M. W. Bassford
Psalm 44 (LMD)
O God, our fathers told Your works;
You planted them within the land;
They did not conquer by the sword,
But by Your favor and Your hand.
Today You still push back our foes
And keep Your holy ones from shame;
Thus we have boasted all day long,
And we will always bless Your name.
But now You have rejected us,
And You have made our hosts retreat;
You scatter us to foreign lands
And sell us cheaply in defeat.
You let our neighbors scoff at us;
You make the nations laugh to see;
All day I hide my face in shame
Before the boastful enemy.
Yet we have not forgotten You
Nor with transgression sought our doom;
Although our steps were in Your ways,
You covered us with deathly gloom.
If we had sought another god,
The God who searches hearts would know,
But for Your sake Your own are slain;
All day Your sheep are slaughtered so.
O Lord, awake! Why do You sleep?
Do not reject us in disgrace;
Before our grief and misery
Why do You still conceal Your face?
Our soul has fallen to the dust,
And to the earth we press our face;
Rise up and be our help, O God;
Redeem us in Your faithful grace.
Suggested tune: “Lamb of God”
Hebrews 2:1 contains one of the most sobering warnings in the entire Bible: “For this reason, we must pay attention all the more to what we have heard, so that we will not drift away.” A couple of verses later, the writer uses a rhetorical question to make the point that if we neglect the great salvation we have been given, we will not escape. Nobody turns their back on Jesus and gets away with it!
This is deeply relevant to us for a couple of different reasons. First, it shows that falling away is possible. This truth is bound up in the very language of the text. It is impossible to drift away from a place where you aren’t, and it’s impossible to neglect a salvation you don’t have. Those who teach, then, that true Christians can’t fall away are misguided. We can be in a state of grace now and fall from it later.
Of course, this concept is significant not merely in an abstract, doctrinal sense, but in a personal, concrete sense. I can fall away. You can fall away. The godliest Christian any of us know, the distinguished preacher, the elder of the church, or the devout widow, all of these can fall away.
The fault here is not in Jesus. He has promised that no one will snatch us out of His hand. We are immune to danger from outside forces, but we are not immune to danger from within. We can willingly abandon the safety from which no one can remove us. Indeed, unless we acknowledge the risk and humbly resolve to remain faithful, we infallibly will bring this disaster upon ourselves.
Second, the writer’s word choice also tells us how disaster will arrive. Drifting away is not a sudden, violent activity. Instead, it happens gradually, slowly, wavelet by wavelet.
Neither is neglect. Neglect is the result of failing to make an effort when the need to act doesn’t seem pressing or important. The lawn doesn’t look much worse today than it looked yesterday, it’s hot out there, and I’d rather spend my Saturday in the woods than behind a lawnmower anyway. However, if I continue to defer exertion, soon the front door is covered in nastygrams from the HOA, and they’re filming episodes of Tarzan in my front yard!
Spiritual disaster advances upon us in the same slow, subtle way. It is the fruit of coming home from a long day of work on Wednesday and deciding that it’s too much effort to round up the kids and get everybody out to Bible class. It is the result of closing our eyes metaphorically to the trashy side of that TV show we love to watch—but not closing them literally. It is the outcome of a thousand tiny enticements to depart from Jesus in a way that still seems safe. Nobody’s going to lose their soul over a Wednesday night or a Netflix drama, are they?
The problem is, though, that the more we draw away, the more reasonable extreme departures become. Maybe a steamy period romance isn’t that far away from godliness, but neither is pornography that far away from steamy romances, nor an affair from porn. It’s extremely easy for us to find ourselves in a spiritual position where we never intended to be. The only way to make sure that we don’t drift away is to make sure that we don’t drift.
The epistle to the Hebrews might be the most tightly reasoned book in the whole Bible. Sentence by sentence, clause by clause, the Hebrews writer constructs intricate arguments that establish the superiority of Christ over Moses and the folly of Christians returning to Judaism. The more closely we read Hebrews, the more we will learn.
