Hebrews 7

Read Hebrews 7.

Unless you have a Roman Catholic background, priests have probably not occupied much of your attention during your life.

But if you were Jewish, especially during the time when the New Testament was written, priests were very important to your religious practice. If you loved God, loved the temple, or thought the life of priests was something to be envied, you were out of luck if you weren’t from the tribe of Levi. The only people who could serve the Lord as priests were those who were born into priestly families, that is families from the Levite tribe.

The author of Hebrews, however, wanted to point out that there were different kind of priesthoods. Yes, there was the priesthood of Aaron and his descendants, but before Aaron came along there were other men who served as priests. One of them, Melchizedek, is brought up in this passage and is compared to Christ throughout this chapter. By the end of the chapter, however, Melchizedek is forgotten and Christ is exalted as the greatest priest of all for three reasons:

  • First, unlike any other priest, Jesus lives forever so his priesthood is likewise permanent (v. 24). In other words, Christ’s priesthood is superior because it transcends death. The result of his permanent priesthood is his ability to save us completely. Although we sin with astonishing regularity, we do not need to worry that someday we’ll sin but there will be no one to secure God’s forgiveness for us because he is dead. Instead, we can be confident that when we come to God through Christ, our salvation is eternally secure because Christ “always lives to intercede” for us (v. 25). Christ is a superior priest because his priesthood will never suffer a gap caused by death.
  • Second, Christ’s priesthood transcends disqualification. Because of who Jesus was—God in the flesh—he will never be disqualified from saving us because of his own sin. This makes his priesthood superior to anyone else’s because every other priest had to atone for his own sin before he could ask God to do anything about our sin (vv. 26-27a). 
  • Third, Christ’s priesthood transcends disappearance. Other priests had to keep offering sacrifices because the sacrifices didn’t really atone for anything. The forgiveness they secured was on credit, waiting by faith for Christ’s death to really pay for them. In order to teach his people that animal sacrifices were not a permanent solution, God ordered that the sacrifices be offered daily. In other words, their power to forgive disappeared almost immediately. Christ’s sacrifice, since he was offering himself instead of an animal, did not disappear for according to verse 27b: “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” 

You may not think of priests very often, but you need a faithful one who is pleading with God, based on his perfect sacrifice, for your sins constantly. And Christ met our need (v. 26a) in every way because, unlike any other priest, Christ cannot die, will not disqualify himself by sinning, and won’t see the value of his sacrifice disappear. Yesterday’s devotional referenced the doctrine eternal security but today’s explains why we are secure. Not only is Christ’s sacrifice perfect and potent enough to save us forever, he advocates for us forever as our perfect priest.

Hebrews 6

Read Hebrews 6.

The Bible clearly teaches that true salvation can never be lost (John 10:27-30). But Hebrews 6 presents a significant challenge because it seems to describe a genuine Christian who somehow became unsaved.

Verses 4-5 describe the person in question in not merely as one who “believes” in Christ. That would be easier to handle because we know that there are different kinds of “belief” (see James 2:19). But our passage, Hebrews 6:4-5 seems to go overboard to describe someone who has received the gift of new life from God. This person has “been enlightened” has “tasted the heavenly gift” has “shared in the Holy Spirit” has “tasted the goodness of the word of God” and even has tasted “the powers of the coming age” (vv. 4-5). The word “tasted,” commentators point out, doesn’t just mean “sampled” like a child might taste, then refuse his vegetables, because the author of Hebrews used the same word in Hebrews 2:9 to tell us that Christ would “taste death for everyone.” So the description here is not of someone who merely professes salvation; this person has deeply experienced Christ in multiple meaningful ways.

Yet, the author of Hebrews said, “It is impossible if someone experiences all this and falls away to be brought back to repentance.” Falling away must mean a departure from the Christian faith in some way because the end of verse 6 says they “are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” In other words, they have joined the ranks of those who rejected and crucified Christ originally. So what do we make of this passage?

Clearly the person described in this passage has been associated with the Christian community that we call the church for some time. He has seen God do things and heard God’s truth. But the passage does not say that he put his faith in Christ. It does imply that he expressed some form of repentance for verse 6 says that his repentance cannot be “brought back.”

