An Ancient Sermon for Today

Hebrews - FB Final

Due to the beauty, majesty, and broad sweeping survey of ancient Old Testament pictures and promises, it’s easy to forget that the Book of Hebrews was not originally a lofty theological lecture disconnected from “real life.” Instead, it was an immensely practical address (likely a sermon) to a people in real crisis. In the decades following the resurrection, the church at various times faced persecution that included imprisonment, confiscation of personal property, and even violence for following Jesus. Unsurprisingly, there were some in the early church who left the faith due to pressure that came from family and society.

This is where the Book of Hebrews, that ancient powerful sermon, came into play. In response to the temptation to flee the faith, the preacher points his audience to the reality that Jesus and all that Jesus has secured is better (thirteen times!). Jesus is better than angels, Moses (the chief mediator of the Hebrew Scriptures), the Levitical Sacrifices, and the Aaronic priesthood among other things. Jesus is also presented as the Son of God, not merely referring to some kind of honorific title, but to the very essence of God that he has in himself. In the words of NT scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, ultimately this means that “Jesus is and does what God is and does.”

We too face times of crisis and turmoil and this ancient sermon directs our gaze off of our circumstances, alternative gods, and ourselves in order to point us to the supremacy of the Son. We are called upon to look to the preexistent Son who unites God and humanity through his perfect work of mediation. And also look to the exalted man, who achieved the destiny for which we were created. The good news for the church in every generation in whichever different crisis that arises is that Jesus is not offered to us as a coach to tinker with our life tactics. Jesus is not offered as a divine cheerleader, encouraging us on to victory. Jesus is offered as our champion, who defeated his (and our!) great enemies of sin and death. He is our elder brother who goes before us because he has gone before us.

Hebrews is an ancient sermon that speaks with a fresh and living voice to the church today. While those of us in the West are more likely to fall away because we have fallen asleep, we too are in crisis. We are after all, as the prologue to the sermon reminds us, in the last days. Thus, we are reminded of how high the stakes are as the Holy Spirit puts to use this living and active word. In a world filled with the false gods of affluence, comfort, ease, pleasure, and success (to name a few) that vie for our affections, we are brought again to see the supremacy of Christ over all things. We are confronted with the true natures of the shakeable and crumbling kingdoms of this world in contrast to the beautiful and glorious unshakeable kingdom of God and the singular glory of our king, who was better yesterday, better today, and is better forever.

John Calvin on the Raising of Lazarus

Christ does not approach the grave as an idle spectator, but as a champion who prepares for a contest; and therefore we need not wonder that he again groans; for the violent tyranny of death, which he had to conquer, is placed before his eyes.

Consider: Theologians of the Cross

Theologians of the Cross “operate on the assumption that there must be—to use the language of treatment for addicts – a ‘bottoming out’ or an ‘intervention.’ That is to say, there is no cure for the addict on his own. In theological terms, we must come to confess that we are addicted to sin, addicted to self, whatever form that may take, pious or impious. So theologians of the cross know that we can’t be helped by optimistic appeals to glory, strength, wisdom, positive thinking, and so forth because those things are themselves the problem. The truth must be spoken. To repeat Luther again, the thirst for glory or power or wisdom is never satisfied even by the acquisition of it. We always want more—precisely so that we can declare independence from God. The thirst is for the absolute independence of the self, and that is sin. Thus again Luther’s statement of the radical cure in his proof for thesis 22: “The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it.” The cross does the extinguishing. The cross is the death of sin, and the sinner. The cross does the ‘bottoming out.’ The cross is the ‘intervention.’ The addict/sinner is not coddled by false optimism but is put to death so that new life can begin. The theologian of the cross ‘says what a thing is’ (thesis 21). The theologian of the cross preaches to convict of sin. The addict is not deceived by theological marshmallows but is told the truth so that he might at last learn to confess, to say, ‘I am an addict,’ ‘I am an alcoholic,’ and never to stop saying it. Theologically and more universally all must learn to say, ‘I am a sinner,’ and likewise never to stop saying it until Christ’s return makes it no longer true.

– Gerharde Forde

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

A friend pointed me to these encouraging words from Dr. Carl Trueman, a pastor in a sister denomination and a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (the other Westminster). Writing both as a pastor and a parent, Dr. Trueman’s words are sobering and encouraging. I commend this post to you. You can find the original here.

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God in Christ has done everything He requires to reconcile sinners to Himself.

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