Part of Something Bigger (a meditation on our place in God’s grand story)

All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us. ~Hebrews 11:39-40

In our culture today there is a heavy emphasis on individualism that spills over into the church as well. We tend to want to focus on me and God and salvation becomes mainly about what God has done for me. Yet the Bible challenges our individualistic tendencies on many fronts. Part of this we see at the end of Hebrews 11 where the author reminds us that though each of us approach God through our own individual faith, God’s greater focus is dealing with us as part of the Family. We are part of something bigger than ourselves.

Through much of the first ten chapters of Hebrews we see how Jesus is truly better than everything else: the angels, Abraham, Moses, the High Priests, and the atoning sacrifice. Jesus fulfills and accomplishes everything all the persons and rituals in the Old Testament longed for and pointed to.

Towards the end of chapter ten we begin to see more of the practical realities of what Jesus being better means for our lives. The author, who seemed to be very close to the people to whom he wrote yet separated due to persecution, wanted to encourage his readers to be faithful in the midst of suffering. Persevere, run the race, and don’t be like those who get tripped up and weighed down by sin.

In 10:32-34 he reminded them of the faith they had when they first came to Christ, even though it cost them personally. Yet with ridicule, the loss of property, and jail time for some they kept looking forward for they knew “there were better things waiting.” In 10:35-39 he again offered the charge to be patient and confident, to not turn back but rather to live by faith. After all, quoting Habakkuk, Jesus will return and God’s righteous will live by faith waiting for this promise.

To encourage his readers, the author spent chapter 11 detailing the lives of men and women of the Old Testament who lived by faith. Many experienced great things while nameless others suffered painful persecution. In all situations, faith caused these saints to look forward and long for something better.

So a man like Abraham left his homeland and dwelt in a strange place in a tent because God promised him numerous offspring and a homeland. The same was promised to his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Yet though these men, and the other men and women listed in the chapter, kept looking forward and trusting God’s promises they only tasted part of it.

All of these faithful earned a good reputation and a declaration that the world was not worthy of them (11:38-39) yet each of them died not receiving “all that God promised.” They benefited in various ways individually, but God was working a greater plan of which they were a part.

That greater plan was “something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us” (11:40). That greater plan was Jesus.

Through the lives and works of his faithful followers, God created and sustained a people through whom he would deliver his Son, the Savior of the world. God’s great plan is centered on the joy and glories of Jesus who redeems for himself a people, a Family from throughout the world (Titus 2:11-14, John 17).

Like the saints of old, this is the bigger story of which our individual lives are a part. We still look forward in longing for its completion—that day that Jesus returns to finally judge sin and sinner, to fully rescue those who have trusted in him, and to perfectly restore creation as he glorifies it together with us. This is the great hope and the great promise.

As those saints died without fully seeing the promises so will we if Jesus’ return is past the end of our lives on earth. Yet knowing that we are part of something bigger, we keep looking forward, eyes set on Jesus as we run the race (12:1-2). As we run we have those saints of old, our elder brothers and sisters in the Family, who cheer us on as part of our great cloud of witnesses. And should we pass before the promises come in full, we will join with the chorus of witnesses cheering on future generations whether we’re remembered by name or whether we are shrouded as the nameless others.

Through Jesus our lives are part of something much, much bigger and grander than ourselves—the hope and story of the Family played out over thousands of years.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

Run Boldly to His Throne (a meditation on the God of grace who understands our weaknesses)

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same temptations we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. ~Hebrews 4:15-16

It is easy for us to see God in his great majesty as far above, far off, and disconnected. So we struggle trying to reach up and search for a God we fear doesn’t understand. Yet God, as he describes himself in the Bible, is one who reaches down to us.

Several chapters in Hebrews speak of Jesus as our great High Priest. Priests were those who stood between God and people. On behalf of the people they would make appeals and sacrifices to God. On behalf of God they would show his glory and holiness to the people. The high priest was the one able to approach nearest to the full presence of God as he manifested his glory in the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle and the temple. But this the high priest could only do once a year and with much ritual. If he failed at any of it, he would be struck dead.

