Archive for August, 2016

Get Ready! Get Set! Go!


Hebrews 12:1–2 (NLT) Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.* Because of the joy* awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne.

These 2 verses are very important to me.  In fact, they are my life verses.  Christians sometimes have a life verse, one or 2 verses that seem to speak to the person’s life and purpose in Christ.  For me these 2 verses offer direction and inspiration for my life and walk with Jesus Christ.

The first thing that the author reminds us is the great cloud of witnesses of which he has just spoken in ch. 11:  Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samson, David, Samuel and all the prophets.  And not only these witnesses, but the great cloud of witnesses that have come down through the centuries, the great saints through the ages:  Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and John Wesley, just to name a few.  And all those who have influenced me:  Thomas Oden, Eugene Petersen, Justo Gonzalez, and all my seminary professors:  John A. Cook, Joseph Dongell, Jeffrey Frymire, Richard Gray, Craig S. Keener, Kevin Kinghorn, Frederick Long, Ellen L. Marmon, Stacey Minger, Steven O’Malley, Greg Okesson, Joseph Okello, John Oswalt, Michael Petersen, Stephen Seamands, Timothy Tennent, Thomas Tumblin, Russell West, Ben Witherington III, and many others especially my friend and mentor Rev. Dr. William Sillings.  Then I think about the great saints of the churches I have served and where I grew up in the faith.  I think about Calvary UMC, Windber, PA and especially Rev. Dan Orris who confirmed me and took an interest in me and led me into the life of faith.  I think of all those ladies who took the time to teach children’s Sunday School.  I remember the faith of my grandmother Mary Felix Herdman, and my mother, Carol Martinez.

When you begin to name the names of those people of faith who have influenced me, just one life, it soon becomes a great cloud of witnesses.  I am grateful all those who influenced me for Christ.  I can’t even remember all your names, but in my life y’all have been a great cloud of witnesses, as influential and important as those listed in the Hall of Faith (Heb. ch. 11)

And then the author uses this metaphor of running the race.  Like we are in this great race, like the Olympic marathon, and we are entering the stadium to the cheering throng of believers who has gone before us.  I had the experience of running the Stuttgarter Zeitung Half-Marathon.  It runs 13.1 miles through the streets of Stuttgart.  The finish is in the stadium for the VfB Stuttgart 1893, the professional soccer team.  As you enter the stadium, it was filled with all the well-wishers and family and friends of those running.  They actually film you entering and they announce you as you surge toward the finish line, “Here comes Steven!”  And you feel like a professional athlete, like you are winning the Olympics.  And everyone who finishes gets a medal.

That’s what it’s like to run the race of faith.  “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses to the life of faith, cast off every impediment and the sin which so easily entangles us…”  (Heb. 12:1)  The word translated as cast off is apothmenoi, meaning to lay aside, to put off in a figurative sense.   The word translated impediment is ogkos, meaning a tumor, mass, magnitude, weight, burden, impediment.  The impediments or encumbrances are those things which might not be sins, but are things that might call us away from the life of faith.  In the parable of the sower, Jesus calls these things “the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for others things.”  So Jesus says, “so no fruit is produced.” (Mark 4:19)  Sports are good, but when sports cause us to avoid going to church, for example, they become an impediment or encumbrance to our faith.

The word translated as sin is hamartia meaning sin, missing the mark.  Sin is missing the true end and scope of our lives, which is God.  Sin is an offense in relation to God with an emphasis on the truth.  The basic sense of this word is as if you aiming at a target  and you miss it.  In this case, the author is speaking of “especially the sin that so easily trips us up,” by which he means particular sins and especially the sin of unbelief, that is, leaving behind faith in Jesus Christ.

What the author suggests is that the life of faith is like a race.  And in a race, the runners don’t wear their regular clothing (in fact, in Greco-Roman times, the Olympic athletes would run naked).  But they wear special running clothes, light weight clothing and special racing shoes.  They want to run as fast as they can, so they get rid of every weight that would slow them down.  That is how we should run the race of or life of faith.

“Run with endurance the race God has set before us.”  (Heb. 12:1)  In the Greek, this is the only imperative.  It’s the key part of these verses.  It’s what the author is emphasizing.  The word for race is agon from which we get our English word ‘agony,’ meaning a contest or race for victory such as running, boxing, or wrestling.  So Paul says, “Fight the good fight of the faith…”  (1 Tim. 6:12)  and “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize?  So run to win! ”  (1 Cor. 9:24)

The word translated endurance is hupomone meaning bearing up under, patience, endurance as to things or circumstance; perseverance, patience, endurance, constancy under suffering in faith and duty.  In the letter to the Hebrews, the author is writing to the church who are suffering persecution and as a result are wavering in their faith and in fact, some may have given up the faith and returned to Judaism.  So the author wants to encourage them to continue to run the race with endurance and patience even in suffering.

