Hard-hearted or Kind-hearted?

Get and keep the kind of heart God has for you.

“One day a teacher asked her students to list the names of the other students in the room, leaving a space between each name.

“Then she told them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down. It took the remainder of the class period to finish their assignment, but each one handed in the papers.

“That Saturday, the teacher wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper, and listed what everyone else had said about them.

“On Monday she gave each student his or her list. Soon the entire class was smiling. ‘Really?’ she heard whispered. ‘I never knew that I meant anything to anyone!’ and, ‘I didn’t know others liked me so much,” were the frequent comments.

“No one ever mentioned those papers in class again. The exercise had accomplished its purpose. The students were happy with themselves and one another.

“Several years later, one of the students was killed in Vietnam and this teacher attended the funeral.  Afterward, most of Mark’s former classmates went together to a luncheon. Mark’s mother and father were there, obviously waiting to speak with his teacher.

“’We want to show you something,’ his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket. ‘They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it.’

“Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been taped, folded and refolded many times. The teacher knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which she had listed all the good things Mark’s classmates had said about him.

“’Thank you so much for doing that,’ Mark’s mother said. ‘As you can see, Mark treasured it.’

“All of Mark’s former classmates started to gather around. Charlie smiled and said, ‘I still have my list. It’s in the top drawer of my desk at home.’

“’I have mine,’ Marilyn said. ‘It’s in my diary.’

“Vicki said, ‘I think we all saved our lists.’

“That’s when the teacher sat down and cried. She cried for Mark and for all his friends who would never see him again.”

<Retrieved from http://ministry127.com/resources/illustration/kind-words on 3/3/17.>

I did a little research and found out this story is true. The teacher was Sister Helen Mrosla, a Franciscan nun, who submitted the story entitled “All the Good Things” for publication in 1991.  It has been republished twice and has appeared in countless emails as a “glurge.”

The deceased soldier was Mark Eklund, a student in her third-grade classroom at St. Mary’s School in Morris, Minnesota, in 1959 and again in 1965. In August 1971 Sister Mrosla learned of Mark’s death from her parents and attended his funeral.

<Retrieved from http://www.snopes.com/glurge/allgood.asp on 3/3/17.>

This simple act wrought a lifetime of good will and illustrates the much greater power of kindness.  No one would have kept a critical note that long, no matter how well deserved.  We can accomplish so much more with kindness, it’s no wonder God  wants to do renewal on our hearts and make us kinder people.

  1. Don’t be hard-hearted. (Please read Hebrews 3:7-19)

Hard-heartedness is a resistance to relationships.  Its hardness repels love, keeping other people and God at a distance.

The writer of Hebrews is concerned about his reader’s self-hardening hearts becoming a wall between them and God.  In verse twelve the writer identifies a hard heart as SINFUL and UNBELIEVING.  In verse thirteen he identifies the petrifying factor as SIN’S DECEITFULNESS.

The fact that the writer makes this warning to church people and uses the nation of Israel as an example tells us that God-resistant hearts are not found outside the walls of a church only, but inside as well.  Hard-heartedness is a cause of hypocrisy where a person lip-syncs the words of faith but has a concealed resistance to the truths behind those words.

The ANCESTORS referred to in this passage were the people of God.  They are the generation whom God led out of Egypt to the border of the Promised Land.

There they stopped, rebelled, and refused to go in.

The price of their rebellion was 40 years of wandering around the wilderness until the rebellious generation died off.  According to verse nineteen, their UNBELIEF kept them from enjoying God’s REST in the land He had promised them.  God was not unfaithful, they were.

These people were not pagans.  They were not the second generation, who knew of God’s miracles only by reputation.  They were the people who had seen the pillar of cloud and fire, the very ones who had walked on dry ground in the middle of the walled-up waters of the Red Sea.

Know that we are not concerned about individual acts as we are the general trend of a person’s life, the accumulation of decisions made to be unloving and disobey God.  (In a cave, a stalactite or stalagmite is not formed by a single drip, but is formed and hardened by countless drips over innumerable years.)

There are at least three kinds of hard-heartedness.

#1 = An angry heart is formed by disappointment, bitterness, impatience, are some of the experiences and choices that petrify a person’s heart, hardening it into stone.  While anger itself is not a sin, the Bible makes it clear that it can easily lead to sin, especially if a person holds a grudge, keeping anger alive by unforgiveness.

#2 = A legalistic heart is a kind of a hardened heart that leads to a lot of talk about rules, very little talk about grace.  Even then, the emphasis can be self-serving; people can go on and on about rules that apply to others then demand grace when the rules are contrary to what they want.  What’s more common is people who avoid the obvious sins (like murder, theft, adultery) but are guilty of the more hidden ones (grudge-holding, gossip, lust).

There must be a reasonable but gracious balance between the law and grace, between the rules and the exceptions.  Christ is made known where toughness and tenderness exist side-by-side, where both are exercised, depending on what the individual needs at the moment.   Love is always the deciding factor, the first and most important rule.  It is applied on a case-by-case basis, by use of principles, not inflexible legalisms.

#3 is a self-sufficient heart.  Self-sufficiency is the most subtle and most devastating enemy of true faith.  I’m speaking here about not “needing” God, about thinking of ourselves as providing our own daily bread instead of recognizing it is God who enlivens and empowers us.   The truth is we do not have any existence apart from God and the sooner we can get over ourselves the sooner we can get about the business of maturing in faith and becoming like Jesus, a homeless man who lived for three years on the kindness of others.

Pride that keeps us from God is deadly.  We all have a problem called sin and we are incapable of solving that problem.  God’s solution is Jesus Christ and it is the only solution that works.  We are, instead, to be GOD-centered, finding HIM sufficient, not relying on our own meager powers of strength & intelligence.

  1. Let the Lord give you a kind heart. (Please read Ezekiel 36:26.)

This verse is the centerpiece of several promises.  Just before the vision of the valley of dry bones, the Lord makes some uplifting promises that answer in advance the question asked in 37:3, “CAN THESE BONES LIVE?”  I believe that vision is an elaboration on the HEART OF FLESH promise made in 36:26.

The pattern of the promise in this passage is typical to many Old Testament promises:

a) Restoration to the land.

b) Cleansing from sin.

c) Empowering from the Spirit.

d) Prosperity in the land.

This passage promises a new heart.  The old heart was a heart of stone (hard).  The new heart is a heart of flesh (kind).  Why do we need a new heart?  Based on what we learned from Hebrews, the answer is obvious; we need a NEW HEART because the old stony one is resistant to love.  It divides us from God and from one another.

This passage promises a new spirit.  The fact that both a NEW HEART and SPIRIT are promised demonstrates that God promises to improve our inner life in this world AND eternal life after death.   Thus empowered, the stipulations of the Law would be kept by spiritual power more than force of will.  A kind heart is neither weakness nor disorder, which is how hard-hearted people may see it.

It puzzles me why people would resist or reject God’s offer of a NEW HEART and a NEW SPIRIT.

Reason #1 = because it requires change and change is difficult.  Pride lies to us and tells us we’re doing just fine.  Our hard-heart has enabled us to cope, to survive.  It causes us to make an idol of our brains or will and rely on them.  Fear lies to us and tells us there is an unknown on the other side of change.  Even though there is a promise of improved life, fear convinces us the devil we know is better.  Guilt lies to us and tells us we don’t deserve to be loved or that we’re somehow inadequate and can’t be loved.  Laziness lies to us and tells us that it’s just too much trouble.  Why sacrifice our routine and the familiarity of our old ways when we’re not sure the new life God offers will be better?

Reason #2 = because of unbelief, the Enemy has so clouded their mind and reason that they are not only unwilling but are incapable of accepting God’s offer of change for the better.

Whatever the reason, the bones can live, but they must want to badly enough to risk change.

 

“Every employee deserves to know they are unique and valuable to their boss.

“That’s the message of Tim Sanders, leadership coach and former Chief Solutions Officer at Yahoo! Sanders advocates leading through loving in his book Love Is the Killer App, and from the platform of multiple leadership conferences. He often tells the story of a young manager named Steve, who was challenged by one of Sanders’s radio interviews.

