Sunday Sermon Notes: January 16, 2022

Ephesians 2:1-10

Beginning here in chapter two, Paul reminds us of how we have been made alive in Christ. It’s a funny thing, but I nearly added the word “again” to that sentence, but Paul’s point is not that we are now “alive again, rather he is making the case that we have never been “alive” before. How could we have been alive when we were merely following the lead of the one who is in opposition to the One who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life”?

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. (v. 3)

Have you ever watched what dogs do? OK, maybe this isn’t the most tactful comparison, but when we were not following Jesus Christ, we were a bit like a dog, following our noses to whatever feels good and then doing it with no thought of consequences; a dog just doesn’t know any better, but a man does. Ah yes, that’s where the “wrath” comes in.

Notice the contrast in verses 4 ff. In Christ, we have been lifted up from that old life with its ways to the heavenly realms, by grace through faith. Paul makes it very clear in vv. 8-9 that this “lifting up” in life has nothing do with any works on our parts, nor does it have anything to do with our great abilities, so no one can boast of their accomplishment of salvation. 

After making these glorious points Paul throws us a bit of a curve in verse 10: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” You might wonder, as many have before, how “works” found its way back into the picture here…

We cannot work to earn our salvation; it just isn’t possible. Yet now that we have received our salvation by grace through faith, God has work for us to do in His Kingdom, namely sharing its awesome blessings with others, just as Jesus did. I can testify, no doubt along with many of you, that entering relationship with our Lord is a wonderful thing, an experience that is life-changing as a matter of fact, but serving Him in His Kingdom work is even better.

 

Ephesians 2:11-22

Jesus brought the two groups together through His death on the cross in which He bore the sins of all in His own body, putting their sins, along with the very Law itself to death. After that, there is no more hostility between Jew and Gentile, for all who follow Christ are members of one Body; this is the theological truth. It was not, however, the practical truth. Paul knew only too well of the hostility that so many Jews still had for Gentile Christians… even within the church, and I have little doubt that there were some hard feelings among the Gentile believers as well. In the centuries that have followed, this has, sadly, remained the case in many places, not only between Jew and Gentile, but between rich and poor, black and white, aristocrat and common, social divisions that carry into the Body of Christ. Yet we must be reminded that secular cultural social divisions have no place whatsoever within the Body of Christ, for there is no Jew and no Gentile, there is no rich or poor, aristocrat or common, black or white… or any other social distinction in the Body of Christ, for in Him we are one people, bound together by the bonds of His love.

Of course, all too often, sin remains in our midst, as we are dwelling in a fallen world.

 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Ephesians 2:19-22

Thus, Paul states the eternal reality that is the church, the reality as God Himself sees reality. Now, with that eternal reality set before us, let’s consider whether or not we might carry forward our own earthly notions of “proper” social distinctions, and ask ourselves if this is pleasing in God’s sight. Take your time, consider carefully…

As you consider, consider an example from history. After the Civil War in the U. S., slaves in the American South were emancipated. Slave owners, by and large, had encouraged their slaves to be Christians, and now those slaves were free, churches were established outside of the plantations with both black and white congregations, but of course they were normally segregated, as were most other things in that society. The writings from that and succeeding generations left behind have some very creative justifications for this, and for a hundred years it continued, and even today the trend remains in many places. So that begs another question, don’t you think?

What sort of testimony for the Gospel would we create (or have created) if we would live the gospel of Jesus Christ, rather than just talk about it, and actually, really and truthfully treat one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, even if it means incurring the wrath of the rest of the community?

Yes, it is surely something to think about… and possibly something to act upon.

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Sunday Sermon Notes: January 9, 2022

To a large degree, chapter one is an introduction to the letter. In the first two verses, Paul identifies himself and addresses his recipients in his usual style, and then he jumps into his introduction beginning in verse 3.

These verses can be summed up as words of praise and thanksgiving, words that are difficult to read without feeling the passion and excitement that Paul and his recipients must have felt; whatever you do, don’t take them for granted:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (v. 3)

Have you ever really reflected on this verse?  Read it again slowly and let it sink in…

This is one of those “wow” moments!

 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

Ephesians 1:4-10

In these verses, Paul gives us a thumbnail sketch of the letter; you can see our redemption all though the passage. You can also detect the purpose for this great salvation in the last two verses, for God’s grace came for a purpose that goes all the way back to Genesis, the purpose for which He created us in the first place. Even though things went crossways in the garden when Adam and Eve sinned, God desires to bring all things back together under the banner of Jesus Christ, and for this reason He saw fit to devise a plan of redemption for as many as will respond, a plan for which the elect are predestined.

I must point out here that many good Christians have been willing to make mischief with the concept of selection and predestination, usually putting things together in a way that results in their having been predestined, and most of the rest of us not. Naturally, we aren’t going to venture into divisive mischief here. Paul, it seems to me, is talking here about all of those who have responded to God’s grace, for are we not “predestined” to great things in Christ? Sadly however, just as Adam and Eve were predestined to live forever in perfect harmony with God… and then chose to threw it all away, many in the here and now choose not to accept God’s free gift.

At any rate, I think that this glorious passage is best left for each to reflect upon, after all what could I possibly add to these words? No, they are best left to our individual worship and prayer time, for they will fill your day with glory and thanksgiving.

 

 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

Ephesians 1:11-14

It seems to me that Paul removes most of the latter-day confusion on the predestination business when he tells his readers that we “also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation…” (v. 13)

The remainder of verse 13 and then on through verse 14 are simply amazing, telling us that we have been sealed as His followers with a seal comprised of the gift of the Holy Spirit “who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance …” I’m not sure why this isn’t taught more than it is, and taught just like Paul lays it out here. The Holy Spirit as a seal, a guarantee; think about that.

All of us have those moments when we wonder what it is that we are up to with all of this Jesus stuff… am I on the right track? Maybe I’m crazy! Yet even in those darker moments, we have God’s seal, His guarantee, the Holy Spirit within us, rustling around in the back of our minds saying, “Hey, settle down, it’s going to be okay.”

Will we listen to Him?

We are God’s possession, bought at a very high price by the blood of Jesus, and we have an inheritance coming; eternity in His Kingdom.

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Weekly Bible Study Notes: January 5, 2022

Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Hebrews 13:1-3

Chapter 13 is largely made up of exhortations, and from these, we can fill in any blanks we might have in our understanding of chapter 12.  Notice how it begins: “Keep on loving…”  As we saw at the end of the last chapter, this is really what the book is trying to teach us, to keep on doing the things we are supposed to do as Christians, no matter what happens in this life.  Obviously, this should have had a powerful impact on the original recipients of the letter who were having such a rough time in Rome, but let’s not think it doesn’t apply in our time as well.  Loving one another is one of the commands of Jesus that is repeated over and over again in the New Testament, and frankly it deserves more than lip service from us.

Showing hospitality to strangers is another common theme in the New Testament; have you ever wondered about it?  Does it mean showing hospitality to dangerous persons on the run from the police? Does it mean only for other believers?  Different people are led in different ways here… and for the record, I wouldn’t advise harboring fugitives from the law… I can only suggest that we all follow the Lord’s leading.  Some, especially those who have the spiritual gift of hospitality, will be led more than others. Certainly, however, those who habitually refuse hospitality might not seem like people who are sharing God’s love very freely.

Taking this verse in a broader cultural context sheds a better light on its meaning.  In that context, it would seem most likely that the author is referring to people who are believers, such as those sent from another church congregation. A travelling preacher or messengers might qualify more than just anyone who looks lost…

Finally, those in prison. I doubt the author is talking about random thieves and violent criminals. It seems more likely to me that he is referring to people being held in prison for their faith, as were many at the time of his writing. This would fit more clearly into the first verse and its injunction to keep on loving one another.

