The book of Hebrews tells us how to react to what God has done for us
An interesting passage in Hebrews opens with a reminder of who we are in Jesus and through Jesus (Hebrews 10:23-25). With this as our perspective, the author tells us four things we should do in response.
Let Us Pursue God: The NIV says to “draw near to God.” I like this imagery of us steadfastly moving toward God, getting closer and closer, almost as though he gently pulls us to him. Though we can accept or reject his supernatural yearning to pull us close, we consent to his attraction when we pursue him.
May we pursue God as if nothing else matters—because nothing else does. We need to do this with a sincere heart and full of faith.
Let Us Hold Onto Hope: Next we need to grasp the hope we claim to have within us. If we say we have hope but don’t act like it, what good is that? Instead our behavior, both in thought and in action, must align with what we believe.
And if we face temptation to waiver in our hope, Hebrews reminds us that he will faithfully give us what he promised. Cling to our hope.
Let Us Encourage One Another: Third is the reminder to encourage each other. While we can nurture many godly traits in others, this passage specifically mentions two: love and good deeds. It’s as if nothing else matters.
We love others in the same way God loves us. He shows us his perfect love and we strive to follow his example. And we help others. Why? Not to get God’s attention or to achieve some agenda, but because he says so.
The practical extension of love is to do kind things for others. Love connects to good deeds.
Let Us Not Isolate Ourselves: We can’t realize all God desires for us if we separate ourselves from his other followers. Together we stay strong. Apart we falter. As the Bible says, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
The oft-quoted text for this is to let us not give up meeting together, which many misapply (more on this later). The point is to hang out with others who follow Jesus. The details of what this looks like is for us to determine.
As followers of Jesus, may we pursue God, cling to hope, offer encouragement, and spend time with each other.
Do not seek your own good, but what’s best for others
We live in a narcissistic, self-centered world. We put ourselves first and care only about what’s in our best interest. Too many people live their life with the attitude that “it’s all about me.” In doing so, they miss so much.
Let me share a secret: It’s not all about us. It should be about everyone else. When we put others before us, we help them and enrich ourselves in the process.
Paul reminds the church in Corinth about this. He tells them directly, “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others” (1 Corinthians 10:24, NIV).
While this can go to extremes, most people have no worry about that.
On an airplane, for example, the instructions say that if the oxygen masks drop to put yours on first, then help your neighbor. If you don’t, you might pass out before you can help others in need. Then everyone suffers. I also read of a family so intent on feeding their starving neighbors that some of them starved themselves to death in the process.
No, self-preservation is crucial, but beyond that, put others first. The Bible says to. What’s this look like? It’s up for each of us to decide.
- It could be as simple as standing aside to let someone get in line ahead of us.
- It might be giving someone a ride even though it will make us late. (What if we’re on our way to church?)
- How about giving up a seat on the bus and standing?
- Perhaps this means mowing our neighbor’s lawn even though ours needs attention.
- Should we take the last piece of pizza or let someone else have it?
- What about walking so someone else can use our car?
- Even more bold, how about giving someone our car because he or she needs it more.
We can do many things to seek the good of others, so many that it might overwhelm. But instead of letting the magnitude of options paralyze us into inaction, pick one thing to do for others and then do it.
Doing good for others is the right thing to do.
Jesus wants us to live in unity but instead our manmade denominations divide us
I recently attended a friend’s ordination ceremony who had graduated from seminary and became a minister. It’s not the first such occasion I attended, and it won’t likely be the last. It was, however, the first time I really listened to what took place.
Integrated into the liturgy of the proceedings were a series of questions posed to the new minister. Early on one of the queries caught my attention. I’ll purposely not quote the question to hide the identity of the guilty denomination, but I will paraphrase it.
In essence the denomination asked the young minister to pledge his loyalty to it and do his best to promote its mission locally and around the world.
My friend’s expected response affirmed his willingness to do so.
I don’t think I would have agreed to such a condition. Shouldn’t we pledge our loyalty to God and do our best to promote his mission locally and around the world?
With 43,000 Protestant denominations, why does each one work so hard to preserve and promote its own brand of Christianity, often at the expense of others? Why not ditch the denomination and instead work hard to promote Christ?
With this still bouncing around in my brain, a second item caught my attention as the ceremony wound down. In this part of the proceedings, my friend promised to take various actions. One such action has him pursuing unity within the church. My friend promised to do so.
Assuming that by church those words refer to the universal church of Jesus, as opposed to the denomination, I see a contradiction of intent, that my friend promised to pursue two mutually exclusive goals.
