Starting May 1st Evergreen Church is launching a 3-Mth Bible Reading Plan through the book of Hebrews. The reading plan is meant to coincide with devotional journaling of each day’s scripture reading. Devotional journaling is then meant to encourage us in connecting with others. Once a week, or maybe twice a month, 2-3 people can agree to meet for roughly a half hour for the purpose of encouraging one another through the scriptures (i.e. Hebrews reading plan). What is provided here is merely some introductory notes to the book of Hebrews to give a bit of context into our journey over the next three months. You may find this helpful. Enjoy.
BOOK OF HEBREWS – INTRODUCTORY NOTES
Context: The book of Hebrews is an Apostolic Letter or General Epistle as is referred to in many bible translations. It is written mainly to devout Jews who have converted to Christianity. And although its author is unknown, it is clear the book of Hebrews is both a warning to Jewish believers who are contemplating a return to Judaism as well as a response to Greek-speaking or Hellenistic converts facing incredible persecution. The major focus from these is to present the Lord Jesus, Son of the living God, as perfect and superior in comparison to anything Judaism and Old Testament covenant has to offer. This Jesus, is the one and only answer to the ills of this life. He is the firm foundation upon which the promise of rest exists. He is, as the author does state, unchanging: “the same yesterday, today and forever.” (Heb 13:8)
Author and Audience: As was mentioned above, the author of Hebrews is unknown. For most of Christian history there has been a wide array of assertions as to who the author might be, including Paul, Barnabas, Luke, Apollos, perhaps even Priscilla or Aquila. Whoever did write this work, he or she is not identified in the letter itself. What we can identify from the letter is something of the writer’s intimate understanding of the increasingly growing, terrifying nature of Christian persecution under emperors Claudius (AD 54) and Nero (AD 68) paired with an incredible knowledge of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Levitical priesthood, Covenant sacrifice, and Worship practice. But more importantly, we immediately sense great concern on the part of the author for the advancing early church: concern over their spiritual apathy, concern over their becoming tired and weak, concern over their entertaining fear, doubt, and a return to former Judaism. Bear in mind, however, the writer’s bold words are wholly wrapped in compassion, urging us all to “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find help in our time of need.”(Heb 4:16)
Central Focus: The central focus of Hebrews is to demonstrate specifically to the Jews (while universally to all who profess Jesus Christ), from their own Scriptures, the superiority and preeminence of Jesus Christ over angels, forefathers, prophets and kings, in and through His divinity, humanity, atonement, and intercession before God. And then to further demonstrate the superiority of the gospel of grace over the law of sin and death. By this, the epistle serves to fortify the hearts and minds of Hebrew converts against the familiar constrains of covenant law, and even more so, against apostasy under unimaginable persecution. Then finally, to boldly engage them to “run with perseverance the race marked out, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12).
“Would that you be at my feet” the Devil says to our Lord, “and all of this be yours.” [Luke 4:7] All of this… including a most impotent path among men.
The story of Jesus being led into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan is a fascinating scene in many respects. Three of the four gospels give an account of this epic confrontation, yet nowhere in the gospels are we let on to Jesus actually relaying his experience to any follower, friend, or family member. Now he certainly may have; we know a great many matters among Jesus and his companions are not included in scripture—”For if every one of them were written down, the whole world would not have room enough for the books that would be written.” (Jn 21:25) Either way, we are left to speculate on this point.
Still, we are not looking in on the ministry of miracles here or the teaching of kingdom principles. This is something entirely different; a scene so crucial to the drama of the rising early church that two different authors give testimony that the Devil’s assault on our Lord was so taxing He had to be tended to by angels. Yet there is no further comment of it anywhere. Seems odd. Is there not some lesson to be learned here? some precept for us to take home? some parable for us to marvel at? If ever there was, it doesn’t come from Christ’s lips.
