Reflections on Hebrews and James

The New Testament teaches us how to read the Old.  Hebrews and James are rich in instructions that open up the purpose and meaning of the Books of Moses.

The Unique Contribution of Hebrews

What if the Epistle to the Hebrews were not in our Bibles?  Hebrews makes a unique contribution to our understanding of the purpose and meaning of the Old Testament law.  In Hebrews we learn how the Aaronic priesthood and the tabernacle and sacrifices were all given to point the Jews (and everyone else) to Jesus Christ.  Here we see the glory and majesty of Jesus who is the Creator of the world and the heir of all things.  The writer goes on: “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” (Hebrews 1:3).

If this is true, how could anyone doubt that Jesus Christ is superior to angels and Moses?  Who could doubt that Christ’s priesthood surpasses the Old Testament priesthood which was a mere shadow of His? He made a once-for-all offering for sin.  This makes Him our High Priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses and saves us to the uttermost as we draw near to God through Him.  Jesus lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:22-28).  He guarantees for us a better covenant with God than the one Moses had. This covenant cannot fail or be broken.  God has secured it Himself by His Son.

Why Believers Cannot Be Lost

I hope your heart thrills as mine does with the promises and declarations of the letter to the Hebrews.  All this fills out the deep meaning of Jesus’ cry on the cross “it is finished” (John 19:30).  God’s work to redeem all His elect people was complete.  It could never be undone or reversed.  It cannot fail.  You, my believing friend who hear His voice and follow Him as your shepherd, cannot be lost because the Father and the Son hold you securely in their hand.  Nothing and no one can snatch you away.  You cannot perish. [See John 10:28-29.]

The Exhortations of James

James fills out another important truth for believers: that faith without works is dead or, to put it more positively, true faith is active. Paul makes a strong case that faith alone saves (Romans 3:21ff), but James adds that faith which saves is never without works (James 2:14-26). We are secure in Christ but we should not be complacent because of that security. James exhorts us to live out our faith by showing our love and humility toward others (like the poor, widows, orphans), in our speech and actions, in our enduring trials with patience and joy, in our seeking godly wisdom, in our dealing honestly in business, and in confessing our sins to others.  He closes his letter with an exhortation to prayer and to a ministry to those who are spiritually lost (James 5:13-20). James is an exhorter, for sure, but in his exhortation he also reassures us that God gives all good things and He gives them generously whether wisdom, grace, His presence, or exaltation (James 1:5,17;4:6,8,10). And He hears and answers our prayers.  Pray confidently and let the faith in your changed heart flow out in good works and wise attitudes.

This week’s reading: Leviticus 1-16.


Ending Well

While there’s life, there’s hope, but there’s also danger. Will you be ending well?

Today’s reading: Ezekiel 17-19; Hebrews 13

The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. 21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die.                                                    Ezekiel 18:20b-21

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.                 Hebrews 13:7

In Ezekiel’s day, the people had a saying ‘‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (18:2). The Lord told them that this proverb was going to be eliminated from their discourse. God said that each person held responsibility for himself as to his obedience or disobedience. Whatever path a person chose, righteousness or sin, was his own and he would enjoy the blessings or suffer the consequences. A parent’s sin could not make his child incur guilt, nor could a parent’s obedience merit forgiveness to a sinful child. Each one stands alone before God with his own record.

But change is possible. No one is locked into a lifestyle of sin or righteousness based on choices in his youth. It’s how you end up that matters. The repentant thief on the cross pleaded for mercy and found forgiveness at death’s door after a life of crime (Luke 23:39-43). It is also possible that one might prove to be unfaithful at the end of life. It’s how you end up that counts. It is never too late to repent, but it’s also never too late to rebel.

The writer to the Hebrews gives his readers an assortment of commands in light of all he has written. Several of them have to do with their relationship with their spiritual leaders, those who had taught them God’s Word (vs. 7, 17). They must observe the outcome of those godly lives and imitate their faith. How did those men’s lives turn out? If they were faithful to the end, the outcome was good. If not, one ought to be forewarned that even those who at one time show some signs of true faith and obedience to God can veer off and prove to be unbelievers. This does not mean that anyone can lose his salvation. It does mean that anyone can act like a Christian for a time and then fail to endure to the end [See Matthew 7:21-23; 13:1-23; 2 Timothy 4:10a; 1 John 2:19].

Be on guard against the schemes of Satan. Do not be presumptuous of your ability to resist every temptation and trap. We all know some who have not. May you and I endure faithfully and finish by ending well. [For more on this subject click here.]


