Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

Living Our Baptismal Calling: Confess

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John 4:1-42 Jesus and the Samaritan Woman

Key verses:  John 4:13–14 (NLT)  Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. 14 But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”

This is the familiar passage about Jesus meeting a woman at the well.  In John 3, we saw Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, sneaking in to meet Jesus at night.  Now Jesus is on his way back from Jerusalem and stops to rest at the well of Sychar, a village in Samaria.  Scholars believe that the village of Sychar is most probably to be identified with the town of Shechem, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph (John 4:5).

There was a well there which is ascribed to Jacob.  The well is still there near the village of Askar.  The well is 100 feet deep and is fed by a nature spring.  It continues to provide fresh water.  In Jesus time, the well was probably had a low wall around it and had a cover over it, upon which Jesus sits.  The well provides the main metaphor which Jesus uses in his discourse with the woman at the well.

We are not told the woman’s name.  In contrast to Nicodemus, she is anonymous.  This may be that she is meant to represent all of us.  In Jesus discourse with Nicodemus, we are left to wonder what happened to him.  Jesus gave him this famous call to eternal life:  John 3:16, 17 “For this is how God loved the world:  He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.  God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the wotld through him.” The contrast between Nicodemus and the woman couldn’t be more obvious.

A lot of sermon points have been made about the morality of the woman.  We shouldn’t judge her too harshly.  Women in the Jewish society of the ANE had few opportunities.  The likelihood is that she was abandoned and/or divorced by these 5 men.  And she was not married to the man she was now with.

The biblical claim is that the Samaritans are the descendants of the pagan settlers of northern Palestine who were resettled there by the Assyrian Empire after the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel.  These settlers married the poor Jewish folk who remained in the land.  DNA tests have proven the biblical claims of their origin.

There are some 700 Samaritans who still live in Palestine near Mount Gerazim.  Many scholars believe that there was a sizeable Samaritan population in the churches to which John was writing this Gospel.  Hence the inclusion of this passage, which is unique to John.

The antipathy between the Jews and the Samaritans is rooted in the Jewish return from exile as recounted in Ezra-Nehemiah.  When the returning Jews asked for help in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans refused.  (Ezra 4:7-24; Neh. 4:1-9).  Later they built their own temple on Mount Gerazim.  This temple was destroyed by the Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus in 128 BC.  Hostility toward Jewish travelers through Samaria resulted in most Jews choosing to take the longer route between Galilee and Judea along the Jordan R.

The key question in the passage (and in the Gospel of John) is “Who is Jesus?”  A. B. Simpson wrote a song entitled, “What Will You Do with Jesus?”  The woman’s understanding of who Jesus is changes from “a Jew” (v. 9), to a respectful “sir” (v. 11), to a “prophet” (v. 19).  The Samaritans only have the Torah, the books of Moses.  They do not include the Prophets or the Writings in their Scriptures.

“If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”  The gift of God of which Jesus speaks, he will later name as the Holy Spirit.  Later Jesus would say, (John 7:37-39), “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me!  Anyone who believes in me may come and drink!  For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’ ” (When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. But the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet entered into his glory.)  The whole setting and discourse help us to remember our own baptismal calling, as the Samaritan woman is being called to make a confession of faith.

The Samaritan woman would have remembered the promise of the coming of a “Prophet” like Moses (Deut. 18:15).  This is the first prophecy of the coming Messiah.  So they too were a people awaiting the Messiah, as the woman’s response to Jesus confirms:  “I know the Messiah is coming – the one who is called the Christ.  When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”  (v. 25)

The climactic moment in the story comes in the next verse, Then Jesus told her, “I Am the Messiah!”  Literally, “I Am – the one who speaks to you!”  (Ego eimi – ho lalon soi.)  No where does Jesus make such a plain statement of his identity.  He is the Messiah, and all that goes along with that title:  Son of God and Son of Man.  Jesus, announcing the marvelous and unthinkable, stepped right into the center of her hopes.

Jesus’ discourse with the woman is interrupted by the return of the disciples.  Jesus uses the opportunity as a teaching moment for them as he speaks of the coming spiritual harvest (vv. 34-38).

