God has provided something better for us

“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two,they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:32–40 ESV)

Hebrews chapter 11 is known as the “Hall of Faith,” as it eloquently inspires us to press on and remain faithful.  For it was by faith that the saints of old persevered and were justified before God.  The author of Hebrews transitions from offering the details of Moses’, Abraham’s & Sarah’s faith and offers us a more sweeping view of others:  Gideon (Judges 6-8), Barak (Judges 4-5), Samson (Judges 13-16), Jephthah (Judges 11-12, 1 Samuel 12:11), David (Ruth 4, 1-2 Samuel) and Samuel (1 Samuel; 1 Chronicles 6, 9, 11, 26; 2 Chronicles 35:18) are all presented as examples of faith despite their failures that the Old Testament chronicles.  The bible never glosses over the failures of the saints because their lives are never intended to be our primary focus – God is our focus.

The focus in the second half of Hebrews 11 remains on faith; the author lists some inspiring results of faith:  conquered kingdoms, obtained promises, enforced justice, closed the mouths of lions (most likely Daniel), quenched the power of fire (most likely Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan. 2:49–3:30)), escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness (for the timid among the readers), became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight, women received back their dead (Elijah raised the son of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17–24), and Elisha raised the son of a Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:18–37)).  I can hear the sermon now:  as you exercise faith you will overcome to woes of this world!  Sometimes that is true, but then verse 36 interjects itself.

The tone of overcoming victory turns to difficult endurance and a faith that does not always result in victorious overcoming in this life.  Others were tortured (with the hope of resurrection to a better life sustaining them), mocked, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two (stoned & sawn in two represent the traditional belief of how Jeremiah & Isaiah were killed), killed by the sword; destitute, afflicted, mistreated (they went about in skins of sheep and goats was a prophets clothing) “of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:38 ESV).  They were vessels of God’s grace, which wicked humanity did not deserve.  These people only got a small glimpse (if any) of what God promised.  They were sustained by a greater, deeper hope.  A hope that God would ultimately provide a better, heavenly county (verse 16).

But God has provided something better for us – Jesus; direct access to God, new hearts that desire to know Him & obey Him, no more sacrifices, the intimacy of His Spirit.  Their story is incomplete without Jesus and our redemption through Him.  We are playing a role in God’s cosmic drama throughout the ages.  The church, established by the Son of God, is the final chapter before He restores all things to Himself.  We are not better, more enlightened, smarter or more sophisticated – we were born in the 21st century as part of God’s sovereign plan and purpose.  This is His story and He allows us to play a small part.  To God be the glory!  Regardless of where you find yourself today – whether in a place where your faith is yielding victory or whether it is just difficult and there appears to be no victory this side of heaven – find hope that God is making all things new, that He has set His saving affections upon you and that He has adopted you as a child of His.  If you find yourself in a difficult place – like Isaiah, Jeremiah or countless others – find encouragement that God is still in control and is working out His sovereign plans.

Advertisements

Where to focus our gaze

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1–2 ESV)

The author of Hebrews starts chapter 12 with “therefore,” which should always cause to look at what was previously said. In chapter 11, he expanded on how those who went before us walked in faith (trust) in God and not in their own striving, morality or abilities. In light of the fact that those who went before us did not have complete revelation of God’s redemptive plan, but leaned on faith, how much more should we? They endured incredibly difficult things – even death, sustained by a hope that something better was ahead. This “cloud of witnesses” evokes images of the faithful watching us as if in an arena. The image is of the faithful saints watching – and cheering us on – as we run this same race that they have already run.

The call is to look backwards at those who have gone before us as encouragement and then set our sights upward on Jesus and run with endurance. Our part is to root out those things which slow us down – weight & sin. Just like running with a weight is inefficient, so is trying to run this race of faith with a multi-focused mind encumbered with sin and other things. It is interesting that the author separates sin from other things, denoted by weight. It is true that sin encumbers us in our race of faith, but so do many of the morally neutral – or even morally good – things that hold too much affection in our hearts as they border on becoming objects of our worship. Things like our kids, spiritual service, marriage, hobbies or a desire for deep & meaningful relationships.

John Calvin expands on this thought as he defines weight as whatever impedes our progress in this race: “Now there are various burdens which delay and impede our spiritual course, such as the love of this present life, the pleasures of the world, the lusts of the flesh, worldly cares, riches also and honors, and other things of this kind.” This is a significant concept; apparently, there are a number of things which are not sinful that do impede our progress on this journey – unhealthy affection or focus on news, hobbies, sports, pop culture, job, worldly wealth, politics, relationships, family, church trends, and countless others. Let us see these for what they are: fleeting and temporary, meant for our enjoyment, but not as the object worthy of our full weight of worship. Matthew Henry says it like this: “Every weight, that is, all inordinate affection and concern for the body, and the present life and world. Inordinate care for the present life, or fondness for it, is a dead weight upon the soul, that pulls it down when it should ascend upwards, and pulls it back when it should press forward; it makes duty and difficulties harder and heavier than they would be.” This is a continued call to remain faithful, to endure hardship, to persevere – a common theme in Hebrews.