Jesus as the great and perfect High Priest is the God-man who stands uniquely between God and people. He offered himself in a single sacrifice to atone for the sins of all his people so we might stand perfectly pure before God (Hebrews 9:11-15).

More than this, in God the Son becoming one of us, he went toe-to-toe with the same kinds of temptations we face day in and day out. But in the struggle where we failed, Jesus stood victorious. While his perfect obedience was necessary for us to have hope and life, he does not use it to gloat over or shame our weaknesses, struggles, or failures.

Instead, he understands our weaknesses.

Far from a far off God, God draws near. He gets us, he understands us. In Psalm 8 David pondered the majesty and greatness of God and cried out, “What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human begins that you should care for them?” And in Psalm 103: “For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.”

Knowing this about God is to inspire confidence. Not that we should struggle and fail and have no concern about our sin. Rather that we should struggle and run headlong into the arms of grace.

This is why Hebrews tells us we should come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. Knowing that he knows us and understands us, knowing what he has offered us in Jesus, and therefore knowing his great love for us. When we struggle we run to God and there we find mercy, grace, and help—the very things we need in the moments of temptation.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

Better than the angels (a meditation on the greatness of Jesus)

After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. ~ Hebrews 1:3-4

Our culture has a very eclectic view of angels. In popular shows on tv they appear as warriors who view humanity as an annoyance or wage war against mankind and each other for control of the world. Around Christmastime with cartoons and pageants, angels are often presented as cute children with wings and halos crooning over baby Jesus. These angels wouldn’t hurt a fly. Some people pray to angels. Some wear angel jewelry or put angel statues in their yards. And some speak about heaven gaining a new angel when a loved one dies.

Most of these views of angels have little to no basis in the Bible.

Hebrews 1 says of the angels: “[God] makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire” (1:7) and “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (1:14)

Angels are servants of God’s will and God’s people. In a sense they are servant-warriors who fight when needed (Genesis 19, Daniel 10:10-14, and Matthew 26:52-53, to name a few places). At times they appear ordinary, disguised as persons (Hebrews 13:2); while at other times they appear in power and glory and present a frightening presences that causes people to tremble in fear, yet they are not to be worshiped (Luke 2:8-15; Revelation 22:8-9).

Yes, the Bible even speaks of a group of the angels rebelling and warring against other angels in the past, but these rebellious angels are now kept in a spiritual prison and await the final judgment (Revelation 12, 2 Peter 2:4, and Jude 6). The faithful angels are mighty, God-honoring servants who ponder the mysteries of salvation while they aid God’s people (Hebrews 1:14; 1 Peter 1:12).

Yet as powerful, mighty, glorious, and even as frightening as the angels can be, they exist to point to someone greater.

This is what Hebrews 1 and 2 teach us about the angels and Jesus. Yes, the angels are great but Jesus is greater, his name is much more excellent. Where the angels are servants of God, Jesus is the Son of God. Though during his incarnation on earth Jesus became a man and for a while was made a little lower than the angels (2:7), he is the one who now sits on his throne and rules over all of creation, including angelic powers. Though the angels serve us in salvation, Jesus is the greater Servant who gave his very life that we might have life and be freed from the power and fear of death.

While angels are a part of God’s story, we are not to obsess over them, pray to them, or worship them. Instead our great obsession, our great joy and delight, is to be Jesus himself.

For Jesus “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (1:3). Yes, Jesus is better.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

This changes everything (a meditation on how the gospel confronts self)

Paul, in prison, met a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had been on the run after stealing from his master, a church leader in Colossae named Philemon. In his time with Paul, Onesimus heard the gospel and became a follower of Jesus. Sometime after this Paul decided to send back Onesimus to Philemon with a letter in hand in which we see the great call to a different life for a follower of Jesus.

