Until the Fury Has Passed.

10 If favor is shown to the wicked,
    he does not learn righteousness;
in the land of uprightness he deals corruptly
    and does not see the majesty of the Lord.
11 O Lord, your hand is lifted up,
    but they do not see it.
Let them see your zeal for your people, and be ashamed.
    Let the fire for your adversaries consume them.
12 O Lord, you will ordain peace for us,
    for you have indeed done for us all our works.
13 O Lord our God,
    other lords besides you have ruled over us,
    but your name alone we bring to remembrance.
14 They are dead, they will not live;
    they are shades, they will not arise;
to that end you have visited them with destruction
    and wiped out all remembrance of them.
15 But you have increased the nation, O Lord,
    you have increased the nation; you are glorified;
    you have enlarged all the borders of the land.

16 O Lord, in distress they sought you;
    they poured out a whispered prayer
    when your discipline was upon them.
17 Like a pregnant woman
    who writhes and cries out in her pangs
    when she is near to giving birth,
so were we because of you, O Lord;
18     we were pregnant, we writhed,
    but we have given birth to wind.
We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
    and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen.
19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
    You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
    and the earth will give birth to the dead.

20 Come, my people, enter your chambers,
    and shut your doors behind you;
hide yourselves for a little while
    until the fury has passed by.
21 For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place
    to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity,
and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it,
    and will no more cover its slain. – Isaiah 26:10-21 ESV

The opening verses of this chapter record the joyful song of the people of God who will live through the Tribulation and be alive when Christ returns to the earth. They will experience the salvation of God as He sends His Son to earth a second time, to defeat the enemies of God and redeem a remnant of the people of God – the people of Israel. And yet, in verse 9, Isaiah communicates his deep longing to see this day fulfilled.

In the night I search for you;
    in the morning I earnestly seek you.
For only when you come to judge the earth
    will people learn what is right. – Isaiah 26:9 NLT

Isaiah, as a prophet of God, fully realizes that the people of earth will never give God the glory, honor, and worship He is due until His Son returns to judge the world. In fact, he makes note of the fact that the universal grace of God, experienced by all who live on the earth, does nothing to change the way they treat God.

Your kindness to the wicked
    does not make them do good.
Although others do right, the wicked keep doing wrong
    and take no notice of the Lord’s majesty. – Isaiah 26:10 NLT

As Jesus Himself said, “For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45 NLT). And yet, the wicked ignore God’s goodness and continue to rebel against Him. From Isaiah’s vantage point as a prophet of God, he sees the enemies of Judah gloat over the fallen state of God’s people. These pagan nations don’t know what Isaiah knows, that God is going to bring down His judgment. And Isaiah pleads with God to do just that.

Show them your eagerness to defend your people.
Then they will be ashamed.
    Let your fire consume your enemies. – Isaiah 26:11 NLT

Speaking on behalf of the people of God, Isaiah acknowledges a trust in God’s faithfulness: “O Lord, you will ordain peace for us” (Isaiah 26:12 ESV). While the current conditions surrounding Judah were bleak, Isaiah knew that God had future plans that would include a time marked by peace and blessing. The entire history of the people of God had been the result of God’s gracious mercy and grace. He had been their ruler all along. Every other king had faded from the collective memory. Every nation and its king who had ever threatened to destroy them would be forgotten as well.

Again, speaking on behalf of a remnant of those who had remained faithful to Yahweh, Isaiah states, “O Lord, you have made our nation great; yes, you have made us great. You have extended our borders, and we give you the glory!” (Isaiah 26:15 NLT). There were still a few in Judah who recognized that their very presence in the land of Canaan had been God’s doing. It had been God who had given them victories over their enemies and had allowed them to inhabit cities they had not built and enjoy the fruit of vineyards and olive groves they had not planted. 

Looking back over his peoples’ history, Isaiah knew that there had been times when they had sought God in the midst of their trials and tribulations, but He seemed nowhere to be found. The nation had suffered like a pregnant woman going through labor pains, but without experiencing the joy of giving birth. “We, too, writhe in agony, but nothing comes of our suffering” (Isaiah 26:18 NLT). In fact, Isaiah admits that Israel, as a nation, had done nothing to usher in salvation, for themselves of the world.

We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth,
    and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen. – Isaiah 26:18 ESV 

But Isaiah expresses his hope in God. He fully trusts in the goodness of God and is assured that even physical death will prove to be no problem for Almighty God.

But those who die in the Lord will live;
    their bodies will rise again!
Those who sleep in the earth
    will rise up and sing for joy!
For your life-giving light will fall like dew
    on your people in the place of the dead! – Isaiah 26:19 NLT

Isaiah seems to be expressing a belief in the resurrection of the dead. He knows that His God is more powerful than death and is fully capable of restoring to life all those who died while believing in God. The author of Hebrews wrote of the Old Testament saints like Noah, Abraham, Rahab, and David, who placed their faith in God and yet died in their faith.