Whatever our personal views may be on these topics it is clear that these three verses are all about sharing the love of Christ with others.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,

“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence,

“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?”
Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:4-8

The Hebrews author continues to wind up his letter to Rome with exhortations, and at first glance this selection seems a little random, almost out of context, in fact.  We’ve been going through the amazing reality of the New Covenant, sweeping through redemption history, coming into the very presence of God… in a context of remaining faithful to the end, even through terrible persecution; even unto death.  Then the author suddenly begins to tell us to respect marriage, be pure, not to love money and to respect our leaders in the faith.  Circle the piece in the picture that doesn’t belong…

But don’t be too hasty!

You could say that these things are mentioned to remind the recipients not to slip into sin, and who could argue with that?  Yet it still doesn’t quite fit in context, does it?  Yes, yes, not slipping into sin is the correct Sunday school answer, but it hardly gets to the point; Sunday school answers usually don’t get to the point.

Remain faithful to the end, even unto death.  Faithful is a covenant term meaning to keep covenant.  Adultery is a violation of the marriage covenant. Have you ever known (or been) someone who is involved in an extra marital affair? These things seem to require a web of deceit and deception to keep them going, and there seems to be a certain drive to keep them going.  When the guilty party is found out, there is great carnage in their homes, relationships and in their lives in general. These things take a lot of work and attention, and I can say with great confidence that they do not promote or advance anybody’s relationship with Jesus Christ.  Sexual immorality tends to have the same kinds of attributes even if there is no marital issue involved.  How about the love of money and things?  While this may not always require secrecy, it does require attention and effort; a great deal of it, actually. Does it enhance one’s relationship with our Lord?  Hardly!

The author has been teaching us not to neglect our covenant relationship he has been encouraging us to remain faithful. Sexual immorality of whatever kind and the love of money are things that can become so all-encompassing in a person’s life that they can easily cause one to slip away from Christ, their faith and even to “fall away” entirely; thus, these are not random exhortations at all. The quotations from Deuteronomy 31 and Psalm 118 take the exhortation to the next step, for they remind us that in Christ, we have the help we need to stand firm in our faith, to remain faithful and to persevere. Even the mention of our leaders who stand tall in their faith to teach, encourage and exemplify what it is to live in Christ is there to give us encouragement.  Leaders, this should also remind you of your responsibility to emulate Jesus Christ in everything that you do and say.

As we pause here to reflect, can you see how this all fits together?  It is as though the author is telling us to keep our eyes on Jesus, not to be drawn off track by the temptations of this world, but to persevere through any kind of trial, whether it is a trial of persecution or a trial of temptation so that we can remain faithful to the end. What he is not really doing here is citing mere “violations”, for he is going much deeper than that. He is asking us to consider our innermost priorities, just as Jesus taught in His Sermon on the Mount.

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

Hebrews 13:9-10

As he continues in his exhortations, the Hebrews author now moves into the area of “strange teachings.” This follows from his remarks in verses 7-8 in which he told us to “remember” our leaders who “spoke the word of God to you.” Strange teachings seem to refer to teachings that are at variance with the Truth, that are at variance to the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Very clearly, any teaching that re-imposes the Old Covenant Law onto the New Covenant would count as “strange” indeed. He continues by pointing out that it is better for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, rather than by eating ceremonial foods which are of “no benefit.”  In trying to follow this, we might keep in mind that Jesus, the Living Word came to us “full of grace and truth.”  He didn’t bring us ceremonial regulations like those contained in the Old Covenant, He brought “grace and truth.”  The reality of grace and truth replaced the ceremonies, feasts and festivals; why put any reliance upon these things now that the New has come? In light of this, it always strikes me as interesting when I think of our special days, special meals and special ceremonies today…

The author underscores this with his comment about the altar that we have, that the Old Covenant priests have no access to; the real one in heaven that they cannot approach, as opposed to the “illustration” in the Temple. And now, the author has set up what comes next:

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Hebrews 13:11-14

In this little paragraph, the author makes a comparison between the sacrifice made in the earthly Temple and the fire consuming the sacrifices outside of the earthly camp, with the New Covenant sacrifice outside the city… with our being “strangers” on earth.  In order for us to fully appreciate this, recall that contrast of Covenants: The Old Covenant is an earthly exercise in every respect. It has outward laws, outward sacrifices and outward, physical promises.  It has a physical Temple and a physical earthly nation.  The New Covenant brings the reality of what was pictured in the physical aspects of the Old Covenant.  We are no longer citizens of an earthly realm, being now citizens of a heavenly Kingdom. We no longer have human priests presenting animal sacrifices in a physical Temple, we have the superior sacrifice of Christ, and we can now present ourselves in the heavenly Temple, in the actual presence of God. With this in mind, let’s look at verses 13-14:

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

We leave the earthly city and go outside to where Jesus bore our sin and its disgrace in perfect humility, as servants.  We have no city here, for we are not citizens of earth, but citizens of heaven, and we look forward to the day when we will go “home” to our true heavenly home. Think about the impact of this to his original readers, in their trial of persecution.

Now, think about what this means for us…  Only our earthly circumstances are different, the Truth of these things is the same.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Hebrews 13:15-16

Wonderful verses! Our author is wrapping up his exhortations now, thus the “therefore.” A sacrifice of praise; this isn’t really an Old Testament concept as much as it is a recognition of the reality that has come in Christ.  What is left to do but praise Him?  This is a sacrifice that pleases God…

But there is something of a “catch” in the second part of the sentence. This pleasing sacrifice is the “fruit of lips that openly profess his name.”  Think about those original recipients in Rome during Nero’s persecution.  Wouldn’t it make sense to keep your mouth shut if you were in their situation? Of course it would, there’s no need to invite trouble, right?

Well dear reader, that’s why the author called it a sacrifice; it was truly a dangerous thing to do.

Fast-forward to the 21st century…  How is it exactly that so many who live in freedom justify not speaking out in praise of Jesus Christ…? Yeah, I know, I’ve heard all of the excuses.

There is another new sacrifice mentioned in verse 16. We must “do good” and “share with others.”  Please take careful note of the word “do.”  As I’ve mentioned previously, the whole faith versus works argument is an argument based entirely on a false premise, for the two are not mutually exclusive.  We don’t earn anything by what we do… clearly!  We “do” because we love.  We love because He first loved us, therefore the “do” part is a response to His love.  Stop fighting it; it has nothing to do with earning something, it is a sacrifice that is pleasing to God.

As true as that is, there is more, for in serving others and “doing good” there is an added benefit, we grow closer to Him in relationship when we humble ourselves and put others ahead of ourselves. When the Body of Christ lives this way, the testimony to the world is powerful to say the least, and many more come to receive His love.  You see, dear reader that is what Christ’s Ambassadors are here to do in this strange and foreign land we call earth.

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

Hebrews 13:17

This is a tough verse for me to comment about; I have been in church leadership for roughly 30 years, and I doubt I ever once quoted it unless I was teaching Hebrews 13:  We live in cynical times…

Over the years, there have been great leaders in the church; there have also been some who were not so great; leaders can suffer from the same issues that everyone else may suffer from. Some may be in leadership for all of the wrong reasons, some may think that being a leader in the church makes them a big shot or an important person, and yes, I have met a few like that.  In my experience, many church members are critical of their leaders, no matter what those leaders do, but I must tell you that in my experience, that sort of criticism usually said much more about the critic than the leader.

