Monthly Archives: September 2012

Solid food—the Certainty of God’s Promises

We saw how the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wanted his readers to grow up on solid food, and there is plenty in this letter. Here’s some more. It’s breathtaking.  The certainty of God’s promise is spelled out here in Hebrews 6, verses 13 to 20 for these Hebrew believers.

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

It has become fashionable in some religious circles to denounce such certainty, to sanctify doubt. So people argue that to be certain of God is to have abandoned faith. The only thing that is certain is death and taxes, it is said often.

Well, the writer of this old letter would deny the certainty of both death and taxes! He strongly advocates the certainty of God’s promise for his children. Certainty for the first followers of Jesus was firmly anchored in the character, works, passion and resurrection from death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Look, this is a serious matter, what these people had done. They had turned all their attention to this Jewish teacher, Yeshua (Jesus) and in doing so they faced fierce opposition from former family members and friends in their community who were angry, scandalised, that true blue Jews should put their trust in Jesus instead of Moses, Moses! Offended at the idea of Jesus’ ascent as Lord of all at the ultimate place at God’s right hand. Offended that these preferred Jesus to angelic messengers, preferred him to the goings-on in the daily rituals of the temple in Jerusalem and the obligations imposed on them by Judaism in their local community. These ‘heretics’ saw Jesus as their only mediator—the great high priest who officiates in the holiest place of all, in the very presence of the Lord of creation, the Living God.

In the face of such a great calling, such serious demands, the constant threat of loss of property, safety and their lives, their Lord knows His people need to be certain of his great promise of help and grace. So we are reminded of Abraham’s experience—how could he possibly maintain faith in such marvellous promises, given his circumstances—both he and Sarah well past parenthood? Yet, he made the choice to be Mr Stickability, to wait patiently trusting for the most part, though sometimes faltering, in the loving, unchanging character of the One who promised, who guaranteed.

So, as He did with Abraham, the Lord does so with these people. To the promise, He adds an oath—a rock-solid guarantee. People expect earthly promises to be confirmed by a guarantor, someone superior. Now marvel that the King of all Creation was prepared to address human frailty in this way! So, God swore by Himself, there being no higher authority.Two things here: two unchangeable things—firstly, a promise and secondly, an oath (a warranty, a guarantee) to assure them—and us also—that it is impossible for God to lie.

This gives us, who are serious about following Messiah Jesus, strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. It anchors our soul in our flight into the refuge of the Rock of Ages. We can hold fast to that hope which takes us into the holiest place of all! It’s all worth it! Jesus is there now, waiting for us –behind the curtain  This certainty must be not just a feeling but a firm decision in the character, the words of the God who cannot lie. There is simply no real alternative.

Well, what are we waiting for? Certainty?

Solid food—the next meal

We saw how the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wanted his readers to grow up on solid food, and there is plenty in this letter. First he serves up another severe warning, one of unspeakable solemnity (Hebrews 6:4-8):

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.

What is all this? Don’t these people described here seem very mature?

We have said with our writer, it is surely God’s design that we must not remain static—we must move onwards in Jesus. If we stop progressing we will fall over. Even after having experienced such charismatic and transcendent blessings such as those listed in vss. 4-6, one cannot be guaranteed not to fall away from Christ. Believers must keep moving on in Christ or they—we—will become like unproductive pasture, good for nothing, stale, dull, unprofitable, leaving our God-given talents buried and unused. This neglect, this indifference, leads to destruction. In such circumstances, with no goals to move towards completion, people will fall away—salvation is an ongoing process and is to all who obey him. The Word of God is living and active! We must hear him and keeping hearing and obeying him, to the end. So let’s get moving! Our growth depends on eating solid food, habitually. Regularly.