All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. – Hebrews 11:13-16 NLT

They all eventually died, but their deaths were not the end. God will one day resurrect all the faithful who have died and fulfill His promise of eternal life. And as Isaiah so eloquently puts it:

…those who die in the Lord will live;
    their bodies will rise again!
Those who sleep in the earth
    will rise up and sing for joy! – Isaiah 26:19 NLT

So, with that assurance in mind, Isaiah tells the people of Judah:

Go home, my people,
    and lock your doors!
Hide yourselves for a little while
    until the Lord’s anger has passed.
Look! The Lord is coming from heaven
    to punish the people of the earth for their sins.
The earth will no longer hide those who have been killed.
    They will be brought out for all to see. – Isaiah 26:20-21 NLT

Don’t panic. Don’t stop trusting God. Be patient and believe that God will one day do what He has promised to do. Isaiah tells his fellow citizens to keep their eyes open and their focus on the future. The Lord is coming from heaven. And the apostle John was given a vision of what that glorious day will look like.

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 NLT

Things looked bleak in Judah, but the future of the nation was bright. There were going to be difficult days ahead. Judgment was going to come. The nation of Judah would eventually fall to the Babylonians, and the people would end up in captivity for 70 years. They would one day return to the land and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the temple of God, but they would remain without a king for generations, even until this very day. But God is not done. His plan is not yet complete. The day is coming when His fury will pass by, and He will once again extend His grace and mercy to His people.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When the Afterlife Becomes an Afterthought.

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. Ecclesiastes 11:7-10 ESV

For Christians, reading the words of Solomon found in the book of Ecclesiastes can be a bit disconcerting. After all, we place a high priority on eternity and heaven. The New Testament is replete with encouraging words regarding both. In fact, right before He ascended into heaven, Jesus told His disciples:

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” – John 14:1-3 NLT

The apostle Paul wrote a great deal about the afterlife and always in glowing terms and with a great deal of eager anticipation. He told the believers in Corinth:

51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die – 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 NLT

In his second letter to the same body of believers, he compared life on this earth in our physical bodies with the life to come, when we receive new, glorified bodies.

While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 NLT

And yet, all throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon seems to paint the afterlife in a negative light, almost as if it is something to be avoided at all costs. How could this man, who had been given wisdom by God, and who had been called to lead the people of God, have such a dim view of eternal life? Part of what we must understand is that the Hebrews did not have a well-developed theology of heaven. Their concept of rewards, for instance, tended to focus on this life. Their understanding of the covenant relationship between God and His people was tied to earthly rewards and blessings. That’s why they viewed those who were wealthy as somehow blessed by God, and those who were poor or sick, as having been punished by God for some hidden sin they had committed. The great patriarch of the Hebrew faith, Abraham, had been blessed by God with flocks and herds. His reward was in this life. Solomon himself had been blessed by God with great wealth. It is not so much that the Hebrews did not believe in the afterlife, it is that they had no consistent idea of what it looked like. That was God’s domain. He alone knew what life after death held. And since men cannot see into the future, they were left to experience and enjoy all that this life has to offer – for as long as they could. The Torah, one of the most revered of all Jewish sacred texts, has little or nothing to say regarding the afterlife. The emphasis is placed on this life. And that is how Solomon has treated this entire book.

Even in the closing verses of the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, Solomon returns to his fear-filled view of death. He states:

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. – Ecclesiastes 11:8 ESV

Notice that he believes in some kind of existence after death, but he describes it as “days of darkness” and concludes that whatever comes after death will be vanity or a meaningless existence. Solomon understood that life carried with it the undeniable reality of a future judgment. He knew that God was holy and just. He recognized that there would be a day when God would mete out His judgment on all mankind, and no one could be fully assured how that would turn out. Solomon would have fully concurred with the words of the author of Hebrews: “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 ESV). But what Solomon didn’t understand was the hope that the author of Hebrews had because of his faith in Christ. He immediately followed the previous statement with the encouraging, hope-filled words: “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 ESV). Solomon’s advice was:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 ESV

In other words, live your life. Have a good time. Enjoy all the pleasures and joys that life has to offer, but always remember that there will be a judgment. God will one day reward you for how you lived your life on this earth. That was Solomon’s perspective. We can only imagine how his theological thinking had been skewed by the influence of all the false gods he had embraced. His religious views had to have been a toxic blend of pagan beliefs and Jewish doctrine. He was a man who wasn’t really sure what he believed in anymore, other than what he could see, touch, and taste. For Solomon, the unknown was nothing more than unknown. The afterlife was a mystery whose secrets were hidden from mere men. So, Solomon placed his emphasis on this life. He embraced each new day with a sense of hope, which is why he stated, “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun” (Ecclesiastes 11:7 ESV). Waking up was a positive to Solomon, because it meant you hadn’t died in your sleep. Remember what Solomon said earlier in his book: “There is hope only for the living. As they say, ‘It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!’” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 NLT). Solomon is an old man, sharing his views on life and all that he has learned during his many days under the sun. And his final words in this book are directed at the young. “ Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:10 ESV). In other words, stop worrying so much. Take care of yourself. Enjoy your youth while you can, because it is going to be gone before you know it. Like everything else in life, it is a vapor, here one day, gone the next. Before you know it, your youth will have been replaced by old age.