This simple verse has two points to it. First is the injunction for us to submit to Biblical authority within the church. Dear reader, if we cannot do this, there will never be unity in our churches. The second is that leaders must understand that they will give an account for their leadership tenure, for it is a heavy responsibility.  It occurs to me that I should say that when I speak of leaders in the church, I refer not to leaders within a denominational structure somewhere, but rather at the local congregational level, and this is because these are the ones this verse refers to, not denominational authorities. I can say this because at the time of writing, there were no denominational structures or authorities.

To be a leader in the church is not for everyone; it means that you become the servant of all. It involves making sacrifices that few will give you credit for, few will ever even know about. It means that you may be unfairly criticized by those you serve, and it will result in many sleepless nights and lots of prayers for guidance. In short, it is possibly the most wonderful experience anybody can have on the earth… but it isn’t for most people.

It is a whole lot easier if people complain and criticize less and focus on Jesus Christ more, that’s for sure.

Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.

Hebrews 13:18-19

Please read these 2 verses carefully, and you will detect a heart that yearns to be with the people of the church, apparently a church in which the author has served as a leader.  In verse 18 it is clear that he fully comprehends the responsibility of leading, the parental love he feels for his people, and in verse 19 you can easily see his longing to return to them in these difficult times of testing through which they are travelling. I can tell you from experience that this is how it “feels” to have been a leader in the church.

Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Hebrews 13:20-21

The author of Hebrews is now in the final part of the letter, and he opens it with a prayer of purpose.  Let’s take a closer look, for it is quite instructive.

Our God is identified as the God of peace, something we might want to keep in mind, and then goes on to an interesting statement that has a way of summarizing the letter. “The blood of the eternal covenant” is a reminder that God has committed Himself to the New Covenant and its promises.  Notice that it was through the blood of the covenant, the superior sacrifice of our superior high priest, that brought Jesus back from the dead; you don’t see that spelled out very often, for usually we see God’s power cited for this.  Think about it: Jesus arose from the grave by the power of an indestructible life, He was raised by the power of God… and now He is brought back by the blood of the covenant.  What does that tell you about His blood?

I don’t know about you, but it strikes me as pretty powerful stuff.  It is the same stuff that all of our hopes are based upon… so what does that tell you about our hope and God’s promise?

“Powerful” is one word I can think of.

Next, Jesus is called “the great shepherd of the sheep,” reminding us that He is our Lord, our Master.  Here we come into the “what” that the author is praying for: May God “equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him”.  Notice that the author is asking only for things that accomplish God’s will and that please Him. He is not asking anything for himself. This, dear reader, is a prayer of power and purpose.  Jesus told us many times that whatever we ask for in His name will be given to us, but each time He said this, the context was clearly upon doing God’s will.  I have no doubt whatsoever that God answered this prayer directly. Obviously, praying in Jesus’ name is what follows when the author adds, “through Jesus Christ…”

I wonder how often we pray like this: Boldly for God’s purposes to be done and not our own; in power for God’s will in our lives, as opposed for our list of goodies.

Yes indeed, this is a prayer of purpose and power, may all of us pray such prayers.

Brothers and sisters, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you quite briefly.

I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you.

Greet all your leaders and all the Lord’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings.

Grace be with you all.

Hebrews 13:22-25

We don’t know for sure who wrote this letter to the Jewish Christians of Rome, but we do know why he wrote it. He was concerned for the people there who were dealing with such a terrible ordeal at the hands of Nero, one of history’s great villains.  These brothers and sisters in Christ had been pushed to the wall and were in danger of losing much more than their lives, so he wrote one of the most amazing letters ever written.

The author gave them a real glimpse of glory, God’s glory through Jesus Christ, and also of the glory that awaits His followers.  With his continuing message of holding on to what we have in Christ, he hoped to see these people through their ordeal and to come with them to the ultimate glory beyond this earthly vale, that true glory which is forever ours in Christ.

As we read these last few verses, how can we miss the love with which he writes?  Here is a man who is feeling for his flock, here is a man who truly cares about God’s people. Have you noticed that the word “love” is not mentioned in these verses?  Yet it is evident in the emotion behind the words:  This is love in action! This man knew of the suffering in Rome, felt for his people and took up his pen.  He didn’t simply say “I love you,” he showed them his love through his concern, and in the process, he gave them the strength to carry on.

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Weekly Bible Study Notes: December 29, 2021

 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3

We begin chapter 12 with an amazing shift in tone, yet it is a small section that is actually in the position of summing up the previous chapter.  Remember that chapter 11 has been all about active faith, and here in summing that up the author, sounding very much like the Apostle Paul, uses a sports metaphor. We are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” referring to all of those great people of faith who were named in chapter 11, and here they are the spectators at a great race; the stage is set…

The author now urges us to throw off everything that hinders as an athlete would remove all hindering clothing in preparation for a race.  Then, he applies this to our reality when he says “and the sin that so easily entangles.”  If we were athletes in a locker room before a great race, we would change out of our “street clothes” and into the garb of a runner; minimal clothing that allows full freedom of movement, with no extra weight, and nothing to limit our ability to run the race. Likewise, as servants of Jesus who are running the “race” of life, we must get rid of anything that would limit our ability to run our “race.” Sin, distractions and the like must be left behind, lest they should inhibit our efforts.

Then, we run our race that has been “marked out for us” with our eyes fixed on Jesus.  When you run a race, you don’t just make up the course as you go along; it has been fixed by the racing officials. Likewise, the race that is our lives has been marked out by God, so that we run a certain course.  We usually call this our “calling.”  Each of us has been “called” to His service in a certain way, and the author is trying to encourage the people to fix their eyes on Jesus, and run the race we have been called to effectively and without distraction or restraint.

Jesus, who is the author (pioneer) and perfecter of our faith is our model for the race.  Notice that He is author; He is the One who has written this tale and marked out our race. He has perfected our faith by His work on the cross. As you read further, we see that Jesus is our model, for in His earthly ministry, He has done exactly what we are to do now in our own rights. He threw off sin and distraction, fixed His eyes upon the will of the Father, and ran His race to win.  We are to throw off all distraction and sin and fix our eyes upon Jesus and run our race to win just as those great people of faith in chapter 11 did.

Finally, Jesus sat down at the right hand of the throne on high; He reached the finish line.  For just as He reached the finish line and as He sat down on high, so shall we, when we finish the course before us. I’m struck at this moment that the whole concept of this is so simple. It’s really easier to comprehend than it is to describe, which is the mark of a great metaphor. Will we get ready and run that race?

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Hebrews 12:4-6

Our author moves from the high ground of the first 3 verses into an area that isn’t quite as warm and fuzzy… or is it?  Remember who he is writing to, Jewish Christians in Rome during the time of Nero’s persecution.  These brothers are enduring very difficult times, times most of us can hardly imagine.  This whole letter has served to encourage them to persevere, to hold on to their faith in Christ, and to recognize that whatever the current crisis may be, it is never worth throwing away our future hope to avoid it.  Now, the author takes a different approach: Discipline.

Notice that right off, he paints discipline as a positive.  To receive the discipline of the heavenly Father is to have our sonship confirmed!  Have you ever thought of it that way? I hadn’t until about the third or fourth time I studied this.

As we struggle with sin… and yes, we all have that struggle in one form or another… we have not resisted (sin) to the point of shedding our blood (being killed).  Even for the original recipients, this statement must have been obvious.  Then the word of encouragement, that we receive discipline because we are God’s children… Take a minute to reflect on this quote from Proverbs 3. Early on in this letter, we rejoiced at the thought that through Christ, we have been made His sons and daughters, remember? We are co-heirs with Christ!  As sons and daughters normally do, we come under the authority and discipline of Father.  Are we still rejoicing?

