I can’t tell you how much in more recent years I have come to appreciate the Letter to the Hebrews! The initial recipients were a group of 1st century Jewish believers in danger of giving up under the pressures of intimidation by zealots and persecution by civic authorities. The author (Apollos? Barnabas?) urges them to keep their faith firmly anchored to the moorings of truth and to maintain their steady confidence in Christ as their High Priest. A not unfamiliar scenario today when thinking of the Church worldwide [as to persecution, google the recent horrendous execution of house church leaders in N. Korea].
Hebrews 12:14-29 warns the Church against refusing God. The passage depicts God as a God of SHAKING and BURNING, which hold both warning and encouragement for God’s new covenant people (cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8).
Then (1st century AD) and now (21st century) the Bible reveals God as one who ‘SHAKES.’ Yes, God literally shook the earth and his people at Mount Sinai with the revelation of his law, and it was a quite terrifying experience (v. 18-21). For 1st century believers and contemporary believers it’s radically different (v. 22ff): ‘You’ve come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible (or heavenly) Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You’ve come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant. The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s – a homicide that cried out for vengeance – became a proclamation of grace’(MSG).
This ‘shaking’ should have a two-fold effect:
- God’s people can never afford to ignore the ‘shakings’ of his heavenly grace in Christ (think of the impact when the gospel first broke on the 1st century world): v. 25, ‘Don’t turn a deaf ear to these gracious words. If those who ignored earthly warnings didn’t get away with it, what will happen to us if we turn our backs on his heavenly warnings?’
- God’s ‘kingdom shakings’ have a purpose – a thorough ‘house cleaning’ of the Church for the purpose of true worship: v. 26ff, “His voice that time shook the earth to its foundations; this time – he’s told us quite plainly – he’ll also rock the heavens: ‘One last shaking’ means a thorough house-cleaning, getting rid of all the historical and religious junk so that the unshakeable essentials stand clear and uncluttered. Do you see what we’ve got? An unshakeable kingdom! And do you see how thankful we must be? Not only thankful, but brimming with worship, deeply reverent before God.”
Then (1st cent.) and now (21st cent.) we see God as one who ‘BURNS’: v. 29, ‘For God is not an indifferent bystander. He’s actively cleaning house, torching all that needs to burn, and he won’t quit until it’s all cleansed. God himself is Fire!’
God as ‘burning’ should have a two-fold effect:
- The ‘fire’ of God’s cleansing has always been necessary for those ‘in Christ’ who serve his kingdom purpose. Think of the prophet Isaiah in Is. 6. Think of John the Baptiser’s words in Mt. 3:11ff, “I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life… The main character in this drama – compared to him I’m a mere stagehand – will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit with you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house – make a clean sweep of our lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.” The Master himself, in his summons to his servants to be ready at all times, declares ‘I’ve come to start a fire on this earth – how I wish it were blazing right now!’ I’ve come to change everything, turn everything right side up – how I long for it to be finished…’ (Lk. 12:49ff).
- The fires of God’s chastisement (discipline, training, ‘processing’) have always been necessary for those ‘in Christ’ who serve his kingdom purpose. In the immediate context we have Heb. 12:1-13, ‘God Disciplines His Sons’ for ‘a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it’ (NIV). The apostle Peter wrote to suffering Christians, ‘Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine’ (1 Pet. 1:7). The exalted Christ counsels the luke-warm, rich and self-made Laodicean Church to ‘Buy your gold from me, gold that’s been through the refiner’s fire. Then you’ll be rich…’ (Rev. 3:18/MSG).
Would anyone deny that the contemporary Church, around the globe, is going through a possibly unprecedented time of ‘shaking and burning?’ Here are some personal interpretations, for which I think there is considerable support as I listen to the Church in other parts of the world:
- The denominational, institutional, traditional Church is being shaken to its very foundations, ‘spring cleaned’ all around the world: by persecution as in China, Iran, etc; by materialism and invididualism (‘it’s all about me’) in the West [sadly now also in Africa, as a result of shallow ‘prosperity gospels’ exported to the largely untaught, poor and the hungry. As an African, that false gospel insults and infuriates me]; by the myth that if God is going to work in his world he must do so through the hierarchical, denominational, traditional, institutional church, etc [I have news for those who believe the latter: God’s answer to our world is ‘blowing in the wind,’ and wind can’t be contained in a box. If needs be, the Spirit will by-pass traditional structures every time in order to bring Christ’s kingdom on earth].
- Even ‘Simple Church’ and/or ‘Organic Church’ is being shaken: by humanistic philosophies, poor theology (poor pastor-teachers, cf Eph. 4:11ff), exclusivism, subtle universalism, super-spirituality, legalism, an obsession with ‘returning to our Hebrew roots,’ etc. [I as a believer don’t for one moment denigrate my Jewish roots. I sweated too much in my OT Introduction, OT Theology and Classical Hebrew classes. I also identify with Frank Viola when he points out that believers’ roots lie in eternity before the foundation of the world, in the One greater than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek and not of Aaron]. Praise God that wherever these failures have abounded, God’s grace has much more abounded! Almost everywhere I go these days I bump into shaken and burned believers finding new hope in Christ-exalting ecclesiae in the most unlikely places and forms.
‘How do we then live’ as Church in such times of shaking and burning?
- By repenting from our ego-kingdoms and thankfully believing, embracing, living and gossiping (24/7) the ‘full gospel’ of King Jesus. (cf my previous blogs on the meaning of the ‘gospel’)
- By living out of Christ’s sheer grace, indwelt by his Spirit, not out of religious duty (the law) but intimate relationship with the King.
- By living patiently and confidently before Christ in a shaking world, with all its political instability, social pressures, economic hazards, spiritual apostasy, physical danger and moral decay (cf. Heb. 13:5-8).
- By living in radical obedience to the heavenly vision. Will we? Karl Barth said that when we fold our hands in prayer we start a revolt against the world order. Patrick was a runaway slave living in England when he saw a vision one day, ‘I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The voice of the Irish.” As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea… and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”‘ Patrick obeyed and went back to Ireland (where he had been a slave) and in response to Patrick’s obedient ‘walking among them,’ a supernatural Jesus movement broke out that transformed multitudes in Ireland from paganism into dynamic Christ followers. In the words of Patrick,
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
[for the story of St. Patrick I am indebted to Steve Simms, http://stevesimms.wordpress.com%5D