"You have not had to approach things which your senses could experience as they did in the old days — flaming fire, black darkness, rushing wind and out of it a trumpet-blast, a voice speaking human words. So terrible was that voice that those who heard it begged and prayed that it might stop speaking, for what it had already commanded was more than they could bear — ‘And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or thrust through with an arrow.' So fearful was the spectacle that Moses cried out, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.'" Hebrews 12:18-21
The reference here, obviously, is to both Moses and the Israelites' experience of the Presence of God on and around the environs of Mount Sinai. And what, are we told, was that experience like?
Flaming fire, black darkness, rushing wind, a trumpet-blast, a voice speaking human words that was so awesome that those who heard it begged and prayed that it would stop: overall, a spectacle so fearful that it terrified and caused trembling.
And what do you think made all of that so stupendously frightening? Well, put yourself in those people's shoes. They were going along through their lives, being about the business of their days, when all of the above suddenly happened to them, from the outside, absolutely externally. Normal human life was accosted by the full weight of the eternal.
So what is - what should be - the difference now for us? Only, really, the location of all that. For we too – and the Church ever since Pentecost – have been lit with flaming fire, brought out of the black darkness into light; we have heard and received the rushing wind of the Spirit who summons and sends like a trumpet-blast; we have heard the Voice speaking human words to us – so wonderful that we’ve begged and prayed that it might never stop, so awesome that it terrifies and causes us to tremble – and where has all this occurred?
Internally. Within. Inside us. Right inside the chest of the reader now reading this sentence.
One of the greatest differences between the Old and New Testaments is simply the stage upon which the drama then/now occurs. Now, the normal human life of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth has been invaded and infused by the full weight of the eternal. Your human spirit is this generation's Mount Sinai: the sights, the sounds, the words of the Kingdom of Heaven on display.
"Let it be your ambition to live at peace with all men and to achieve holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. Be careful that none of you fails to respond to the grace which God gives, for if he does there can very easily spring up in him a bitter spirit which is not only bad in itself but can also poison the lives of many others. Be careful too, that none of you falls into impurity or loses his reverence for the things of God and then, like Esau, is ready to sell his birthright to satisfy the momentary hunger of his body. Remember how afterwards, when he wanted to have the blessing which was his birthright, he was refused. He never afterwards found the way of repentance though he sought it desperately and with tears." Hebrews 12:14-17
What I find interesting about these verses, apart from their tone, is the way that the writer gives us three different challenges, each of which is a balance between earthly things and heavenly things, and each of which is impossible unless we're totally serious about that balance. Here's the three juxtapositions I'm noticing:
1. Peace with all men/Holiness
2. Non-robust response to grace/Bitterness of spirit
3. Falling into impurity/Non-seriousness about the Birthright-blessing
And just so this doesn't read like some academic exercise, let me put my point into three questions around those balances:
So what comes first; what is primary? Things like abiding in His holiness, responding fully to His grace, founding our lives upon our new-birthright because it pleases God: because God desires it.
So then, what would be secondary? Things like abiding in His holiness, responding fully to His grace, founding our lives upon our new-birthright because these heavenly realities are life to us, our new life within the veil.
And so, you see, it's only out of learning to please Him and fully grasping what's ours in the Kingdom of Heaven that we have any hope of these tertiary actions of loving the world around us.
Hear me clearly: Our abiding in Him, first, means life for this world. And: Your personal intimacy with Jesus is the greatest force the world will ever reckon with.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthews 28:18-20)
“The promise of this beautiful passage is not only fulfilled in the presence of Christ in the heart of the believer, which is a literal and glorious truth, but it is a presence with us. It is more than the spiritual consciousness of the Lord’s indwelling; it is His direct personality and constant companionship with all our life, and His omnipotent cooperation in all our needs. It is the presence of One who has all power in heaven and in earth, and Whose presence means the defeat of every adversary, the solution of every difficulty, the supply of every need.”