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.

Hebrews 12:7-8

I have three children, all grown now, and when they were growing up, they were subject to my discipline.  There were times when they were punished.  There were times when I lectured them, times when I scolded them and times when I pleaded with them. As they grew, some of my methods changed because their understanding changed.  There were times with all of them when I had to step aside and let them get hurt so they could learn the hard way a lesson they were slow to learn by other means; this was the worst for me.  Oh, how much it hurt to step back and let them do something stupid; how hard it was to force myself not to say “I told you that would happen!”  (I sometimes failed at this point, by the way) Of course, there were times when they blamed me for not stopping them when they set out to do something they knew better than to do.  Maybe this sounds familiar to you parents out there… maybe this sounds familiar to all of us in our relationships with God also.

Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Hebrews 12:9-11

Our human fathers did their best with us in most cases, as I did my best with my kids.  But neither I nor any other human father was always right, no human father did as good a job for their children as our heavenly Father does with us.  The sad truth is that for many, the concept of a loving and merciful father is hard to comprehend because of the imperfections of their human father, yet the truth remains that our heavenly Father is love itself.  He is able, willing and more than capable of guiding us along through this great adventure that is our lives… this “race” we are in.  Yet, from time-to-time we are much like any stubborn teenager, slow to learn.

Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

Hebrews 12:12-13

A word of encouragement!  Yes, may we learn, may we come to see the way that we should go. May we be like the young person who is willing to be taught, rather than like the one who is certain that they know everything already!  May we accept our Father’s lessons and discipline and learn and grow from it quickly, and run our race straight to the finish line.

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.

Hebrews 12:14-17

This is a particularly interesting little paragraph; look at it carefully, and let’s see what riches are in store for us…

First, the author exhorts us to live in peace with everyone, and to strive to be holy, set apart, for without that, no one will see God.  Living at peace with everyone seems to be referring to a lifestyle that is not engaging in controversy and discord; things that the New Testament teaches in many places, as we have seen.  Living holy lives is also a common theme in the New Testament, and keeping in mind that holy means “set apart” it isn’t too difficult to follow what that means.  We are to be set apart from the world we live in, set apart for God and not partakers in every crazy thing that comes along. We are to be willing to undergo God’s discipline and to stand for the Truth of His Word; these things would be very consistent with the 11 chapters of Hebrews that we have been through so far, and would make sense considering the historical context that we have seen so many times.

We’ve been told before in this letter to help and encourage one another to hold on to our faith, and so to be told here not to let anyone “fall short of the grace of God” and to allow no “bitter root” in our midst to defile others would also seem to make sense. That sexual immorality is mentioned right after this is interesting…  but the most interesting little piece of the entire paragraph comes right after that.  “Godless like Esau” is a very interesting thing; the author goes on to remind his readers that Esau sold his birthright for a dinner, and could not get it back.

His birthright, or inheritance is a covenant reference, for he was to inherit his right as a patriarch of old, as a direct descendant of Abraham.  Remember that Esau didn’t really take that inheritance as seriously as he should have, and traded it to his younger brother Jacob for a bowl of stew, and thus Jacob inherited upon Isaac’s death.  So, what will we take away from this?

What has Hebrews been all about so far? It was written to the Jewish Christians in Rome in a time of severe persecution, to urge them not to give up their faith under severe trial.  The message has been that in the New Covenant relationship with Christ, we have a superior high priest who brought a superior sacrifice to establish a superior covenant based upon superior promises.  We have just been warned not to be like Esau who lost his place in Abraham’s covenant when he valued a bowl of stew more that his birthright.  Once again, in a slightly different way than before, the author is telling his readers, including you and me, to place our highest priority on our New Covenant birthright as co-heirs with Christ to everything, lest we should lose everything.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

Hebrews 12:18-21

We’re in the home stretch now on our tour of Hebrews, and it begins with two mountaintops. In these verses, we see Mount Sinai in quotes from both Exodus and Deuteronomy. Notice that the author is speaking in the negative: “You have not come to a mountain that…” See it? He is about to describe a place we have moved away from…

Read the passage slowly, try to picture the terror the people felt when they came to Mount Sinai.  Fire, darkness, gloom; everything about the place was intimidating and terrifying; they were in the presence of God, and that was not a place you wanted to be. Poor Moses had to climb up there and receive the Law from a God who was unapproachable.  Yes, He was a God of love, but He was dealing with a people who were in rebellion against Him, yet He had taken the initiative to build a relationship with them. These were the descendants of Abraham, now grown to the size of a small nation.  This was not a negotiation; it was a truce being offered by the stronger side: Take it or leave it. If they took it, God was willing to be their God, as long as they kept His Law. If they left it, well, let’s not think about what might happen.  What is really important for us to understand is that God, the party in the stronger position, was offering the truce, and this was an act of mercy.

Oh, yes… and it wasn’t the end of the story; it was just the beginning!

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:22-24

Now, the second mountaintop, and what a contrast; this is the mountain we have come to, Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem.  This is the reality that was only pictured in the old earthly city.  Joyous angels, the spirits of the righteous, the presence of God… without the fear and the dread, for now we are made perfect in His sight by the blood of Jesus. No longer are we at war.  This is not just a truce, this is a Treaty of Alliance, of Fellowship: We are now members of the Family!

Here’s a little bonus for you:  notice the terms that are used here as one: Mount Zion, city of the living God, Heavenly Jerusalem, church of the firstborn.  These are combined with the descriptive comments; thousands of angels, spirits of the righteous, the presence of God and Jesus the mediator of a better covenant.  You see, they all refer to what we would call the heavenly church or heaven.  Remember this when you read the prophets and the Psalms and you will find them easier to understand.

Finally, that sprinkled blood, the blood that was brought by the mediator of the New Covenant, His own blood. It speaks a better word than the blood of Abel, for it speaks not of senseless hatred and violence, it does not cry out for vengeance, it speaks of redemption and life; what an awesome picture this is.

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

Hebrews 12:25-27

This, is a powerful passage, one of amazing awe and wonder to ponder.  The author begins it with an imperative, “See to it…” Who is speaking, the one we aren’t supposed to refuse?  The answer is in the next sentence: Who warned the people from earth, and warns us from heaven?  God would be my answer.

Go back to verses 18-21, and you can get an idea of what the author is referring to here.  He recounted Mount Sinai, the fire, the darkness the smoke and shaking…  Yes, there was warning for the people in all of that: They were to take the Law that was given to Moses seriously.  Did they?  Well, some of the time.  Did those people get into the promised land?

No, they didn’t.

We have the reality that was to come, and yet we are being told not to turn away from Him.  Yes, that warning was for the Jewish Christians of Nero’s Rome, and it is for those who followed them as well.  The author continues his thought in the rest of this passage by making a comparison between God’s warnings on Sinai, and the judgment that is to come.  When that day arrives, all of creation will be stripped away, and only that which is entirely of God will remain, and the very strong implication is that those who are left standing will be the ones who remained faithful to God.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

Hebrews 12:28-29

Here the chapter draws to a close.  Look carefully and you see that it ends on an optimistic note.  Preachers over the centuries have often quoted verse 29 “for our God is a consuming fire.” to strike fear into the hearts of their congregations, and that is a pity.  They often left out verse 28 entirely, and verse 28 gives verse 29 its rich significance, for it reminds the readers of this letter that we have a great inheritance, that we are a heavenly kingdom and that we shall indeed stand on that day. Yes, we will stand for we will never turn away from Him. No!  We will worship Him properly, with reverence and awe in loving and faithful trust.

