Thursday, October 29, 2015
One of the simple and yet sweetest joys of my life as been to watch my babies learn new things and acquire new abilities. Although it fills me with pride to see Henry (7 months) hold his own bottle or listen to Audrey (2 years) recite a song in clear English J, soon this pride turns to fear—“Oh no!” I think to myself, “Don’t grow up too fast!” I’m sure that every parent identifies with this tension between wanting to see your kids learn and develop while at the same time hoping that all of this does not happen too quickly. Though this common tension is perfectly appropriate when we consider our children, this tension is inappropriate for the children of God. When it comes to being a child of God, we cannot grow fast enough, nor should we wish that anything would slow our development.
Unfortunately, as the preacher continues his sermon in Hebrews 5:11-14, we learn that he is addressing a bunch of infants. However, these are not the cute kind of babies that we enjoy to hold and love on; these are the awkward toddlers who insist on being held or the five-year-olds that still carry a pacifier. These are those who we would look at with confusion, wondering when they will grow up! Let us listen to what he has to say to these awkward spiritual babies so that we might learn how to spot immaturity and lazy faith in our own personal walk with God.
“You are Hard of Hearing”-5:11
As chapter 5 nears an end, the preacher voices his frustration at having to explain relatively bottom shelf truths—especially concerning Jesus. You can almost hear the frustration in his voice when he says, “concerning him we have much to say and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing…” (5:11). Concerning who? Concerning Melchizedek and his relationship to Jesus’ unique priestly service (see 5:6 & 10). If the Jewish Christians receiving this sermon were having trouble with returning to Judaism and forsaking the gift of grace that was made perfectly clear in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no way that they were going to really comprehend the more intricate nuances of Jesus’ unique office of highest High Priest (in the order of this lesser-known Old Testament character).
Jesus Christ is a subject that is so massive, it could exhaust multiple terminal degrees with material. In fact, John says, “and there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” One might major just in Christology, or get a PhD in His practical ministry, or accomplish post-graduate work in His Passion. There are not enough years in a lifetime to understand all that there is to know about the God-Man. And yet, the population that the writer of Hebrews is addressing is still in Jesus 101 and failing at it, trying to change their major and return to a degree in Judaism.
Missing the fundamentals of the gospel made it exceedingly difficult for the preacher “to explain” what God had given him to explain about Jesus present ministry as highest High Priest. This was ultimately brought about because his audience had become “dull of hearing.” Literally, the word used means “lazy.” Other translations of this ancient term include “sluggish, dimwitted, negligent.” In other words, the people had become “lazy listeners” or coach potato consumers who were fine with the easily edible but nonconversant with more substantive nourishment. Their proclivity to the old ways of doing things discussed in vv. 1-10 of chapter 5 deafened them to anything new, including the very important fact that in Jesus, they had new and better representation before God –a representative king like Melchizedek. They were, in essence, not ready for the next course on Jesus that took their understanding of Christ further.
Their failure to understand Jesus made them unteachable—perhaps one of the most frightening tendencies for anyone trying to live the Christian life. If a pre-med student is not cutting it in Biology 101, he is she is not going to comprehend molecular biology. If a Bible major cannot get past Greek 101, then advanced Greek Grammar is going to prove to be jibberish. If one is majoring in engineering at Virginia Tech, they are going to go nowhere without mastering simple algebra and physics. Failure to master the basics renders any of these student deaf to the greater nuances of their field. The same is true of believers. If one fails to master the basics of faith, then they do not have much hope of growing in their faith.
“You Ought to be Eating Solid Foods”-5:12-14
The preacher continues his admonition of the people by saying, in so many words, “You ought to be eating solid foods by now.” He makes this case by suggesting in the first part of verse 12, “for though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God…” (5:12a). His audience’s condition is especially egregious in light of their long-term involvement in the church with no observable growth. These had been present but not discipled, these had attended but not matriculated out of spiritual kindergarten. While they should have, by this point, been serving as teachers, they still required elementary education themselves (“elementary principles of the oracles of God” could be woodenly translated as “the basic principles of the beginning of the words of God”). This would be comparable to repeating the same grade over and over again without ever advancing to the next level.
While a bleak picture of the spiritual maturity of the congregation he is writing to is already in clear view, the image becomes even more humiliating when the preacher continues and says, “and you have come to need milk and not solid food” (5:12b). In no uncertain terms, the author calls out this church’s acute immaturity. Spiritually, they were behaving as babies who suckle at a mother’s breast, unconcerned with and altogether incapable of digesting solid foods found on an adult’s plate. These were not just in spiritual kindergarten, they were infants! According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies six months of age are encouraged to start eating solid food and even begin learning to feed themselves. If six month old children can eat table food, this should give you an idea of how immature the preacher believed this congregation was spiritually.