A.B. Simpson, The Christ of the Forty Days
"For I have come down from Heaven, not to do what I want, but to do the will of him who sent me. The will of him who sent me is that I should not lose anything of what he has given me, but should raise it up when the last day comes. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that everyone who sees the Son and trusts in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up when the last day comes.” John 6:38-40
How often we hear people say, and even say ourselves, "Oh, I wish I knew the Lord's will" for some decision we need to make, or during a crisis, or on a question we’re presently pondering. But in these last two verses, Jesus tells us the Will of God: 1) that He "should not lose anything of what [the Father] has given [Him]" and 2) "that everyone who sees the Son and trusts Him should have eternal life." THE Will of God is to possess and redeem. How stunning!
But did you notice that each of these will-of-God statements is binary: composed of two parts? The first part in each was different, but the second was the same: He will "raise [them] up when the last day comes." The word John uses there for "raise up" means just that - "to raise up" or "raise from the dead" - but it also has a lesser definition that goes beautifully with what we know to be one of the truest definitions of our lives-in-Him: "to produce a witness."
THE Will of God is to possess and redeem, that we might be raised up - raised from the dead, in fact - and produced as witnesses of what we know and have seen of Him.
“But,” you might say to me, “it would still help to know His particular will in this one particular decision I’m trying to make.” Well, here’s your decision-making grid: “I have come down from Heaven, not to do what I want, but to do the will of Him who sent me.” The “wants” of Jesus were nothing when compared to His delighted, intimate, listening, waiting-upon expectation of having the will of God daily revealed to Him. Can’t you see Him out in those lonely places in the pre-dawn hours, simply waiting and receiving word of the Father’s particular will for each particular day?
May it be so for us as well!
From Acts 2 with some notes -
When the Pentecost crowd heard [Peter's message] they were cut to the quick – “cut to the heart,” assailed by the conviction of the Holy Spirit – and they cried to Peter and the other apostles, “Men and fellow-Jews, what shall we do now?”
Peter told them, “You must repent – meaning, "alter the purpose of your life" – and every one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ – something never done before in human history – so that you may have your sins forgiven – a promise that Peter received directly from Jesus in Luke 24’s words, “So must the change of heart [the repentance] which leads to the forgiveness of sins be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” – and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For this great promise is for you and your children — yes, and for all who are far away, for as many as the Lord our God shall call to himself!”
To me, it’s fascinating just how boldly Peter proclaims “this great promise” – the receipt of “the gift of the Holy Spirit” for “all who are far away, for as many as the Lord our God shall call to himself” – when he himself had only just received this Holy Spirit! How could he know that these people would receive Him too? How could he be so bold as to promise them “this promise”?
We might assume that he was leaning upon the prophecy from Joel 2 – that the Spirit would be poured out “upon all flesh” – or that, in real time, he was remembering Jesus’ Holy Spirit teachings from John 14, 15 and 16.
Or maybe just maybe this former fisherman, this present vessel of the Holy Spirit of God, is now receiving his orders directly from the Throneroom of Heaven. Again, as Jesus had said: “Yet when that one I have spoken to you about comes — the Spirit of Truth — he will guide you into everything that is true. For he will not be speaking of his own accord but exactly as he hears, and he will inform you about what is to come.” And just as thrilling: “When they bring you before the synagogues and magistrates and authorities, don’t worry as to what defense you are going to put up or what word you are going to use. For the Holy Spirit will tell you at the time what is the right thing for you to say.” (Luke 12)
Just as surely as the Father and Son discuss their plans in the Holy Spirit’s hearing, so surely does the Holy Spirit hear and speak what He has heard to us; and so surely may we learn to hear and speak, just as He has heard and spoken, so that all men may know the Good News of Jesus.
Peter is not winging it in his Pentecost message. Peter is our first pattern for how we should learn to listen… and then speak.
In the Early Church, “…an immediate revelation of the mind of the Master was the one pressing religious need for which all craved.”
Thomas M. Lindsay
The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries
It isn't actually possible to "overspiritualize" life and all the situations in our lives. It's just that we've grown so adept at underspiritualizing everything that we find it feeling strange when the truly spiritual fully breaks through.