God Never Lets Us Go

God never lets us go.  But what if we sin, grievously?  Does He still hold on to us?

Today’s reading: Ezekiel 16; Hebrews 12

62 I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, 63 that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord God.”                                                                                                Ezekiel 16:62-63

5 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.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?                                   Hebrews 12:5-7

Ezekiel delivers a brutal message to the exiles of Judah, a message filled with emotion and grief for the sins of God’s people in the face of His abundant mercy toward them. God poured out mercy and love on them when they were helpless and dying, but, as soon as they could, they responded with betrayal and spiritual adultery.

How did God respond to this? He cast them out of their land and sent them into captivity, but He did not forget His covenant with them. His punishment was discipline not rejection. There is a difference. God would restore them and keep His covenant with them. In fact, He would establish for them an everlasting covenant, a better covenant than the one they had broken.  What’s more He  promised to atone for them for all that they had done (vs. 53-63).  That is precisely what He did through the death of His Son, Jesus, on the cross.

The Hebrews, too, were experiencing God’s discipline. The Epistle called them to count this discipline not as rejection but as evidence of God’s love toward His sons. Instead of doubting the salvation that is in Jesus Christ, they are to “strive for peace with everyone and for holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (v. 14). When this is not the case and one or more of God’s people fail to obtain the grace of God, a root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble. The church is defiled by this process.

Welcome discipline. Take difficulties from God’s hand and let Him show you His grace to endure, to grow in holiness, and to be trained by it. Remember He atones for our sin, and He never lets us go. Never, despite our grievous sin.  If you are His.

Commended by God

To be commended by God should be the highest aim of every disciple of Jesus Christ.

Today’s reading: Ezekiel 13-15; Hebrews 11:20-40

22 Because you have disheartened the righteous falsely, although I have not grieved him, and you have encouraged the wicked, that he should not turn from his evil way to save his life, 23 therefore you shall no more see false visions nor practice divination. I will deliver my people out of your hand. And you shall know that I am the Lord.”             Ezekiel 13:22-23

39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.                                                                    Hebrews 11:39-40

It’s a big deal to get rewards and recognition in our society. But the awards are only meaningful when they come from either an important source (like the Congressional Medal of Honor) or are given for true achievement (e.g. the Eagle Scout award). My wife taught at an elementary school in Texas where every student got a “Shark Award” during an end-of-the-year ceremony just for being enrolled in the school. It didn’t reflect perfect attendance much less exemplary behavior or outstanding academic achievement. Even the youngest kids quickly understood that the award meant nothing.

God rewards and punishes mankind according to their performance. Through Ezekiel, the Lord told the false prophets of Judah that they had failed. Their so-called prophecies sent a garbled message to God’s people. Those who should have been commended were disheartened and those who should have been reproved were encouraged. God stopped them in their tracks and shut down this kind of evil influence.

In Hebrews 11, we read of those who were faithful to the death, faithful even though the final fulfillment of God’s promises did not appear. God commended them for their unwavering faith. He calls them people “of whom the world was not worthy” (vs. 38). Now that is a commendation worth getting!

What commendation do you seek? Are you after mere temporal awards or seeking to please God and receive His “well done”? Think about it. There is no recognition in this world which compares to having done God’s will and obeyed His commands. Seek to be commended by God.


Arrogant Unbelief

God is pleased with those who turn away from arrogant unbelief and trust Him even though death overtakes them waiting.

Today’s reading: Ezekiel 10-12; Hebrews 11:1-19

21 And the word of the Lord came to me: 22 “Son of man, what is this proverb that you have about the land of Israel, saying, ‘The days grow long, and every vision comes to nothing’? 23 Tell them therefore, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I will put an end to this proverb, and they shall no more use it as a proverb in Israel.’ But say to them, The days are near, and the fulfillment of every vision.                                                                   Ezekiel 12:21-23

13 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.                                                                                      Hebrews 11:13

The people of Judah and Israel had heard the visions of the prophets but had not seen their fulfillment. They grew impatient, then dulled, and, finally, arrogant in unbelief. “Nothing is going to happen,” they told themselves as they went on with their idolatry, seeking power from pagan gods.   All kinds of evil arises when a society collectively begins to assume that there is no God or that, if there is, He is powerless to act or complacent in condoning disbelief.

Ezekiel warned them that the visions were about to be fulfilled. All those prophecies about the fall of Babylon, the rise of Persia, and the return of the Jews to Jerusalem all came to pass on God’s schedule. Those who demanded that God do their bidding on their schedule would be shown up for fools.

