About three years ago my wife and I made two big changes in the education of our children that, unbeknownst to me at the time, were remarkably linked. First, we enrolled our children in Classical Conversations. We had been homeschooling the previous few years and had decided from the beginning that we would use the classical model, but up until we joined Classical Conversations, we had basically used a hodge-podge of curriculum and resources. The second was in regards to our family worship. Up until this point I had simply read through random books of the Bible – a gospel here, a Paul’s letter there, maybe a short OT book thrown in every once in a while – but as my oldest child was now 6, I wanted to start incorporating simple questions for her to answer that were related to the night’s readings. At the same time, in my own theological/biblical training, I was becoming increasingly aware of certain patterns in the Bible and realized that the key to understanding much of the scriptures was to first become familiar with the first five books of the Bible. This seemed a little daunting at first, especially once we got out of Genesis and into the more obscure stuff, but my goal from the outset was to simply familiarize my children with certain re-occurring words, numbers, or phrases. So, for example, if the number 40 appeared in our reading (as it often does in the Bible), I wanted my kids to take note.
About a year into our new schedule is when the connection dawned on me. While we had familiarized ourselves with the basics of classical education enough to know that’s what we wanted for our children, it wasn’t until we joined Classical Conversations and got deeply involved in their wonderful program that everything started making sense. As I came to understand the practical reasons for the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric), I also became more aware of the similarities in what we were doing for family worship. In order to explain this, though, perhaps it would be best to briefly explain the Trivium first.
As I mentioned, there are three stages of the Trivium: Grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The idea behind the Trivium is that each stage is particularly suited to the way a child learns (or receives) information at each stage of their physical/mental development. So, for instance, little children are really adept at memorizing lots of information. The grammar stage, then, is essentially one big information dump. The teacher/parent fills their little heads with tons of facts: states and capitals, historical events, biological processes, poetry, skip counting (2,4,6,8, etc. or 5,10,15,20, etc.) – information from every subject, including Latin. The point is not that the children need to understand this information, but simply to memorize it. That’s it. Once they have all of this information inside of them and are able to recite/recall it quickly, then they are ready to move to the logic stage, where they begin to connect all of this information together in a well rounded way and make sense of it. So, for instance, the states and capitals are connected with geography and historical events. It’s much easier to see the full picture when all the components are easily accessible… if all the body parts are memorized, then it’s much easier to understand how the body works. Finally, in the rhetoric stage, the student is able to take all the information they’ve learned and instruct/persuade others. Here’s a simplistic way to think about it: First you become familiar with all the individual parts of a car, then you put it together and learn how it works, and finally you get to drive it.
This is, essentially, how the Bible works. It’s hard to understand this because the modern tendency is to start in the New Testament and then move through the rest of the Bible. Think about it – if you grew up in church, what were you taught as a child? John 3:16, The Romans Road, the gospel stories. In terms of the Old Testament, we got all of the major stories (Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale, etc. ). Sometimes, because the connection is so obvious, we are taught how a particular OT story shows us Christ or foreshadows His work on the cross, but often these stories are simply used as morality tales that teach us how to act in a situation. So, for example, the story of Noah is often taught as “how we are to obey God, even when the task is great, and the world is mocking us.” There’s certainly an element of truth to that, but there is so much more that we miss out on because we haven’t been saturated in the foundations of scripture. To put it another way, reading the Bible with the NT as your foundation is like skipping the grammar stage in classical education and jumping right into the logic stage (and in some cases, the rhetoric stage). Here’s another way to put it: those of us that have chosen a classical education for our children have done so because we are dissatisfied with the other educational approaches that are used in public and many private institutions… yet, we are perfectly satisfied for our children to receive this type of theological education.
The good thing is that God is gracious and will bless those who are obedient to His Word, even if the method is not the best. Most of us did just fine with a public school education, because that was all our parents knew. There really wasn’t a big homeschool movement when we were growing up – not to mention classical education. Still, for many of us, even though we look back at our time in public school and see many things we’d avoid or do differently with our children, God used our education to bring us to where we are now. That’s not to say that we should be satisfied to give our children what we had, and obviously, in the Classical Conversations community, we do not fall into that trap. The goal, of course, is to learn from our past – taking the good and discarding the bad – and mature to the next level, giving our children better opportunities and experiences than we had (as is possible). We research and experiment, glean wisdom from other, more experienced and knowledgable people, and weigh the options. None of us came to Classical Conversations lightly, but we are all (based on what I’m reading on the CC Message boards and Facebook pages) experiencing the fruit of our decisions. Well, the same process is true for how we understand the Bible. God has used the way we were taught growing up (or even up till now), and we have all matured in the faith (to varying degrees) at least enough to understand how important it is to give our children a well rounded Christian education… but we shouldn’t be satisfied with doing things the way our parents (or sunday school teachers, or pastors, etc…) did them. We should build upon those experiences – taking the good and discarding the bad – and give our children (and really, ourselves as well) a better opportunity at understanding God’s Word.
About a year ago, as I was teaching through Acts for the children’s Sunday school class at our church, I bore witness to some of the fruit this type of teaching produces. The chapter for that week was Acts 27. When I got to verse 27 (and, specifically, verses 27 – 38), my daughter pointed out that the fourteenth day was when Passover occurred. This had never occurred to me, so I made a mental note to investigate this further when I had a chance. Sure enough, the fourteenth day (which is mentioned twice in the passage) as well as other key words and phrases, sheds light on what is occurring in the passage. If we come to the passage with our theology having been based primarily in the NT (and without having a solid grounding in the OT), then this passage wouldn’t make sense to us – it would seem incidental. In fact, when I consulted a number of commentaries (including a trip to LifeWay to investigate the more popular commentaries), I found that none of the writers made the connection and if they did reference the fourteenth day, it was simply to highlight how hungry or tired the men on the boat were. Of course, we had already spent a couple of years reading through the Pentateuch and my daughter was familiar with Leviticus 23. Remember, the point of reading through these books was not for them to understand all the details, but to familiarize them. So I emphasized the times that the feasts occurred, what season they were observed in, and what part of the day it was (midnight, twilight, dawn, etc…). Because I have been studying and saturating myself in the OT along with my children, I have noticed that my understanding of the scriptures has greatly increased. Still, this example shows me how important the “classical model” is for our children. I’m sure all of the parents in Classical Conversations have grown in their knowledge as they’ve taught their children through the curriculum. And I’m sure they can also attest to the fact that their children pick this stuff up much faster and easier in most cases. As an adult who was taught theology “the old way,” and even academically trained to translate the scriptures and think through them, I find it difficult to understand how Paul, on a boat with a bunch of Gentiles, taking bread, giving thanks, breaking it and eating it at midnight on the fourteenth day is pertinent to our theology of the Lord’s Supper… but somehow it is. What I’m excited about, though, is that my children, as they grow in their knowledge of the Word and reach the logic stage of their biblical training, will already have all the grammar of the Bible in their heads and will be able to draw from all of scripture… which will allow them to be powerful and thoughtful apologists for the Kingdom when they reach the rhetoric stage.