Meanwhile the woman runs into the village and becomes the first disciple to preach the Good News about Jesus Christ to the Samaritans.  And the harvest comes:  “Many Samaritans from the village believed in Jesus…”  And they also join the chorus of witnesses in Jesus:  “Now we know that he is indeed the Savior of the world.”  The promise of John 3:16 is beginning to be fulfilled.

A. B. Simpson’s Gospel song, “What Will You Do with Jesus?” first verse and refrain says:  Jesus is standing in Pilate’s Hall – friendless, forsaken, betrayed by all,

Harken!  What meaneth the sudden call?  What will you do with Jesus?

What will you do with Jesus? Neutral you cannot be;

Someday your heart will be asking, “What will He do with me?”

Jesus went out of His way to minister to this woman.  In the same way, He went out of His way – to the cross – so that we could know God’s truth about salvation.

 

 

 

 

Salt and Light

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Matthew 5:13–16 (NLT)

“You are the salt of the earth…”  “You are the light of the world…”  (Matt. 5:13a, 14a)

 

In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus continues teaching about life in the Kingdom of God.  This is the second passage in the Sermon on the Mount.  In the first passage, known as the Beatitudes, Jesus gave us lifestyle and character of a follower of Jesus.

In this passage, Jesus uses the metaphors of salt and light.  “You are the salt of the earth.”  In the ancient world, salt was a valuable commodity.  In fact, Roman soldiers received salt as part of their payment, their salarium from which we get our word salary.  Salt is one of the oldest and most ubiquitous food seasonings.  Salt was useful as a condiment as it is today, but also useful as a food preservative.  In the Jewish religion, salt was also used for cleansing rituals.  In Leviticus, salt represents the relationship between God and Israel in the grain offering.  (Lev. 2:13)  Salt is a mineral that is essential for life.  And saltiness is one of the basic human tastes.  In fact, salt was so important to the economy of the ancient world that it was used as a medium of exchange throughout the Ancient Near East.  It is likely that Jesus does not have one of these particular properties in mind, but rather saltiness in general.

How can salt lose its saltiness?  In our modern society, we are used to pure salt, but in the ancient world, pure salt was not so easy to come by. Perhaps Jesus had in mind, impure salty rock which was used as a preservative could have the salt leached out of it after a period of time and then it was good for nothing.  Whatever the meaning of salt losing its saltiness, the next statement is clear.  Salt that is not salty is worthless and thrown out into the street.

In the next verse, Jesus uses the metaphor of “the light of the world” for this disciples, “like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden.”  The light metaphor continues the salt metaphor and takes it one step further.

“Light” is an important theme in Scripture.  In John 1, Jesus is “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.”  (John 1:5)  The physical contrast between the light and the darkness provides a metaphor for the contrast between good and evil, God and the spiritual forces of evil, the Kingdom of God and the world, believers and unbelievers.  Jesus later declared that he is “the light of the world.”  (John 8:12; 9:5)

Jesus’ life and the Good News of salvation bring light to those in darkness (Matt. 4:15-16).  In the same way, his disciples demonstrate the coming of the Kingdom of God and bring light into a world of darkness.  Just as a city on a hill cannot be hidden.  You can see the city lights from far away.

In the same way, you wouldn’t hide a lamp under a basket.  Common sense tells you that you put a lamp up where it can be seen and where it can best shed light to the whole room.  In the ANE, the kind of lamp that was used was a small clay pot with a hole at one end, and a hole in the top to fill it.  It looks like a small tea pot.  The wick would come out of the spout.  Since these were very small, they would only give off a modest light.  To best use it, one would place it on a lamp stand, so it would give light to everyone in the house.

Jesus’ disciples are called to be the light of the world.  We cannot be hidden, because the very nature of the eternal life within us is a living testimony to the darkness around us.  Even one candle seems bright in a dark room.  Likewise the church is to be like a city set on a hill.  I like the way that Eugene Petersen puts it, “God is not a secret to be kept.  We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill.  If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you?  I’m putting you on a light stand.  Now that  I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand – shine!”

The passage ends with an admonition, “In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”  The good deeds of the follower of Christ will draw other people to live similarly and to glorify God.

