The Pursuit of God

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Applying Hebrews 12: Threats & Warnings

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This is a continuation of Applying Hebrews 11: The Faith Hall of Fame.

In Chapter 11, the author of Hebrews (who we’re calling Rabbi) put out a list of spiritual heroes, many of whom were less than inspiring. It is to those folks that he is now referring when he says:

Since we are surrounded by so many examples of faith, we must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially sin that distracts us. We must run the race that lies ahead of us and never give up, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of Yahweh. (Heb. 12:1-2)

Rabbi wants his Jewish audience to reflect on how many men have been faithful to God in the past, and from those witnesses, feel inspired to keep pressing on themselves. This verse is often misinterpreted to mean that we are the ones being watched by a thousand pairs of eyes. The more common wording for the beginning of this chapter is:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…

Yet what Rabbi really means is that we’re supposed to be the ones who are inspired by the stories of faithful believers in the Old Testament.

Think of all the hostility Jesus endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. After all, you have not yet given your lives in your struggle against sin. (Heb. 12:3-4)

The bottom line here is: “Hey, Jesus had it worse than you and He stuck it out. He was killed. You haven’t been killed yet, so man up.” The problem is that whenever we start comparing humans to God, we end up feeling more discouraged than helped. Jesus is God Almighty. He could handle being crucified. God can handle anything. You are a frail human dot. Without God’s constant help and empowerment, you can’t handle anything. Those of you who are currently going through a rough time need to understand that Jesus isn’t up in Heaven saying, “Hey, suck it up down there. I was crucified. I bore the sins of the entire human race. What you’re going through is a joke by comparison.” On the contrary, Jesus is extremely compassionate and He knows how hard it is to be human.

And have you forgotten the encouraging words Yahweh spoke to you as His children? He said:

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of Yahweh, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; For those whom Yahweh loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.” [Prov. 3:11-12]

Endure suffering as discipline: Yahweh is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you are without the discipline which all sons receive—then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? For our human fathers disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but Yahweh does it for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness. No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:5-11)

The Jewish Christians Rabbi is writing to are catching it on all sides. Their fellow Jews view them as blasphemous heretics. The Roman Empire considers them to be defiant little rebels because they won’t go along with the Roman program of revering Caesar as a god. How does the Roman government get back at you for not playing by the rules? Refusing to give you a work permit is one way. If you can’t sell goods in the marketplace, how can you make a living? So these Jewish Christians are having a very hard time of it. What is Rabbi’s answer? “View your problems as Divine discipline.”

It’s important that we understand the difference between Divine discipline and Divine punishment. When God disciplines us, it is out of love. When He punishes, it’s out of anger. Hell is a punishment. Trials that test your faith to help it grow stronger are a form of discipline. How do you know if the trials you’re going through right now are a form of discipline or punishment?  It’s actually easy to figure this out. How is your soul responding to God right now? Do you sincerely want Him to have His way in your life? Do you really want Him to be pleased with you? God doesn’t get angry with souls who sincerely want to please Him (see What it Means to be Aligned with God). It doesn’t matter how much of a mess you’re currently in.  God knows that you can’t do anything good without His help (see Pleasing God When You Can’t Control Your Flesh). God always responds to your soul’s attitude towards Him. So when you find yourself feeling sick at the thought of God being angry with you, He isn’t. Souls who desperately care about pleasing God are the ones demons are always trying to plague with the lie that God is furious with them. At the same time, demons reassure defiant souls that they have nothing to worry about because God’s wrath is no big deal. God’s wrath most certainly is a big deal, and you really don’t want it directed at you. But as long as you really care about pleasing God in life, you don’t need to be afraid of Him being angry with you.

