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Freedom for Slaves June 15, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 34:8-22.

Summary: In this passage, God pronounces judgment on His people. This stems from the following sequence of events:

  • the Babylonians had been besieging Jerusalem
  • the people of Jerusalem – along with King Zedekiah – made a covenant before Him that they would free their Hebrew slaves
  • the people of Jerusalem freed their Hebrew slaves
  • the Babylonians withdrew from Jerusalem – leading to a (temporary) cessation of their siege
  • the people of Jerusalem re-enslaved those whom they had freed.

In particular, by re-enslaving those whom they had freed, they have violated His command in Deuteronomy 15:12.

Thus, He declares that He will cause the Babylonians to resume their siege of Jerusalem. The city will fall, and many of His people will be slain.

Thoughts: Here, we see that the people of Jerusalem reneged on their promise to free their slaves after the Babylonians (temporarily) withdrew from their city. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

Since King Zedekiah had been warned about this, he called the people together and, with everybody’s consent, proclaimed freedom to the slaves as God had commanded. But this was done in bad faith, for soon afterwards the slaves were taken back into slavery, and so treachery was added to cruelty. From this we see that they not only wronged their own brethren by imposing on them perpetual slavery, but they also wickedly profaned the sacred name of God, for they were violating a solemn oath.

This disappointing turn of events caused me to ponder the vows that we often make to God during trials – where we declare that if He will rescue us from our troubles, then we will honor Him for the rest of our lives. Yet we swiftly break our promises after He rescues us from our troubles. Clearly God knows that we cannot honor our vows – so why does He choose to rescue us from our troubles? Perhaps He has decided to adopt a long-term perspective when dealing with us. He knows that sanctification is a process, and He is willing to accept some amount of backsliding on our part. What He desires is that we also adopt a long-term perspective when dealing with Him; instead of making rash vows, we should maintain our confidence in Him and His sovereignty.

This passage also furnishes another example of God’s concern for those who are less fortunate. Indeed, His zeal for those who are less fortunate is displayed throughout this book, as He repeatedly charges His people with mistreatment of the poor, the fatherless, the widow and the foreigner. Perhaps this passage should remind us that, as modern-day believers, we must continue to serve as His conduits of blessing to those who are less fortunate today – lest He level the same charges at us that He presents in this book.

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The Covenant is Broken March 7, 2017

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Here are my thoughts on Jeremiah 11:1-17.

Summary: In this passage, God speaks through Jeremiah, reminding the people of Judah of the covenant that He made with their forefathers when He brought them out of Egypt. Since their forefathers broke that covenant, though, He cursed them according to its stipulations. The current generation has also broken that covenant by engaging in idolatry; thus, He promises to curse them according to its stipulations.

Thoughts: This passage caused me to ponder the Israelites’ response to the covenant that God made with them – including its plethora of curses. My hunch is that at least some of them complained to God regarding those curses; perhaps they asked, “O Lord, how could you bind us to a covenant that you know we cannot fulfill? One must be perfect in order to keep your decrees and commandments – yet you know that we are not perfect. Thus, these curses will fall on our heads!” If my hunch is correct, then I wonder how those Israelites lived. Did they curse God for laying an unbearable burden on their backs – and lead a life of sin? Or did they trust in His goodness and assume that He would be merciful to them? The New Testament indicates that those who adopted the latter approach – before the earthly ministry of Jesus – would have been saved. I wonder how the Holy Spirit moved in their hearts to seek His mercy…

In verse 15, we see that God rejected the insincere worship of His people, as they offered sacrifices to Him without confessing their idolatry to Him. Perhaps their idolatry had become habitual, as they went through the motions of outward worship while ignoring their inward depravity. As modern-day believers, we should consider whether we have major sins that have become habitual. Minor sins cannot be avoided, yet we must be careful lest we allow minor problems to morph into major issues. Vigilance in this regard is a lifelong process.

Christ’s Sacrifice Once for All May 16, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 10:1-18.

Summary: The author begins by:

  • conceding that the old covenant between God and men was a harbinger of the new covenant
  • inferring that the old covenant was not designed to be permanent.

The impotency of the old covenant is highlighted by the fact that God appointed that its attendant sacrifices should be repeated; thus, the blood of those sacrifices could not take away sin.

The author then quotes from Psalm 40:6-8 to show that:

  • none of the sacrifices of the old covenant were suited to either the glory of God or the needs of the souls of men
  • the sacrifice of the new covenant – that of Christ Himself – was suitable in that regard.

Indeed, by offering Himself as a sacrifice, Christ:

  • fulfilled God’s eternal purpose and design
  • perfectly sanctified the church once only.

