Monthly Archives: August 2013

Relating With God, The World and The Church: Reflections on Hebrews 10

As many of you have come to realize, I deal often with the topics of sin and of ministry on this blog. How are we as imperfect people expected to relate to our perfect God, the world and to the church? One thing I love about scripture is that when it comes alive, it provides answers for these and other questions life throws at us.Today, I’ll be looking at a passage that’s encouraged me this past week.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 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. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

This passage follows a section discussing the completeness of Jesus’ sacrifice for our purification. Here we are introduced to the perfection of our conscience, an element of purification through Jesus that the rituals of the Old Testament law could not provide. We see Jesus functioning as both priest and sacrifice in our mediation before God. His sacrifice need not be repeated because it does the job perfectly and completely the first time. Jesus’ sacrifice brings forgiveness for sins.

It’s in this context that our portion of scripture begins. Here the author gives three commands that come as a direct response to the preceding section. Since we have the confident access by the blood and sure mediation through our great high priest, we have the ability to live out the instructions given by the author. We are not the determining factor in our ability to keep these; Christ is. This is beautiful, and becomes more so when we explore these commands.

The first is this: Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. When I first read it, I took it as two commands: one to draw near with a true heart and the other to draw near in full assurance of faith. The challenge of this is it raises the question, “what is a true heart?” True is an adjective that has a broad range of meaning depending on the noun that it is modifying. A person can have a true aim, make a true statement, be a true bastard, etc. True means something a little different in each context and we derive its meaning from its noun. The problem is the noun ‘heart’ is also similarly vague. Do I follow my heart, take care of my heart, speak from the heart, or have a change of heart

If we see it one command though, we get more clarity on the author’s intention. The true heart is given a definition in relation to the full assurance of faith. We can understand that we are command to draw near to God with our hearts fully convinced of the assurance that faith brings. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

I sin more than I should (so basically, I sin). Sometimes my sin feels particularly grievous to me, especially if I should have known better. People get hurt, trust is broken and I feel as though I’ve let God down. In repentance, I believe I am forgiven, but instinct tells me to lay low for a bit and give God some time to cool down. That’s our paradigm of relationship, given our experience with other humans.

Isn’t it amazing then, that even in that moment, He invites us to draw near to Him with a true heart in full assurance of faith? Drawing near is a relational concept, and the relationship is of a son to a father. We are invited to know, enjoy and bring our requests to God as a son would his father. This is, in part, a command to pray boldly. We are well aware of all the reasons He has to ignore our prayers, and so it’s a challenge to obey. But Jesus is our confidence. We draw near to God through Him and we pray in His name. Pray in faith, because the bible commands us to.

In addition to drawing near, we are commanded to hold fast to our confession of hope because He who promised is faithful. The idea of holding to our confession recurs often in Hebrews (3:6,14; 4:14). The book also makes reference to falling away (2:1, 3:12, 6:4), becoming hardened (3:13), and shrinking back to our destruction (10:39). The author of this book does not take it for granted that everybody who professes to be a believer will continue in faith. Some will, for some reason, willingly forfeit their confession.

We are not given the reasons why a person might make such a decision. Other passages in Hebrews bring up the role of persistent sin (3:12, 10:26), immature meditation on the Word (2:1, 5:11-6:4, lack of perspective (10:34, 12:2-4) among other possible reasons. But those things that we might choose instead of God are not the concern of the author in this passage; the character of God is. Over the reality of temptation, persecution, and unanswered questions, we are called to trust in God’s character. His faithfulness is the anchor for our faith.

Why does this matter? Because there are a lot of rewards the world has to offer, and a lot of difficulty to be found in a life of faith. We will all question whether being a committed believer is worth the sacrifices. The more we engage with the world, the more we will see its joys. But instead of retreating from the world, we are called to cling tighter to the promises of God as aliens in the world.

Here’s what scripture promises to all believers: We will know God (Jon 17:3) and in that we will find true life. We will grow in character and become more good (Philippians 1:6). We will do the good works we were created to do (Ephesians 2:10). We will receive guidance to walk through life (Psalm 23). We will never be alone (Joshua 1:5,9). We will have meaningful impact in the cosmic war between good and evil in our prayer and evangelism. We will spend eternity with our creator, worshipping Him and enjoying Him forever.

