Category Archives: Devotions

Standing on the Promises of God

 

Hebrews chapter 11 has long been considered the Hall of Faith for saints, particularly those who were in the Old Testament, but there is much more going on.  Yes, attention is drawn to the lives of saints as examples in our day (see also Heb. 13:7), and yes this chapter is collectively a model of encouragement for the perseverance of the saints, but perhaps more than all of this is that the central figure in this Hall of Faith is not Abraham or Moses, but God Himself, most notably through His faithfulness to His promises in the lives of His children.

The concept of promise is not new to Hebrews as we reach this 11th chapter, rather it has been an underlying theme throughout the book, particularly since the 6th chapter where the promise and oath of God was rooted and grounded in His inability to lie and His own justice (see also Heb. 4:1).  Promises emerge in Hebrews 11 out of two statements made in chapter 10, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” and “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” from 10:23 and 10:36 respectively, each of which serve as an introduction to our chapter under discussion.

Building on this, chapter 11 picks up the promise motif in 11:9 with the mention of Abraham – and the land of promise, Isaac and Jacob – the heirs of the promises, and the promise of God to Abraham and Sarah for the blessed seed.  With is in mind, four additional mentions of promises in this chapter serve to highlight the foundation of God’s faithfulness.

The first occurs in Heb. 11:13, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”

The second occurs in Heb. 11:17, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son…”

The third occurs in Heb. 11:33, “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises”

The fourth occurs in Heb. 11:39-40 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

In over-viewing the promises above, we find a bit of a conflict, a dichotomy of sorts.  On the one hand, in verse 13 we read a summary statement of the saints listed up to this point who died having NOT received the things promised.  Instead, they saw them and greeted them from afar.  Next we read that Abraham DID receive the promises, followed by another summary statement in verse 33 that these obtained promises.  Finally, we read the section summary which states that all of these did NOT receive what was promised.  So which is it?  Did they receive the promises or not?  And what are the promises?

In order to solve this mystery we need to remember that the major theme of Hebrews is to highlight the lesser, of the Old Covenant, over against the greater, of the New Covenant.  Simply put, those described in this chapter did receive the promises of God by faith, each in their individual contexts, as we read.  But these promises were only shadows, not the substance.  While they were very real promises and very real exercises of faith that received these promises, nevertheless there was a greater promise to come through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  By means of His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and now intercession at the right hand of the Father as the King-Priest after the order of Melchizedek, our Lord has instituted His New Covenant, not creating division between the saints of old and saints of new, but unifying them as one people, one flock, with One Shepherd.  Therefore, while the saints of old, those highlighted in chapter 11 of Hebrews, did indeed receive the promises of God, there was a greater fulfillment of these promises to come, in Christ, that they did not receive in their lifetime.

In Hebrews 11 not only do we see the faith of the saints on display, with no mention of their failures we might add, and not only do we see their perseverance unto death, but we find a magnificent display of the faithfulness of God in the lives of His children.  With the evidence of His faithfulness held up in fulfilling the lesser promises, we can be sure that He will continue to be faithful with the greater promises that have now come through His Son Jesus Christ.  Let us then, as our brothers and sisters before us, by faith, stand firm on the promises of God.

 

Standing on the promises of Christ my King
Through eternal ages let his praises ring
Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing
Standing on the promises of God
Standing, standing
Standing on the promises of God my Savior
Standing, standing
I’m standing on the promises of God
Standing on the promises, I cannot fall
Listening every moment to the Spirit’s call
Resting in my Savior as my all in all
Standing on the promises of God
Standing, standing
Standing on the promises of Christ my Savior
Standing, standing
I’m standing on the promises of God
– Russell Kelso Carter 1886

Boiling Over

 

In the midst of the practical applications flowing out of the doctrine that was so clearly lain out in the book, Romans 12:11 presents us with a command in the form of an exhortation,

“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”

Slothful

There are four key terms that should catch our attention from this passage and examining those will be the purpose of this post.  First, we see the command to not be slothful.  This word conveys the idea of being sluggish or as the NASB translates it, lagging behind.  We might think of it as not keeping up with or neglect of.  It only occurs 2 other times in Scripture, once in Philippians 3:1, translated there as trouble, and the other in Matthew 25:26, which has a nearer use to ours found here in Romans.