When we share food with the hungry, we are the light of the world!

When we care for those who are homeless, we are the light of the world!

When we offer companionship to the lonely, we are the light of the world!

When we clothe the poor, we are the light of the world!

When we speak up for justice, we are the light of the world!

When we do such things in a weary world, we are the light of the world!

(Laura Jaquith Bartlett, The Abingdon Worship Annual 2017, Feb. 5, 2017)

 

The Fruit of the Spirit: Patience

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In our society, which depends so much on technology, we have become ever and ever less patient.  The Ford Model T, the first successful mass produced car, could drive along at the breath-taking speed of 40 mph.  When I first drove on the autobahn in Germany, I drove as fast as I dared to drive, perhaps 80 mph, but I was being passed by drivers in Mercedes, BMW’s, and Porsche’s.  They were going so fast that I felt as if I was standing still.  Where were they going in such a hurry?

I remember when I got my first personal computer and connected it to the internet via the telephone line and then waited minutes while the computer booted up and connected to the internet.  Now I get impatient when it takes my computer a couple of seconds to load a webpage.  Is our technology making us less patient?  At the very least, our society encourages less patience, from fast food to the internet, we have become a very impatient society.  Yet we are not more productive for all our lack of patience.

Patience is defined by Webster as “the capacity, habit or fact of being patient; forbearance; bearing pains or trials calmly or without complaint; not hasty or impetuous; steadfast despite opposition, difficulty or adversity; able or willing to bear.”  Someone has joked that one should never pray for patience, because God will put you into situations that require patience.  Increasing patience is a work of the Holy Spirit.

When I think of patience, I normally think of it’s antonym:  impatience.  But the biblical concept of patience is better defined as forbearance or long-suffering.  The primary Greek word is makrothumia, forbearance, patience, or long-suffering.  This is the word used in Galatians 5:22.

Forbearance, long-suffering imply self-restraint before proceeding to action.  Forbearance is the quality of a person who is able to avenge him or herself but forbears from doing so.  Forbearance or long-suffering is patience with respect to persons in contrast to endurance (hupomone), which is patience in respect to things or circumstances.  God’s forbearance in respect to human sin is associated with God’s mercy (eleos).

Patient forbearance is the characteristic that God has demonstrated to us through offering his great salvation.  In my daily life, I often find myself becoming impatient with people, from the slow waitress at the restaurant to the well-meaning, but chatty senior citizen.  Don’t they know how busy I am?  Don’t they know that I’ve got things to accomplish and get done?

I need to slow down and recognize the Spirit of God in these moments.  Am I extending the same mercy and patience to them that God has showed to me?

I’m reading a book right now called The Anatomy of Peace:  Resolving the Heart of Conflict, by the Arbinger Institute.  According to the authors, the heart of conflict is the problem of seeing people as objects.  The root of the author’s philosophy comes from Martin Buber, Ich und Du (I and Thou).  Buber’s main proposition is that we can address human existence in 2 ways:  The attitude of the “I” towards an it, that is as an object that is separate in itself ; or the attitude of the “Thou,” in a relationship in which the other is not separated from us by discrete bounds.  The main theme of the book is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships.  Buber believed that all of our relationships bring us ultimately in relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou.

In my relationships with people with whom I experience impatience, it is because I am seeing them as objects, rather than people, as “it”, rather than “Thou.”  But if I take a moment and try to connect with the slow waitress, for example, my impatience disappears as I see them as people who may be experiencing the same frustrations that I experience in my life.  When I see people as objects, I am betraying my self.  It is a betrayal of my own sense of the right way to act in any given moment.

Throughout this day, Lord, help me to take notice of people – to see them as “Thou,” that is, people who are experiencing the same frustrations and trials that I myself experience.  Help me to be patient and forbearing as I recognize our mutual humanity.  Help me especially to recognize “Thou,” the Spirit of the living God in whose image we are all made.  Amen.

Get Ready! Get Set! Go!

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Hebrews 12:1–2 (NLT) Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.* Because of the joy* awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.

