate in a procession in which Jesus is seated on a pure white war horse (brilliant, victorious, and regal). Other horses were used in the book of revelation to describe coming plagues (white, red, black, pale green); however, this horse is superior by means of its rider—“Faithful and True”—who is Jesus Christ who brings about peace for His own.  

Faithful and True” riding on this white war horse is next said to, “in righteousness,…judge and wage war,…” (19:11b). Though in the world at present wars are fought for a whole host of unjust and immoral reasons, there is coming a war, perhaps the shortest war of all, in which one will fight against legions and in the struggle judge the wicked and battle against the corrupt. It will, be a war that will, once and for all, end all wars. This is the war Jesus will fight and win and this statement is as faithful and true as the name He is given in this verse!

Next, “Faithful and True” is described with the following, “His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself,…” (19:12). Equipped with the piercing perception afforded Him by his omniscience (the flaming eyes) and marked with the emblems of absolute authority and power (the many diadems), Jesus is no longer shown to be an ordinary man from Nazareth in Galilee, but an all-knowing warrior King named Faithful and True.

II. NAME #2: Word of God-19:13-15

As the description continues, we are introduced to another, more familiar name attributed to the coming Christ—“the Word of God.” However, this name is not without its own accompanying description. “He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood and His name is called the Word of God” (19:13). The graphic details of Jesus’ “robe dipped in blood” indicate that Christ is not above getting His hands dirty in bringing about the final victory envisioned in this passage (v. 13). However, while in His first coming Christ’s own blood was spilled, in His Second Coming, it will be the enemy’s blood that is spilled, thereby staining Jesus’ heavenly robe. Though in Jesus’ first coming the “angry fury of God” was directed at Him on the cross, in the Second Coming this same wrath will be directed on an unbelieving world that has not accepted the cross.

This blood-stained warrior on the horse is called in verse 13 “the Word of God.” Sound familiar? It should, for in John 1, the same author of this vision described Jesus thusly, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,…and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). In John, the Word of God spoke heaven into existence and proved the character of God through His presence in the world. Here, the Word of God is the commander of armies, bringing about total victory. This particular name of Jesus brings continuity to His office as creator, redeemer, and vindicator. He is present at the beginning, middle, and end of history and plays the most crucial role in it all. Jesus is the Word which spoke the heavens into existence, redeemed the world after it fell. He is the same Word that will usher in a new world to replace the present world as predicted here in this little preview.

Jesus was, is, and will be not just any Word, but the Word “of God.” The phrase, “of God” is especially loaded with theological importance as its function grammatically is not to describe what kind of word Jesus is, but to rename Jesus altogether. Properly translated, this phrase reads, “His name is called the Word who is God.”

As such, Jesus leads the armies of heaven which are described as “clothed in fine linen, white and clean,…following Him on white horses,…”(19:14). Though this description of the heavenly ranks tells us something of the holiness and purity of the forces represented, what is perhaps most significant about this description is what is not present. This heavenly army, unlike any well-prepared legion, has no swords or spears. This could only mean that this army, though present, takes no part in the coming action of military/spiritual victory. “They are noncombatant supporters of the Messiah as He wages the war single-handedly (Thomas, 387).

Now this is a battle in which I look forward to being a part.  All of the glory of riding into victory without having to risk life and limb and take up the sword in a bloody battle is what is promised for the saints.

The only member of the brigade fixed with a weapon is the Word who is God riding on a horse, “from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations” (19:15a). The same Word of God that spoke the heavens and earth into existence will bring an end to this world of corruption and pave the way for a new world in its place—this, He will do by striking down the nations that are bent against them.

Just as the Word of God was stained with blood in His first coming to bring salvation on the cross, so too will His robe be stained with blood when He brings about total victory in the end. Just as Jesus provided righteousness to the lost who could do nothing for themselves, so too will He usher in heaven for the righteous who will do nothing to earn it and are yet present to receive it. The same Savior who saved believers totally in the past and sustains believers in the present, will usher believers into glory.

2 Cor. 2:14-“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.”

Once this victory is sure, the Bible continues to reveal that, “He will rule them with a rod of iron and He treads the winepress of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty,” (19:15b). This image furthers the theme of total and complete victory over the enemies of God. God’s fierce wrath must be appeased and Jesus is the One to accomplish it.