But God is pleased with those who patiently wait in faith for Him to act. Hebrews 11 is a monument to those who trusted God to their dying day without seeing His promises fulfilled. They were included with all who “draw near to God [believing] that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (vs. 6)

Not everyone lives to see the fulfillment of God’s promises. We are privileged to live in the era of the last days, following the first advent of the Lord Jesus Christ, including His life, death, resurrection, and the building of His Church throughout the nations. Yet there is more to come, much more.

Be sure you don’t fall into the arrogant unbelief of the people of Ezekiel’s day who thought nothing would ever happen and who demanded that God perform for them. Christ will return, but, even if not in our lifetimes, God will be pleased as we draw near to Him in unwavering faith believing that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.


Living God or Cosmic Cupcake?

God is frequently misrepresented today as being all love and forgiveness, but, beware, for the Bible reveals a living God who will judge the sin which becomes so comfortable to us.

Today’s reading: Ezekiel 7-9; Hebrews 10:24-39

9 Then he said to me, “The guilt of the house of Israel and Judah is exceedingly great. The land is full of blood, and the city full of injustice. For they say, ‘The Lord has forsaken the land, and the Lord does not see.’ 10 As for me, my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity; I will bring their deeds upon their heads.” Ezekiel 9:9-10

29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Hebrews 10:29-31

Ezekiel was sent to proclaim the wrath and judgment of God upon Israel and Judah. Why was He angry with them? They had committed abominable acts of idolatry and murderous injustice. They had grown bold in their sin thinking that God had departed from them, and did not see what they were doing.  They could not imagine the danger they were in, as the Apostle Paul would later ask: “Do you suppose, O man…that you will escape the judgment of God? …But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” [See Romans 2:3-5.] The people of Israel and Judah certainly assumed that they would escape the judgment of God. They could not see that by their sin they were storing up wrath against themselves, and going spiritually blind because of their hard and impenitent hearts. The more they sinned the more they felt comfortable sinning.

The writer to the Hebrews issues a stern warning to his readers. Some of them are tottering on the edge of drifting away from the gospel, their only hope of salvation. Could they not see what they were doing? Didn’t they recognize that they were not merely adjusting to the pressures of life in a hostile society but were about to bring themselves under God’s judgment with those who had trampled underfoot the Son of God? Were they not terrified to profane the blood of the covenant by which Jesus was sanctified? Did it seem nothing to outrage the Spirit of grace?

God will repay. He will judge. Satan blinds the eyes of those who sin and glibly say “the Lord does not see.” Do not be found among those of hard and impenitent hearts. Repent of all known sin. Believe in Jesus and be forgiven. You can only be saved by faith in Him, but you will be lost if, without Christ, you “fall into the hands of the living God.” He is no cosmic cupcake.

Why the Good News is so Good

The gospel teaches us that we can draw near to God confidently because Jesus Christ bore the punishment for our sins. This is what makes the good news so good.

Today’s reading: Ezekiel 4-6; Hebrews 10:1-23

4 “Then lie upon your left side, and I will lay the punishment of the house of Israel upon you; for the number of the days that you lie upon it, you shall bear their punishment. Ezekiel 4:4

19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Hebrews 10:19-22

Ezekiel portrayed both the heinousness of the sin committed by Israel and Judah and also the means of atonement which God would make for them. Sin is as disgusting to God as eating contaminated food would be to us, bread cooked over a fire of human feces. Ugh! The punishment for sin is as painful and costly as laying for 390 days on one side. But notice that Ezekiel had done nothing to deserve this suffering. He was symbolically bearing the punishment for Israel and Judah, a picture of what Jesus Christ would do in reality several centuries later.

What Jesus did on the cross was to bring an end to the shadow of Old Testament sacrifices for sin. Jesus actually did bear the sins of His people in a way that Ezekiel could only act out. As Peter wrote, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit…” (I Peter 3:18). Those sacrifices pointed to Him and to the need for better sacrifices than those of bulls and goats. Indeed, His single sacrifice was better, so much better that it satisfied for all time the need for a sacrifice for sin.

This is why the good news of the gospel is so good. We are forgiven in Him, but it does not end there. We are called to draw near to God, to enter the “holy places” of heaven “by the new and living way which He opened for us” not in fear and trembling but with confidence. That confidence is based on His faithfulness, not on our own.

Draw near, believing friend. Draw near to God with confidence for He is faithful. That gospel news is true and it is good.

Two Traits of True Believers

Christians, although never perfect in this life, will necessarily find sweetness in God’s Word and wait eagerly for the return of their Lord Jesus Christ. Are these traits yours?