To wrap up the chapter, I just want to mention one final thought about judgment day.  What we have just read is not a literal description of the day.  It is told here in figure, as an illustration of the reality that is to come; sound familiar?  It probably won’t be a great earthquake that shatters everything except God’s people, but of course it will accomplish the same thing.  For us today, it is simply important to understand that no matter what the future may hold, we simply need to remain faithful to our Lord, to love Him, to trust Him and to share His love with one another… and not worry about the details of the great day.  We’ll come out just fine if we do that, and that is the point of the chapter.

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Sunday Sermon Notes: December 26, 2021

Luke 2:1-21

In due course the time came for Mary to give birth to her son; they named him Jesus, just as the angel had told them. There really is no point in my retelling of the story since it is quite possibly the most familiar story in the entire Scriptures for Christian and non-Christian alike. Even so, there are a couple of things I’d like to mention here…

First, you’ll notice that Luke’s account begins with a call by Caesar Augustus for a census to be taken throughout the Empire. Augustus was the most powerful man in the world, and he ruled the mighty Roman Empire as a military dictator. As the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who had been assassinated in 44 BC, he was his heir and became the first Emperor of Rome in 27 BC and ruled until his death in 14 AD. Augustus was not his name; he had been born Gaius Octavian; Augustus was actually his self-given title and means “majestic”. He arranged for himself to be declared divine, and all of the people of the Empire were required to worship him…

So he demanded a census be taken so that he could be sure his treasury was collecting the full amount of tax from the people, and thus Mary and Joseph were required to travel to Bethlehem to be counted… and so that the prophecies of old would be fulfilled. I mention all of this because in Luke’s account, the greatest and most powerful man of all, the ruler of the greatest Empire, the one who would dare to claim divinity and demand worship, became nothing more than a footnote in the story of the birth of a “nobody”, a poor carpenter’s son by all appearances, in a nowhere little town on the edge of the Empire… who just happened to be God Incarnate.

Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor!

The child was born in a manger, just about the last place anyone would want their child to be born.

When Joseph and Mary arrived in the City of David on that fateful day, there was no room at the Inn and they found shelter in a “manger”. We think of this as being like a barn, a really nice barn, but it would have been more like a cave where animals are penned up. Such a place would not be charming, rustic or romantic, it would most likely have been a stinking hole, a place lower than low.

We depict the scene with radiating light, a kind of heavenly ambiance, but in addition to the stench, it also would most likely have been dark, cold and damp, infested with flies… yuk.

We often see paintings of Mary after giving birth looking as if she has just put on her best gown after a day at the spa, but if you have ever been a mother who just gave birth, of have been with a mother who just gave birth, you know very well that is a lie. Giving birth is nothing if not messy, sweaty and bloody, and mothers are not looking their best at that particular time.

In our songs about this amazing event, we see the Baby Jesus sleeping so peacefully; “not a cry he makes”… Seriously?

Later on a bunch of shepherds arrived to pay homage after an encounter with a squad of angels, and we depict them in their Sunday best as though shepherds were anything other than the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder of the time.

Yes dear reader, we romanticize the entire scene, and that is a great shame.

Look at what Paul said about Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:6-8

When Jesus was born in that manger, there were no divine trappings of any kind; it was cold hard reality. Jesus left glory behind entirely when He came to earth and He was just like we are in every way. He grew hungry, thirsty and tired, He sweated, He needed bathroom breaks, He had body odor, He caught colds… there was nothing about Him that set Him apart from anyone else in the physical sense; according to Isaiah, he wasn’t even good looking. In the manger, He entered this world naked; on the cross He left this world naked in the physical sense.

In between, He taught and healed and brought hope to Mankind that so desperately needs it and He did so without pretense or any worldly glamour or greatness.

The announcement of His birth wasn’t made to princes or nobles; it was made to a group of shepherds out in the fields at night. Shepherds, because of the nature of their work were considered to be at the very lowest rung of the social ladder, and as Jewish shepherds, there was little they could do to avoid being ceremonially unclean every day of their lives, and yet God announces the birth of His Son to them. Thus, unclean shepherds were the very first to worship the Son of God.

This Jesus, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas came into this world confounding all of the great people, the smart people, and the “beautiful” people. He continued to confound them throughout His ministry, and still does to this day, for God couldn’t care less about the glories of this world; He is the glory of heaven.

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Weekly Bible Study Notes: 12/22/21

Chapter 11 of Hebrews is a discourse on active faith; interesting when you consider that it comes right after the warnings of chapter 10 against losing our faith.

Who said faith and works were mutually exclusive?

That faith and works were somehow in opposition to one another is a presupposition of men, not a Biblical concept, for in the Bible, the two go hand in hand.  This is not to say that we can ever earn our salvation by works; of course not!  Salvation is by grace through faith. Yet, there is a definite linkage in the Scriptures between faith and action that many seem to miss.  I think they might miss this connection because they consider salvation the end of the story, but as we have seen time and time again, it is the beginning.

In this chapter, the author begins with a very brief discussion of what faith is:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

Hebrews 11:1-3

Of course, we all know verse one as the classic definition of faith, and it is this faith that the Old Testament heroes were commended by God for having. It is also the faith that we have in Jesus Christ, for we are certain of His Truth even though we have neither seen nor touched Him. Verse 3 gives us an example of faith in the creation of the universe at God’s command. The universe is made of what was not seen, for no one saw Him give the command, and the universe came into being where before there was nothing at all.

Verses 4-7, which you can refer to at your leisure, refer to several Old Testament characters, and reminds us of their active faith, and then the author comes to Abraham:

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

Hebrews 11:8-12

When God called Abraham to pack up the household and leave his homeland, he had no idea where he was going, but he went because he had faith (Action). When he finally arrived in the promised land, he made his home there even though he was a stranger in that place and knew no one, because he had faith in God and His promises (Action).  Abraham and his descendants were confident in God’s promises of a great nation, and they acted accordingly. Abraham believed God actively, and as a result Sarah bore him the son of promise and because of Abraham’s active faith, God fulfilled His promises, in spite of Abraham’s mistakes and miscues.  This is what faith can do when coupled with God’s covenant promises.

Why do you suppose the author took this detour from the rest of the letter, and why here?

Let’s consider the structure of the letter first.  In chapters 8-10:18 we saw an amazing recitation of all that God has done for us in Christ, with the superior high priest, superior sacrifice, bringing about a superior covenant with superior promises. We also saw how all of this replaced the old shadows of the old ways.  This was followed by a section of warnings, and now faith.  This all makes perfect sense, because all that the author has been sharing was there to help the recipients of the letter hold onto their faith in terrible times of trial. At such a time, more than in normal times, it would have been critical for them to understand that their faith is active rather than passive, for none of the characters discussed in this chapter were mentioned because of the way they clung to their faith while sitting at home on the couch.  They are all heroes of faith because they put their faith into action.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11:13-16

“These people,” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their families, lived in a time and place where the fullness of God’s promises to them had not entirely come to pass, and they looked forward to complete fulfillment to their dying days, but they did so with joy, for the fulfillment of God’s promises was never in doubt; they lived by faith. They saw from a distance, but they held on. You’ll recall that our author said that the Old Covenant worship was but an illustration, a shadow of the reality to come. Here the author uses the words “at a distance” to describe the same thing, for the reality of all of God’s promises came in the person of Christ.

