From Self to Selflessness – Hebrews 12

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Discipline makes us sons. Christ also learned obedience through the things that he suffered, so he would know what we are passing through and have compassion. Our sufferings also bring about an obedience in our lives. This is why we are trained through the things that we suffer. This brings about a conformity of our heart and character to the image of Christ. Without this conformity we are not children. If we don’t go through this transforming process then we are not children, but imposters, because we are not subject to the Father.

Discipline removes the unseen rebellion in our hearts, the lack of patience, the lack of humility, the lack of love, and it builds hope into our character, and the values of trust and community. We can’t learn these things except we undergo the discipline that transforms and trains.

It’s the same in our communities. We are members of a community if we undergo the discipline of community life. This isn’t the discipline of overbearing rule or controlling leadership. But the discipline of love in difficult circumstances, frustrations that come the way of us all, testing times we pass through. If we don’t submit to the discipline these things bring to our character, but only want the good times of community, then we aren’t real members, not ready for the change in our lives. A community of love, trust and hope is forged in the good times and in the trying times. We are shaped and made heirs by them both.

The discipline we receive in community is to help each other in the trials and frustrations we face. Community teaches us not to think of ourselves. It teaches us that the decisions we make aren’t for our self, but for what is good for all. Community teaches us to lay down our comfort to help others. If we don’t help others in the bad times, then we aren’t members of community. This is all part of training, conforming us into God’s likeness, into the likeness of his cross. And the promise is resurrection, because life is the result of living this way, as Christ showed us in his resurrection.

Many in the early church community were tiring in the trials and persecutions. They wanted to go back to their old ways, to give up the sharing community, where they loved each other in Christ’s sufferings, and take up the old ways of exclusion and persecution of those in need.

As said earlier, this wasn’t simply a return to temple worship or to worship in the Jewish synagogues. Most of the Jewish Christians would have continued in the temple and synagogue worship, as Jews. Christianity wasn’t then a separate faith. The author of Hebrews wasn’t decrying Jewish traditions in their forms of worship. He was claiming that trusting in these forms, without embracing the real, which was shown by Christ to be neighbour love, was empty religion. This was the same message James shared in the synagogues of that time.

James also didn’t call the Christians out of the synagogues and temple to worship exclusively as Christians. Their message wasn’t exclusivity. James was calling those who worshipped in these places to adopt the meaning of that worship, which Christ showed as love of neighbour. This is in every chapter of James. His message was correct. We have imagined we have been called to make a new Christian religion, over against others, but no one asked us to do that. Christ called us to love others as he loved us, so this would spread to new disciples. The cross becomes the foundation of a new community, that doesn’t treat others as throwaways.

Many the letter of Hebrews was addressed to tired of this love because of the hard times it brought to them. The author of Hebrews reminded them of the sufferings and endurance of Christ. The thing that got Jesus through this was his hope, the joy set before him. He would raise up a new creation. This is what “seated at the right hand of God” means. In that time, it meant the ruler over the new earth. Rome claimed this heavenly position, but it was given to Christ, as Daniel 7 said, to bring the nations of the world into transformation. The joy that was set before Christ was resurrection and new creation. This is our hope in our sufferings, which strengthens our heart and enables us to receive grace from God for perseverance, even with joy, which is often miraculous in its nature.

Hope in what God has promised and is soon giving us, strengthens us, because it is far better than what we are said to be missing now. And this transforms our heart from self-centredness to a community love, which builds our societies in the real care of others. It delivers us from the self-centredness that destroys everybody. This is how the new creation comes about through our lives, disciplined by the love of God. Without hope, sin looks attractive to those who are tired. But the scriptures, when properly understood, generate hope and joyful endurance. The sufferings pail away in comparison.

The discipline of the Lord isn’t just the word of correction he gives us, but also the things we pass through, which discipline and train our responses. It isn’t that God wants us to have regimented responses to tick all his boxes, but a genuine newness in our character that brings life to ourselves and those around us. But this life is impossible without the discipline. That is why Abraham also had to endure. “He inherited the promises through faith and patience.” The patience was the training. It’s the training that God is after, especially since we are redeemed from fallen cultures that permeate our being in ways we have not even recognized. The training is meant to wash us from the self-focused idolatry that controls most of our reactions to hardship.

One character the discipline is to bring out in us is a life of peace: “Strive for peace with everyone.” Through the frustrations, persecutions and upsets of life, which in the early church would have been many, they were to strive to develop a response of peace. Other kinds of responses tend to be self-focused and destructive of others. Responding to people in constructive ways, to repair divisions and heal hostilities. To be “peace-makers” is the mark of being a child of God that Jesus referred to. So, this is a mark of genuinely disciplined character, where the inner ruling gods are being subjected.

Also, holiness is another discipline to focus on, by which the author means sexual morality, also Esau’s need of vision. He sold the future for the present. When he realised this and wanted his father Isaac to restore what he lost, Isaac couldn’t. It was too late. Immorality is driven by a focus on self, which is destructive of community. The early church was called to a revolution in sexual morality, unheard of in Rome, at the same time loving and restoring those who were harmed by sexual immorality, unheard of in Jerusalem. The focus was on restoring individuals by restoring them with their community.

Then there is the “root of bitterness” that easily springs up when we are exhausted or tried. It is our character that looks to the fault of others and spreads a sense of recompense in relationships, that can hurt and trip up many people in their walk of faith. These things can lead people to give up their hope and return to the life of self-centredness that the current world offers them.