The preacher goes on to say, “for everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant” (5:13). How did the original congregation this was written to learn where they stood and how mature they were? The answer was based on how accustomed they were with the “word of righteousness.” However, what is this referring to specifically? Though many possibilities are advanced by scholars, what is nearest to the context and most appropriate given the nature of this admonition seems to suggest that Jesus Christ as the believer’s righteousness is what is in view. As He has already been called the greatest high priest who represents and intercedes on behalf of believers (see 4:14-15) and as His sacrifice has already been lauded as the greatest propitiation for sin (5:1-10), Jesus is the believer’s righteousness. Unfortunately, given what has already been suggested in verse 12, these new Jewish believers were regressing in their curriculum and trying to do things the old way by earning their righteousness through the law and good works.
Though immaturity was a problem in and of itself, especially for people who, we are led to believe here, have been in the church for some time, what made matters worse was that these infants were facing persecution. How were these spiritual babies supposed to persevere in the things of righteousness in a perilous world if they were still on a milk only diet, struggling to get past the first grade? The answer was, they were not going to be able to! This is why the preacher does not mince his words here.
Instead of being a milk-fed spiritual infant, the preacher wanted them to be eating solid food, “but solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (5:14). Examples of the solid food of God’s word proliferate the book of Hebrews and include concepts like: Jesus is the greatest high priest, the all-sufficient sacrifice, and the instigator of a superior new covenant. All-together, this solid food was intended to give believers boldness before God, assurance in their faith, and hope for the future. The mature (“adult”) understood these things and, in the course of their discipleship, had been trained by these things in an effort to discern good and evil. The word “trained” evokes the idea of vigorous training and control, with the implication of increased physical and or moral strength. The perfect form of the verb suggests a past regimen that suffers present and ongoing implications. The mature are those who have been trained, and as a result of their training are presently discerning good and evil (Louw Nida). These eat solid foods on their own and graduate to higher levels of learning, rendering them more fit to handle the trials and pressures of the world around them. When faced with critical decisions, these know right from wrong and chose the former.
What about you? Are you hard of hearing? Are you still nursing on the milk? Some might say, “of course not! I’ve been a believer for far too long to fall into that category!” However, longevity of faith does not necessarily mean maturity in faith. In fact, I’m sure you’ve heard it said, we come out of this world in much the same way as we entered this world. Just as little kids find it hard to listen, so do some of the elderly find it hard to hear. Just as infants are unable to handle solid food as they have no teeth, the same is true of some who lose theirs later in life. Whether the believers the preacher in Hebrews was addressing were brand new or had been at the Christian faith for a long time, most were immature. How tragic! May it not be said of us! May we be those who have a firm handle on the fundamentals of our faith (understanding that Jesus paid it all and we have it all when we have Him). May we be those who matriculate appropriately in the process of discipleship. Then and only then will we be adequately prepared to persevere in the face of this world to the end.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
As Audrey makes new friends who have birthday parties and I am called to visit with new families and friends that are connected to this church I find myself looking up addresses on the internet or on my phone more and more in an effort to locate and reach new destinations. Every time I go somewhere new, as I near the end of the journey I find myself paying closer attention the specific directions that I have received so that I do not get lost in a new area or have to retrace my steps (thereby wasting time and running the risk of being late for an appointment). Ask my wife, there are few things I hate more than not knowing where I am or where I am going. If you add being late to the mix, a perfect storm ensues. This is why, after following the directions that have led me to the general area I am traveling to, I slow down, turn down the volume on the radio, and ask the kids (with some success, some of the time) to be quiet. I do this so that I can focus on the final leg of the journey (the most important leg of the journey) without distraction.
As we enter Hebrews 5, the writer of Hebrews seems to be doing some of the very same things, albeit for a far more important reason. In an attempt to focus on some of the specific details of Jesus’ ministry, the preacher slows things way down and organizes his thinking in a very obvious way so that he can help those listening to his instructions reach an appropriate destination—persevering faith in and commitment to Jesus Christ. Therefore, ask the Lord to turn down the volume of the things around you so that you do not miss what Hebrews 5:1-10 has to say, for, taking a wrong turn could leave you lost!
THE MINISTRY OF TYPICAL HIGH PRIESTS-5:1-4
Having introduced Jesus as the greatest advocate for mankind in Hebrews 4:14-16, the preacher in 5:1-10 goes on describe more about what this advocate does, why He does it, and how. In fact, the preacher is going to be discussing this for some time (5:1-10:18) as he encourages the early church toward a robust Christian faith in the face of persecution. However, why is the priestly office given so much attention in Hebrews and used in this way over other images? Elsewhere, Jesus is referred to as King, Lamb, Lion, Messiah, etc. Why priest? This book in large part exists to lead people out of Judaism, the old covenant, and the law and into Christianity, the new covenant, and the grace of Jesus Christ. The high priest of the Old Testament represents, more than most other images, how Jews used to relate to God, how the old covenant was kept, and what happened when the law was broken. Therefore, if the preacher can demonstrate how Jesus is a greater high priest than those of the Old Testament, then he can make a good case for why those listening to his sermon should embrace Christianity, enter the new covenant, and accept grace in faith.