While Christ was God’s agent of discrimination (that is between good and evil) in His first coming, He will prove to be God’s agent of condemnation in His Second Coming—literally carrying the sword of God in His mouth and yielding the rod of iron in His hand.  

Jesus is the Faithful and True Word of God who was and is, and is to come and bring about the victory we know now in part now but will one day enjoy in full—no thanks to us! Now THAT is something worth getting excited over.  

III. NAME #3: King of Kings and Lord of Lords-19:16

These two names already given of Christ in this passage together lead to the third name. In fact, they almost act as qualifications for the third title he is said to possess in verse 16, “and on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, ‘King of Kings, and Lord of Lords’.” This title’s unique placement on the part of the robe covering Jesus’ thigh, given that Jesus sits atop His horse, makes it noticeable to all who see Him. The importance of this title is further reiterated by its placement at the very end of this passage.   

This final name attributed to Christ celebrates His sovereign rule over every geo-political, spiritual, economic, personal, and present ruler on the earth. Though many have claimed and still claim ownership and authority in this world and of this world, only one King, only one Lord will be standing in the end—His name is Jesus and He is the faithful and True Word of God who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

So What?

Is He the King and Lord of your life? Is His Word something you have accepted? Do you know of His faithfulness and truth? If not, then this motion picture is not going to be something you are eager to see played out on the silver screen of this world. If not, this trailer you have witnessed today is understandably frightening. There are only two kinds of people in this world—those who will meet Jesus head on, (experiencing the tip of His sword), and those who will follow Him in total victory. The difference is faith in Jesus and the work He accomplished when He first came to the earth (what we celebrated this past Christmas)—(His birth, death, and resurrection).

For those who read this and are a part of the “Lord’s army”, are you living a life of anticipation for the glory that is to come, or are you so bothered by what you see around you that you have forgotten that the sweet victory described in this passage is as good as done? This same Jesus who is predicted here as faithful and true—the Word of God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords—is the same Jesus who chose you, loves you, walks with you, and is leading you. Although I can’t wait to see this movie when it finally hits the box office in the eschaton, I also can’t wait to see what God’s people are capable of when they fully appreciate and embrace what this trailer teaches while the world waits. May we, as disciples today, apprehend this preview of the end and in response may it fill us in the present with the kind of anticipation that longs to live rightly, share eagerly, give of ourselves generously, and grow accordingly. This preview was brought to you by Revelation 19:11-16. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

"What Child is This?" Pt. 3-The Savior of the Desperate

Many different types of events will draw a crowd. In the news we read of protests or demonstrations that have the ability to accumulate a large group of people. In schools crowds often form in the hallway when a fight breaks out or on the dance floor when people are taking turns showing off the latest moves. Car wrecks often draw a crowd of people (and cars) as well as parties that celebrate different occasions. There is a crowd mentality that often surfaces when something important is happening. People are naturally drawn toward things that arrest their attention. This is especially true when a decision is involved. Think of the millions of people who tune in each week to watch shows like Dancing with the Stars, the Voice, or Survivor in order to anticipate and then celebrate the winner of these competitions once it is announced. We are people who collect themselves in crowds to watch spectacles, especially when something significant is on the line.

By the time the end of Ruth has come around, a crowd has begun to form around the evolving situation. Many are gathering to see how things will turn out between this Moabite woman and a well-to-do bachelor named Boaz. But before we look at today’s passage, let us remind ourselves of Ruth’s story.

