Revelation 11 – The Witnesses

Read Revelation 11

Chapter 11 opens with a rather confusing series of events and numbers that jump out at us with very little context.  John is told to measure the Temple of God, though we are not told the results of such a measurement.  He is also told to not include the outer court where the Gentiles would be.  Given the Old Testament understanding of how the Temple functioned, “outsiders” were not allowed to the inner parts of the temple because they were both unclean and not God’s people.

Ezekiel is asked to do a much similar thing in a vision he has of the restoration of the Temple.  In Ezekiel’s vision, God is communicating to Him that eventually, their exile will be over and the Temple, as well as the city of Jerusalem, will be restored.  For the people of Israel, this meant that their connection to God would also be restored.  John is seeing a similar series of events, however, in the book of Revelation, this is happening on a much greater scale, perhaps as a foreshadowing to the end of Revelation when everything is restored and the dwelling of God is here on earth with humankind.  Not including the court of the Gentiles, then, is an indicator that in this time, sadly, there will be those who refuse to acknowledge God.  As such, they are excluded from God’s presence.

We are told, however, that the Gentiles (which is a metaphor for anyone who is not included in the people of God) will be loosed on the “holy city” for a period of time.  Much of the timeframe imagery comes from the book of Daniel, chapters 7 and 12.  In these visions, which are similar in nature and recorded in the same literary style as Revelation, there is a period of time in which the enemies of God will be given a sort of greater liberty to oppress the people of God.  Some interpretations indicate that this is a very specific time known as the tribulation and there is speculation about whether or not the church would even be present during it (depending on your view of the rapture).  However, Scripture is fairly clear that this time will involve the oppression of God’s people so any interpretation that involves the absence of God’s people is suspect, at best.

There have been many periods of time throughout history where God’s people, whether Israel or the Church, have faced increased persecution and oppression.  At the time of John’s writing, persecution of the Church (and of the Jews) was wildly out of control.  Scripture does, however, put a time limit on this.  While this (or these) period(s) of time are unpleasant, they are also a herald of greater things to come and draw our attention to a greater hope and peace in Jesus Christ.

One of the greatest questions of this chapter is “who are the two witnesses” and “what do they represent?”  These two have often been characterized as being similar to the two pillars of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah.  For some, this carries with it the representation of both the Law and the Prophets, a summary of the Old Testament.  It is also possible that these two represent God’s people both before and after Christ, a sort of Israel and the Church witnessing to God’s love and power.  A bit more of a stretch could be Jesus’ testimony to the two greatest commandments, love God and love your neighbor, against which no testimony or blasphemy can stand.

The fire that comes from their mouths is reminiscent of the fire which God used on several occasions in both the story of Moses and that of Elijah, to lead and guide as well as to show power and destroy the enemy.  Perhaps this is indicative of the power of the true Gospel testimony that they carry, whoever they are.  These two are also given power over creation similar to that carried by Moses (the 10 plagues) and Elijah (drought for many years).  Whether or not this means that the two witnesses are indeed Moses and Elijah, I don’t know.  Perhaps this imagery is signaling the power of their testimony and God’s power over all things.

Here we are also introduced to the beast for the first time.  We will talk about this character more in later chapters, however, it is the first time that we see a major opponent to God’s people, an antichrist figurehead if you will.  The beast comes from the Abyss, the same place the demonic legion came from a couple of chapters ago, indicating and confirming its demonic origin.  After a given time of protected witnessing, the two witnesses are killed by the beast.  Their deaths, however, are not permanent as they experience resurrection by God’s power and then are taken up into God’s presence.

Finally, returning to the trumpet judgments, the seventh and final trumpet is blown and with it comes an announcement that Jesus Christ will reign on the earth forever and ever.  At this point, the doors of the Temple that John was measuring swung open and we see the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of the very presence of God.  This draws its meaning and imagery not only from the Old Testament tabernacle and temple but also in the event of the Temple curtain being torn in two at the moment of Jesus death.  This event indicates that there is no longer a divide between God and humanity because Jesus has bridged that gap through His death and resurrection.  He, now, is Lord of all and is the mediator of the covenant of God.



