Monday, 7 May 2007

Fix your eyes on Jesus

Over the last couple of weeks, I've spent quite an amount of time speaking to students who will graduate this year. It's a sad fact that the time of leaving university can be a point where some people stop professing as Christians. All this has reminded me of a talk I gave at Bristol CU this time last year on Hebrews 3:1-19 on carrying on following Jesus. It's in full format so it is quite long - sorry about that!

Anyone who ever gets to know my father at all will know that he has this brilliant habit of being obsessive about a hobby, but only for a few months. It’s almost as if he feels that he has to become the world expert in something, but then he has to move on to something completely different. Some of the hobbies he’s had include bird-watching, looking at trees, herb-growing, family history researching and watching AFC Bournemouth football club. Sometimes these hobbies impinge on the rest of the family. I can remember being dragged around church cemeteries in Cornwall a few years ago (when we were supposedly on holiday!), looking for the evidence for a Medieval Cornish saint called St Samson, who was the focus of the hobby in vogue at the time.

When he was enthusiastic about a particular hobby, Dad would spend hours and hours researching and enthusing about whatever the particular flavour of the month was. But it never lasted. His hobbies lasted, at most, for a year or two, and then he sort of just lost interest and moved on to something else.

It’s that kind of ‘losing interest’ that characterises the attitude of some people to Jesus Christ. I’d be surprised if you didn’t know people whose passion for Jesus has faded or gone completely. Others in the youth group, maybe, now nowhere with Christ. Whilst the vast majority of us are persevering on, there are a few people in my year in the Christian Union who would now probably not call themselves Christian any more. It seemed like once they were keen Christians – regular in the CU, reading their Bibles faithfully, involved in their local church – but now Christianity is like a long-forgotten pastime.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to stop this happening. It was written to Christians in real danger of abandoning their faith, and the letter urges them not to do so. And as you’ll see, this chapter is full of exhortations for the Hebrew Christians. Let’s look at three of them.

1. Fix your thoughts on Jesus (verses 1-6)

Verse 1 says this: ‘Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your eyes on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.’ The first exhortation we receive is to fix our eyes on Jesus. He is both our apostle and high priest. The writer will return later in the book to the idea of Jesus being our high priest, and here he focuses on Jesus the apostle.

An ‘apostle’ is someone that is sent out. In this case, this refers to someone who has been sent out by God in order to make God known. In that respect, the writer says, Jesus is a bit like Moses. Verse 2 introduces the comparison and shows that Jesus and Moses were faithful in God’s house. The writer isn’t talking here about a physical house or a structure. Rather he’s talking about a group of people, in a similar way in which we sometimes refer to the Royal Family as ‘the house of Windsor’. Here, then, the writer is referring to God’s people. And he says (verse 2), ‘He [Jesus] was faithful to the one who appointing him [that is, God the Father], just as Moses also was faithful in all God’s house’. So then, there’s a comparison between Jesus and Moses by the writer, before he makes a contrast. And in contrasting Jesus with Moses, it’s not that he’s putting Moses down; far from it. In fact, the writer is quoting from Numbers 12:6-8, where God says,

‘Listen to my words: “When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD.”’

As an Old Testament prophet of God, as the Old Testament ‘apostle’, Moses was without equal. He represented God to man at that time in a way that no-one else could. But, says the writer, there the similarity between Moses and Jesus ends. Because in terms of status and authority, there is no comparison between them!

Why? Firstly – verse 3 says that Jesus is worthy of more honour than Moses in relation to God’s house. And he gives an astonishing reason for this: because Jesus is the builder of the house whereas Moses is part of the house. Look at it carefully. Verse 3: ‘Jesus has been found worthy of greater honour than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honour than the house itself.’ In other words the writer is saying this: Jesus is to the people of God as a builder is to a house. Moses is to the people of God as one of the people of God is to God’s household. Therefore, Jesus is Moses’ builder. In short, Jesus made Moses.