There have been many attempts to explain this passage and this devotional is not the best place to weed through them all. What I would say about this passage is the following:

First, “falling away” does not seem to mean a cooling toward Christ or a period of wandering or questioning one’s faith. It seems to be more deliberate and intentional that that because verse 6 says a person like this is “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” This is a public, explicit denial of Jesus, a Judas-like departure where the person in question joins the ranks of those who consciously chose to put Jesus to death. So someone who has moments of weak faith does not seem to be in the same category. Though Peter denied Christ three times, he did not join those who were crying “crucify him” so this seems to be a meaningful difference.

Second, what else does the passage say about this person? Verses 7-8 use the metaphor of farm land to describe why this person can’t be restored. The reason is that he or she received all of this goodness from God but never produced a crop; instead, all they produced was “thorns and thistles.” This indicates that, although they had all the blessings of the Christian faith showered on them (vv. 4-5), it landed on a hard heart that never produced the evidence of true faith that the Bible says always accompanies salvation. 

Third, speaking of what “accompanies salvation,” the author of Hebrews in verse 9 contrasts his readers with this person who falls away. And, what is the difference between them in verse 9? The readers show lives that evidence “the things that have to do with salvation.” They are productive for Christ; verse 10 specifies how: “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.”

So this passage is a warning that tells us not to judge anyone’s Christianity based on their association with the church for a long time or even their profession of repentance. Those are necessary for salvation, but they are not proof of salvation because there can be false professions and self-deceived people.

Instead, the Bible always commends a productive, enduring faith. Verse 11 demonstrates the importance of this when it says, “We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized.” So, while we do believe in what is called “eternal security,” a better way to describe this aspect of our doctrine is the “perseverance of the saints.” Our eternal security, like every aspect of our salvation, is totally dependent on the grace of God. But the genuine gift of God in salvation is productive—it shows itself in a person’s life by how that person responds to the truth.

When someone receives all of God’s gracious gifts and becomes more like Christ, showing their love for Christ by working for him and helping his people (again, verse 10), that person is demonstrating the things that accompany salvation. When someone receives the gracious gifts of God but continues to produce more “thorns and thistles” of sinful patterns (v. 8) and ultimately rejects Christ and campaigns for his disgrace (v. 6b), that person is hopelessly lost.

So, cultivate your faith! Respond to God’s word and let it produce a holy life, one that is growing in the fruit of the Spirit and the love of God’s people. The one who believes in Jesus and grows in him to the end will be saved—not because you did something to earn salvation but because you have genuinely be born into new life that has changed your life more and more to the glory of God.

Hebrews 5

Read Hebrews 5.

One of the struggles I’ve had as a Christian is the feeling that God hasn’t listened to my prayers.

I know that God hears and knows everything, so the problem isn’t that my prayer wasn’t heard. The problem is that, although God hears our prayers, he often seems not to answer.

When you speak to someone and they ignore you, it hurts. It feels like you don’t matter to that person. It feels like he or she can’t be bothered with your issues and problems. It feels like that person doesn’t care.

It feels about the same way to me when God doesn’t answer my prayers. Does he not care? Did I offend him somehow with my request? Is there something in my life that he wants me to address first?

Who knows….?

Jesus can relate.

Verses 7-9 describe Jesus’s prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. It says that he prayed “with fervent cries and tears” (v. 7). His goal in these prayers was to be saved from death (v. 7b).

Yet he did die. He was betrayed by Judas, arrested by his enemies, denied by Peter and forsaken by the other apostles, tried and crucified. God was able to save him from death but he did not. It seems like an unanswered prayer.

Yet verse 8 says, “…he was heard.”

He was?

How? In what way was Jesus “heard”?

The answer is given in verse 8, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” In other words, Jesus learned what it meant to be told, “No.” He prayed fervently and emotionally but his request was not in God’s will. He knew that, already, which is why he also prayed, “not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).

Jesus prayed fervently and emotionally but he also prayed submissively. Jesus asked God for what he–Jesus–wanted but he learned what it meant to submit to what God wanted instead.

Have you prayed about something and felt like it was a waste of time and breath? God’s answer may still be yes but not now or it may be a hard “No.” Understand, though, that it is not because God does not care for you. It is because his will is better than your will.

