The Son’s House (Hebrews 3.1-6)

Some sermons require a lot of those who are listening. And so is the case with the sermon we call the Letter to the Hebrews. However, this sermon is worth the effort.

So far the preacher has announced that God has spoken today through his Son who is better than angels who brought the law. Therefore, this Son deserves our careful attention. By becoming human, this Son became a little lower than the angels to identify with us, willingly claiming us as his siblings, so that he can be our great high priest. So little by little the case of Christ is being made.

“Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.” (Hebrews 3.1–6 NIV)

In his next move, the preacher of Hebrews calls on his “holy” brothers and sisters—who “share in the heavenly calling—to stay focused on Jesus, our high priest who now is also our “apostle.” This last descriptor reminds us of the “sent” nature of Jesus’ mission.

What follows is a comparison between the ministry of Jesus and Moses, the historic liberator of the Jewish people. The comparison is simple. Moses was a faithful servant in God’s house; yet Jesus was a faithful Son in the house. Conclusion: Jesus is better than Moses.

Furthermore, Moses testified to what could be in the future; in other words, Moses looked forward to the ministry of Jesus. The Hebrews writer will have much to say about this.

In this text, our ancient sermonizer started with the idea that the followers of Jesus “share in the heavenly calling.” Because of the high priesthood of Jesus, we now share in Jesus’ status. This is a hard thought for most Christians but it is what the text says.

Therefore, when the preacher finishes this text, he notes that this house over which Jesus has been faithful is us! We are that house and Jesus is in the house!  That is, “if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.”

So, let us keep our eyes on Jesus!

Bringing Many to Glory (Hebrews 2.5-18)

Long before verse numbers were added to the Bible, the Hebrews writer used a less than helpful method of citation: “…there is a place where someone has testified.” Some place in the Bible it says… This some place happens to be Psalms 8.4-5:

… 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 heavenly beings

and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;

you put everything under his feet” (Psalms 8:4–6 NIV)

The psalmist ponders why God would be so concerned about humanity. Because the psalmist speak of “man” in the collective sense, the Hebrews writer can take advantage of the singular, which he applies, as you might expect from this ancient preacher, to Jesus.

In becoming human, Jesus became a little lower than the angels (following the LXX), but now he has been exalted far above them. Notice as you read Hebrews that the author wants us to understand that it was the Man Jesus who was exalted.

The logic of what follow may be difficult for modern readers to follow. It goes something like this: Jesus was exalted because he died > because he died, he can somehow experience death for everyone > by doing this he will bring many children to glory > since he is the “author of their salvation” > who is somehow made perfect by suffering.

Did you follow that? It’s OK, if you did not.

The big picture is that this Jesus who was made a little lower than angels in becoming human and is now exalted can fully identify with those who belong to him.

How’s that? Better?

Jesus and his followers now belong to the same family and Jesus is not embarrassed to claim them as his siblings. It is precisely Jesus’ humanness that makes him “able to help those who are being tempted.” It is this that makes him the perfect priest we all need.

Jesus understands what you are going through. He has been through it himself. Now, the writer of Hebrews claims, Jesus, in his exalted state, remains our Man in heaven.

Pay Careful Attention (Hebrews 2.1-4)

Some things require special levels of attention. For example, driving requires focused attention. Texting, talking on the cell phone, or even visiting with passengers can be deadly.  The nature of driving requires your full attention or you can easily drift into the ditch or oncoming traffic. In this same spirit, the preacher who wrote Hebrews warns his listeners:

We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3 how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4 God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2.1-4).

Already, the Hebrews writer has announced that God has ultimately spoken through the Son (Heb 1.1-4) and this Son is superior to the angels (1.5-14). Though the OT did not say angels were involved in the delivery of the Law, it was commonly believed among the Jews of the first century to be true (see this notion in Acts 7:53 and Gal 3.19). So the author picks up here—since the law that was brought by angels should be taken with utmost seriousness, how much more should the message that come from the Son? Therefore, the Son deserves our careful attention.

Without careful attention, we drift, much like a boat can gradually drift out to sea. What’s really at stake is that the readers might be tempted to give up. The latter part of the first verse might be translated: “so that we will not gradually give up believing what we have believed.”

This biblical passage is a gut check.

Have you drifted? You can find your way home this coming Sunday.