“Steve resolved to visit each of his employees, all six of whom he had not seen face to face in over six months even though they worked in the same building and on the same floor. Steve wanted to tell each of them how much he appreciated them, and name one thing they did excellently.

“After the visit from Steve, one of his software engineers, Lenny, presented him with an Xbox gaming console. Steve was taken aback, as he knew Lenny had taken pay cuts over the last year. But he was more surprised to learn that the money had come from the sale of a nine-millimeter pistol—a pistol Lenny had bought months earlier with the intention of killing himself. Lenny told him of his mother’s death the previous year, and of his ensuing loneliness and depression: ‘I started a routine every night after work: eating a bowl of Ramen, listening to Nirvana, and getting the gun out. It took almost a month to get the courage to put the bullets in the gun. It took another couple of months to get used to the feeling of the barrel of the gun on the top of my teeth. For the last few weeks, I was putting ever so slight pressure on the trigger, and I was getting so close, Steve—so close.

“’Last week, you freaked me out. You came into my cubicle, put your arm around me, and told me you appreciated me because I turn in all my projects early, and that helps you sleep at night. You also said that I have a great sense of humor over e-mail and that you are glad I came into your life.

“’That night I went home, ate Ramen, and listened to Nirvana—and when I got the gun out, it scared me silly for the first time. All I could think about was what you said—that you were glad I came into your life.

“’The next day I went back to the pawnshop and sold the gun. I remembered that you had said you wanted the Xbox more than anything, but with a new baby at home could not afford it. So, for my life, you get this game. Thanks, boss.’

“’Sometimes people just need people,’ Sanders writes. ‘They need encouragement. You have no idea how lonely and sad some people might be. Love them everywhere—not just at home, but at work, or wherever you find them.’”

From an e-mail newsletter by Tim Sanders; submitted by Rich Tatum, Romeoville, Illinois

A kind heart is a happier heart.  Life is better, more satisfying, and easier when you have a kind heart.

What we all want, down to our bones, is a place where we can go to find kindness.  There are critics aplenty in the world outside and no shortage of people who want to manipulate us.  In our homes and here in our church home, kindness must rule.  Such a situation exists only where kindness rules in each heart first.

Be kind-hearted as Christ is toward you.

Advertisements

Wage War on Weariness #4

 

What do we do when we are wearied?

To help you be “hip” I am to the latest social trends, I read an article in this morning’s Kansas City Star entitled, “The Ash Wednesday Selfie Trend has Christians Debating: #ashtag or Not?”

LISA GUTIERREZ wrote, “Believe it or not, Ash Wednesday selfies are an official trend now. But religious leaders want people to think twice before posting.  People post selfies of their ash-marked foreheads all over social media.

“But is that appropriate? Should piety be so public?  The debate grows each year as Ash Wednesday selfies become more prolific in kicking off the Lenten season.

“The Catholic News Service recently explained where the lines are drawn in the debate over ash selfies.  Pro: Sharing photos of your ashes shares the meaning of the day with the world and is a modern way to evangelize. Evidence: Some priests and ministers do it.  Con: The solemn reminder of the day — that humans are made of dust and to dust they shall return — is diminished and lost in smiley, happy tweets.

“Ironically, some people couldn’t participate because they gave up social media for Lent.

“Religious leaders advise people to ask themselves why they are ash-tagging. To show off? To share the meaning of the day?”

<Retrieved from http://www.kansascity.com/living/religion/article135664333.html on 3/1/17.>

Perhaps the most important strategy in dealing with weariness is to LAUGH.  An Ash Wednesday selfie may be taking it a bit too far, but finding something to laugh about during our weary days is the most immediately effective “medicine” one can find!

REVIEW

  1. Continue to do good anyway.
  2. Wait on the Lord.
  3. Stand firm; hold tight; hang on to Jesus’ hand.
  4. Focus on the basics: prayer and the word.
  5. Rely on the Lord’s strength, not yours.

NEW

  1. Share your sorrow.

Galatians 6:2 reads, CARRY EACH OTHER’S BURDENS, AND IN THIS WAY YOU WILL FULFILL THE LAW OF CHRIST.  What does this mean?

The CARRY EACH OTHER’S BURDENS part is an obvious enough concept, but difficult to fulfill.  The Gk word for BURDEN originally envisioned a heavy weight someone was required to carry a long distance.  Eventually, it came to mean any ordeal or hardship a person could experience.

How can you CARRY a BURDEN you know nothing about?  That’s a rhetorical question: the obvious answer is you can’t.  Why are we so reluctant to share our burdens; to get help?  To one degree or another, we all value our independence and privacy.  These values can become detrimental if taken too far.  Pride is another aspect of human nature that gets in the way of getting some partners to help shoulder our wearying burdens.  At one point or another just about every one of us has trusted someone and seen that trust betrayed in some way.  This will naturally make us reluctant to trust again.  The line between being independent and being stubborn is pretty fine and we are probably the least qualified person to judge ourselves.  When you say you don’t “want to be a burden” you are directly violating this command!

None of these things are great reasons – nor are they good excuses for refusing to share our sorrows.  They buy into the myth of self-sufficiency that owes more to ancient Greek philosophy than to biblical teaching (see v. 3).  We must remember our human nature is not our best side; we are to live according to the Christ nature within us.

The point of the phrase IN THIS WAY YOU WILL FULFILL THE LAW OF CHRIST means two things.  The first is to gently instruct us that sharing our burdens is not optional.  It is a command to those who follow Jesus.  We fulfill the LAW OF CHRIST when we trust one another and share our burdens.  We are all priests: this is what priests do.  The second is to command us to carry each other’s burdens.  This willingness to support one another is not an option, it is mandatory.

I wondered what Paul meant by THE LAW OF CHRIST.  What LAW, exactly?  A couple of ideas: One, in context, the LAW to which he refers here must be the Law of Sowing and Reaping, as found in vs. 7+8.  We sow good seed when we share our burdens and help others carry theirs.  Second, from the Gospels we learn Jesus’ teaching that every act of obedience came down to two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-31).

  1. Spend your sorrow on service.

How many times have you observed or heard someone testify that their own spirits were lifted when they offered themselves in service to those who were worse off than they?  I believe that is both human and divine nature.  It is a good deed when we turn our sorrows into service.  It is a good motive for service.

There is an excellent example of this in the Bible.  In Luke 22:7-38 we read about the Last Supper Jesus had with His disciples.  In that context, we read about something Jesus said to Peter, a warning He gave Peter: “SIMON, SIMON, SATAN HAS ASKED TO SIFT YOU AS WHEAT.  BUT I HAVE PRAYED FOR YOU, SIMON, THAT YOUR FAITH MAY NOT FAIL.  AND WHEN YOU HAVE TURNED BACK, STRENGTHEN YOUR BROTHERS” (vs. 31-32).

Jesus expressed His support of Peter: “I HAVE PRAYED FOR YOU.”  Even though He knew Peter’s faith would fail him (and He said so in the next two verses), Jesus prayed for Peter to resist the temptation to deny Him.

Jesus instructed Peter as to what he was to do after he repented: “AFTER YOU HAVE TURNED BACK, STRENGTHEN YOUR BROTHERS.”  Just as He knew Peter would fail, Jesus also knew Peter would repent.  That’s why He instructed Peter in advance as to what he must do.

Peter was to spend his sorrow, his regret over denying Jesus, on strengthening his brothers.  This is nothing less than turning a bad experience into good by using it to motivate and relate to other believers who face similar struggles.  To STRENGTHEN means to “confirm” or “establish.”  Jesus is enlisting Peter’s help in re-establishing the faith of His followers after His resurrection.  Peter was leader at that time.

In John 21:15-23 we read about how Jesus appeared after His Resurrection for the purpose of reinstating Peter to his status as His disciple.  That passage describes Peter’s first step in “turning back” as Jesus had commanded at the Last Supper.

  1. Invest in wellness.

“Wellness” is a word that is not found in the Bible but is used in our own time to convey a desirable emotional and physical state of well-being.  Because all truth is God’s truth, we can use the term “wellness” in this sense; the follower of Christ using wisdom in how they treat their body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, according to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20.