Trust in that. Keep praying, but remember to pray submissively.

Hebrews 4

Read Hebrews 4.

Jesus had it easy, right? Sure, he had to contend with the limitations of human nature during his days on earth. But since he was God he did not have to worry about being “hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (3:13). He knew what a liar Satan is and how sin offers us pleasure that it cannot ultimately deliver, at least not for long. So it was easy for him to live the faithful life that chapter 3 talked about, right?

At least, it was easier for him than it is for us, it seems. So the statement here in 4:15 that our high priest “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” feels a bit hollow, yes?

Well…, think about it this way: imagine you are running a marathon-26.2 miles. Some people drop out after a mile, some after five miles, some quit 10 miles in, and so on. You’ve done some training and are in the best shape of your life, but from mile 10 onward your legs are just screaming to you, “Stop it!”

You have the ability to quit at any time.

You can drop out of the race anywhere.

So who feels punishment of running the most, the person who completes the entire race or the one who drops out after a mile? Who feels the discomfort of high winds the most, the runner who quits at mile 5 or the one who finishes the race? What about the hot sun? Who gets burned the worst, the runner who quits after the finish line or the one who quits at mile 15? Whose foot blisters hurt the most? Who suffers most from the internal arguments that your brain engages in to try to get you to quit?

All of these problems are felt most acutely by the runner who completes the race. Whether he or she is in better shape than you or not, the toll of the race is felt most fully by the one who completes it.

Similarly, when I was in seminary my systematic theology professor said that only the one who withstands temptation completely knows the full force of it. If you give into temptation before the temptation goes away, you haven’t experienced the full intensity of it.

So Jesus, the “one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (v. 15b) is able to “empathize with our weaknesses” (v. 15a) fully because he successfully endured every scheme the devil had to throw at him.

Sure Jesus had a perfect nature but so did Adam and he quit after the first half mile. Jesus, however, endured every temptation obediently. He finished the race so he felt the difficulty of it more than anyone else who has ever lived.

This is why the author of Hebrews urges us to “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (v. 16).

You may be tempted to throw your faith away (v. 14c) at some point in your life; in fact, you probably will be tempted to do that somewhere along the way.

But the best thing you can do when you feel tempted to sin in any way is to go to Jesus in prayer. Many of our failures to live a holy life by resisting temptation are due to relying completely on ourselves and our willpower instead of coming to Christ for the mercy and grace he offers. So, go to him in prayer when your faith is weak and your desire to sin is strong.

He’s finished the marathon, he knows what it is like, and he will help you if you ask him for it.

Hebrews 3

Today’s reading is Hebrews 3.

An observant Jewish person will have deep reverence for some of the heroes of what we call the Old Testament. I’m thinking here of people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Samuel, David, and others.

Of course, Moses would be on that list, too. As the man God used to deliver Israel from Egypt and through whom God gave the Law, Moses is heroic to all of God’s people, whether Jewish or Gentile. And the Jewish believers who read this letter called Hebrews first certainly had a strong respect, even reverence, for Moses.

There is nothing wrong with having a faith-hero and Moses is a good one to have in many ways. A problem develops, though, when a hero of the faith becomes more real to us than Jesus himself is. Despite all his virtues, Moses was merely a man.

The author of Hebrews wants his readers to love Jesus more than they love Moses. He urged them in verse 1, then, to “fix your thoughts on Jesus.” Every good quality that Moses had, such as his faithfulness to God’s work (v. 2), Jesus has in greater abundance. If the Jewish Christians held Moses in greater esteem than they held Jesus, then they were admiring the house more than the ingenuity of the builder (vv. 3-6). If these believers turned away from Jesus to return to a Christ-less form of Judaism (vv. 6-19), then they would miss the eternal promised land just as the Jewish people who followed Moses out of Egypt missed the Canaanite promised land.

You probably don’t think about Moses more than Jesus. That was a greater temptation for Jewish audience of Hebrews than it is for us.

But you might be tempted to follow some other Christian leader more closely than you do Jesus. If there is a pastor or author or teacher or Christian parent who contributed powerfully to your conversion, growth, and discipleship, you might follow that person more closely than you follow Jesus.

That’s dangerous because even godly people are still human. They can fall or just disappoint you.

