Category: Hebrews (page 1 of 7)

God at Work: Sacrament

Sacrament: A physical symbol that acts as a means of God’s grace by which we participate in a spiritual reality.

This Sunday at Central we’re beginning a 13-weeks Bible class series on the sacraments of baptism, communion, and the Christian assembly. Our intent is to move more toward viewing these special moments together as places and times when our God is redemptively present and seriously at work. We want to learn how to focus more on what God is doing and less on what we are doing in these practices. And the word “sacrament” is significant for our understanding and growth.

The definition above is my own version of how the Church has understood the term for centuries. Let’s explain it using each of the divine ordinances.

Baptism – The physical symbol is the water. The water is real, it’s tangible. You can see it, you can feel it, you can experience it. It’ll ruin your phone, it’ll go up your nose — it’s real. But the water also represents a reality beyond itself. It points to something bigger. The water symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. What makes baptism a sacrament is that, by God’s Spirit, we actually participate in the reality it symbolizes. In baptism, we are buried and raised with Christ Jesus. Baptism connects us to Christ’s death and resurrection.

“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” ~Romans 6:3-5

Lord’s Supper – The physical symbol is the bread and the cup, the cracker and the juice. Those are concrete, real things, physical things. You can smell the juice, you can crunch the cracker; it gets stuck in your teeth, it can stain your slacks — it’s real. But the meal represents Jesus eating and drinking with his disciples. What makes the communion meal a sacrament is that, by God’s Holy Spirit, we actually are participating in the thing it represents. We are literally eating with the Lord. Somehow, mysteriously, yes, he meets us at the table and eats with us.

“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” ~1 Corinthians 10:16

Christian Assembly – The physical symbol is the people in the room. It’s us. Real men, women, and children, wearing clothes, laughing, singing, whispering, chewing gum, praying; babies crying and people sneezing — it’s real. And it symbolizes something bigger. It represents the heavenly assembly around the throne of God. By God’s Spirit, we join that heavenly chorus — we are actually participating in what we can’t see yet. We are singing and praying with all the saints of all time in heaven, in the eternal presence of God. That’s what makes the Sunday morning worship gathering a sacrament.

“You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the Church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, to the spirits of righteous men and women made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…” ~Hebrews 12:22-24

God is present with us, saving us, nourishing us, changing us. When we view these three ordinances as merely commands to obey, we’ll focus on what we are doing. When we understand them as sacraments, we’re better able to focus on what God is doing.



Putting It On the Line

“Let us go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” ~Hebrews 13:13-14

In this world, just about all we have as Christians is faith, hope, and love. That’s it. As followers of Jesus, we really don’t have much status or security. We don’t mean a whole lot in the eyes of this world. We know as disciples of Christ we’re going to face opposition and accusation and persecution. That’s where we live. All we have is faith, hope, and love. And we put those things on the line every day.

We put our faith on the line every day. Think about it. We’ve never seen God. We live in a world where everything can be seen and studied and weighed and measured and explained and subjected to psychological analysis and scientific control. But we insist on making the center of our lives a God we can’t see or touch. That’s risky.

We put our hope on the line every day. We don’t know one thing about the future. We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen between now and tomorrow morning — we’re not guaranteed there will be a tomorrow morning. We don’t know about future sickness or pain in store for us, loss or rejection we might or might not experience. Still, despite our total ignorance about the future, we say with confidence that God will accomplish his will and nothing can ever separate us from his love and promises. That’s dangerous.

We put our love on the line every day. There’s nothing we’re less good at than love. We’re much better at competition. We’re better at responding by instinct and ambition and selfishness than at trying to figure out how to love people. We’re trained to go our own way. Our culture — the whole world! — rewards us for trying to get our own way. Yet, we make the decision every day to put aside what we do best and try to do what we’re not very good at: loving other people. And we open ourselves wide to hurt and frustration and rejection and failure. That’s tough, huh?