If you would like to know the basics of the classical model of education, check out this article: http://www.welltrainedmind.com/classical-education/
However, if you would like to delve deeper into understanding the classical model and would like to find out more about Classical Conversations, please visit this site: http://www.classicalconversations.com/
I recently read an article in Christianity Today by Ed Stetzer that was published back in May of this year. You can read this article here. In the article, Stetzer lays out 3 areas that he believes the church needs to rethink in terms of how it reaches the culture. Before I interact with each area individually, let me state that the reason this article stood out to me is because it nicely sums up what I believe are some of the biggest problems that prevents the evangelical church from maturing and properly influencing the culture – not the reasons that Stetzer offers, but the way that he addresses the mission of the church. The more I read the popular evangelical leaders of our day and the way they refer to the church and her mission, the more I’m convinced that they’re one of the biggest hindrances to missions. Not because they are the only one’s who are getting it wrong, but because these are the leaders that the majority of the evangelical church are taking their cues from. Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t question the sincerity or intentions of these men and women, but I do think it’s time for the church to take the next step in her reformation, and it’s going to mean rethinking the way we’ve defined the church and her mission – a task that Stetzer (and many others) are honestly trying to accomplish, but have either misidentified or misdiagnosed the real problems.
1. Too many churches love past culture more than their current context.
Essentially what Stetzer is speaking to here is that many churches need to change with the culture in order to reach those around them. I do not necessarily disagree with this in principle – what I disagree with is how he categorizes the church and her mission. Here’s the problem: While no doubt there are many churches that appear to be stuck in the 50’s in terms of their approach to worship or missions (or whatever it is he’s talking about), he seems to think that what goes on at the church building is related to missions. It’s not. This is where he is confusing the mission of the church with missions. When the church gathers together for corporate worship, her duty (mission) is to worship God. It doesn’t matter whether it resembles something from the 50’s or something from the future (actually it does, but I’m only speaking in terms of the world’s perception of our worship for the purposes of this post – style is a whole separate post in and of itself). Missions happens when the people of God leave worship and go out into the world. The funny thing is, most people do not address their culture from a 50’s mindset. In other words, even if their worship service resembles something from the 1950’s, the software developer (or teacher, or nurse, or farmer, or CEO, etc…) does not approach his co-workers (or the coffee barista, or their kid’s little league coaches, or their next door neighbor, etc…) with this same mindset. They interact with them in a modern context.
This is precisely what’s happening in Acts 17:16-34. Paul is interacting with the culture as an individual. Of course, he was a missionary, so his approach is a bit different than if he was a software developer, and even more importantly, the context for what Paul is doing in the time between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and before the destruction of Jerusalem (the creation of the church) is quite different from the church’s mission post A.D. 70, but we can still draw important principles from the passage that help us in our mission today. Regardless, though, it is obvious that what Paul is not doing is telling the local church that she needs to get with the times (unless, of course, you count that Paul is in the local synagogues preaching to the Jews and Gentile God-fearers, telling them to repent and follow Jesus), and here’s why: the church back in Paul’s day gathered together for the exact same reasons that she is supposed to gather together today – to worship God through corporate confession, singing, prayer, preaching and communion). Stetzer’s article seeks to convict churches about whether they love their past culture more than their current context. The problem is, churches need to first be convicted about not observing weekly communion or not singing the Psalms (both are commanded in the New Testament) before they worry about their music style. Why? Because these components of worship are what strengthen and equip the body to go out into the world to do missions. It’s backwards to think that we need to draw people into the church in order to reach them, and pouring all of our time, energy, money and resources into making church hip, “relevant,” or inviting is a waste – especially if you’re not doing the basics… the stuff that effects change.
But wait, you say. Doesn’t Matthew 28 (The Great Commission) teach us that missions is the mission of the church? Well, in one sense, I am having fun with the phrasing and have no problem saying that missions is part of the mission of the church – as long as it’s understood in it’s proper context. The thing is, most people – when quoting The Great Commission – jump immediately to verse 18 and bypass verses 16 and 17. It’s here that we find the context of Jesus’ commission: a worship service. It’s no coincidence that they gathered on a mountain top (worship always happened on a high place) and worshipped Jesus. This is what gave them the strength to be able to fulfill their commission. The commission came at the end – not in the middle or the beginning. The commission was not to bring the world to the mountain top in order to make disciples. The commission was to go into the world and make disciples – who would then come to the mountain top to worship their Lord as well.
2. Too many churches love their comfort more than their mission & 3. Too many churches love their traditions more than their children.
My response to the second statement actually incorporates Stetzer’s third and final observation, so I will go ahead and address both statements at the same time.
While I agree with the sentiment of Stetzer’s statement, what I want to point out is that he fails to recognize that this is an inherent problem within the current leadership of the broader evangelical, conservative, reformed community. What I’m talking about is the comfort of theological ideologies. One of the trends that I noticed long ago is the regurgitation of the same old views over and over again. There’s a staleness in the reformed evangelical community, and rather than seeking to move beyond it, we find our leaders patting each other on the back every time they write a book or an article saying the exact same thing the last guy wrote. This is not to say that there are not biblical truths that bear repeating – many times even. The problem comes when anyone offers a new thought or a different way of looking at a subject that doesn’t fit with the reformed tradition. For instance, in recent years N.T. Wright has been writing a lot of good stuff on justification, but because some of his conclusions do not necessarily coincide with the traditional reformed view (or, more appropriately, the traditional reformed view as it’s currently understood), many of our leaders have been calling “heresy” as loud and fast as they possibly can. The amusing part is that Wright’s exegesis, for the most part, is far superior to those who disagree with him. Admittedly, it’s hard to concede that your theological heroes or your beloved tradition might not be 100% correct across board, but it becomes even harder when the comfort of your doctrine is affirmed by all your in-house friends who refuse to honestly engage the issue and stand there with their eyes closed and their fingers plugging their ears while yelling “lalalalalalala… I can’t hear you!!”
If my criticism seems harsh, it’s because I’ve experienced this first hand a number of times in recent years, most recently when an online discussion started about the necessity of God’s wrath being poured out on Jesus on the cross. I proposed that maybe there was biblical warrant to think about this doctrine in a different way (after all, there are some orthodox denominations who reject this doctrine). I presented scripture passages to support my suggestion and then qualified my position by saying that I realized this was not a popular view, that I was not sure about it myself, and I would happily drop my little theological excursion if presented with some scriptural evidence that I might have missed. Alas, aside from one cry of “heretic!” I was completely ignored. The point to be made here is not whether I was right or wrong, but that any digression outside of the reformed comfort zone is met with harsh resistance. Stetzer make’s the point in his article that the church needs to be always reforming. The problem is that he narrowly defines this act of reformation as “humbly looking at itself and assessing its ability to reach people with the good news of Jesus.” I’m happy to include this within the larger scope of the term, but the historic foundation for “reformation” – at least in terms of the church – refers to fixing and maturing the church’s theology and worship. While it’s good to have strong boundaries around our doctrine, if the reformed church refuses to admit that she has a long way to go in her theological development, she will die. Of course, the biblical model for growth is death and resurrection, so perhaps what we need, and what is happening in the reformed community, is a death and resurrection toward a more mature church.
“Par for the course.”
