Christ, The End of Religion

We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven. — Hebrews 8.1-2

Spirituality is on the rise in America. Religion, however, is continuing on a multi-decade decline. Pew Research notes, “The phrase ‘spiritual but not religious’ has become widely used in recent years by some Americans who are trying to describe their religious identity.”

The transition from religion to spirituality is exciting for faithful Christians searching for ways to speak about faith. To contrast Christianity, pastor Timothy Keller examines the two elements all religions hold in common:

All religions believe behind the realities of nature there is an ultimate reality. There’s a Reality, capital ‘R’. There is some transcendent power above and behind all of nature that can’t be reduced to empirical, natural scientific factors or causes.

The second thing all religions agree on is there’s some gap between us and that ultimate reality. There’s some gap that needs to be bridged, or there are some barriers that need to be overcome.

At their core, the world’s religions propose that this gap is bridged through moral living, sacrifice, consciousness, or some other human work. Alternatively, Christianity presents Christ as the prophet who came to offer his life on our behalf—as both priest and king. Dr. Keller explains:

In the Bible there is a word for religion…. a Greek word that means religious observances and ceremonies and religious practice. You never ever see it applied to Christianity.

The Romans, who loved religions, let everybody have their own religion…. They let a thousand religions bloom, yet they persecuted Christians and called them atheists.

Christianity was not the beginning of a new religion. It was the anti-religion. It was the end of all religions. That’s why the Romans considered it the most radical thing anyone had ever said.

Christ, our great high priest, is described by the author of Hebrews as being seated. The work is complete—it is finished—religious labor to cross the gap is superfluous. Dr. Keller declares:

Every other religion says, “Do this, give this, offer this, live this, experience this, and that will send you over the gap to God,” but Jesus says, “I’m the God who at infinite cost to myself has come over the gap, has come over the barriers to you, barriers and a gap that you, with your puny little religious observances would never have been able to bridge, but I’ve come to you.”

Today’s Reading
Song of Solomon 8 (Listen – 2:23)
Hebrews 8 (Listen – 2:22)


Why We Reject Christ

For it is witnessed of him, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” — Hebrews 7.17

“Mark Twain is supposed to have said, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,’” reflects filmmaker Ken Burns—before adding, “He didn’t say it, but I love that.” Like all powerful storytellers, Burns looks to the past to clarify the present; “If you know your past, you’re much better armed to deal with the present and the future.”

Ancient cultures were guided from three powerful positions. It was the king’s role to provide and enforce the law; the priest stood between the god(s) and the people; the prophet brought the people hope. The book of Hebrews builds the argument that Christ fills all three roles.

Modern rejections of Christ are primarily reactions to his role as king and priest. No one really takes time to argue about Christ as a prophet. Perhaps this is because anyone can walk out of the woods, eat a handful of locusts for lunch, and claim to speak for god. Maybe it’s because so many have done so throughout history it has become easy to ignore.

But if Christ is king, he is owed allegiance. The implication is that you and I cannot self-actualize. The only way to succeed in this life is to pledge ourselves to someone who transcends our brokenness, heals our wounds, and holds us to his standard.

If Christ is a great high priest, he is the only access we have to God. All of our prayers, hopes, repentance, and joys must be channeled through him—you and I are insufficient for finding and communing with God on our own.

There is a wonderful balance in Christ serving as king, priest, and prophet. We miss the power in Christ’s work when we try to understand it through only one of these roles. The king brings the law—declares the truth—but if the only way to relate to God is through the law we become entangled in legalism.

Similarly, the priest stands as a comforter—but if God is just our comforter, religion is reduced to emotionalism, never moving us past our own “skull-sized kingdoms” and bringing hope and life to the world.

And if Christ is only a prophet, he says inspiring and helpful things, but is powerless to bring justice, peace, beauty, renewal, and new life to our world. Though the metaphors of king, priest, and prophet are ancient, our hope and faith in Christ renews our lives and world at present.

Today’s Reading
Song of Solomon 7 (Listen – 1:55)
Hebrews 7 (Listen – 4:01)

Finding Joy :: Weekend Reading List

“A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track, ” observes Zadie Smith. The author confesses, “That has not been my experience.”

Joy, in many Christian circles, has been wrongly placed in contrast to happiness. The result of this false dichotomy, Randy Alcorn points out, is a distorted view that removes joy from the emotional spectrum and secularizes happiness. “Our message shouldn’t be ‘Don’t seek happiness,’” Alcorn remarks, “but ‘You’ll find in Jesus the happiness and joy you’ve always longed for.’”

As a fruit of the Spirit, joy is given from God, simultaneously with self discipline and patience. In other words, delaying gratification doesn’t diminish the joy of God. True joy requires sacrifice. It reaches beyond pleasure and taps into something much deeper. The most talented storytellers in our culture have recognized this—noting how different joy is from the reckless pursuit of pleasure that marks our material world. Filmmaker George Lucas explains:

Joy is the thing that doesn’t go as high as pleasure—in terms of your emotional reaction—but, it stays with you. Joy is something you can recall, pleasure you can’t. The secret is, that even though it’s not as intense as pleasure, the joy will last you a lot longer.

If you’re trying to sustain that level of peak pleasure, you’re doomed. It’s a very American idea. Joy lasts forever, pleasure is purely self-centered. It’s all about your pleasure—it’s about you. It’s a selfish, self-centered emotion. It’s created by a self-centered motive of greed.

