What a Friend for Sinners

Imagine this bleak scenario: you find yourself convicted of a terrible crime and sentenced to life in prison. The conditions are terrible: filthy cells, meager food, and no relationships with people you can trust. The longer your sentence goes on, the worse the suffering becomes. The only way you’re leaving will be in a casket, but you don’t know which scares you more: the thought of living the rest of your life in torment, or the thought of your life ending without a final change in your circumstances. With the only options being suffering and death, you are, in a crushingly real sense, hopeless.

Now imagine that, miraculously, you are given the choice of a single friend. The first option is of a guard in the prison. His power means that he can provide you with better accommodations and food, but it also prevents him from ever engaging you in conversation and sharing in your pain. Or you could choose a fellow prisoner as your friend: someone who can’t do a single thing to change your conditions but who can make life better by sharing your pain as a fellow sufferer. Neither can fully redeem your misery, but both can help in their own way. Which would you choose?

I’m tempted to write something along the lines of “I hope nothing like that ever happens to you!” Yet everyone who reads this finds him- or herself in a not-too-dissimiliar situation. Many of us suffer physically or mentally, unable to alleviate the pain that’s just there every day. Even those of us blessed with good health, happy backgrounds, and material comforts fight inner demons, experiencing the anguish of frustration and loss on a deserted island in the middle of an ocean of prosperity. Even the kings and queens of our world know that, even if their lives consist of nearly perfect joy and happiness, their lives will end in either a bang or a whimper. To paraphrase the great theologian Johnny Cash, God (through death) will cut us all down.

The writer of Hebrews (an even greater theologian!) is writing to provide hope to the hopeless and encouragement to the suffering. He tells us that the answer to hopelessness is not changing our conditions but knowing and trusting a person, Jesus Christ. Not only does he, as the King of all creation, have the power to turn our mourning into dancing; as a fellow human being, he has the experiences to fully understand our real and painful suffering. Look at what he says:

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death— that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
— Hebrews 2:10-18

On top of the reasons we’ve already seen in the letter so far, why should we trust that Jesus really matters in our suffering? First, he is the author (or, as the original word could also be translated, the “pioneer” or “esteemed founder”) of our salvation. He himself experienced the suffering of human life in a broken world, and he himself experienced ultimate vindication through his glorious and awesome resurrection. We can trust him because, like no one else we’ll ever meet, he can look at us as an equal and say, “I know how much it hurts.” When Jesus fulfilled the words of the Old Testament that are quoted in verses 11 through 13, the emphasis is on the words “family,” “brothers,” and “children.” Jesus knows what it’s like to stand in a group of worshipers and sing and pray alongside people who suffer Monday through Saturday. Jesus knows what it’s like to have to take God at his word, even when his circumstances made that difficult. Jesus doesn’t look at us in our brokenness and weakness and feel awkward about being related to us. He’s not ashamed of us — he’s one of us.

How is that possible for someone who, as our Savior, had to be all-powerful and unopposable? According to verses 10 and 17, the better question would be, “How could he not suffer with us?” By God’s logic, the Savior had to be a sufferer. It wouldn’t have been fitting for him to forgive us without absorbing the penalty of our sins himself. The devil, who “holds the power of death” (verse 14), had to be defeated in battle, not appeased through a treaty. God’s justice meant that sinners had to suffer; God’s love meant that sinners had to be saved; God’s plan meant that he would send his own Son to be a suffering sinner. And because of that, “he is able to help those who are being tempted” (verse 18).

Which would you rather have: a powerful but unsympathetic advocate, or a compassionate but impotent buddy? Jesus Christ is both greater than us and equal to us, and he is able and willing to bring you to glory.

Our Suffering King

So far, the Letter to the Hebrews has established two things very clearly: there is a supernatural reality to our world that God created, and Jesus rules over it. But for people like us, living in a world where the natural seems all too real and powerful, that might be tough to swallow. To paraphrase a common objection from our atheist neighbors, belief in the supernatural doesn’t always seem possible in a world with high-speed air travel, genetic engineering, and free WiFi. And even if we grant that there’s more to the world than meets the (scientific, naturalistic) eye, who’s to say that Jesus is really in charge? With wars of religion on one hand and natural disasters on the other, can we really be blamed for wondering if someone is asleep at the wheel?