Years prior to this event, a woman named Naomi and her family (consisting of a husband Elimelech and two boys) moved from their homeland (Bethlehem) to Moab because of a long-lasting famine. While in this foreign land, Naomi’s sons each took Moabite women for wives (a big no no). However, before any of them could have children, Naomi’s husband and two boys died. Widowed and alone, Naomi becomes bitter and decides to return home to Bethlehem for salvation from her desperate plight. Ruth, recent widow of one of Naomi’s sons, against Naomi’s wishes, decides to return with her. Back in Bethlehem (which literally means “house of bread”—ironic as that was exactly what they were looking for), Ruth decides to take a job to support both herself and Naomi. She finds her way to a field to glean for crops behind the harvesters (grabbing scraps left behind the field workers) and catches the eye of the operation’s owner—Boaz. Upon further investigation and as a result of God’s providence, Naomi reveals that Boaz is a potential kinsmen redeemer for Ruth—a potential husband fit to keep the line of Naomi from drying up and dying off. After several awkward meetings, Boaz and Ruth agree to marry, and yet, something stands in their way—Mr. “so-and-so” who is a nearer redeemer and the first in line to marry Ruth if he should choose to do so. Therefore, Boaz agrees to meet with this man and ask his permission to marry Ruth and purchase the right to redeem her and Naomi’s late husband’s land holdings (a very pricy decision).

By this point, a crowd has gathered in an effort to hear the decision that was made between Boaz and Mr. So-and-So. Interested in the outcome of this decision, the group (originally of ten) has grown to many onlookers who, in their passing by, have decided to tune in and hear the result of the decision that has been made between these two men. Let us take our place among them and examine the three results of the decision reached. Ultimately, what we will learn will inevitably point to a miracle child born to redeem. In fact, when we ask the question, “what child is this?” of Jesus in light of this passage, we will come to understand that He is, like Boaz, the Redeemer.

RESULT #1: The Practice of a Custom-4:7-8

Immediately prior to this passage is the meeting between Boaz and Mr. So and so. The meeting progressed as follows: Now Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there, and behold, the close relative of whom Boaz spoke was passing by, so he said, ‘Turn aside, friend, sit down here.’ And he turned aside and sat down.  He took ten men of the elders of the city and said, ‘Sit down here.’ So they sat down. Then he said to the closest relative, ‘Naomi, who has come back from the land of Moab, has to sell the piece of land which belonged to our brother Elimelech. So I thought to inform you, saying, “Buy it before those who are sitting here, and before the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if not, tell me that I may know; for there is no one but you to redeem it, and I am after you.”’ And he said, ‘I will redeem it.’ Then Boaz said, ‘On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also acquire Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of the deceased, in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance.’ The closest relative said, ‘I cannot redeem it for myself, because I would jeopardize my own inheritance. Redeem it for yourself; you may have my right of redemption, for I cannot redeem it.’”

Verses 7-8 interrupt the meeting that is taking place and draw attention to the gestures that would have accompanied this decision (i.e. the practice of a custom), “…Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning the redemptions and the exchange of land to confirm any matter: a man removed his sandal and gave it to another; and this was the manner of attestation in Israel…”(4:7). The removal of a sandal according to ancient custom was a symbolic act declaring abdication of one’s rights as the redeemer and a transfer to the next in line. In those days, the sandal was the most common form of footwear, generally made of leather and fastened with straps or laces. The act of removing the sandal and handing it to another was symbolic of an exchange or transfer of goods or rights. Inasmuch as a transfer was made and inasmuch as this transfer was made among a crowd of witnesses, this symbolic act of transfer was legally binding. In other words, the act makes concrete the transfer of rights from one person to the next.

Interestingly, the transfer of the sandal would have been more meaningful in that culture than it would be today. Sandals were important footwear and many did not have but one pair. To give up a sandal meant giving up half of your closet collection and leaving you barefoot on one foot until you could acquire another. Not only was this personally taxing, it would have been publicly observed. Anyone in the vicinity, for the remainder of that day at least, would have been able to see Mr. So-and-so wearing only one sandal and understand that a legally binding deal had been made.

This gesture was accompanied by a verbal declaration “Acquire for yourself” (a recapitulation of the statement made in verse 6) (4:8). With the transfer of the sandal as the final legal gesture, the official court proceedings were complete. The rights and responsibilities of redemption (concerning Elimelech’s estate) had been officially transferred to Boaz, and he was legally recognized as the redeemer—that is the savior of Ruth’s plight and Naomi’s family line. Although Boaz grows more important to us in the story with this new distinction, Mr. So-and-so, disappears from the scene almost as quickly as he appeared, heading home to live an unchanged and normal life.