Such dizzy heights in the power of the Spirit (Heb 6:4-6) can be reached and are normal for the believer who drinks of the Holy Spirit. But if we fail to keep our eyes on Jesus, no matter how gifted we may become—and it is certain the writer has in mind former members of their community—there will be a terrible depth of falling with no way back, he warns. Some have turned their back on Jesus even after such blessing—so it’s important, critical, to get moving and not stand still. We have entered our rest in Christ but this is the rest of faith. We are to press on with perseverance from one degree of faith to another. These are shocking words but our author is not alone in his warnings:

See Jesus’ words in Mathew 7:21-23: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”

Paul, in 2 Cor 6:1:  As God’s fellow-workers we also urge you not to receive his grace and then do nothing with it.

Galatians 5:4. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.

He’s not speaking about agriculture! Our hearts are like soil—good, fertile ground or poorly nourished, neglected? So how is your soil? Does it promote healthy growth towards perfection? Or is it in need of fertilising? Don’t drag your feet …. stay the course.

So, you may well ask, doesn’t this warning run counter to Jesus’ words such in John 10:27-28 …

My sheep listen to my voice, I recognize them, they follow me, and I give them eternal life. They will absolutely never be destroyed, and no one will snatch them from my hands.

We see that tension all through the scriptures! It never seemed to have bothered the Hebrews. Some wise words here from Andrew Murray (1894) are useful …

Truth has two sides. We look at each side as if it were the whole and yield ourselves to its full force.

This is strong stuff, solid food, indeed. However the writer does not push this severe tone with them any further and assures them that he sees them differently:

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

There are more clues here to show us how these believers were seen corporately, in community, in “one-another-ness”. We please and love God not by going to liturgies and singing praise songs but by diligence in the love and care for one another—serving the saints.

This service to one another must continue in earnest until the end if there are to be appropriate grounds for our full assurance of hope. They are urged to imitate brothers and sisters who have appropriated God’s eternal promises andnot be sluggish. (NIV: lazy).  Later, our author will give us a long list of names and acts from the Old Testament as encouragement.

‘Earnestness’ is called for. But, regrettably, for us, there are not that many examples where serving the needs of other believers is seen as the earnest responsibility of one another and not that of an overworked, dedicated full-time church official. How can God’s one-another-ness happen when there are salaried professionals (clergy) who are expected to do it. Clergy all too frequently stand in the way of God’s design because all believers are to grow into maturity by participating in the work of the Lord.  That is disobedience of God’s design for Christ’s body with many members. It is by making our own human alternative arrangements to his superior design, by both the leaders and the led, that continues to support this charade. The path to perfection, to maturity is enlivened by each of us together abounding in the work of the Lord.

Paul saw the importance of building on the foundation of Jesus and that it must be done using God’s ‘materials’, or what is built, so sincerely even, will be destroyed in the End (see 1 Cor 3:12-15). We stay in babyhood, we are wasting our opportunities, we are not redeeming the time if we do not do God’s work in God’s way.

This is solid food! So solid, that many readers may be not take it in and inwardly digest it, or may just leave it on the back burner, or may even spit it out. God’s will be done.

To remain static is to fall over

The Letter to the Hebrews gives us wonderful insights into the faith and practices of Jewish people who had come to believe in their Messiah, Jesus and before Gentile (non-Jewish) influences began to shape the Body of Christ. We can see through Jewish eyes what it’s all about, how this community of Messianic believers saw themselves and their Messiah.

 Last posting, we saw that all believers were expected to be able to teach. But biblically, the only office of teacher is held by the Lord himself when he, Jesus, says call no man Rabbi, (teacher) for you have one teacher (Mat 23:8). So we should avoid titling anyone as “Teacher”. Rather all should be able to teach one another.

Our author has warned his readers against reluctance to make progress, desiring safety and being content with a little assurance. Instead, they, we, must grow up, keep on, forsaking all other, being a real help and bringing true life to others—conforming to Christ.

In chapter 6 the author wants them to go on to maturity’ on to solid food, his in-depth teaching on the high-priestly work of Christ—the heavenly Christ—which he has already introduced earlier in chapter 2.