This was my comment regarding an article that was floating around Facebook recently describing the verbal attacks by pro-choicers against legislators who were working to pass a pro-life bill in Texas last week. Specifically, they received “death threats, harassing emails and phone calls and calls for their daughters to be raped.” You can read the full story here. Many Christians, of course, responded with indignation, which then led to further responses by the pro-choice crowd. Even my own restrained comment received a rather harsh reply, basically saying that at least they weren’t bombing clinics. As I perused the various articles related to this news and the subsequent comments, I noticed that this was a common retort by the pro-choice crowd. In one sense, they have a point – that a murder is much worse than a death threat – and this point is hard to argue when your anger is directed at the death/rape threats rather than at the act of abortion itself. Still, though, despite this point, the pro-choice crowd really doesn’t have a leg to stand on with this response, and “par for the course” sums this up quite nicely.
First, it’s important to separate the responses from the act of abortion itself. My first inclination was to respond to the “at least we’re not bombing clinics” crowd with a stat on the number of abortions compared to the number of deaths via anti-abortion extremists (in case you’re wondering, there have been 8 recorded deaths in the United States… there were probably that many abortions alone this morning). I quickly changed my mind, though, because the issue is not abortion vs. responses, and it does a huge disservice to the pro-life movement to simply couch this in terms of escalated violence – primarily because we are on the same side when it comes to bombing/shooting deaths. They’re heinous acts of violence that really have nothing to do with the pro-life stance. This is vital, because it’s the response that reveals the heart and intentions of each side.
Most pro-choicers take issue with the fact that they are labeled as “baby-killers” and “pro-death.” I know (and love) many pro-choicers and recognize that at the heart of their beliefs is not a desire to see children die, but rather, is a misconstrued idea of what it means to have control over one’s own body. The disconnect between what they believe and what actually occurs is often seen in their responses. Exhibit A is the article above. While I doubt that most who issued the death and rape threats would actually follow through on such actions, it does reveal how their thought process works. Death is seen as an option when removing unwanted/undesirable roadblocks to their worldview. In this case, there are men and women (legislators) who oppose their views on abortion. This angers the pro-choicers so much that death becomes a viable option for removing the opposing worldview. Without justifying the deaths caused by anti-abortion extremists, let me point out the difference between the two. In the case of the anti-abortionist, death is seen as a necessary evil in the midst of war. They see themselves as mercenaries carrying out a mission to wipeout the bad guy. The impetus for killing is that it prevents more killing. This is still wrong, but is vastly different than the worldview of the pro-choicer, where death is simply a means to an end (when you think about this in terms of a conservative vs. liberal view of foreign policy, the irony is pretty astounding). This is why the pro-choice response of hateful death threats is “par for the course.” The choice to have an abortion is often simply about using death to remove an unwanted/undesirable roadblock in their life. If they ever convince themselves that a pro-life legislator was as insignificant as an unborn child, then we’ll probably start seeing more murders in that realm of life too (because, to be honest, it really doesn’t have much to do with the legality of the matter, for – as the pro-choicer likes to point out – there will always be abortions, legal or illegal).
As if to emphasize this characteristic of the pro-choice worldview, the day after I read the article above was July 4th, and I read a number of patriotic themed posts encouraging us to be thankful for our freedoms and to work hard to maintain them – including the freedom of choice in regards to abortion. Now, I could write a whole other post on the relationship between our freedom and the birth of our nation, but I will acknowledge that Independence Day is a day to be thankful. What is normally emphasized on this day is the sacrifice that our military personnel have made – past and present – but, in actuality, we should also be thankful for all the sacrifices that are made. This includes firemen, policemen, medical personal and all who dedicate their lives to helping others, the everyday Joe who runs toward danger to assist another, or simply the parent who gives their life to their family through the daily grind of perseverance, love and hard work. Independence Day is a day to remember that our country has a proud history of men and women who sacrifice themselves for others in all walks of life…. so, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or get angry at the suggestion that we recognize the most selfish act imaginable on this day – that a mother would kill her child in order for her own desires to be met. This is the epitome of selfishness – the anti-Independence Day… but it is also “par for the course.”
What is a priest? In the Bible, the priest is essentially a servant of the King. We are familiar with certain functions, such as the priest’s need to sprinkle blood on the altar, or to offer the sacrifice on behalf of the people, or even their role as the primary teachers of the scriptures (Deut. 33:10). One role, though, that we are less familiar with is that of guardian (Num. 18). In terms of the Levitical priesthood, we find that the priests were to kill anyone who tried to encroach on God’s holy dwelling place (inside the tent of meeting). Numbers 25 gives us the example of Phinehas, who killed a man and woman who tried to bring false worship into the tabernacle. In one sense, they were to keep people out for their own protection. Getting too close to God without being properly sanctified brought particularly deadly sanctions. In another sense, they were to kill those who were trying to attack the worship of God. So, for instance, while it is highly unlikely that any Israelite did not understand that he could not enter the tent of meeting, the priest was there at the entrance, just in case, to take their slaughtered animal for sacrifice and to tell them exactly what to do. But, if someone did try to attack the tent of meeting, or force their way inside, the priest was “packing.” This was nothing new, though. From the get go, Adam was placed into the garden (which was the sanctuary – the place where God met with His people) and was told to keep (guard) it. Adam was not simply a gardener or farmer, as is often considered, but he was primarily a priest. He, of course, failed in his duty when he allowed Satan to come into the sanctuary and deceive his wife.
The priesthood is the primary stage in the three-fold development of Israel: priest, king, prophet. Many of us are familiar with this as it relates to the sections of the Old Testament. The Pentateuch is considered the priestly section, the middle is full of the wisdom and kingly literature, and the last part is made up of the prophetic books. This, though, is not random; there is a specific order of development. The priestly stage is the primary stage (or the infant stage, you could say) because it is the stage where the law is given. Israel is told to do this and do that. There is no room for broad interpretation – especially as it relates to the worship of God. They either obeyed or they didn’t. This is because Israel was being trained – she was an infant. As she got older, though, she was given more freedom and was allowed to use wisdom and discernment to make decisions. The kingly stage was established when Israel was given the Promised Land and began influencing the nations from her exalted position at the center of the world. The prophetic stage followed as Israel progressed (was forced) out into the surrounding nations.
If you think about it, this three fold development applies to individual lives as well. We begin life as priests – we’re told exactly what to do, praised when we obey and disciplined when we do not. We have defined boundaries, and we primarily move within a very restricted world (we go where our parents go, essentially) As we grow, we are given more rules, but we are also given more freedom – all in order to prepare us for the next stage. As kings, we move out into the world, get married, have children, go to work, build houses, build up communities and acquire possessions. We take all the rules and instruction we received as priests and apply them to the more complicated choices we make as kings. Finally, we progress into the prophetic stage. We’ve raised children and watched them move into their kingly stages. More importantly, we’ve acquired enough knowledge, maturity and wisdom to become elders in the church and community. The words we speak are prophetic because they carry the weight and authority that only comes with maturity.