Our Protestant denominations divide us, whereas Jesus wants us to be one, to get along with each other, and to live in unity (John 17:21, 23). When we consider this carefully, our manmade denominations are the antithesis of the unity Jesus prays for.
If my friend would indeed pursue unity as he promised, he should seek to dismantle the denomination, because its very existence opposes unity.
[This is from the April issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.” Receive the complete newsletter each month.]
Though the Bible tells us to judge, who we’re supposed to judge may shock you
When Paul writes to his friends in Corinth, he has much to say because they struggle with many things. He spends a whole chapter in his first letter addressing sin within their assembly: sexual sin, specifically incest.
In reading between the lines, it seems the people involved think God’s grace gives them the freedom to pursue this lifestyle, to live as they wish, while the rest of the church remains quiet on the issue.
Paul is concerned one bad example will infect others and embolden them to go wild as well. As the saying goes, “one bad apple spoils the whole barrel,” though Paul’s first-century version says a little bit of yeast affects the whole batch of dough.
He tells them how to deal with this issue and the perpetrators. Though he expects them to assess the situation and take action, he places limits on the scope of their role as judge.
Specifically he says not to worry about those on the outside, that God will deal with them. Instead, they need to worry about the people within their group, that self-policing is in order. Paul reminds them that they should judge folks within the church but they have no business judging people in the world.
Much of today’s church has this backwards. We delight in pointing a condemning finger at the actions of the world, all the while ignoring the behavior within our own community.
It’s no wonder the world thinks the church is comprised of close-minded, judgmental, hypocrites—because it is.
It’s no wonder the world fails to see the love of Jesus, because his followers fail to show the world his love. Instead they show judgement, mean, hateful judgement.
Though we need to judge ourselves, we have no business judging the world in which we live. So stop it.
The list of faith essentials is short—a list of only one item
Two thousand years ago the religious leaders, called Pharisees, heap a bunch of manmade requirements on the backs of the people so they can be right with God. Some scholars place the number at over 22,000 regulations, far more than the 613 items the Law of Moses contains, which far exceeds God’s top ten instructions (aka The Ten Commandments).
While today’s religious leaders have numerically fewer requirements for their followers, they, too, heap a pile of expectations upon us: of things we shouldn’t do and things we should, of hoops to jump through to be accepted into their group (their church).
They spout requirements for us to meet, a checklist of tasks to complete—or behaviors to avoid. We need to agree to their specific theological mindset, and if we question just one item they hold sacrosanct, we’re booted as a miscreant, likely on our way to hell. Branded as a heretic, we’re banished from their community.
They call their requirements, the essentials. These so called faith essentials sometimes carry a prooftext, but more so than not they are no more than traditions, conventions, and preferred practices, with an elevated status for us to adhere to.
Some enlightened pastors advise to hold a short list of essentials. They have the right idea.
Jesus has this in mind when he says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). The essentials of Jesus are simple. He creates no undue burden for us, much unlike the Pharisees of his day—or the Pharisees of our day.
But how short should this list of essentials be? Ten items, perhaps five or six? Can we boil it down to three?
How about one?
Yes, there is one faith essential. Jesus says so.
What is this one thing that matters most? It’s Jesus.
At the house of Martha and Mary, Martha is worried about many things (in a practical sense, her list of essentials), while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him. She focuses on one thing, and Jesus affirms her for that (Luke 10:39-42).
This one thing isn’t baptism. It’s not saying a certain prayer or joining a church. It’s not witnessing or tithing. It’s not going to church on Sunday or taking communion. It’s not reading a certain version of the Bible or being filled with the Holy Spirit. And it’s not going through a class or completing a spiritual rite of passage.
Jesus is the one thing, the one faith essential.
Some people don’t have biological offspring, but everyone can have spiritual descendants
Paul wraps up his letter to the church in Rome with a long list of people Most of these names stream past our eyes as unfamiliar. We’re tempted to skim. But slow down.
Consider Rufus (Romans 16:13). That name only appears in one other place in the Bible, and that likely refers to a different guy. So we know little about this Rufus except that Paul greets him by name. Paul shares no reason, offers no encouragement, and gives no backstory—other than to say Rufus is chosen by God.
Oh, and there’s Rufus’s mother. Paul doesn’t even give her name, just her role as Rufus’s mom—who has also been like a mom to Paul. This is huge.
Rufus’s mom has a biological son, Rufus. She also has a spiritual son, Paul.
When you think of mothers, what traits come to mind? I think first of loving. Following that comes nurturing, encouraging, and supportive. Mothers also hope for the best from their children and always believe in them. And most mothers like to feed their kids, too.
I suspect Rufus’s mom is all these things to Paul.