The entire Bible book of Proverbs is a storehouse of wisdom.  Chapter four particularly praises the value of wisdom to motivate God’s people to seek it.  Here are a couple of verses that show the relationship of wisdom and wellness: MY SON, PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT I SAY; TURN YOUR EAR TO MY WORDS.  DO NOT LET THEM OUT OF YOUR SIGHT, KEEP THEM WITHIN YOUR HEART; FOR THEY ARE LIFE TO THOSE WHO FIND THEM AND HEALTH TO ONE’S WHOLE BODY. (Proverbs 4:21-22)

The connection between wisdom and wellness: people who are wise will enjoy health.   This is not, primarily, a promise that wisdom produces health, but more commonly, an affirmation that those who are wise are characterized as being healthy because wise people seek health.  They treat their physical self as another resource that needs to be used wisely, according to God’s command.  The verse promises that the two are interrelated.  Wisdom and health are found together.  Add faith and that is the entire package!

We know that the body will not survive into eternity, the soul (or spirit) will.  For now, however, as long as we live in this world, we know that we are not a soul separate from a body.  Body and soul exist together and only God can separate them.

We affirm that wellness is a proper goal for a follower of God, the Giver of the wisdom we just read from Proverbs.  We also affirm that wellness is both a defense against weariness and a cure for it.  Wellness is one of those things in life that you have to spend to make more.  This means that we need to spend more time and energy on improving our physical and emotional selves in order to build up a tolerance against weariness.

This work must continue, even when we are weary, because we know that a healthy body leads to a healthy soul and vice-versa.  We can’t have one without the other.  We are a whole person and we need to act like one to overcome weariness.

I am not advocating any one strategy for wholeness.  I’m not here to sell you vitamins or convince you to become a vegetarian.  I’m trying to convince you of two truths: It is divine wisdom to care for yourself, body & soul.  Wellness is a strategy for preventing & overcoming weariness.  The more you invest in wellness, the more strength you will have to overcome weariness.

Richard Wurmbrand tells of a legend that Moses once sat near a well in meditation. A man stopped to drink from the well, and when he did so his purse fell from his girdle into the sand. The man departed. Shortly afterwards another man passed near the well, saw the purse and picked it up.

Later a third man stopped to assuage his thirst and went to sleep in the shadow of the well. Meanwhile, the first man had discovered that his purse was missing, and, assuming that he must have lost it at the well, returned, awoke the sleeper (who of course knew nothing) and demanded his money back. An argument followed, and irate, the first man slew the latter.

Whereupon Moses said to God, “You see, therefore men do not believe you. There is too much evil and injustice in the world. Why should the first man have lost his purse and then become a murderer? Why should the second have gotten a purse full of gold without having worked for it? The third was completely innocent. Why was he slain?”

God answered, “For once and only once, I will give you an explanation. I cannot do it at every step. The first man was a thief’s son. The purse contained money stolen by his father from the father of the second man, who finding the purse only found what was due him. The third was a murderer whose crime had never been revealed and who received from the first the punishment he deserved. In the future, believe that there is sense and righteousness in what transpires even when you do not understand.” (100 Prison Meditations, pages 6–7)

Like Moses in this story, our weariness can compromise our ability to see life from God’s perspective.  I can depress us and draw a shade over the light.  Faith is where we stand, utterly convinced that God is for us.  Nothing in this world, including weariness, matters so much as that.

Wage War on Weariness

It has been talked about and reported so often that Americans are too busy, too driven, and, as a result, chronically fatigued, that it’s not news any more.  But it is worth talking about, because it affects every aspect of our lives AND because God created us to rest.  Remember our discussion of Genesis 1.  From the beginning, before there were calendars and clocks, before businesses and bosses were even thought of, God commanded that one day of the week be set aside for rest, recreation, and renewal.

As I have thought about this topic the last three weeks, I decided a little context might help.  I went looking for some information that might objectify this sense that we are a nation of walking weary.  I found a couple items.  I’m not offering them as proof, but as numerical anecdotes that illustrate the pervasiveness of the problem of weariness.

            “Americans Are Tired Most Of The Week”by Niall McCarthy, Jun 8, 2015

“How many days of the week do you wake up feeling exhausted? If you really feel like a slave to your alarm clock, you aren’t alone. Only one in 7 Americans wake up feeling fresh every day of the week, according to a poll conducted by YouGov. Experts have recommended eight hours sleep, though seven hours should also be sufficient.
“45 percent of Americans sleeping 7 to 8 hours a night reported feeling tired or fatigued up to three times a week. 27 percent of people said they wake up tired on 4 or more days per week. Those only managing six hours sleep or less each night are, quite unsurprisingly, the most tired. 54 percent of people getting six or less hours sleep wake up tired 4 or more days a week.”

<Retrieved at https://www.statista.com/chart/3534/americans-are-tired-most-of-the-week/ on 2/16/17.>

            “The Enormous Cost Of Sleep Deprivation” by Niall McCarthy, Dec 2, 2016

“Are you getting enough sleep every night? According to a new study from Rand Europesleep deprivation is a serious and costly problem for the globe’s major economies. In the United States, 1.2 million working days are lost every year due to insufficient sleep, costing a whopping $411 billion. That equates to 2.28 percent of the country’s GDP. Japan is also suffering the effects of sleep deprivation, losing 600,000 days and $138.6 billion annually.”

<Retrieved at https://www.statista.com/chart/7052/the-enormous-cost-of-sleep-deprivation/ on 2/16/17.>

These statistical snapshots seem to support the general conclusion that we are weary and our weariness is costing us.  Fortunately, God has provided several things we can do to combat weariness.  We will continue that study today and learn another step faithful people can take when trials threaten to weigh us down.

What do we do when we are wearied?

REVIEW:

  1. Continue to do good anyway.
  2. Wait on the Lord.

NEW:

  1. Stand firm; hold tight; hang on to Jesus’ hand.

Do not take your eyes off the prize.  Please read Philippians 3:12-16 in your favorite Bible, I have used the NIV for these remarks.

In vs. 12-14 Paul admitted that he had more to learn and room for improvement. But he did not focus on his failures or the wearying parts of life. Instead, he oriented himself toward the future.  We clearly see that orientation in the following: I PRESS ON…FORGETTING WHAT IS BEHIND AND STRAINING TOWARD WHAT IS AHEAD, I PRESS ON TOWARD THE GOAL.

PRESS ON is a hunting term; “to pursue, chase, run down.”  This is an aggressive term, indicating the passion Paul had for knowing Jesus Christ and expressing His character in the way Paul lived.

FORGETTING WHAT IS BEHIND means whether we see the past through rose-colored glasses, exaggerating its good points, or through dark glasses, exaggerating its ills, the fact is that it is behind us and will always remain unchanged.  A concentration on the past contributes to weariness.  Looking to the future – with optimism or pessimism – gives us strength and excitement.

STRAINING TO WHAT IS AHEAD = STRAINING is an athletic word, picturing a runner giving everything he’s got to finish first.  Think of that final lunge across the finish line.  His emphasis was on the time frame over which we can exert the most influence: the future.  Human nature is such that we move in the direction we’re looking.  That is a physical truth and a spiritual one as well.

I PRESS ON TOWARD THE GOAL turns the hunting imagery to track and field.  In any case, “pressing on” is not necessarily easy and does not always feel like a success, but it is necessary, and it is a path toward healing weariness. The Greek word translated as “goal” pictures a physical marker that indicates where the finish line is located.  In spiritual terms, the GOAL is becoming more like Jesus as we move ahead toward eternal life.

In v. 15 Paul confidently asserts that all maturing believers will share this orientation toward the future.  There is no room for disagreement on this matter.  Well, he was an APOSTLE, after all!

In v. 16 we are told the bottom line is that we don’t regress.  We are committed to not moving backward.  When we are weary we may be truly incapable of moving forward, but we should at least not give up any ground.

Please read Hebrews 3:1-14; 4:14 in your favorite Bible.  I use the NIV.  Keep the faith you received.

