Reviving a Tired Church (Hebrews)

            About thirty years ago, Sueanne and I spent a couple of weeks in Scotland.  On that trip, we saw a lot of huge cathedrals.  Those cathedrals are among the most beautiful buildings in the world.  If you were to build one today, it would cost millions and millions of dollars. 

            But, to me, the most fascinating thing about those buildings is that most of them are now empty.  In sanctuaries that would hold hundreds or thousands of people, many of them have only ten or twenty people who gather for worship.  Some of them have literally boarded up their doors because there’s no one meeting there anymore. 

            There are some who say that Christianity faces the same inevitable decline in this country.  Church buildings will eventually become museums.  Christianity may live on, but it will be in small groups of people.  And when we see the poll results that show us the declining number of people in this country who follow Jesus Christ, it can get a bit discouraging.

            We need to remember that there were many times in the Bible when faithful people were tempted to consider their cause a failure.  In fact, the Bible is not the story of triumph after triumph, but rather the story of triumph after failure.  The truth is, there have always been periods of decline and discouragement among God’s people.  For example:

1.      The children of Israel.  They came out of Egypt victorious.  They followed Moses and the pillar of cloud through the Red Sea.  They watched the Egyptian armies being drowned behind them.  But, after years of wandering in the wilderness and not seeing the land of Canaan, they became discouraged and the majority of them gave up their faith in God. 

2.      Many of the prophets in the Old Testament had more setbacks and dis­couragement than they did victory.  Elijah, for example, experienced a great victory over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.  Fire coming down from heaven!  But, soon after that, Elijah realized that things really hadn’t changed all that much — the people of Israel still didn’t care about following God, and so he got discouraged.  Hecomplained to God that “the children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars and killed your proph­ets with the sword.  I alone am left.” (I Kings 19:10).  Elijah was so discouraged that he just wanted to die and get it over with.

3.      Even Jesus’ ministry didn’t always look like a success story.  In the first half of John chapter 6, there are these huge crowds following Jesus out into the countryside, but by the time you get to the end of that chapter, you find that “many of his disciples went back and walked with him no more.” (John 6:66). 

4.      Then there was Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 which was a symbol of the apparently hopeless condition of the people of God.  The prophet looked out over the valley at all of the dry bones lying on the ground and heard a voice ask the question, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3).  And it didn’t seem like they could.  It just didn’t seem like there was much hope.  It was a discouraging vision. 

            Ultimately, it was God’s spirit that brought those bones back to life.  But Ezeki­el was given the task of prophesying to those bones.  And that’s the same task that God has given those of us who are preach­ers to revitalize congregations that are tired and discouraged.

            That’s one of the reasons that many churches hold “revivals”.  In our fellowship, we usually refer to them as “gospel meetings”, but many people still call them revivals because that’s what they’re supposed to do — it’s an opportunity to revive the church, to bring it back to life. 

            There’s one book in the New Testament that addresses the problem of reviving a tired church – it’s the book of Hebrews.  Now, at first glance, the book of Hebrews may not look like a book on church renewal.  If you’ve read Hebrews recently, you know that it’s filled with a lot of complicated arguments. 

            In fact, I think Hebrews is one of the most difficult books in the New Testament to understand.   It consists of a series of arguments comparing Jesus with various aspects of Old Testament life in order to show us that Jesus Christ is “better” — he is superior to everything and everyone in the Old Testament.

            He’s better than the prophets.  He’s better than the angels.  He’s a better law-giver than Moses was, and he’s a better rest-provider than Joshua was.  He’s a better high priest than any of the Levites, and his sacrifice on the cross was far superior to any of the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament.

            But Hebrews is not just a long extended argument.  There’s something differ­ent about Hebrews.  For one thing, it doesn’t start out like most letters, telling you who it was written to and who was doing the writing. 