The gospel changes everything. We see this throughout the Bible. Sin has infested the world and among many other vices it has found a common home in each person’s heart manifested through self-focus and selfish desires. We want to be our own kings and queens. We each want to rule our own lives in pursuit of our own happiness.

Yet when confronted with Jesus and his message we are confronted with a great love demonstrated in an other-focusedness. Yes, God does all things for his glory and fame because that is the greatest good. But in doing all things for his glory and fame, Jesus took on our flesh, became our sin, absorbed the Father’s wrath for our sake, and gave us his life. God is the self-giving God as he saves us sinners from our own sin with which we rebelled constantly against his goodness.

Self-giving in joyful love, and he calls us to do the same.

So Paul wrote to Philemon. By grace through faith in Jesus, Onesimus had undergone a spiritual release. Once enslaved to sin he was now free in Christ, free to live for God and his glory. Paul desired that Onesimus receive a social status which granted the same. In this way, Paul was able to work (at least in one situation) to undercut a societal system which neglected the truth that all people are equally created in the image of God; and he was able to highlight the reality that no matter your background if you belong to Jesus you belong as brothers and sisters in the great Family.

In Paul’s short letter we see a couple of realities about how the gospel changes things. First, Paul as an apostle had authority in Christ to command Philemon to let Onesimus go free, but he desired to accomplish this another way: he appealed to Philemon’s own transformation by the gospel. Paul wrote:

I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother (Philemon 14-16).

Paul trusted that God had been working goodness in the heart and life of Philemon and that when he came to understand the situation then he would see it as Paul. Yes, Onesimus had been a slave to Philemon. Yes, Onesimus even stole from him. But that was before; this is now—he’s a beloved brother, he’s part of the family, and he’s together with you, Philemon, a member of God’s household. Treat him as such. Paul appealed to the realities of the gospel above those of society.

Second, Paul himself was willing to assist two brothers. Paul mentioned the fact that Onesimus had stolen from Philemon. And Paul told Philemon, “If he owes you anything, charge it to me. I’ll pay it.” Then as a seeming side but getting to the heart of the issue of the gospel and the Family, Paul reminded Philemon, “You owe everything to me.” Paul spoke here of spiritual realities.

Though he himself had not gone to Colossae, the gospel did under the guidance and leadership of Paul. Philemon was a follower of Jesus and therefore one who had passed from death to life because of Paul’s gospel work. Without God using Paul to spread the gospel through the nations, then Philemon would have been without a gospel witness and still lost in his sin. Money and possessions infinitely pale in comparison to life in Christ and forgiveness from sin. Without the former one might suffer from some temporary lack; without the latter one will suffer the judgment of eternal hell.

This was Paul’s way of saying to Philemon, “What’s a few dollars compared to your soul?”

Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Paul hoped that Philemon’s love for Christ and for Paul’s work in his life would lead to forgiveness of the debt Onesimus owed. But even if Philemon demanded repayment, Paul was willing to cover Onesimus’ sin by having it charged to his account. Paul’s love for both his brothers in Christ was that great.

This is what the gospel does in the lives of followers of Jesus. If we have truly encountered Christ, we will not be left the same. We become people who value love, grace, and mercy towards others above whatever we might gain from life. The gospel moves us from being self-focused to being other-focused in how we live and prioritize our lives.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

The Feast of Lepers (a meditation on sharing the good news of Jesus)

And when these lepers came to the edge of the camp, they went into a tent and ate and drank, and they carried over silver and gold and clothing and went and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent and carried off things from it and went and hid them. Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell the kings’ household.” ~2 Kings 7:8-9

Desperate days drive people to desperate actions. During the time of the prophet Elisha, Ben-hadad king of Syria laid siege against Samaria in the northern kingdom Israel. Because of the siege and famine, food prices skyrocketed and people went hungry and acted in desperation. Some of these acts were beyond disturbing as two women conspired together to eat their sons as a meal (6:24-30). But another act of desperation led to salvation for the people.