This threefold stage applies to the church as well, although this is much harder to see, given the way that most churches are structured nowadays. For instance, ideally the elders of the church would fall into the prophetic stage. This fits perfectly with the qualifications found in I Timothy 3. Unfortunately, many of churches have trended in a younger direction – much to their detriment. On the other end of the spectrum (and getting to the main point of my post), the modern church fails to recognize the priestly role of the children:
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
There’s one more responsibility of the Levite: that of singer. In I Chronicles 6, we find that David placed the Levites in charge of the service of singing in the house of the Lord after the ark had rested there. This last part is key because it clues us in on an important change in levitical responsibilities. In 2 Samuel, the ark returns to Jerusalem after having been possessed by the Philistines. Once the ark is back in Israel’s possession, David is able to conquer all the enemies of the land. Interestingly enough, his final battle is against giants descended from Goliath, the giant of his very first battle. Immediately after this battle is won, David sings a song praising God for delivering the enemy into Israel’s hand (2 Samuel 22). It’s at this point that the ark finds rest, because the battle’s have been won and the land has been cleared of the enemy. God has won and there will be no more war. This explains the somewhat confusing story found in the last chapter of 2 Samuel, when God is angered at David’s census. The reason God is angry is because a census means that David is mustering an army – and there is no more need for war… at least not that type of war. As if to prove this point, we find in I Kings 6 (which is really the first event in Kings – the first 5 chapters are genealogies) David is setting aside the Levites for the service of singing. The point seems to be that now that the land is cleared and the city of Jerusalem is established and is awaiting the construction of the temple, the battles will no longer be physical, but spiritual. The armies are no longer mustered for going to war, but there is also no need to defend the throne of God from physical armies either. The weapons of physical war (spears) have been replaced with the weapons of spiritual war (song).
Of course, a cursory reading of the Psalms makes this point obvious. Over and over we see the importance of singing to the Lord. In one sense, this is the primary way we express our delight in the Lord and His goodness to us, but it serves other functions as well: It proclaims to the world these truths, it encourages our brothers and sisters who are in distress, and it brings devastation to the Lord’s enemies. On a practical level, this means that it is never ok to bomb an abortion clinic – we do not fight in this manner. What is appropriate, though, is for the church to gather outside the abortion clinic and sing psalms (and really, it’s as simple as that… instead of holding anit-abortion signs, we should probably just be holding psalters). As I’ve already stated, we progress through various stages in life – priest, king, then prophet – but we never leave our previous stages behind… we absorb them into our new level of maturity. So, for instance, even though singing is technically a priestly function, we are to never stop singing once we become kings. We become better singers, write new songs, and arrange these songs more beautifully. In one sense, because we are united to our King, we are like him in our function as “prophet, priest and king.” Still, though, it is true that the varying roles and abilities to fulfill these roles avail themselves to us at different points in our life (and in the life of the church).
With that in mind, then, one of the roles that is severely neglected in the church is the child’s role as liturgical singer. The first thing we have to get past is our idea of what singing is. Again, there is a wide degree of maturity when it comes to singing. The most skilled (mature) are those who have spent many years honing their craft, learning the parts, developing their ear and training their bodies to produce beautiful sounds. Yet, the Bible doesn’t require only this type of singing – everyone is required to sing. On the other end of the spectrum, then, is the infant’s laughter, gurgling, cries, and shouts… or, as the scriptures put it, “joyful noises.” This is age-appropriate singing. The second thing we must come to grips with, therefore, is that these noises are a GOOD thing in worship and should be welcomed. Our tendency is to stifle our babies when they make noise, which is why we normally shuffle them off to a nursery during the worship service (there’s obviously some grace here, though – especially for new mothers. Having a nursery is not an evil thing, but can be put to good (yet temporary!) use for the young mother and father who are struggling to train their children). The necessary alternative to this behavior, though, is to recognize that the service is lacking something important and beautiful when those “noises” are not present. If we attended a worship service where there was no prayer, it would feel weird… we should feel the same way about the joyful noises of our babies.
Finally, we must recognize that when our children are not allowed to participate in the worship of the Lord in their appropriate ways, we are doing the church a huge disservice. There is still an enemy in our midst, and his number one goal is to destroy the mission of the church. One way he has done this is by deceiving the church into thinking that children are not mature enough to worship God. This is very similar to his very first deception: “Did God really not say that you cannot eat of any tree in the garden? You will surely not die if you do.” In the same manner, the father of lies asks “Did God really say that all of creation is to worship Him? Surely they are not old enough to make a difference. Surely God does not desire their participation.” Satan is smart because he knows that the babies have a very specific role in the worship of God: To still the enemy. If Satan wants to attack the church, he has to get through the children first… which is pretty easy when the children are not present. People of God, you’re children have a job to do. Do not prevent them from doing it! If we want to see the world changed, then it must start with the church. And the church must be unified and working at 100%. If the Miami Heat had only trotted out 4/5 of their starters, then the San Antonio Spurs would be the current NBA champions. It’s time to recognize the important role of our children in worship. It’s time to anoint them to their priestly service (Baptize them!) and put them on the front lines. The world depends on it.
One of the recent popular topics on the Evangelical blogs has been a discussion regarding the “Radical” Christian life as promoted by David Platt and other like-minded Christian leaders. Generally, the discussions revolve around whether it’s profitable to consider that the obedient Christian life consists of radical practices – like becoming missionaries, selling all you have and moving to the inner city, or adopting children from overseas. I have appreciated the many thoughts that have come from those – especially the mothers – who have pushed against this view and countered that the Christian life is much more “mundane” than this. I certainly agree with this, although – while not very familiar with much of Platt’s (and others) teaching in this regard – I tend to think that the extreme views come more from his fans than from his own teaching. Like many subjects, there is always a lot to learn from each perspective, and the correct answer is rarely ever set in stone, and depends more on the individual’s situation, rather than a simple proof text from the Bible.With this in mind, I would like to add another perspective into the discussion, tying this topic in with another popular subject: Doing hard things ( I wrote about his subject here).
One of the extremes those on my side of the discussion have to be careful to avoid is the error of “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” In other words, just because we believe that many Christians are not called to do “radical” things like move overseas to become missionaries doesn’t mean that there are not many who are truly called to do this. I know a number of missionaries who are called to do this and God has blessed their ministry. The world still needs the gospel, and the church still needs to send missionaries to accomplish this.
As I have followed our friends who are on the mission field, praying for them and staying abreast of their lives through e-mails, letters, and facebook, I have noticed that they struggle with many of the same issues that we struggle with here in the states. This is especially true of those who serve overseas along with their whole family. They still have to deal with potty-training, sibling fights, laziness, and whining. And even though they rarely write about this, I’m sure they also have to deal with their own selfishness, hard-headedness, hurts, and laziness when it comes to their marriages and parenting. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised by this – this is what life is all about. When we choose to do hard things, these are the hard things that we’re choosing to do.