Now the author reiterates that since the Levitical priests – under the old covenant – had to stand and repeat their sacrifices, those sacrifices could not take away sins. In contrast, Christ sealed the new covenant by offering Himself as a sacrifice once only; He now sits at God’s throne, having perfectly sanctified the church.

The author concludes by quoting from Jeremiah 31:33-34 to show that in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit declared that God would make a new covenant with men where their sins would be taken away.

Thoughts: In verses 5-7, the author quotes from Psalm 40:6-8 to show that Christ came to dwell among mankind in order to fulfill – and abolish – the old covenant. Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary:

No sacrifices of the law, not all of them together, were a means for the expiation of sin, suited to the glory of God or the needs of the souls of men. The constant use of sacrifices to signify those things that they could not effect in worshipers was a great part of the slavery that the church was held in under the old testament…Yes, and Christ himself had a command from God to lay down his life for the accomplishment of this work.

I found these verses to be rather poignant, especially since they hint at the great suffering that Christ was prepared to endure in order to abolish the old covenant and seal the new covenant. While I am ignorant in terms of the form and structure of Hebrew poetry, I can still appreciate the beauty of these three verses. Indeed, verses 5 and 6 neatly summarize the problem at hand – that sacrifices and offerings could not mend a broken relationship with God – while verse 7 presents the solution to this problem, which is the sacrifice of Christ Himself. These verses can also encourage modern-day believers, as they lend further support to the notion that doing God’s will is difficult and involves some degree of suffering. Of course, we can be further encouraged by the fact that Christ emerged victorious through His suffering – thereby guaranteeing our ultimate victory through our suffering.

This passage concludes the “theory” section of this letter; the next passage inaugurates the “practice” section of this letter. Overall, I would say that the author has presented an awesome proof of the superiority of the person and work of Christ to all of the core tenets and iconic figures of Judaism. Indeed, the plethora of carefully selected Old Testament quotations serve as an indomitable argument that the Hebrews cannot ignore; they were intimately familiar with the Old Testament, yet they failed to infer – before receiving this letter – that it testifies to the impending arrival of a Person who would render it obsolete in terms of maintaining the relationship between God and men. I would certainly like to meet the Hebrews in the next life and learn how they perceived the “theory” section of this letter. Were they thoroughly swayed by the author’s arguments and utterly convinced that they needed to respond to the Gospel with faith and obedience? Did they dispute the author’s interpretation of at least some of their selected Old Testament quotations? Were they offended to some degree by the author’s systematic dismantling of their former belief system?

The Blood of Christ May 14, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 9:11-28.

Summary: The author begins by stating that when God’s promise in sending and manifesting Christ in the flesh was accomplished, He did all of His work in His human nature. Indeed, He performed His priestly work by offering Himself – thereby paying a valuable ransom to deliver people from their bondage. The author then draws the following contrast to highlight the value of Christ’s sacrifice:

  • in the Levitical services, the blood of clean animals and the ashes of a heifer – mixed with clean spring water – purified sinners in a carnal sense
  • Christ offered Himself to God – through His sufferings – thereby purifying sinners in a spiritual sense.

The author then asserts that Christ is the mediator of a new covenant between God and men, where those He has predestined to receive His blessing shall receive it; this results from His death, which has delivered them from their bondage.

Now the author proves the necessity of Christ’s death for the establishment of the new covenant between God and men as follows:

  • the bequeathing of the possessions of the maker of a will only occurs after their death
  • the old covenant between God and men was solemnly separated for sacred use through blood; indeed, when Moses read the old covenant to the people, he consecrated it by taking the blood of animals that had been offered for burnt offerings and peace offerings, and he sprinkled it on the scroll where the covenant was recorded and on the people.

The author then draws the following contrasts between the Levitical priests and Christ:

  • while the blood of animals that had been offered for burnt offerings and peace offerings was used to consecrate the earthly tabernacle, Christ consecrated heaven by His sacrifice
  • while the high priest entered into the holy of holies on an annual basis, Christ entered into the real presence of God once
  • while the Levitical priests never offered themselves as sacrifices, Christ offered Himself – through His sufferings – as a sacrifice.

The author concludes by asserting that Christ will return from heaven to complete the salvation of the church.

Thoughts: This passage illustrates the power of the blood of Christ, especially in relation to the blood of the Old Testament sacrifices. It also spurred me to ponder Exodus 24:7, where the people of Israel bound themselves to the old covenant. Perhaps they were fully convinced at that time that they would be able to fulfill their obligations under that covenant. Yet they began to repeatedly fall short in that regard; my conjecture is that their responses to their sins fell into three categories:

  • some of them viewed their sins as minor issues in God’s sight; they assumed that as long as they offered the requisite sacrifices, God would forgive them
  • some of them were troubled by their sins and knew that offering the requisite sacrifices could not repair their broken relationship with God; they could not find a solution to this problem, and so they longed for death
  • some of them were troubled by their sins and knew that offering the requisite sacrifices could not repair their broken relationship with God; they trusted that God would provide a solution to this problem that transcended the Mosaic institutions.