These 2 verses are very important to me.  In fact, they are my life verses.  Christians sometimes have a life verse, one or 2 verses that seem to speak to the person’s life and purpose in Christ.  For me these 2 verses offer direction and inspiration for my life and walk with Jesus Christ.

The first thing that the author reminds us is the great cloud of witnesses of which he has just spoken in ch. 11:  Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, Samuel and all the prophets.  And not only these witnesses, but the great cloud of witnesses that have come down through the centuries, the great saints through the ages:  Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and John Wesley, just to name a few.  And all those who have influenced me:  Thomas Oden, Eugene Petersen, Justo Gonzalez, and all my seminary professors:  John A. Cook, Joseph Dongell, Jeffrey Frymire, Richard Gray, Craig S. Keener, Kevin Kinghorn, Frederick Long, Ellen L. Marmon, Stacey Minger, Steven O’Malley, Greg Okesson, Joseph Okello, John Oswalt, Michael Petersen, Stephen Seamands, Timothy Tennent, Thomas Tumblin, Russell West, Ben Witherington III, and many others especially my friend and mentor Rev. Dr. William Sillings.  Then I think about the great saints of the churches I have served and where I grew up in the faith.  I think about Calvary UMC, Windber, PA and especially Rev. Dan Orris who confirmed me and took an interest in me and led me into the life of faith.  I think of all those ladies who took the time to teach children’s Sunday School.  I remember the faith of my grandmother Mary Felix Herdman, and my mother, Carol Martinez.

When you begin to name the names of those people of faith who have influenced me, just one life, it soon becomes a great cloud of witnesses.  I am grateful all those who influenced me for Christ.  I can’t even remember all your names, but in my life y’all have been a great cloud of witnesses, as influential and important as those listed in the Hall of Faith (Heb. ch. 11)

And then the author uses this metaphor of running the race.  Like we are in this great race, like the Olympic marathon, and we are entering the stadium to the cheering throng of believers who has gone before us.  I had the experience of running the Stuttgarter Zeitung Half-Marathon.  It runs 13.1 miles through the streets of Stuttgart.  The finish is in the stadium for the VfB Stuttgart 1893, the professional soccer team.  As you enter the stadium, it was filled with all the well-wishers and family and friends of those running.  They actually film you entering and they announce you as you surge toward the finish line, “Here comes Steven!”  And you feel like a professional athlete, like you are winning the Olympics.  And everyone who finishes gets a medal.

That’s what it’s like to run the race of faith.  “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses to the life of faith, cast off every impediment and the sin which so easily entangles us…”  (Heb. 12:1)  The word translated as cast off is apothmenoi, meaning to lay aside, to put off in a figurative sense.   The word translated impediment is ogkos, meaning a tumor, mass, magnitude, weight, burden, impediment.  The impediments or encumbrances are those things which might not be sins, but are things that might call us away from the life of faith.  In the parable of the sower, Jesus calls these things “the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for others things.”  So Jesus says, “so no fruit is produced.” (Mark 4:19)  Sports are good, but when sports cause us to avoid going to church, for example, they become an impediment or encumbrance to our faith.

The word translated as sin is hamartia meaning sin, missing the mark.  Sin is missing the true end and scope of our lives, which is God.  Sin is an offense in relation to God with an emphasis on the truth.  The basic sense of this word is as if you aiming at a target  and you miss it.  In this case, the author is speaking of “especially the sin that so easily trips us up,” by which he means particular sins and especially the sin of unbelief, that is, leaving behind faith in Jesus Christ.

What the author suggests is that the life of faith is like a race.  And in a race, the runners don’t wear their regular clothing (in fact, in Greco-Roman times, the Olympic athletes would run naked).  But they wear special running clothes, light weight clothing and special racing shoes.  They want to run as fast as they can, so they get rid of every weight that would slow them down.  That is how we should run the race of or life of faith.