I might be wrong about this, as someone who has only been on a couple of short-term mission trips overseas, but I imagine that the transition from stateside servant of Christ to overseas servant of Christ is relatively simple compared to the daily grind of service. In other words, deciding to move overseas is not so much hard, as it is different. The problem is, we tend to think of the transition as the hard part. If I say, “Do hard things,” you might mistakenly think this means to become a missionary (or move to the inner city, or adopt an orphan, etc…). The decision to do these things, though, is not the hard part – it’s simply the different part. Deciding to move your family to Africa may seem like a really hard thing to many of us, but I suspect that for those who (really)feel a call to do this, it’s not that hard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are some aspects that are difficult and inconvenient – especially at the very beginning (the transition) – but there’s probably a lot of excitement and joy as well. In some respects it may even be easy, because you’re doing what you know God has called you to do… it just feels right. The hard part, though, comes when the transition is over and the daily grind of life begins again.
Recently I’ve encountered two stories that reflect different aspects (one positive, one negative) of what I’m talking about. First, I read an article about a family who is selling their successful medical practice to move to Haiti. Due to the financial blessings God has bestowed upon them, they have given quite a lot over the years to missionary work in the country. They’ve even taken a few trips there to serve. This year, though, their youngest son has graduated high school and he’s leaving for college. They’ve spent the middle part of their life doing hard things: sustaining a loving marriage, serving their community, earning money, serving their church, and raising chidren. In other words, growing the Kingdom. This is the hard stuff. Now they’ve entered a new stage of life. Adventure awaits. Sure, there will be some difficult aspects to leaving their home behind and beginning this new journey, but they’ll get through it. It may even be fun. This is not to say that young families are not called to missions, but hopefully you get my point. Sometimes patience pays off.
On the other hand, I recently encountered a man at a Bible study who is the brains behind an impressive ministry to the children of the war-torn areas in Africa. As we talked, though, he began sharing how his marriage was a wreck, his children were rebellious, and he felt like a failure… at least on the homefront. He was very proud of his ministry. He spent, on average, 3 weeks a month overseas – away from his family. He even admitted that he looked forward to these trips because home life was so hard (and we’re talking about a man who was regularly shot at!). This is a man who did not do hard things. He shunned his primary duty for “radical” pursuits. Were these pursuits noble and well-intentioned? Sure – but they should have been pursued by someone else.
Here’s the deal: Whether you are called to serve in the mission field, or called to serve in the local church here in America, the hard part is in the service of the Lord. If you choose the easy way to worship (as I discussed in my previous post) – in either case – then you will probably fail. And whether you are called to move into the inner city, or whether you decide to stay in suburbia, the hard part comes in building relationships with your neighbors: inviting them over for dinner, showing an interest in their interests, and otherwise, loving them as yourself. If you choose to take the easy route, then you will probably fail. And, finally, if you are called to adopt an orphan from Ethiopia, or whether you’re called to only have 2 biological children of your own, if you take the easy way out – shunning your responsibilities, refusing to discipline, letting others (the state, neighbors, family, siblings) raise your children – then you will fail. No matter where you are, the hard stuff never changes. It has to be done. Don’t confuse the hard things with the different things. If you want to be fulfilled in life, moving overseas will not be the answer. Do the hard stuff. Today. Then maybe tomorrow God will call you to something “radical.”
“Do Hard Things.” I like this phrase – we use it all the time in our house. Usually it’s when one of our children complain about doing a chore, or going to their ballet class, but often it’s a mantra I use for my own well-being. Every week, one of my daughters inevitably complains about going to dance class, claiming to be sick, tired, or sore. We tell them to “do hard things.” Every week, I come home from a long day at work and I inevitably complain about having to turn right around and shuffle my children off to said dance class. So I tell myself “do hard things.” It’s a good phrase. It’s also become a popular phrase in evangelical circles… we even have books about it. This is a good thing, because our young people – especially our young men – need to hear this repeatedly. They need to see it modeled for them as well. Unfortunately, like most other good phrases, or good intentions, it’s often divorced from the area where it is most needed: corporate worship.
Corporate worship is the center of the Christian life. Everything else that happens in our lives, including the way we respond to everything, flows out of worship. How we worship the Lord is of utmost importance and it should require us to do hard things. Think about it: The point of doing hard things in the rest of life is to help us mature as people, which in turn helps us to better serve and love others. If hard things are vital to our relationships with other people, how much more are they important to our relationship with Christ? Yet, for the most part, when it comes to corporate worship, we settle for the easy things.
First, let’s consider the most prominent aspects of worship – the stuff that’s commanded of us in the Bible. Most evangelical worship services do not require much from it’s congregants. They need to just be there. The pastors pray the prayers, the praise band rocks the music, and the only thing that’s required of us is a little attention during the sermon, and the ability to move money from our pocket to the plate. Sometimes, if it’s old school, they want you to make the journey to the altar during the invitation, but I think that’s becoming more rare nowadays (thankfully).
But what would it look like if we did hard things? Well, first of all, it would mean that we start participating in worship. The easy thing is to sit back and take it all in. The hard thing is to participate in congregational responses, whether it’s a hearty “Amen” after our prayers and songs, or antiphonal call and responses (pastor: “The Lord is risen!” congregation: “He is risen indeed!”) Undoubtedly, this is uncomfortable for many evangelicals, but this is part of doing hard things. Stepping out of your comfort zone is hard. God, though, requires our participation in worship, and it’s gnostic to think that this participation only occurs in our thoughts. You know what else is hard? Proper posture. Lifting our hands in praise or kneeling for corporate confession. But, again, this is something the Lord wants us to do… even if it’s uncomfortable. Congregational prayer is also uncomfortable – it’s much easier to let one person say it while you give your private ascent. Doing hard things also means letting go of some of our preconceived notions. In many cases, this may be the hardest thing to do. But Jesus didn’t tell us to drink grape juice as often as we meet in remembrance of Him. He told us to drink wine. Wine is important to communion and we can’t get around this. It may be hard for some to get over their generational teetotalism, but isn’t that the point?
Singing is also hard. It used to be that the church could sing all the psalms, as well as many hymns. Not any more. It’s rare to find a church that tackles a full hymn (they might go for 2 or 3 stanzas from time to time), much less a psalm. In fact, they don’t even know how to read music anymore. Now they simply put words on a big screen and let a rock band “lead” them in singing. This is why the singing is really poor in practically every evangelical church. The thought behind this type of worship, though, is to promote easy things. Everything in terms of music has been engineered to make it as simple as possible… to not “put off” anyone in the congregation – especially the guests. Doing hard things, though, would mean that the church would have to start gathering together on a regular basis to learn how to sing. They would need a song leader who could teach them how to read notes. They would have to possibly learn how to sing in parts. They would have to be willing to work through hymns that are 5 or 6 stanzas long… maybe a lot more. They would have to learn to sing as a body. They would have to get over their insecurities and be willing to sing loud. It may also mean that many of our worship leaders would have to admit that they don’t know much about congregational singing and either begin the long (hard) process of learning, or stepping down and allowing someone more qualified to lead.
You know what’s really hard? Bringing your children into worship. They squirm. They wiggle. They laugh. They cry. We fret. We worry about distracting others. We worry that we won’t hear all of the sermon. Frankly, many look forward to church because it’s a short break: Ship the kids of to nursery for an hour and let someone else take care of them. But this is not what God wants. He wants our children in worship, because they are part of the body. If the children are not in the worship service, then the body is incomplete. This will probably mean that parents have to deal with whines, wails, and wiggle worms on a weekly basis until they get used to being in there. It will be hard, but it will happen – trust me. Even more importantly, this will mean the rest of the congregation will need to do hard things. They’ll need to stop giving the stink eye to the mom whose child is being a little disruptive. They’ll need to start appreciating the ill-timed squeals and squawks. They’ll need to come to terms with the fact that their own worship doesn’t quite measure up to the kiddos (Psalm 8), and that God loves it!