The challenge is that living out our faith doesn’t always feel glorious. About 30 minutes after landing in Uganda, I was convinced I was in the wrong place. I was quickly reminded how much I don’t fit in here. I don’t think I know another African that feels as out of place on his native continent. What ministry could I do here that I wouldn’t be able to do more effectively in Canada?

What began to calm my doubts was not a change in the situation. Going out into the city with my team only made me feel more like an outsider. I can still only pick out every other word in the local accent. I’m struggling a little with being dependent on friends to get around, though appreciative of the good people God is surrounding us with. What’s changed for me is remembering that it is God who called me here. He provided the opportunity, confirmed His will and provided the funds. He began preparing me for this even when I was trying to run from Him. He’s even using the quirks and personalities of my teammates to prove to me that He knows what He’s doing. Every moment I doubt, His faithfulness is what will bring me peace, no matter how long it takes for me to remember it. Once again, it’s all about Him and not about me.

Finally, we are instructed to consider how to stir each other up to love and good works. The message here is that we are responsible to our brothers and sisters in Christ because of the cross and the priesthood of Jesus. I often think to the role of community in the Christian life in terms of receiving grace and support from the body of Christ. Here, we see our responsibility to the body. We are not to forsake gathering together, but to actively participate in encouraging the church.

The sixth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a great picture of this. In the first five verses, we are introduced to the concept of individual accountability and mutual responsibility. We are responsible for our conduct, so that when we fall, we cannot blame the church. Yet even in bearing our burdens, we are instructed to bear the burdens of our fellow believers. In doing so, we fulfill the law of Christ. We have that responsibility to each other.

What does this look like? It’s a bit easier to visualize this responsibility when you are given a position of leadership. The job description is clearly laid out: serve people by fulfilling this assignment. But what are we to do in not in any spiritual leadership roles? Or if we see our brother struggling outside our assigned jurisdiction?

Scripture, as it often does, gives some great suggestions for this. We can encourage (Hebrews 10:25). Encouragement goes a long way in building people up in the mission God called them to. Look at the role of Barnabas (the son of encouragement) in empowering John Mark in the book of Acts (Acts 12:12-25, 15:37-41, 2 Timothy 4:11).

We can teach each other (Colossians 3:16). This gives an incentive to spend time in God’s Word. The authority from which we teach is scripture. It is God’s truth and can correct our wrong views on reality and inspire life change. We are responsible to the community of believers for the time we spend in the Word.

Finally we can love our brothers and sisters. The second great commandment is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 23:39). Love covers a multitude of sins. We are responsible to love the body of Christ is word and deed. It is by this love that the world will know we are disciples of Jesus.

All these things we do because of all that God has done for us. We cannot boldly approach God’s throne or hold fast to our confession of hope or stir anyone to love and good works unless we truly believe we have access to God and that Christ Himself functions as our high priest interceding for us. His death on the cross was complete for the purifying of our souls. In this we rejoice and through this we obey.

All things for Him, from Him and through Him.

Amen

The Story of a Treasure

One thing I’ve become impressed with is the power of a good story. A story has a way of connecting with our heart more deeply than a lecture. Other styles of communication might engage the mind, but we humans rarely make life altering decisions because something appeals to our logic. Somewhere at the core of our being, on issues that mean the most to us, we doubt our faculties of reason and instead trust our hearts.

Jesus shared a lot of stories in His time on earth to connect with people’s hearts. The first time I really appreciated the power of Jesus’ stories was in watching the Jesus film. Based on the gospel of Luke, you get to see Jesus having fun with the crowd and connecting with people through the stories. Even watching the film in different languages (I watched it in two other languages before I got to see it in English), somehow I felt like I could connect with the character of Jesus portrayed on the screen.