It’s All About Jesus (Hebrews 1.4-14)

My friend John Mooney once told the story about how he and his son would walk together playing a little word game. John would ask a series of questions to which the correct answer was “Jesus.” After a few of these, his son Josh exclaimed, “Daddy, Jesus is always the answer.”

This is not far off from the way the preacher of Hebrews saw it. When he read the Old Testament (OT), all he could see was Jesus.

After introducing Jesus (1:1-4), the preacher wants his audience to see that Jesus is more important than even the angels. To establish this, he quotes  a string of texts from the OT: Psa.2:7; 2 Sam 7:14; Deut 32:43 (cf. Psa. 97:7); Psa. 104:4; Psa. 45:6-7; Psa. 102:25-27; and finally Psa. 110:1.

The answer to all of these texts is Jesus. To be sure, these texts have their own contexts in the OT,  but for the writer of Hebrews, they all point to Jesus.

Jesus is the king of Psalms 2. Jesus is the Son of God of 2 Sam 7—though the original text referred to Solomon through whom God would establish a dynasty (house) for David.  Furthermore, this Jesus is worthy of worship even from angels who are merely God’s servants.

These are outlandish claims but, wait, the preacher is not done.

Jesus is,—from reading Psalm 45—is GOD. No one would have, or could have, read the text in this way before Jesus came. Yet, even more, Jesus is Lord! Now we are definitely walking on holy ground. The word “LORD” was used in the OT to speak of YHWH, the creator of heaven and earth. So now the Son is not just divine, he somehow is also the LORD. No wonder then that the Father never offered any angel the seat next to him. That seat could only belong to the Son.

Therefore, angels are God servants to take care of us—those who will inherit the salvation the Son has made possible. Truly, Jesus is the answer.

The Final Word: Reflections on Hebrew 1.1-4

The letter to the Hebrews is unique among the
documents in the New Testament. It begins like a sermon and ends
like a letter. The writer says it is a “brief” “word of
encouragement” (13:22) but it is long for a
letter from the first century. This sermonic
letter or epistolary sermon, whichever you prefer, has only one
focus: There is a new and living way, and that
way is Jesus. The sermon begins (1.1-4) with strong
contrast:

In the
past
in these last
days
at many times
and in various ways
(at one
time)
God
spoke
he has spoken
to our forefathers through the
prophets
in/through/by the
Son

The contrast shouts that God has spoken
a decisive word through the Son. This word, as the sermon will
later develop, should not be ignored, minimized or rationalized
away. This Son, you see, is

  1. Heir of
    everything
  2. Creator of
    everything
  3. Sustainer of
    everything
  4. Brightness of God’s
    glory
  5. Image of God
  6. Purifier of
    sinners
  7. Co-Ruler with God

If this is true, if we believe this, then
it follows that this Son deserves our utmost attention. Two of
these descriptors are particularly noteworthy. First, Jesus is the
radiance of God’s glory.” In the original
language, radiance can be either “glowing” or
“reflecting,” in the way that the moon reflects the sun’s light.
Glowing, in my opinion, is more likely as the Son shares all that
belongs to the Father. Furthermore, he is the “exact representation
of [God’s] being,” or the image of God. Jesus, therefore, is also
everything that God has wished for humans (who are made in the
image of God). Jesus, the Son, bridges heaven and earth thus
providing the new and living way to God. Jesus is God’s decisive
Word. So listen up!

Gotcha: How Scripture Subverts

I find that when I really hear Scripture, I have a “gotcha” moment. By this I don’t mean that God is seeking to trick us through Scripture, but that Scripture has a way of deflating our egos, correcting our visions, and taking us to places we would not have travelled ourselves. Perhaps it would be better if I illustrated one of the subversive moves of Scripture. Jesus tells this catching parable in Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

I’m assured by the gospel writer that this parable has nothing to do with my friends or me. This parable was clearly addressed to the self-righteous and those who look down upon other people. This parable is for those evil religious leaders that resisted Jesus’ ministry, right?

I may even reassure myself that I am much more like the tax collector than the Pharisee. I know I’m a sinner so I would never compare myself to others the way this Pharisee does—though, secretly, I know I am better than say, robbers, evildoers and adulterers. Nor would I think of bragging to God about all the pious acts I have done and I would never brag about how often I fast or how much I give. Not me.