For me, one of the most persuasive arguments for trusting the Bible is the way that it acknowledges our doubts and questions like this. It doesn’t just gloss over the hard questions of skeptics — it deals with them head-on. Listen to this:

It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.’ In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
— Hebrews 2:5-9

At this point in his letter, the writer continues arguing that Jesus is better than any of God’s angels. But he does it in an intriguing way: he admits that this isn’t as obvious as some might like. In fact, one could argue, if Jesus were so great, how could he be a human? And even more important: how could he have suffered like he did?

The writer’s response, quite frankly, blows me away. Like many other great thinkers throughout history, he turns the objection on its head and shows that what appears to be a great weakness in Christianity is actually one of its greatest strengths. “Yes,” you can hear him say, “your objection is valid. But have you considered that, instead of disproving me, it might just make my case stronger?”

Here’s what he’s saying: the full humanity of Jesus is a given. As we’ll see again throughout the next few chapters, Jesus really and truly war a flesh-and-blood human being. But this isn’t a sign of his inferiority, since (by quoting Psalm 8, an Old Testament prediction of this) it proves that he is the long-expected Messiah, who had to be a human being. “The son of man,” in some ways, really was “lower” than angels because of the physical limitations of humanity. But that was a key qualification for the Savior of all mankind, who himself had to be a man.

And the suffering and humiliating death that Jesus went through? That’s no sign that he was inferior or substandard. As the Old Testament passage hinted, he was crowned with glory and honor, not despite his low estate, but precisely because of it! A savior who does not suffer, according to the Bible, is no savior at all. And because God graciously allowed Jesus to taste death for everyone, there is no one who without the hope of experiencing the solid joy and lasting treasures won by Jesus.

So what do you see when you look at the world around you? A chaos of sin and weakness, governed by an absentee ruler (if anybody)? Or do you believe the writer of Hebrews, who says that Jesus, because of his suffering and death for sinners like us, is the King over all? By faith in what he says, do you see that?

Don’t Ignore the Gospel

In our last post examining the Letter to the Hebrews, we saw how real the supernatural is. As Hamlet told an old college buddy, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Yet even those spiritual beings and realities that our eyes haven’t (or can’t) see are subject to the rule and control of King Jesus. He is not an absentee king, and he uses the spiritual beings of our world — both good and evil — to do his good and perfect will.

But the author of Hebrews wants to do much more than persuade us that angels and demons exist. In the beginning of chapter 2, he answers that most serious question: “So what?” Why should I care that Jesus is better than the angels? This is his answer:

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
— Hebrews 2:1-4 (NIV)
In these verses, the writer shows us that a smart person’s reaction to the news of Jesus’ kingship should include a fair dose of sober self-examination. Is it good news that Jesus is better than anything else? Absolutely — there is no better news! But it also shows that Jesus is a king to whom the world owes absolute loyalty and devotion.

Left to ourselves, we don’t “pay more careful attention” (2:1) to Jesus. Instead, our tendency (and it is a dangerous one) is to “drift away.” We’re called to set our course and stick to it, to aim everything in our lives toward loving and obeying the High King of heaven. But what do we do? We get caught up in the daily grind of living in a corrupted world full of pain and confusion. Our jobs are hard. Our relationships are tiring. Our desires go unfulfilled. And slowly, day by day and hour by hour, we drift off course, away from the only safe port in a stormy and unpredictable sea.

Of course, this is exactly what our King told us would happen: life presses hard on us, and many who claim to be his subjects will abandon him because of it (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). He isn’t so harsh as to leave us without a warning of the dangers we face — he loves us! We see that in the way his love warns us against the great danger our souls face of drifting away from knowing him and obeying him. Yet the warning is serious: the church in the Old Testament was held responsible for obeying a message of salvation from God delivered by angels (see Acts 7:53 for the same point and two examples in Exodus 32:25-28 and Leviticus 10:1-2). The salvation was real, and so was the punishment for ignoring it. If the angelic messengers turned out to be trustworthy, aren’t Jesus and his message to be believed all the more?