“Run with endurance the race God has set before us.”  (Heb. 12:1)  In the Greek, this is the only imperative.  It’s the key part of these verses.  It’s what the author is emphasizing.  The word for race is agon from which we get our English word ‘agony,’ meaning a contest or race for victory such as running, boxing, or wrestling.  So Paul says, “Fight the good fight of the faith…”  (1 Tim. 6:12)  and “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize?  So run to win! ”  (1 Cor. 9:24)

The word translated endurance is hupomone meaning bearing up under, patience, endurance as to things or circumstance; perseverance, patience, endurance, constancy under suffering in faith and duty.  In the letter to the Hebrews, the author is writing to the church who are suffering persecution and as a result are wavering in their faith and in fact, some may have given up the faith and returned to Judaism.  So the author wants to encourage them to continue to run the race with endurance and patience even in suffering.

How do we run the race of faith with endurance?  “We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.”  (Heb. 12:2)  Jesus is the supreme example of faithful endurance (Heb. 3:1)  Our endurance and perseverance in the Christian life will depend on keeping our focus on Jesus and on his saving work .  He is the champion who has gone before us and has accomplished everything necessary for faith under the new covenant to be a reality.  He is our leader and our supreme example, and he is also the firstfruits of salvation in the resurrection.  His resurrection proves the truth of our blessings of eternal life and the resurrection:  our blessed hope.

Lord, we thank you for this race of faith into which you have invited us.  I’m grateful for the great cloud of witnesses who have been influential in my life of faith, both those I have known personally and those whose influence has been through books and sermons.  I’m especially grateful for the example of faithful family, my grandmother and mother who have run the race and are now looking down on my race and cheering me on to the finish line.  Give me that faith of those who went before me that I might too run the race to the finish.  Give me that faith to endure to the end, following my Captain and Champion, Jesus Christ, never losing sight of Jesus, my Lord, as he runs before me.  Amen.

Live Strong by Faith

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Hebrews 11:1–3 (NLT) Great Examples of Faith

Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation.  By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.

Hebrews 11, called the “Hall of Faith,” is one of the most beloved chapters in the Bible.  In Heb. 10:37, 38, the author quotes from Hab. 2:3, 4 “For in just a little while, the Coming One will come and not delay.  And my righteous ones will live by faith…”

As he thinks about living by faith.  He begins with a definition of faith.  He says, “Faith is resolute confidence…”  The word translated confidence in the NLT is hupostasis.  Hupostasis is a noun meaning ‘resolute confidence,’ literally, standing under or understanding; assurance.  The word translated as “conviction” is elegchos, meaning certain persuasion.  In this case, “Faith is the resolute confidence of what we hope for, the conviction of things not seen.”  (v. 1) The author’s 2 fold definition suggests that if we can see it, then it is not faith.  Faith is acting on what God has revealed about God’s will and character.  “For by it the people in days of old gained a good reputation.”  (v. 2)

In v. 3, the author begins to repeat this phrase, “Pistei…” meaning “By faith…” “By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.”  This is a fundamental belief of both Judaism and Christianity (Gen. 1:1-3).  God created everything in the universe that we can now see, and it was all created out of nothing.  A life of faith understands that, by analogy, God’s promises are real and will be called into reality by God, even if at present they are unseen.

The normal Christian life is a life lived by faith.  This is the main point of the text.  God is faithful and can be counted on to bring to completion all of God’s plans and promises.  The normal life of faith means living in the light of eternity.  All of the examples that follow (vv. 4-31) demonstrate this life of faith.

The remainder of the chapter can be divided up into 3 sections and a conclusion:  Introduction (vv. 1-3); I.  Examples of faith from Abel to Abraham (vv. 4-12); Interlude:  Faith of pilgrims (vv. 13-16); II.  More examples of faith from Abraham to Rahab (vv. 17-31); Conclusion:  Overview of the history of OT faith (vv. 32-40)

For example, Enoch was taken up into heaven and did not face a normal death.  (Gen. 5:24).  The author uses Enoch as an example to cite this principle in v. 6:  “And it is impossible to please God without faith.  Anyone who wants to come to God must believe that God exists and that God rewards those who sincerely seek God.”  The author alludes back to his theme verses from Hab. 2:3, 4 (Heb. 10:37-38).  The belief that God exists is a properly basic belief.  And the second belief follows it, that the God in whom we believe is able to fulfill all God’s promises.  God is faithful and trustworthy.  God will fulfill all God’s promises.  In all our difficulties and trials, we can trust in God and anticipate the fulfillment of God’s promises.