Indeed, the members of this third group looked to the Messiah as the solution to their broken relationship with God. Of course, most of the Israelites looked to the Messiah as the solution to a political problem – especially when they were driven from their homeland by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. How were the members of this third group able to trust in the Messiah, rejecting the national consensus regarding His person and work? Perhaps God had predestined that they would choose to look to Him in the midst of their sinfulness, though I am sure that their kinsmen belittled them for their faithfulness.

In verses 27 and 28, the author notes that Christ will return to bring salvation to all believers. Owen offers some insights on this point:

Faith in the second coming of Christ is sufficient support for the souls of believers in their difficulties and trials. All true believers wait, with expectation, for the coming of Christ, and this is one of the distinguishing characteristics of sincere believers. At Christ’s second appearance all sin will be dealt with.

Owen’s thoughts reminded me of the importance of properly expecting the second coming of Christ. My viewpoint on this topic is that since we have been placed on Earth to advance God’s kingdom, it would be improper for us as believers to sell all of our worldly possessions, travel to remote mountaintops, and await the time when the clouds part and Christ descends to Earth. Since God has not revealed the time of Christ’s return, our time on Earth will be more fruitful if we work to advance His kingdom; moreover, if we are still alive when He returns, then He will find us to be (spiritually) “alert” – as opposed to being (spiritually) “asleep.” Indeed, God does not call us to ponder the return of Christ at every waking moment; instead, He will view our actions that glorify Him as actions of “expectation.”

Worship in the Earthly Tabernacle May 11, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 9:1-10.

Summary: The author begins by noting that the old covenant had ordinances for divine service; it also had a worldly holy place. This holy place was fixed; its first part contained a candlestick and a table with holy loaves. Its second part consisted of the holy of holies, including the house of spices and the ark of the testimony – which contained a gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded and the Ten Commandments. There were two cherubim over the ark that represented the glorious presence of God, and their wings overshadowed the atonement cover.

Now the author states the reason for his description of the worldly holy place. In particular, he draws the following contrast:

  • the priests entered the first part of the holy place on a daily basis to attend to the candlestick and serve at the altar of incense
  • only the high priest entered the holy of holies once a year; at that time, he took some fresh blood from a newly killed sacrifice and brought it into the holy of holies, where he sprinkled it seven times toward the ark of the testimony as a propitiation for sins.

Thus, the Holy Spirit shows that the way to the glorious presence of God had not been manifested while the holy place was being used. Moreover, the sacrifices that were offered by the priests did not perfect the conscience of the sinner. The author concludes by asserting the inherent weakness of the services of the holy place.

Thoughts: In this passage, the author discusses the furniture of the tabernacle. Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 2:

This tabernacle was set up, as the materials were provided by the people, the materials were worked on by Bezaleel, put in position under Moses’ directions, and adorned for use…There was the lampstand, or candlestick. Its meticulous construction is described in Exodus 25:31-40: “Make a lampstand of pure gold and hammer it out, base and shaft; its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms shall be of one piece with it…The buds and branches shall all be of one piece with the lampstand, hammered out of pure gold…”

Last year I enjoyed a PBS NOVA special on the forging of a Viking sword, and I remember being quite impressed by the skill of the Viking swordsmiths. Now it could be argued that Bezalel performed an even more impressive feat by crafting the above-mentioned lampstand. Did he start with a solid block of pure gold and progressively hammer out the lampstand from this block? If that was the case, it would have been neat to watch him gradually form the above-mentioned “flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms.” Although my artistic abilities leave much to be desired, I can definitely appreciate the requisite talent and meticulousness for hammering out precise shapes with complex features. I certainly hope to meet Bezalel in the next life and hear how God gave him the wisdom and strength to complete this awe-inspiring task.

Reading a passage that focuses on the tabernacle – and its inherent shortcomings – caused me to ponder the effort that the priests put forth in terms of maintaining it. In particular, cleaning the lampstand and refilling it with oil should be simple compared to the task of maintaining the various altars in and around the tabernacle. Also, cleaning an altar that is used to burn incense should be simple compared to the task of cleaning an altar that is used for animal sacrifices. When cleaning the latter altar, a priest would have to remove a large amount of detritus, including splattered blood, fur and entrails. My assumption is that the altars had to be maintained on a daily basis. If so, one must wonder if the Levite priests approached this task with joy – or if they were overwhelmed with boredom at some point.