Now in modern America, people are working hard to stomp out all forms of godly discipline. If you want to take down a society, just have the parents stop spanking their kids. Go for timeouts, bribery, and bargaining. Today American children are gaining a reputation for being foul-mouthed little beasts who no one can rein in. If their parents try to discipline them the way God instructs—which means giving the kid a series of hearty whacks on his padded behind—those parents are quickly labeled as “abusive.” Well, back in Bible times, there was no 800 number that bratty little Johnny could dial up to get his mother into trouble. Parents who cared didn’t mess around with treats and lectures. They broke out the rod of discipline. They used physical beatings to keep their kids in line. And as for the main society—the Romans didn’t fuss around with three strikes and court trials that happened twenty years after the crime. Public scourging was a popular way to make an example out of an offender. So when Rabbi talks about discipline being painful, he’s talking about methods of discipline that are actually effective—methods that cause the child to correct his behavior now, not just go off in a sniveling sulk. In this passage, Rabbi is saying, “Every child needs to be disciplined, and we’re the children of God. God is a good Father, so do you really think He’s never going to discipline us? Of course He is, and we should take comfort in knowing this. We want a Father who cares about us, don’t we?”

So take a new grip with your tired hands and strengthen your weak knees. Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong. Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of Yahweh. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. And make sure that there isn’t any immoral or irreverent person like Esau, who sold his birthright in exchange for one meal. You know that afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears. (Heb. 12:12-17)

We learned about Esau in our last lesson. In Bible times, the oldest son got a double portion of the father’s inheritance. He also got the heavy responsibility of looking out for the family’s welfare. Esau and Jacob were twins, but Esau was born first, which made him the oldest. Jacob was a greedy little conniver who wanted Esau’s double portion of goodies. Esau was a selfish twit who didn’t want to have to deal with the responsibility of looking out for anyone but himself. So when Esau came home famished from a long hunt and he found Jacob cooking up some delicious smelling food, he wanted to have some. Jacob wouldn’t give him any unless Esau gave up his birthright. Totally focused on his low blood sugar issues, Esau agreed. Who cares about a birthright when lunch is ready? Their father was alive and well at the time—who could say how much longer he would live? How excited are you going to get over an inheritance that might be yours fifty years from now?

Well, later on when daddy Isaac was dying and it was time to hand out the verbal blessings and the birthright, Esau majorly regretted his choice. Of course Jacob held his brother to the verbal contract that they had made. Isaac had no intention of honoring this shady agreement that his sons had made with each other. Isaac intended to give Esau the usual double portion. Besides, Esau was Isaac’s favorite. But Esau was also a hairy brute while Jacob was a lot less hairy. So Jacob tricked his father into thinking he was Esau by going into his father’s room cloaked in an animal skin. Isaac felt all the hair and figured it was Esau. Isaac was blind by then, so he couldn’t make any visual confirmation. Thanks to Isaac’s blindness, Jacob’s conniving, and Esau’s hairiness, the double blessing went to Jacob. When Esau found out what had happened, he had a meltdown. Here in Hebrews, Rabbi makes the point that his audience had better not treat God’s approval of them as disrespectfully as Esau treated his birthright. They need to persevere, otherwise they might get cut off from God’s grace, just as Esau was cut off from his rightful inheritance. Notice how strong Rabbi’s language is:

Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of Yahweh. (Heb. 12:14-15)

This is terrible advice. First of all, under the New Covenant, Yahweh is not going to cast us out for failing to be perfect. Rabbi is wrong to keep threatening these Christians with a loss of salvation. Secondly, this business of looking out for other Christians is useless. The Holy Spirit has not authorized you to do His job for Him, and convicting souls is His job. So no, you really shouldn’t be spending your life looking around at what all your brothers in the Lord are doing. You need to stay focused on your own walk.

Notice how Rabbi says “those who are not holy will not see the Lord.” You can interpret “holy” as “set apart” or you can think of it as “perfection.” Either way, it’s lousy wording. It’s Yahweh’s acceptance of you, not your perpetual striving, which is going to get you into Heaven. And once Yahweh accepts you under this New Covenant, He is not going to cast you out.

You have not come to a physical mountain, to a place of flaming fire, darkness, gloom, and whirlwind, as the Israelites did at Mount Sinai. For they heard an awesome trumpet blast and a Voice so terrible that they begged Yahweh to stop speaking. They staggered back under Yahweh’s command: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” [Ex. 19:12]

Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, “I am terrified and trembling.” [Deut. 9:19] (Heb. 12:18-21)

One of the most important passages of Scripture for Old Covenant Jews was when Yahweh’s Presence descended onto Mount Sinai in front of all the Israelites. Yahweh basically put on a terrifying display of volcanic activity and scared the wits out of everyone. Why did He do this? To inspire the idolatrous little rebels to revere Him (see Know Your Bible Lesson 5: God is Holy).