In the example of Abraham, the author cites 2 events in Abraham’s life:  the calling of Abraham (vv. 8-10; Gen. 12:1-2; 10:-13:18); and the birth of Isaac (vv. 11-12; Gen. 22:17)  The OT account tells us that Abraham obeyed God, and God counted his obedience as righteousness.  Abraham stepped out in faith, not knowing where he was going, but only obeying God as he understood that God promised him a land which not he, but his descendants would possess:  the promised land (a major theme in this text).  And the author identifies the Promised Land with “a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God” to which Abraham was confidently looking forward.  He takes the Promised Land to be, not the physical land of Canaan, but the heavenly Kingdom of God.  (v. 10)

In the interlude (vv. 13-16), the author says that “All these people died still believoing what God had promised them.  They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it.  They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth.”  (v. 13)  They were strangers (xenoi) and exiles (parepidemoi).  Xenos means a guest, stranger, meaning a friend although a stranger.  Parepidemos means a stranger, a sojourner; not simply one who is passing through, but a foreigner who has settled next to native people.  This points out a basic understanding of the nature of the Christian life.  This world is not our home, rather we are here as strangers and foreigners, immigrants if you will.  We are passing through this world until we get to our real heavenly home.

Living strong by faith involves resolute confidence in response to what God has made known (11:1-3).  As seen in the examples of faith in Hebrews 11, living strong by faith is the normal Christian life.  We live in the light of eternity.

Living by faith as demonstrated in the example of ch. 11 shows how faith worked in the lives of Abraham, Moses, and the other OT saints.  The danger is that we might say, “I’m not like Abraham, or Moses, or David.  They are in the Bible.”  But when you examine the biblical record you find that Abraham was a liar as was Jacob. Sarah was a doubter.  Joseph was a tattle-tail.  Moses was a murderer.  David was an adulterer.  The account ends with Rahab the prostitute.  These were just ordinary people living ordinary lives, until they responded to the call of God.  And even after stepping out in faith they still struggled.  They never received the promises of God, they lived in the light of those promises, understanding that God is faithful.  And the faithful God who calls us to step out in faith, will also be faithful to fulfill his promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ.  So the author concludes:  “For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us.”  (v. 39)

 

 

The Son Is God’s Final Word

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Hebrews 1:1–4 (NRSV)  Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made 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.

The letter to the Hebrews is unlike the many other letters in the NT, as there is no greeting that identifies the author or the audience.  There is no greeting, no blessing, and no prayer of thanksgiving.  Instead, the author begins with a sentence introduction (vv. 1-4) that introduces the main theme of the letter.  Most scholars believe that Hebrews was not originally written as a letter, but as a sermon.

The book of Hebrews is anonymous (as are the Gospels and many of the OT books).  Since the earliest centuries, the authorship of the book of Hebrews has been debated.  The book was included in the Bible as it circulated with Paul’s letters, so some early church fathers argued that Paul was the author (Origen and Clement of Alexandria).  However, almost all modern scholars agree that Paul was not the author.  One key piece of evidence is that the author describes himself as one of the original witnesses who followed Christ (2:3).  Secondly, the language and style are quite different from Paul’s letters.  Many suggestions have been made as to the author.  Martin Luther suggested Apollos.  However, all such suggestions are merely speculation.

The message seems to have been written to Rome, sending greetings from the Roman Christians who had traveled abroad.  (Heb. 13:24)  Those he addressed in the message seem to have had a Jewish background, so his audience appears to be Jewish Christians as opposed to Gentile Christians.

The occasion for the letter seems to be persecution that the Hebrews are enduring that has caused some to fall away, and others to doubt.  (Heb. 10:32-39)  The author’s purpose in writing is to encourage the struggling Hebrew community to maintain their commitment in this persecution.   If these are Roman Christians to whom the authori is writing, the occasion may have been the persecution of Christians under Nero in the mid-60’s.