Hebrews 3 – If You Hear His Voice…

Read Hebrews 3

The main theme of the book of Hebrews is the supremacy of Christ over all who have come before and, as such, all who will come after as well.  Moses was, our at least could be known as a type of Old Testament messiah.  He was called by God and used by him to save the people of Israel from the hands of the Egyptians.  After leading them through the Red Sea, Moses brought them to Mount Sinai where they received the “Law of Moses,” which became the standard for rules and laws and the identity of the people of Israel from that point on.

Yet, here the author makes a distinction: Jesus is greater than Moses.  Everything that Moses represents was merely a shadow, an echo of what was to come in Jesus Christ.  What Moses did, he did imperfectly; Jesus represents a fulfillment of that position, as well as the Law that was given at that time.

Here, then, the author gives a warning.  Moses came, and the people followed him for a while.  When it came time to “enter God’s rest,” which the author uses to refer to as the Promised Land, the people rebelled, fearful of the inhabitants of the land.  Their rebellion is attributed to a lack of faith and as such they were punished and a whole generation had to die (including Moses) before they entered into the promised land.

What the author doesn’t say here is that Christians should be fearful of God punishing us with death if we rebel, or don’t follow Him.  But there is a warning that is given.  We have to be careful to listen to God’s voice and to follow closely what He says.  Just as the people of God had hardened their hearts back then, so too can we do that now and the results can be just as devastating.  Perhaps we won’t experience the physical loss of life, but rather the spiritual ramifications of people living and dying without knowing the Lord and of the people of God living our a spiritually dead religion that means nothing and leads nowhere.



Acts 7 – Stephen

Read Acts 7

We first met Stephen in chapter 6 when he was chosen as one of the 7 original deacons.  Stephen is described as “full of the Holy Spirit” and able to do “great wonders and signs.”  His witness to Jesus Christ gets him hauled in front of the Sanhedrin, the whole counsel of religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Think of it as a joint session of the U.S. congress.

While before them, he is questioned vigorously by the authorities and they even bring in false witnesses to testify against him.  They twist his words and think that they have him backed into a corner.  Some things, it seems, never change.

However, Stephen’s testimony is nothing less than spectacular.  Driven by the Holy Spirit, a promise Jesus gave His disciples back in Matthew 10 and Luke 12, Stephen recounts the history of the people of God, drawing it all forward to the one person that all of Scripture points: Jesus Christ.

From Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, through Egypt with Moses, Stephen shows how God has been working and continues to work to bring salvation to His people.

All this time, the religious leaders are worried that they are going to get blamed for Jesus’ death.  When Stephen accuses them of also being related to those who “killed the prophets,” they loose it.

Ultimately Stephen looses his life for the testimony that he gave here.  He becomes the first recorded martyr for Christianity.  We see something here that far too often we forget: even here, God is with Stephen.

We worry so much about what other people are going to call us or think about us when we testify to our faith.  Sticks and stones may break our bones, but by the word of our testimony will they know who we are and whose we are.



Day 362: Revelation 8-12; Trumpets, Witnesses, and a Great Battle

We talked a bit about judgment and wrath yesterday, however we did not speak of one important aspect to God’s wrath and God’s judgment, something that I think needs to be mentioned here as we continue in our journey to the end of all things.  If we think back to the prophets, we see the warnings of the impending doom that come from the mouths of the prophets, warnings of the judgment AND a call to turn to God, to repentance so that the judgment may be averted.  While many of these images are unique to the book of revelation, they do hold similarities to those warnings spoken by many of the prophets about the judgment that would take place on Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem.  Here too we see God working to get the attention of all people, working to call them to repentance that they may turn to Him and be saved.  The image of the trumpets then, is not one that is so strange as trumpets and horns have been used throughout the ages to communicate with and get peoples’ attention.