There’s something really interesting developing in these verses, something that is very relevant for the original recipients of the letter, and very relevant for us as well.  Did you notice that the author keeps pointing out that they were foreigners? They were strangers in a strange land when Abraham and his household entered the promised land, for there were already people there with a different culture, different language and different values.  Abraham had followed God to a place he didn’t know, and where the inhabitants didn’t know him. But that isn’t the point the author is making. Notice verse 13, “…they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” It wasn’t just that they had left Ur and travelled to Canaan, they had left the kingdom of this earth, and entered a covenant with God. They were no longer like the other people in a way that is much more significant than mere language and culture, for they have become people of God, in an environment that was in rebellion against God. Returning to Ur wouldn’t bring them home, for they were no longer citizens there, their orientation was now a heavenly one, and they could only look forward to the day when it became a reality.

Now, consider the implications of this upon the Jewish Christians in Rome during Nero’s persecution.  Even if they had lived in Rome all of their lives, even if the State recognized them as Roman citizens, they had been transformed into citizens of a different realm, for in Christ they had become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.  They were now strangers in a strange land, a land that was in open rebellion against God… and Rome was acting the part.  Rome persecuted them because they were of God now; that’s what the world does and it should surprise no one. Yet through this trial, they had thus far remained faithful to their new Kingdom, and in the course of that, they had declared a testimony for Christ, and as we now know as we study the past, the Gospel spread rapidly by their testimony of faith in Jesus even in the face of terrible persecution.  Thus, God was not ashamed to be their God.

The historical context of this is very interesting, but it also cries out to us in an important way.  What is it telling us…?  It tells us that we, too are strangers in a strange land, for no longer are we citizens of an earthly nation; we too are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and we too have a role to play in its development. As Paul tells us, we are its Ambassadors here on earth; what will our testimony be?

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

Hebrews 11:17-19

What an amazing thing Abraham did when God told him to sacrifice Isaac!  The author brings this out in these verses, and let’s just stop and think about it for a moment.  God’s big promise to Abraham was that he would have offspring greater in number than the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore, pretty amazing considering his age.  The greatest promise of all was that through his seed, all nations of the earth would be blessed, and when the son of promise finally comes along, nothing short of a miracle in itself, God tells Abraham to sacrifice him… and Abraham was about to do what God had told him to do; now that is putting faith into action!

I can’t imagine what Abraham must have been thinking… I really can’t; but our author tells us, and apparently it occurred to Abraham that if God made this promise, and then told him to kill the boy, God must have a plan to raise Isaac from the dead. His faith was so strong, he wasn’t thinking that God had changed His mind. So, in a way, he did receive Isaac back from the dead, for at that critical moment, poor Isaac was a dead boy walking.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.

By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

Hebrews 11:20-23

Take a close look at these “by faith” verses…. very close.  What do they all have common, other than “by faith”? It’s no trick, there is a clear pattern…

Each one of these “by faith” incidents is directly related to covenant faithfulness.  The main things mentioned about Abraham related to the land promise. In the verses above, it’s the son of promise. Isaac and Jacob verses are referring to their covenant birthrights. Joseph was concerned about the exodus, also a promise of the covenant. Moses was no ordinary child, because God would make another covenant with him… and later we’ll see more about Moses.

All of these people were imperfect, and the truth is that some of them were very imperfect.  All, however, placed their priority on their covenant relationship with God, over all else, and when things were tough, that’s where their hearts were to be found.  The really big question is this: What does that tell us about God’s priorities in relation to our sins?

In case I haven’t made this quite clear enough, let’s go about this in a slightly different way.  None of the patriarchs was a saint.  A few of them were a mess, and I’m including Abraham in this group.  How many times did he allow Sarah, the woman who was to bear the son of promise, go into the harem of a pagan king?  Not once, but twice!  Now I haven’t been so perfect in my lifetime, but I most certainly have never done anything like that, have you?  Probably not… Yet Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, because Abraham, in spite of his faults, placed his highest priority on his covenant with God; in this area, he was faultless.  The same can also be said of his son and grandsons.

Back to the original recipients…  Everything in this letter is in the context of covenant. Just think about all of the amazing things we’ve learned about the New Covenant in Hebrews. Think about what we’ve learned about our relationship with God in Hebrews.  With all of that in mind, can you see what an insult it would be to God if we, after all He has done, and after all He has given to us, would turn our backs and walk away from this covenant relationship when the going got tough? You see, these warnings aren’t so much about our petty sins which are already forgiven anyway, they are about protecting and maintaining our covenant relationship with God.

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

Hebrews 11:24-28

In these few verses, the author of Hebrews reveals something truly incredible: Moses knew about Jesus!

That knowledge accounted for some of the actions that Moses took, and the author cites the fact that Moses made a choice to be numbered among the Hebrews rather than to continue in his place of privilege in the household of Pharaoh.  Moses “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt” and so he left the slave masters and joined with the slaves. Moses placed his priority in line with God’s covenant purpose, not because the New Covenant was in effect, for it was centuries in the future, but because God’s covenant with Abraham was in effect, and it contained a promise that the people would be set free from bondage in Egypt, a promise that was made over 400 years before the time of Moses.

In this, Moses was forward-looking, to his reward, to the exclusion of his current peril on the earth.  How might that have inspired the original recipients of the letter?  How might that inspire us?

It was by faith that he both left Egypt and incurred the anger of Pharaoh, and later that he applied the blood of the Passover.

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

Hebrews 11:29

The people Moses led had their moments of faith too, as when they crossed the Red Sea, but sadly they more often drifted away from their faith, and never received God’s land promise; even Moses rebelled and could only gaze upon the Land. But Joshua and Caleb never lost their faith:

By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.

By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

Hebrews 11:30-31

The story of faith is an amazing one indeed, and it is a story that you and I are part of. What role will we play?

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Sunday Sermon Notes: December 19, 2021

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Isaiah 9:1-7

Christmas hasn’t always been a holiday in America, in fact it didn’t become an official holiday until the Administration of U. S. Grant in the 1870’s. During the time of President Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln would hold a Reception in the White House on Christmas Day for the President’s Cabinet and their wives, along with other special guests. At some point in the proceedings, the President and his Cabinet would step out of the room and go upstairs to his office for their annual Christmas Cabinet meeting.

One of those meetings, the one in 1862, was quite important in American history because they took up their final preparations to prepare for the Emancipation Proclamation which took effect a week later on January 1, 1863. Just as that historic session was about to break up, the Secretary of the Treasury dropped a bombshell on the group: The United States Government, embroiled in the midst of Civil War, was bankrupt. Secretary Chase’s only solution for this crisis was to issue paper currency to the general population, and to hope they went along with it, since there was no more gold or silver with which to mint coins. It may be hard for us to comprehend this now, but the Government had never done anything like that before…

Attorney General Bates agreed that in spite of the fact that paper currency was illegal and Unconstitutional, this drastic move was a wartime necessity− as was the Emancipation Proclamation itself, which was also arguably Unconstitutional.

Someone came up with the idea that since the value of paper money is based upon faith alone, perhaps there should be some sort of a motto on the bills, and the President himself quickly offered a suggestion from the Holy Scriptures. Mr. Lincoln suggested the motto should be: “Silver and gold have I none but such as I have give I thee.”

The Cabinet chose instead, “In God we trust” and it remains the motto on our currency to this very day.

Ironic, isn’t it? If nothing else, there is one in whom we can really place our full faith and trust:

In God we Trust.