How do we do this? We look to Jesus. This is not some abstract, ethereal instruction – or some trite command. No, this is indeed the full weight of the gospel. He is the FOUNDER and PERFECTER of our faith. Faith starts and ends with God. The author of the letter to the Hebrews does not stop there: the secret to jettisoning all that impedes our progress on this journey of faith is found in a deeper relationship with Jesus – it is in an ever increasing understanding of who God is, what He has done on our behalf and a recognition that we deserve nothing from Him – except His just wrath. And let us not forget what motivated the risen Christ – JOY. What!? What joy is there in bearing the just wrath of the Almighty on behalf of the elect – who rarely, if ever, fully appreciate the sacrifice offered on their behalf? The joy that drove Jesus was a redeemed people and a redeemed creation that would glorify God as originally designed. This is a foretaste of God making all things new. This joy drove Him to endure the horrific suffering, spiritual pain, and humiliation doled out to Him on the cross. But let us never forget that He overcame – that the grave could not hold him – that He now is seated on the throne in heaven, where He rules and reigns. Let His joy become our Joy. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus and remember what He endured on our behalf and strive to see & appreciate how a holy, sovereign, just God would make a way for a rebellious, treasonous and ungrateful people; just tasting this will undoubtedly produce worship – and endurance to run the race.

Battling Bitterness with the Gospel of Grace

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:14–15 ESV)

This section comes on the heels of the section of scripture (Hebrews 12:3-13) that encourages the reader to endure their difficult circumstances and to view them as God’s loving, fatherly discipline.  He calls them (and us) to strive or work towards being peaceful with others and toward holiness – without which no one will see God.  We know that we are positionally holy because of the perfect life and atoning death of Jesus, but we are also called to live holy lives – to see our outside begin to match what He is doing inside.  The community aspect of our faith comes in to focus in verse 15, as we are called to make sure that no one in the community of faith fails to obtain the grace of God – that is everyone in our community understands and embraces the grace that God extends to the elect.  We are called to preach and press the gospel constantly in our lives and in our churches.

“See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;” (Hebrews 12:15 ESV).  Press the gospel and grace, bathe yourself and your community in it and make sure that there is no “root of bitterness” among you.  This is the same Greek phrase that the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses in Deuteronomy 29:18:  “Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from the LORD our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit,” (Deuteronomy 29:18 ESV).  When our heart turns away from God and looks to created things as the object of its worship, bitterness is the common byproduct.  Why?  Because we feel entitled to goodness and blessing and we aren’t getting what we think is due us.  Bitterness indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of grace and it is contagious in a community of faith.  When you find yourself struggling with anger or bitterness, the answer is not “just stop it,” or “try harder.”  The answer is to beg God to help you with your unbelief (Mark 9:24) and to help you to see His spectacular grace (undeserved approval) afforded to you, the chief of all sinners.  Grace is not owed to us, but is freely given in the person of Jesus.

Pursue peace and holiness as a community; in order to do this we must keep the gospel of God’s grace as the central component in our minds or else unbelief & idolatry can sneak in and produce bitterness in our lives and in our communities of faith.

By Faith…

The bible describes two types of belief:  one might look right on the outside, but lacks the power to save or transform, but the other drives us to an abiding walk with the God of the universe.  Having a mere mental assent to Jesus and the gospel is powerless to save or transform (James 2:9).  Unfortunately, our churches seem to be full of those who have “prayed a prayer,” walked an aisle, serve diligently, know & have shared the gospel, pray and attend church regularly, but their belief only resides in their heads and has no real root in their hearts.  Jesus addresses this phenomenon in Matthew 7:23 when people will come before Him and put up their impressive (in our eyes) resumes of the works that they have done in Jesus name.  Jesus response?  Depart from me, I never knew you.  Too many church goers have little regard for God, His glory and have no true, sustained desire to follow Him, walk with Him or know Him; we want His blessings, benevolence and good gifts (i.e. good marriages, successful careers, moral children, influence or even ministry significance or success), but really have no desire for God Himself (Romans 1:25).  Far too many have what Paul describes as “an appearance of godliness, but they deny its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).  Morality and obedience to a form of external religiosity are not the primary indicators of true belief.