I’m kind of at a loss for words in what to write next.  As we are walked through the judgments we see a great number of people dying and horrible natural disasters.  There is this meteor that falls into the water of the earth called “wormwood” which is the  name of a very bitter plant.  It could be representative of the bitterness of God’s judgment.  We also see that only a portion of the world’s population was killed, which means that there are limits to the judgments that are being poured out, at least for the time being.

There is really so much to write about here in these five chapters, we see a number of angels and demons working in different ways.  The demons seem to be working to torture and tempt those still on earth, working against God to continue to keep humanity on its destructive and sinful paths.  The Angels also seem to be at work, warning humanity of its impending judgment, carrying out the work of the Lord.  We also see that there are “witnesses” that show up as well.  In the “Left Behind” series these witnesses are Elijah and Moses who come back to earth with supernatural powers.  Actually, many of the signs that they do are indicative of the things that both did while they lived on this earth.  They were also present at the transfiguration of Christ before He journeyed to Jerusalem and to His death.  It could also be symbolic of the witness of the Word of God to the people, the two could simply represent the Old and New Testaments.  In any case, these join with the work of the Angels and that of the believers in declaring the Word of the Lord and warning humanity of the impending judgments and encouraging them to believe in Jesus.

Finally today we come to a somewhat extended narrative in this vision about “the woman and the dragon.”  There is a lot that takes place in chapter 12 and we will be revisiting it in further chapters as well.  John says that “a great sign appeared in heaven.”  This sign was that of a woman that was dressed like the sun, and had a great deal of imagery about her that is similar to one of the dreams of Joseph way back in Genesis 37.  It is enough to say that with this imagery, most people think that she is representative of the people of God.  In fact, we have talked about Israel being represented in the Bible as a woman adorned for her bridegroom, who is God.  Here she is pregnant and gives birth to a Son, another image of Jesus present in Revelation.

The dragon is also there, ready to snatch up the baby, who we are told is “the one who is to rule all the nations…”  Many people associate this dragon with Satan, with the different heads and crowns and horns to represent his earthly rule over the kingdoms of the world.  Some have also seen this as an image of the Roman empire, or perhaps corrupt world governments in general throughout history.  However, what we see is that the powers of evil were working against the plan of God, trying to prevent the coming of Jesus and the salvation that He brings.  We saw this with Herod at Jesus birth and we tend to see it often in our lives with those that persecute Christians and repress the freedom to worship God.

The deeper imagery here is revealed in verse seven of chapter seven, of a great war that is going on between the angels of God and the dragon, the evil powers that would seek to enslave and destroy all things.  While we may be naive as to what is going on all around us, there is a great war that is being waged between good and evil, between God and Satan.  This is something we tend to dramatize, glorify, and even over emphasize.  I think though that the point here really is that we need to make sure that we are aware of what is going on around us in our world today.  Satan would have us believe that he doesn’t exist, that demons don’t exist, and that he is not working against us to bring about our destruction.  What John is showing us here is that there is definitely more to this world than what we see with our eyes.  This doesn’t necessarily give us the right to start attacking corrupt governments, destruction groups, or evil people, but rather to pray against them, pray for them, and ultimately trust that God is on our side and that He is fighting for us.

We see clearly that the dragon is defeated here.  He has been thrown out of heaven and though he is still on the earth seeking those that he may devour, his doom has been sealed and his final defeat assured.  It is only a matter of time really, which is yet another thing that John is communicating here.  Has he had been encouraging the churches with his letters, so to does he encourage them now by laying out this vision that we might persevere with the assurance that the end of this story has already been told, and that our victory is assured in Jesus Christ the only true King and ruler of this world.

(I would like to mention, that the articles that I am referencing as “related” are those that have been suggested by wordpress and do not necessarily support of coincide with the beliefs that I hold or write about.  I neither cast my unknowing support to them nor do I say that they are wrong, simply conversational partners in this journey through the Scriptures.)