Today’s reading: Ezekiel 1-3; Hebrews 9

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.                      Ezekiel 3:1

27 And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 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.           Hebrews 9:27-28

Ezekiel was called by God to be a prophet to His people during the time of the Babylonian Captivity. Like Jeremiah, he would get a cold reception from his hearers, the exiled Jews.   The Lord commissioned Ezekiel to deliver a message, but with the assurance that he would not be successful in changing their hearts and minds. All who are called to serve God, are called first of all, to be faithful. Success is up to God.

The prophet embraced his calling. He was told to “eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” He obeyed and found that, although the scroll contained a message of “lamentation and mourning and woe” in his mouth it was “as sweet as honey.” But would his hearers agree? No, not at all.  God had already warned him that they were a rebellious people, impudent and stubborn (2:3-7).

The Hebrews, faced with pressures and trials, needed reassurance of the sweetness of the gospel of Christ, which is superior in every way to the Old Testament priesthood. Jesus Christ’s High Priestly ministry resulted in a once-for-all dealing with sin, and His exaltation into  heaven where He intercedes before God on their behalf.  They also needed reassurance that Christ would appear to them a second time to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him.  The writer of the epistle gave them both of these reassurances.

Distinguishing traits of believers are: diligent intake of God’s word which they find sweet, and eager anticipation of Christ’s return which overrides the trials, distractions, and seductions of this world. We are not fully sanctified, but pray earnestly that these traits will describe you more and more.

The Good, New Days

The destruction of Jerusalem brought inconsolable grief, a deep longing for the good, old days, but God had something new and far better planned.

Today’s reading: Lamentations 3-5; Hebrews 8

21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old—
22 unless you have utterly rejected us,
and you remain exceedingly angry with us. Lamentations 5:21-22

6 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. 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. Hebrews 8:6-7

The writer of Lamentations pours out his grief for Jerusalem, which lies in ruins. The best he can imagine is some kind of return to the wonderful days of peace and prosperity, maybe the reign of Solomon when Israel was one kingdom, rich in wealth, politically dominant, free from oppressors.  Ah, to return to those days again!

But Jeremiah had already prophesied that there would be a new covenant, not like the old one to which the people were unfaithful. [See Jeremiah 31:31-34.] The writer to the Hebrews reminds his readers that the new covenant made the old one obsolete. The good, old days were not so good, after all. The old covenant only served to show the sinful condition of the nation and the need for a better covenant, a better priest, and a better sacrifice. That is exactly what God did through Christ.

In the midst of difficult and trying times, it is easy to look back to some past era that seems to have been better. Resist that temptation and let go of the longing for some golden age of yesteryear. God, in Jesus Christ, has brought us a whole new covenant that far exceeds anything ever known. Pray that we may be faithful and live in anticipation of that day when His kingdom fully comes and all things are made new.

The Perfect and Eternal Priest

Fallen mankind needed a priest to intercede for them before God, but only the perfect and eternal priesthood of the Son of God Himself would prove to effectively bring man and God together.

Today’s reading: Lamentations 1-2; Hebrews 7

6 He has laid waste his booth like a garden,
laid in ruins his meeting place;
the Lord has made Zion forget
festival and Sabbath,
and in his fierce indignation has spurned king and priest.

7 The Lord has scorned his altar,
disowned his sanctuary;
he has delivered into the hand of the enemy
the walls of her palaces;
they raised a clamor in the house of the Lord
as on the day of festival.                                       Lamentations 2:6-7

28 For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.                                                                  Hebrews 7:28

The Book of Lamentations tells the sad, bitter story of the consequences of the sin of Israel and Judah. Despite the law of God which established the priesthood of Aaron, the sacrifices, the worship in the temple, none of this was done without sin. The glories of the past were wiped away as God sent Babylon to kill and destroy the city that had been called “the joy of the whole earth” (2:15). The writer of Lamentations was completely clear that this had occurred as a result of the sin of the people. God brought about the wreckage for the gross failures of king and priest and citizenry.

But He had another plan all along. He would send His own Son as a king and priest. The destruction only served to prepare the way for that Messiah who would come. The letter to the Hebrews explains eloquently how the ministry of Jesus Christ, the High Priest who is perfect and lives forever far exceeds the flawed and tarnished priesthood under the law.

It was necessary for God to show the world that only Christ could be the Priest that was needed, One who had no sin to atone for and who would live forever to make intercession for His people.

All we need is Christ as our High Priest. His priesthood is after the order of the king of righteousness and the king of peace. In Him we find righteousness and peace forever. Look no further for the way to be accepted before the Holy and Eternal God. It is found in Christ alone.