Yahweh does a lot of terrifying stuff in the Old Testament. To interpret such passages correctly, you need to always ask yourself, “Who is Yahweh’s audience at this time? How are they responding to Him on a spiritual level?” The Hebrews that Yahweh led around in the wilderness for forty years were a bunch of idolatrous twerps. They were stiff-necked rebels who didn’t want anything to do with Yahweh. They were constantly mouthing off and worshiping demon gods right in front of Him.  These are the folks that you see Yahweh plaguing with diseases and killing off in violent ways. Whenever you see God lashing out in anger at someone, realize that He has good reason for doing so. Also realize that God is very forthcoming with explanations for His behavior in the Old Testament. It is very rare that He lashes out with no explanation as to why He’s so upset. The vast majority of the time, He is very clear about who is offending Him and how. So while many like to make “the God of the Old Testament” out to be some short-tempered Ogre, in reality, He is incredibly patient, gracious, and communicative.

No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of Yahweh’s firstborn children, whose names are written in Heaven. You have come to Yahweh Himself, who is the Judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in Heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the One who mediates the New Covenant between Yahweh and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel. (Heb. 12:22-23)

Throughout the Old Testament prophetic books, Yahweh talks about two different Jerusalems: the real one on earth and a fictitious one which is a metaphor for Heaven. If you don’t understand that He’s doing this, you interpret many passages incorrectly and end up with the wrong idea that one day God is planning to completely restore the political nation of Israel. He’s not.

Rabbi understands that the perfect Jerusalem Yahweh describes in the Old Testament is a metaphor for an eternal paradise, and here he says that we Christians now belong to that place. Well, yes, this is exciting. These Jewish Christians are Yahweh’s “firstborn children” in a figurative sense—they are going to be super blessed as firstborn children are, and they are also the first batch of believers to align with the terms of Yahweh’s New Covenant.

You have come to Jesus, the One who mediates the New Covenant between Yahweh and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel. (Heb. 12:24)

We talked about Abel in our last lesson. When Abel was murdered by his nasty brother Cain, and Yahweh called Cain out on his crime, Yahweh said that Abel’s blood was crying out to Him from the ground. This was a figurative way of saying, “I know what you did, you little punk, now confess.” Cain tried to get away with sin and he refused to repent, therefore he ended up cursed by God. But we Christians have repented, and our Gods have graciously decided to forgive us instead of cursing us.

Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One who is speaking. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, we will certainly not escape if we reject the One who speaks to us from Heaven! (Heb. 12:25)

Now Rabbi goes back to more threats, and once again he warns these Jewish Christians that they had better not turn away from this New Covenant or else. Or else what? Well, Rabbi loves to use the example of the rebellious Jews in the wilderness who got themselves cursed by Yahweh and killed off in a barren desert. Rabbi says it will be far worse for Christians who rebel against Yahweh. Again, we need to be careful. Yahweh will not cast us out if we rebel against Him after salvation. But at the same time, there will be serious consequences for our defiance (see The Eternal Cost of Defying God: A Warning for Christians).

Rabbi is right to emphasize that it is very important to obey God, but in this letter he is being much too harsh. He’s turning honest doubts into an unpardonable sin and he’s painting Yahweh out to be far less compassionate than He is. If these Jews have really shown the fierce devotion to Christ that Rabbi has described in this letter, it’s doubtful that their faltering is being driven by some wicked desire to defy Christ. Humans get worn down by persecution. Jewish Christians get very insecure when their God up and changes His Covenant on them. Rabbi should be encouraging these Christians to look to their gracious Gods for help in this most difficult time. But instead, he keeps cracking the whips of fear and condemnation over them. This isn’t very helpful.

When Yahweh spoke from Mount Sinai, His Voice shook the earth, but now He makes another promise: “Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.” [Hag 2:6] This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain. Since we are receiving a Kingdom that is unshakable, let us be thankful and please Yahweh by worshiping Him with holy fear and awe. For our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 12:25-29)

Moses called Yahweh a consuming fire back in Deuteronomy.