Day 354: Hebrews 11-13; By Faith (Israel's Hall of Fame)

Keeping in mind that the whole of this book was written as an encouragement to those believers who were facing persecution, especially from the Jews, and to those who were believers but may have been backsliding into Judaism.  With that in mind, there isn’t much else to say that isn’t eloquently spoken about in chapters 11 and 12.  So, I encourage you to read them again and remember all that we have covered over the last year.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the people of old received their commendation.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.  By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God.  And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.  By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.  Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”  He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.  By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau.  By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.  By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones.

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.  By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.  He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.  By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.  By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.  By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days.  By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of GideonBarakSamsonJephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,  quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.  Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.  And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him.  For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”



Day 353: Hebrews 8-10; Covenant and Redemption Through Christ

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.  For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.  Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law.  They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, ‘See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.’  But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.  For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.

Today’s reading continues the discussion of the Jesus as the Great High Priest and brings brings it around to several aspects of Israel’s belief system that are also integral in understanding the person of Jesus Christ.  The writer of Hebrews opens chapter 8 by making the point of the argument from the past three chapters.  We then move on from there to see that Christ’s coming is the reality which these Old Testament shadows were pointing to.  Like the Tabernacle and the Temple were earthly shadows of heavenly things, so too were the priests of Israel shadows of the true office of priest which was fulfilled in Christ.

More than that, Christ as the Great High Priest is also the mediator of the covenant.  This is not the old covenant though, as we have seen, but a new, vastly superior covenant.  Again, like all these things in the Old Testament, the covenant was the basis for all of that was to come in Jesus Christ, and it was then fulfilled in Christ.  More than that, it was not done away with but renewed and made new in Jesus Christ who is the mediator of the New Covenant in His blood, the one He instituted on the night He was betrayed.

Now, at the end of Hebrews 8, the writer talks about the Old Covenant being old and obsolete.  While in many ways this is true, we no longer have to worry about the stipulations of the Old Covenant, what we often call the Law.  This if often what we call the basis for Christian freedom, along with our freedom from sin and death in Jesus Christ.  We are called to live in a manner that is pleasing to God and that spreads the love of Christ to all those we meet, but we are to do it in response to the grace that we have received, not to try and earn our own salvation.

The writer goes on to talk about the Redemption that we have in Jesus Christ, saying many of the same things that we have been saying.  Here is a portion of chapter 9 that I would encourage you to reread… it talks about the redemption that we have in Christ Jesus through the shedding of Christ’s blood in a better way than I ever could!

“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.  For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established.  For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.  Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.  For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.”  And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship.  Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.  For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.  Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.  And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.



Day 352: Hebrews 5-7; Jesus the Great High Priest

Did you ever have that one pastor that didn’t seem like he lived in the real world and couldn’t relate to anything or anyone?  Have you been at a church that has cycled through pastors more times than you’ve had birthdays in the past year?  Sometimes it seems like those that have felt to call to lead the church are the ones that are buried behind a barricade of books and an office door that is too often closed.  Other times is seems like the right people for the job keep moving on to other churches or opportunities.  So many things in life are disappointing; either very good and too temporary, or a bad fit and seemingly way to permanent.  Today’s Scripture though, tells us that Jesus is neither.  Jesus is perfect and permanent!

If you take some time to think about the potential for a Messiah coming, and then remembering that the Messiah was actually God that was incarnated into human flesh, it doesn’t take long to realize that there could have been many things that could have gone wrong with this.  God is holy, perfect in every way.  In some cases, people can and have accused God of being so far removed that He could never fully understand the hurt, pain, and difficulty that we face in life everyday.  Some would consider God to be both unknowable (agnostics) and/or completely disconnected from the world (deists).  In any case, these are both potential understandings for God and could have been how Jesus came to earth, so wholly different that he wouldn’t fit in anywhere and really wouldn’t have understood what human life is really like.