To this end, the preacher begins chapter 5 by slowing things down and reminding his audience first, how the high priests of old were appointed, “Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sin…” (5:1). One of the qualifications for the high priest was solidarity with the people of God—he had to, in fact, come from/out of the people. This has been the case ever since Aaron, was called to serve in this role, “Have Aaron your brother brought to you from among the Israelites” (Ex. 28:1). By coming from the people, the high priest could sympathize with specific issues and understand the people more intimately. However, though called from the people, in many ways the high priest called out to be distinct from the people as he served as a representative in matters related to God and offered sacrifices for sin. Though in the days of old, many were involved in the worship of God at the temple (the offerings, leading rituals, etc.), only the High priest was able to offer the most important sacrifices on the Day of Atonement (see Lev. 16:1-25). “After casting lots for the goats, the high priest would slaughter one of the goats as a sin offering for the people, and the other goat was brought forth alive from the tent. The high priest would then lay his hands on the head of the ‘scapegoat,’ confessing all the sins of the people (Lev. 16:15) before the Lord, and then would sent the goat away into the desert (Lev. 16:20-22).” (Guthrie, 187) As only the high priest could serve in this way, he stood between God and man as man’s advocate and representative.
Part of the reason the high priest was called out from among the men of God’s people involved his identity not only with the people, but with their weaknesses, “he is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness” (5:2). In other words, the high priest was not a holy roller nor awarded his office because of an esteemed character. Instead, he required forgiveness just like everyone else. In fact, on the Day of Atonement, not only did he have to kill one goat and then lay the sins of the people on another goat, but before any of that took place, he had to make a special sacrifice for himself and his household.
“This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people” (5:3). Such was the case in Aaron’s life, the first high priest, “Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering” (Lev. 16:11). The necessity of the priest’s personal sacrifice comes from his being “subject to weakness (5:2). Literally, this word “subject” means surrounded by something. In Mark 9:42 and Luke 17:2 the word speaks of a millstone being “tied around” the scandal-maker’s neck. This usage paints a more compelling picture of sin’s hold on the human person, even the high priest. Sin hangs as a heavy weight that is tied around the neck, keeping people weak and dependent on God’s forgiveness.
Though this problem for the high priest leads to more work and more bloodshed (that is, in the sacrifices made), it also enables him to “to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray” (5:2). Why? Because he knew what it was like to struggle.
Because he knew what it was like to struggle, sin, and serve up a sacrifice, the high priest of old was incapable of incurring honor for himself, “And not one take this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was…” (5:4). No one signed up for this office in an attempt to elevate his position before men and before God. Instead, God Himself bestows the honor by means of divine appointment. The position of high priest ultimately derived from His authority, not mankind’s doing. Therefore, any honor given is not earned but conferred.
The structure of this passage so far might be charted as follows
A. The old office of high priest (v.1)
B. The sacrifice offered by the high priest (v.1)
C. The weakness of the high priest (vv. 2-3)
D. The appointment of the high priest (v. 4)
This will become exceedingly important as the writer of Hebrews takes a turn toward his destination of exalting Jesus as the greatest ever high priest in verses 5-10.
JESUS’ UNIQUE MINISTRY AS HIGH PRIEST-5:5-10
Just as honor was bestowed on the high priest of old who were appointed by God for their specific calling, so too was glory bestowed upon Christ, God’s Son, “in the some way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father’” (5:5). Any glory Christ has comes from God the Father. In fact, in every instance “glory” is used in the book of Hebrews of Christ, it is described as coming from another party—Christ (like the high priests of the Old Testament) never garners glory for Himself (Guthrie, 189).
Christ is glorified first and foremost because he has been made God’s Son, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father” (5:5; see also Psalm 2:7). These words were first spoken in reference to King David, who, among other things, served as a savior and king for God’s people. Taken from Psalm 2:7, the preacher here makes a connection between Jesus and David in an attempt to show that Jesus is the long-awaited Davidic Messiah for which the Jewish people have been waiting. This statement describes the origin of Christ in ways that are understandable to the human person. Even though Jesus, God’s Son, has existed as such from eternity past, this verse attempts to highlight His called status by suggesting an origin and comparing Him to David.