So, what do we do with all of this? How are we to respond to the words of Solomon. It seems that, far too often, we attempt to take the book of Ecclesiastes and treat it like his other book, Proverbs. We read Ecclesiastes, picking and choosing those verses or statements that have some kind of positive application to them. We seek out the wise sayings of Solomon about diligence, hard work, prudent investing, and the avoidance of foolish behavior. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that strategy. But the question we must ask is why the Spirit of God inspired Solomon to write this book in the first place. Why Solomon? And why was he prompted to write this book at the end of his life, not at the beginning? The book of Ecclesiastes provides us with a unvarnished glimpse into the life of a man who had it all, including a relationship with God. He had been raised by a man whom God described as a man after His own heart. Solomon had been given every opportunity in life. He had been provided with the privilege of building the temple for God. He had been blessed with wisdom from God. But at some point in his life, Solomon walked away from God. He allowed himself to become obsessed with his possessions. He compromised his convictions. He made false gods of equal value to the one true God. And if we are not careful, we can fall into the same trap. Even as believers in Christ, we can allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of spiritual complacency and moral compromise, searching for meaning and purpose in life from the things of this world. The book of Ecclesiastes was not meant to be a stand-alone reference for godly living. It is one book among 66 books that make up the entirety of God’s inspired Word. The Scriptures are to be read in their entirety, so that they can provide us with a well-balanced, Spirit-inspired understanding of God and our relationship with Him. It is essential that we take the views expressed by Solomon and compare and contrast them with those of the New Testament writers. When we read the words of the apostle John, found in his first epistle, we begin to get a clearer view of what it was that Solomon was missing in his book.

15 Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. 16 For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. 17 And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

This world is a wonderful place, created by God for our enjoyment. But it is fallen and suffering from the effects of sin. Everything has been marred by the fall, including mankind. God has provided us with tremendous blessings in this life. This planet provides us with incredible pleasures to be enjoyed as gifts from the hand of God. But we must never lose sight of the fact that there is something far greater to come. This world is not all there is. Our faith is in God and our hope is in what He has planned for us in the future. And that preferred future is available only through faith in His Son. And there is no better way to summarize the final words of Solomon than by listening to the words of Jesus Himself.

16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

18 “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. 19 And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. 20 All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. 21 But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.” – John 3:16-21 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Acting Like Infants.

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. – 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 ESV

There is nothing particularly wrong with acting like a child – if you are one. But we all know how awkward it is to be around someone who refuses to act their age. Watching a grown man behave like a teenager is painful and extremely disappointing. It’s obvious to all that something is wrong with his behavior. He has refused to grow up and own up to the responsibilities that come with adulthood. And his immature actions usually end up impacting every area of his life. The same can be said for spiritual immaturity. It’s not it’s wrong. Every believer starts out as a spiritual infant in Christ. We begin the journey of faith as metaphorical newborns who require what Paul refers to as the “milk” of God’s Word. This is normal and natural. It is to be expected. It was Peter who wrote, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 ESV). There is a time in every believer’s life when their spiritual diet must be simple and easily digestible. But as they grow, they are to move on to the “meat” of the Word. They are to grow up into salvation, learning to grasp the depth of God’s love, the significance of His grace, their complete dependence upon His strength, and the full weight of His call to holiness. The author of the book of Hebrews had some strong words to say to the recipients of is letter:

You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. – Hebrews 5:12-13 NLT

They were stuck on the basics, the elemental principles of God’s Word. They knew that Jesus was the Son of God and that He had died for their sins. They understood that they were completely dependent upon Him for salvation. They had believed that by placing their faith in Him they would be restored to a right relationship with God. But their knowledge of God’s Word had not gone beyond that point. Their grasp of all that God had done and all that He had in store for them remained limited and so their behavior remained so as well. Paul had given the Ephesian believers a goal to “be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NLT). They were to grow in Christ-likeness, becoming increasingly more like Him in their daily conduct. And the result of this spiritual growth would be clearly evident.

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. – Ephesians 4:14-15 NLT

The problem with the believers in Corinth was that their behavior was revealing their spiritual immaturity. They were bickering and boasting, fighting and fuming over who was more spiritual and who had the best leader. Paul said, “there is jealousy and strife among you” and that was proof that they were “of the flesh and behaving only in a human way” (1 Corinthians 3:3 ESV). They were acting like children, arguing over things that didn’t matter and that only revealed their lack of understanding of the ways of God. They were making much of men rather than much of God. They misunderstood that these men were merely messengers, acting on behalf of God. This led Paul to ask them, “who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us” (1 Corinthians 3:5 ESV). They were nothing more than instruments in the hand of God. Any value they had came from God’s decision to use them to accomplish His will. In a subsequent letter to the Corinthians, Paul would state:

You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. – 2 Corinthians 4:5-7 NLT

A more mature believer has a growing awareness that God is the source of all that we enjoy regarding our faith. It was He who called us, not a man. It was His Son who died for us. It was His Spirit who opened our eyes so that we could understand the truth of the gospel. It is His Word that provides us with insight into His nature and daily guidance for our journey of faith. And it is God who gave us apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And Paul reminded the believers in Corinth that he, Cephas and Apollos were nothing more than “God’s fellow workers” and they were “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9 ESV). Growing believers have a growing understanding of and appreciation for God’s work in their lives. They grow in their appreciation for His love and mercy. They grow in their gratitude for His unfailing forgiveness. They grow in their desire to please Him, not in order to earn His love, but because they are loved. They grow in their dependence upon Him. They grow in their desire for Him. They grow in their hunger for His Word. They grow in their trust in His promises. They grow into their salvation. And all this growth shows up in their behavior.