On the other hand, the sending of a Messiah that took on human flesh, and lived a human life in all its fullness is also one that is abundantly temporary for our situation.  We all know that the death rate has held pretty steady at 100% for all of recorded history.  There had been and have been plenty of “messiahs” that have come before and after Jesus whose existence on this earth and in this life was cut short… very short.  Their grandiose claims cut short, followers were left to pick up the pieces and figure out what to do next.

Jesus is neither of these.  Jesus is neither just a human or just divine, He is perfectly both.  To accomplish what He came to do, He has to be both.  As the end of Hebrews 4 says from yesterday’s reading, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

The writer of Hebrews goes on to talk about Jesus as fulfilling the office of high priest, the one who intercedes for the people to God.  In the past, these high priests were human and had to offer sacrifices for their own sins before the could come before the Lord and offer sacrifices on behalf of the people.  Yet Jesus, the Great High Priest, knew no sin and as a matter of His intercession for us, offered Himself as the sacrifice, thus cleansing us from our sins forever.

For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.  He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.  Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.

Yet Christ takes on this office and brings it to its fulfillment.  In fact the nature of the office of priest and all of the Hebrew Sacrificial rites point towards Jesus and the sacrifice that He made.  Without them we would really have no context in which to truly understand the fullness of Jesus work in life and in death.

I like how the writer of Hebrews continues on to talk about the certainty of the promise of God that we have in Christ Jesus.  Because of all that had happened before, and God’s continuing work through His people leading up to Jesus Christ, we can know and have full assurance that through Christ we too can be sure of the promise of God in our lives as well.



Day 351: Hebrews 1-4; Introduction to Hebrews

Today we make a transition out of the Pauline Epistles and into what is known as the “general epistles.”  These books, Hebrews – 2 Peter, and Jude, are books that are written not to a specific church or person, but rather to the general audience of the Church throughout the Roman empire as it continued to grow and address a variety of issues and subjects, which compliment Paul’s writings well.  Paul is not considered to be the author of any of the general epistles either.  Most of the authors’ names show up in the title, with the exception of the book of Hebrews, whose author is anonymous.

The book of Hebrews is the first and longest of the general epistles.  There has a been a great deal of debate throughout the years about the authorship of this book.  Dr. Robert VanVoorst, in his book Reading the New Testament, points out that there have been many suggestions as to who Hebrews was written by.  Some, though this is not generally accepted anymore, suggest that Paul wrote this book.  This has been largely dismissed due to the major grammatical and stylistic differences between the writing in Hebrews and that of the Pauline letters.  VanVoorst writes, “The first author to cite this epistle was Clement of Rome (around 96 C.E.), although he does not say who wrote it… From the Earliest times in church history, whenever Hebrews’ authorship was mentions there has been great dispute about it.  Tertullian (in the second century) was the first to suggest Barnabas as its author.  The Protestant reformer Martin Luther in the sixteenth was the first to suggest Apollos, and this is a common conclusion today.  Adolf von Harnack, the greatest church historian of the nineteenth century, proposed that Priscilla was the author, which if true would make Hebrews the only NT book to be written by a woman.  (This makes an intriguing explanation for Hebrews’ anonymity.)   All in All, the argument about authorship is full of conjectures.”

While the author may not be known, it is very clear that this letter is written to the Church in general, and especially to Jewish converts to Christianity that might have been backsliding into Judaism.  It could also be that Jewish pressure on the Christian Church was on the rise and this was a letter written by one of the leaders of the Church to encourage those who were facing persecution from the Jews.  Many people think this letter was written in the mid 60’s A.D. because of its many references to the Temple which was destroyed when the Romans put down a Jewish revolt in A.D. 70 and destroyed for the final time, the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.  However, it isn’t abnormal for those writing after A.D. 70 to write as if the Temple of God is still standing, something common because of the beliefs that the Jewish people held about the house of God and the deeper nature of God’s existence and presence.