            In fact, we don’t know who wrote it.  If you read this letter in English, you’re almost certain that Paul wrote it, because so many of the thoughts are expressed the way Paul would express them.  But if you read it in Greek, it seems equally certain that Paul did not write it, because the language used in this letter is far different than all the other letters that we know were written by Paul. 

            As a result, some people think that maybe Paul wrote the letter in Hebrew and then someone like Luke translated it into Greek.  That would certainly explain why it contains Paul’s thoughts, but it doesn’t resemble the language he used.

There have been a lot of other guesses throughout the centuries as to who wrote the book of Hebrews.  Some think it was Silas, Peter, Apollos, Barnabas, or even Aquila and Priscilla.  I happen to agree, though, with one of the teachers of the early church, Origen, who said, “Only God knows.”  One thing we do know — it was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

            As for who the book was written to, again, we also don’t know exactly who it was written to except that they were Jewish Christians.  But, whoever the writer of Hebrews was and whoever he was writing to, there is one truth he holds very dear — that Jesus Christ is the answer to all of our problems. 

            There is no book in all the New Testament that focuses on Christ like the book of Hebrews does.  It is the most systematic presentation of the greatness of Jesus Christ in all the Bible. 

In holding Jesus up, the style and the tone of Hebrews is different from most of the other letters.  In Hebrews 13:22, the author calls it a “word of exhortation”.  That phrase is used only one another time in the New Testament.  In Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas were visiting the synagogue.  After the scriptures were read, they asked Paul, “Do you have a word of exhortation for us?”  They were asking Paul to preach a sermon. 

            So, you could say that the letter to the Hebrews is actually a sermon that was written down.  In just a moment, we’re going to take a look at why the Christians who received this letter were so discouraged, and we’re going to see what the writer said in this letter to help get them back on track.  But first, let’s take an overview of the book of Hebrews, and then I’ll be back to show us how to revive a tired church.

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            From all of the exhortations we find in the book of Hebrews, we know that the original readers faced problems that were very similar to some of the problems we face today. 

1.      They were in danger of calling it quits – of just leaving the church and going back to where they were before (Judaism).  These Christians were about to abandon their faith in Jesus Christ — some of them because they were attracted to the Jewish ritual and ceremony that they used to experience growing up, and others perhaps because of the persecution and pressure they were facing.  The bottom line was — they felt this Christianity thing just wasn’t worth-while; they had to give up too much, and that it was possible, just possible, that they had been deceived and the message about Christ wasn’t even true.  And so, there are many encouragements throughout this book not to drift away from the message they have heard or to “fall away” from the living God.

2.      They had become lazy.  The writer says in chapter 6, “We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish…” (Hebrews 6:11-12).  These Christians were probably not as active in the work of the church as they had once been.  They probably left the work for others to do and they were content with only attending worship services.

3.      Some of them had even begun to miss the worship services of the church.  The Hebrew writer tells them not to neglect meeting together, as was the habit of some (Hebrews 10:25).  They began to be interested in other things which took priority over their time of worshipping Jesus Christ.

4.      Although they had been Christians long enough to develop spirit­ual insight, the author says they were “dull of hearing” or “slow to learn”.  They should have been teaching God’s Word to others, but they still needed someone else to teach them the basics (Hebrews 5:12).  They weren’t growing.  They weren’t maturing. 

5.      But, more than anything else, the book of Hebrews speaks to a group of Christians who were tired.

            Hebrews 12:12 presents a vivid image of people on a long journey who have “drooping hands” and “weak knees”.  The first thing that happens to a runner when he begin,s to tire is that his arms begin to drop.  The position and motion of the arms are extremely important in running.  Your arms actually help pull you through your stride, and they are the first parts of the body to show fatigue.  The second to go are the knees.  First the arms begin to droop and then the knees begin to wobble.

            The writer of Hebrews wants to give us the encouragement we need when we go through discouraging times.  Do you understand what it’s like to be so tired that you feel like you just can’t take another step?