These are some of things that can disqualify us from inheriting what God wants us to have. The inheritance is for “sons,” meaning children, female or male. Sons are those who are trained, and who bear the image of God. They inherit God’s purposes and kingdom. This isn’t because God is punishing the others, but because selfishness cannot inherit eternal things. It will destroy them. There needs to be training, change in our hearts, to bring about the kind of person who is able to inherit and handle goodness. When we are disqualified, we disqualify ourselves, because we destroy what we are building with own hands. No one does it to us.

The biggest problem here is the guilt that fills our conscience. It isn’t that God disqualifies us, but our own hearts alienate us from him and from one another. Our conscience isn’t affected, in this case, by silly religious norms, but by the real issues of faithfulness and love designed into the very nature of creation and community flourishing.

God helps us with more love and grace than we can imagine. Our prayer is, “Lord help us not to disqualify ourselves by our actions.” And he does. But the author encourages us not to allow ourselves to become weary. We all face difficulties, some very seriously and many. These are not sent to us by God. Our task is to help those who face these, especially when they face more than we do. But we shouldn’t grow weary, because others have suffered much more than us and have overcome. Allowing weariness will bring our defeat. God restores our weary heart and gives us great inner strength when we ask.

The readers of the letter of Hebrews had not come to a mountain that was shaking with retribution, like that in the Old Testament. The shaking of the mountain represents the law that filled the hearts of the people, bringing devastation through the judgment it carried.

This passage in Hebrews 12:18-24, about the old mountain and the new Zion, was written in the temple narratives of that time, which mightn’t make a lot of sense to the modern reader. So, I will try to boil down its main point. The NIV gives this passage the heading, “The mountain of fear and the mountain of joy.”

That first covenant was made with mankind in their fallen hearts, seen in statements like, “the blood of Abel cried out to God from the ground.” In Genesis this means that judgment from acts like Abel’s murder would permeate the ancient community. In this statement, God was recognising that injustice had been done and the terrible consequences in human society that would follow. When things cried out to God, it meant the human consciousness would be filled with a sense of wrong, that would bring about a cycle of destructive acts that would tear apart the community. God was sounding the alarm.

Jesus sounded the same alarm for what was coming to the generation he addressed. He said the blood of Abel to Zachariah would be required on that generation. It would be required by their own hearts and hands. Their hearts were so filled with law, mutual hate and retribution, because they refused to love their neighbour, heal their enemy and bring in the poor, that not even the multitude of sacrifices in the temple could remove such social offence. In the end they carried out their own judgement.

It’s the same in our cultures today. If we try to overcome the enemy through greater levels of fundamentalism and division, fear, racism and separation, we will fill our land with hate. But if use foot washing instead, we fill our land with the gospel of reconciliation.

“The blood of Christ speaks better things than the blood of Abel.” When Christ was murdered, as the spotless Lamb of God, we saw his perfection in our darkness and knew that God was in our presence. When he forgave us our sin, we knew that this was God’s word to us, which we could certainly accept. So, the blood of Christ took away our sin, took away our inner vengeance and brought us peace, with God and therefore also with one another.

The author of Hebrews then quoted from Haggai which gave God’s promise of the new covenant. He would shake earth once more, and also shake heaven. The shaking of earth signifies a second covenant. Maybe the earthquake when Christ died depicted this shaking, and the temple curtain that was torn, opening the way to God’s presence, and the graves of resurrection then in Jerusalem that were opened to new life. The shaking was the coming of grace to tear down our old systems of vengeance and bring new creation.

Heaven also was shaken, and this indicates a new heaven. This means that the blood of Christ changed the way we perceived and approached God. We no longer hid behind the bushes, like Adam and Eve. We now saw God like the father of the Prodigal Son, who demanded no retribution for his offence. We would no longer need a tabernacle to approach God. That old heaven/ tabernacle had gone.

The new covenant didn’t change God, but it changed us. We saw God had forgiven us and we realised heaven isn’t closed. Heaven was never the problem, but the way we perceived God, stored up “his wrath” in ourselves, and treated each other. Christ has changed that. A new heaven, the God of grace we now know in Christ, has replaced the old “heaven of retribution.” This opens the way for entirely world renewing relationships.

So, the author of Hebrews was strongly warning, that if the people fall away from this grace, chose to reject it, and instead reform their distinctive tribalism under the law, then they will be left with the retribution that the law will fill their hearts with. They will be destroyed. And the destruction will be much the greater, since they have rejected the Prince of Peace who died for them. Their hearts will condemn them all the more. This is indeed a heavy warning, because the consequences, what they do to each other, would be severe. And this is what happened to Jerusalem then.

This is why it is so important not to fall away from grace once it has been given to us. Not because God will shut us out, but because our hearts will condemn us more strongly than before. And then the end of that in our lives is not good. This is what God wants to protect us from, not from himself, but from the ignorance in ourselves.

God is indeed a consuming fire. His grace burns away our anger and rage at each other, forming new communities. But if we reject his grace, we are left with the fire of retribution, the god of anger we choose for our own souls, which brings its terrible results into our lives and world. And this fire would burn away old Jerusalem, in the days in which the letter of Hebrews was written, opening the way for the earth’s cleansing and renewal through the church.

This judgement, shaking process, this discipline, continues, until sin, law and retribution, self-centredness, are shaken out of our lives and nations, and grace and care for each other fill our creation. Haggai said the purpose of this shaking was to take away our retributive acts towards our neighbour and replace the world with peace. “And in this place (meaning, in this new covenant), I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.” This was Isaiah’s vision: greed giving way to enemy care. This is what the church is to live out today, as the sign of things to come.

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