Though it is fun to know the context in which the letter is written, it is the content which is significantly more important and to which we turn now and for the next couple of days.  In some ways, Hebrews could be seen as an exposition on the speech that Stephen gave in Acts 7, when he was before the counsel of Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem.  Remember how he walked through the story of the people of Israel and God’s faithfulness, how it all led up to God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, their Messiah?  Well, we see a great deal reference to the Jewish religious systems here in the book of Hebrews as the writer references God’s work in the past and how it points to Jesus as the Messiah and then continues on into what that means for the believers, the Church, and the world.

You can see this general trend even in the beginning chapters of this book, our reading for today.  The author begins by making the point that God isn’t doing something new here, He has always been speaking through various means.  Whether Abraham, Isaiah, Moses, David, or any of the priests that Israel had, God used them to reveal Himself.  Yet now “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He 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. 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.”  It is not as though God is doing something different here, He continues to speak and reveal Himself, the truest revelation of which comes in the form of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Word made Flesh.

We see also that the author is making tons of references to Old Testament Scriptures and again, to Jewish religious systems.  He talks about the high priests, the prophets, Israel’s rejection of God, Joshua, Moses, and Abraham in the first four chapters.  Obviously, whoever was writing this was very acquainted with the Scriptures.  In many ways, one of the messages of the book of Hebrews is the understanding that we can’t fully know or understand Jesus without understanding all that God had been doing in redemptive history to work up to His coming.  As we have said time and time again, the who religious cult of Judaism and the sacrificial rites, the religious structures, the providence of God in their lives, and even the giving of the law all point towards this greater event in the coming of the Messiah.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.



Day 328: Romans 8-10; New Life in the Spirit

Keeping in mind all that we have talked about over the last two days in the intro to Romans and our talk on faith yesterday,  today’s reading is quite simply the next step along this “Romans Road” that we have been walking.  Paul’s writing in the book of Romans is meant to lay out the whole story of redemptive history in a way that is both logical and systematic.  We have walked with him from the death of our old lives without Christ, when we did not know God and did not have faith, into a new life of faith in Christ Jesus in which we are Justified and made Righteous in Him!  All of this happens because of the faith that God gives us through the working of the Holy Spirit on our hearts.  Yes, even faith is a gift of God.  We often like to think of faith as being something that we produce in ourselves… we want to take some active part in our own salvation.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that it is difficult for people to accept that they can’t do anything to better themselves.  In some ways this is a particularly North American issue.  In the United States especially, we have this notion of “pulling yourself up by your own boot straps” and “working to better your own life.”  Our culture of individualism and “win at all costs” mentality has made it difficult for us to accept salvation as something that we take no active role in.  If we could only work up our own faith and discover for ourselves the way of salvation, then we would “save ourselves.”  But this is not reality.  God has searched us out, the Holy Spirit who has been at work in our hearts since the beginning, drawing us to God and bringing us to faith.  It is also through the Holy Spirit that we are united to Christ when we come to faith!  Our Triune God is at work throughout the salvation process.

So where does Paul go from here?  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the Law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”  This is great news for us!  More than this though, we are not only set free, we are adopted as sons and daughters of God and made to be fellow heirs to the Kingdom of God.  Moreover, we are future heirs of the resurrection and the glory that will be revealed in Christ Jesus, and now in us because we are united to Him.  It is here that we begin to move from the topic of what God has done in us and the grace that we have received toward what it is that we are to do with this new life that we have found ourselves in.  Paul talks a great deal about perseverance here, without actually naming it, and how we need to rest in the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.  While life may be difficult, there is nothing at all in this world that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?  As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We will talk more about turning this corner tomorrow, but for now Paul goes back into another discussion about election (which is a topic that will come up again and again, so once again we will forego a deeper discussion on election until a later time) and then faith vs. works.  It is clear that he is in anguish of his Jewish brothers and sisters who have really gotten the law wrong.  He points out to us once again that it is by faith that we receive salvation and that it was faith that was the ultimate goal of the Law as well.  Paul echoes the words of the Shema here as well, talking about having the Word of God “in your mouth and in your heart.”  Sadly many of the people of Israel didn’t pick up on this.

