A couple of weeks ago, we started a series on the book of Hebrews.
I tried to talk Jason into beginning the series by simply getting up on the platform and reading the entire book, start to finish. It probably would have taken about 30 minutes, which is a good length for a sermon in my mind, and it would certainly be the most Scriptural message we ever shared with our congregation.
He didn’t take my advice, though, which is probably a good thing because it would have been a completely crazy thing for him to do, and I’m almost positive that if he had done it, anyone who visited that Sunday would have tried to leave quietly, as soon as service was over, without making eye contact, and never come back.
But there’s this other tiny part of me that still thinks it would have been completely awesome.
They did this a lot in the Old Testament, you know.
“When all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing….” Deuteronomy 31:11
“Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, ‘Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.’ And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.” 2 Kings 22:10
“He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he face the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.” Nehemiah 8:3
They even did it in the synagogue system which was in place among the Jewish people when Jesus walked on earth:
“He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day, he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read.” Luke 4:16
But for some reason, this just would not fly with modern audiences. Maybe it’s because we have TV or smartphones and our attention span just isn’t what it used to be. But I have a sneaking suspicion it’s something else, something worse, something where we crave the interpretation of fallen, mortal man, rather than the words of the Word, the true and Living God.
Hebrews itself sets the distinction between our words and His – “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joins and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
If I’m really honest with myself, maybe the truth is that I read things instead of the Bible because don’t want my thoughts and attitudes judged. I don’t really want the word of God telling me the things I’m feeling are selfish or petty or idolatrous, even though they often are.
I’d rather read the words of someone who convinces me that I’m not all that bad, and throws in a few Bible verses here and there to back it up.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that reading the Bible only tears us down, revealing sin in our heart. Sometimes (many times) the Bible lifts us up and reveals the good work of sanctification that God has been doing in us as we grow and mature in him. It can show us how much God loves us, mess that we are. It can show us how to trust Him in the midst of what we are facing. It always, always, always points us back to our glorious God.
So it’s important, essential even, that we continue not just to read the great things our Christian peers are thinking and writing about how to follow Jesus and live in this world as those God has made in his own image, but that we also go back to the source of all of those big thoughts – the book that tells us we are made in God’s image, the book where we first hear Jesus utter those important words, “Follow me.”
We absolutely must be filling our hearts with the words of the Word.
So as I study for our upcoming messages, I am simply reading the words of the epistle of Hebrews. Over and over again. I’m not really reading any commentary (although there is certainly a time and place for that), I’m just reading Hebrews.
I have read it before, and as a kid, I memorized plenty of gems from this awesome book, including 4:12 (as mentioned above) and 10:25. But aside from those excerpted, out-of-context snippets, I have to admit, I didn’t really get what Hebrews was about. But I read it start to finish in January. Then I did it again a couple weeks ago.
And I got the sense that there was more going on in Hebrews than I had initially realized. There were things Hebrews teaches that are still a little (okay, a lot) beyond the grasp of my understanding, so I’m reading and praying and reading some more.
One chapter I just cannot get over is Hebrews 4. It’s short, so I find myself reading this one chapter again and again, as if I’m trying to carve a rut in my mind that defaults to these words. I’m sitting with verses like “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us therefore, make every effort to enter that rest so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience” (4:9-11).
I’m thinking about what it means for me to enter Sabbath-rest and rest from my own work. I’m thinking about what it means that the writer of Hebrews immediately follows up this passage with a verse about the power of God’s word, and its ability to judge and convict. I’m wondering if this means that time in God’s word is rest, or if time in God’s word will reveal to me the ways I’m failing to rest in God, or if it means both of these things and more.
I’m also thinking about when we planned out three years of Bible reading for our church, and how when we were plugging book and chapter numbers into a spreadsheet, trying to make it all come out even at the end of each year, there was no way we could have planned the way reading Exodus and Hebrews at the same time dovetails so beautifully. That our church would read in Exodus 26 about how God gave Moses patterns for the tabernacle for His worship among the children of Israel, and that while that was still fresh in our minds, we would read these words: “When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made…” (Hebrews 9:11).
I know that only God could ordain those chapters to fall together in our reading plan, and that for that matter, only God could ordain a book that was written by so many authors over such a long period of time would confirm itself so well and so beautifully.
I’m even sitting with chapters like chapter 12, which encourages believers to endure in the face of persecution. I’m getting stuck on verses like 7, which says, “endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” and 11, which says, “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace by those who have been trained by it.”
I’m thinking about how much I want a harvest of righteousness and peace in my own life. And I think about how hard we pray for believers who are facing persecution, that it will end. And I think of the Chinese pastor friend-of-a-friend whose congregation was being persecuted, and how when being told someone praying it would end, gently asked that brother if he was sure he was praying in God’s will. How this pastor was seeing firsthand the way persecution was strengthening and refining and igniting his church, and how they would suffer in worse ways if that catalyst was gone. And I think about how proud we are that America is a place where we are free from persecution. And I wonder if maybe we have been ridiculously, foolishly wrong.
So, yeah, it’s safe to say that Hebrews is messing me up. But it’s a good kind of messed up. It’s the kind of messed up that divides my soul and spirit, and uncovers everything and lays it bare “before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13)
I’m pretty sure I could read this book every single day for the rest of my life and never finish mining its depths of truth and wisdom.
So for today, I’m reading it again. Read with me?