Jesus was not only called by God in a unique way, He was called by God to a unique kind of priesthood, “and he says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek” (5:6). Quoting from Psalm 110, the preacher in Hebrews draws an unprecedented connection between Jesus and a lesser-known Old Testament character Melchizedek. This is an important distinction, for if Jesus was to serve as both Messiah (after David) and high priest, he had to do so in an appropriate way. Priests came from the tribe of Levi and yet David and his house came from the tribe of Judah (Jesus’ own bloodline). So the question becomes, “how could Jesus serve as high priest if He did not come from the tribe of Levi?” The answer is that Jesus is not from that priestly line, but from an entirely different kind of priesthood—from the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek makes his appearance in Gen. 14:18 (a good deal before the priestly system of the Levis is established) as king of Salem and priest of God Most High. As both priest and ruler, this is who Jesus identifies with most in his unique office.
In comparison to what has already been said of the high priests of the Old Testament, Jesus, like his predecessors, is given glory and honor from God and is called to this office. However, unlike his predecessors, He is from an entirely different order of priesthood and serves in His role forever.
While the high priests of old were called of God through the appointment of the people, Jesus’ path to appointment was one of suffering and obedience, “During the last days of Jesus’ life on earth, He offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and He was heard because of His reverent submission” (5:7). Though some might argue that God did not hear this request, evidence that God listened to His son’s agonizing prayer immediately before He offered up Himself as a sacrifice is witnessed in His resurrection from the dead (where God, in fact, did save Jesus from death after the fact).
In the Old Testament system, the high priest at the time of sacrifice did not suffer—the sacrifice did. However, in the New Testament system, the greatest High Priest suffered as the greatest ever Sacrifice! “Son though He was, He learned obedience from what He suffered” (5:8). Jesus’ obedience in His death established a new program of salvation with Christ as the greatest High Priest and His passion as the greatest Sacrifice.
“Once made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him” (5:9). In other words, once this program was complete (Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection), eternal salvation was made available to all who believe and obey Him. While the sacrifices the Old Testament high priests only provided temporary satisfaction, Jesus, the greatest high priest, and his sacrifice in the New Testament offers eternal salvation in one offering. This renders Him and His program vastly superior to the program of old.
In order to illustrate the argument that the preacher is making, he organizes the entire passage as follows:
A. The old office of high priest (v.1)
B. The sacrifice offered by the high priest (v.1)
C. The weakness of the high priest (vv. 2-3)
D. The appointment of the high priest (v. 4)
D’. The appointment of Christ, the new priest (vv. 5-6)
C’. The Suffering of the new priest (vv. 7-8)
B’. The Sacrificial provision of the new priest (v. 9)
A’. The New office of High Priest (v.10)
One can clearly apprehend in this chiasm that in all ways, Jesus’ ministry—its origin, description, application, etc.—is superior to the Old Testament system.
You are probably wondering, “What in the world does this have to do with me? I’m not Jewish nor tempted to return to the Old Testament system in the least. Thanks for the history lesson, but this is not really applicable to me in my life.” However, once we realize why this was written in the first place, we can glean a clear message that is exceedingly relevant in our own situation. The preacher in Hebrews is again trying to convince the people of the early church, who had encountered the grace of God in Christ, not to return to an old and outdated system that was largely ineffective at helping them relate to God in a consistent and lasting way. This tendency is not lost on today’s believers who, although they have accepted Jesus’ superior gift of salvation because of His superior sacrifice and superior ministry as the greatest high priest, live as though they have to do something to incur favor with God or achieve forgiveness. This is not unlike those Jewish Christians would wanted to turn back to a sacrificial system of repeated offerings even though Jesus had, in fact, paid it all! The preacher’s encouragement is this, live in the full assurance that Jesus has accomplished everything on your behalf. Nothing you could do could ever match what he has already done. Salvation is not Jesus + works, Jesus + good character, Jesus + giving, Jesus + anything. It is Jesus. If it was any other way, the great new of the gospel would not be so great at all.
Therefore, as God directs you in your life’s journey, in whatever leg of the trip you are in, slow down today, as the writer of Hebrews does here, and ask yourself, do I really understand how wonderful it is to have Jesus as my great high priest? Am I living in the freedom of God or still trying to earn my way like the world does? Missing this turn is could lead you to, to put it mildly, and undesirable destination. Head the Word of God that is speaking to you even now, and change course if necessary before it is too late.
Thursday, October 15, 2015
A lawyer's dog, running around town unleashed, heads for a butcher shop and steals a roast. The butcher goes to the lawyer's office and asks, "if a dog running unleashed steals a piece of meat from my store, do I have a right to demand payment for the meat from the dog's owner?" The lawyer answers, "Absolutely." "Then you owe me $8.50. Your dog was loose and stole a roast from me today." The lawyer, without a word, writes the butcher a check for $8.50. The butcher, having a feeling of satisfaction, leaves. Three days later, the butcher finds a bill from the lawyer: $100 due for a consultation. Lawyers often get a bad wrap, and yet, unfortunately, the time will inevitably come when we will require the use of one for one reason or another. However, as your pastor and friend I hope that you have never been or will ever be on the receiving end of this statement, “You’re going to need a good lawyer.” No one wants to hear these words! When uttered, it is clear that you might require good representation before a judge to plead a case in your favor to escape some penalty.