Doing hard things also applies to the peripheral areas of corporate worship. For instance, it’s really easy to wake up late on a Sunday morning, throw on a pair of raggedy jeans, toss on a flannel shirt, and jump in the car to go to church. What’s hard is getting up a little early to iron your clothes, and even though that tie is a bit uncomfortable, taking the time and care to dress as if you were presenting yourself before the King of Kings. It’s also easy to grab some fast food on the way home from church and spend a relaxing day watching football or napping. What’s hard is preparing a meal the night before and inviting a family over to your house for the afternoon. Purposeful community is really hard – especially when your stepping out of your comfort zone and getting to know people; inviting them into your home to invade your private space. You may have to turn off the television. You may have to listen to them talk about NASCAR or the stock market (both sound equally boring to me). But if there’s one thing the Bible tells us about the corporate life of the church, it’s that it wouldn’t be easy.
Here’s a paper I wrote on the warning passages in Hebrews. I couldn’t figure out how to copy and paste the footnotes, so I left the bibliography at the end – in case you’re interested. Also, the paragraph breaks are really weird for some reason, but I’m not going to fix that right now.
It can be said that one of the most highly debated and controversial texts in the Bible are the Hebrews warning passages. Additionally, these verses are the cause of much anguish among those who are cognizant to the seriousness of sin, but have not been taught how to reconcile these passages with the rest of the Bible. While there is certainly an abundance of nuanced views on this subject, Tom Schreiner and Ardel Caneday, in The Race Set Before Us, discuss what are essentially the four major approaches to these passages, while adding their own unique and helpful interpretation.
I do not intend to rehash, nor undertake a detailed analysis of these views in this paper. Instead, I wish to approach these passages (specifically Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-31) from a contextual perspective, highlighting and comparing the similarities between the audience of Hebrews and their Old Testament counterparts, examining the parallels (and differences) of their situations, and explaining how the warning passages can be understood in light of these curiously overlooked associations.
Before I begin a comparison of Hebrews and the Old Testament, it is important to understand the style in which Hebrews is written. Most conservative scholars agree that Hebrews is a very pastoral letter, containing numerous examples of exhortation and exposition. In other words, Hebrews is essentially a sermon written to a particular group of people.
I contend that these two points are necessary to understanding the overall flow of Hebrews. First, the sermonic nature of the letter clues the reader to the striking parallels that Hebrews shares with Deuteronomy. I believe a closer examination of their complementary themes will help us better understand the warning passages of Hebrews. Also, I contend that in light of the deuteronomic nature of Hebrews, we can reasonably narrow down the audience of this letter to those Jewish Christians who were living in Jerusalem – probably sometime in the mid to late 60’s.
While my purpose here is not to prove the audience of Hebrews, it may be helpful if I briefly examine one potential challenge to my statement – that of Hebrews 13:24. Many scholars contend that the phrase “those from Italy send you their greetings,” refers to Christians who had once been residences of Italy, but were now exiled in another area (where the author is writing from). In other words, the author is writing to Christians in Italy and is sending greetings from their exiled friends. It is possible, though, that the author is writing from Italy to Christians residing somewhere else (say, Jerusalem), and he is sending greetings to them from Italy.
As I further explain my position in the course of this paper, further evidence to support this claim will be provided.
In order to support my view that Hebrews is best understood in light of Deuteronomy, it is necessary to observe the immediate context of both books. First, note that Deuteronomy occurs immediately before Israel enters the Promised Land. Forty years earlier, Moses had led Israel out of Egyptian captivity and they were supposed to enter Canaan at that point. Because of Israel’s sin (specifically, her refusal to trust God to conquer the giants of Canaan), she was forced to journey in the wilderness for forty years. One aspect of Israel’s discipline was that the unfaithful generation would die in the wilderness (aside from Joshua and Caleb), and their children would inherit and conquer the land. Deuteronomy is essentially a sermon from Moses to that second generation of Israelites, expounding the history of Israel in the wilderness, including an extremely detailed exhortation based on the ten commandments.
Hebrews takes place in a very similar context, but with interesting twists. First, the New Covenant has a similar structure to the exodus: Deliverance through Christ (the greater Moses), the beginning of a new creation (The Promised Land), apostasy (rejection of Christ), 40 years of “wilderness,” and it’s culmination in the destruction of the old world (the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70). Notice, though, that in the Old Covenant, Israel’s sin is punished with death, whereas in the New Covenant, the 40 years are marked by grace (“Father forgive them”). There will be judgment, but more than just Caleb and Joshua will prove to be faithful. Further, the identification of Jesus as the greater Moses is important. Just as Moses preached a sermon to the Israelites to persevere and remain faithful, so Jesus preaches to the Israelites to do the same.
With these immediate contexts in mind, a brief overview of the broader contexts will be helpful to our understanding of the warning passages. In the introduction to his commentary on Hebrews, Robert W. Ross makes the astute point that “The Epistle to the Hebrews is best comprehended when the five books of Moses are familiar ground.”
With this in mind, let us reflect on the major events and themes that have led up to Israel’s imminent crossing into the Promised Land. First, there is the theme of creation. Following the creation of the world, we are given a number of “lesser” creation accounts that contain similar structures to the Genesis 1 narrative. The destruction of the world by flood and subsequent re-creation through Noah and his family (which includes a 40 day and night “wilderness” journey) is a fairly obvious example of this, but there are also similar themes in the Pentateuch, culminating in the destruction of the old world (Egypt) and salvation of the Israelites for a new world. Second, there is the theme of exodus. Before the Israelites ultimate journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, there are a number of accounts detailing the various forays into and back out of the land of Canaan before it had matured into the land flowing with milk and honey. Third, there are the varying degrees of restructuring that God does to His people to make them into a priestly nation, beginning with Abraham’s call out of paganism, followed by God’s choosing of the Levites to be the priestly tribe and representative firstborns of Israel, and also to the whole sacrificial system which allowed Israel to draw (relatively) near to God. Finally, there is the mustering of God’s army, as seen in Numbers, as they prepare to conquer the Canaanites.
While there is much more that could be highlighted in terms of major themes in the Pentateuch, I believe these four examples (along with the sermonic nature of Deuteronomy) will help to bring greater clarity to the big picture of Hebrews. I will next highlight some of these same themes that are fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. First, bypassing creation for a moment, Jesus’ life mimics the exodus story of the Israelites. Beginning with the slaughter of baby boys under Herod and His protection in Egypt, followed by His baptism and forty days in the wilderness, and culminating with His journey into the new Promised Land as the perfect resurrected Joshua, Jesus’ life is essentially a recapitulation of Israel’s exodus. Second, Jesus’ ministry is marked by His restructuring of Israel into a true priestly nation. We see this primarily in His healings, in which Jesus specifically heals those particular maladies (blindness, lameness, leprosy, etc…) that are referenced in Leviticus as barring a Levite from being priest. In other words, Jesus is restoring Israel back to their original purpose. In addition, Jesus’ sacrifice as the perfect Lamb is the fulfillment of the whole sacrificial system and made the way for Israel to appropriately draw near to God. Third, Jesus musters an army – beginning with the calling of the twelve disciples – in order to conquer the new Promised Land.