There is so much that goes on this time of year, so many distractions, so many little traditions that we find ourselves going through, sometimes without even thinking about what we are doing. Yet the birth of Christ, His arrival on the scene, was an event that had been foretold centuries before, had been anticipated, yearned for and dreamt about… and then it happened! You know… there is a lesson just in that small fact: “and then it happened!” Isaiah 9 is one of the prophecies that is held dear by millions… let’s have a quick look at it:

This passage falls within a section that runs from 8:1-9:7. The section begins with a discussion about the relationship between the lack of belief in Judah and the resulting invasion of the Assyrians. (8:1-10) It affirms that God will not allow His people to be entirely wiped out, and moves on to tell those who remain faithful not to join in disbelief (8:11-22) presenting a very dark picture of anguish for those who are not faithful to God.  9:1-7 tells of hope; that just as God brought light out of darkness at the creation, so will He bring light to a world darkened by unbelief.

Our passage begins by telling the people that deliverance will come first in the North; “Galilee of the Gentiles”.  This area was the first to be invaded by foes from the North, and would also be first to see deliverance.  It is “of the Gentiles” because at the time of writing, the Israelites had been taken into captivity from this area, and the resultant inhabitants were Gentiles.  The two tribes mentioned in the text, Zebulun and Naphtali were representative of those “lost” tribes. The reference, in verse 4, to the defeat of Midian is noteworthy, as it reminds the people of what God has done for them in the past.  In addition, it was a deliverance that had particular effect on Zebulun and Naphtali.  (Judges 7). Of course, after God’s deliverance the people again fell into disobedience and were re-conquered.  This was a cycle that Isaiah’s readers should have been well aware of.  Yet this time, the deliverer would be far greater than before:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

Isaiah 9:6-7 KJV

Deliverance would come through a child of the House of David; but not a ruler like any they have seen before.  Verse six contains a series of names for this coming ruler which reveal beyond dispute that the child will be no mere mortal: “Mighty God” for example is hardly a term that Jews would apply to a mortal man.  “Everlasting Father” is most definitely another one that is beyond debate: the child would be God Himself!

Verse 7 indicates that His rule will last from that time on forever, and that all of this would be accomplished through the “zeal of Lord Almighty”.

In short, Isaiah is telling the people that they have grave trouble with God, and bad times ahead.  This is all brought on by their own disbelief and rebellion against God, yet in the end, God will replace their disbelief with deliverance when He Himself will rule over His people.

It would be unthinkable for a Christian not to see Jesus Christ as the fulfillment for this prophecy in light of Matthew 4:13-17 in which Matthew specifically states that Jesus went back to Galilee to fulfill it.  Note also that in verse 17 what is Jesus telling the people?  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”  Jesus was bringing the kingdom of heaven to Galilee. He established this kingdom by bringing deliverance to those who would remain faithful to God through His work on the cross.  This was deliverance not by the sword, but by forgiveness; and the Kingdom of Heaven came into being.  This Kingdom makes war obsolete, for it is not of this world.  (Isaiah 9:5; cf.  John 18:36)

In this Christmas season, may we remember who is faithful, may we place our full faith and trust in Him, and live, from this day forward, in His service.

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Weekly Bible Study Notes: December 15, 2021

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Hebrews 10:1-4

The author of Hebrews is now wrapping up this central core section of the letter, and he is doing so by once again focusing on the superior sacrifice that Jesus brought to establish a superior covenant with superior promises. Again, he states that the Law is merely a shadow of a reality to come, stating again that its sacrifices cannot take away sin. In fact, he seems to have found three ways to restate this in just a few short sentences here.  I’ve never actually gone through these chapters and counted the number of times he’s made this same point… why?  It might just be that this point takes a lot of repetition before it really sinks in.  The Law was not sufficient to complete God’s purposes, so it has been replaced by a better system, a perfect one, that takes our sins away entirely, after all, the Law was but an illustration of what was to come, and what was to come was the reality of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:

“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, my God.’

Hebrews 10:5-7

After the restatement of the Law’s inadequacy in the first 4 verses, this quotation from Psalm 40 shows the attitude of Christ, the real sacrifice, who gave up His life as the sacrifice that would end the problem of sin once for all.

First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Hebrews 10:8-10

Acting as commentator, the author restates another of his themes: The first covenant was set aside to make room for the second, and by that second covenant, the New Covenant, we have been made holy by the removal of our sins in Christ.

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

Hebrews 10:11-14

You’ve probably noticed that the mere fact of the repetition of the old sacrifices has been used by the author to make the point that they could never take away sins; our author here again, uses this fact of the repetition of the same sacrifices, day after day, year after year, as proof enough that this system is finished. Jesus, after making His sacrifice has sat down on high and awaits His enemies being made His footstool which is some interesting imagery, for sure. His enemies are defeated, and upon His return, their activities will cease once and for all time, becoming as a footstool for His feet, and thus our author is showing us that the old system is over for good.

The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

 “This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
Then he adds:

“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”
And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.

Hebrews 10:15-18

Once again, we see the verses from Jeremiah 31 foretelling of the New Covenant that was to come, and now has come, and notice the final sentence, the author’s summation of these chapters. Sin has been forgiven, and further sacrifices are no longer necessary: The Old Covenant is over.

When the same things are repeated over and over again, it is incumbent upon us to take notice of them. This repetition isn’t simply poor writing style, if anything, the letter to the Hebrews of Rome is one of the best written of all the New Testament books; some of the phrasing is nothing less than brilliant.  No, the repetition is a literary device to underscore these points, to highlight them; the author really wants the people to remember them, and hopefully we will remember.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:19-25

After the wonderful news of the last couple of chapters, the author is moving us toward another series of warnings, and his transition in these verses is as inspiring as any appeal in the entire New Testament.  We have a confidence gained from the previous discussion of the superior high priest who has brought us a superior sacrifice to bring about a superior covenant based on superior promises, and as a result we can ourselves enter the Most Holy Place.

Imagine how this would have sounded to the original recipients… Remember, they were Jewish Christians living in Rome at the time of Nero’s terrible persecution, tempted to give it all up to avoid the Emperor’s wrath, but after reading these chapters and now coming to this incredible assertion… how can they turn their backs on Jesus?  

Yes, we have an entirely new way, a way right into the holy presence of God, a way that their ancestors couldn’t have imagined, and it is here now… and yes, here it comes: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.” How could they let all of this go? They have in their hands the keys to the Kingdom, what could Nero do to them to make this worth giving up? Then the author takes the next step, a very dangerous one…  Not only should they hold on, they should seek out ways to encourage others, and as if this weren’t enough, they should not give up meeting together.

Let’s stop and consider this point.  It was dangerous enough to simply be a Christian in those days, but meeting together was infinitely more dangerous than that.  A group of believers in worship can bring attention, can be noticed. It can result in somebody reporting that they saw you with the others; guilt by association could result.  Some had apparently quit meeting for these reasons, but our author urges them to continue, to persist no matter the cost, for what they had in Christ was so worth it.  Even more as the Day approaches…

The Day, as we saw earlier, refers to Jesus’ coming again, and as we know, He didn’t come in their lifetimes.  We can also reasonably infer that we are about 2,000 years closer to His return in our day, yet we still don’t know when His return will happen.  Most of you who read this are not in places where there is persecution. For us this should be so easy, it shouldn’t even be an issue, and yet more and more have forsaken the assembling of the believers together.  Even among those who have not forsaken it, how much do we really encourage others?

Since I can only answer for myself, I guess we’ll leave that as a rhetorical question…

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Hebrews 10:26-31

Our author gets off to a very candid start in this paragraph, coming right to the point of his warning.  You will recall no doubt, that this letter was written to Jewish Christians in Rome during the persecution of Nero for the purpose of encouraging them to hold firmly their faith through a time of severe trial, and this is not the first such warning in this letter. (see Hebrews 8:1 ff.)