As if the mere word of Jesus weren’t enough, he loves us enough to give us corroborating testimonies. God himself is a witness to the truth of the gospel, and he affirmed its reliability “by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (2:4). He also allowed the original readers of this letter to hear eyewitness accounts supporting the claims of Jesus and his apostles. Could there be any more convincing witnesses? Could the evidence have been any clearer? If not, could the truth possibly be ignored? Sadly, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

We need to remember that this warning is primarily for those who have affirmed their belief in Jesus and claimed him as their king. The warning is for us so that “we do not drift away” (2:1). Through this passage of Scripture, God wants us to ask whether our lives need a course correction. Do we say one thing about our relationship with God while unknowingly doing otherwise? Are we like so many of the believers of the Old Testament who heard the message of deliverance from sin and misery only to drift away from it? Their punishment should lead us to change — to repent — and to renew our attention to God’s message. Don’t ignore such a great salvation. And don’t ignore the Son of God, the King of angels, who died to deliver it to us.

Jesus and the Supernatural

Do you believe in the supernatural?

A survey from 2004 showed that thirty-nine percent of those living in the UK consider themselves atheists or agnostics.(1) Yet a more recent poll found that, while many of those in Britain are abandoning Christianity, their interest and faith in spirituality hasn’t gone anywhere. Over half (fifty-five percent) of those surveyed professed belief in the supernatural and superstition; twenty-nine percent claim to be able to see into the future; and a similar number reported that they had knowledge of past lives or possessed telepathic powers. In comparison, less than ten percent attend a Christian church weekly.(2)

In the US we have our own national fascination with the supernatural. A 2007 poll found that a significant number of Americans believe in UFOs (thirty-four percent) or have personally encountered a ghost (twenty-three percent). Lest we think that a lack of education is to blame, Americans with at least a college degree were more likely to believe in ESP (fifty-one percent) than those with a high school education (thirty-seven percent).(3) And of the top ten most popular TV shows last year, five were based on the premise that the supernatural is real and at work in our world.(4) At the same time as more and more of our neighbors are claiming no religious faith (or claiming to be opposed to it entirely), our interest in the weird and bizarre has stayed put. One could even argue that the decline of Christian belief has led to an increased appetite for the paranormal.

Christians shouldn’t be surprised by this, since the Bible reveals our world to be chock-full of beings and realities that transcend the scientific definition of “natural.” Aside from God himself, spiritual beings like angels and demons are unapologetically presented as real and relevant to human life. Heaven and hell are not metaphors, and their inhabitants play as much of a role in the affairs of our lives as flesh-and-blood people — if not more.

Yet that is not to say that the spiritual world is an angelic Wild West. Hebrews 1:1-3 has already shown that Jesus, having accomplished the earthly work necessary to save his people, is now seated in heaven “at the right hand of the Majesty.” In other words — the King is on his throne, and the spiritual world is subject to him:

So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”? And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.” In speaking of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, his servants flames of fire.” But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever, and righteousness will be the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.” He also says, “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.” To which of the angels did God ever say, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?
Hebrews 1:4-14 (NIV)

The author of Hebrews affirms what many post-Christendom Westerners believe (and what the overwhelming preponderance of the citizens of the Majority World have always believed): there exists a world that our minds can only barely comprehend. Yet he goes further to say that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, rules over it all and directs its affairs. He quotes multiple passages from the Old Testament (especially the Psalms) to show that this has always been true — the eternal Son of God has eternally ruled over angels, who were created through him (1:2).

So are we crazy for believing in the supernatural? Not at all. But more importantly, we have to ask ourselves whether we submit to the rule of the King of the supernatural. Do we acknowledge Jesus, not only as the Ruler of the angels, but as the Ruler of our hearts? We’d be crazy not to.

 


1 – http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/programmes/wtwtgod/pdf/wtwtogod.pdf
2- http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2590349/God-Were-likely-believe-supernatural-Number-people-think-sixth-sense-higher-regularly-attend-church.html
3 – http://www.christianpost.com/news/how-many-americans-believe-in-ghosts-spells-and-superstition-29857/
4- http://www.imdb.com/search/title?title_type=tv_series

Jesus Is Better

There’s a lot we don’t know about the Letter to the Hebrews. In fact, some of the most basic facts about the epistle (for example, the author and its original audience) still aren’t clear to us today. While the church has always appreciated it for its elegant style and sophisticated presentation of the gospel, Hebrews can be a puzzle to those who study it. (But then again, who doesn’t love a puzzle?)

For all the mystery and complexity that makes Hebrews a special part of the New Testament, the letter is very easy to summarize. In various ways, the author writes to convince us of something perfectly simple: Jesus Christ is better than every possible rival. No one can compare to who he is, and nothing can match the power of what he’s done for humanity. Since that’s true, rejecting him and his message is the most foolish and dangerous decision that a person can make.