So aren’t you glad we are not like that Pharisee? Gotcha!

Our Role in the Mission of God

A favorite New Testament book of mine is 1 Peter. I’m drawn to it often because the world it imagines is so much like the one I experience. In this letter, Christians are called to live as a contrast society to the world around them. The world around the Christians consisted of an evil empire, many forms of idolatry, and wild parties every weekend, if not every night.

Living among people committed to empire, idolatry, and indulgence, the author of 1 Peter commissioned his readers with these words:

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:11–12 NIV)

Framing our relationship to the world, even empire, as “aliens and strangers,” the writer reminds us that we are “only passing through” this world, but more so, since Jesus’ kingdom does not belong to this world, neither do we. If we are indeed “aliens and strangers” to the empires of this world, we should not over-invest in them but rather give much more attention to the kingdom that will never end.

The biblical writer calls on his readers to do two things. 1) Give attention to spiritual formation; and 2) live out that formation among those who live around us. Regarding the first task, God seeks to remove the war within our own lives. Therefore, we should “abstain from sinful desires.” However, there is the second and larger concern here: That our lives (now at peace because of Jesus) might announce the kingdom of God to those who might even accuse us falsely. The end result of our lives, according to this text, is that others might be prepared to worship God when he comes again.

So let’s commit again to live the good life for the good of others.

God’s Life: Taking on the Powers

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power (Eph 6:10 NRSV). With this command, the letter to the Ephesians enters the final stretch. Nice transition from the previous conversation about power between people, wouldn’t you say?

One of the most prevalent commands in the Bible is to be “strong and courageous” (See, for example, Deut 31:6–7, 23; Josh 1:6–7, 9, 18; 10:25; 1 Chr 22:13; 28:20; 2 Chr 32:7). Take, for example, the following:

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. (Deut. 31:6 NIV)

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. (Josh. 1:9 NIV)

Be strong and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The LORD will do what is good in his sight. (2 Sam. 10:12 NIV)

God must know that we need our courage bolstered—

—especially since our war is not with humans but against demonic forces, known in the Bible variously as principalities, powers, rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil. Ghastly is the evil that seeks to dethrone our God and destroy us.

However, there is protection—the armor of God. In a rather extended metaphor, Paul uses various pieces of armor to describe God’s resources for us in the battle against evil.

These consist of the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, sandals/shoes ready to spread the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and finally the sword of the Spirit. In each case what is important is not the piece of armor but the virtue that piece of armor represents.

Attempts to tie these to the armor worn by Roman soldiers—often done in Vacation Bible Schools—fail primarily because we know where Paul gets each piece of armor—from the OT prophet Isaiah. For example, the belt of truth (in 11:5), the breastplate of righteousness (11:5, 59:17), sandals/shoes ready to spread the gospel (52:7), the shield of faith (31:5), the helmet of salvation (59:17) and finally the sword of the Spirit (49:2).

What this means is that the armor of God is not armor from God, but the armor belonging to God. It is God’s armor that we are invited to wear! In each of the Isaiah texts, God wears the armor, except for the sandals. I wonder why?

If this is God’s armor, a couple of pieces seem to require some explanation. For example, why would God need a helmet of salvation? Aren’t we the ones in need of salvation.

Here it is good to remember that all of these images come out of the Old Testament stories of military battles. In that context, the word we translate as “salvation” might be better translated “deliverance” or even “victory.” Thus, God wears, and shares with us, the helmet of victory over our enemies, in this case, the forces of evil.

Additionally, the sword of the Spirit only secondarily refers to the Bible as so often understood. The sword represents the Spirit of God—God’s very voice, God’s decisive judgment against those who challenge his people. See this image in the Isaiah text listed above and in the picture of Jesus in Revelation:

… and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. (Revelation 1:13–16 NIV)

While it would be profitable to trace the development of the notion that God is our warrior throughout the Bible, we don’t have space here. However, these strands find a tight synthesis in the Jewish writings between Old and New Testament times. In a first century BC writing called the Wisdom of Solomon (5:17-20), we find

The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies; he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet; he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword, and creation will join with him to fight against his frenzied foes.

While the images are fluid, the point remains the same: God is our mighty warrior and not only does he fight for us, it is his armor that will protect us.

Be strong in the Lord, indeed.