How do we run the race of faith with endurance?  “We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.”  (Heb. 12:2)  Jesus is the supreme example of faithful endurance (Heb. 3:1)  Our endurance and perseverance in the Christian life will depend on keeping our focus on Jesus and on his saving work .  He is the champion who has gone before us and has accomplished everything necessary for faith under the new covenant to be a reality.  He is our leader and our supreme example, and he is also the firstfruits of salvation in the resurrection.  His resurrection proves the truth of our blessings of eternal life and the resurrection:  our blessed hope.

Lord, we thank you for this race of faith into which you have invited us.  I’m grateful for the great cloud of witnesses who have been influential in my life of faith, both those I have known personally and those whose influence has been through books and sermons.  I’m especially grateful for the example of faithful family, my grandmother and mother who have run the race and are now looking down on my race and cheering me on to the finish line.  Give me that faith of those who went before me that I might too run the race to the finish.  Give me that faith to endure to the end, following my Captain and Champion, Jesus Christ, never losing sight of Jesus, my Lord, as he runs before me.  Amen.

Live Strong by Faith


Hebrews 11:1–3 (NLT) Great Examples of Faith

Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation.  By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.

Hebrews 11, called the “Hall of Faith,” is one of the most beloved chapters in the Bible.  In Heb. 10:37, 38, the author quotes from Hab. 2:3, 4 “For in just a little while, the Coming One will come and not delay.  And my righteous ones will live by faith…”

As he thinks about living by faith.  He begins with a definition of faith.  He says, “Faith is resolute confidence…”  The word translated confidence in the NLT is hupostasis.  Hupostasis is a noun meaning ‘resolute confidence,’ literally, standing under or understanding; assurance.  The word translated as “conviction” is elegchos, meaning certain persuasion.  In this case, “Faith is the resolute confidence of what we hope for, the conviction of things not seen.”  (v. 1) The author’s 2 fold definition suggests that if we can see it, then it is not faith.  Faith is acting on what God has revealed about God’s will and character.  “For by it the people in days of old gained a good reputation.”  (v. 2)

In v. 3, the author begins to repeat this phrase, “Pistei…” meaning “By faith…” “By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.”  This is a fundamental belief of both Judaism and Christianity (Gen. 1:1-3).  God created everything in the universe that we can now see, and it was all created out of nothing.  A life of faith understands that, by analogy, God’s promises are real and will be called into reality by God, even if at present they are unseen.

The normal Christian life is a life lived by faith.  This is the main point of the text.  God is faithful and can be counted on to bring to completion all of God’s plans and promises.  The normal life of faith means living in the light of eternity.  All of the examples that follow (vv. 4-31) demonstrate this life of faith.

The remainder of the chapter can be divided up into 3 sections and a conclusion:  Introduction (vv. 1-3); I.  Examples of faith from Abel to Abraham (vv. 4-12); Interlude:  Faith of pilgrims (vv. 13-16); II.  More examples of faith from Abraham to Rahab (vv. 17-31); Conclusion:  Overview of the history of OT faith (vv. 32-40)

For example, Enoch was taken up into heaven and did not face a normal death.  (Gen. 5:24).  The author uses Enoch as an example to cite this principle in v. 6:  “And it is impossible to please God without faith.  Anyone who wants to come to God must believe that God exists and that God rewards those who sincerely seek God.”  The author alludes back to his theme verses from Hab. 2:3, 4 (Heb. 10:37-38).  The belief that God exists is a properly basic belief.  And the second belief follows it, that the God in whom we believe is able to fulfill all God’s promises.  God is faithful and trustworthy.  God will fulfill all God’s promises.  In all our difficulties and trials, we can trust in God and anticipate the fulfillment of God’s promises.

In the example of Abraham, the author cites 2 events in Abraham’s life:  the calling of Abraham (vv. 8-10; Gen. 12:1-2; 10:-13:18); and the birth of Isaac (vv. 11-12; Gen. 22:17)  The OT account tells us that Abraham obeyed God, and God counted his obedience as righteousness.  Abraham stepped out in faith, not knowing where he was going, but only obeying God as he understood that God promised him a land which not he, but his descendants would possess:  the promised land (a major theme in this text).  And the author identifies the Promised Land with “a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God” to which Abraham was confidently looking forward.  He takes the Promised Land to be, not the physical land of Canaan, but the heavenly Kingdom of God.  (v. 10)

In the interlude (vv. 13-16), the author says that “All these people died still believoing what God had promised them.  They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it.  They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth.”  (v. 13)  They were strangers (xenoi) and exiles (parepidemoi).  Xenos means a guest, stranger, meaning a friend although a stranger.  Parepidemos means a stranger, a sojourner; not simply one who is passing through, but a foreigner who has settled next to native people.  This points out a basic understanding of the nature of the Christian life.  This world is not our home, rather we are here as strangers and foreigners, immigrants if you will.  We are passing through this world until we get to our real heavenly home.

Living strong by faith involves resolute confidence in response to what God has made known (11:1-3).  As seen in the examples of faith in Hebrews 11, living strong by faith is the normal Christian life.  We live in the light of eternity.