            That’s what these readers were experiencing in a spiritual way.  I want you to keep in mind that these Christians were not terrible people who were out to destroy the church.  They’re just tired.  They can’t take any more.  They’re ready to quit.  The excitement is gone and suddenly the journey of Christianity is more difficult than it was when they got started.  They were ready to sit down and say, “You guys, go on without me.  I can’t go any further.” 

            In his book On the Anvil, Max Lucado tells the story of 45-year-old Joseph Carter.  In August of 1930, Joseph waved good-bye to some friends after an evening meal in a New York restaurant.  He flagged down a taxi, and rode off.  He was never seen or heard from again.

            After 90 years, there are a lot of theories but no one knows exactly what happened that night.  Since Joseph Carter was a New York Supreme Court judge, many suspected murder, but a solid lead was never found.  Other options presented have been:  kidnapping, Mafia involvement, even suicide.

            A search of his apartment revealed one clue.  It was a note attached to a check, and both of them were left for his wife.  The note simply said, “I am very weary.  Love, Joe.”  That note could have been nothing more than a thought at the end of a hard day.  Or it could have meant a great deal more — the final words of a man in deep despair.

            Max Lucado goes on to write, “Weariness is tough.  I don’t mean the physical weariness that comes with mowing the lawn, or the mental weariness that follows a hard day of decisions and thinking.  No, the weariness that attacked Judge Carter is much worse.  It’s the weariness that comes just before you give up….deep, lonely, frustrated weariness.”

            That’s how the readers of Hebrews felt.  We’re not sure why they were so weary. 

1.      Maybe they had begun to take their spiritual blessings for granted.  It’s the same thing that happens with songs.  Even the most beautiful song can become old and worn out if you listen to it over and over again.  A song can send chills up and down your spine by the power of its music and message.  The melody and words can capture you to the point where you can’t get them out of your head.  But no matter how good the song is, if you listen to it long enough, sooner or later you’re going to get tired of it. 

            Our faith can also become old and tired, just like an old song.  In fact, the greatest danger that many Christians face is that their faith may become “old hat.”  We can find ourselves just going through the motions without reflecting on the meaning of Christianity.  We hear the music, but we’re no longer moved by the song.

            I think that’s part of what happened to the readers of the Hebrew letter.

2.      Maybe there were Christians who had made their initial commitment in a moment of excitement and they were simply caught up in the prevailing mood.  Maybe they expected that emotional experience to be a daily affair and they just weren’t prepared for a return to the routine affairs of daily life. 

            I’ve seen this happen before when a teen-ager goes off for a youth rally somewhere or a week at a Christian camp.  Everything is spiritually oriented, and he or she gets excited about the thought of following Christ so they become a Chris­tian.  But then when they get back home and go about their normal rou­tine, those feelings of excitement aren’t there anymore and there’s a tendency to get discouraged.

3.      Or maybe the Hebrew readers were converted during a time when everyone expected the Lord to return at any moment.  They kept up their high level of commitment for a while, but they just couldn’t maintain that enthusi­asm year after year.

4.      Or perhaps these were second-generation Christians who grew up in the church and never experienced the joy of discovering Christ like their parents did.

            What I mean by a second-generation Christian is someone who was raised in a Christian home rather than someone who came to Christ as an adult.  So often the doctrines of our faith get passed down by our parents, but the fire of our faith doesn’t.  It’s like an immigrant who appreciates his freedom so much more than his grandchildren do.  In the same way, someone who is raised in the church may fail to appreciate their faith.

5.      Maybe the Hebrew readers felt the worship services of the church seemed very plain and ordinary when compared to what they grew up with.  They missed the Jewish religion that had priests in fancy robes, leading thousands of people in special rituals in a huge temple covered with gold.  Worship with a few Christians in someone’s living room just didn’t look like much.

6.      Maybe their Jewish friends and families were putting some pressure on them to give up on Christianity and come back to the religion they grew up with.