Then there is something of the story’s setting. Besides the two principle characters of good and evil (the Son of God vs the Prince of the earth) the entire backdrop of the occasion is isolation. No other persons are present. No disciples. No crowds. No sinners. No one. Not one other person is led into temptation the way Jesus is or even has indication that such tantalizing is well underway in the desert hills above John’s baptizing. “The Word who became flesh to dwell among us” (Jn 1:14) is here led away from us, in fact driven away, into fasting, abiding, enduring, and finally emptying. He is alone and apart; the Devil at his ear.
And what brings us to this point in the story anyway? Or rather who? The Holy Spirit’s leading here is not just curious, it’s nearly contradictory. Hardly a surprise that the Father’s affirmation “this is my Son” (Mt 3:17) and the Spirit’s confirmation “resting on him” (Mt 3:16) should be tested and tried. But what is surprising, even conflicting, is that the Holy Spirit allows for the very thing he inspires us to pray against—”lead us not into temptation” pleas our Lord, “but deliver us from the evil one.” (Mt 6:13) I am at a loss. Are some prayers not answered? some mysteries never revealed? Perhaps no more at a loss than the gospel writer himself in having included this detail as he believed it happened, and that it happened just this way. Every loose end in this life neatly tied up is the first thing to be put to death.
For several weeks now I’ve been revisiting Jesus’ wilderness encounter through the lens of every story that comes after it—the call of the disciples, the sermon on the mount, the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, the parable of the sower, the freeing of the demoniac, the woman with the issue of blood, Christ’s transfiguration. The more I retrace our savior’s steps the less confident I am in what is really going on, what it all actually means, what Jesus is truly up against, and what we too must face in following him. Any number of commentaries and whatever the internet has to offer eagerly boil three temptations down to XYZ, followed by a prescription formula to avoid XYZ. It all seems quite reasonable and practical, yet somehow not able to satisfy the ever-so-subtle notion that God as a man is slowly putting himself to death as he ministers healing across Palestine. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
Though we know Christ emerges victorious in the end, dying begins in the wilderness. One seaside crowd after another thereafter is preyed upon by the same deception, temptation, choice, faith and surrender as was Messiah. Though we know Christ emerges victorious in the end, should we not also acknowledge all the familiar roadside markers leading out of the desert along this ancient path, all the recurring signposts winding up from the shores of the Jordan toward the cross of Calvary. How often we do not. That great and terrible temptation embodied in our Adversary… the rather reasonable and practical invitation for us to hold onto self, onto life itself, to shortcut the route of faith, and by our own incredible efforts climb the sky to God.
“Command these stones to become bread” (Lk 4:3) is how harmless it all seems. But Jesus does not command stones to become bread. The only begotten of God from whom all life flows understands that bread does not come from stones. It doesn’t come from power ministry or miraculous tricks. Bread comes from seed; it always has. Bread comes from seed that falls out of heaven to the earth and is crushed underfoot and buried into winter so as to rise up again in the Spring. Bread comes from a thoughtful scattering of patience, endurance and faith, as does everything else that lines the road the leads to life. And a narrow road it is for us all, steep, winding, and rarely traveled. The walk becomes a climb soon enough. Soon enough we are all stopping every so many steps to catch our breath and count the cost. What will it be? My life for his? His life for mine? “If it is you before me, Satan; get me! Resurrection is up around the bend. Mine eyes are ever fixed upward.”
There is tremendous power to heal and free in the depths of the gospel. In both the proclamation of the word in worship and the message of the word in preaching, there is ample opportunity for us to apportion the words of Jesus in our own life, to entrust our own needs and wants into the care of the Lord, to ultimately “deny ourselves and carry our own cross” in every day affairs. This is difficult work no doubt. But it is good work. The kind of labor that will not disappoint and render you without hope. The kind of labor that will inspire you to invite the wisdom and correction of God. Our own needs and wants and desires are only but a season and they will never really settle our soul. What will settle us and give us the peace that only God gives is our willful conscious choice to follow Jesus in obedient faith. In some certain way, in some certain area, God may be asking you to die in the wilderness before you emerge victorious, before his tending angels come to your aid, when only his words arise in your heart. This is what we’re up against. Yet don’t be afraid. You will not be consumed. You will remain and grow and thrive.