We declare our words of faith in an unbelieving world. We sing our songs of victory in a city where things get messy. We live our joy among a people who don’t understand us or encourage us. But this isn’t our home. Not this current city with the current structures and current methods of doing things and current ways of judging failure and success.

We have been made holy by the blood of Jesus Christ. We belong to God in Christ — where there’s a whole lot more happening than meets the eye.



What Have You Heard?

In wondering this week whether Hebrews 12:18-24 has anything to say to us today about what happens in corporate worship, I’ve recounted three of my most memorable and impactful worship experiences: in Jerusalem in 2007, at the Tulsa Workshop in 2004, and at the first “4 Amarillo” service in 2013. Of course, our attitudes and our expectations have a lot to do with our worship experiences. But there’s also a whole lot happening in us, to us, and through us every Sunday, regardless of our own individual engagement. That’s what the preacher in Hebrews is talking about.

I point to my worship experience at the Western Wall in Jerusalem because God was there. But we can say the same thing about the place where we worship God together every Sunday. We gather with the saints who’ve gone before. We gather in a building that exists because a group of Amarillo Christians started worshiping together in 1908. We stand on the shoulders of the older Christians in the room. All of that is evidence that God himself was here! He met with his people right here!

I point to my experience in Tulsa because I felt at that time God is here. He’s speaking to me here. But we can say the same thing about worship in our church. The forgiveness and the restoration that happens here, the baptisms and the prayers, the salvation and the meal, the reconciliation, the changed lives, the Christian service — all of that is proof that God himself is here and present and active with his people.

I point to that “4 Amarillo” assembly because it felt like we were truly worshiping in the experience of the perfect will of God. It felt like heaven. But the same is true in our church every Sunday. When we come to God together in his holy presence with no fear and no guilt, that is God’s will for all of eternity. “I will dwell with you” — that’s his covenant — “I will live with you and I will be your God and you will be my people.” What better place to experience that than in worship?

God’s everlasting will is to bring his people to perfection or completeness. To do that, our sin had to be dealt with totally and completely, our consciences needed to be purified all the way through, so our lives could be brought into joyful conformity with God’s design. Jesus has done that. His blood has purchased and established that sin-forgiving covenant that gives us God’s holiness and righteousness and peace.

That’s what’s so wonderful! That’s what makes the Gospel such good news!

If we’re in Christ, we’re perfect. If we’re in Jesus, we have no sin, no guilt. The Scriptures say in Christ we have fully met the righteous requirements of the Law. So when we come to God, it’s not to a physical, earthly mountain we can see. We come to Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the true spiritual dwelling place of the Lord. We come to angels and heavenly saints and we come to God himself — not just lights and noise and smoke and a thundering voice. Through our perfect mediator, we’ve got full and complete access to God in heaven, not on an earthly mountain, but on his heavenly throne.

And we’re not afraid. We come to him in boldness and confidence, right into his presence, together, because we come as perfect and sinless and holy. No fear. Instead, overflowing with thanksgiving and joy. Not darkness and gloom and dread and guilt, but with celebration and song and praise.

How do we know? Because that’s what we’ve heard.

How was church? Well, what have you heard?



Looking for the Wrong Things on Sunday

Until the day our faith becomes sight, until that day of glory finally comes and we see with our eyes what God in Christ promises us is true, we’ve got to lean on the Word of the Lord. We’ve got to trust and depend on the Word of God. The preacher in Hebrews opens up his sermon by saying, “God has spoken to us. We must pay more careful attention to what we’ve heard so that we don’t drift away.”

What we have heard is that there’s a giant party going on right now in heaven. All the angels in their everlasting glory, all the saints in their eternal holiness, feasting with great joy in the heavenly realms around the throne of God. It’s a never-ending festival. The angels are fluttering around in joy, the saints are swinging from the chandeliers. And on Sunday mornings the floor opens up and the whole scene falls down to earth in the middle of our Christian worship.