God’s Life: Dealing with Power Relationships

In applying the text treating the relationship between masters to slaves (Eph 6:5-9), most modern sermonizers will connect it with the employer-employee relationship. However, the landscape here is bigger than that and this text might be a word for any of us in relationships where there is a differential in power.

By the way, the previous relationships in the larger context dealt with such power relationships (e.g., husband and wife; parents/fathers and children). As in the previous instructions, Paul here addresses the less powerful member of the dyad first. This move alone recognizes that the weaker member of the couple is not all together powerless. There are some things they can think and do.

Also notice how much time Paul gives to the slaves (vv. 5-8) vs. the masters (just v. 9). Some conjecture that this is because there are more slaves than masters in the Christian movement; however, Paul spends more time talking about the husbands in the earlier text. (By the second century, the pagan Celsus will criticize Christianity for attracting primarily women, children and slave). More likely, Paul has weighed his comments to fit the needs of his readers at that time.

Again, this text can inform us whenever we are dealing with people in power or are ourselves the people in power. Thus, when working for others, whether for pay or as a volunteer, we should work as if we are working for Jesus. This is echoed in all three verses to the slaves: “as to Christ,” “as slaves to Christ,” and “as serving the Lord.” We can do this because the “Lord will reward everyone for what every good s/he does.”

Hidden from the English reader, the word “master” is actually the word “lord,” in the original—the same word used to speak of the Lord Jesus. Thus running through this text is the contrast between “earthly (fleshly) lords” (v. 5) and the Lord (v. 7). Masters, therefore, should treat their slaves well because the Lord is Lord of both.

Still, the most amazing comment is that the masters are to treat their slaves “in the same way” (v. 9) as the slaves treat the masters. How is that even possible?

In the ancient world, a husband could abuse his wife with impunity, fathers could beat their children without reprisals, and masters could treat slaves even worse—legally! In each case, here, Paul offers a surprising word to each.

Husbands are to love their wives even if they means dying for them, fathers are not to provoke their children, and masters are not to threaten their slaves. In each relationship, Paul introduces the radical revolution of submission.

And where did he learn this? Jesus. This is the way of Jesus.

As a husband and wife were to model the relationship between Christ and the church, Paul saw the day when all of our relationships—even the difficult ones—would also reflect the gospel of Christ’s love for the church, so to speak.

God’s Life: Raising Kids Who Get It

Previously, we explored the mutuality of marriage as God intended. Now, Paul in Ephesians (6:1-4) explores what it means to have God’s life as the ruling influence in the relationship between parents and children.

No doubt there is a sense in which parents submit to the needs of their children, however, here the submission revolves around the needs and (unequal) roles of each.

First, Paul calls children to obey their parents. Obey is not a command placed on the wife in the husband-wife relationship in the Bible. (Though Sarah is said to have obeyed Abraham in 1 Pet 3, it was not commanded of her). Moreover, in healthy families, there is a clear recognition of who the parents are and who the children are. When parents allow their children to violate this boundary, all kinds of dysfunction follow.

Obedience to parents would have been an expected virtue in the ancient world, however, Paul roots obedience to parents in God’s life. Children are to obey “in the Lord” which might be more freely rendered, “as is consistent for those who belong to the Lord.” Furthermore, obedience to parents reaches back to the Ten Commandments call to honor one’s father and mother and is connected with the promise of a long (prosperous) life on earth. Obedience, then, is an important spiritual discipline in which children are to experience and live out God’s life.

Second, Paul calls on fathers particularly (notice the move from “parents” in v. 1 to “fathers” in v. 4; see also Col 3:20-21) to educate their children. This move is probably not to exclude the mother—which the Ten Commandments clearly included—but to recognize the role that fathers were supposed to play in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Note that the text begins with restraining fathers: “don’t make your children angry.” Children, as well as wives, in the ancient world belonged to the husband and so the category of child abuse was nearly absent. However, this is not the way of Jesus.

Instead, fathers who belong to Jesus treat their children different than the way the world treats children. Even more Paul calls on fathers to make sure their children are disciplined and educated by the Lord.

Note how much this sounds like what Moses taught the nation of Israel:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4–9 NRSV)

Therefore, one of the main questions we should ask as we raise our children: “what kind of people are we making?” How we raise our children will affect them for life, and maybe, even eternity. It may be the turning point to whether or not “they get it.”