Multiplied — by NeedToBreathe, Album Rivers In the Wasteland
This is one of my favorite songs. Simple lyrics. Music builds. It builds some more. Then it builds even more. I listen to it when I’m on the treadmill or on a walk. I am easily overwhelmed in it and forget I’m not really trying to get anywhere. Perhaps that’s not true for you, but I still think the song is for you. Listen. Enjoy.
A poem I wrote late last night. Bethlehem of that first Christmas has its own unique history. The poem is a kind of tinkering around with that history, with familiar stories and familiar landscapes. Its also an offering of permission for others to toy around with their own ideas, to fashion something new, fresh, different. Enjoy.
City of David
Ephrath of old
Village among the cliffs.
Your lamp has not gone out.
Bethlehem Oh Bethlehem
You keep the bones of Rachel
You birth the sons of Jesse
Your nearby fields pasture sheep
Your limestone crags shelter lambs.
Oh ‘house of bread’
Open up your earthen doors.
Herod’s horses Herod’s swords
Cradle your infants in dank dark caves.
Bethlehem Oh Bethlehem
Your lamp has not gone out.
Feed us all from the prophet’s song
— “unto you is born this day”
Feed us all from the prophet’s song.
Wherein the road does end
Wherein your womb is moved
Your fields have all laid down
Your shepherds bring us in.
Bethlehem Oh Bethlehem
We hear the angel softly sing
A lamb is born in Bethlehem
A village among the cliffs.
“Beware of the Scribes who devour widows houses, and with great pretense offer elaborate prayers” and “do you see these great buildings? not one stone of this temple will be left. all will be torn down” yet “see that poor woman? out of her poverty she gives. and she has given everything. there is hardly a thing like it in this glorious city.” (Mark 12:38-44)
Even a casual study of the gospels will reveal a number of different paths leading us into Jesus’ final days here on earth. All four gospels include their own vantage point of the passion week, and each render their own intimate account of the only perfect suffering servant. Mark’s gospel [the earliest record] gives us a more rapid-fire approach to all the familiar stories surrounding Jesus’ ministry entanglements during his final stay in the ancient city of David. The style and tone of Matthew is hardly noticed. The elaborate detail of Luke seems missing altogether. Instead, we find Jesus the Nazarene plain and present, every articulation stripped away.
The story of the widows offering in Mark 12, for instance, is just this kind of paring down. On the one hand, there’s very little to the scene itself, nothing more than an observation on the part of Jesus, a small shaft of light cutting through an otherwise dark Passover week. Out of the bustle of everyday life a widow woman emerges with a few copper coins for the temple treasury, an offering hardly worth the bother of long lines and silent disdain that make up the religious courtyard of the day. Yet something is a stir against the backdrop of all our religious ritual and practiced piety, and Jesus takes notice: “See that poor woman? Out of her poverty she gives. And she has given everything. There is hardly a thing like it in all this glorious city.” (Mark 12:44)
Given the context leading us through Jesus’ final Passover week, the glorious city of David appears to have come to rest on two copper coins of its own, two “corner stones” as it were: the religious establishment of the Pharisee-Scribe and the grandeur of the temple building itself. Representative of the wealth of God’s favor and richness of His promised kingdom, both the priest and his practice have been packaged up like a product. It is the system of our history and it will be torn down. What the gospel writer here testifies to is our strengths, our defenses, our justifications, the pinnacle of our grandeur coming down. All will be torn down. And nothing will rise again except one who is transformed by the working of faith in obedience.
Less than a day after Jesus scatters the money changers with his own hand, the smallest of faith figures (this poor widow) wedges into our Christian history almost unrecognized, except that she is recognized by Jesus. And recognized not only as faithful in her regular offerings but as the stark contrast to every kind of power, authority, system, structure or possession this world has to offer. She is like Sampson the blind all over again, standing between two palace pillars, surrendering everything she has left; the world is caving in.
“Beware…” Jesus says. It is not the enormity of our resource that conjures up God’s favor. God’s favor is a grace gift that finds us all in a sort of poverty—all that we are is to be given away. The coins, the religious robes, the royal palaces, these were never really ours anyway. And for us who recognize who we truly are.. we are compelled to leave the house today, offering in hand, bound for Jerusalem.