The writer doesn’t waste time in his introduction to the letter:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
—Hebrews 1:1-3 (NIV)

In just three verses, the author makes a number of profound points. First, Christianity accepts and depends on the truth of the Old Testament. Those who accuse the New Testament of being antisemitic can find no support here! Rather than denounce them as corrupt or write them off as “un-Christian,” Hebrews says that the Jewish Scriptures accurately communicate God’s word to God’s people. But secondly, the writer goes on to say that God’s message in the person and work of Jesus is even more authoritative and more relevant. If the Old Testament is good, then the message of Jesus and his apostles is even better. Any why is that? Because (thirdly) Jesus himself is a more perfect and more powerful representative of God than any other figure in history. He is the perfect prophet, teaching us God’s will better than anyone else. He’s the perfect priest, dying for his people’s sins and praying for them effectively and continually. And he’s the perfect king, ruling over all things that he himself created with an authority that is both total and incorruptible. In short, he is everything we need. Calling him “the best man who ever lived” or “the wisest teacher in history” is an insult, not a compliment, to Jesus. Is he both of those things? Yes — but he is so, so much more. And because of that, his message is all the more important. Do you believe it?

 

 

Is It Still Good News?

This post was written by Christian Crouch of SC.  He writes of himself:

“Christian, a native Tennessean, is the pastoral assistant at Grace Fellowship Church, an independent Reformed congregation in Irmo, South Carolina. He is the grateful husband of Chelsey and the proud father of Stephen and Cohen. Christian is a graduate of the University of the South and Reformed Theological Seminary. Among his other interests, he especially delights in seeing people understand, love, and obey the good news of Jesus Christ.”


Several years ago I played hooky from church so I could go to church. That is to say, I skipped my own congregation’s Sunday service and headed a few blocks over to another local church, where a visiting speaker was scheduled to preach. The speaker was also an author and had written several books that, as a brand-new Christian, I had devoured for their clear explanation of the Bible and warm, fatherly writing style. In my mind, he was a hybrid of John Calvin and Mike Brady. And believe me, if you knew somebody like that was preaching six blocks away, you would’ve played hooky, too.

What I discovered was something considerably less entertaining (but substantially more helpful) than that hybrid (a “Crady”? A “Bralvin”?). The author (who is not an ordained clergyman) began his sermon by reading a quote from a famous pastor (you’d know him) that went along these lines: Becoming a Christian is an act of God’s sheer grace, a totally undeserved gift;  however, your progress and growth as a Christian are completely up to you. The dramatic pause after he finished reading seemed to last forever. Then he simply asked, “Is that true?” How would you have answered?

After another awkward silence, he read the following verse from the Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
—Galatians 3:3

In a measured tone, the speaker carefully explained the message of the apostle, a man who had been personally sent by the Lord to preach the good news of Jesus (see the Book of Acts for the full story). Having proclaimed Jesus to people with little to no knowledge of the Bible, and having seen many come to a life-changing faith in Jesus, Paul was dumbstruck that these same people were now denying the basis of that good news: the simple power of trusting Jesus alone as the only means of rescue from sin and misery. By saying, in effect, that their maturity as disciples of Jesus depended entirely on their own hard work and dedication was, to the apostle Paul, a sign that the Galatian Christians had forgotten one of the most basic truths of the faith.

I wonder if you see yourself as guilty of the same mistake. I certainly am. And so are many of the Christians I know. Ask yourself: Does the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done feel important to you right now? Or was it something that really only applied to you before you became a Christian? To put it another way, is the gospel still good news, or is it just news?

Christians need to hear Paul’s message loud and clear: You still can’t save yourselves! You can’t try hard enough, succeed enough, or grow enough apart from God’s undeserved love. The gospel doesn’t just get us out of the principal’s office; in the words of one pastor, it brings us all the way home. Put another way (and in the words of yet another pastor), the gospel is not the ABC’s of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life. If you know Jesus, you still need daily reminders that you are not able to save yourself and must depend on God’s promised help for any progress in your efforts to be more like him. That is good news for people who, when faced with the hard realities of following Jesus in our broken world, are tempted toward the exhausting hamster wheel of self-righteousness. The power of the Holy Spirit is always necessary to change sinners, even those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. But the good news is this: He loves to change us and is even more willing than we are to see that change happen.