In 3:6 we read BUT CHRIST IS FAITHFUL AS THE SON OVER GOD’S HOUSE. AND WE ARE HIS HOUSE, IF INDEED WE HOLD FIRMLY TO OUR CONFIDENCE AND THE HOPE IN WHICH WE GLORY.  The object of this verse is to teach us about the essential role of Jesus Christ in our salvation.  Based on that fact, we have something substantial on which we can HOLD FIRMLY.  Our CONFIDENCE and HOPE are safe and secure as long as they are based on the truth about Jesus Christ.

When we dilute that truth by allowing modern culture to change our minds, then our CONFIDENCE and HOPE are less reliable.  Notice the phrase IN WHICH WE GLORY.  This means that our CONFIDENCE and HOPE is what gives us true joy, real strength.

In 3:14 it is written WE HAVE COME TO SHARE IN CHRIST, IF INDEED WE HOLD OUR ORIGINAL CONVICTION FIRMLY TO THE VERY END.  We tend to focus on beginnings, don’t we?  We get sentimental about firsts and that includes our Christian faith.  We also lump beginnings and endings into one, deleting the process in the middle.

These tendencies come back to bite us when we think that baptism or joining a church is the end of it.  This is why people sometimes disappear from church once they have achieved milestones like this.

However, Paul here reminds us of a central truth: how we begin our journey of faith is important, but it is of greater importance how we continue it and how we end it.  Commitments to Christ can be easily made in a moment, but professions of faith must be proven true by doing the hard work of living for Jesus each day, through the end of your life.  Our CONFIDENCE and HOPE are safe and secure as long as they are based on the truth about Jesus Christ.

For example, He is superior to any human priest because He is THE SON OF GOD.  Our faith asserts that He is fully God and fully human at the same time.  Any teaching that shrinks from this assertion is false.  The human side of Jesus’ nature assures us that He is sympathetic with our condition, having experienced it Himself.  The divine side of Jesus’ nature assures us of our salvation: because He is God He is able to save us.

In 4:14 we are told THEREFORE, SINCE WE HAVE A GREAT HIGH PRIEST WHO HAS ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN, JESUS THE SON OF GOD, LET US HOLD FIRMLY TO THE FAITH WE PROFESS.  The object of this verse is to teach us about the priestly role of Jesus Christ.  In the OT system, a PRIEST was a mediator between God and His people.  The HIGH PRIEST had an especially important role in that he offered the annual Day of Atonement sacrifice for the sins of the nation.  Jesus is superior because HE ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN, a greater feat.

Notice Jesus is our GREAT HIGH PRIEST, far superior to any person who ever held that office.  He offered Himself as a sacrifice for sins and that was done once and is effective to save all people in all places at all times.  Everyone who accepts this act of grace will be saved.

This is a question that pains me as a Minnesota Vikings football fan.  HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF WALTER PAYTON?  Walter Jerry Payton from the state of Mississippi. Payton lived from July 25,1954 until November 1, 1999. He was 45 years old when he died of a liver disease.

Mike Ditka was Payton’s coach and he said: “Walter was a great player, but he was even a greater man.”  Payton’s nick name was “SWEETNESS.”  Payton played for the Chicago Bears and so was constantly a thorn in the side of the Minnesota Vikings.  The worst was setting a single-game rushing record that I believe still stands.

Because it is too painful for me to recount and to avoid boring you good folks, I will spare you all the statistical evidence and just say it can be argued that Payton was the greatest running back of his time, perhaps of NFL history.

Someone once asked Walter, “Where did your greatness start?”  Walter said: “When I started playing my junior year the coach told us to run up and down the hill behind the school 25 times.”  Most of the players ran up and down the hill a few times and went to the locker room. I started to go with them and then I thought: “No, the coach said run the hill 25 times, so I went back and was the only one who would run the hill 25 times. That may have been a turning point for me.”

Payton’s Motto?  “NEVER DIE EASY — ALWAYS GET UP — NEVER QUIT — KEEP ON TRYING.”

<By Wade Martin Hughes, Sr. Kyfingers@aol.com, retrieved from https://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-wade-m-stories-84249 on 02/17/17.>

“Never die easy;” that has a strange ring to it, doesn’t it?  But I think it has a great similarity to the words we’ve just studied in Hebrews.  Weariness is going to happen.  Discouragement sets in.  When these trials come against us, what are we to do?

One of the things we are to do is resist the urge to quit.  Instead of giving up as a way to try to ease our pain, we need to hang on more tightly to the truth.  Here is one essential truth to which we must cling: Because God is for us, it doesn’t matter who is against us.  If we remain in Him, the outcome is assured.  We will triumph.

PREVIEW:

  1. Focus on the basics: prayer and the Word.
  2. Rely on the Lord’s strength, not yours. (RMS 8:13)
  3. Share your burdens. (GLS 6:2)
  4. Spend your sorrow on service.
  5. Invest in wellness.

Why’d He Do It? To End Division.

(Please read HEBREWS 10:19-25.  I have cited the NIV below.)

Jesus’ sacrifice brought to an end division between humanity & God and between one another.

During a wedding rehearsal, the groom approached the pastor with an unusual offer. “Look, I’ll give you $100 if you’ll change the wedding vows. When you get to the part where I’m supposed to promise to ‘love, honor, and obey’ and ‘be faithful to her forever,’ I’d appreciate it if you’d just leave that out.” He passes the minister a $100 bill and walks away satisfied.

On the day of the wedding, when it came time for the groom’s vows, the pastor looked the young man in the eye and said, “Will you promise to bow down before her, obey her every command and wish, serve her breakfast in bed every morning of your life, and swear eternally before God and your lovely wife that you will not ever even look at another woman, as long as you both shall live?”

The groom gulps, looks around, and says in a tiny voice, “Yes.”  Then he leaned toward the pastor and hissed, “I thought we had a deal.”

The pastor puts a $100 bill into the groom’s hand and whispers, “She made me a better offer.”

<Retrieved from http://www.laughfactory.com/jokes/relationship-jokes/5 on 3/11/16.>

The roadblocks in relationships are the ones we put up.  The barriers to love are walls we create because of ignorance and sin.

Today we’re going to see that one of the reasons Jesus gave His life on the cross was to tear down those barriers.  At His death, something supernatural happened that gave us access to God and to His love.

  1. THE CURTAIN is a symbol of division. (HBS 10:19-21).

This curtain hung in the tabernacle and later in the temple; it divided the Holy and Most Holy parts of the temple.  The instructions for this CURTAIN are found in Exodus 26.  It was to be made of fine linen and decorated with blue, purple, and scarlet threads which depicted angelic beings called “cherubim.”  I’ll tell you why that’s important a little later on.

The most important CURTAIN in all Judah was the one that covered the Most Holy Place and the Ark of the Covenant within.  Only the high priest stepped around that CURTAIN and then only once a year to cover the sins of the people.

Part of holiness is separation; that is a virtue.  When the Bible uses the word HOLY, it refers to something that is set apart for God’s glory and His exclusive use.  It has no everyday usage.

All this was done at God’s command.  The Ark was referred to as the “seat” of God and was the physical symbol of God’s presence with His people.  In this way, God was seen as present and distant at the same time.  He was to be approached by the priests, who acted as mediators for the people.

But taken too far, even well-intentioned separation becomes division.  The worst division is that between God and His people. There must be some separation because God is holy in the sense of being pure.  We are not yet perfected, so full fellowship is not possible in this life.

But people who make excuses say God is so separate from us He doesn’t see what we do or care; that He doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.  In cases like that, separation from God is self-inflicted and shows a lack of faith.

Divisions between people are also serious.  Divisions arise between people when our desires are in competition.  Divisions arise when we emphasize our differences and ignore our similarities.  Divisions arise when one or more of us refuse to heed the voice of God and love each other. (Sin creates divisions, love repairs them.)

  1. At Jesus’ crucifixion, THE CURTAIN was torn in half

(see Matthew 27:45-46, 50-51 and Mark 15:38).