Between the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the words “delivered into the hands of sinful men” are stated three times by Jesus himself in predicting his own death. Luke’s gospel and the book of Acts each use this same exact phrase at least once in directly tying Old Testament prophecy to Jesus’ death and resurrection. And a slight variation of the words “delivered into”— delivered over, handed over, given over —are used an additional six times in the gospels referring directly to how Jesus would be seized, tried, condemned, treated, and killed. Incidentally, nine of these examples immediately follow Jesus’ warning of the unbelieving spirit of the Pharisee and the cost of following Messiah—which, on the whole, are two principle subjects of Jesus’ message regarding the embrace of kingdom rule and reign in a person’s life. In a word, “the Son of Man must suffer many things…” is all over the scriptures (see examples below).
Not surprising, however, for each of the numerous occasions referenced it appears those who heard these words did not understand them. To his hearers, Jesus was speaking in parables, bizarre riddles, some unintelligible language, a ghastly thought worthy of rebuke. How could their friend, their teacher, this worker of miracles, the “confessed Christ” who would inevitably establish righteousness, justice and peace across the land suddenly be found in custody of the state awaiting death by torture? How can this be? And who would dare?
Mark 12 Again he began to speak to them in parables… “Finally the owner of the vineyard sent his own dear son to the tenants he left in charge, saying, ‘Surely they will heed my son and respect him.’ But they did not. Those tenants said to one another, ‘This here is heir to vineyard. Let us kill him and take his inheritance for our own!’ So they seized the man’s son, killed him, and threw his body out of the vineyard.”
Given over into the hands of sinful men is the ultimate tension of engaging community. Entrusting thyself to the care of human will is the decisive test of obedient faith. Committed to the will of the Father as it’s unveiled through people is our most noticeable expression of enduring love. And these are the unalterable imperatives of following Jesus! “Whoever receives you receives me, but whoever rejects you rejects me; and whoever rejects me rejects the One who sent me”(Lk 10)
This is the world Christ is born into. This is the world we too are born into. Death is a part of Jesus’ life as it is for us. Life that includes rejections and betrayals, the worst of hurts and pains and the sins of others. Death is part of our life in Christ. And community is part of that death. We see Jesus is ashamed of this death and yet in no way does he avoid or evade. The Word has indeed become flesh and dwells in the care of those who will both love and destroy him—the Pharisee, the Tax Collector, the Soldier, the Leper, the Woman, the Child, You, Me, the World. The “confessed Christ” is completely present and completely immersed in community—hearts and hands and eyes that will not return his gaze.
What we do with the Savior delivered into our own hands will be most evident in how we care for Christ’s body. The body of Christ is his gathered church, a believing community of frail and disjointed people of whom we are a part, in whom we are made more human, and by whom the power of God’s grace is administered in the form of enduring hope. We were created for community… to give and receive love, to feel and be felt in others, to minister the hope of eternity. This is who we are; this is why we’re here.
A poem I wrote in response to our incredibly sad and often savage 24-hr news cycle. Stories and stories of sadness and pain and hurt. I know the world is full of examples of love and joy and peace and civility, but often these are pushed to the margins. Here is an image, a snapshot per se, of miracle based on accounts from the Gospel of Mark. The miracle of Christ into the world. The miracle of faith in Christ and healing that results.
Then there is that strange story
Of wandering crowds
Out into the desert
All for a traveling healer—
A worker of miracles
A riddler of strange prophecies.
Two or three days at a time
They lasted on stories of seed. Light.
What is for each of us a measure of faith.
And then there were the handfuls of bread
Broken and spread out across the side
Of that little country called Galilee
Where everyday people of earth
Gather by family
Marry by family
And die among their own.
All of history’s shepherds and fishers and collectors
In small villages around a small small earth
Wearying themselves of life and love and rule and God…
Till finally, “I believe” comes up out the crowd.
Or “only that I would touch the hem of your coat” arises
From the faceless sick.
This one in particular gets to me.