In the Greek, verses 1-4 are one eloquent sentence that introduces the main theme of the message of Hebrews:  The Superiority of the Son.  The author begins with a statement concerning the revelation of God.  In the OT, God spoke through the prophets (Nevi’im).  In the English Bible, we consider the prophets to be only the books of Isaiah through Malachi.  However, in the Hebrew Bible, Moses was considered a prophet (the Torah, the first five books of the OT), and included in the former prophets are Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.  The Latter Prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (the minor prophets, Hosea to Malachi).

The author says that in the OT, God revealed himself to particular people at particular times in history, and the Bible is the record of God’s self-revelation.  God revealed himself first to Adam and Eve in the Garden, to Noah, then to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and all the prophets.  God revealed himself through dreams, visions, mighty acts, stories, commands, exhortations, angelic appearances, and even divine appearances.  The prophets were all those to whom God gave his revelation.  (2 Peter 1:19-21)

But now, God has revealed himself through His Son, Jesus Christ.  He is the final and ultimate revelation of the Father.  (Heb. 2:3, 4)  We have no need of any other or further revelation of God.  And in fact, all further revelations are false, and should be seen as so.  In Christ, “God’s own glory” is revealed.  (v. 3)  The glory of the Son is the same as the glory of the Father and is an expression of God’s own glory, because the Son is God.  (John 1:14)  The gives a clear picture of the very character of God (John 1:18).

And when Christ had finished his work of redemption, “he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven.”  God the Son’s exaltation is demonstrated in that he sits at the right hand of God.  And as God’s royal heir, the Son will receive everything as an inheritance (v. 2).  The Son’s exalted position is superior to every created being in the universe, even the angels, just as the name of the Son is greater than that of created beings (v. 4).  (Phil. 2:9)

Lord, I praise your name.  “Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  (Phil. 2:9, 10)  Even so Lord Jesus, come!  Maranatha!  Amen.

 

Respect for Government Leaders

 

Titus 3_1_2

Titus 3:1–7 (NRSV)  Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Paul’s final exhortation to Titus is to remind the church “to submit to the government.”  Paul has previously sent similar exhortations to Timothy (1 Tim. 2:1-7) and to the church in Rome (Rom. 13:1-7), similarly Peter wrote about the same topic.  (1 Peter 2:13-17)  These teachings by Paul and Peter may have their roots in Christ’s own teaching on how we should live as citizens and Christians (Matt. 22:17-21; Luke 20:25).  A fully developed teaching of Christian citizenship should take into account all these Scriptures.

In these verses, Paul reminds not only to submit to the governing authorities and to obey them, but also “to be ready for every good work,” (v. 1) and “to speak evil of no one” (v. 2).  One of the behaviors that I have noticed in recent years is the lack of civility in conversation about our president and our leaders both in the church and in society.  As Christians, Paul says, it is a sin to speak evil of our leaders.  And if you claim, well, it’s okay because they are not Christian leaders, remember who Paul was speaking about:  Nero!  Nero was one of the greatest persecutors of Christians of all the Emperors.  It is likely that both Peter and Paul were executed during the persecution begun by Nero.

We can disagree with our leaders, both church leaders and government leaders without being disrespectful.  I’m firmly convinced that much of the opposition to President Obama has its roots in prejudice.  And as shameful as it is to speak, many of those who have said horrible things about the president are those who would consider themselves Christians.  Paul’s command:  Don’t speak evil of anyone.  My grandmother’s admonition is still as good today as it was when I was a boy.  If you can’t say something good about someone, it’s better to say nothing at all.

Paul’s final words should govern all our social media:  Show respect for everyone.  Respect is one of the values that I learned serving in the US Army for almost 30 years.  Respect is a core value of the US Army.  You can show respect even when you disagree with people by how you speak to them.  Our current presidential campaign demonstrates the complete opposite:  disrespect.  It seems that the only way one can speak about one’s political opponents is to call them names and denigrate them, as if name calling and disrespect make one a viable candidate.  We haven’t even had a serious discussion of the issues to this date, because the entire campaign has been focused on this negativity.

But as Christians, we don’t have a choice.  Disrespect of our government leaders is a sin.  End of story.  Stop damaging your Christian witness online by the way you speak about our leaders.  Stop damaging your Christian witness with flaming e-mails.  It’s possible to disagree without disrespect.