Jesus never will.

Is there someone you love and follow so closely that everything he or she says or does is, to you, what a Christian must say or do? Are you in danger–or guilty–of respecting the house more than the builder (v. 3)?

That is a subtle but real form of idolatry. Love your mentors and appreciate all that they’ve done for you in Christ. But follow Jesus and worship him alone. He’s the only one worth is and the only who can get you safely to God’s eternal promised land.

Hebrews 2

Today, read Hebrews 2.

Yesterday’s reading in chapter 1 emphasized to us that Christ is superior to angels. Like, really superior–he’s the Son, they are just servant-messengers.

That does not mean, however, that angels are unimportant. Far from it; the end of chapter 1 said they are “ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation” (1:14). Today’s reading in chapter 2 picked up on that truth and told us to be careful not to drift away from Christ. Verse 2 of chapter 2 told us why we should be careful not to drift away: Angels may not be as great as Jesus, but look at the kind of judgment people faced when they ignored the message angels brought. [Think here of Sodom and Gomorrah.] So verse 3 told us, if God punished people who disobeyed the message of angels, what will he do to those who ignored the salvation that Jesus taught us about? Right; he’ll punish us with even greater severity.

Verses 3b-4 told us that the message Jesus taught was also validated by “those who heard him” (aka, the Apostles) and “signs, wonders, and various miracles and gift of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the gospel is not a made-up idea and the threat of punishment for ignoring the gospel is not empty. Instead, God provided plenty of proof that Jesus’ message was valid; that proof consisted of the eyewitnesses of his life and teaching and the miracles Jesus did to authenticate his message.

Beyond the threat of punishment, though, there is great blessing for those who do believe the gospel and follow Jesus Christ. Verses 5-8 tells us that God is going to make rulers in the world to come out of those who believe the gospel in this world. Although it hasn’t happened yet, Jesus provides the evidence that God will bless us. This evidence is described in verse 9; Jesus was humiliated to death on our behalf, but now has been raised to glory and honor.

Speaking of Christ’s humiliation, the author of Hebrews wants us to know that everything Jesus suffered was to bring us into God’s family. And, despite our sins and rebellion against God, “Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (v. 11). His willingness to call us his brothers and sisters stems not from anything we did to become worthy; it comes from his atonement for us on the cross (v. 9, 14, 17-18).

So don’t turn away from Jesus. Even if the cost becomes high and we experience persecution for Christ, don’t turn away from him. Turning away from him means eternal punishment but trusting him means enjoying the acceptance and fellowship of being Christ’s family as well as the promise that we will reign with him in his kingdom. It is true that following Christ can be painful and costly in this life but that cost is so temporary and so cheap compared to what Christ did to redeem us and compared to all that he offers us in him.

So don’t be discouraged today if your faith costs you something in this life. Instead, let that cost strengthen your faith in Jesus because of the promises he’s made to us.

Hebrews 1

Read Hebrews 1. [Note: the schedule I put together for reading through the New Testament moves around so that there is some variety in our readings. That’s why we’re not starting Mark today even though we finished Matthew yesterday.]

One of the challenges to our faith comes in the form of “pluralism”–the idea that every religion leads to the one and only God. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), so we believe that Christianity is the exclusive way to God.

That’s not a popular idea, as you know. Even Christians, at times, have speculated that God might save people outside of Christianity in nations or tribes where there is no Christian witness.

Hebrews 1 provides some important information that explains why pluralism is wrong. It is true that God has spoken throughout human history “in various ways” (v. 1). The writer of Hebrews, though, wants us to know that “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (v. 2a).

Christ, the Son of God, is uniquely qualified to reveal God to us because he “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being,” Being God himself, Jesus could reveal God to us as no other person or angel (vv. 5-14) ever could.

Furthermore, Christ has “provided purification for sins” (v. 3), something that no other religion, revelation, or spirit being can do.

It is impossible, then, for any other religion to save someone or reveal God to anyone because there is only one God and Christ is the only one capable of revealing him and reconciling us with him.

Despite the pressures we feel from pluralism, we must maintain our conviction that Christ is the only way to God. If we give up (or just get careless) about this truth, it will weaken every conviction we have as Christians and kill our motivation to spread the gospel message.