This naturally leads us to the fourth and final theme: the new creation. Moses was providentially placed in a position to lead Israel out of captivity. This new world was inaugurated when they crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was destroyed, but the old world did not officially conclude until forty years later when Israel crossed into the Promised Land. Despite Egypt being destroyed, the Israelites refused to let go – often pining for the “old days” and grumbling about God’s provision. This is precisely what is occurring in the New Covenant. Jesus has inaugurated a new world, but the Israelites are not conquering it like they should. This is part of the reason why the kingdom is being given to the Gentiles, though It should be noted here that Jesus did not come to minister to the Gentiles (Matt. 15:21-28).
Certainly there were symbols and signs of what was to come, but Jesus came to judge His people and to show them what the true Israel looked like. This point is important because Hebrews is written to the children of these same Israelites whose parents had rejected Christ during His life, but were now converts to Christianity and were in danger of falling away – as many had already.
The end of the old creation concluded in AD 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem and it’s old covenant rituals, but for the forty years leading up to this event, these Israelites were acting just like their forebears in the wilderness. This is the point of Hebrews, and this context is necessary for properly understanding the warning passages.
Regarding the following exegesis of Hebrews 6:4-8 and Hebrews 10:26-31, and given the similarities that I suggest Deuteronomy and Hebrews share, it will be helpful to analyze the structures of both books and compare where the warning passages of Hebrews line up with the same in Deuteronomy. Meredith Kline broadly outlines Deuteronomy in this manner: Preamble (1:1-5), Historical Prologue (1:6 – 4:49), Covenantal Stipulations (5:1 – 26:19), Sanctions (27:1 – 30:20), and Covenant Continuity (31:1 – 34:12).
Generally speaking, Hebrews is structured in a similar pattern: Preamble (1 – 2), Historical Prologue (3 – 4), Covenantal Stipulations (4 – 10), Covenant Continuity (11) and Sanctions (12 – 13). While I do not want to press this comparison too hard, I do want to draw attention to a couple of points. First, both authors emphasize Israel’s failure in the wilderness. This is the context that sets up both covenantal stipulations. Second, the reason the first generation failed to receive the Promised Land was not because of idolatry, but because of her faithlessness.
Dr. Telford Work rightly acknowledges this when he writes, “This denial of God in God’s own presence is the most blatant apostasy.”
This is precisely the link between Moses’ warning for them to not be like their fathers and Hebrews 6:6b: apostasy is akin to what their father’s did to Jesus at the crucifixion. Moses is pressing the second generation to be faithful, and the author of Hebrews is doing the same.
First of all, notice that the Hebrews 6 warning passage is preceded by a call to leave the elementary teaching about the Christ. Of course, this does not mean to abandon this teaching, but to mature from it. These foundational teachings – the milk of Hebrews 5:12-14 – are the root of the Christian faith. The same can be said for the Ten Commandments, which precede the warnings beginning in Deuteronomy 6:15. These commandments were the foundation for God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. They were received in the wilderness, but they were to be carried into the Promised Land. The Ten Commandments were the stones (literally) upon which the new world would be built. Of course, Jesus is the cornerstone upon which the church (and the new creation) is built (Acts 4:11-12), and the warning is to not return to the old ways, but to trust God and move forward.
This church that is built upon the chief cornerstone is precisely who is described in Hebrews 6:4-6. But who, exactly, were these people? In one sense, the church certainly refers to all who possess faith in Christ. But are the authors of Acts and Hebrews talking about all Christians in these passages? I suggest the answer is “no.” Going back to Acts 4, notice that Peter is accusing the Jewish leadership of rejecting Christ. He then proclaims that salvation is found only in Christ and it is the Jews who are believing the gospel. We are not told specifically how many more are converted, but at the beginning of chapter 4 we are told that the number of Christian men were 5,000 and the impression is that there are more by the end of the chapter. This is highly significant when we pair this information with what we read in Colossians 4:11, meaning, that if there were so many Jewish converts to Christianity 25 years earlier, where have they all gone?
While it is true that many were either martyred or fled the city (Acts 8), it would appear that in Colossians, Paul is insinuating that many have abandoned him. Remember, as well, that this abandonment is taking place as the Gentiles are converting at a miraculous pace.
I believe this understanding helps to make sense of the following verses in Hebrews 6:7-8. This passage is highly symbolic, and many scholars at least recognize some of the associations related to these symbols, if not the particulars. Others, though, seem to dismiss any typological connection. For instance, George Guthrie states that “we should be careful of associating specific theological constructs with the images of rain, crops, thorns, and even being ‘burned.’”
I believe this completely misses the meaning of these verses. To begin with, “land” carries a very specific meaning in scripture. John Owen associates “land” with those who hear the gospel, but I think this is too broad for what is described here.
Instead, the Bible often associates land with Israel, as opposed to the sea, which is often used to symbolize the Gentile nations. This is especially true when the term is not directly used to refer to a specific location (such as “the land of Goshen”), but is purposefully used as a metaphor. Add this to the related symbols in the passage, and it becomes clear that the author is making a specific reference to which his readers would be familiar.
This is further supported by the phrase, “useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled.” This is a reference to the events of Acts 8. The persecution (tilling) of the Jerusalem Christians and their subsequent flight to Judea and Samaria is the event that triggered the evangelization of the Gentiles and their incorporation into the church. The rain, then, corresponds to the events of verses 4-5. Baptism is the public event which brings a person into the church and is also the event with which the church is to assign regeneration (John 3:5).
However, this does not simply mean that all who are baptized will necessarily persevere – that is the point of verse 8. The symbolism here, though, would be extremely poignant to this Jewish audience. First, the reference to thorns and thistles obviously points back to the The Fall (Genesis 3:17-19), but while this does fit with the whole agricultural theme of Hebrews 6:7-8, there is a greater implication – Adam is made of ground and he will return to ground. This is true of the whole human race. Because of this, man will also produce thorns and thistles. We see this right away with the birth of Cain. He refused to worship God rightly and he killed his brother Abel, who was righteous. So began the story of Israel, full of numerous episodes of brother on brother strife: Ham versus Shem and Japheth, Isaac versus Ishmael, Jacob versus Esau and Israel versus Judah, just to name a few. This is true in Hebrews as well – those baptized Jews who persevere versus those who do not.
Similarly, there are multiple symbolic meanings in the reference to “being burned.” Again, this thought fits well with the agricultural theme, but the allusion to fire expresses a greater concept. Here, I believe John Owen is correct when he recognizes the association between this burning and the burning of hell, but ascribes the immediate meaning to “the temporal destruction of the obstinate Jews.”
The destruction of Jerusalem was close at hand, and fire would play a significant role. Josephus provides a rather chilling account of these events, describing first the destruction of the temple by fire at the hands of the Romans, followed by the burning of the rest of the city.