It's all, truly, spiritual. Our lives are the conduit by which He still reaches the world. Let us live a full day believing those facts.
“It is a tremendous thing, the economy of the Holy Ghost! When the Spirit of God finds a soul in which He can work, He uses that soul for any number of purposes: opens out before its eyes a hundred new directions, multiplying its work and its opportunities for the apostolate almost beyond belief and certainly far beyond the ordinary strength of a human being.”
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
"Let us think of one another and how we can encourage each other to love and do good deeds. And let us not hold aloof from our church meetings, as some do. Let us do all we can to help one another’s faith, and this the more earnestly as we see the final day drawing ever nearer." Hebrews 10:24,25
These two verses are an often-used series of admonitions to keep us serious about our church-attendance, but I wonder if we've ever really realized what kind of "church" is being described here. In the original Greek, let's look at the verbs and nouns used to describe how we're meant to be approaching our shared experience of the Body:
But here's the secret: Millennials aren't losing interest in church because it asks or shows or costs too much; they are losing interest because it asks and shows and costs too little. My observation is that the Christian Millennials we know want it to cost more, to cost them everything. They want to "observe" and study each other, to "provoke" each other's belief, to "gather together" to feast upon Jesus, to call each other as expert "witnesses" of the real thing, "so much very, exceedingly."
Are you and I ready to be equal to that sort of Church for them?
“Only when you descend into yourself and encounter the Other, do you then experience goodness as the ultimate reality – united and living – in Him and through you.”
2nd Secretary-General, U.N.
A few years ago, I read a beautiful book about the life and death of a group of monks in Algeria who were killed because of the steadfastness of their ministry and belief. To give some context to the quotation I'll share, I wanted to give you a little more about their lives: here's a short write-up of their story from the website Patheos.com -
"During the tumult of the [1990's] Algerian civil war, foreigners increasingly became targets of the various insurgent groups. The monks of Tibhirine, all French nationals. recognized their vulnerability not only as Europeans but also as Catholics. Military and government officials began to pressure the monks to leave the country, for their own safety. But the monks felt matters were not so simple. They provided free medical care to the villagers of Tibhirine, and participated in the local economy; for them to leave, abandoning the village which was itself vulnerable to the violence of the war, struck the monks as a poor witness to their vocation not only as monks but as Christians. Choosing the demand of faith over the impulse to self-protect, the brothers unanimously chose to remain in Algeria, even though this led, ultimately, to six of the eight monks (along with a seventh brother visiting from a Moroccan monastery) being kidnapped and then killed."
From John W. Kiser's The Monks of Tibhrine - “They, and others like them, were living manifestations of the good news of the Gospels: a life freely given in the spirit of love is never a life lost, but one found again in Him who is Life…”
Oh, how I love that thought! To lose our lives into the One who is life is no loss at all; for in Him, even in death, Life is always found.
The Monks of Tibhirine, not long before their kidnapping and death
There is no one better to lead us into the fullness of the life of Abiding, no one better to teach us the way of the Holy Spirit, than the very One who first taught of that life, and sent us that Other, for the purpose of His Kingdom's arrival upon this earth.
Truly, daily, our only job is to ask Jesus for the forward steps that that day solely holds. And then take them.
"The Lord said first to Elijah, 'Go, HIDE THYSELF' then, 'Go, SHOW THYSELF.' He who does not first hide himself in the secret place to be alone with God, is unfit to show himself in the public place to move among men. [George] Müller afterward used to say to brethren who had 'too much to do' to spend proper time with God, that four hours of work for which one hour of prayer prepares, is better than five hours of work with the praying left out; that our service to our Master is more acceptable and our mission to man more profitable, when saturated with the moisture of God's blessing - the dew of the Spirit.”