Some women have biological children and others do not, either by choice or by circumstance. The ladies in this last category long to have kids but do not. The Bible is replete with longsuffering women who pray earnestly and ache to have children. After decades of waiting, God gives them what their heart desires.
Yet whether a biological mom or not, we can all be spiritual mothers. And this includes guys, too.
Who needs love, nurturing, encouragement, and support? Although the answer is everyone, I’m sure some specific individuals come to mind.
Be a spiritual mother to them. You never know the impact they might grow up to have on others.
Many people carry misconceptions about the purpose of church, and we need to set aside that thinking
Last Sunday in “What is Church,” I suggested we are the church. Church isn’t a place we go—not really. It’s who we are. As the church we should be about worship, community, and helping others.
There’s a lot I didn’t mention. That was intentional. Contrary to the actions and attitudes of many, here is what a church is not:
Church is Not an Obligation: We must never think of church as an obligation. Though most people, at one time or another, make a conscious decision to attend a Sunday morning gathering when they don’t feel like it, that falls under the category of being self-disciplined. But if the only reason we ever go is out of a sense of obligation, then our motivation is wrong. God is not impressed.
Yes, the Bible commands us to persist in meeting together (Hebrews 10:24-25), but that doesn’t necessarily mean a Sunday church service. I think it means hanging out with other believers. That should be fun, not an obligation to fulfill.
Church is Not a Means to Appease Guilt: Some people only attend a religious service on Sunday morning because they’d feel guilty if they stayed home. They were trained from an early age that church is what you did. If the church doors where open, they were there: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night prayer meeting, Thursday visitation . . .
Guilt is a powerful motivator. The avoidance of guilt can propel us to positive action, but it needs to have a benefit greater than appeasing a shame-filled conscience.
Church is Not a Routine: Many Sunday services proceed with a rote precision that attendees follow mindlessly. They come, they go through the motions, and they head home. For them the entire time holds no significance. While their body acts, their mind drifts, and their spirit remains untouched. Routine is the enemy of meaningful worship and true community.
An almost parallel aspect of routine exists, called ritual. Though the word ritual carries negative connotations, a positive aspect of ritual is one seeped in deep spiritual mystery. Some people are drawn to this type of almost-mystical ritual, a sacred practice that supernaturally connects them with the Almighty.
Church is Not a Social Club: Some people pursue church meetings as nothing more than a social gathering, void of spiritual significance. They miss the true meaning of us meeting together. They dishonor God and marginalize his community of followers.
Though one of the characteristics of us as church is community, there’s a distinction between meaningful community and a social get together. Yes, community contains a significant social aspect, but more importantly it involves intentionality in how we treat one another. The New Testament gives us over thirty “one another” commands, which starts with the expectation that we love one another.
Church is Not a Business Promotion Vehicle: Some people become members of a local church as a means for commerce. They join so they can sell, not serve. They go through the motions of worship, and their engagement with community consists only of networking for business.
When my bride and I were first married, another couple from our local congregation invited us to their house. We were ecstatic. Then my mother-in-law shared that this couple had recently signed onto a large multi-level marketing company. When I asked them directly of their intention, they confirmed my fears that we would experience a sales pitch. We didn’t go, and they never talked to us again. That’s not church. That’s not even good business.
Church is Not a Place to Amass Knowledge: For much of my life I reasoned that the real purpose of a Sunday service was to learn about God. I dismissed the worship part because it bored me. I didn’t see community because it was all social. And, as an inward looking body, we didn’t do any service. That left the sermon.
But what happens when the sermon doesn’t provide any new information? Does that mean I wasted an hour, or more? But recall the verse that says, “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Amassing knowledge is not the reason we should go to church. That takes me back to worship, community, and serving others.
We are the church. We gather to worship God, live in community, and serve others.
God removes branches from his tree and adds others to it
In Romans 11 Paul talks about graft. Not political graft but the biological kind. In this case, grafting takes a branch from one tree and attaches it to the stock of another tree. When done correctly the added branch will grow into the trunk of the other tree and will thrive.
Farmers often do this to combine the fruit produced by one tree with the hardy stock of another. In this way they get a resilient tree that yields desirable fruit.
Paul uses this type of grafting as an analogy to teach us about God’s kingdom and us.
Think of God and his people as a tree, with him as the root and us as the branches. Some branches of the tree are unworthy, and he breaks them off. But he also takes branches from other trees and grafts them on. The result is a beautiful hodgepodge of different branches all growing on one tree, God’s tree.
From this Paul makes several points, implicitly about Jews and Gentiles:
- When people reject Jesus, as some Jews did, God will remove them from his tree.