Joy is compassion. Joy is giving yourself to somebody else, or something else. It’s a kind of thing that, in its subtlety and lowness, much more powerful than pleasure. If you get hung up on pleasure you’re doomed. If you pursue joy, you’ll find everlasting happiness.

When we think of the fruit of the Spirit as the transferable attributes of God—those divine characteristics which shape our lives as we live in sync with the Spirit—it becomes clear human beings were created for joy. Scripture reveals that anything we are created to receive from God we will attempt to counterfeit—to become our own god as we provide for ourselves.

Marijuana, alcohol, adventure sports, sex, and so many other little things bring us right to the outside edges of joy. We taste, if only for a moment, the glory of creation. And because pleasure is so short lived and so soon forgotten we want more. We need more. In trying to pin down a definition of joy for her piece in The New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith looks back to her drug use in the London club scene:

Was that joy? Probably not. But it mimicked joy’s conditions pretty well…. The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it.

We can’t counterfeit true joy. Commenting on Smith’s experience, Alex Bayer observes, “static pleasure precludes the chance of achieving joy.” What we see—in Christ’s life, sacrifice, death, and resurrection—is that joy is found not in the flickers of earthly pleasure, but the eternal glory of God. One of Jesus’ shortest parables, then, is a story about joy—and how we find it in the happy forfeiture of this life’s meaningless pleasures:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Joy is not contrast to happiness, but to grief. We know this, deep down—if nothing else from the depth of these two emotions. We know this from the low-level grief we carry with us in a broken world. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit because it only comes as God re-enters the world from which sin kicked him out. He came and wept with us so that we might rejoice for all of eternity with him.

Grief today is but a sign of the glory to come. Likewise, the joy we find relinquishing our pursuit of daily pleasure for a greater joy is a testimony of what lies ahead. Smith concludes:

The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Song of Solomon 4 (Listen – 2:46)
Hebrews 4 (Listen – 2:43)

This Weekend’s Readings
Song of Solomon 5 (Listen – 2:43) Hebrews 5 (Listen – 1:57)
Song of Solomon 6 (Listen – 1:48) Hebrews 6 (Listen – 2:58)

Finding Peace in Christ :: Throwback Thursday

By Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843)

Consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession. — Hebrews 3.1

When a traveller passes very rapidly through a country, the eye has no time to rest upon the different objects in it, so that, when he comes to the end of his journey, no distinct impressions have been made upon his mind; he has only a confused notion of the country through which he has travelled. This explains how it is that death, judgment, eternity, make so little impression upon most men’s minds.

In the same way the devil tries to make the children of God doubt if there be a Providence. He hurries them away to the shop and market. Lose no time, he says, but make money. Therefore God cries, Stop, poor sinner, stop and think; and Jesus says, “Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; consider the ravens, which have neither storehouse nor barn.”

In the same way does the Devil try to make the children of God live uncomfortable and unholy lives. He beguiles them away from simply looking to Jesus: he hurries them away to look at a thousand other things, as he led Peter, walking on the sea, to look round at the waves. But God says, Look here, consider the Apostle and High Priest of your profession: look unto me, and be ye saved.

In the Old Testament, the name by which he is oftenest called is the Angel of the Lord, or the Messenger of the Covenant. God anointed him and sent him to the work. In the New Testament, over and over again Christ calls himself, the sent of God. “As thou hast sent me into the world, so have I sent them into the world, that the world may know that thou hast sent me.” “And these have known that thou hast sent me.” All this shows plainly that it is not the Son alone who is interested in the saving of poor sinners, but the Father also. “The Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”

The atonement has been made, Christ has died, his sufferings are all past. And how is it that you do not enjoy peace? It is because you do not consider. “Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” Consider: has Jesus died in the stead of guilty sinners, and do you heartily consent to take Jesus to be the man in your stead?

Today’s Reading
Song of Solomon 3 (Listen – 1:48)
Hebrews 3 (Listen – 2:25)

Power and Intimacy 

For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. — Hebrews 2.18

“External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve,” observes David Brooks. The New York Times columnist recalls that a few years ago he came to a realization: “I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul.”

Striving is the term authors of the Scriptures give to pursuits of self salvation. The tuning pitch of the book of Hebrews is the presentation of Christ as the end of our striving. Where we will pursue ad infinitum, the first chapter of Hebrews teaches, Christ is sufficient:

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

If Christ were just all-powerful, we would have the answer we need but no path to access it—what can make limitless strength bow down? On the other hand, if Christ were just near to the brokenhearted, we would have the intimate grace and love we need, but no faculty to heal our brokenness or bring justice to our world.

This may be why the first two chapters of Hebrews echo the first two chapters of Genesis. In the first creation account God speaks the world into existence—power, radiance and glory writ large across the galaxies. In the second account God scrapes dirt with his hands and breathes life with his lungs—intimately knowing the frame of his beloved children. Where the first chapter of Hebrews says God is powerful, the second says he feels our pain.

“Shoreless Ocean,” A.W. Tozer writes of God, “who can sound Thee? Thine own eternity is round Thee, Majesty divine!” It is the power of grace—the heart of the Christian experience—that draws us to intimately know God’s power in our lives. Tozer reflects:

You and I are in little (our sins excepted) what God is in large. Being made in His image we have within us the capacity to know Him. In our sins we lack only the power…. For now begins the glorious pursuit, the heart’s happy exploration of the infinite riches of the Godhead. That is where we begin, I say, but where we stop no man has yet discovered, for there is in the awful and mysterious depths of the Triune God neither limit nor end.

Today’s Reading
Song of Solomon 2 (Listen – 2:15)
Hebrews 2 (Listen – 2:47)

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