Living by faith as demonstrated in the example of ch. 11 shows how faith worked in the lives of Abraham, Moses, and the other OT saints.  The danger is that we might say, “I’m not like Abraham, or Moses, or David.  They are in the Bible.”  But when you examine the biblical record you find that Abraham was a liar as was Jacob. Sarah was a doubter.  Joseph was a tattle-tail.  Moses was a murderer.  David was an adulterer.  The account ends with Rahab the prostitute.  These were just ordinary people living ordinary lives, until they responded to the call of God.  And even after stepping out in faith they still struggled.  They never received the promises of God, they lived in the light of those promises, understanding that God is faithful.  And the faithful God who calls us to step out in faith, will also be faithful to fulfill his promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ.  So the author concludes:  “For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us.”  (v. 39)



The Bread of Life


John 6:35–40 (NLT)  Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But you haven’t believed in me even though you have seen me. 37 However, those the Father has given me will come to me, and I will never reject them. 38 For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will. 39 And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day. 40 For it is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. I will raise them up at the last day.”

The passage following the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-15) is this passage where Jesus makes the statement, “I am the bread of life.”  (John 6:22-59)  The NLT has the passage going from v. 22 to v. 59.  The location of this teaching is “the synagogue in Capernaum.”  (v. 59)  The crowd that Jesus had fed the bread and fish comes seeking Jesus on the other side of the lake from Tiberias.  Jesus understood that their motivation was to get a free meal (v. 26).  They don’t understand the significance of Jesus’ miraculous signs (v. 26).  His admonition to the crowds is to “Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you.”  (v. 27)

Eternal life is Jesus’ most profound gift, which the Father authorized God the Son to give.  Jesus tells the crowd that they should not be so concerned about perishable things, but rather about eternal things.  Physical bread is perishable; the gift of Jesus is himself, the bread of life.  (v. 35)

The crowd responds, “We want to perform God’s works too.  What should we do?”  Jesus’ answer, “Believe in the One God has sent.”  (v. 29)  Faith in the Son of God is the only work that God wants from us.

The core of Jesus argument begins at v. 32.  The crowd challenges Jesus to show them a miraculous sign.  They claim that Moses fed them manna in the wilderness.  They recognize the connection between Jesus’ miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 and the manna in the wilderness, but they still don’t understand the signficance of the sign.

Jesus points out that Moses did not give them the manna, but that God did.  “And now he offers you the true bread from heaven.  The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  The most important search is to seek and to find the true bread of life.  The image of Jesus as the bread of life clearly connects this passage to the Lord’s Supper.

“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again.  Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  Jesus is the true manna from heaven.  He satisfies the spiritual hunger of those who believe in him.  Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so that the world may live, is my flesh.”  (v. 51)  The gift that brings eternal life is Jesus’ own offering of himself on the cross.  On the cross, Jesus died for our sin, that is the sin of the whole world.

The words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper are not repeated in John, instead, we have this passage which firmly links Communion with Jesus’ self-sacrificial work upon the cross.  So Jesus concludes, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you… But anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person up at the last day.”  Jesus answered the question the people asked (6:52).  His words hint at the Lord’s Supper.  Receiving the Lord’s Supper means no less than embracing Jesus’ life-giving sacrifice upon the cross.



Loaves and Fishes

Loaves and fishes

John 6:1–14 (NRSV) Feeding the Five Thousand

6 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

The feeding of the 5,000 is one of the miracles of Jesus that appears in all 4 Gospels.  John’s account is somewhat different in detail than the synoptic Gospels.  For one thing, John is the only one to recognize Philip’s involvement:  Turning to Philip, he asked, “Where can we buy bread to feed all these people?”  He was testing Philip, for he already knew what he was going to do.  Philip replied, “Even if we worked for months, we wouldn’t have enough money to feed them!”  The miracle that follows is in response to Philip’s incredulity.  The meal of barley loaves and fishes is the meal of the poor.

Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 recalls the great OT miracle of bread when Israel was in the wilderness (Ex. 16).  The rabbis in Jesus’ day expected the coming Messiah to “rain down food from heaven” once again (Ex. 16:4) and he did.  The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 was a sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

John doesn’t include an account of the Lord’s Supper.  Many scholars believe that this passage functions as the Lord’s Supper in the Gospel of John.  As in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gives thanks, breaks the bread and serves them.

Loaves and fishes were distributed, and all had as much as they wanted (6:11), and so abundant was the supply that the surplus filled 12 baskets (6:13).  The number 12 signifies the 12 tribes of Israel, but also the 12 apostles.  The conclusion that the crowds come to is, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”  This prophecy comes from Deut. 18:15: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers.  You must listen to him.”

The feeding of the 5,000 expresses the abundance of the Kingdom of God.  The meal that Jesus provided was nothing fancy, it was just the modest meal of a poor little boy, a few barley loaves and a couple of dried fish.  But the miraculous provision of food echoes the miracle of the manna in the wilderness (Ex. 16).  In Exodus, God provided the manna through the intercession of a intermediary, Moses.  As Jesus reminded the crowd later in ch. 6.  Jesus, as God the Son, needs no intermediary.

Lord, I thank you for your miraculous provision.  How you care for us and take care of us.  I’m grateful for your providence.  So we pray each day, “Give us our daily bread.”  Amen.