His crucifixion was a supernatural event with symbolic meaning.  Both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels report that at the moment of Jesus’ death, the CURTAIN at the center of the temple – the most significant piece of cloth in the land – was suddenly torn from top to bottom.

It was not done by any hand of man – no one would dare to do such a thing.  Instead, it was done by the hand of God and designed to send this message – the Old Covenant, the former agreement, is nullified; TOP TO BOTTOM!  This detail is included to convey to us that the old system of separation was made obsolete and a new system, a new means of access to God, was provided.

It provided access to God, removing the barrier.  The CURTAIN that had once signified separation was now torn and a new way opened.  This symbolized an access to God for all people.  Instead of a CURTAIN separating us, the text informs us that Jesus opened up a NEW AND LIVING WAY into the presence of God.

  1. The tearing of THE CURTAIN represents removal of divisions (HBS 10:22-25).

The torn curtain is a potent symbol we might miss because it is given scant attention in the Gospels.  Here in Hebrews its significance is explained to us. Regarding our relationship with God, the passage indicates three different ways the death of Jesus on the cross was God’s plan to end this most essential division.

First, we DRAW NEAR TO GOD with sincere faith.  You can be sure God knows a sincere heart when He sees one.  One of the ways in which we can gauge our sincerity is to note whether or not we feel FULL ASSURANCE that our faith is not in vain; our trust in God will be vindicated.  We can be emotionally secure about this.

Second, we can be forgiven; cleansed from all guilt.  A benefit to faith is being morally cleansed; our GUILTY CONSCIENCE is removed by God’s complete forgiveness.  It is written, OUR BODIES WASHED WITH PURE WATER as a symbol of baptism and also of the totality of God’s forgiveness from our selfish heads to our wayward feet, sin and guilt are wiped away!

Third, our restored relationship with God gives us reason to HOPE and HOPE steadies us in life’s storms.  Elsewhere in Hebrews (6:19), the author describes hope as AN ANCHOR FOR OUR SOULS.  The purpose of an anchor is to steady a boat and hold it in position.  Hope does the same thing.  If we hold UNSWERVINGLY to our faith we are anchored and we will avoid the wandering that adversity can cause.

The passage does not end here, it gives us direction regarding our relationships with each other, how they are restored by the cross.  We must realize all creation has been affected by Jesus’ victory.

Firstly, loving one another sometimes requires some assertive action; taking responsibility for one another may require us to CONSIDER how we might SPUR each other on to LOVE & GOOD DEEDS.  SPUR is an interesting word in the original language. Paroxsysmos means to “stir up, provoke, irritate.”  It is generally used in the New Testament in a negative sense.  (See 1 Corinthians 13:5.)

Even though the experience may be bitter, our motive in using the spurs is not to irritate, but to initiate an experience that leads to spiritual maturity: to LOVE AND GOOD DEEDS.  This is very difficult.  It requires love and maturity to do the right thing at the right time in the right way with the right motive.

We have to confess that we’re more likely to pamper or procrastinate when we need to provoke, or we attempt to SPUR one another from wrong motives to do the wrong thing.  The best kind of love knows the difference.

Secondly, we meet together for encouragement.  This is the opposite kind of experience from the “spurs.”  Christian, if you don’t generally leave somebody smiling, you need to take a sincere inventory of your spiritual life.  The maturing Christian can be characterized as positive, optimistic, and gracious.

We can’t resort to the “spurs” or give encouragement if we don’t meet together and regularly.  Being in church doesn’t make anyone a Christian, but no one can be a Christian without being in church.  What’s more, we can’t know one another well enough to SPUR or ENCOURAGE each other unless we spent enough time together to have got to know one another.  You should quote this verse to the person who claims they can worship God as effectively holding a fishing pole or at the mall.  But be gentle.

Our efforts at this love need to be intensifying, not slackening.  ALL THE MORE AS YOU SEE THE DAY APPROACHING.  The word DAY in that sentence is capitalized because it refers to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

In a sermon entitled “The Message Sewn into the Veil,” Pastor James Groce made an inspired insight into the matter of the torn curtain. He drew a line back to the book of Genesis to find a wonderful coincidence:

“What is the message in Cherubims embroidered in the veil that ripped when Christ died?

“We saw so much in the Word of God about the Tabernacle, how it ties in with the Garden of Eden. And how the whole plan of salvation is getting back into the Garden again.

“Notice that Cherubims were sewn into the veil, the barrier, that stood before the Holiest of Holies. And we find that this veil ripped open when Jesus Christ died. The barrier was removed.

“And of course this lines up with access to the tree of Life as found in Genesis. Genesis 3:24: So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”

<Retrieved from http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/the-message-sewn-into-the-veil-james-groce-sermon-on-gods-forgiveness-37960.asp on 3/11/16.>

Do you see? From virtually the beginning of the creation of our race, sin has kept us from full fellowship with God.  Angelic beings stood guard at the garden and before the Most Holy Place.  But when Jesus died on the cross, the guards were dismissed.  The gate was thrown open, and access to God was made possible.

That’s one reason Jesus died on the cross.  He gave up His life so we could be reunited with God the Father.  The effect of sin that distances us from Him has been nullified.

In our relationships with each other and our relationship with God, there is no longer any need for division.  Any barriers we find are the ones we put there.

Why’d He Do It? Obedience.

(Please read HEBREWS 5:7-10 in your favorite Bible version.  I quote from the NIV.)

Jesus surrendered His life on the cross because He was obedient to the will of the Father.

In a recent interview, Dr. Robert Jefress was asked why he wrote his book, Not All Roads Lead to Heaven, he replied;

“A recent Pew Study revealed that 70% of Americans with a religious affiliation say that many religions lead to eternal life. Some people might think that ‘surely the statistics among evangelical Christians is different.’ Not by much. A 2008 poll of 35,000 Americans revealed that 57% of Evangelical church attenders believe that many religions lead to eternal life.

“I’ve written Not All Roads Lead to Heaven to help Christians understand why this foundational belief of Christianity is so important, and to equip believers to share this truth in a compelling, but compassionate way. If we as Christians waffle and waver on this foundational belief, then we have absolutely no message to share with a lost world.

“Think about this. If the universalists are correct in saying that everyone is going to be in heaven regardless of what they believe, or the pluralists are correct that all religions lead to the same god, then the horrific death of Jesus Christ was completely unnecessary. The only reason Christ submitted himself to the horrendous experience of bearing the sins of the entire world is because his death provided the only way for reconciliation with God.”

<Retrieved from https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/2016/02/not-all-roads-lead-to-heaven-an-interview-with-robert-jeffress/?utm_source=bg&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=weeklybrief on 2/26/16.>

We shouldn’t think of this as something remote or academic.  Just this week I received a fund-raising letter from one of our American Baptist-related institutions, a seminary in Kansas.  This letter spoke approvingly of condolence offered to a student of the seminary that he would see his Muslim grandfather in heaven.  What is better – no hope, small hope, or a false hope?  I have contacted the seminary on the chance that I misunderstood the letter, but have so far not received a reply.

When the Church fails to obey the word of God, when we deliberately ignore the parts that make us politically incorrect, what hope do we have to offer the world?  Especially in this Lenten season of repentance, what purpose can repentance serve if all people go to heaven, regardless of their beliefs or deeds?

  1. Jesus lived a fully human life (7).

One of the places where the Gospel writers show the human side of Jesus’ life is in the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus’ struggle with His impending death was so intense that he sweated drops of blood (see Luke 22:44). This dramatic scene does not diminish the divine side of Jesus’ nature, it establishes the human side.  Even if we’ve never felt anything this intensely, we’ve all had strong feelings which should have lead us to intense prayer.

When you read what Paul wrote in verse seven, you get the sense that Gethsemane wasn’t the only time Jesus struggled with what God had planned.  This is implied in the fact that every noun in this verse is plural.  Gethsemane may have been the most intense time of struggle or the only time recorded in the Gospels.

At Bible study recently we talked about Jesus’ forty-day trial and temptation.  Surely that was a time marked by strong emotions and fervent prayer as well.