Well, I’m here to tell you something that no one wants to hear, “you are going to need a good lawyer.” In fact, we all need a good lawyer—maybe not before a judge in the Roanoke courthouse building, but most certainly before God. Why? Because all of us are guilty before God of sin and have incurred a penalty as a result. Additionally, God has appointed our court date—a date that we will never know until it comes—and one thing is for sure, we are going to need good representation if we are going to get off the hook. Where can we go? Who can we call upon? Thankfully, Hebrews 4:14-16 has the answer. Let us take a close look at what it means to have Jesus represent us before God and how we ought to live in response.
WHO BELIEVERS HAVE-THE GREATEST HIGH PRIEST-4:14-15
Connected to the previous passage (Hebrews 4;12-13) by “therefore,” Hebrews 4:14-15 is contingent on a robust view of both the word of God and the Word of God as taught by the preacher. Inasmuch as the Word of God (big “W”—Jesus) by means of the word of God (little “w”—the Bible) convicts us of sin when truth penetrates our innermost parts and exposes our faults, believers and would be believers are constantly confronted with their need for a mediating Savior—someone who can appeal to God on their behalf. In the same way that a criminal needs a good lawyer, every sinner needs an even better mediator to advocate for them before the throne of God. This advocate is introduced in verses 14 as Jesus Christ—the greatest High Priest, “…Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God…” (4:14).
Ultimately, the role of the high priest was focused on representation. In the Old Testament, the High Priest was God’s called man to represent God’s people before His presence in the Holy of Holies. After a series of ritual washings, the high priest would, each and every year, bring a sacrifice into the holy of holies—where God’s presences rested in the Temple---and sprinkle the blood on the altar. This was done yearly to provide propitiation for sins committed. This image of the high priest would not have been lost on the preacher’s primarily Jewish audience. Everyone new how important it was for them to have good representation before God and how crucial this proved in their history. Like those who had been to trial before, the people of God knew how important it was to “have a good lawyer.”
However, Jesus is not just a good lawyer or just any high priest. He is the “great High Priest.” He is superior to the priests of old on several levels. First, unlike the priests of old who were only granted access before God once a year in the holy of holies, Jesus enjoys unlimited access to God in His glorious presence, having passed through “the heavens.” The perfect participle used here describes a past act with present implications. In this case, the past act is Christ’s ascension. Because Christ ascended into heaven following His completed work in the past, believers can enjoy steadfastness in the present. Second, while the high priests of old were called of God for a ministry that required washings and cleansings, Jesus is the very Son of God—holy, righteous, perfect, etc. He is a lawyer of the very best kind because He doesn’t just see the judge once in a while, but enjoys a close relationship with the judge and is related to the judge!
On these grounds, because of the highest High Priest that believers have in Jesus, the preacher encourages the church to “hold fast our confession” (4:14). The verb describes a firm and steadfast grip that is constantly applied to an object (as the verb is a present progressive). However, what is the object believers ought to hold tightly? What is this “confession”? As far as Hebrews is concerned, this confession involves the superiority of Jesus Christ as realized in His divinity (relationship to God the Father)(1:3), His revelation (the living and active Word) (1:1-2; 4:12-13), and His ministry as High Priest (2:17, 4:14-16). These are the truths that the church was encouraged to hold onto tightly. Such an encouragement, coupled with a robust view of Scripture (see 4:12-13) and a high view of Christ should help believers persevere under the pressures of this world—persecution, discouragement, etc.
Though Jesus is a superior High priest because of His “high and lifted up” status and intimate relationship with God, the preacher does not want his congregation to infer that Jesus does not still identify with human beings. Therefore, he counterbalances this exalted imagery with a reference to Jesus’ humility as witnessed in His incarnation, “for we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weakness” (4:15a). This, in fact, is yet another reason why He is a superior advocate for believers before God. Jesus is not some expensive hot-shot lawyer who does not understand the struggles believer’s face. He is one who sympathizes with His clients and, one who knows exactly what they are going through.
Some might ask, “How in the world could God made flesh possibly understand what I am going through?” The answer is found in the second part of verse 15—He is One who “has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (4:15b). While Jesus knows what it is like to sit at the right hand of God in heaven because of His divinity, He also knows what it is like to be tempted like one of us because of His incarnation. Both qualities make Him the greatest High Priest, Advocate, and Council for those who hold fast to His confession.
Just think of it. The same one who sits next to God the Father, knows what it is like to sit in the hot seat. He was tempted morally, sexually, physically, spiritually, emotionally, etc. just as we are. He knows what it is like to be on the brink of discouragement, despair, disillusionment, worry, fear, and rage. However, He never gave in! He is a high priest who requires no cleansing because, though He was given every opportunity to sin, He said “No”! Believers in Christ do not believe in a God who doesn’t understand them, know them, or have a clue about what they struggle with. On the contrary, believers in Christ have the greatest High Priest because He is in heaven, God’s Son, and excelled in every test He ever took!