This is something that we need to always have before us as we live out our lives of faith.  It isn’t about actions, not about doing all the right things in the right order.  In fact, living for Christ isn’t about that at all.  As we will see tomorrow, we are called to live lives of gratitude for all that we have received in Christ Jesus, but never thinking that what we do somehow makes us more or less saved.  Once we are saved, we are saved forever.  I wonder if that was what C.S. Lewis was getting at when he wrote “Once a King or Queen in Narnia, always a King or Queen in Narnia.”



Day 322: Acts 13-16; Paul, Barnabas, and the Jerusalem Council

Today our focus shifts a little bit from the original Apostles like Peter and John and to the work of some of the “second generation” disciples, those that would have not necessarily followed Jesus, or not been close to Him during his earthly life, but have become believers and have been filled with the Holy Spirit during these first years of the Church after Jesus’ ascension.  Specifically we turn here to Paul and Barnabas, to key figures in the spread of the early church outward from Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria to the “ends of the earth” as they knew it.  As we said at the beginning of the book of Acts, this is really a historical account of the Holy Spirit’s work as the Gospel spreads from Jerusalem, the center, outward like the ripples on a calm pond that has just been disturbed by a rock.

We see also today the same pattern that has really taken place over the course of this book already.  By this point, we are already over a year past the time that Jesus has been taken up into heaven.  Remember, from Pentecost on, we see that in these events where the Apostles and believers speak, they are “filled with the Holy Spirit” and then open their mouths to speak the Word of God.  In some ways, they are not unlike the prophets of old that spoke through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as well.  The message has changed quite a bit though for those 400+ year old prophetic messages.  In these times we are hearing how those messages and all of Scripture have led us to this point and how Jesus is the fulfillment of all that had been spoken and written before Him.

Anyways, this pattern continues here in chapters 13, 14, and 16.  Each move, each message, each time of spreading the Gospel is not something that is done on its own, but happens because of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers and in those who do not yet believe either.  This really is the beginnings of the central theme and belief that the Holy Spirit is present in all that is done in the name of Jesus Christ.  From church meetings to worship services to outreach, the Holy Spirit is the one that is working within our hearts and the hearts of all those whom we encounter as believers.  I think too often we feel like it is up to us now to take care of things.  Even though the Spirit is with us (whether we acknowledge the Spirit or not), we are robbed of such confidence and comfort that it is not our work but the work of the Holy Spirit that is really key in the spread of the Gospel.  He will never leave us or forsake us!

One other thing that I wanted to point out today was Acts 15 and the first church council that was held in Jerusalem.  In many ways, this was the first rumbling of what would later become a church governmental structure.  Throughout history, there have actually been a great number of council type meetings that have taken place.  Their subjects have ranged from creating creeds and confessions like the Nicene Creed from the two councils of Nicaea in 325 and 381, to dealing with issues of heresy and wrongful teaching within the church which have taken place throughout history.  Some of these councils have also focused on things like changing how we worship, the most recent of which was Vatican II, in which the Roman Catholic Church decided to change the Mass into the common tongue so that all could participate, something protestants denominations had done a few hundred years before.

In this case, there were some that were teaching that all converts to what was becoming known as Christianity had to be circumcised like the Jews.  For the Jewish people, circumcision was a part of their identity, part of what made them the people of God.  It was a sign that they were members of the covenant.  Yet it is all to clear that things like circumcision and land had become more important to the Jews than their identity as the people of God.  Peter once again stands up in front of the people and speaks to the heart of God in this matter.  Like all councils, the goal is to discern what is God’s will for the direction of the Church.  I think it just awe inspiring that they see here that the purpose of the Grace of Christ is not one that binds them further into the Law, and it is not because of any particular action or association of this world that we are saved, but only through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Their letter, then, and the decision that they made here in this council has much to do with instruction and encouragement, urging the new Gentile believers toward a purely lived life in which they honor God in all that they do and say, but because they are required to in the law, but out of gratitude for the grace that they have received.  May the same be true for us yesterday, today, and always.