Jesus prayed fervently, and God the Father heard His prayers, but Jesus was not saved from death.  Let’s be clear: there’s no such thing as “unanswered prayer.”  God hears His children’s prayers and answers them.  BUT He never promised to say “yes” to all of them.  Even to Jesus, God the Father said, “No.”  He may have added, “Your death is my will.  This way you’ll save billions.”

The key phrase is REVERENT SUBMISSION.  It explains why Jesus’ prayers were heard: He offered them in respect (REVERENT) and obedience (SUBMISSION) to the will of the Father.

  1. Like all humans, Jesus learned obedience through what He suffered (8).

ALTHOUGH HE WAS A SON refers to Jesus’ divine nature and His status as the Son of God. Even though He could’ve pressed His advantage as the Son of God, Jesus did not short-circuit the will of God the Father.  He did not pull rank to get extra privileges, but did just the opposite: He drained the cup of God’s wrath, paid the penalty for our sin, and endured all the suffering of the cross, before and during crucifixion.

The phrase HE LEARNED OBEDIENCE causes us a little concern because we understand the Bible to say that Jesus was never disobedient.  We find an example of the sinlessness of Jesus just a few verse from our text: Hebrews 4:15 says, FOR WE DO NOT HAVE A HIGH PRIEST UNABLE TO SYMPATHIZE WITH OUR WEAKNESSES, BUT WE HAVE ONE WHO HAS BEEN TEMPTED IN EVERY WAY, JUST AS WE ARE – YET WAS WITHOUT SIN.  These verses do not contradict one another, they make the same point we’ve already observed: they affirm the humanity of Jesus without diminishing His divinity.

This expression does not mean that obedience was previously unknown to Jesus and He picked it up just in time to be crucified.  HE LEARNED OBEDIENCE means Jesus practiced obedience in the same way we talk about a lawyer “practicing” law or a doctor “practicing” medicine.  He put obedience to work for our sake.

FROM WHAT HE SUFFERED is the usual method we learn things: personal experience. Jesus’ sufferings are not limited to what Jesus suffered in the two days of His arrest and crucifixion.  This verse inculdes His life-long learning, several experiences of suffering.  What did Jesus suffer?  All the things you and I do; the Gospels state that Jesus was sad, tired, hungry, thirsty, etc.  He lived a fully human life.

  1. As the Son of God, His sacrifice saved us (9-10).

In a way similar to LEARNED OBEDIENCE, the phrase ONCE MADE PERFECT can be confusing.  Being MADE PERFECT is not a statement of Jesus’ moral nature: He was sinless.  I refer you back to HBS 4:15, quoted earlier.  Instead, this expression is a statement of the realization of God’s plan.

The word PERFECT is used in the Bible to refer to things that are completed. Verse nine then, refers to the cross as the time of Jesus being made PERFECT in the sense that God’s plan was completed by His sacrifice.  One of Jesus’ last sayings on the cross was, “It is finished.”  He could have said, “It is perfected.”  This word refers to a functional, not moral perfection.

The author cites two effects of Jesus’ perfect obedience.  One, HE BECAME THE SOURCE OF SALVATION FOR ALL WHO OBEY HIM.  We don’t have space to go into a detailed explanation of this, let us just observe that Jesus’ death paid the death penalty that we deserved so we can have eternal life instead.

The qualifier: ALL WHO OBEY HIM.  Jesus saved those who obey Him, who follow His example of obedience and REVERENT SUBMISSION to the will of God the Father.  Salvation is freely offered to all, but is effective only to those who choose to receive it and demonstrate the sincerity of their choice by being obedient.

Two, it is written that HE…WAS DESIGNATED BY GOD TO BE HIGH PRIEST IN THE ORDER OF MELCHIZEDEK.  Melchizedek is a person in the Old Testament of some importance.  Abraham, the father of all God’s people, gave tithes to God as he worshiped with Melchizedek.  He is also such a mysterious figure that some people speculate he may have been Jesus, appearing to be a human being.

To the Jewish Christian reader of Paul’s time, these references to the HIGH PRIEST and MELCHIZEDEK would’ve been very important as it show continuity between the Old Covenant and New.  To us it has a symbolic importance because just as the HIGH PRIEST was the mediator between God and man, so is Christ our Mediator.

The Screwtape Letters is a book of fiction written by C.S. Lewis. In the guise of a senior devil, “Screwtape,” writing to his junior tempter nephew, the great Christian author explores ways the devil tempts and distracts human beings from following God.  In this brief section he reveals the strategy of turning people away from God by using little things, things that compromise one’s faith eventually, but individually do not amount to much.

“The Christians describe the Enemy as one ‘without whom Nothing is strong’. And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.

“You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

<From Compiled in A Year with C.S. Lewis, retrieved from http://links.biblegateway.mkt4731.com/servlet/MailView?ms=NTA3ODYwMzES1&r=MTI3ODAxOTkxODkwS0&j=ODYzMjQ5NzAzS0&mt=1&rt=0 on 2/26/16.>

Today we’ve seen that one of the things that motivated Jesus to surrender His life on the cross was obedience to the will of God the Father.  Jesus was also obedient when He brought sight to the blind, fed thousands, and did all the other miracles and teachings.  Surely those things were more pleasant than the cross.  But Jesus was obedient in ALL things, not just the pleasant ones.

As we follow His example, how can we do any differently?  When we gloss over or deny the central truths of the Bible just to fit in or make ourselves more comfortable, are we not disobedient?  If we will follow only on the easy, obvious, inexpensive, and convenient path, we will very soon disobey God.  Let us follow the example of Jesus and perfect the will of God in our lives by remaining faithful throughout our days.

Why’d He Do It? Joy!

(Please read Hebrews 12:1-3.  I have used the NIV for my study.)

Jesus endured the cross because He knew JOY awaited Him on the other side of suffering.

In the verse immediately following our passage, Paul helped his readers put their suffering in perspective: In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (HBS 12:4, NIV)  Wow!  That’s some perspective.

In other words, “You think you’ve got it bad?  What have you got to complain about?”

Let’s consider an historical perspective.  From Illustrations Unlimited, “THE PRICE THEY PAID.”

“Have you ever wondered what happened to those fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence?

  • Five signers were captured by the British as traitors and tortured before they died.
  • Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.
  • Two lost their sons in the Revolutionary Army, another had two sons captured. Nine fought and died from wounds or the hardships of the Revolutionary War.

“They signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured. They signed and they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.

  • Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died in rags.
  • Thomas McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward.
  • At the Battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr., noted that the British General Cornwallis, had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. The owner quietly urged General George Washington to open fire, which was done. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.
  • Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife and she died within a few months.
  • John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their thirteen children fled for their lives. His fields and gristmill were laid waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home after the war to find his wife dead, his children vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart.

“Such were the stories and sacrifices of the American Revolution. Standing tall, straight and unwavering, they pledged: ‘For the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of the Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.’    They made these sacrifices to give us an independent America.”

<Retrieved from http://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-michael-mccartney-quotes-price-62259.asp on 2/19/16.>

Jesus gave His life on the cross to give us salvation.  Are our love and obedience too much to ask in return?

  1. Jesus is our example of endurance.

Paul offers three reasons why we should take Jesus as our example.

First, our focus needs to shift: LET US FIX OUR EYES ON JESUS (v. 2).  Life’s difficulties tend to seem or actually become worse the more attention we pay to ourselves.  On the other hand, solutions present themselves, strength returns, and courage is renewed when we pay more attention to Jesus.  We need to “fix” our eyes on Jesus so we can “fix” the problems we’re facing.

Second, we need to remember Jesus’ role.  He is THE AUTHOR & PERFECTER OF OUR FAITH (v. 2).  Jesus is the AUTHOR of our faith in the sense that our life of faith begins with Him.  If He hadn’t loved us first and best, we’d have nothing of eternity in us.

However, Jesus doesn’t get us started and abandon us to our own devices.  He is also the PERFECTER of our faith.  That means He continues with us throughout the journey of life, working to perfect us, making us more like Himself.

Third, when we think about it, following Jesus makes the most sense; that’s why we must CONSIDER HIM (v. 3).  CONSIDER is one of three Greek words that are found only in this passage.  This is something special.