Justification and Sanctification.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. – Galatians 3:1-9 ESV

Paul describes the Galatian believers as “bewitched.” The Greek word he used is βασκαίνω (baskainō) and it can mean “to fascinate by false representations” (“G940 – baskainō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It was as if they were under some kind of a spell, cast on them by those who were teaching that they must submit to circumcision and the keeping of the Mosaic law to be truly justified before God. They were being coerced into believing that faith in Christ alone was not enough. And Paul was frustrated that they would so easily succumb to a message that was so contradictory to the one he had preached to them. Paul had gone out of his way to vividly portray the significance of Christ’s crucifixion and its one-of-a-kind role in their justification before God. As Paul made clear to the believers in Rome: “The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3 NLT).

The law was incapable of justifying anyone before God. Not because the law was at fault, but because of man’s sinful nature. Justification by the law would have required absolute adherence to each and every one of God’s commands. As James makes quite clear, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10 ESV). No one could be justified by keeping the law. It was impossible. Except for one individual, Jesus Christ, who kept the law of God perfectly. It was His sinless adherence to the law that made Him the perfect, unblemished sacrifice for the sins of mankind. So rather than men having to put their faith in their own ability to keep the law, they would be able to place their faith in the finished work of jesus Christ. And Paul will elaborate on this very point just a few verses later: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Galatians 3:11 ESV).

Paul even uses the Hebrew patriarch, Abraham, as a point of reference. He reminds his readers of what the Old Testament states about Abraham: “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Galatians 3:6 ESV). This is a direct quote from Genesis 15, where God confirmed His covenant promise to Abraham to make of him a great nation. Abraham had just attempted to coerce God into considering Eliezer, his servant, as his heir. Since Abraham and Sarah were both old and she was barren, it seemed obvious to him that they would never have a child of their own, so in order to help God fulfill his promise, Abraham offered a plan B. But God would rejected Abraham’s plan, and said to him, “‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:4-6 ESV).

Abraham placed his faith in God and in His promise to do the impossible. And what is important to recognize is that God deemed Abraham as righteous long before the law was given. It would be well over 400 years before the tablets of stone were carried by Moses down from Mount Sinai – “the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (Galatians 3:17-18 ESV).  God’s declaration of Abraham as righteous had nothing to do with the law, it was based solely on his faith in the promise of God. God had promised to make the “offspring” of Abraham a blessing to the nations. Paul emphasizes that the offspring or seed is to be understood as singular, speaking of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who was a descendant of Abraham. And to make sure his audience understands what he is saying, Paul makes it quite clear. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16 ESV).

So what’s Paul’s point? What is he really trying to say? That justification, man’s right standing before God is through faith in Christ alone. It is not through law-keeping. And if our justification is by faith, so is our sanctification. Our progressive growth in holiness is not based on human effort or attempts at living up to a particular standard. Sanctification is a work of the Spirit of God as He produces within us and through us His fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Yes, it requires that we submit to the control of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We are to pursue righteousness (1 Timothy 6:11). We are to strive after holiness (Hebrews 12:14). But our sanctification is ultimately based on faith – faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross and the power of the presence of the Holy Spirit within our lives. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV). Like Abraham, the man of faith, our righteousness before God is based solely on faith, not works. And in the same way, our sanctification is based on faith, not works. This does not invalidate the need for works, but simply puts them in their right place. Our obedience to the will of God is a result of His justifying, sanctifying work in our lives made possible by our faith in the death of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

What Will It Take?

Blow the horn in Gibeah, the trumpet in Ramah. Sound the alarm at Beth-aven; we follow you, O Benjamin! Ephraim shall become a desolation in the day of punishment; among the tribes of Israel I make known what is sure. The princes of Judah have become like those who move the landmark; them I will pour out my wrath like water. Ephraim is oppressed, crushed in judgment, because he was determined to go after filth. But I am like a moth to Ephraim, and like dry rot to the house of Judah.

When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound. For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, and like a young lion to the house of Judah. I, even I, will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue. I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me. Hosea 5:8-15 ESV

What does it take to get our attention? When we forget God or fail to give Him the honor and reverence He is due, what does it require for God to wake us up and get us to return to Him? God loves us and wants to bless us, but when we refuse to submit to His will and live according to His ways, He is forces to discipline us. But He does so because He loves us and wants what is best for us. In the book of Proverbs we read, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11-12 ESV). The author of Hebrews expands on this same idea. “For our earthly fathers disciplined us for a few years, doing the best they knew how. But God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way” (Hebrews 12:10-11 NLT). 