WHAT BELIEVER’S HAVE-UNPRECEDENTED ACCESS-4:16
The remainder of this passage is contingent on whom believers have in the greatest High Priest as described in verses 14-15. The preacher, in light of the unique representation that Jesus provides before God says, “Therefore, let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace…”(4:16). The present tense of the encouragement given here suggests that believers ought to come before God’s presence as often as necessary. He is a judge that never tires of hearing our case! This is reminiscent of a parable that Jesus gave in Luke 18:1-8.
Luke 18:1-8 “Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, saying, “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.’ For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”
This widow illustrates how every believer ought to come before the Lord—with persistence. Not only that, but because of the believer’s relationship to Jesus, he or she should always approach God’s presence with “confidence” (παρρησίας)—courageously, boldly. Why? Because believers have been given the greatest council of all who is sure to represent His clients well every time they approach the bench. For the believer, the bench they approach when they come before God is a “throne of grace”—that is, a bench characterized by grace, not judgment, wrath, anger.
The purposes believers have in approaching the throne of grace persistently and consistently include receiving mercy and finding grace to help in time of need—(all the time in my case!). These are the gifts that God willingly bestows on His children when they approach Him, having Jesus as their Advocate. I imagine anyone would be happy to approach the bench if they knew ahead of time they would be given mercy and grace no matter how often they approached!
When one takes into consideration the context of this book, one remembers just how important this
encouragement was to those who received it. The preacher is preaching to a congregation that is suffering turmoil, persecution, pressure, and discouragement. They needed to be reminded that because Jesus has unlimited access to the Father in heaven and because they are “in Christ,” they have unlimited access to God’s grace and mercy in time of need. Therefore, they out to approach the bench of grace as often as possible with confidence.
Sure, we all have need of a lawyer because of our sin. However, for those who are “in Christ” there is no need to fear the penalty we deserve. Instead, Jesus has already taken care of that. While we deserved death and separation from God, Jesus stood in our place and said, “I’ll take this instead.” Because of this, Jesus was murdered, though perfect and innocent. However, in victory, Jesus was raised from the dead and now stands before the throne of God, pleading the case of believers. Now, we do not have to fear the wrath of God. Instead, we can expect His mercy and grace. Therefore, we should approach the throne of God often and confidently in prayer and expectation!
However, those who are not “in Christ,” who have not trusted their lives over to the council of Jesus and have instead tried to represent themselves, are at real risk of suffering the penalty of sin. These are guilty and without a good lawyer. These should fear the throne of God, for, instead of mercy and grace, they will find wrath and exactly what everyone deserves—punishment.
You need a good lawyer. In fact, we all do. Who do you have representing you?
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
I recently came across a troubling article by an Adam Erikson that began as follows,
“Since my family recently moved to the Portland area, we’ve been looking for churches to attend. Besides visiting a church, the best way to gain a feel for a church is to visit their website. Specifically, their About Us page. Since examining church websites, I’ve noticed some pretty strange beliefs out there. Many churches have a list of beliefs that are important to them. What is the first belief on many church websites? The Bible.
On one church begins its list of beliefs like this:
1. The Authority of Scripture
2. The Nature of God
3. Jesus, God’s Son
4. The Holy Spirit
6. Nature of Man (Sorry, women. You apparently don’t have nature … but if you read the description, you might decide that’s a good thing.)
7. The Role of the Church
Now, those are all important aspects of Christianity, and I don’t mean to pick on fellow Christians, but the order tells us what’s wrong with American Christianity. We have elevated the Bible above God. It’s time we stop that form of idolatry. Bibliolatry has no place in Christianity. But, unfortunately, the Bible has become another god, above the Trinity, above Jesus, above the Holy Spirit.”
Does Erikson have a point? We will soon come to learn that the answer to this is a resounding “No!” or, in true Pauline flair, “May it never be!” If anything, the church has lost its commitment to the Bible and, as a whole, runs the risk of the other extremes—i.e. biblical dilution and undermining its authority. Though it is possible to grow so enamored with the text that one neglects the truths therein, most who do this are liberal textual critics, not evangelical believers. In fact, I believe that Erikson’s problem is ultimately with authority—the authority of God’s divine Word and His divine Person, for, how do we know of the latter without the former? The two are, in fact, intimately connected, and, as we will soon learn, to have a high view of God’s written Word ultimately leads one to an even higher view of God’s Word made flesh (Jesus Christ) and God Himself.
In an effort to demonstrate how this works, let us open our Bibles to Hebrews 4:12-13 and examine two teachings concerning the Word of God as taught in Hebrews 4:12-13.