I can’t see it. I can’t always feel it. But I’ve got to believe it because we have heard the Word!

But have you seen the people I’m sitting with at church? They don’t look or act like angels to me.

I know. I wish we could all be like Elisha’s servant — remember? The Lord opened his eyes so he could see the invisible realities. He saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire and the Lord’s army all around them, protecting them. I think, though, that if we could see and touch what’s actually happening around us in here — what’s happening in us and through us and all around us on Sunday mornings in church — it would absolutely blow our minds.

That day is coming. In the meantime…

How was church?

I was worshiping with all of heaven’s angels around the throne of God. It was awesome.

How was church?

It was packed! There were millions and millions of Christians there, all of God’s people — past, present, and future. It was awesome.

How was church?

I ate the communion meal with my grandmother. She finished her race 17-years ago and she’s with the Lord, but I eat and drink with her every Sunday. And it’s awesome.

I know this is not easy. I’m not telling you it’s easy. I’m telling you when we walk into the church worship center on Sunday mornings, we’re looking for the wrong things. Close your eyes. Don’t trust your eyes. Your eyes are deceiving you. Hear the Word.

You have not come to the worship leader and the songs we sing; you have come to God!

You have not come to the preacher and the sermon we preach; you have come to God!

You have not come to a church building because the elders have asked you to; you have come to God!

You have not come to an obligation or a responsibility, you have not come to a Church of Christ or any particular brand of Christianity, you have not come to videos or bulletins or parking lots or crackers and juice; you have come to God and to Christ and to angels and saints and to the salvation blood of Jesus that gives you direct and guilt-free access to all of the Father’s eternity in heaven right now!

Somehow we’ve got to slip through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia so we can learn to experience and feel what’s really happening. God is here! You have come to God!



You Have Come to God

I think Christians were having worship service disappointment issues even back when Hebrews was preached/written. There have probably been worship issues for every generation of God’s people that go all the way back to expectations that we set after that very first worship assembly at Mount Sinai.

That first worship service was crazy awesome! There’s thunder and lightning and smoke. God himself appears in a great fire. There’s the sound of a heavenly trumpet. The whole mountain is shaking. The people are trembling. God’s people are in the holy presence of God with all the smells and bells you would expect. This is a worship experience you can see and hear and smell and touch — something for all the senses!

How was church? Did they bring the Word?

Yeah, the Ten Commandments! Everybody came forward! They didn’t even get through one verse of Just As I Am!

I think this little church in the middle of the first century in the Roman Empire longed for that kind of worship. They wanted a worship experience where something happens — something transcendent, something powerful, something that moves me. Something.

These Christians were gathering on Sundays to read or recite from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, to sing a song, to share a meal, and to pray. And I wonder if some of them think, “You know, they do worship better at the old temple in Jerusalem. The priests in the decorated robes, the smells of the incense, the sounds of the Levitical musicians and choirs, the dramatic spectacle of the sacrifices — now that’s a church service!”

Or, maybe, “My friends seem to have a really good worship experience at the pagan temple down the street. There’s rituals and chants and dancing and music and blood and sex and it’s loud and there’s lots of energy. Something happens there.”

The preacher in Hebrews knows these Christians are growing weary with worship. Some of them have stopped coming. They don’t go to church anymore. Or, not like they used to. So he reminds them what’s really happening at church. He tells them again about the unseen realities of what’s going on at worship. There’s more here than meets the eye. And he wants his church to hear it.

“You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, to the spirits of righteous men and women made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” ~Hebrews 12:22-24

How was church? How was church?!!?

You have come into the presence of God! And when you assemble with the people of God in the presence of God, things happen! Eternal things. Divine things. Salvation things. Whether you feel your pulse race or not, whether you feel moved or not, you have come into the presence of God! And there’s more going on than you can see or touch.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the certainty — the conviction — of things we can’t see. So even if you see and feel nothing at worship, you have come into the presence of God.