This whole passage is an athletic scene, so Jesus is our coach.  We respond positively to our coach’s training and duplicate the things he has demonstrated for us.  We follow his example.

Additionally, the best athletes do not rely on their physical talents alone.  They also play smart, learning the game, accepting the coach’s training; they are strategizing their way to victory, using their mental as well as their physical assets.

One of the many noteworthy aspects of Jesus’ character is His joy.  In this passage is juxtaposed next to the horrific suffering He endured before and during crucifixion.  The phrase, FOR THE JOY SET BEFORE HIM, is  key to our study. It seems incredible to think that JOY was enough of motive to endure all that pain & shame.  Jesus did more than survive the cross; he triumphed over it.  In Colossians 2:15 the Apostle Paul also wrote, HAVING DISARMED THE POWERS AND AUTHORITIES, HE MADE A PUBLIC SPECTACLE OF THEM, TRIUMPHING OVER THEM BY THE CROSS.

We’ve answered why Jesus endured the cross; JOY.  But how did He do it?  Paul offers two partial answers.

One, He ENDURED THE CROSS.  Like an athlete who endures enormous pain and exertion, Jesus outlasted the cross.  Willpower is power a power we can access through our human nature, augmented by the Holy Spirit.  A purpose of the Gethsemane scenes in the Gospels is to show that He was determined to be obedient, to follow through and do the entire will of God.  The temptation to quit is always strongest when we are at our weakest.  But Jesus never quit on the Father’s plan.  He “gutted it out.”

Two, He scorned ITS SHAME.  An oft-quoted proverb says, “pride comes before a fall.”  But pride can also cut short your effort and cause you to quit before you’re far enough in to fall.  Pride and fear and keep a person from starting at all!  I mention pride here because the cross was, in the culture of the Jews, the most disgraceful way to die.  As if dying wasn’t bad enough, dying disgracefully is worse.  But Jesus scorned all that.  He didn’t care.  Pride was swept away by the flood of obedience.

What source of JOY was so great that it motivated all this?  Glory.  Not in the usual sense of that term, nothing like receiving an “Oscar,” but in a far greater, more true and spiritual sense of glory as being the presence of God.  The cross was the threshold that Jesus crossed for the JOY of being restored to heaven.  It was reunion with the Father and the Spirit in relationship that had not fully existed since the moment of becoming enfleshed more than 33 years ago.

After the cross, Jesus got to sit down AT THE RIGHT HAND OF THE THRONE OF GOD (v. 2).  The greatest sacrifice merited the greatest honor. (See Philippians 2:5-11, where Paul described the same thing.)

We’ve all experienced the kind of joy that comes when your hard work and sacrifice are appreciated and honored.  That sensation of joyous satisfaction is a tiny scale sample of the JOY that motivated Jesus.

Another amazing thing is that Jesus shares His JOY with all of His people.  We too will experience – in our much smaller scale – the suffering Jesus experienced.  If we remain faithful as He was faithful, we will be glorified by eternal life in the presence of God.  WOW!  If that doesn’t motivate you to patiently endure suffering, trusting in God, then something’s wrong.

  1. Following His example enables us to endure.

JOY is not easily obtained or maintained.  There are  challenges we face that can rob us of our joy, or, if we overcome them, can become sources of joy.  Jesus’ threshold to joy was the cross.  Our crosses can be very typical experiences.  Paul provides four examples.

The first is EVERYTHING THAT HINDERS (v. 1).  This is the only time this Greek word is used in the New Testament; it refers to any kind of encumbrance that slows our progress in faith.  I would say that HINDERS is a symbol of self-inflicted wounds:

– Distractions we allow when we should be praying.

– Worldly things that seem more interesting to read than the Bible.

– Placing ourselves in circumstances that tempt us to sin.

– Discouragements that come with false guilt.

– Clogging our schedule with over-commitment.

– Stuff we chose but don’t need and is detrimental.

The second is THE SIN THAT ENTANGLES (v. 1).  This Greek word is also unique in the New Testament, which may indicate Paul is working hard to describe these truths.  In this case, I picture a runner who’s got tangled up with a hurdle.  That usually ends poorly!

The third is OPPOSITION FROM SINFUL MEN (v. 3).  We learn that bullies do not disappear the moment we outgrow the schoolyard.  The truth is that there are just mean, evil people in the world.  They may be motivated to oppose us out of spite or to persecute us for our faith.  Whatever their motive, our response to all who declare themselves our enemy is to refuse to retaliate.  We will have a more joyful life is we will strive to consider others our friends and treat them accordingly.

The fourth is growing WEARY and then losing HEART (v. 3).  The word WEARY is another word picture in the Greek; it is the exhausted athlete who does not give up. The word for losing heart literally means the unstringing of a bow.   There’s not much use for an unstrung bow, is there? It’s hard to be useful or even feel useful when you’ve given up.

But there are very good reasons to endure; Paul wrote about three.

One, WE ARE SURROUNDED BY A GREAT CLOUD OF WITNESSES (v. 1).  Suffering can be hard to endure at all; having to endure it alone is harder.   Good news!  You are not alone.  Most importantly, God is with you.  Secondly, your brothers and sisters are with you.  Thirdly, our brothers and sisters who have preceded us in death witness to us by the examples they have set.  Continuing the sports analogies in these verses, the CLOUD OF WITNESSES is like the cheering fans in the stands.

Two, we have Jesus’ example to follow (v. 2).  We don’t have to make this stuff up.  We have an example to follow, a template to use to guide us in living this life on God’s path.

Three, we have hope to strengthen our weary hearts (v. 3).  When we are discouraged and feel disheartened, we should CONSIDER all Jesus endured to give us this life.  It’s certain that whatever you and I face, it will not rise to the level of what Jesus overcame.

More importantly, hope motivates us to overcome.  As we’ve seen, the substance of our hope is that we will we find glory on the other side of misery, just as Jesus did.

Finally, let’s note what we must do.  Note the verbs:

We must THROW OFF hindrances and entanglements (v. 1).  It may sound goofy, but one measure of a person’s character is what they throw away.  Those are clearly the items they found they could live without.  I’m talking to spiritual and physical hoarders here: If we haven’t used it for God’s Kingdom in the last three months, GET RID OF IT!

We must RUN WITH PERSEVERENCE THE RACE MARKED OUT FOR US (v. 1).  To RUN WITH PERSEVERENCE simply means we don’t stop running.  Finish the race.  Keep moving.  Don’t worry about how far away the finish line is, just concern yourself with finishing the race.  Perseverance and patience are some of the hardest things to learn in life because we can only learn them the hard way.  Only by experience.

We’re all running in a RACE.  We often describe life as a race, even a “rat race.”  God did not use the metaphor of a RACE to discourage us, but to encourage us.  How is thinking about life as a “race” encouraging?

– We have a crowd in the stands encouraging us, urging us on to the finish line.

– It’s not a competitive race. All those who finish get the ultimate prize.

– There is a finish line. Every problem we face, no matter how long we have to face it, is temporary.  It will not join you on the other side of the finish line!

Obedience and holiness are running THE RACE MARKED OUT BEFORE US.  In the ultimate sense, this is not our race.  It is God’s.  He is the one who MARKED it OUT.  We follow His will, His path through life, not our own.  That also means we run for His sake, not our own.  Our life is not our own any more, it is His.  These facts ought to motivate us to keep running.

We must FIX OUR EYES ON JESUS (v. 2).  This is like setting your sight on the horizon while driving.  Your hands follow your eyes; it’s just human nature.  There’s a spiritual corollary as well.  Our heart follows where are eyes are fixed.  We fix our eyes on what’s really important to us, and our heart follows.

We must CONSIDER the example He set for us (v. 3).  In order to be able to follow Jesus’ example, we have to know what Jesus said and taught.  The Bible is our source of information about Jesus, so we must study it.

Of course, studying the life of Jesus isn’t the complete thing.  Knowledge alone isn’t enough.  We must live the life of Jesus, being transformed into a reflection of Jesus Christ.  We must be Jesus in word and deed.