Imagine you were writing a biography – who would be the ideal person to speak to in your research? Surely it would be the very person about whom you are writing. As helpful as second-hand sources are, the way you really get to know about what a person is like, the way you get to know the truth, is by speaking to them. Speaking to a person directly is better than speaking to another source, even if it’s a close source like a family member or a PA. And the same ideal holds here: don’t speak to Moses – he’s just like the PA, you can speak to Jesus himself. He is God. And so the word of our Apostle, Jesus, is a sure word because it is a word carried by God himself! It’s not that we’re trusting in a particular teacher and their teachings about God. We’re trusting in God himself.

A second superiority of Jesus over Moses is mentioned in verses 5-6: ‘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.’ Moses was a servant in the house of God. Jesus is a son over the house of God. The difference between a servant and a son is that by inheritance the son owns the house, and is master over the house, and provides for those in the house out of his wealth. But the servants don’t earn anything in the house. Indeed, they follow the word of their owner and are reliant on their provision from it. The point is this: Jesus, as a son, is superior to Moses in these same three ways: he owns the house of God, he rules the house of God and he provides for the house of God. By contrast, Moses is just a servant in the house of God: he doesn’t own it, he doesn’t rule it and he doesn’t provide for it.

And the very striking thing is that in verse 6 the writer wants us to immediately apply this superiority of Jesus to ourselves. Look at how verse 6 ends: ‘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.’ The church is the house of God today. And this means that today – not just in Moses’ day or during his days on earth – today Jesus is our Maker, our Owner, our Ruler and our Provider. He is the son; we are the servants. We are the household of God. Moses is one with us as part of this household, a fellow-servant. But Jesus is our Maker, our Owner, our Ruler and Provider.

If you read through the whole letter to the Hebrews, you’ll see that the Hebrew Christians were under incredible pressure. It seems that they were being persecuted in order that they might return to the old Jewish religion. It seems that, particularly, they were beginning to return to the sacrifices demanded by the Law in the Old Testament. In other words, they doubted the sufficiency of Jesus, his revelation of God and, particularly, the sacrifice he made on the cross. Perhaps they were looking to cover all of the bases by trusting Jesus’ sacrifice but in making the Old Testament sacrifices as well. And to this the writer says: Stop! Look at what you have! You have Jesus, the very fulfilment of Moses’ entire ministry and all of the sacrifices he inaugurated! And although Moses deserved honour because as a member of God’s house, God elevated him to the role of apostle, Jesus is God’s eternal Son, who built the very house Moses served in, and who one day will receive it as his inheritance and who will rule over it for all time.

I’d very much doubt that any of us was thinking about returning to Old Testament sacrifices. There’s probably very few of us that were thinking about sacrificing a goat in their back garden. However, we are sometimes tempted to move on from Jesus and to doubt his sufficiency. We’ll doubt whether he really is the revelation of God, or we’ll wonder whether sin really needs Jesus’ sacrifice or we’ll doubt that he really does have our best interests at heart. We keep imagining that there is something else better just around the corner. It’s a kind of ‘Deal or No Deal’ syndrome – where we say, ‘I’ll just open one more box and see if the offer improves.’ And so the writer says the same thing to us: if you are thinking these things, then stop! That just isn’t the case. There is no new word from God that will render Jesus Christ second rate as an apostle. No new mediator will improve our access to God. It would be impossible for them to do so. For, as we see in chapter 1, Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of his being. There is no better word to wait on. There is no closer relationship with God for us to attain to. And so the first exhortation is this: ‘Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.’

2. See to it that none of you turns away from the living God (verses 7-12)

The writer’s second appeal is to the history of the people of Israel. And the writer quotes Psalm 95 in verses 7-11. Let’s re-read them: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me for forty years and saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, “Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.” So I declared on oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest.”’