The care with which Hebrews is written makes the apparent logical disconnect in Hebrews 3:18-19 all the more surprising. In context, the writer is discussing the Israelites who died in the wilderness during the time of Moses. He says, “And to whom did [God] swear that they would not enter His rest, if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
Hold on here, Hebrews writer! You’ve given us evidence that God kept the Israelites from entering Canaan because of their disobedience. Why are you acting like you’ve shown us that they had an unbelief problem instead?
The writer, and indeed the Holy Spirit, make this logical jump because they want us to realize that they aren’t making a logical jump at all. Once the writer has established that the Israelites had a disobedience problem, he doesn’t have to prove that they had an unbelief problem—because disobedience and unbelief are THE SAME THING. If we don’t believe God’s promises, we will not obey His word. If we don’t obey His word, fundamentally, it is because we do not believe His promises. Faith and obedience are inseparable.
This understanding is vital to us for at least two reasons. First, it answers the tedious argument that we are saved by faith, not by works, so we don’t have to be baptized to be saved. In reality, baptism is not an attempt to justify ourselves at all. Instead, it is an expression of faith in the promises of God. We believe that when the Holy Spirit says that baptism saves, He means it. Accordingly, we obey the gospel.
Second, it shows the importance of preaching, teaching, and study that builds faith. Some brethren are interested only in preaching that is practical. They want to be told about some godly thing that they can go home and do.
Instruction in righteous living is invaluable, full stop. However, if we’re not careful, too much focus on the nuts and bolts of practical discipleship can leave us short on the motivation to be disciples. Obedience is not and cannot be a just-because thing. If hearing is not united with faith in us, we will not obey.
Instead, if we want to be obedient, we must look too to the parts of the Bible that build faith. However remote the stories of the righteous men of old may seem to us, they all proclaim the same lesson: God is a God who keeps His promises, so if we rely on Him, we will not be disappointed. So too, the stories of the miracles of Jesus and His apostles, particularly the story of His resurrection, assure us that what He has promised, He is able to perform. When our minds are filled with these things, it becomes much easier to make the right choices—because we know how deeply they matter.
Revelation 5:10-10 presents one of the most stirring scenes in all of Scripture. John has spent the previous chapter painting us a picture of the eternal glorification of God that goes on around His throne. However, in the first part of this chapter, a problem arises. God holds a book with seven seals, a book that represents His purpose on earth. However, no one can be found who is able to fulfill that plan.
No one, that is, besides the One described as the conquering lion of the tribe of Judah. John’s angel guide assures him that this One will be worthy. However, His appearance is not that of a lion or a conqueror. Instead, He looks like a lamb, the meekest of animals, and a lamb that has been brutally butchered at that! Nonetheless, all the hosts of heaven begin bowing down before Him and acknowledging His worthiness.
In this lamb, of course, we recognize Jesus, the capital-L Lamb of God. He is indeed the One who has been given the name above every name. But why? Why does Jesus deserve to be worshiped by all the inhabitants of heaven and indeed by us too? Why is the Lamb worthy?
Helpfully, the text before us provides three reasons. Jesus is worthy to carry forward the purpose of God because HE WAS SLAUGHTERED. This shows up in the first part of Revelation 5:9. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like much of a recommendation. Usually, when we go looking for someone who can accomplish a mighty plan, we don’t pick someone who meekly allowed his enemies to kill him! In fact, we might think that choosing such a champion would only lead to our defeat too.
However, the fact that Jesus was slaughtered shows His worthiness in several different ways. First, it proves His humility. The purposes of the flesh might be best advanced by an arrogant leader, someone who dominates others and exerts his will over them because he believes he is superior.
Jesus, however, did not and does not regard Himself in that way. Even though He is the only begotten Son of God and literally is worth more than we are, He did not count Himself as worth more than we are. Instead, He humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on the cross.
