Epistle to the Hebrews

“This is Your Life”

The day was hot and dusty.  The sun beat down mercilessly on the hills, the rocks, the long-parched dirt.  The people were standing in the sun, sweating.  There were a lot of people!  Maybe half a million, maybe a million, perhaps more, unimaginably many people.

And they were on the move.  They had been walking for years with their tents and their families, their goats and their sheep.  More than years, it had been decades.  Most of them were not old enough to remember when they started; they had only heard the stories, terrifying stories what life was like before- before…  They didn’t even have a word to call the crazy events that had set them moving all those years ago, which only the oldest few among them now remembered.  But they knew the heat and the dust, the tents and the rocks, the animals and the sacrifices.

Their old leader, the last of his generation, the oldest one among them still alive, remembered those days, and he knew where they were going.  He said they were getting close, that in just a few more weeks now, they would get to their new home.  But he did not expect to live that long himself.  He looked healthy for one so unimaginably old, still sharp-eyed and walking around.  But he had already named his successor, another one of the oldest among the people (he was over eighty years old!), who remembered when it all started.  Their oldest leader warned them that he himself would not arrive with them to where they were going.

And so, on this hot, dusty day, they stood outside in the heat and the sun, in their sweat and their thirst, to listen to their old leader for what might be the last time.  He had a lot that he wanted to tell them!  He had been talking to them for days, preparing them for the future, but also reminding them of what happened in the past, before most of them were born.  They needed to know where they came from, and where they were going, and most importantly, why.  And they listened, because they knew he was speaking the words of their God to them.  Their old leader was the spokesman for the God who had rescued them back then and who walked with them now, the God whose tent was among them, who had come with them all these years and decades, the God who was with them here in this hot dry place, and who was soon going to bring them to their destination.

Their old leader struggled up a slope, helped by some of the younger men, so that his voice could carry above their heads.  When he finally reached a spot where most people could see him, he turned around slowly, and everyone hushed except for some of the babies scattered among the crowds.  The people waited in silence for his words.

But unlike previous times, when he had told them of their God’s care for them, had warned them to avoid evil, and instructed them how to live good lives with their God, this time he… sang.  He sang!  His voice, surprisingly strong in one so old, echoed off the rocky slopes above him, and the beautiful, mysterious words echoed in their hearts.  It was a song about their God and about his people – about them!  It was a confusing song about worship and rebellion, about their God and other gods, about how awe-inspiring their God was, in both his kindness and his unique perfection.  The oldest among them listened most intently, and tried to save the words in their hearts; they knew they would need to think about this more later.  And after the old leader sang, his appointed successor repeated it after him, just to make sure that it was remembered, that it would not be lost.

Moses finished speaking all these words to all Israel.  He said to them, “Pay attention to all the words which I am warning you today, which you will command your children to keep doing all the words of this Law.  For it is not a meaningless message to you, but it is your life, and by this message you will prolong days upon the ground which you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (Deut. 32:45-47)

Over three millennia ago on a hot dusty slope overlooking the Jordan River, Moses, the servant of God, taught a prophetic song to the Lord’s people and encouraged them to remain faithful to God and to pay attention to his message.  God’s message to his people is not just good advice, not just beautiful poetry, not just rules to live by.  God’s message to us is our life.  “For this reason, we must pay attention all the more to what we have heard” (Heb. 2:1).

Contentment in Christ, Not Settling for Less

I have often heard Christians say that we ought to be content in Christ, and not ask for anything outside of Christ.  I think they are on to something important, but I worry that they might be misunderstood.  Yes, Paul “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil. 4:12), and the letter to the Hebrews commands, “be content with what you have,” linking that to God’s presence: “because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you'” (Heb. 13:5).  But if this is the case, why do some people hear “you should be content in Christ” as a disappointment? (more…)

Judging Christians

Judgmentalism is unattractive in modern, liberal, western culture.  After the accusation that all Christians are hypocritical, the notion that Christians are judgmental (and its frequent companion, closed-minded) is one of the reasons I have most frequently heard for why non-Christians have no interest in Christianity.  Some of the cleverer non-Christians, and many of the more liberal Christians, have even learned to cite Jesus himself, who said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1).  So judging is always wrong, right?

The issue of Christians exercising judgment is not so simple.  While the criticism that (most) Christians are too judgmental has merit, I think it is rather that Christians sin by judging in the wrong direction.  Jesus also said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).  Not only does Jesus command not to judge, he also commands Christians to exercise judgment correctly.  Hateful judgmentalism makes obvious a lack of love, but what judgment’s “cultured despisers” often fail to realize is that refusal to condemn sin can itself be a failure to love fully.  But what does it mean to judge “correctly”? (more…)

Prayer, Christology, and the Need for Better Exegesis

This is something of a rant.  I have some pet peeves, among which is when people misinterpret the Bible to fit their pet concepts and models.  Even if the larger point they are making is good, good ends do not justify bad means.  I’m reading a book on prayer right now which I think illustrates this perfectly.  I’m not quite halfway through it, and I generally have a high bar for what constitutes good writing on the subject of prayer (and a low tolerance for Christian cliches and platitudes).  On the whole, I think the book is very good, and it has already helped me with certain issues in my prayer life.  But some of what the book says about Jesus is just flat wrong, even if it’s with good intentions.  And much of how the author draws from the Bible is deeply wrong-headed, even if I think the author has understood some important things about prayer.  (Because of this mixed review, I will not name the author or the book in this post.)  So I’m not condemning the book or the author, but I thought I would vent my frustration by using a few examples from the book to show how bad exegesis is a problem, even for a good end. (more…)

Basic Ecclesiology 2: Jesus

If, as I argued before, the Greek word ekklesia just means a gathering, then what makes an ekklesia into the Christian Church?

Being an adult convert, I never actually went to Sunday School, but I am told that there is often a single answer that works for every question.  I enjoy a little joke which plays on this observation: A new Sunday School teacher comes and tries to start his relationship with the class to a good start, and so asks a simple question: “What’s gray, runs in trees, eats nuts, and has a large bushy tail?”  No student raises a hand, but one girl in front has a big frown on her face.  The new teacher asks her, “What’s wrong?” and receives the reply, “I know the answer’s Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel!”

It is not a squirrel which makes a gathering into the Church (except perhaps sometimes); the Sunday School answer is correct.  It is obvious, and true: Jesus Christ is what makes a gathering into the Christian Church. (more…)

A Tale of Two Priesthoods

It is often claimed that one insuperable difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants, since Luther, believe in the priesthood of all believers, while Catholics believe Christians need a priest to bring them to God.  Today this is usually a Protestant accusation against Catholics, although in the sixteenth century Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers, including illiterate and semi-literate peasants, did come in for a certain amount of ridicule from some of the more educated members of the clergy.  Some of the wilder branches of Protestantism have gone further than Luther, even rejecting, on the claimed basis of the “priesthood of all believers,” any ordained clergy whatsoever (this includes the Plymouth Brethren and the Quakers), while many “Bible-believing” Protestants draw a sharp distinction between Roman Catholic priests and their own pastors or elders.  As with so many things, however, the disagreement between the denominations over the scope of the priesthood is based more on an argument over words than over the substance of what the Bible says.  There are substantive disagreements in Roman Catholic and various Protestant understandings of priesthood(s), but the “argument” over the priesthood or not of all believers can safely be put down to a deficiency of northern European languages like English, which have one word where Greek has two, and a desire on both sides of the argument to affirm the superiority of their group over those who disagree with them.

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