“Be careful not to forget the Covenant of Yahweh your God that He made with you, and do not make an idol for yourselves in the shape of anything He has forbidden you. For Yahweh your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” (Deut. 4:23-24)

Picture a fire ripping through a dry forest, devouring everything in its path. This is the dramatic image being used here. Our Gods are extremely jealous Beings, and Their jealousy ignites when Their people start worshiping other things in Their place (see Understanding Idolatry: The Problem & the Cure).

Rabbi is very right to say that we ought to be worshiping Yahweh with “holy fear and awe”. This means with reverence. Reverence is a respect for God that is based on fear of His awesome power. There is good reverence and there is bad reverence. Good reverence is the kind that God demands from us. It is a soul attitude which keeps us motivated to obey God (see Why We Must Fear God). Bad reverence is when we lose our grip on God’s love and we start viewing Him like a terrifying Monster who makes us want to cower in a corner (see How to Recognize a Destructive Fear of God).

Now let’s check out this quote from Haggai that Rabbi refers to.

When Yahweh spoke from Mount Sinai, His Voice shook the earth, but now He makes another promise: Once again I will shake not only the earth but the heavens also.” [Hag 2:6] This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain.

It’s usually pretty painful when Rabbi tries to tell us what a Scripture means, and what he’s doing to Haggai is ridiculous. To understand Haggai, we need some historical context. Here are the essential facts in a nutshell:

  • After centuries of being gracious, Yahweh hit His limit with Israel’s defiance.
  • In several rounds of destruction, He destroyed the whole nation and scattered the Jews to distant lands.
  • After seventy years, He brought some Jews back.
  • When they returned, both Jerusalem and Yahweh’s Temple were lying in ruins.
  • Yahweh told the returning Jews that it was time to rebuild the Temple.
  • The returning Jews were rebellious twerps who ignored what Yahweh said.
  • There were a couple of good leaders named Joshua and Zerubbabel who respected Yahweh, but they found the monumental task of rebuilding the Temple to be overwhelming and discouraging.
  • Yahweh raised up the prophets Zechariah & Haggai to spur the Jews into action.
  • Through the prophet Haggai, Yahweh scolds the rebels who are ignoring Him and He encourages the few good guys who are feeling discouraged.

The book of Haggai is a whopping two chapters long. In the first chapter, Yahweh reams out the little twerps who are ignoring Him. In the second chapter, He encourages the leaders who are actually listening to Him. Rabbi’s quotation comes from the happy chapter.

Now that we know what Haggai is about, what do you think Yahweh was really talking about when He said the words that Rabbi is quoting here in Hebrews? He’s talking about rebuilding His Temple. Let’s look at some context:

“This is what Yahweh Almighty says:In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all the nations, and the treasures of all the nations will be brought to this Temple. I will fill this place with glory,’ says Yahweh Almighty. ‘The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine,’ declares Yahweh Almighty. ‘The glory of this present Temple will be greater than the glory of the former Temple,’ says Yahweh Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’” (Hag. 2:6-9)

The first Temple was very impressive. It was built by Solomon, who was loaded with wealth and had lots of useful connections with material suppliers and skilled artisans. The Jews living in Haggai’s time are poor and they’ve got nothing. Yet here Yahweh promises that He’ll supply the materials that are needed, and He’ll help them build a new Temple that’s even better than Solomon’s. This is a pep talk. When Yahweh talks about shaking everything, He means He’s going to shake lose the money and supplies that the Jews need from the surrounding nations. He’s being dramatic and figurative. He’s not talking about the end of the world or eternity. So Rabbi is being utterly ridiculous when he tries to interpret figurative language literally by saying:

This means that all of creation will be shaken and removed, so that only unshakable things will remain.

Good grief. No, this is not at all what Haggai 2:6 means. Yes, God will completely destroy this planet one day and transfer all souls on to the eternal dimensions of Heaven and Hell. But this isn’t something He discusses in Haggai 2. So let’s leave Haggai out of it and ask our Gods to have Their total way in our lives.

UP NEXT: Applying Hebrews 13: Concluding Remarks

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