The people of Israel would experience this loving discipline of God, and it would prove to be quite painful. God warned the He would pour out His wrath like water. It would come like a flood and they would not be able to withstand it. They had long ago forsaken Him and now He was going to have to punish them for their disobedience and rebellion – just as He had warned He would. This was not a case of God losing His temper and flying off the handle. He had long ago warned His people what would happen if they disobeyed Him. He had painted a very clear picture of the blessings that came with obedience and the curses that would come from disobedience. And He had sent His prophets to remind them and call them to repentance. But the people had stubbornly refused and now they would face the discipline of God. He told them, “I, even I, will tear and go away; I will carry off, and no one shall rescue.” There was no escaping the discipline of God.

And God would leave them in their state of divine discipline “until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me.” God’s motive was their repentance and return to Him. Why? Because He knew that the best thing for them was for them to live willingly under His care and protection. But they were going to have to learn what it was like to live outside of His influence and out from under His protective hand. They had wanted to live their lives without Him and He was going to let them experience just what that lifestyle would be like. God will sometimes allow His child to live without Him until they recognize their need for Him. He will let us walk away from Him, but He never takes His eyes off of us. He will allow us to reap the results of our stubborn defiance and willing rebellion. All because He loves us.

In the book of Revelation, we read of Jesus’ indictment against the church in Laodicea. He says, “You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see. I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference” (Revelation 3:17-19 NLT). The purpose behind God’s discipline of His people is their repentance. He wants to bless us, but He also wants us to desire His blessings. He desires that we admit our sin and acknowledge our need of Him. But too often, like the people of Israel and the church in Laodicea, we take a look at our circumstances and think we have it made. We view ourselves as fat and happy, enjoying the good life apart from God. We have everything we want and don’t have a need in the world. But we fail to recognize our desperate need for God. So God lovingly disciplines us. He allows events and circumstances into our life that are designed to wake us up to the reality of our need for Him. But we can be surprisingly stubborn. We can be dangerously self-sufficient, refusing to acknowledge our need for God. So He lovingly, patiently continues to discipline and correct us. He faithfully reveals His love for us by refusing to let us continue in our sin and live our lives apart from Him. He knows that the very best place for us is within His will and He will do whatever it takes to help us come to see that truth on our own, so that we willingly repent and return to Him. But what will it take to get our attention? What will God have to do to wake us up from our spiritual stupor and break us of our stubborn habit of trying to live without Him? What will He have to do until we acknowledge our guilt, seek His face and earnestly seek Him?

A Mystery Revealed.

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles — assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. – Ephesians 3:1-6 ESV

Something once hidden, but now revealed. That is what Paul means when he speaks of the mystery of Christ. In the Old Testament, the Jews knew of and longed for the coming Messiah, but they viewed Him as the Savior of Israel alone. He was to be their king and redeemer, much like King David had been, leading them to great victories over their enemies and back into prominence as a nation. Any relationship between their Messiah and the Gentile nations would have been in the form of military victories over them and nothing more. The thought of the Messiah coming as the Savior of all mankind never crossed their minds. The only way a Gentile could partake of the blessings of Israel was through conversion to their faith, including circumcision and the rigorous keeping of the law of Moses. In the book of Exodus, God gave the people of Israel instructions regarding the “strangers” or non-Jews who had left Egypt with them. “If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you” (Exodus 12:48-49 ESV). While Gentiles could and did convert to Judaism in the Old Testament, it was relatively rare. The requirements for conversion were rigorous and kept many Gentiles from becoming fully-functioning members of the household of Israel.

That’s where the mystery comes in. Paul was commissioned by Jesus Himself to reveal to the Gentiles that they now had access to God. They could worship Yahweh, the God of the Jews, but it would not require conversion or circumcision. Any requirement to keep the law of Moses had been eliminated. But what Paul was preaching was not conversion to Judaism, but entrance into the Kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He was sharing the good news of salvation made available to both Jews and Gentiles because of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. In his letter to the Romans, Paul described the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV).

With the coming of Christ, access to God was made available to all men through one means: Faith. It is not that faith was a new concept or that prior to Christ men had to gain access to God through works or the keeping of the law. The writer of Hebrews makes this clear in chapter 11. There he describes the Old Testament saints who “by faith” believed in the promises of God and were declared righteous by God. “For by it [faith] the people of old received their commendation” (Hebrews 11:2 ESV). He revealed that “without faith it is impossible to please him [God[, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Ephesians 11:6 ESV). Faith has always been God’s means by which men draw near to Him. And He sent His Son in order to make the life of faith available to all – Jews and Gentiles alike. Paul writes, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6 ESV). From the day of Pentecost forward, the church became the home of God’s people, those who had placed their faith in His Son. The church of God became the holy temple of God containing people from every tribe, nation and tongue. As Paul expressed earlier in his letter, “you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22 ESV).