Nameless. Faceless. Lost in time
Except that we have this strange story
Of her healing, the gathering of faith in a word
Cracked wide open out of tiny tiny seed.
The scene depicted in Mark chapter 7 below is a very familiar scene throughout the gospels of the New Testament. We find Jesus and a small cadre of apprentice-ministers moving about the seaside towns and villages near Galilee, occasionally stopping for food and rest. As is often the case, they are quickly happened upon by Pharisees and religious lawyers. Some sort of question arises. And with that, comes a particular air of condescension and no real appetite for making peace. It is an ancient rivalry: the advance of righteousness against the ruthless ritual of the religious spirit!
“Now the Pharisees and certain experts in the law who had come from Jerusalem were now gathered around him. For they had witnessed some of Jesus’ disciples eating their bread with unwashed hands. (Pharisees and religious Jews do not eat unless they perform a ritual washing, holding fast to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.) And they hold fast to many other traditions.” (see Mk 7:1-4)
“And He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’ You, having no regard for (are indifferent toward) the commands of God, you hold fast to the traditions of men. You neatly reject (or set aside) the commandment of God in order to set up your own tradition. You even nullify (or render powerless) the word of God by your tradition that you continue to hand down. And you do many such things.” (see Mk 7:6-13)
In this example from Mark, Jesus and his disciples are pretentiously questioned and inevitably accused as threatening to ceremonial tradition—that is, sharing the evening meal without having performed their ritual washing. The occasion is isolating. The religious proprietor is pacing around like a schoolyard monitor squashing even a hint of dissent. Though not altogether surprising, Jesus counters most effective by referring his opposition to a most formidable arbitrator in the prophet Isaiah—“these people… their hearts are far from me”. Suddenly, the most pious expressions of worship are waning thin. Their case is quickly sunk.
Now to be clear, Jesus is not dismissing either the place or practicality of washing before eating, beit ritual washing or any other. Rather, he is dismissing the destructive notion that our finest religious efforts (as in adhering to the traditions of the elders) secure any righteousness with God. They do not! To comply with what is considered good Christian conduct is no doubt honorable and charitable. It may even be practical and beneficial. But it does not establish the righteousness of God in the hearts of man. Jesus Christ alone is our righteousness in God; and we must surrender fully to him. “For God made Christ, who himself never did sin, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Cor 5:21).
But aside from all of this, Jesus is dismissing the unrepentant arrogance that so undershoots the purpose and power of God’s word to advance, heal, and ultimately liberate. This is what Christ is up against; the religious spirit! It’s what the whole church of God in every age is up against. And sadly, in some corners of the camp, the enemy has already infiltrated. It’s hard to admit. But some of us are bound up in tangles of routine legalism. Some of us are defensive over traditional forms being tweaked. Some of us are overtly critical of a restless generation simply evading our practiced piety. And some have long since shored up on an island of bitterness, anchored fast by fear and doubt.
The religious spirit is a spirit of justification and self-righteousness. At its core, it is incredibly arrogant and carelessly unrepentant. In a word, it is the product of a hard-heart. No matter the mood, the motive, the behavior, or the consequence, the religious spirit consistently and confidently justifies it’s presence. And nowhere is its presence more apparent and agitating than in the path of God’s advancing kingdom. Wherever the kingdom of heaven drives a stake, wherever the authority of Christ takes new territory, sure to follow is the religious spirit, cleverly disguised in virtuous defense and righteous accusation. Even the benefit of peering in on the Scribe and Pharisee of early Christianity has done nothing to spare the church of today from the same routine rituals of self-justification and self-righteousness, of literally nullifying the rescue of God by the power of the stiff-necked will.
In three different ways in the passage above Jesus warns that the instruction of God, the direction, the command, the word of God has place. And that that place must not be misplaced. The word of God is the seed to all life itself. To render it something less, something that must be first altered or split or in some way form-fitted to our own whims and will is every bit as fatal as if the seed was never allowed soil to begin. All of the sun in the world can do nothing. Righteousness is a miracle of God from first to last, and that miracle comes to life in the repentant heart.