            Whatever the specific reasons were, the readers of this letter found themselves “drifting away” from the things that they had heard.  So the writer of Hebrews had the difficult task of encouraging them to lift up their “drooping hands and weak knees” and call them back to a life of faithfulness, to revive them again.

            As a result, this book is filled, not only with arguments from scriptures, but many, many exhortations to remain faithful.  Over and over and over, the writer urges these Christians to do what is right by saying, “Let us…(do this).” 

            “Let us fear lest we come short of the rest.” (4:1). 

            “Let us be diligent to enter that rest.” (4:11). 

            “Let us hold fast our confession.” (4:14). 

            “Let us come boldly to the throne of grace.” (4:16). 

            “Let us go on to perfection.” (6:1). 

            “Let us draw near.” (10:22). 

            “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope.” (10:23). 

            “Let us consider one another.” (10:24). 

            “Let us lay aside every weight.” (12:1). 

            “Let us run with endurance.” (12:1). 

            “Let us have grace.” (12:28). 

            “Let us go forth to him.” (13:13). 

            “Let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise.” (13:15). 

            But, if you’re not careful, you can get the idea that the book of Hebrews is just sort of a pep talk — “come on, guys, you can do it!”.   But it’s so much more than that.  The message of Hebrews is, “You can do it, as long as you hold onto Jesus Christ.  But if you ever left go of Jesus, you don’t stand a chance.” 

            The book of Hebrews reminds us that we need to keep our eyes on Jesus.  As the writer says in Hebrews 12, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

            One of the most important lessons for a Christian to learn is to know what to do in the midst of life’s storms.  The Bible teaches us that the only way to rise above our circumstances is to put our focus on Jesus and keep your eyes on him, no matter what we may be going through.  To depend on Jesus for everything.

            Because Jesus is the answer to every problem you will ever have and every challenge you will ever face.  Unfortunately, though, when things get tough, it’s often tempting to take your eyes off Jesus and start looking at other things.

            The story of Peter walking on the water is such a great example of what you can accomplish when you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.  In Matthew 14, Peter was bold enough to step out in faith in order to walk on the water, even in the midst of the storm raging around him.  As long as Peter kept his eyes on Jesus, everything was fine.

            But then Peter began to look around at the things that were taking place around him.  He saw the waves rising higher and higher, and he felt the winds increasing.  His physical senses began to take over, and all of a sudden, he was no longer focused on Jesus.  As a result, he began to sink, causing Jesus to catch him and save him from drowning.

            I’m sure you know what it’s like to be in the midst of a storm.  And maybe, like Peter, you started out with your focus on Jesus but got distracted by what was going on around you.

            I’m convinced that everything the devil does in our lives is to get us to take our eyes off of Jesus. Every bill we receive in the mail, every irritation in our marriage, every pain in our body is designed to take our eyes off of Jesus.  Because the devil knows that once we turn away from Jesus, he’s won the battle.

            We need to keep our eyes on Jesus because Jesus is the one who has been tempted just like we have and is in a position to help us in our temptations.  “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:18)“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:14-15).

            We need to keep our eyes on Jesus because Jesus is the one who give us the ability to come boldly to the throne of God’s grace.  “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

            We need to keep our eyes on Jesus because Jesus is the only one who has destroyed the power of death and gives us the ability to overcome it as well.  “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)

            We need to keep our eyes on Jesus because Jesus is the only sacrifice sufficient to take away all of our sin.  “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4).  “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.  But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:11-12,14).

And the Hebrew writer wants his readers to know that if you take away Jesus, you take away all of that, and you’ve got nothing left.  So, if you’re tired, hang onto Jesus.  If you feel like you can’t make it one more day, hold onto Jesus.  If you feel like the world has turned against you, hang onto Jesus.  Because, in the end, that’s all you really have.  And, in the end, it’s all you really need.

So, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.” (Hebrews 10:23)

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