Arthur Pierson, George Müller of Bristol
"Under the old arrangement the outer tent [of the Tabernacle] was habitually used by the priests in the regular discharge of their religious duties. But the inner tent was entered once a year only, by the High Priest, alone, bearing a sacrifice of shed blood to be offered for his own sins and those of the people. By these things the Holy Spirit means us to understand that the way to the Holy of Holies was not yet open, that is, so long as the first tent and all that it stands for still exist. For in this outer tent we see a picture of the present time, in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered and yet are incapable of cleansing the soul of the worshipper. The ceremonies are concerned with food and drink, various washings and rules for bodily conduct, and were only intended to be valid until the time when Christ should establish the truth." Hebrews 9:6-10
And as good as that last sentence sounds, when compared to the stringencies of the past, the actual Greek wording is even better: "these consisted only of ordinances of the flesh - foods and drinks and various washings - until the time was imposed of restoration, of the making straight..."
Do you remember, back in John 1, when the religious leaders asked John the Baptist exactly who he was? They said:
"Who are you? We want to give an answer to the people who sent us. What would you call yourself?" [And John replied:] “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord…’"
How wonderful that John's self-perception, his calling, was to "make straight" the Way of the One whose Way would "make straight" the way for all of us!
That should be the business, the self-perception, the calling of everyone who calls on the name Jesus: that our lives would make straight the Way, so that all may walk it!
"For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:33,34
All of you reading this certainly know my passion for the Early Church, for learning the ins and outs of what made their experience of Jesus so explosive and so world-changing. And I think what keeps me up at night about it is that nothing - not Jesus' life, not His death, not His resurrection, not His ascension, not the work of the Holy Spirit - none of it has changed from back then and yet, on our end, we so often think, "Hmmm, doesn't it all seem really different back then?"
No! Again, nothing has changed! "Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever." If we want to see the Book of Acts alive in our day, this prophetic passage from Jeremiah 31 is like a checklist for the fullness of the experience:
Is that the sense of the Kingdom of Heaven as it pours through us? Through you?
"The form of Jesus Christ takes form in man. Man does not take on an independent form of his own, but what gives him form and what maintains him in the new form is always solely the form of Jesus Christ Himself. It is therefore not a vain imitation or repetition of Christ’s form but Christ’s form itself which takes form in man... So the Church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ but is Christ Himself, who has taken form among men..."
"What matters in the Church is not religion but the form of Christ, and its taking form amidst a band of men. If we allow ourselves to lose sight of this, even for an instant, we inevitably relapse into that program-planning for the ethical or religious shaping of the world, which was where we set out from."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
"Then the angel showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb..." Revelation 22:1
"There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells." Psalm 46:4
"He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” John 7:38
What a wonderful joy to know that we are branches of the great River - "streams who make glad the city of God" - as we abide in Him, find ourselves overflowing with Him, and then pour forth His overwhelming goodness to the world. Let us never dam the tide or muddy the heavenly. Let us believe, find life for ourselves, and then flow onward.
"Now to sum up — we have an ideal High Priest such as has been described above. He has taken his seat on the right hand of the heavenly majesty. He is the minister of the sanctuary and of the real tabernacle — that is the one God has set up and not man." Hebrews 8:1,2
Right now, even as you're arranging your attentions to focus on Jesus via these words, He is there, sitting at the right hand of the Father, minister of the sanctuary and of the real tabernacle, and He is totally and intently focused on you. He is ever at work. And yet He is steadfast, seated, in firm control.
So, following the opening words of this chapter, let us "sum up" - and be reminded of - all that has been described of our High Priest to this point in Hebrews. To do that, I've gone back and collated every single High Priestly description from Hebrews 1-7, and then shifted them from the third person to the second to make them all the more personal. If you have the time today, let these act as a prayer from your heart to His...
