Present-day lessons from the letter to the Hebrews
“…you need to persevere…” Hebrews 10:36
Following Jesus in the western world today is a tough call. For the first time in hundreds of years, it means going entirely against the flow of the culture and society around us: life at 1800.
In such a context it’s very tempting simply to tone down, or ease back on, our commitment to the Lordship of Jesus in our lives, and revert to being .. well, just mildly religious.
It was that sort of temptation and pressure which those to whom this letter was written were facing. They were Jews (Hebrews) who had boldly placed their trust in Jesus as the Christ (Messiah), the One to whom their Scriptures had pointed. But increasingly they were facing persecution from both the Jewish faith and the Roman state – and with that came the pressure to ‘shrink back’ into the religion of the Hebrews, a Judaism without Jesus.
Or as we experience it today, the pressure to pursue a Christianity without the Christ – religion without a relationship with the risen, living Lord Jesus.
Because the original recipients were largely (if not wholly) Hebrews, the writer spends much of his letter comparing and contrasting Jesus with the best that the Old Testament can offer. Angels? Jesus is better. Moses? Jesus is better. The high priest? Jesus is better. The sacrificial system? Jesus is better. And so on.
If the Old Testament seems a strange and unfamiliar book, don’t panic! In these studies we’ll be aiming to stand back a bit from the detail and see in broad brush strokes the picture of Jesus which the writer is seeking to paint for his readers.
In the slightly altered words of an old 13th century prayer from Richard, Bishop of Chichester – may the fruit of these studies in the letter to the Hebrews simply be that we see Jesus more clearly, love Jesus more dearly, and follow Jesus more nearly.
Useful books include ‘Hebrews for everyone’ [Tom Wright]; ‘The Message of Hebrews’ [Raymond Brown]; and ‘Experiencing the presence of God: Teachings from the Book of Hebrews’ [A W Tozer]Series-Outline
It’s ‘Doors Open Day’ here in Aberdeen this month.
We’re glad of the opportunities the day presents – despite the fact that our doors are obviously open on more than just the one day in the year – because the three-word title which is given to the day is itself so expressive of the gospel we proclaim: it could almost be our ‘strap-line’! ‘Doors open day.’
The whole message of the Bible is essentially about an open door: or at least about a door which had once been closed, being now opened affording access. For our problem as humanity has, from the Garden of Eden onwards, been one of access: or, more precisely, a lack of access.
The door was shut in the face of Adam and Eve (metaphorically at least), when they chose to spurn the word of God: they were chased out of the garden, the gate was closed behind them, and the key was pretty much thrown away.
A big red circle with a broad white line across the middle is the sign we all encounter, whichever way we try and climb or scramble or bribe our way into heaven. ‘No Entry’. The door firmly closed, locked and bolted.
We understand at least in some measure something of the phenomenon, and the reasons lying behind it. The people of Winchester maybe better than most these days.
The very mention of Novichok there, for instance, is enough to trigger an instant, total lock-down: they know all too well just how fatally lethal that wretched nerve agent can be. The doors will be closed. Access denied. Keep out.
Or have a chat with Pauline Cafferkey about the effects of the ebola virus, and remind yourself of just what ‘barrier’ nursing looks like, why it’s employed, and what it entails for infected individuals: a whole series of ‘barriers’ – doors, as it were, firmly shut and sealed, to keep the contaminated person out, and to prevent that potent virus slipping in.
We understand the principle. Sin contaminates: and we’re all infected. The good, the bad, and the ugly – it doesn’t matter who we are, we’re all of us infected. We carry the virus with us.
And the door of heaven stays solidly shut.
Until the thing has been dealt with. That’s why we often sing as we do the great words of Psalm 24 when we celebrate communion and rehearse once more the life and death of Jesus on our part.
Ye gates, lift up your heads on high; ye doors that last for aye, be lifted up, that so the King of Glory enter may.
The drawbridge of heaven is lowered at last, the portcullis at last is raised. At last there’s a Man who can go in. The Man who’s not infected. The Man who’s dealt the thorough-going antidote to sin. No wonder that one of the ways He describes Himself is simply as ‘the door’.
This is now a ‘door’s open’ day. The door has been opened to Him, the sinless, perfect Man. And for those who can say “I’m with Him” .. well, they too get the nod, they too can go in now with Him. They too can draw near and feast with the Father, like the prodigal children we are, because the stain of sin’s been removed, and it’s virility rendered impotent: we’ve been declared no longer infectious.
That’s how we most times think of the ‘open door’. And rightly so in some ways. ‘Come on in!’ we exhort, with a genuine warmth in our words of exhortation and a valid sense of urgency as well.
‘The door has been opened by Jesus: come on in!’ This is “the door’s open” day for sure. We welcome everyone in.