RESULT #2: The Proclamation of the Conclusion-4:9-10

With a bit more pep in his step than earlier, Boaz closes the meeting with a passionate speech. This speech defines the significance of what just took place for everyone around him and calls attention to what they observed. Although originally Boaz called just ten elders around to bear witness, since the meeting began, many walking through the city gates had remained to watch as the business was conducted (much as many gather around to watch the outcome of some sort of competition). This is why the author introduces Boaz’s speech with, “to the elders and all the people” (4:9).
Boaz’s concluding speech begins and ends with the same clause, “your are witnesses” (4:9). With this declaration, Boaz affirms that if ever in the future there would be any question of what had transpired between him and so-and-so, many could be called upon as witnesses. With this in mind, Boaz summarizes two actions that had transpired, “‘You are witnesses today that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon…’” (4:9). The first implication of what transpired was the transfer of the estate of Elimelech. Boaz had obtained the right to purchase it from whoever held it presently. In so doing, he would restore the land back to whom it originally belonged—Naomi’s family.  

In the second portion of his summary, Boaz declared that he had also acquired the rights of Ruth, “Moreover, I have acquired Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, to be my wife…”(4:10a). Though Boaz mentioned the land first, this he did because his right to Ruth was contingent upon gaining the right to the property. However, it is obvious from the construction of the sentence that Ruth was his primary goal. Literally, it reads, “and also Ruth, the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, I have acquired for myself.” From this clear reference, it is obvious that Ruth’s foreign status was no barrier for Boaz. Instead, it almost appears as though, because of her glowing reputation throughout Bethlehem, he relishes the idea of marrying this foreigner.

This is not unlike Christ’s redemption for the believer. Although foreigners to His kingdom, Jesus is pleased, if not, proud, that He as the Redeemer of the world is able to enter into a relationship with you and me. He has the rights to do so and was absolutely willing to purchase that right though it came at the ultimate cost.

In Boaz’s explanation of his motivation in the foregoing legal efforts he uses three significant expressions. His first goal was to establish the name of the deceased on through his own inheritance, “in order to raise up the name of the deceased on his inheritance” (4:10). Boaz’s second goal was to prevent the name of the deceased from being “cut off from his brothers” (4:10). This expression represents one of several for annihilating one’s honor and reputation and preventing one’s post-death existence. Boaz’s third goal is to prevent his name from being cut off from “the court of his birth place” (4:10). In other words, this decision by Boaz is intended to guarantee Elimelech/Mahlon the right to representation in the gathering of the town council. In the end the security of Mahlon’s and Elimelech’s name is guarded.

Again, Boaz closes his speech as he opens it, calling those around to bear witness. He does this because he wants to remind them of their responsibility to testify if called upon.

RESULT #3: The Prayer of Blessing-4:11-12

Interestingly, there is no word for “yes” in the Hebrew language. In order to affirm something or agree, the Israelites repeated that which they conceded. Here, they say, “we are witnesses.” By affirming this role, they agree to the legal and popular obligations that Boaz gave them through his speech and state here that they will be the witnesses he has called them to be concerning this case. However, this is not the end of their input.

With unanimous spontaneity, the crowd erupts in a hymn of blessing that consists of three parts, “May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built the house of Israel” (4:11b). First, they express their concern for Boaz by praying for that Ruth be fertile. The expression “who is coming into your home” derives from the ancient customary practice of the wedding party proceeding to the home of the groom after the marriage ceremony and him formally ushering the bride into his house.

After the completion of this foretold ceremony, the crowd continues and prays that Ruth take her place among the matriarchs of Israel along with Rachel and Leah. This would have been absolutely unprecedented for the original readers. It would have been unbelievable for a foreign woman to be granted such status among Israel’s finest feminine figures. As is well known, Rachel and Leah were the daughters of Laban whom Jacob married and who became the founding mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel. Leah is mentioned second in order for her name to stick in your mind and draw attention to the tribe of Judah who was associated with Bethlehem (their present setting) and was a descendant of this famous mother. Just as Rachel and Leah had built up the house of Israel, so, they pray, may Ruth build up the house of Boaz.