- When people on the outside, Gentiles, accept Jesus, God grafts them onto his tree; he unites with them.
- Just as God grafted Gentile branches onto his tree, even more so can he reattach the Jewish branches he once removed. This is exciting news.
- Last, just as God removed some Jewish branches from his tree, so too will he remove some Gentile branches if they don’t produce fruit.
This analogy gives us much to ponder. It provides hope for all people. But along with it comes a serious responsibility to not take our standing with God for granted and to make sure we produce fruit.
The church of Jesus needs to focus on three things and master them all
In our normal usage, church is a building, a place we go to—often on Sunday mornings. I’ll be there later today. Other definitions for church include a religious service, organized religion, and professional clergy.
Yet a more correct understanding is that we are church, both individually and collectively. We, the church, are an organic body, not an institution, religious service, or profession. If we are the church, we can’t go there; we take church with us everywhere we go—or at least we should.
As the people who comprise the church of Jesus—his followers—I see three things we ought to be about, three things that warrant our focus:
Worship: Life isn’t about us; it’s all about him. Or at least it should be. As individuals and as a group we should worship him, our reason for being. Though God doesn’t need our praise and adoration, we should need to give it to him. We worship God by thanking him for who he is and what he does. We worship him by praising him for his omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent greatness. This can happen in word, in attitude, in action—and in song.
Singing to God about him is a common form of worship. Yet at too many church services this musical expression of faith has turned into a concert. While this is not necessarily bad if the concert connects us with God, it is bad if all it seeks to do is entertain us. By the way, when we say we don’t like the music at church, we’ve just turned the focus away from God and back to us, to our desire for entertainment over worship.
Beyond this we can also worship God in silence and through solitude, two pursuits that most people in our culture fail to comprehend. In fact, in our always on, always connected existence, even a few seconds of silence makes most people squirm, whereas solitude drives them crazy. Yet we can worship God in both.
In addition we also worship God by getting along with other believers and serving those outside our group.
Community: The church as a group of people should major on community, on getting along and experiencing life together. Community should happen during our Sunday gatherings, as well as before and after, just hanging out. Community is following all of the Bible’s one another commands, which teach us how to get along in a God-honoring way.
At some church services people scurry in at the exact starting time (or a few minutes late) and flee with intention at the final “amen.” They miss the community part of church; they miss a key reason for going. Remember, it’s not about us.
If we don’t like spending time with the people we see for an hour each Sunday morning, then something’s wrong: not with them, but with us. So, before we point fingers at others, we need to realize that the problem of why we shun spiritual community lies within.
Helping Others: Worship is about God, and community is about our fellow believers. What about others? If we only focus on God and our local faith gathering, we stop too soon and fail to function as the church Jesus intended. Jesus served others, so should we. And we shouldn’t serve with any motives other than the pure intent to show them the love of Jesus. Loving others through our actions may be the most powerful witness we can offer. And history is full of examples where this indeed happened, when the world saw Jesus through the tangible love of his followers.
A church body that looks only to God and at each other is selfish. A church that only gazes heavenward or internally is a church that is dying. We need to let our light shine so that the world can see (Matthew 5:14-16 and Luke 11:33). The world watches us; they hope we’ll come through; they want to see Jesus in us.
That’s what church is. We worship and we build community so we can love others in his name.
[This is from the March issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.” Receive the complete newsletter each month.]
We dishonor God by persisting in sin because we assume his grace will cover it
A highschool friend heard about the doctrine of eternal security—which some people shorten to the more accessible mantra of “once saved, always saved”—and latched onto it. She reasoned this creed allowed her to act any way she wanted, that she and God were in a good place in their relationship, and her behavior didn’t matter anymore.
In short she took this as a license to sin.
She thought she had her get-into-heaven card, and that was all she cared about. She disconnected her reality on earth from her future in eternity.
Though she rightly embraced God’s grace, she incorrectly assumed it came with endless abundance. This didn’t feel right to me. Surely she overreached and grabbed onto an unwise conclusion. I tried to talk her down from her extreme position, but she wouldn’t listen.
Instead she clung to her steadfast belief that nothing she did from that point forward would have any bearing on her spiritual future. After all, she had said the prayer, so she was in. I wish I had read Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians. I wish I had known about the sixth chapter.
In it Paul addresses this topic of sin and grace. The deeper the sin, the greater God’s grace. This is true. Yet some go too far and claim our ongoing sin serves to elevate God’s grace.
Paul says, “No way!”
When we follow Jesus we turn our back on our wrong behaviors (Romans 6:1-2).
I wish I had known that to tell my friend.