In that passage, we find ourselves in the midst of what is often referred to as The Parable of the Talents.  A man going on a journey calls his servants (doulas – slaves/bondservants) and gives talents or money to each.  To one he gives 5 talents, to another 2, and to another 1, “each according to his ability.”  The first servant traded with the talents and made 5 more.  The second made two talents more, while the third buried his single talent.  At the master’s return, each reported what they had done with their money.  The first two reported doubling their talents and were rewarded with commendations and the familiar, “enter the joy of your master.”  The third servant reported to the master saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’”  Which leads us to the use of our word, slothful, in the response from the master “You wicked and slothful servant!”  The servant that failed to use or invest the talents that he had been given was rebuked for being slothful, i.e. failing to utilize or make profit from what he had been given.  That is the idea behind slothful in our passage.

Zeal

The command not to be slothful is specifically applied to zeal, our next word under consideration. A slightly more commonly used word in the Greek New Testament, can also mean, “in diligence” or we might say earnestness and it implies effort.  Interestingly, one of it’s uses occurs at the end of the third warning passage in the book of Hebrews and is contrasted with sluggishness (though a different word than ours above), And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Hebrews 6:11-12

Prior to this use in Romans 12:11, zeal was referenced in verse 8, “the one who leads [or gives aid], with zeal”.  Combining our two words thus far and we find that our exhortation is to not be sluggish or lazy in our efforts.  What exactly these efforts are, we will get to shortly.

Fervent

Moving from the prohibition, do not, to the positively stated contrast, do, we are told to be fervent in spirit.  Another infrequently used word primarily means to be hot to the point of boiling over, as with water in a pan or a hot spring bubbling over.  It’s only other use is a reference to Apollos from Acts 17, who was fervent in spirit, teaching “accurately the things concerning Jesus.”  With this, it may even help us to conclude that the opposite of fervency would be lukewarmness, even cold, which may lead us to better understand the idea of slothful used above.

So then we have “do not lag behind or be slothful in your efforts, rather be boiling over in spirit.”

Serve

In case we would be left wondering how one expresses such a boiling over, the mystery is resolved by the final statement of our passage, serve the Lord.  The same word used here for serve is the verb form of the word servant used above in the Parable of the Talents.  More appropriately, it can be translated as a slave or bond-servant, though synonymous, it is different from diakonos, from which we have (incorrectly) transliterated deacon.

As should go without saying, the servant is to yield in submission and obedience to their Master, this is service.  Elsewhere, we know that we are not our own and have been bought with a price, placing us in a joyful servant-hood of our Master Jesus Christ.  But we may ask, how are we to serve?  Certainly it would be inferred to serve, boiling over with effort, but what would that look like on a practical level?

Service, in this sense, would imply obedience to the commands of the Master, but we mustn’t stare blankly at lists of do’s and don’ts.  Simply put, it is love, flowing from a love for Christ, that works towards the spiritual and physical well-being of others, prioritizing believers, with the goal of entering the joy of the Master.

Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.

Desire, Temptation, and Sin

 

After more than 35 years as a believer in Christ, there is one thing that I know to be true of my own Christian walk:

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

This passage generates questions though, or at least it should. How or Why does this war happen?  And What is to be done about it?

Paul gives an ultimate answer to the latter question, namely that Christ will deliver him from this body of death.  As to the former question, we know all too well that even after regeneration by the Holy Spirit and becoming a new creature in Christ that our remnant flesh exists to war against the spirit.  But given that general answer to the How or Why, there is a more detailed answer that Scripture speaks of as well.  One particular passage that is a bedrock for understanding why we sin is James  1:14-15

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

Collating our observations we arrive at something like a timeline for sin:

  1. Conception
  2. Gestation (Implied)
  3. Birth
  4. Maturation
  5. Death

Most of the time we find ourselves fighting sin at the Maturation step.  Sin has already conceived, gestated, been born, and is now maturing in our lives which surely includes multiplying and creating sinful patterns.  Once it’s born, it spreads like cancer.  Those who can’t or won’t kill sin before it matures will be undone by it.