THE WORD’S UNIQUE CHARACTER-4:12
When we last left the book of Hebrews the congregation was encouraged by the preacher to remain in God’s rest. To do this, the preacher called for church body to be watchful for unbelievers masquerading as real believers and to be about the business of encouraging one another (see 3:12-19). These two actions promote a healthy fear of God and the kind of perseverance that is characteristic of the truth faith (see 4:1-10). Faith, according to the preacher, results in glory; disaster follows unbelief.
To reiterate this, the preacher calls upon his readers once more to make it their business to “attain the eternal home of the people of God and not miss it” by giving into the kind of disobedience that characterized the Israelites in the wilderness (read 4:1-10). He concludes by saying, “Therefore, let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience” (4:11).
How is one to avoid faltering as the Israelites did in the wilderness? What is given to help the believer live rightly? The answer is not a miracle, sign, or person, exclusively, but all of these wrapped up into one—the “Word of God,” “the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of souls and spirit, of both joints and marrow” (4:12). Called “a rhapsody on God’s penetrating word” (Spicq, Theological Lexicon, 3:276-78), this verse “evinces a masterful literary craftsmanship and has captivated the attention of Christians through the ages” (Guthrie, Hebrews, 155). However, this passage does not stand alone in its creative portrayal of God’s special revelation.
Eph. 6:17-“…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Rev. 1:16-“In His right hand he held seven stars, and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword;…” (see also 2:12; 19:15).
These verses reveal that God’s Word is far more than dead or outdated symbols on a page. In fact, the preacher begins to describe God’s Word as “living and active” in Hebrews 4:12. But what exactly does this mean? How does ink spilled on a scroll and then copied/translated into books live and act? The answer can be found in the nature of language.
All written and spoken language is living in active in the sense that it accomplishes several things when it is uttered/given/written. First, there is the ink on the page or the actual voicing of the words spoken that constitute the mechanics used to deliver a message (locution). However, if this was all that language could be, we might believe, contra Hebrews 4:12, that the Word of God is cold and dry. This is why it is important to understand the intention behind the words spoken or written. Words are not merely words on a page or sound waves on the eardrum. When put together in unique configurations, words produce something more than the sum of their parts—commands, promises, poetry, dialogue, etc. (illocutions). These phenomena arise from the ink on the page or voicing given that adds life to language and this, in turn, demands something of the listener or reader in response to the author/speaker’s intent. In fact, not only is language written on a page/spoken through a voice (locution) and as a result intends to do something (illocution), but there is also the effect it has on the recipient that must be taken into consideration (perlocution). Every speech act (written or spoken) contains these three components. Such is the view of proponents of what is called “speech-act theory” (see Vanhoozer, Wolterstorff, etc.).
“Audrey, do not jump on the couch!” In this speech act, the words formed by the movement of my lips and vibrations on my vocal folds constitute the literal linguistic act (locution). However, in this situation, these words come together to form a command (illocution)—something meaningful to Audrey (my daughter). When she listens to these words and responds to the command given, the intended effect is that she remain seated on the couch (perlocution).
The language of the Bible works in a similar and yet vastly superior way. Inasmuch as the Bible is the product of God, it is a perfect speech act in its original form. The original words on the original parchment scrolls are exceptional mechanisms used to give the literal words of life and salvation itself. The intentions of the authors (little “a”) and the Author (big “A”) flow from a perfect will and amazing love. The effect that this Word has on those who rightly apprehend it is of eternal proportions. The Bible is alive and presently speaking in this robust way to those who pick it up and read it. As God’s special revelation to the world and a product of His holy Character, it is the greatest speech-act of all. It contains the greatest words with the greatest message that affords the greatest implications.
Apply speech act theory to the following message-- “For ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom. 10:13). Here, the ink spilled on the page in this unique way form certain letters which, in turn form these English words (locution). However, given their source and intention, these words come together to form a promise (illocution), that, if heeded result in eternal life (perlocution). Now that is a powerful speech act!
However, the Bible as divine speech act is not only alive because of the nature of language itself, but also because the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” in the person of Jesus Christ. In many ways, God the Father’s Word in heaven (locution) came down and delivered a message to us in Jesus Christ Himself (His life, ministry, death, and resurrection understood as God’s illocution), that through the Holy Spirit’s work takes its desired effect on those who know Him and are obedient to Him (perlocution). All of these ideas support and inform what the preacher says when he utters, “The Word of God is living and active…” (4:12).
However, not only does the preacher say of God’s Word that it is living and active, he also teaches that it is “sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of souls and spirit, of both joints and marrow…” (4:12b). In other words the penetrating effect (perlocution) of God’s Word far exceeds the consequences of other more inferior messages/speech acts. While we might be changed emotionally, psychologically, or even physically by messages we hear (whether they be messages of encouragement that build us up or words of hate that tear us down), God’s Word is able to dive into the innermost depths of the soul like a sharp sword would cut into the inner part of bone. In other words, when God’s Word confronts the individual, it cuts deeper than any other message.