Mark chapter 6 contains a number of rapid-fire scenes in the ministry of Jesus, each one separated from the others by time, location, and circumstance: the recurring format for how this earliest gospel finally comes together. Yet throughout these scenes and seemingly connecting them is that familiar stream of effect Jesus seems to invoke in his eyewitnesses—astonishment. At every turn, we see the Worker of Miracles either being sincerely adored, completely feared, or outright hated. “And those who heard were astonished… and they took offense at him”(Mk 6:2-4).
But into this familiar stream of scenarios we call “good news”—the rejection of home and family, the commissioning of workers, the death of his cousin, the feeding of the masses, and the rescue of the stranded upon the sea—Mark casts before us the most profound observation: “he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd”(Mk 6:34). The “sheep without a shepherd” comparison should amaze us and yet is somewhat foreshadowed. The One who himself was almost literally born unto shepherds in a make-shift shelter outside of town is himself the compassion of God who comes out of the rocky hills above and down into the rejection of the world to care for those who have no care. The newborn baby in the manger peering up into the eyes of the world’s first ministers.
Something entirely new has come into our midst. A completely different spirit is confounding the familiar. The stream is somehow running uphill or at least gaining ground along this Galilean countryside. Compassion is at work before all eyes, over and above any miracle, parable, or outrageous claim. The mercy of God has taken form and emerged in the likeness of a man. God himself in flesh among men, shepherding men, feeding them, healing them, offering them to the world again as unquenchable light. And all of this bewilders!
A moment later, in another example, we find Jesus on the side of a mountain praying up into what almost seems like an interruption, a desperate scene on the surface of the sea below, a boat is going down (see Mk6:45-52). Again, something almost foreshadowed here or at least big picture: Christ descends into the earth, coming off his holy mountain as it were (or out of the holy trinity) and down into a sea of chaos. An entirely new spirit (ghost) emerges out of the waves as man struggles against the wind.
This is the second entry Mark gives involving a sinking ship in the storm. Perhaps he is pointing at something. For one thing, his account of Jesus in both stories is a compassion-laden reminder that the Anointed of God is always in the boat with us, even when our boat is going down. In fact, by the end of Mark’s gospel Jesus himself is hanging on a cross. A very different kind of boat sure, but still a boat that up against the wind, taking on waves, and inevitably going down.
Here alone should be the most astonishing truth revealed to us in the Christ if we are to take him as our own and give ourselves to him: compassion is decision, and that decision to be compassion is undeniably costly. Jesus is both savior and shepherd. Sure he wants to heal the world of its ills, but he also wants to lead you in the purposes of heaven. His rescue is his righteousness and his leading is his Spirit. If we should cling to the mast of this ship as does the thief who hangs beside him, we will go down with Jesus. Believe it or not, this is good news. This miraculous news. This is the only kind of decision we can make that will allow wretched dead things to live again. “And now I have told you these things so that in me you can have peace. In the world you will have trial and suffering, but take courage for I have overcome this world”(Jn 16:33)
The underlined verse from Mark 6 below should confound us. It does me. How is the One who is able to open blind eyes, open deaf ears, and raise the dead, suddenly not able to work a miracle? As we’ve seen in preceding chapters, this is not an issue of miraculous power or divine ability, but rather an issue of willingness in accordance with obedience. We see here example of Jesus’ willingness to deny himself, or rather “entrust himself” to the… larger story of God among men. Jesus is all too willing to take on (or confront) the ill, the ignorant, even the demonic. But Jesus is unwilling to confront the powerful will of man without our cooperation. Jesus will not force the will. He will love; He will forgive; He will even heal; but He will not force our will. I believe this very dilemma taps into temptation for Jesus. It is the temptation of the wilderness with Satan. “I will not turn stones into bread to feed my flesh” says Jesus. “I will not turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh in order to short-circuit the necessity of the cross” says Jesus. “I will not wave my hand with an Obi-Wan Kenobi mind trick and take full surrender off the table” says Jesus. “I have come to call you into myself and thus into the uncreated God who sent me. I will literally move heaven and earth to clear a path, but the YES up to you!”