However, those of us who are unsatisfied with the presence of sin in our lives, who recognize its deception and the internal corruption that produces it, and then like the Apostle in Romans 7 cry out, Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?can also simply become exhausted at fighting an uphill battle trying to chase down sin before it reaches maturation.

Therefore, it becomes imperative that we fight sin prior to its conception.

Desire

This means that the battle against sin must occur at the desire level, prior to its conception with temptation.  Let’s look at the passage again

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

Temptation exists because of our desires.  Notice how the temptation appeals because of the lure and enticement by our desires.  This is precisely how our Lord faced temptation, yet without sin.  His desires were pure and holy.  Generally, the bent of our desires determines the temptation.  For instance, a man or woman who doesn’t have a taste-bud affinity for chocolate cake will not tempted when a piece is set before them.

Our desires can either be good, bad, or neutral.  A good desire, such as the welfare of others or a neutral desire such as that for sustaining food or drink, might be simple examples for each.  While good and neutral desires may be somewhat obvious, lets put a definition on bad or unholy desires: any affection or compulsion that is contrary either to what God has ordered by nature or commanded by His word.

Temptation

It now becomes necessary to place our finger on the manner of temptation.

John Owen defines temptation as, “any thing, state, way, or condition that, upon any account whatever, hath a force or efficacy to seduce, to draw the mind and heart of a man from its obedience, which God requires of him, into any sin, in any degree of it whatever.” (Vol. 6, pg. 96)

When our unholy desires or affections, which are contrary to God, intersect with temptations, which seek to seduce and draw the mind and heart away from obedience, the effect is sin.  Desire and temptation are an unholy union whose only offspring is death.

Owen advises on the potential avenues by which temptation may come, “either singly from Satan, or the world, or other men in the world, or from ourselves, or jointly from all or some of them.” (Vol. 6, pg. 95)

With this in mind, what’s to be done about it?

The Defense

  1. Setting our affections on Christ.  This comes through habitual exercise of exposure to the Word of God and meditation upon that Word.  Not just reading for the sake of reading, that’s powerless and leads to a false assurance of battle readiness.  This ineffectual reading is what George Mueller referred to as “water through a pipe”.  Instead we want to read as water filling up a vessel or pot until it overflows.
  2. Praying without ceasing. A heart that is set upon Christ cannot help but pray.  Conversely, one of the chief evidences that the hearts desires are being drawn away to the world is a lack of prayer.
  3. Fellowship with the saints.  An oft-neglected gift that God has given us in the combat against sin is the communion of the saints.  The Apostle James will draw out this point more clearly later in his epistle by the imperative to confess our sins to one another so that we may be prayed for and restored (James 5:13-20)

Finally, should our desires begin to wain, what’s to be done in order to avoid the pending attack of temptation?  Watch and Pray.  I’ve written elsewhere on this very subject and Owen himself considers that this is the singular defense against the wiles of temptation.

Watch and consider how temptation attacks.  Be aware of its crouching behind every corner.  Be vigilant in the duties outlined above.  Finally, pray.  Pray daily that God would keep you from temptation and deliver you from evil.  Have you considered that in the so-called Lord’s Prayer, as short as it is, two of its 7 petitions are: 1. Lead me not into temptation 2. Deliver me from evil.  Clearly our Lord in answering His disciples request to be taught how to pray considered that these two great appeals were to be included regularly in our supplications unto God.

Desire, Temptation, and Sin.  An unholy trinity, but not an invincible foe.  And not an enemy in any way matched against the Holy Triune God.  Therefore all benefits have been given to us to kill, by the Spirit, the deeds of the flesh.