The church of Jesus Christ is the dwelling place of God. It contains those who worship God as a result of the access provided to them by the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. It is their common faith in Christ and His death on their behalf that provides them with the righteousness they need to come into God’s presence. No one earns their way into God’s throne room. No one merits God’s favor or escapes His judgment due to their own efforts. As Paul state earlier: “Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us” (Ephesians 2:18 NLT). And as we will see just a few verses later: “Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence” (Ephesians 3:12 NLT).

None of this infers that God is done with the Jews or that the church has somehow replaced the people of Israel as God’s chosen people. We live in the church age. This is part of God’s plan for this period of redemptive history. But the day is coming when God will fulfill all His promises to Israel. He has not forgotten them. He is faithful and will keep every promise He has made to them. But at the current time, we are experiencing the mystery of the church – Jew and Gentile living together as the body of Christ, sharing a common faith in our crucified and resurrection Savior. We are the beneficiaries of God’s amazing grace and mercy. He has made a way for us to be restored to a right relationship with Him, based solely on His grace as revealed in His Son and made possible by faith.

 

Peace, Power and Provision.

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

I appeal to you, brothers, bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly. You should know that our brother Timothy has been released, with whom I shall see you if he comes soon. Greet all your leaders and all the saints. Those who come from Italy send you greetings. Grace be with all of you. – Hebrews 13:20-25 ESV

It was Peter who wrote, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). And as he wraps up his letter to the Hebrews, the author echoes the same theme. As part of his benediction, he calls on God, the God of peace, to equip his readers with “everything good” so that they may be able to do God’s will. The Greek word translated “equip” in this passage is katartidzo and it means “to strengthen, perfect, complete, make one what he ought to be” (Greek Lexicon :: G2675 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible). It was also commonly used to refer to mending something that was damaged, such as setting a broken bone in order that it would heal properly. Part of God’s ongoing work in our life is to repair what sin has damaged. Our sanctification includes the process of healing us from the negative effects of sin. God has justified us, declaring us righteous in His eyes, but that is a positional or judicial status. It does not mean that we are sinless or morally righteous. It simply means that, because of our faith in Christ, God views us through the sacrificial blood of His Son, “the blood of the eternal covenant.” But as long as we live on this earth, God is constantly equipping, repairing and perfecting us, making us more and more like His Son.

The author refers to God as the God of peace. He is the God of shalom. God’s desire for us is wholeness, completeness, and a sense of oneness with Him. When sin entered the world, that shalom with God was shattered. But with the coming of Christ, God provided a means by which man’s peace with Him might be restored. Paul reminds us, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1 ESV). Writing to an audience made up of Jews, the author most likely had Jeremiah 29:11 in mind. It says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” The word translated “welfare” is actually the Hebrew word shalom. This statement from God was given to the Hebrew people at the beginning of their Babylonian exile. It was a reminder that God was not done. He had not completely given up on them. One day He was going to return them to the land. But there is a yet-to-be-fulfilled aspect to this verse. God is not yet done with the people of Israel. He is going to restore them to a right relationship with Himself. They will one day enjoy shalom – peace with God. The Jewish believers to whom the letter of Hebrews was written were being reminded that they were already the beneficiaries of this promise. They had been restored to a right relationship with God. But God was also working in them in such a way so that they might be equipped to do His will. God is always working in His children “that which is pleasing in his sight.” Paul put it this way: “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT).

Power. The very same power that raised Jesus back to life from the dead, is at work in us who have placed our faith in Him as our Savior. Revitalizing, resuscitating, rejuvenating, restorative, resurrection power is available to us and at work in us. We have the power of God available to us in the form of the Spirit of God who dwells within us. Our ongoing transformation does not depend upon our own efforts and will-power. It is the work of the indwelling presence and power of God. Truly, He has “given us everything we need for living a godly life.”

One of the most amazing statements in this passage that can easily be overlooked and under-appreciated is his reference to “our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep.”  In that simple phrase, the author reminds us that the sacrificed Lamb of God has become our Great Shepherd. He died for our sins, but rose again so that we might have life more abundantly. He gave His life so that He might guide us into new life. Jesus said of Himself, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15 ESV). Peter reminds us, “He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. Once you were like sheep who wandered away. But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25 NLT). Our Great Shepherd found us wandering from the fold of God. He rescued us. He has healed us. And now He is guiding and directing us as we make our way to the glorious future God has prepared for us. He sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven. From His place at His Father’s side, He intercedes for us. He watches over us. And one day He will return for us. “And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor” (1 Peter 5:4 NLT). It is for that day we are to live. It is for that hope we are to eagerly wait.

For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. – Romans 8:22-24 NLT

And while we wait, we enjoy peace with God, the presence and power of God, the guidance of the Great Shepherd of God and the hope of the eternal promise of God.