At the start of 2 Kings 7, God sent word through Elisha that relief was coming the very next day. Indeed, God caused the Syrians to flee and leave behind all of their food, money, and supplies for the people of Samaria to plunder.

Yet before this fact became known, four men suffering from leprosy schemed a way to try to save their own lives. They would go into the Syrian camp and surrender. If they Syrians spared them then they would live and find help, if not then no matter since they were as good as dead anyway. When these men came into the camp instead of finding an army they found the empty tents, food, and supplies.

At first they planned on keeping the bounty to themselves, but then they realized the wrongness of their actions: this was good news, a cause for celebration, a fact that must be shared! So they returned to the city, went to the king, and declared the victory. Shortly thereafter food was sold in the market for pennies on the dollar of what prices had been. Salvation came to the people.

When we think about our lives in our sin, we are like the desperate lepers. We are in trouble, teetering on the verge of death and hell, with no hope and no rescue in sight. Yet God provided a way in Jesus to find life, hope, forgiveness, and satisfaction. If we have tasted the goodness of the Lord and have eaten the bread of life and drank the waters that never run dry (John 6) then we have indeed experienced good news.

With faith in Jesus as the great Savior-King and a desire to turn from our sins and turn to him, we have life. But this is something we must not keep to ourselves.

Like the lepers who initially hid the good news, we do wrong when we keep to ourselves the feast of life in Jesus when our family, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, and others in the world around us are lost and starved of the goodness of God. The grace and love we have experienced is a grace and love we are meant to share.

So let’s eat our fill of the lepers’ feast but let’s also run back to our homes, towns, and cities with the good news that hope has come!

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

Empowered to conquer fear (a meditation on how God enables us to live in faith instead of fear)

…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. ~2 Timothy 1:7

Several years ago a friend, Kevin, and I took a trip out west—7 days, 6 nights, 6 different hotels, and over three thousand miles in a car. One of our stops was Zion National Park in Utah. Somehow, someway Kevin convinced me to hike Angels Landing with him. For those unfamiliar, part of the trail includes a narrow path (only a few feet wide) with a 1000+ foot drop on each side.

Some might relish such an adventure, but I happen to be a person who grew up with a fear of heights. I’ll be the first to admit that my fear is not consistent. Strap me into the car of a roller coaster and I can happily go high, fast, and upside down with no problems. Give me a ladder and tell me to climb onto a one story roof and I’ll say, “No way.” So perhaps the fear is really being off the ground but not strapped into anything…

Anyway. Before we even made it to the part of the trail I described above, we took a break at a much wider section that was slightly slanted. Kevin crawled to the upper ledge, peered over, and urged me to do the same. I did and promptly backed away and had a mild meltdown where I was determined to go no further.

Fear can be a powerful thing.

After a few minutes passed, Kevin decided to go on and informed me that either I could join him or he would see me on the return trip. I took another minute to ponder. I reasoned that at the age of thirty and this being my first trip to Utah, I was not likely to return anytime soon. I reminded myself that as many years as the park had been open and the thousands upon thousands of visitors, only a handful had ever fallen to their death on the trail. With safety chains to hold on the more dangerous parts, the odds were in my favor to not be included in that number. Finally, I reminded myself that God is sovereign over life and death. On the one hand I should not put him to the test by tap dancing on the ledge of a cliff, but on the other hand if it was my time to go then it could just as easily happen with the bite of a rabid chipmunk as it could a fall.

So I got up, pressed on past my fear, and was happy I did. The views proved jaw-dropping.

Fear can be a powerful thing and too often it holds us back. It seems that in surveys the top reasons we as followers of Jesus keep quiet about our faith is that we are afraid. We’re afraid we won’t say the right thing. We’re afraid the person may respond negatively or lash out. We’re afraid they might ask questions we are unable to answer. We’re afraid they’ll think we’re weird.