I would call your attention to the word “we” in verse 26; “If we deliberately keep on sinning…”  Surely the word “we” does not mean the same thing as the word “they.”  Thus, in a context of a letter written to encourage Christians, “we” is not referring to those who are not in Christ, and to suggest otherwise requires the suspension of the rules of context, grammar and vocabulary.  If we would go further and suggest that “after we have received the knowledge of the truth” would refer to an unbeliever, saying that to receive the knowledge of the truth is not to have accepted it and been born again, because they knew but didn’t believe, would also seem to be a contention in utter disregard of the rules of context, grammar and vocabulary; a parsing of words worthy of a politician. Must I really comment on the words “enemies of God”?

How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? Can you think of any context in the New Testament that asserts that an unbeliever is sanctified by the blood of the Covenant?  Take a look at the next verse, v. 30, and consider what it means to know God: Didn’t Jesus have something to say about that in John 8:55? Notice here that “we” are they who “know” him. Who is this “we” again- unbelievers? Hardly.

Look, I know I’m laying it on more thickly than I normally do here, and I’m doing so for a reason: If we want to merrily go on down the road with the idea that these warnings are for “them” and not “us” then how can we learn from those warnings? What is the point of giving these warnings to Christians, if they apply only to non-Christians? What would be the purpose of these warnings, if we have nothing that we can lose- the whole letter would be almost meaningless to the people it was written to.

Are these warnings uncomfortable? Yes, they are, and yes, they should be. Would I rather not think about them? Yes, but how could I learn and grow if I only did what I want and only thought about the fun stuff?  Can you see why I keep saying that Hebrews is often quoted and seldom taught?  It gets messy!

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

Hebrews 10:32-35

Remember the context;  Hebrews 10:19-39 is the section context in this letter written to Jewish Christians in Rome during the persecution of Nero to encourage them to hold on to their faith in severe trial, and following right after a section on the superiority of the New Covenant.  

 The author refers to an earlier persecution, a time of trial almost as difficult as the present one, when these Christians had come through with their faith intact, and then he urges them to continue to hold on through the present crisis promising them a rich reward.  We might ask ourselves what this reward is to be, is he referring to a temporal reward or an eternal one?  In context, it must be an eternal one- why? Because that is the reward that has been under discussion leading up to this section; there has been nothing in the text to tell us differently, thus that context remains in place. If we attempt to impose a different meaning here, then we might satisfy our doctrinal need to reinterpret this section, but we will have the wrong application for the text.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
he who is coming will come
and will not delay.”
And,

“But my righteous one will live by faith.
And I take no pleasure
in the one who shrinks back.”
But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.

Hebrews 10:36-39

Verse 36 keeps the last three verses of the chapter in context as an exhortation; this is critical to our understanding of 37-39.  Verse 37 tells us that Jesus is surely coming soon (so hang in there, hold on to your faith). Verse 38 tells us that the righteous will hold on to their faith, and yet some will shrink back and lose out, and verse 39 encourages us all to continue in our faith and not shrink back, for to shrink back will result in our destruction.  Notice that “destruction” is contrasted with “saved.” We are only left with one last question: What is destruction?  

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.

Hebrews 10:39

It would seem entirely consistent with the context of this passage within the letter to the Hebrews, and within the New Testament, that our author is telling us that we could lose everything we have in Christ.  

 This chapter falls at the high point of the letter.  We’ve seen that our superior high priest has brought a superior sacrifice to establish a superior covenant based on superior promises.  We’ve seen that the old Law is gone, and that the New has come, and that the New is the reality that was only illustrated by the Old. We have learned that we can enter the Most Holy Place, the very presence of God with confidence, and we have been warned to hold on to what we have in Christ, even in very difficult times, because what we have is so great and so wonderful that nothing can compare with it.

This is a message of love and encouragement, not a threat or a warning about a God who wants to zap you!  Some have suggested that this passage is too harsh, others have suggested that it must be adapted to fit a doctrine:  Why? Too harsh- Really? Would we have God hide things from us and then fall away out of ignorance?  That would be the actions of a God looking for a “gotcha” moment, not a God of love.  Doctrinal traditions… would we really rather use this for an argument to be “right” about something that may or may not be right, when it is a message of encouragement?  Really?

All we have in the passage is a message that our hope is awesome, so hang on to your faith come what may, and you will be in an amazing place for all eternity… this strikes me as wonderful! You know why? Because I can do it, and so can you. This is not a burden, at least not until we make it one.  This isn’t negative; it’s positive… until we make it negative… and it certainly isn’t complicated until we impose our doctrines upon it and make it complicated… so why do that?

Here’s a challenge for you, just for fun: Forget everything you’ve heard and everything you’ve read, including what you’ve read here.  Then go back and read chapter 10 over again, verses 1-39. Don’t think about anything it doesn’t say… and then see if you haven’t just read the most amazing and encouraging thing ever!

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Sunday Sermon Notes: December 12, 2021

John 10:1-18

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (10:10)

This passage is figurative (John 10:6). There are 8 components of the extended metaphor in this section: The shepherd is the caretaker and owner of the sheep. The sheep (flock) are the animals that the shepherd loves and cares for.  The thief is the one who tries to steal the sheep away from their rightful owner, the watchman is the one who opens the gate only for the shepherd, the hired hand watches the sheep, but lacks the dedication of the shepherd.  The wolf is a predator that terrorizes kills and scatters the flock, and the sheep pen is the protective enclosure in which the flock is kept for safety during the night.

He begins in 1-6 with the thief; the thief enters the pen by any manner other than through the gate.  He sneaks in by some form of subterfuge for the express purpose of stealing the sheep away from the flock. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd, who is recognized by the watchman as the legitimate shepherd.  In addition, he is also recognized by the sheep who love and trust him.  He calls them by name (has a deep relationship with them) and they will follow him where ever he goes.  They will not follow anyone who is not the shepherd, because they are strangers to the sheep; they only follow the shepherd.

Jesus begins to make His point beginning at verse 7.  Jesus Himself is the gate; no one enters the flock except through Him.  If they enter the pen through Jesus, they will be saved and have life to the full.  The thief on the other hand, enters the pen by a means other than Jesus; his motive is to steal, kill and destroy: The sheep do not follow such a person.

Jesus is not only the gate, but He is the Good Shepherd.  He is the “good” shepherd because when all others run away, He will lay down His life for the salvation of the sheep. His caring is so great for His sheep that He will die for them.

In this final section, vv. 14-18, Jesus sets out the theology of His coming sacrifice on the cross.  He will willingly lay down His life for His flock.  No one will take it from Him, for His act is voluntary.  It is authorized and ordained by His Father in Heaven, for it will result in the redemption of all Mankind.  This act will not only seal the salvation of His sheep, but redeem Mankind back to fellowship with God, something that has been absent from creation ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden.  This will also highlight the separation of those within the flock, and those without the flock; nothing will ever be the same again.

We find the reaction of the people in 10:19-21; the reaction of the crowd is typical. His opponents, unable to refute what He has said seek to marginalize Him with ridicule. Once again, they claim He must be demon-possessed and ask “Why listen to him?”  What else can they do if they insist on opposing Him?  The others (v. 21) say exactly the words that their leaders fear, pointing out that Jesus is not saying things a demon-possessed person would say, and then dropping their trump card: “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” There is nothing that the opponents of Christ can say to that. These people who believe Jesus have had their eyes opened; now they can really see.

Why did Jesus come to the earth, what was His purpose in coming? It was to lay down his life so that through Him we might have life to the full, both here and now, and for all eternity.

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Good Morning to You!

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