“The story is told of a farmhand who had worked for a married couple for several years. As time went on, the couple grew older and older and they couldn’t do as much they had and the farm was beginning to look a little shabby. The paint on the barn was peeling. The fences had holes in them and slats were loose. The gravel road had potholes in it. Shingles on top of the farmhouse were beaten and weathered and needed replacing. But as the farmhand made his way to milk the cows each day, he thought: ‘What is that to me? It’s not my farm.’

“Then, one day the farmer and his wife asked him to come for dinner. They told him how much he had meant to them.  They told him that they had no children to inherit the farm, so they wanted to give it to HIM when they died.

“The next day, the farmhand was walking to the nursing barn, he noticed the paint on the barn. In a few days he’d painted the barn and fixed the fence, and in the next few weeks he was putting a new roof on the farmhouse and putting new gravel on the road.

“Why would he do that? What made the difference in his attitude? He was now an heir. And as a Son he began to treat the old farm different than he ever had before.

“And so it is with us. We are heirs to the Kingdom of God. And because we are heirs we have the joy of knowing that what we do, we do because of the fabulous gift of salvation our Father has given us. (From a sermon by Jeff Strite, entitled, “Beyond Servanthood” 8/26/2012)

<Retrieved from http://www.sermoncentral.com/illustrations/sermon-illustration-sermon-central-staff-stories-co-heirswithchrist-heirsofgod-servanthood-83733.asp on 2/19/16.>

“Don’t Miss the Blessing”

(Please read Hebrews 12:14-17, NIV.)

 Amidst all the material preparations for Christmas, the most important thing is to prepare relationally by dealing with the bitterness that too often separates us from one another and with God.  The Spirit gave me this message at this time to assist in this ministry of reconciliation.

Don’t let bitterness take root – it will cause you to miss the blessing (14+15).

          God’s people are to be characterized by PEACE. This command also appears in Romans 12:18. IF IT IS POSSIBLE, AS FAR AS IT DEPENDS ON YOU, LIVE AT PEACE WITH EVERYONE.  Regarding peace, there are three attitudes people have:

  • Peace-breakers undermine the unity of the church by being hard-hearted, abrasive, selfish, insensitive, or are characterized by other ways cause offense.  They suffer bitterness and don’t care about inflicting it on others.
  • Peace-fakers focus on avoiding conflict and taking responsibility.  They may not make a situation worse, but their procrastination and/or falsehood don’t make it better. Their goal is to avoid responsibility for the bitterness they feel or inflict.
  • Peacemakers choose to obey God and follow Jesus’ example by loving one another.  They are willing to sacrifice and do the hard work of forgiveness that is necessary to make peace a reality.

In order to head off excuse-makers, Paul allows no exceptions to this command.  He wrote, MAKE EVERY EFFORT; this requires real attempts at peacemaking; nothing fake or superficial will do.  It must be genuine and sacrificial. And he added, WITH ALL MEN, which means that we are not allowed to pick and choose who is “worthy” of our efforts or just work with family and friends.  Those folks who are hard to love or otherwise “more trouble than they’re worth” deserve an honest effort.

God’s people are to be characterized by HOLINESS. Like true peace, genuine holiness is made known both inwardly (attitudes and priorities) and outwardly (our words and deeds).  Holiness is to be like God, to be set apart from worldly things to pursue Him as our path to joy.

This requires Christians to be counter-cultural in a positive, redemptive sense.  There are at least two reasons for this. One, if there’s no moral difference between churched and non-churched, we are not living a holy life. We’re not behaving like set-apart people.  Two, if we are so alike the world around us, we become invisible in the midst of our culture, and we forfeit our opportunity to witness.

Paul points out two things that disrupt peace and holiness in our life.

The first is missing the GRACE OF GOD (v. 15). God offers grace to all people. But most will exercise their free will to reject it: that’s how one can MISS the grace of God.

2 Corinthians 6:1 = AS GOD’S FELLOW WORKERS WE URGE YOU NOT TO RECEIVE GOD’S GRACE IN VAIN.

Galatians 5:4 = YOU WHO ARE TRYING TO BE JUSTIFIED BY LAW HAVE BEEN ALIENATED FROM CHRIST; YOU HAVE FALLEN AWAY FROM GRACE.

The second is allowing a BITTER ROOT to grow (v. 15). This image refers to attitudes that we allow to remain in ourselves & in our congregation that cause bitterness and division: grudges.  Paul did not invent this term; it was originally revealed to Moses who wrote in Dueteronomy 29:18 = MAKE SURE THERE IS NO MAN OR WOMAN, CLAN OR TRIBE AMONG YOU TODAY WHOSE HEART TURNS AWAY FROM THE LORD OUR GOD TO GO AND WORSHIP T GODS OF THOSE NATIONS; MAKE SURE THERE IS NO ROOT AMONG YOU THAT PRODUCES SUCH BITTER POISON.  In MTW 7:17, Jesus used a similar word picture; He said a bad tree produces bad fruit; an ungodly spirit will lead to ungodly acts.

Count the relational cost of bitterness and refuse to pay it! The cost of bitterness is too high and yet it happens too often. Individuals stricken with it must be encouraged to forgive and reconcile.

It messes up our relationship with God. This is what God meant when Paul wrote, WITHOUT HOLINESS NO ONE WILL SEE GOD. In this life, it means that God can be perceived only by faith & the power of the Holy Spirit. After this life, a person will only SEE GOD if they have God’s gracious gift of holiness in them; not by personal achievement, but by grace.  Bitterness is one of many kinds of sin. It causes estrangement between us and God that can only be cured by confession, repentance, and forgiveness.

The Bible warns us that we will be forgiven as we forgive others AND that we will be judged by the same standards we judge others.  What this tells us is that our human relationships do NOT exist apart from our relationship with God.  They are two sides of the same coin.

Bitterness also messes up our relationships with each other.  This is what God meant when Paul wrote, CAUSE TROUBLE AND DEFILE MANY.

It’s no stretch to understand what CAUSE TROUBLE means.  Each of us can recount at least one circumstance where relationships were lost for a lifetime because bitterness set people against one another, where grudges were held for years.

To DEFILE means to cause another to sin.  Bitterness is a sin that spreads like a contagious disease.  What complicates it is that the parties involved are often too self-righteous or proud to admit their own guilt & seek restoration.

Don’t be like Esau, a basket case of bitterness (16-17).

          Immorality & godlessness are linked to bitterness in the sense that every sin creates an attitude that makes a human life a more fertile field for sin. Esau is a negative example; one to be avoided.

Esau is an example of this effect immorality. Jewish traditions and legends make Esau into even more of a villain than the Bible does, but it’s enough for our part to observe that bitterness and regret over his lost birthright dogged his steps and created a place for other sins to spring up.

Esau is a biblical example of godlessness because he placed so little value on his place as Isaac’s firstborn and rightful heir that he sold his birthright to his brother for a bowl of hot stew.  (See Genesis 25:29-34).  Later, when he understood he’d lost it, no amount of regret could restore it. (See Genesis 27:1-40, especially v. 35).

The opposite of godliness is worldliness, and Esau’s actions are a fine example of worldliness.  He was chosen to be the firstborn, heir of all the promises God made to Abraham and Isaac, and he traded that away for a lunch!  Ruled by his stomach!

Paul wrote about Esau-like people in Philippians 3:19 = THEIR DESTINY IS DESTRUCTION, THEIR GOD IS THEIR STOMACH, AND THEIR GLORY IS THEIR SHAME.  THEIR MIND IS ON EARTHLY THINGS.

God did not have a neutral attitude about Esau, as you can guess from the following verse: “I HAVE LOVED YOU,” SAYS THE LORD. “BUT YOU ASK, ‘HOW HAVE YOU LOVED US?’ WAS NOT ESAU JACOB’S BROTHER?” THE LORD SAYS. “YET I HAVE LOVED JACOB, BUT ESAU HAVE I HATED, AND I HAVE TURNED HIS MOUNTAINS INTO A WASTELAND AND LEFT HIS INHERITANCE TO THE DESERT JACKALS.” (Malachi 1:2-3)