Loving Those Who Lead.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things. I urge you the more earnestly to do this in order that I may be restored to you the sooner. – Hebrews 13:17-19 ESV

In our culture, we tend to view leadership through a distorted lens. We aspire to leadership. We see it as something to be sought after and as kind of a reward for a job well done. Leaders are the successful ones, the over-achievers who have earned the right to be followed and all the benefits that come with their title. For many of us, leaders are not so much to be followed as envied. We covet their corner office and exorbitant salaries. We grow jealous of their prestige and power. And we dream of the day when it’s our time to lead.This mentality, while mostly visible in the secular arena, can even makes its way into the church, the body of Christ. But disrespect for leadership among God’s people is nothing new. Moses found himself constantly questioned and blamed for everything. His own brother and sister tried to force him to share his power and authority with them. The prophets of God were all ignored, disliked, and treated like social outcasts – all because their message was not what the people wanted to hear. Jesus Himself was a victim of leadership loathing Himself. As long as He performed miracles, handed out free meals, and talked of a new kingdom, the people flocked to hear him. But as soon as He started talking about suffering, taking up your cross and dying to self, the crowds thinned out dramatically. When He entered into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, fresh off the heels of His raising of Lazarus from the dead, the people celebrated with great gusto. But when He was arrested, everybody scurried into the darkened corners, including His twelve disciples.

The author of Hebrews knew that people can be fickle when it comes to leadership, even in the church. So he encouraged his readers to do three things: Obey, submit and pray. He knew that leadership was difficult and virtually impossible if those being led refused to follow. He also knew that reluctant or disgruntled followers could make the life of any leader miserable. Gossips, grumblers and discontented followers can become a cancer, spreading discord and disunity throughout the body. So he encouraged his readers to obey and submit. The Greek word for obey is peithō and it means “to listen to, obey, yield to, comply with.” But it also carries the idea of trust and confidence. As believers, we are to place our trust and confidence in those whom God has placed in leadership over us. We are to see them as hand-picked by Him. And we are to submit to them. The Greek word he uses is hypeikō and it means “to yield to authority and admonition.” But it also means to stop resisting. When we submit to and obey the leadership God has placed over us, we are ultimately placing our faith in Him. We are trusting that He knows what He is doing and is working through those He has placed in authority over us.

Finally, we are to pray for those who lead us. It is easy to complain about leadership. We won’t always agree with what they are doing or where they are leading us. But rather than question our leaders, we are to pray for them. Theirs is not an easy job. And we must never lose sight of the fact that they will one day answer to God for how they have led. Leaders in the church answer to a higher authority – God Himself. They will have to give an account for how they have cared for the flock of God. It was Peter who warned the elders of the local church to “Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly – not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God” (1 Peter 5:2 NLT). Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28 ESV).

Leading the church of God is not easy. Shepherding the flock of God is a big responsibility. Do some Godly leaders lead in a less-than-godly way? Certainly. Do all pastors, teachers, elders and deacons always lead in the way that God would have them? Sadly, the answer is no. Moses was far from perfect. David had his flaws and failings. Solomon was wise, but not always the brightest bulb in the box when it came to leadership. But God had placed each of them where they were. Praying for our leaders is the best way to ensure that they become godly leaders. Obeying and submitting to them as having been placed over us by God is an expression of our faith in God. But we must never forget that godly followers are just as important as godly leaders.

Advice For Living.

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. – Hebrews 13:7-16 ESV

Consistency. Constancy. Steadfastness. A determination to stay the course, unwavering and undeterred from the goal. That is the key characteristic the author of Hebrews encourages us to look for in the lives of those we follow, whose lifestyle and faith we emulate. Living the Christian life is difficult, and God never intended for us to do it alone. He has placed others within the context of our lives to act as role models and companions along our faith journey. Within the body of Christ there will always be leaders, men and women who act as guides along the way, providing us with invaluable insights into the Word of God and the way of faith. But the author warns us to “consider the outcome of their way of life.” Was theirs a life well-lived? Did they finish strong? Was their character consistent with their teaching? Did they practice what they preached? Or were they all over the map spiritually? Was their faith consistent and their walk steady? Or were they “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14 ESV)? Our spiritual leaders should model consistency and steadfastness for us. They are to be like Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and forever. That does not mean our spiritual mentors, pastors, and teachers should have perfectly consistent lives, but it is an encouragement to seek out those who have lived long enough to have proven their confession has had time to show up in their character. Their creed has been translated into conduct. What they say they believe has had time to manifest itself in what they have become.

The author warns his readers, “So do not be attracted by strange, new ideas. Your strength comes from God’s grace, not from rules about food, which don’t help those who follow them” (Hebrews 13:9 NLT). Man’s obsession with novelty is nothing new. We love new ideas, new fashions, new trends and even new teaching. We are naturally drawn to anything that sounds innovative or provides never-before-seen insights into living the Christian life. The early church, just like the church today, was constantly being bombarded with new and improved teaching about everything from who Jesus really was to how to grow in godliness. That’s why the author mentioned devotion to foods. There was evidently a teaching influencing the local church that encouraged abstinence from certain foods as a requirement for true spirituality. Paul had had to deal with this very same thing. “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16 ESV). He warned Timothy:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. – 1 Timothy 4:1-3 ESV

There will always be those who claim to have new insights into God’s Word. They will boast of having received new revelations from God and teach a new and improved version of the truth of God. But we must always judge their claims by their character. We must learn to compare their teaching with that of Christ and His apostles. Anyone who brings in “new” teaching that in any way adds to or distracts from the grace of God or the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross is to be avoided at all costs. That is the point the author is trying to make with his somewhat cryptic statement: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:10-11 ESV). His Hebrew readers would have easily understood his point. Under the old covenant, the priests were allowed to eat part of the sacrifice that was made. It was how God provided for them. But any animal whose blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat within the Holy of Holies was not allowed to be eaten, but was burned outside the camp. His point was that Jesus was sacrificed “outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hebrews 13:12 ESV). Only those who live according to the new covenant in His blood are allowed to benefit from His body and blood. Those who want to live under the old covenant of law and legalism are not partakers in the new covenant.