Getting belief from our head to our heart is an impossible task for men.  God must do this, God must regenerate the heart so that our desires and affections begin to change.  The bible calls this type of transforming belief faith.  The bible defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV), and says that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV).  Faith is a settled confidence & trust that the things that have been promised by God will actually come to pass – especially that Jesus has atoned for our sins and that we no longer need to strive in an attempt to appease God or win His favor.  This faith is rooted in God, who is sovereign, majestic, holy and true – He will bring to pass everything that He has promised to do.  Our faith is in God and who He is, not in the blessings of God.  Yes, we long for heaven, for all things to be made new, but ultimately our faith is in God.  As faith changes us on the inside, it moves us to obedience on the outside.

So what does faith look like on the ground; what does it look like in real life?  Hebrews 11 gives us examples of those who exercised trust in God.  With names like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Moses Jacob, Joseph, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David & Samuel, it is nearly always the goto place in scripture when it comes to faith.  Abraham, the father of faith, was called by God to exercise faith and abandon all sources of identity & security and trust & rely completely on God for his provision, protection & identity (Hebrews 11:8-10).  Faith always yields obedience, but our white knuckled obedience never produces faith.

We often times think that the bible gives us these great people who have gone before us, as examples for us to follow.  That is partially true, but the bible does not tell us these people’s story as a means for us to mimic their lives, but, rather, to reveal the faithfulness of God.  God is in focus in this passage, not Abraham or Sarah or David.  Yes, they exercised faith in God, however, it is a good thing that God’s plans, actions and benevolence are not predicated on our belief & obedience; His sovereign will comes to pass regardless of our obedience.  The bible does not gloss over people’s failures and stumblings.  Look at Abraham’s life:

  • God calls Abram to be a great nation (Genesis 12)
  • Abraham lies to Pharaoh about Sarah being his sister (Genesis 12:10-20)
  • Abraham struggles about being childless, but believes God and this simple belief/trust/faith was credited to Him as righteousness.  Genesis 15:6.  It is important to note that God views Abraham as righteous based upon His trusting God, not on His obedience to God.
  • Abraham & Sarah attempt to fulfill the promise on their own by Abraham having sex with Hagar and getting her pregnant (Genesis 16).
  • God gives the covenant of circumcision after Abraham was declared righteous before God (Genesis 17).
  • God promises the birth of Isaac, but Sarah doubts God ( Genesis 17-18, 18:9-15)
  • Abraham again pretends that Sarah is not his wife to save his own skin with Ablimilech (Genesis 20)

Our battle, like Abraham & Sarah, is to believe the seemingly impossible promises of God that are rooted in His good, sovereign and transcendent nature.  Abraham & Sarah both struggled with believing that God was able to do what He said He would do.  Abraham lied about Sarah being His wife (twice!) and they attempted to “help” God by trying to fulfill the promise on their own with Hagar.  Let us, with Abraham, Sarah, David and those who have gone before us, battle for belief that this great God of ours is indeed faithful to what He has promised.  Let us go to the scriptures, swim in books and talk to others in such a way that our faith in our sovereign Creator is bolstered and our affections for Him are stirred up.  This is the work that we must be about, it is a work of battling unbelief and developing a deeper faith that draws near to believing that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6 ESV).  Note that it tells us that we primarily should draw near to him and seek him; it does not say to do great things for Him as if God needs us to accomplish anything.  God is not reliant upon us, but He allows to play a part in His grand redemptive plan.  Let us all draw near to Him and believe that He exists and will reward us as we seek Him!

Let us confidently draw near to God

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:19–25 ESV)
“For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Hebrews 10:34 ESV)

Since we’re forgiven, the alter is closed, and our sacrifices are no longer accepted,

  • Let us confidently draw near to God because of the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, the great high priest.  His sacrifice ripped the veil (signifying separation from God; Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45), in two.  v19-22
  • Let us draw near because of Jesus’ atoning work that cleanses the inner parts of us and creates hearts that long to worship rightly! v19-22
  • Let us hold fast to this truth, and not waiver.  Our battle is one of belief. v23
  • Let us consider how to stir up (provoke) one another up to love and good deeds. v24.  This is not a solo endeavor, but a community effort – as we seek to meet together to encourage, challenge and bolster belief, we provoke one another to love and service.
  • Let us remember that this is not our home – a better, eternal, perfect inheritance is in store for those who believeThis hope is the fuel for joy.  v34
  • Let us remember that our right standing before God has nothing to do with us, our performance or progress, but solely on the perfectly lived life and sacrificial death of Jesus.  LET US LIVE BY FAITH (trust in Another).  v38.

In light of this, endure, persevere, stay faithful, make your salvation sure, stick with it, do not lose hope – for God Himself will keep you.  “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” (Hebrews 10:39 ESV)