There’s one story from Jesus that’s been making an appeal to my heart recently. It goes something like this (Matthew 13:44;Bim’s extended paraphrase): Our hero, the protagonist, is hanging around in a field, perhaps bored, likely meandering aimlessly. Somewhere to his right, in an overgrown patch of shrubs he spots something unusual. He’s got nothing better to do so he walks over to check it out. It’s a box, lying on its side at a weird angle. It must have fallen there somehow, because nothing about its position suggests it was intentionally placed. It also looks like it’s been there a while. He pulls some weeds off, fiddles with the latch for a bit and gets it open. He’s amazed by what he finds. It’s full of fine jewels, worth more than he could make in a lifetime.

At this point he’s got a decision to make. It’s too big to carry away; it will take some hefty maneuvering and a lot of man power. but then the owner of the field would notice and investigate. And if the owner were to see the treasure, he would rightfully claim it as his, being on his property. So our nervous hero covers up the box and half walks, half runs to find the land owner and inquire about buying the land. The owner quotes a price, much beyond what our hero can casually wrangle up. A quick mental calculation reveals that buying this land will require him to liquidate every asset he has. He doesn’t have the option of keeping anything back: not his emergency savings, not the gifts he was hoping to buy his kids, not even his wife’s wedding ring. In order acquire the treasure, he’s going to have to sell his business to purchase this piece of land. He’s going to be ridiculed because before purchasing the land, he won’t be able to explain what resources he will use to develop it and make it worth anything. Everyone will doubt his sanity, and he won’t be able to explain what makes this piece of land worth the investment of everything he owns.

But the treasure on the land is worth all this. Anything less the total sum of his worth and he loses out on the treasure. He will do it because there is something greater to gain. He will show his whole hearted devotion to this treasure by giving everything to obtain it.

This is the picture Jesus wants to leave his hearers about the kingdom of God. It’s valuable in a way that we will never fully be able to explain to someone outside it. To know God and be invited into His family and His mission is worth giving up our lives. But to enjoy the treasure, we can’t hold anything back.

This is a struggle for me. On Tuesday, I sat in on a talk during which I realized I have one idol that I REALLY don’t want to give up to God: Myself. I’m my biggest idol. I worship my freedom of expression and my individuality. I’m scared to fit into the Christian stereotype that’s come under criticism in our society: words like fundamentalist, blind faith, condescending moralists, and boring come to mind. I want to be fun and have fun as a Christian. I want to show that my faith is not blind but built on strong philosophical foundations. I want to be able to relate with the culture of the cities God has placed me in: Toronto and Hamilton. I want to stand against discrimination and violence against the LGBT community, mental illness patients and everyone else who has been stigmatized by the church in the past.

These are all good things, but in my heart I’ve made them ultimate things. I’ve told God that He can have anything He wants from me as long as I get to retain my sense of fun. Lord, I will stand for truth as revealed in Your scripture only it I can defend it philosophically to my non Christian friends. Don’t make me step out in faith without some sort of a plan, otherwise I might end up looking like a fool. I want the freedom to be who I want to be, no matter what it costs.

But what if, in seeking to retain my personality, I’m missing out on the treasure that lies in surrender. Maybe, just maybe, in clinging to my current understanding of myself and my values I’m missing out on a much truer sense of self.

I don’t know what this means for me practically. Maybe I allow Him to mold my sense of humour, or allow His Spirit to inspire me to silence when I want to speak out. Maybe I choose to stand for what I believe is right even when I can’t explain it. Maybe I allow myself to do things that I see a lot of other Christians doing and not always try to forge a brand new path.

Here’s what I do know: At a time when I wasn’t looking for Him, God introduced Himself to me and invited me to find my purpose in being His son. The only thing He asked of me was everything. He wanted to restore what was originally beautiful in me, to transform me into the image of the firstborn of His kingdom. He’s constantly reminding me that anything I don’t give up to Him is a rejection of the restoration He wants to do in my heart, the treasure He offers.

And so I pray, like David did:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
                Try me and know my thoughts
And see if there be any grievous way in me
                and lead me in the way everlasting

Transcendence and Immanence

“The God of the Bible is triune: one divine being of three infinite, relational persons. Thus in the being of God, both transcendence and immanence are implicit. The otherness between the persons is expressed as God’s transcendence over his creation (Gen 1:1); the perichoretic oneness between the persons is expressed as his immanence in creation (Ps 104).”  – Beyond Opinion, pg 99

Christianity is a faith that often holds two opposing truths in tension, both truths being valuable for an accurate and fulfilling understanding of God’s character. One example of these are the transcendence and immanence of God.