Our faith is to be in Christ and Him alone. Anyone who adds to that formula is to be avoided, not matter how novel, new and exciting their teaching may sound. We are to remain consistently faithful to the teachings of Jesus and those of His apostles. We are to live with our eyes on the future, “for here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14 ESV). The gospel is more than 2,000 years old. It needs no improvement. It requires no new insights or innovative teachings to explain it. Through our relationship with Christ, “let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his nameand let us “not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15-16 ESV). New isn’t always improved.

Faith In Action.

Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear;
what can man do to me?” – Hebrews 13:1-6 ESV

The author ended chapter 12 with an exhortation to “be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” and to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29 ESV). The same God who shook the landscape surrounding Mount Sinai and rattled the knees of the Israelites with His divine presence, is our God and has prepared a kingdom for us. So what should be our response? Proper worship, reverence and awe. And to make it even more practical, in the closing chapter of his letter, the author illustrates what those things look like in everyday life.

Sometimes we are tempted to make our worship of God an external show for others to see. We confuse worship of God with the intensity of our singing, the verbosity of our prayers, the selflessness of our service or the generosity of our giving. But sometimes our love for God is best measured in our love for others. Worship of God that does not include love for others is hypocritical and insincere. So the author moves from grand descriptions of God as a consuming fire to a plea for brotherly love. “Let brotherly love continue” (Hebrews 13:1 ESV). Love for one another is an indispensable and non-negotiable requirement for anyone who claims to worship God. At one point in His earthly ministry, Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees, who posed to Him what they believed to be a trick question. One of them, a lawyer, asked Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36 ESV). His intent was to entrap Jesus. The question he posed to Jesus was one that the Scribes and Pharisees debated regularly. They had numbered the laws of God and had come up with 613, 248 of which were deemed positive and 365 designated as negative. Then they had divided them two categories, the “heavy” or more important ones and the “light” or the less important ones. They wanted Jesus to tell them which one was the “heaviest.” And Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-38 ESV). Love God AND love others. According to Jesus, those two commands encapsulate the entirety of the rest of the law.

So  it is no wonder that the author of Hebrews told his readers, “Let brotherly love continue.” Then he took it a step further. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2 ESV). This recalls the parable of the good Samaritan that Jesus told in response to another inquiry from a Pharisee. He approached Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25 ESV). Jesus responded with a question of His own, asking the man to tell Him what the law said. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself,” the man replied. Jesus commended him for his answer and told him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28 ESV). But the man was not satisfied with Jesus’ answer and asked for clarification. “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 22:29 ESV). That’s when Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan. In it, He described what it truly means to show hospitality and kindness to someone who is a stranger and in need. It involves sacrifice. It requires a giving up of your rights and a commitment of your resources. The author of Hebrews echoes the sentiment of Jesus’ parable when writes, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body” (Hebrews 13:3 ESV). Our love for God is best expressed by our love for others. The apostle John encourages us to compare the love Christ expressed for us with the way in which we love others. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18 ESV).

Love should permeate all of our relationships, including that between a husband and wife. If we love one another, there is no place for adultery or immorality. We will always want what is best for the other person. Self-obsession or self-love is the greatest detriment to loving others. When we love ourselves too much, we are incapable of loving others. We end up putting into our relationships only to see what we can get out of them. They become self-serving rather than selfless. And it’s interesting that, in this context, the author warns against the love of money. “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5 ESV). The love of money is self-directed. We love money for what it can do for us. And yet, to properly love others, our money may need to be involved. We may need to let go of our resources in order to best express our love. It was James who said, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16 ESV). Talk is cheap. Words cannot fill someone’s stomach or make them warm.

The walk of faith is to be future-focused, recognizing that the ultimate promise of God is our glorification and final redemption. We are to live with the end in mind. But our faith-walk is also to be God-dependent. We are spend our days on this earth with a constant recognition that He is our provider and sustainer. That is why the author reminds us to be content, because God has promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5 ESV). But not only are we to be future-focused and God-dependent, we are to be other-oriented. We are to live our lives with an outward orientation that puts the needs of others ahead of our own. When we love others, we are loving God. When we lovingly sacrifice for others, it is an act of worship to God. When we give up what we have for the sake of others, we are letting God know that we are dependent upon Him. All that we have comes from Him and is to be used for His glory and the good of others. Our constant attitude is to be, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6 ESV).