He later adds that 1.1 million Jews died in the siege and that “the number of deaths exceeded all previous destructions by God or man.”
While there certainly is a strong connection between the passage I just considered, and Hebrews 10:36-31, I think there is significant difference in the author’s focus. Specifically, whereas Hebrews 6:4-8 centers on the broader concept of perseverance in the life of the Christian and the danger of returning to the Old Covenant system, Hebrews 10 is more concerned with worship. The first clue is in understanding what the author is referring to with the phrase “sinning willfully.” Many scholars have ascribed this to any sin of commission, and have rightfully pointed out the connection between willful sinning and the Old Covenant distinction between intentional and unintentional sins (Numbers 15:30-31).
However, the passage that immediately follows this pronouncement sheds some light on the actual sin (Numbers 15:32-36). In this account, a man is put to death for gathering wood on the sabbath. In order to understand this, a misconception must first be resolved. The issue here is not about working on the sabbath, but is rather a reference to kindling your own fire on the sabbath (Exodus 35:3). This man was gathering wood to stoke his own fire, rather than gather, with the rest of Israel, around God’s fire. This is the same sin that led to Nadab and Abihu’s deaths (Numbers 3:4), except in this case, God killed them, as opposed to the congregation. The relevant point we need to draw from this is that this particular sin is related to worship – specifically false worship. This is not necessarily about idolatry, though, but about refusing to worship God in the manner He has prescribed.
This type of false worship is fundamentally what is occurring in the first century Jerusalem context. God is destroying the old forms of worship and has instituted a new form – one that consists of a new temple, a new sacrifice and a new people. This new worship is only found in Christ, and a return to the old worship is apostasy. Notice, too, that this particular sin is connected to the “forsaking our own assembling together” in verse 25.
The author of Hebrews is not chiding his audience about skipping church. He is warning them to not forsake this new worship for the old. This is about abandoning Christ. The Right Reverend Montefiore makes a great point about the nature of apostasy when he writes, “The primitive church held that apostasy was much more wicked than refusing to accept Christianity. Rejection of Christ might be due to ignorance while an apostate denies him whom once he has known.”
The apostate removes himself from the blessings of Christ when he removes himself from the church. Salvation can only occur by uniting oneself to Christ and His true sacrifice (vs. 26).
A proper understanding then, of apostasy, helps us to appreciate what is happening in the rest of the passage. Notice first the connection of verse 28 with Deuteronomy 17:6. The issue is not primarily about the proper way to administer justice, but directs our attention to back to Deuteronomy 16:21 (this is a bad chapter break) and the following verses. This particular type of multiple-witness justice is executed upon those who engage in improper worship. If this type of evil is to be purged from the land in such a severe manner under Moses, how much harder will God execute His justice on similar evils in the New Covenant? Lest we forget, the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sins (Hebrews 10:4), and the Old Covenant contained only shadows of the one to come (Hebrews 10:1). In Christ, though, the Lamb has taken away sins.
The Old Covenant worshipper was required to bring their offering to the tent of meeting (Leviticus 1 – keeping with the wilderness worship scenario) and place their hand onto the head of the animal before slaughtering it and giving it to the priest for an ascension offering. In this way, they were accepted by God. This placing of the hand on the head, though, is better translated “to lean or lay upon,” which more properly connotes the connection, or “joining,” that is experienced in the ritual.
This action symbolized the death of the worshipper, because death was required in order to draw near to God. Of course, in this scenario, sin was never taken away and the death of the animal was only good enough to allow a nominal nearness. In the New Covenant, the worshipper is joined to Christ at his baptism. This is the “leaning” moment. Through this connection, we join in the death of Christ (Galatians 2:20), and this death is what allows us to draw near to God in worship. The apostate, then, by rejecting Christ, is ripping himself away from this union, or as the author of Hebrews puts it, is “trampling under foot the Son of God, and regarding as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified.”
Regarding the punishment that verse 27 tells us this apostasy deserves, we must again recognize that while there are allusions to the horrors of hell and final judgment associated with this verse, the more immediate meaning refers to the impending destruction of Jerusalem. A closer examination of the context, though, helps us to put this picture of destruction in perspective. Remember, this letter is most likely written in the mid to late 60’s. The destruction of Jerusalem is right around the corner. In fact, it may have already begun, as the Roman siege on Jerusalem began around AD 67.
If this particular apostasy meant turning away from the true worship of God in Jesus to the Old Covenant forms of worship, this meant that these apostates would have to remain in Jerusalem to worship. In one sense, the warning is this: “If you reject Christ and remain in Jerusalem, you will be killed!”
My theory is this scenario lines up perfectly with Matthew 24. Here, Jesus explains to His disciples what will occur at the end of “this world.” The end of the old covenant administration coincides with the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus warns about the false teachers who will mislead many – this is surely the Judaizers, the apostates of Hebrews. Jesus predicts the spreading of the gospel through all the world – this is the story of Acts and Paul’s epistles. Jesus tells them that many of them (Jews) will fall away – as the writer of Hebrews confirms. And, finally, Jesus councils them to flee the area when they see the armies gathering. Perhaps this is a secondary function of Hebrews – a final letter to prepare them for the end. At the beginning of Matthew 24, Jesus is leaving the temple (an action with significant symbolism) and He is just two days from being crucified outside the city. Jesus has abandoned Jerusalem because she is now Egypt and Sodom (Revelation 11:8). The true Holy City now resides in Jesus, outside the city. This may be what the author is referring to in Hebrews 13:12-14 as he encourages them to “go to Him.”
Understanding the context of Hebrews helps to provide important and practical council for those who struggle with the warning passages. First of all, realizing these particular apostasies were related to an abandonment of Christ and not simply to a struggle with daily sins, will help the Christian come to terms with their standing in Christ. The struggle with sin is part of the Christian life. Certainly sin must be mortified on a daily basis, and it is often an exhausting and bloody battle, but the battle can only occur in Christ. Fighting sin is not abandoning Christ. When we give up the fight is when we are in trouble. This, though, is why God has given us the church. When the church gathers together to worship, we draw near to God in Christ. Here we are strengthened, renewed and fed. We are girded up in order to go back out into the world and conquer. We are also aided and encouraged by our brethren (Hebrews 13).
Also, Hebrews teaches us about our own context in this world. Do the warning passages apply to us? Definitely, but the context is different. We are not in that wilderness time period, enjoying the benefits of the New Covenant, while struggling against the inadequacies of the Old. Living in Christ’s kingdom means that we can look forward to the perfection of this world, as opposed to the destruction of the old one. In practical terms, this means that we do not adhere to Paul’s warning about getting married (I Corinthians 7:6-8), or take Jesus’ woes about pregnancy to heart (Matthew 24:19). Instead, we can rejoice in the call to marry, have children, and grow the kingdom! That is not to say that we can not still abandon Christ, but as stewards of this new creation working in the Spirit to bring heaven and earth together, it becomes much harder. After all, in order to abandon the faith, there must be an alternative, and the beauty of the New Covenant is that the alternative becomes more insignificant as each day passes (Matthew 13:31-33).
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