Second, Jesus’ willingness to be slaughtered shows His obedience. He did not come to earth or die on His own initiative. This was not Jesus’ idea. It was God’s idea. God asked Him to leave behind the eternal glories of heaven for death on a criminal’s cross, and Jesus did it, just as He did everything else His Father asked of Him.
Finally, Jesus’ death shows His love. In John 15, Jesus tells His disciples that no one has greater love than to give his life for his friends, and we are the friends of Jesus if we do what He commands us. There’s a problem there, though. None of Jesus’ apostles did what He commanded, and we don’t either. Jesus didn’t only love us enough to die for us as His friends. He loved us enough to die for us when we were His enemies.
Second, the text tells us that the Lamb is worthy because HE PURCHASED US. This shows up in the second part of Revelation 5:9. Once again, there’s a lot for us to unpack here. First of all, it tells us why Jesus allowed Himself to be slaughtered. It’s because He wanted to redeem us from hell, and the only currency that could accomplish the task was His own blood. The whole earth and everything on it would not suffice to purchase even a single soul from the devil’s bondage, but the lifeblood of Jesus is enough to pay the ransom of billions. There are spiritual concepts that are impossible for human minds to understand, and I think that one of them is just how precious the blood of Jesus truly is!
Also, notice that the text says that Jesus purchased us for God. In other words, the blood of Jesus didn’t merely cleanse us of sin. It also reconciled us to God.
This was not easy. God is perfectly holy, perfectly just. On our own merits, none of us could expect to appear in His presence and live. He would destroy us instantly because of our sin, and He would have every right to do so.
However, through the blood of Jesus, His great wrath has been propitiated, and God welcomes us into fellowship because Jesus has suffered what we should have. When the price has been paid, no debt remains.
Last, this text tells us that those who have been purchased for God have been brought out of every tribe and language and people and nation. In reconciling us to God, Jesus also has reconciled us to one another. We know how hard that is. Every time we look at the news, we see evidence of the divisions that lead people to treat one another in horrible ways. I see no reason to hope that in this fallen world, human division and hatred ever will come to an end.
However, this impossible task has been accomplished by Christ. We were many before we came to Him, but now we are one, and in Him, those divisions are far less important than the love that we share and the blood that marks us as His brothers and sisters.
Finally, the Lamb is worthy because HE MADE US A KINGDOM. Look at Revelation 5:10. This is deeply significant. Most of us have trouble appreciating it because we’ve spent our lives as citizens of the United States, the mightiest nation on earth—for now, at least. However, imagine what it would be like to be a penniless refugee, someone who couldn’t rely on any country to take them in and protect them. Before Jesus made us His kingdom, that’s where all of us were. However, Jesus is our King now. He watches over us, and His might makes the United States look positively inconsequential in comparison!
Second, we see here that Jesus made us priests to God. Remember how just a moment ago we talked about how dangerous it is for the sinner to approach God? Now, though, we are not merely God’s people. We are God’s priesthood. Every one of us has the right to approach Him now, and we need no other intercessor but Jesus.
The world is full of all kinds of self-described spiritual experts and holy men. They want us to believe that we need them to go to God for us. That’s a lie. Because of what Jesus did, every one of us can seek His throne not with fear, but with boldness.
Finally, we see the one item in the list of the Lamb’s attributes that is a promise instead of an accomplishment. He is worthy because we will reign. This is not necessarily obvious. None of us look like kings right now. In the first century, Christians commonly looked very much not like kings! However, Jesus didn’t look like royalty when He was on the cross either, yet He was. The day will come when every proud thing that exalts itself against Jesus will be brought low, and His humble people will be lifted up. The final proof of the worthiness of the Lamb will be in what He does for us for eternity.
Preaching on grace is vital, but grace without sin is a solution in search of a problem, and grace without hell is meaningless. If the good news of the gospel is segregated from the ugly truths of human existence, it ceases to be good.