Except the New Testament rather knocks that comfortable notion on its head. Or rather, the New Testament church discovered to their considerable discomfort that God was knocking that notion on the head. Or at least swiveling the head 180 degrees.
Those who’ve come in are now to go out. A whole new ball game ensues. And Jesus Himself, the great ‘pioneer’ and perfecter of our faith, He shows the way.
Remember that famous little episode in Jericho. The wee man, Zacchaeus – little in pretty much every way (and most of the ways weren’t that pretty) – remember how Jesus engaged with him?
Not the way that we’d have likely followed – if we’d cared to engage with the man at all. We’d have maybe put a flier in the wee man’s chubby fingers and encouraged him to come to church, told him the times of services, and assured him he’d be made most warmly welcome. The door’s open to all!
Not Jesus. It was the other way round with Him. “Zacchaeus,” He said, “I must come to your house for tea.” Your house.
If Jesus is indeed ‘the door’, His disciples soon learn that this is more like a revolving door. For the early church would learn very quickly – and painfully too, by means of open persecution – that, yes the door’s open, but it’s been opened by Jesus to send His people out.
It wasn’t an easy lesson for any of them to learn. For centuries past their entire perspective had been framed by the basic conviction that the only door, the one and only access that there was to God, involved you going to Him – more specifically you going off to the house of God, located in Jerusalem. That’s where and how you met with God. The door was narrow; and just occasionally ajar; for once a year, on your behalf, with all due complicated protocols observed, the great high priest could get himself an audience with the Lord.
The early church was being called to break the habits of a lifetime. The only working model which they had was one whereby “the open door” meant only that you’re free now to go in. Come. On. IN!
We’re faced by a very similar challenge in these days. For centuries now, and for very good reasons, the primary working model that we’ve had, in terms of how we go about our calling to proclaim the risen Christ, has been one which sees us eager to invite our neighbours in. In to the building, in to the church, in to share in our worship. Come on in – the door’s open!
Well, yes; the door’s open. And, yes, folk are welcome always to come in. But just as the early church soon learned that God had other plans in opening thus the door, so we today are having to break with the patterns of the past, dispense with the working models which have served us well, and learn again what the ‘strap-line’ actually means. Door’s Open Day. God’s opened the door to send His people out.
‘Don’t expect that they will come to you: you go to them. Door’s open – out you go. Go call on wee Zacchaeus and his chums. Go visit them, have tea with them. Their place not yours.’
Door’s open. This is the children of God now coming of age. No longer confined to the home, no longer grounded, no longer housebound. But trusted now to go out, ‘chaperoned’ and indeed empowered by the indwelling Spirit of God, to do themselves what Jesus had been doing from the start – the Son of God who opened the door of His home and went out, out on mission, and came to us. Isn’t that what the incarnation is all about? ‘I must stay at your house today!’
Remember how Paul and Barnabas reported back to the church at Antioch, telling them of all that God had done through them and “how He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14.27)? Or how, a bit later on, he writes to say that “a great door for effective work has opened to me ..” (1 Cor.16.9)?
“Door’s open” meant they went. That’s the challenge which we now, like the early church, are facing today. The ‘revolving’ door of grace is turning our model of ministry on its head. No longer a case of people first coming in and then, once in, being roundly and soundly converted, through the preaching of the Word: instead, people only by and large coming in when once they’ve already been converted. Through the spreading of the Word of God out there on the streets, in the homes, and in the places of leisure and work where the swarming mass of humanity live out their every-day lives.
The church at Antioch now provides a far more important model for us all than the church which was stuck in Jerusalem. That church’s story (the church at Antioch, I mean) begins with those who were ‘scattered’ (Acts 11.19): they were kicked, rather unceremoniously, out through the open door. But without a hint of a ‘but-we’ve-aye-done-it-this-way’ complaint, they got off their backsides, stepped into their trainers, and carried right on out.
They ‘travelled’, we’re told, travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch. Not just out, but way out. So ‘way out’ in fact that the church in Jerusalem got singularly nervous and twitchy about it all, and sent a delegation off to check the whole thing out.
And ‘out’, of course, was the operative word! Disciples were out on the streets of the world: kicked out, or sent out, depending upon your perspective – but definitely now right out on the streets of the world: and the word was out that Jesus was risen, that the King had come, that a whole new world order had started.
A great door had opened to the world at large. For “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord .. a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11.21, 24).
A huge, great centrifugal force had been, in God’s wise providence, now set in train, and an outward-looking, outward-going model had become this ‘scattered’ people’s new perspective in the cause of gospel ministry. A momentum had been triggered by the act of their expulsion from Jerusalem; and Antioch would prove to be not just their landing place, but rapidly their launch pad, too, for more far-reaching ministry which would see the message sounding out and spreading out to peoples far and wide.