So, instead of going over the ‘elementary teachings’ –the foundational matters– repentance and faith, teachings about washings, laying on of hands, resurrection and eternal judgment, our author wants his readers to press onwards, deeper—solid food, that will move, stimulate, challenge them onwards to maturity. They have to give up the repetitive elementary stuff and take up things more difficult to digest, but of immense worth.

Now these six foundational matters were not new to Jewish people. They are, in the most part, the foundations of Israel. And Israel’s foundation is the root of the Way of Jesus. So why dwell on these basics?

From personal experience I know how upset an architect would be if on arrival on site to find the builder had re-laid the foundation for his or her designed building. God must be grieved when we keep re-laying a foundation, trotting out basic stuff again and again, ignoring his brilliant design to actually complete the project.

Many preachers today keep teaching foundational things over and over again and their pet subjects. The deeper things of God are ignored as not being seeker friendly or not relevant for 21st Century sophisticates. Has the Holy Spirit been forgotten? Many people hear regular gospel sermons, kept silent observers under pastor or priest instead of being active, alive members of a many-membered body with Christ as Head and the Holy Spirit inspiring each one. Kept in babyhood.

The author does not explain or touch on these foundational matters again—he will go on to solid food. He wants them, and us, to move on from beginners’ matters and move ahead to mature things. Once a foundation is laid, it remains as a firm support for the visible and functional things of a building but if construction work stops there, it is a derelict blight on the streetscape. And subject to deterioration and decay.

It is surely God’s design that we cannot remain static—we must move onwards in Jesus who is both the author and the finisher of our faith (Heb 12:1-2).  To remain a beginner on milk, and not go on to maturity spells failure: we have quit the race!

Like riding a bike, if we stop we fall over!  Let’s not fall over—it looks, and is, really awful. Decay smells bad too. Many Christians truly stink. 

Are we dull of hearing?

We continue our journey in the Letter to the Hebrews week by week here in Brisbane with a small group. Recently we looked at Hebrews 5:11—14.

In verses 11 and 12, our author says his readers have a lot to learn. He has solid food to give and some of it is hard to explain. But, like his readers, we too can become dull of hearing [NIV: slow to learn].  We can become apathetic, reluctant to progress further. This is a condition that is often fostered by institutional, industrialised religious practices, with a leader who does everything—acting as teacher, guide, pastor, priest, preacher, worship leader, administrator and CEO. The people are mere recipients, consumers. Leaders can be barriers to growth.

But under the New Covenant, God has designed us all to be participating in delivering the word of righteousness and helping one another in an open participatory setting. Scholars refer to this often as ‘body-ministry’. This amazing design by the great Architect, our Lord and Father God, is intended for our growth and maturity. God’s intention is that each of us receives a spiritual deposit or gifting of the Spirit to one another, share with our fellow brothers and sisters, and function as the Body of Christ, rather like the human body with many members as we read in Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth.

But instead, many believers in gatherings are merely an audience and inactive, spectators in what takes place ‘up front’ and as a consequence they remain in a sorry and feeble state, infants in understanding.

It is a fatal mistake to take the road of safety and contentment and apathy. Such a choice robs us, God’s people, of the blessings of conforming to Jesus and partnering with him, which bring God’s life to others. We are meant to be fully functioning members, literally, of a body, the body of Christ.

So, in fact he continues by now, you ought to be teachers, instead of staying like babies needing nursing, breast-feeding. Yes, teachers!  Compare this to the Apostle Paul’s words (1 Cor 14:26, 31) ….

When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. …… For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.

 So, this Hebrew community reflected common ideas with those of Paul as shown in his letters. Paul says each person in the Body of Christ can teach: exhort and share God’s word, with everyone present, and even prophesy (1 Cor 14). There is the freedom of the Holy Spirit. It is not the ministry of one or two, but of all.

In God’s New Covenant design, we are each born into the Body of Christ, one functioning alive member among many. Individualism (mere ‘going to church’) is contrary to our organic community life in the Body of Christ. The phrase ‘one another’ is used over 50 times in the New Testament.

Shall we continue to ignore the plain words of God, his superb design? Do we know better than our Lord?