The word is proselay in the Greek, to come or to approach. It’s the same word the preacher’s been using the whole sermon. “Let us come to the throne of grace with boldness (4:16). Christ Jesus is able to save all those who come to God through him (7:25). Let us come to God with a true heart in full assurance of faith (10:22). And now this, finally: You have come to God (12:23)!

How was church? Listen and I’ll tell you about church. You can’t see it, but God is at church and Jesus is at church and the angels and saints. And it’s eternal and powerful and it’s personal and relational and don’t you want to be a part of that?! Don’t you want to belong to that? Yes, be a part of the worshiping community of God’s covenant people! Why would you want to be anywhere else?



How Was Church?

I have had many spectacular worship experiences in my life. I’ve had several wonderful, inspiring, awe-filled worship moments. I’ve broken down in tears while praying with a group of fellow ministers at the Western Wall of the temple mount in Jerusalem. Praying to God at that sacred place where our Lord actually appeared to his people, where his glory filled the temple and where his voice shook the hills, I was overcome with emotion. “God was here! He was actually here!” And I just wept.

I’ve recommitted my life to Christ with 15,000 worshipers at the state fairgrounds coliseum in Tulsa. Fifteen-thousand of my brothers and sisters worshiping God, singing praises to God, listening to Rubel Shelly preach about our forgiveness in Christ, about our right standing with God, challenging us to truly live into the realities of that righteousness. And the singing was just indescribably beautiful. Powerful. “God is here! God is right here speaking to me, talking to me, changing me.” And I made promises to God that night, standing right there on the coliseum floor, “Lord, I belong to you. Thank you, God. Please, do whatever you want with me. I’m yours. Thank you, God.”

I’ve marveled at the majesty and power of God at that first 4Amarillo gathering at First Baptist five years ago. I was stunned, I was overwhelmed at the gracious glimpse of heaven we got that night. Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and Church of Christers, singing to the Lord, holding hands, making promises to each other, loving each other in Christ. There were no barriers, no obstacles, nothing between us at all. I thought, “This is heaven! This is God’s perfect will being done on earth just as it is in heaven.” Christians from every denomination, from every stripe of the faith, worshiping together, one in Christ Jesus, united in the Spirit. And I was paralyzed in awesome wonder.

I’ve had a lot of amazing worship experiences in my life. Not too many of them have been at church.

You’ve had some great worship experiences in your life. On top of a mountain on Trek. Around a campfire at Bluehaven. On a mission trip in a foreign country. (I’ve heard people describe what they call life-changing worship on a KLUV cruise, which proves that one man’s heaven is another man’s hell.) We’ve all had what we would call great worship. And we think it ought to happen more often at church. There’s something inside us — an instinct, a deep desire, we just know — church ought to be a place where really awesome worship happens all the time.

But it doesn’t.

The songs are not my favorite and not everybody’s singing. The sermon is mediocre and not really relevant to my life. The prayers are uninspired. The room is dingy.

How as church today? Was it long today?

It’s always long.

And we all think the other church across town does it better. Something happens at that other church. The worship is awesome, the sermon is practical, the prayers just soar, and all the people are full of joy at that other church.

Two-thousand years ago, a congregation of Christians had the same problem. Just thirty-five or so years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, a group of Christians, probably in the capitol city of Rome, also had worship disappointment issues at church.

So a preacher had to remind them about what’s really happening at church. He tells them about the unseen realities of what’s going on in corporate worship. There’s more happening there/here than meets the eye. And he wants his church to hear it.

Hebrews 12:22-24 is a powerful passage about those unseen realities: divine beings, eternal souls, everlasting blood, the holy presence of Almighty God. These three verses go a long way in reshaping our views of and expectations for what happens in the worship center on Sunday mornings.

We’re going to look more closely at this familiar passage over the next two days. Why don’t you read it a couple of times today and tonight and then come back tomorrow to dive into the rich realities together.



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