The psalm quoted here relates to the time of the Exodus. The people of God were liberated from slavery in Egypt so that they might finally come to the land that God had promised them. But the people kept on showing unfaithfulness to God. The psalm quoted here refers to two specific incidents: firstly, verses 8-9 refer to an incident recorded in Exodus 17. The Israelites are camping in the desert, and there’s no water, eventually leading them to ask Moses, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and our livestock die of thirst?” They had forgotten that God was sovereign and in control; and they had forgotten all of the miracles he had performed to bring them out of Egypt – and so they doubt God and moan against him.

Secondly, verses 10-11 refer to when the people are camped on the border of Canaan a few months later. They sent spies ahead – a sort of primitive SAS reconnaissance force – whose job was to suss out the land before they launched their conquest. Ten of the spies return with a desperate report. “The cities are huge and fortified,” they said. “Their inhabitants are like giants – we don’t stand a chance.” Only two of the spies dared to disagree. Joshua and Caleb urged the people not to give up. “Do not be afraid of the people,” they urged, “because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”

But the people would not listen. They wouldn’t press on into the land. In fact, they decided they’d be better off back in Egypt as slaves. Despite God’s promises to contend with them, they responded in unbelief and rejected God yet again. And because they rejected God and chose not to place their trust in him, in the words of verses 10-11, God was angry with them and said, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ It was a terrible tragedy. To be so close to the Promised Land, and yet fail at the final hurdle. And so for forty years they were condemned to wander in the desert until that whole faithless generation died out.

The point is this: the people of Israel are an example, a picture of the Hebrew readers. Just as Israel had been brought out of Egypt, so the Hebrew readers had seen what it meant to be redeemed by God. Both groups had seen God’s power at work. And for a short while, both groups were very happy and seemingly confident in God.

But for Israel, it didn’t last. And that is why this example is so important to the writer of Hebrews. He wants the professing Hebrew Christians to last, to persevere. Because that is the only way that they will prove that they are truly God’s people. So the writer looks at Israel and says, “Don’t be like them. They never trusted God, and eventually it showed.” Let’s pick it up again at verse 8: ‘Do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me for forty years and saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, “Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.” So I declared on oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest.”’

Israel had seen God’s gracious works; they had seen signs and wonders and miracles of mercy. But instead of being softened to trust God when things were difficult, they became hard and unbelieving and did not trust in God’s goodness. Instead they doubted. The rest was that God was angry with them and cut off from rest in the Promised Land.

Now of the point is that this is what will happen to Christians like us if – and notice the big ‘ifs’ of verses 6 and 14 – if we harden our hearts when we are tested and throw away our confidence and hope in God. The story of Israel is an example for professing Christians like us. Don’t just treat God’s grace with contempt – don’t fall into just seeing the gospel as an escape from slavery or a ticket to heaven – whilst not being satisfied with God’s grace and guidance to provide for us when we’re in the wilderness of life today! How many professing Christians want the mercy of forgiveness so that they won’t go to hell, yet still have hard hearts towards Jesus when it comes to living for him daily! If you are just treating Jesus as a ticket to heaven here tonight – then beware the warning! You may not persevere when things get tough. In fact, you may never have come to Jesus in true repentance.

Look again at verse 10: ‘That is why I was angry with that generation, and said, “Their hearts are always going astray…”’. Why didn’t the people of Israel enter the Promised Land? You could say, they sinned and they rebelled. Yes. But look at how the writer ends the chapter. Verse 19: ‘So we see that they were not able to enter because of their unbelief.’ Persistent sin in the face of God’s mercy in the gospel is a sign of unbelief. Beneath the people’s sin was a root problem: they didn’t truly believe and trust God, that is, they didn’t trust in his goodness to protect and provide. Even though they saw the waters of the Read Sea divide and they walked over dry ground, the moment they got thirsty, their hearts were hard to God and they did not trust him to take care of them. They cried out against God and said their life in Egypt was better.

Do you see, then, that the subject of perseverance is not primarily an issue of behaviour? Please don’t go away asking yourself tonight: ‘What does God want me to do?’ This issue here is not of behaviour, but one of the heart. It is a matter of asking, ‘Am I trusting and hoping in God?’