Jesus, it was imperative that you should be made like us in nature, since you were to become a High Priest both compassionate and faithful in the things of God, and at the same time able to make atonement for my – and for our – sins. For by virtue of your own suffering under temptation, you are now able to help us who are exposed to temptation… We meditate on you, the messenger and High Priest of the faith we hold, Lord Jesus. We see you as faithful to the charge your Father gave you…
Jesus, seeing that we have a great High Priest who entered the inmost Heaven – you! the Son of God! – help us hold firmly to our faith. For you are not some superhuman High Priest to whom are weaknesses are unintelligible – you yourself have shared fully in all our experience of temptation, except that you never sinned. We will therefore approach your throne of grace with fullest confidence, that we may receive – from you, Jesus! – mercy for our failures and grace to help in the hour of need…
Jesus, you did not choose for yourself the glory of being High Priest, but you were honored by the One who said: ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’… When you had been proved the perfect Son by your death for us on the Cross, you became the source of eternal salvation to all who desire to obey you, being now recognized by your Father Himself as High Priest ‘after the order of Melchizedek…’
Jesus, by two utterly immutable things, the word of God and the oath of God, who cannot lie, we who are refugees from this dying world now have a source of strength, and can grasp the hope that you are holding out to us. This hope we hold as the utterly reliable anchor for our souls, fixed in the very certainty of your Father in Heaven, where you, Jesus, have already entered on our behalf, having become, as we have learned, ‘High Priest for ever…’
Jesus, you who are described as our High Priest belonged to another tribe of Israel, no member of which had ever attended the altar! It is a matter of history that you were a descendant of Judah… You derived your priesthood not by virtue of a command imposed from outside, but from the power of indestructible life within… Quite plainly, Jesus, there is a definite cancellation of the previous commandment because of its ineffectiveness and uselessness – the Law was incapable of bringing anyone to real maturity – followed by the introduction of your better hope, through which we approach your Father. Yes, you mean a ‘better’ hope for us, Jesus, because you have become our priest by the oath of God…
Jesus, because you live forever, you possess a priesthood that needs no successor. This means that you can save fully and completely we who approach your Father through you, for you are always living to intercede on our behalf. You are the High Priest we need. A Man who is holy, faultless, unstained, beyond the very reach of sin and lifted to the very Heavens. There is no need for you, like the High Priests of the past, to offer up sacrifice, first for your own sins and then for the people’s. You made one sacrifice, once for all, when you offered up yourself… The word of the oath, which came after the Law, makes for High Priest you Jesus, the Son, who is perfect forever!
“A Christian is a person who confesses that, amidst the manifold and confusing voices heard in the world, there is one Voice which supremely wins his full assent, uniting all his powers, intellectual and emotional, into a single pattern of self-giving. That Voice is Jesus Christ. A Christian not only believes that He was; he believes in Him with all his heart and strength and mind. Christ appears to the Christian as the one stable point or fulcrum in all the relativities of history. Once the Christian has made this primary commitment he still has perplexities, but he begins to know the joy of being used for a mighty purpose, by which his little life is dignified.”
Elton Trueblood, The Company of the Committed
"Out of that Upper Room which had been the place of fears [the disciples] burst with the glad Good News. They smiled at poverty, rejoiced under stripes, were elated at their humiliations, sang in midnight prisons, courted death and shared with every man, everywhere, their own abundant life. God had matched them against that need and they were spiritually adequate. I see nothing, absolutely nothing, that will get the church of today out from behind closed doors except it be this one thing – Pentecost. Increase the ornateness of its ritual as you will, improve the quality and quantity of its religious education as you may, raise the standards of qualifications of the ministry as high as you can, pour money without stint into the coffers of the church – give it everything – everything except this one thing that Pentecost gave, and you are merely ornamenting the dead. Until this sacred Fact takes place, preaching is only lecturing, praying is only repeating formulas, services cease to be service – it all remains earth-bound, circumscribed, inadequate, dead.”
E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of Every Road
Every minute we worry we waste. Of course, anxiety will come. But it's how quickly we're through with it that will decide, day by day, minute by minute, how useful we can be for the Kingdom of Heaven.
I bet each of us has a pretty good idea of how "well" we can follow Jesus in our own daily, always-changing strength. For me, often, the results are middling at best.
But what I'm learning to want to see is what "Christ in me" (Col. 1:27) can do; to see all that I see happening in the New Testament happening in my midst. I simply desire to experience more of Him than more of my own fumbling attempts. I know what I can do. I haven't even begun to dream of what He can do.
How would it change your perspective on the day's passing if this were your only goal: That every single person with whom you interacted left that interaction closer to Jesus?