Yet time and time again throughout the Bible God tells his people do not fear. Fear and faith are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Fear slows us down or paralyzes us due to the worry about negative consequences. Faith recognizes that God is in control even if everything indeed crumbles around us.

Fear blinds our hearts and minds to God’s will and purpose. Faith embraces his will and purpose even in the face of danger or the unknown.

The great thing is that God does not leave us to battle fear on our own. Paul wrote his final letter to his young friend Timothy to encourage him to remain bold in his work and witness. Timothy, it seems, had shrunk back due to pressure—a fear of man. Paul reminded him that he was gifted and had the Holy Spirit dwelling within, so there was no reason to be ashamed of Jesus and his word, even if being faithful meant suffering (2 Timothy 1:6-14).

In this Paul told Timothy that God does not give a spirit of fear. Rather he gives to us that we might be people who live by his power who walk in his love and who demonstrate self-control. Fear is powerful but God has given us everything we need to fight against it and overcome. Or to quote Paul from Romans 8, “We are more than conquerors through Christ.”

When faced with fear, keep looking to the God who is greater than your fear. Keep your faith focused on Jesus. Remember that you have the Holy Spirit of the living God dwelling within you. And remind yourself that God is the one who grants us power, love, and self-control.

2 tim 1_7

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

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The second most important thing about the return of Jesus (a meditation on a life lived in expectancy)

“Watch out! Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness, and by the worries of this life. Don’t let that day catch you unaware like a trap.” ~ Jesus, Luke 21:34

A good way to start a debate or even an argument among Christians: bring up Jesus’ return. For centuries many godly people have disagreed about the details of Jesus’ second coming. You find people from all types of Christian backgrounds who are post-, pre-, mid-, or a- when it comes to topics like the millennial reign of Jesus and the church’s place in the “great tribulation.” And a lot of it has to do with how people view the relationship between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church, which brings out more debates.

endtimes_01Some will say about these things, “See, Christians can’t even agree about what they believe so how can we accept it as true?” That misses the point that these things are secondary matters (which does mean we should spend less time arguing about them) and other than the fact that Jesus will indeed return, they are not central to the gospel message and the reality of our salvation in Jesus. There are some things we can agree to disagree about because none of us are perfect people with perfect understandings.

In Luke 21 Jesus told his followers a bit about his return as well as the destruction of Jerusalem which took place in 70 A.D. The most important thing about Jesus’ teaching is the fact that Jesus is indeed coming back. Though we might disagree about certain details of his return, the future hope of his return has been a doctrine that defines the core of Christianity. His return means we have hope that things will not always be like they are now. Our “redemption is drawing near” (21:28). Jesus will fully rescue us from sin and death and make all things right.

If I were to pinpoint a second most important thing about Jesus’ return it wouldn’t be about when these things will take place or where the antichrist will be born and what government he will control or when the tribulation and rapture and all of that occurs.

Rather it would be what Jesus says in Luke 21:34-36 which echoes what he taught in 17:20-37. The day of his return will come upon the world in a surprise moment like a thief breaking into a home under the cover of darkness. The world will be going on business-as-usual since they don’t have much of a concern for Jesus or his coming, and then suddenly the day will be upon them.

But for us who are his followers, we are to keep watch on our own lives. We are to be different and be expectant. We are to pursue righteousness, fleeing sin because we anticipate his return.

It still will be a surprise to us in a way, after all Jesus said, “No one knows the day or hour but the Father” (Matthew 24:36). It might not even happen in our lifetimes. But we should expect it to occur and our expectancy of it should drive us to follow Jesus and represent his love, grace, and holy character our every waking moment.

That is what matters most, second to the return of Jesus itself: that we as his people live for him in eager expectation and show the world through our words, attitudes, and actions that Jesus is better and his way is eternally more joyful. Our lives should be witnesses and examples to the reality of salvation including salvation’s completeness found when he comes back. Our witness and example should encourage others to long for Jesus and hope for that day as well.

So pursue Jesus, long for his return, and live for him. He’ll take care of all the other details.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.