It’s a “door’s open” day. We’d better believe it! We’d better learn to recognize and understand the spiritual dynamics of this great ‘revolving’ door!
Because it is just a ‘day’. Not a brief September Saturday; but not forever and a day either. Just a ‘day’, a season, an era, a day of opportunity which does not and which will not last for always. For the Lord who’s gracious in opening such doors, is sovereign as well in His closing the door when it’s time.
Remember what’s said about Noah after all those years of building the ark and preaching the word? “The Lord shut him in” (Gen.7.16). Or, more bluntly, ‘the Lord closed the door.’
Scary, if you were stuck outside and felt the first drops of rain on your head. You’d have had years and years of listening to Noah the boat-builder preaching the Word: and now the heavens opened .. and the door was closed, to the only sort of safety there would be. How dreadful to find too late that you’d missed the boat!
It’s a “Door’s open” day still here: but maybe only just in Scotland now. As we’re wont to say, the nights are drawing in fast. “While it is still day,” therefore, “we must do the works of Him who sent (us)” (Jn.9.4): on the street side of the door.
Yours in Christ’s service
I wonder what you make of the prophet Jeremiah.
I like him. I have something of a soft spot for him. Or maybe more a certain affinity.
In part, I guess that’s something to do with my name being essentially his. Names matter. They certainly did in Bible times, and I like to think they do so still. There’s something almost prophetic about the name you’re given. And like it or not (and most of the time growing up I didn’t like it at all) I did at least feel a certain sort of kinship with the man whose name I bore.
Where I lived at the time there wasn’t another ‘Jeremy’ in sight: none of my pals at school had ever even heard of the name before – and half of them couldn’t pronounce it. So I found myself drawn to the only other person that I knew (or knew of) who had a name remotely like my own. The prophet Jeremiah.
I soon learned, though, that he didn’t get rave reviews: the prophet Isaiah was the pin-up boy, it seemed. Isaiah was class: his poetry seemed to delight the cultured ‘literati’ of the Bible texts, and the rich and extravagant promises of grace he brought had Bible buffs almost salivating with anticipation.
Whereas Jeremiah was known as the ‘weeping prophet’. A ‘wet blanket’, over against Isaiah’s ‘comfort blanket’. Where Isaiah was dazzling, Jeremiah was simply dour. The word on the street had branded Jeremiah as the archetypal ‘kill-joy’, full only of doom and gloom, with a personality and perspective on life, so the branding went, which would have made Private Frazer of Dad’s Army fame seem like an eternal optimist.
I wasn’t too chuffed to begin with. I sometimes even wondered what sick sort of joke my parents had played by giving me this man’s name. But it wasn’t just the name which slowly drew me to this man: it was his calling, too. I read of the way he struggled in his youth against the call of the Lord on his life, and I began to see that he wasn’t just my namesake, he was a kindred spirit as well.
The instinctive excuses he’d been quick to rehearse before the Lord … well, I found they were my excuses too. Way too young: and by the way, I can’t speak. I liked the man’s directness with the Lord, his almost childlike honesty: I felt I had an ally in this awkward and reluctant preacher from a bygone age.
And the longer I spent in the company of this man the more I found some comfort, too, in the way the Lord had firmly re-assured His ‘new kid on the block’.
“Too young? Forget it,” said the Lord (I’m paraphrasing of course): ‘it’s not your age but your call which is the thing that counts – just go where I call you to go, and say what I tell you to speak.” Excuse number 1 out the window.
“And you can’t speak? That’s as maybe,” insisted the Lord, “but I can: I’ll put the words in your mouth.” Excuse number 2 thereby binned: the Lord would be his enabling.
I knew a growing sense of unexpected excitement (unexpected because ‘excitement’ and ‘Jeremiah’ were not two words you’d commonly find in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence). But excitement there was as I heard the Lord saying that He’d not only give him the words to speak, but He’d make him the man to say them. “Today” (and my pulse began to quicken at the immediacy of that), “I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land ..” It maybe wasn’t the language I would have used, but I got the picture all right.
Jeremiah against the world. Or at least the world of Judah.
This was the battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s last stand, transcribed across to the realms of spiritual warfare. As a boy brought up on westerns and for whom the Lone Ranger had always been the peak of heroic action, I started to see Jeremiah in an entirely different light: he was John Wayne wearing a cassock, Gary Cooper with a collar; he was the last-minute charge of the cavalry appearing along the horizon, a last-gasp attempt at a rescue when all was otherwise lost.
Or, in the rather different genre of disaster movies, he was a Fire Chief Mike O’Hallaran in the Towering Inferno of persistent rebellion and sin which the land and people of Judah had become.
Check the script and see if the essence of Jeremiah’s message isn’t matched pretty much by that of Fire Chief Mike O’Hallaran – “It’s your building, but it’s our fire. Now let’s get these people *** out of here” (maybe I should have left the asterisked words in!)