”to build a house” is an idiom which means “to have progeny, descendants, to establish a family.” The people’s invocation of Yahweh to make this possible is in keeping with the psalmist’s notion that “unless the LORD builds a house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps. 127:1).

The second blessing was directed to Boaz and is constructed with two parallel lines. “May you prosper in Ephrathah And may a name be called in Bethlehem” (4:11). Because of the wide range of meanings that may be ascribed to “prosper,” this first line is difficult to pin down. The word can mean “to act valiantly,” “to perform honorably,” or “to show great strength.” However, “to make wealth,” seems to be most appropriate in the context of a blessing associated with marriage.

Typical of Hebrew parallelism, the second line builds on the first. The phrase “become famous” (lit. “to call a name”), means to keep that name alive. It also perceives the person as living on in his descendants in the place named, which is Bethlehem here. The ancients believed that when a person’s name is never mentioned after his death, he ceases to exist.

The third blessing the witnesses prayed was that Boaz would become like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, “Moreover, may your house be like the house of Perez whom Tamar bore to Judah through the offspring which the Lord will give you by this young woman” (4:12). This reference to Tamar, Judah, and Perez reinforces the impression that the narrator has been writing the story of Boaz and Ruth with Genesis 39 in the back of his mind. What does that say? This most celebrated example of levirate obligation and betrayal also involved a widow whose husband, Er, had died without producing    an heir. Failing to get Er’s brother Onan, to fulfill his levirate obligation and despairing of waiting for Shelah, another younger brother to grow up, Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and tricked Judah, her own father-in-law, into a sexual relationship. She conceived and eventually bore twin sons, Perez and Zerah. Together they became the ancestors of the tribe of Judah.
The point of comparing Boaz to Judah and Ruth to Tamar is to draw attention to the common levirate quality to their unions.  Through Tamar, whose husband had died childless, Judah had fathered Perez, who became the ancestor of a host of clans. Through Ruth, whose husband had died childless, the people prayed that Boaz might father a child who would birth a multitude as well. However, if one considers the common rabbinic style of arguing from lesser to the greater, the reader cannot help but think that if Yahweh had given immoral Judah a double blessing in the birth of twins and if Judah flourished through Perez, how much greater are the prospects  for Boaz and Ruth who are pure in their intentions and righteous in character. These two have been presented from the beginning to the end as persons with as people of hesed, people like God.

The people that proclaimed this three-fold blessing could not have imagined how prophetic it would prove to be. Collectively inspired by the Spirit of God, they join here in a pronouncement that will eventually transpire before their very eyes. Had they been around long enough to see the fulfillment of their prayer, they would have observed the establishment of a name and a house far greater than Perez.

Ruth 4:13-15-“So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife, and he went in to her. And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed is the Lord who has not left you without a redeemer today, and may his name become famous in Israel.  May he also be to you a restorer of life and a sustainer of your old age; for your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.’”

So What?

When we ask the question of Jesus in light of what we have learned in this passage, “What child is this?” we learn that He, like Boaz is a redeemer who in spite of the inconveniences was willing to purchase the right to us out of a desperate plight and into a living relationship. This, he did by coming to this world as a baby boy, living a perfect life, and dying on the cross so that we might be restored –our name to live on forever. Like Ruth and Naomi we are desperate and incapable of helping ourselves. However, Like Boaz, Jesus was willing to extend us His grace and provide us with abundant blessing. While Boaz suffered the inconvenience of an awkward conversation before a crowd of spectators, Jesus suffered the inconvenience of a cross. Because of what Boaz accomplished, Ruth was saved from her desperation and eventually gave birth to a son who would turn out to be the grandfather of King David (from whom would come Jesus Christ himself!). Because of what Jesus accomplished, those who place their faith in him are saved from their sin and are promised eternal life that will one day culminate in a kingdom run by King Jesus. What a worthy thing to celebrate this Christmas! 

Monday, November 30, 2015

What Child is This? Pt. 2- The Son and the Substitute

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!

So What?

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

What Child is This? Pt:1 The Seed of the Woman

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.


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.


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.

So What?

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

Followers--Not Fans Hebrews 6:9-20

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.


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.


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.

So What?

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

Three for the Price of One-Hebrews 6:1-8

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.

So What?

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?