Hard-heartedness to God is one of the things that the letter to the Hebrews was written to prevent. There’s an issue for our evangelism here – how many professing Christians make a start with God, hearing that their sins can be forgiven and that they can escape hell and go to heaven. And they say, “What have I got to lose? I’ll believe!” But then in a week or a month or a year or ten years later, the test comes – a time of no water in the wilderness, and a subtly growing craving for the pleasures of Egypt. This is a terrifying condition to be in – to find yourself no longer interested in Christ, no longer any passion for the Bible or for prayer or for evangelism, or ultimately for living for God’s glory. And so this is a warning for our evangelism: we must speak of what it means to follow Jesus as Lord. And it’s also a warning for those who are treating Jesus solely as a ticket to heaven. I plead with you tonight: listen to what God says through his Holy Spirit in this text.

Sometimes we speak of losing faith as though it were like losing a wallet or an umbrella. But the language of this passage makes us think very differently. It is not about a struggle to believe, but about a sinful unbelieving heart. Examine your heart and see whether you are living for Jesus in repentance now. And remember – this sober warning isn’t for the person sitting next to you. It’s for you.

3. Encourage one another daily (verses 13-19)

We come to our final exhortation from the passage. We’ve already been encouraged to realise what we have in Jesus, and been instructed to examine our hearts to see if they are repentant. But there’s one more important theme to look at in this passage, which the writer returns to time and again in Hebrews: encouragement.

In chapter 4, you’ll come to see that reading the Word of God is one way that we can be encouraged to keep going – as you can see in 4:12-13. But notice here that in chapter 3, verse 13 says that we should ‘encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.’

I think we can encourage each other in many ways. One is by meeting together. The writer will go on to say in chapter 10 that we should not give up on the habit of meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but to encourage one another. At a church service or CU meeting, it’s encouraging just to be surrounded by other believers. Look around here. Isn’t it encouraging that there’s so many here! God’s design is not for anyone to be a Christian hermit – in fact, that’s one of the reasons that God invented the church. In fact, I’d go so far as saying that you are disobeying God and robbing other Christians if you are not part of a local church family. And you yourself are losing out on encouragement and the opportunity to encourage other Christians if you are not part of a local church family.

However, I don’t think that the writer is talking merely about sneaking into a church or CU meeting and then sneaking straight out again at the end. No, as we see in verse 13, he’s talking about the kind of encouragement where you deliberately say something to someone to point them back to the gospel. It’s the kind of gospel encouragement – reminding each other of gospel truths – that will encourage us to keep going. It’s the kind of encouragement that means when we leave we will have more power to love, more resources to love, more motivation to love, more wisdom to love and do good works, so that people will see our good works, as Jesus said, and give glory to our Father in heaven.

And notice the phrase, ‘as long as it is called Today.’ The writer does not say, ‘Hope that you run into another Christian this week and then have a think about encouraging them.’ He says, ‘Go out of your way to encourage people, every day!’ Wouldn’t it be amazing if you folks here were doing this each day?! When you wake up each day, you think through the Christians that you are planning to meet or encourage, or you think through those people you know you will meet at your small group that day, deliberately thinking how you can encourage them so that none are hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Wouldn’t it be amazing that you think about those who are soon graduating, and consider how you might be able to encourage them – by praying for them, by asking how they have settled into a local church, whatever? Wouldn’t that be amazing?!

There’s nothing more important in relating to our Christian brothers and sisters than to be encouraging them to keep going and having others encourage us. It is the activity of a good Christian friend. Is that what we are to one another?

Well as I remembered my Dad’s series of hobbies, it reminded me of things that mattered so much to him once, but are now long forgotten. But suppose we meet in a few years time and we’re reminded of this evening. What emotions will be sparked? Will it be odd to think that Christianity mattered so much to you once? And just a bit sad that all enthusiasm came to nothing? Or will you have persevered? Will you still be trusting in Jesus, ‘the apostle and high priest whom we confess’?

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