“When there’s a fire,” said the Chief in one of his famous quotes, “I outrank everybody here.”
Which didn’t go down a bomb with a lot of the self-important people who comprised the ‘everybody’ there: any more than God’s ‘fire chief’, Jeremiah, went down a bomb with the people of his day.
However I viewed it, there was a certain sort of drama about this servant of the Lord, the prophet Jeremiah, which I was only beginning to learn.
No wonder Isaiah and he were so different – their respective sets (or settings) were poles apart. Isaiah was a one-man firm of graphic designers in a day of relative calm, portraying to their best advantage the stunning, forward-looking plans of the Architect supreme, the great Creator God (it wasn’t quite as simple as that, but you get the gist): Jeremiah, by contrast, was a one-man, blue-light fire brigade, tackling, by God’s authority, a ‘wiring’ of chronic corruption which had burst out into the flames of a towering inferno.
A different day, a different age, different times entirely.
We don’t get to choose the day in which we live, or the ‘set’ on which we serve. And when Jeremiah dropped a ‘Dear Sir..’, strongly-worded complaint along those lines into the Lord’s ‘Suggestion Box’, he got an immediate reply.
“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?” (Jer.12.5)
Indeed, so thoroughly was this probing question descriptive of the life and ministry to which this man was called that it prompted the title of Eugene Peterson’s book about the prophet – ‘Run with the horses’.
And in many respects that question of the Lord to Jeremiah is precisely the challenge which faces us 21st century followers of Jesus in the western world today. Do we really think it’s been tough thus far being a follower of Jesus Christ? I mean, in a land, in a setting, where for 400 years and more the culture and society in which we live has been shaped by, steeped in, and has therefore also been essentially sympathetic to, the Christian faith.
If living our life and fulfilling our calling as the church of Jesus Christ in that sort of context has worn us out and left us exhausted and spent – then we’re in trouble, big trouble, when, as is happening here in our land today, the context radically changes and the going gets significantly tougher.
‘Get used to this, Jeremiah, it’s horses now you’ll be running against: not men. It’s about to get a whole load more demanding.’ It did for him, and it is for us.
We’ve a lot to learn from the man. Isaiah may still be everyone’s favourite ‘pin-up boy’, but Jeremiah is surely our ‘man for the hour’. Jeremiah’s the man who’s long since run this particular race and who’s tackled the challenging course which lies before us now.
The church has grown accustomed to a context where the benefits (if, indeed, you can call them such) – where the benefits of ‘Christendom’ prevailed: familiarity (at least in very general terms) with the content and the message of the Bible: acceptance of the ‘worldview’ and perspective which the Word of God sets out: agreement with the values and the tenets of the Christian faith: and adoption of the premise that there are in fact clear ‘absolutes’ which give substance to the concepts of both true and false and right and wrong.
Not all agreed with the message of the Bible. Not all were exactly comfortable with the worldview of the Word. Not all adhered by any means to the values and the tenets of the faith. And not all concurred as to what those absolutes were.
But that has been the context here in which our calling as the church of Christ has had to be lived out. And yes, that had its challenges. It wasn’t ever easy following Jesus, even in a context such as that. There was still a race to be run; and running any race is never a stroll in the park.
Things are changing rapidly, though.
As, of course, they were in Jeremiah’s day. He lived in the choppy, cross-current waters of a massive cultural ‘sea-change’, the turbulent transition from one familiar context to another, a new and strange and unwelcome one: from kingdom to exile. “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?”
Are we ready for the challenge? Instead of any familiarity with the content and the message of the Bible, there’s now maybe three or four generations’ worth of widespread, total ignorance, and a burgeoning, growing disdain, of the Book. Instead of the general acceptance of the ‘worldview’ of the Word of God, there’s a whole different outlook on life. Instead of the common agreement with the values and the tenets of the Christian faith, such values and tenets are met with both scorn and derision and viewed as restrictive and crass. Instead of there being absolutes, the post-modern world has decreed that everything’s relative, anything goes, and there’s no such thing as the truth.
Running the race, proclaiming the gospel, following Jesus – it just got a whole load tougher. It’s ‘horses’ now we’re competing with. It’s the swirling, dangerous, cross-current waters of the shift from kingdom to exile that we’re having to sail. And it helps to have a man to hand who’s already had to navigate such seas and who’s learned how to ‘run with the horses’.
We’ll do well to learn from Jeremiah. We’ll do well to be taking a deep, deep breath, and, demanding as life has maybe been as we’ve raced on foot with men, we’ll do well now to ‘up our game’ and ready ourselves for the altogether tougher sort of challenges these coming days present. Another ‘High Noon’ is beckoning!
Yours in Christ’s service