Transcendence refers to God’s nature exalted above His creation. He is unique among all, exalted above all, and Lord of all. He is holy- set apart, consecrated and dedicated to His own glory. Nothing unclean can survive in His presence, especially not sinful man. The is no quality in which we can claim equality with God.

Immanence feels very much the opposite. It looks at the nearness of God. He is intimately connected to His creation. He loves man- created in His image- to the point of death. His concern for His glory is a blessing to us because in glorifying Himself, He affirms every good gift that only from Him: love, fellowship, morality, justice, etc.

Christians in my sphere of experience often have a keen awareness of God’s transcendence. So many of our worship songs deal with God’s greatness, majesty and holiness. Our gospel presentations depend on presenting the righteous sacrifice of Jesus as necessary to satisfy the wrath of God for our sinful treason against God’s sovereignty. I believe that most Christians who have made their faith the foundation on which their lives are built, do so because they have come to see God in His transcendence. We want to obey God, serve Him and relate to Him in ways that express His exaltedness.

I love God’s transcendence. It gives me peace knowing that a transcendent God holds my future. I joyfully follow His call on my life because I can conceive nothing greater than serving a God who is ultimately worthy of worship. But in focusing so deeply on God’s transcendence, we risk missing out on the joy that comes in treasuring God’s immanence.

I say treasuring because I don’t think there is a Christian who doesn’t know that God loves us. Where the disconnect comes, at least in my life, is I sometimes hold His transcendence to be more important, more central to knowing God, than His nearness. Part of the reason is that, in my engagement with theology, I have to reject perspectives that don’t take God seriously enough. It seems to me that many in our society have a hard time accepting a God who hates sin, separates Himself from iniquity, and judges transgression against His holiness. The sentiment seems to be, “If we are all imperfect, then God must accept our imperfection as part of our humanity.” It would be unfair, according to many, for God to judge us by a standard we cannot keep.

This line of thinking is very attractive and it takes a strong resolve to keep from slipping into the mindset. A strong focus of the sound biblical theology of transcendence guards us from falling into liberal theology. When we exalt God’s justice, His holiness and the incredible contrast between ourselves and His nature, only then does it make sense to preach the justice of hell and the necessity of a saviour.

However, liberal theology is attractive because it is in agreement with our innate understanding of love. Love is more than the abrogation of wrath. There’s more to my relationship with my parents than they choosing to forgive me when I scratched their car. Their love is so much deeper than they choosing to pay for my school even though I don’t take it as seriously as I should.

When we say God is love, it feels disconnected from the justice/wrath theology that we so often emphasize. Transcendence without immanence is only a part of the picture, and leaves us with a very unsatisfying Christianity.

God doesn’t simply love us despite our sin; He loves us because we are His. Through the Old and New Testaments, He uses metaphors of marriage and parenthood to describe His relationship with His people. We are adopted as sons (gender specificity highlights the promise of inheritance limited to men in bible times). The church is described as the bride of Christ. He’s the shepherd who joyfully goes after His displaced sheep and rejoices when we are brought back to the fold.

We are called, not only to serve God and make disciples, but to walk with Him. I love this image, expounded on in a recent Mark Driscoll sermon. He spoke of taking a walk with his wife and described is as being a fun, casual and relational experience. This is what it is to walk with God. We are invited to draw near to His throne with confidence, not in minimizing God’s absolute holiness, but in accepting His simultaneous nearness.

There is an amazing relational element to faith. We grow in knowledge, intimacy and trust in God. When we pray, He hears and responds. When we praise, He delights in it. When we sin, it grieves. When we repent, He rejoices.

I want to reflect more on His love and His invitation to know Him. I want to treasure this truth when I go through temptation. I want to rest in His immanence when I’m tired, frustrated, lonely, happy, excited…basically always. I know He is distinct, exalted and indescribably righteous and just; today I want to rejoice also in His friendship, fatherhood, and relational attributes.