Evidence of the Word’s penetrating power is witnessed in the first sermon ever given. When Peter completed his homily in Acts 2 (a stirring message of conviction and judgment), the Bible says that those in the audience “were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37).
The Word of God cuts deep and while it can cut through pain to deliver a message of encouragement to instill peace (as witnessed in it many glorious promises), the image used here in Hebrews 4:12 capitalizes on the convicting power of God’s Word, that, when delivered, exposes people’s sin and wickedness. This is especially pertinent to the immediate context (remember, the preacher is trying to expose unbelief and disobedience lest the people in the church fall away or fail to enter God’s rest)
This is confirmed in the last part of verse 12, “and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12c). God’s Word, when heard or read (locution) is able to convict someone of their sin (illocution), even the hidden sins of the heart, and compel that individual to repentance and faith in God (perlocution). In this way, the Word of God is living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword.
THE WORD’S UNIQUE CAPACTIY-4:13
The preacher moves in verse 13 from a discussion on the Word’s unique character to a description of the Word’s unique capacity. It is here that the connection between the word of God (little “w”) and the Word of God (big “W”) is solidified, “and there is no creature hidden from His sight” (4:13). Though people may never see a Bible (copy of God’s word) in their life (as Bibles are not omnipresent), no one will escape the Spirit of the Incarnate Word which is in all places at all times. All will confront God’s Word in one way or another—either they are confronted by God’s Incarnate Word through the Spirit or they are confronted by God’s Incarnate Word through the Spirit AND the written word of God in the Bible. No one is immune from hearing God’s divine speech-act and no one escapes the convicting implications therein.
“…all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (4:13b). Not only is the capacity of the Word of God exhaustive in that all are accountable to it and confronted by it in one way or another, the Word of God is also thorough in that when one is confronted by it everything is exposed (externally and internally). The word translated “open” or “uncovered” normally communicates nakedness . Here, the concept applies to an individual’s complete inability to hide anything from God’s gaze. As it pertains to the preacher’s thought here in Hebrews 4, those who have not responded to God’s word in obedience are spiritually naked, vulnerable before his awesome gaze (Guthrie, Hebrews, 156). However, this image is pressed even further, especially in light of verse 12’s cutting image, when the preacher continues and says, and “laid bare to the eyes of Him…” (4:13). Instead of being just naked before God, people are also cut open before God, allowing Him to see their innermost parts. Therefore the Word of God is not just a sword, it is a scalpel.
Think of a medical examiner or an x-ray technician. These are not only able to see the surface of one’s body, they also see the insides as well, thereby obtaining a full understanding of the person’s condition. So too does the Word of God. God’s Word is able to investigate us internally and externally, thereby exposing our sinful condition and then prescribing the way to healing. “Stripped of all disguise and protection, we are utterly at the mercy of God, the Judge of all” and this we know because of His Word (Bruce, Epistle, 114).
How now shall we live in lieu of this extraordinary passage? In fear of the Lord AND His Word! God’s Word is truly awesome as it is a living organism that communicates in real time the timeless truths of God which suffer incredible implications. It is able to expose our condition and direct us to the cure that is Jesus Christ. For this reason, it should be headed, respected, and believed, not only in its particulars, but also in general. To be sure, God’s Word, as framed in this passage is an extraordinary gift from God, that, like God’s Son, divides all men into believers and unbelievers, the saved and the lost, the sheep and the goats. My prayer is that this delineation of God’s Word inspires you to fruitful study of it, rigorous meditation in it, and consistent communion because of it.
However, one should also recognize that a high view of God’s word necessarily leads to a high view of Christ—the Word made flesh. To be sure, and in agreement with Erikson, the Bible is not God, but a witness of God. However, while it is not a divine person, it is divine product. Everything that it is and stands for is perfectly realized in the Jesus—God’s greatest revelation. And yet, the discussion does not stop there either, for, in exalting Christ, God is exalted—that is the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Therefore, to be people of the Word (robustly understood) means to be the people of Christ (God made flesh) which is to be the people of God. In a unique program of condescension, God humbled Himself as a man and then humbled His message into words so that through these words we might know the God man Jesus and as a result know God.
Perhaps when a church lists the authority of Scripture first on their “about us” page, what they are really saying is that the Bible is the downbeat to a glorious finale found in and through Jesus Christ. It is the body of truths that leads to the ultimate truth. It is the most robust way to come to know the Way the Truth and the Life. It is the divinely inspired and infallible means for us to be introduced to the Beginning and the End. Having a high view of Scripture is essential to a high view of Jesus/God. Respectfully, Erikson, I question whether or not it is possible for a lower view of Scripture to result in a higher view of God. It seems instead that these two entities rise and fall together.