The High Priest of a New Covenant May 7, 2015

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Here are my thoughts on Hebrews 8.

Summary: The author begins by summarizing the preceding discussion as follows:

  • believers have a high priest – Jesus Christ – who sits at the right hand of God
  • this high priest is a minister of the holy things in His human nature – which was fixed by God alone.

The author then notes that since the sole purpose of the office of a high priest is the offering of gifts and sacrifices, Christ had to offer gifts and sacrifices. Now if Christ had not been exalted to heaven to carry out His work there, then He could only have offered the same sacrifices as the Levitical priests; since He was not of the tribe of Levi, even that option would have been unavailable to Him. Yet it should be noted that the Levitical priests offer sacrifices in a temple that is only an example of the true temple in heaven; since this temple represents the true temple in heaven, God warned Moses to use great caution to make sure no mistake was made in its construction. In contrast, the ministry that Christ has obtained through the call of God is more excellent than the ministry of the Levitical priests; moreover, He is the mediator of a new covenant between God and human beings that is more excellent than the old covenant where the Levitical priests were mediators between God and human beings.

Now the author tells his readers that if the old covenant that God had made with their fathers at Sinai had been faultless, then there would have been no purpose for a new covenant. Yet the author quotes from Jeremiah 31:31-34 to show that God did complain that their fathers broke the old covenant, and so He states the imminent approach of a day when He will make a new covenant with the church of the elect. This new covenant with the elect has the following characteristics:

  • it will be distinct from the old covenant that God had made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the twelve patriarchs when He delivered them from Egypt; they broke that covenant and so God removed His special care from them
  • God will place His laws in the most secret, inner parts of their souls
  • God will renew their natures in His image in righteousness and holiness of truth
  • they will have knowledge of God
  • God will freely pardon their sins.

The author concludes by asserting that the old covenant is growing aged; in contrast, the new covenant is now in force.

Thoughts: In this passage, the author notes that Jesus Christ now serves in “the true tabernacle.” Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 2:

I think that the true tabernacle refers to the human nature of the Lord Christ. He is the only way to approach God in holy worship, as the tabernacle was of old. Christ himself called his own body his temple when referring to the temple of Jerusalem, which was put to the same use as the tabernacle…So he said he dwelt among them. This can only really and substantially happen through Christ. He alone, therefore, is this true tabernacle.

This is an interesting interpretation of this phrase. On the other hand, I believe that “the true tabernacle” refers to heaven itself, which is the dwelling place of God the Father. In particular, I am sure that God the Father – not a human being – established heaven as His dwelling place. Also, this letter clearly states that Jesus Christ currently serves as our high priest in heaven. In addition, verses 2 and 5 seems to support my interpretation of this phrase:

  • it seems strange to assert that Christ is currently serving “in” His human nature – as opposed to heaven itself, which is an actual location
  • it seems strange to assert that buildings are examples of the human nature of Christ – as opposed to heaven itself, which is an actual location.

I hope to meet Owen in the next life so that we can discuss our interpretations of this passage.

In this passage, the author asserts that Jesus Christ is the mediator of a new covenant between God and His people that supersedes His previous covenant with them. Owen offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 8:

God complains that the people broke his covenant. God gives this promise of a new covenant along with a complaint against the people, so that it would be known that this new covenant was the result of his free and sovereign grace. There was nothing in the people to procure it or to qualify them for it.

This passage caused me to delve into the distinction between the old and the new covenants. Now the laws and regulations that constituted the old covenant were inherently holy and good. The old covenant had a fatal flaw, though: God’s people are inherently sinful, and so they were unable to obey these laws and regulations. They performed various external rites in an attempt to overcome their failures, yet these external rites did not address their inherent (internal) sinfulness. Unfortunately, the application of the blessings of the old covenant – including a lasting relationship between God and His people – depended on their obedience.

This paved the way for God to bring glory to Himself by establishing a new covenant with His people; this covenant also included blessings for His people, yet the application of these blessings did not depend on their obedience. Instead, God attacked the problem of the inherent sinfulness of His people with a two-pronged strategy:

  • He caused the application of the blessings of the new covenant to depend on the obedience of Jesus Christ – who was perfectly holy during His time on earth
  • He placed Himself – in the form of the Holy Spirit – in His people so that they – under His guidance – would respond to His grace with thanksgiving; this attitude of thanksgiving would be expressed in actions that constituted obedience to the timeless aspects of the old covenant.

While the sinfulness of God’s people made the old covenant impotent in terms of maintaining His relationship with them, God employed His Son and His Spirit to make the new covenant omnipotent in that regard.