Better Things – Simple Things

Issue No 4

Adapted for Publication from an Address by Jim Macfarlane at Warrenpoinnt, N Ireland, 2 July 2017

 

For me to live [is] Christ, and to die gain; but if to live in flesh [is my lot], this is for me worth the while: and what I shall choose I cannot tell.  But I am pressed by both, having the desire for departure and being with Christ, [for] [it is] very much better, but remaining in the flesh [is] more necessary for your sakes. . .

Philippians 1:21-24

ThoughIhave [my] trust even in flesh; if any other think to trust in flesh, Irather: as to circumcision, [I received it] the eighth day; of [the] race of Israel, of [the] tribe of Benjamin, Hebrew of Hebrews; as to [the] law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, persecuting the assembly; as to righteousness which [is] in [the] law, found blameless;but what things were gain to me these I counted, on account of Christ, loss. But surely I count also all things to be loss on account of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I have suffered the loss of all, and count them to be filth, that I may gain Christ; and that I may be found in him, not having my righteousness, which [would be] on the principle of law, but that which is by faith of Christ, the righteousness which [is] of God through faith  of Christ, the righteousness which [is] of God through faith, to know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, if any way I arrive at the resurrection from among [the] dead.

Philippians 3:11

Brethren, I do not count to have got possession myself; but one thing — forgetting the things behind, and stretching out to the things before, I pursue, [looking] towards [the] goal, for the prize of the calling on high of God in Christ Jesus. 

Philippians 3:13-14

 For this Melchisedec, King of Salem, priest of the most high God, who met Abraham returning from smiting the kings, and blessed him; to whom Abraham gave also the tenth portion of all; first being interpreted King of righteousness, and then also King of Salem, which is King of peace; without father, without mother, without genealogy; having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but assimilated to the Son of God, abides a priest continually.  Now consider how great this [personage] was, to whom [even] the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth out of the spoils. And they indeed from among the sons of Levi, who receive the priesthood, have commandment to take tithes from the people according to the law, that is from their brethren, though these are come out of the loins of Abraham: but he who has no genealogy from them has tithed Abraham, and blessed him who had the promises.

Hebrews 7:1-6

 For it is borne witness, Thouart a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedec.  For there is a setting aside of the commandment going before for its weakness and unprofitableness, (for the law perfected nothing,) and the introduction of a better hope by which we draw nigh to God.  And by how much [it was] not without the swearing of an oath; (for they are become priests without the swearing of an oath, but he with the swearing of an oath, by him who said, as to him, The Lord has sworn, and will not repent [of it], Thou[art] priest for ever [according to the order of Melchisedec];) by so much Jesus became surety of a better covenant.  And they have been many priests, on account of being hindered from continuing by death; but he, because of his continuing for ever, has the priesthood unchangeable. Whence also he is able to save completely those who approach by him to God, always living to intercede for them.  For such a high priest became us, holy, harmless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and become higher than the heavens: who has not day by day need, as the high priests, first to offer up sacrifices for his own sins, then [for] those of the people; for this he did once for all [in] having offered up himself. For the law constitutes men high priests, having infirmity; but the word of the swearing of the oath which [is] after the law, a Son perfected for ever.

Hebrews 7:17-26

Now a summary of the things of which we are speaking [is], We have such a one high priest who has sat down on [the] right hand of the throne of the greatness in the heavens; minister of the holy places and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord has pitched, [and] not man.

Hebrews 8:1-2

 But now he has got a more excellent ministry, by so much as he is mediator of a better covenant, which is established on the footing of better promises.  For if that first was faultless, place had not been sought for a second.

Hebrews 8: 6-7

But Christ being come high priest of the good things to come, by the better and more perfect tabernacle not made with hand, (that is, not of this creation,) nor by blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood, has entered in once for all into the [holy of] holies, having found an eternal redemption.

Hebrews 9:11-12

And the tabernacle too and all the vessels of service he sprinkled in like manner with blood; and almost all things are purified with blood according to the law, and without blood-shedding there is no remission.  [It was] necessary then that the figurative representations of the things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with sacrifices better than these. For the Christ is not entered into holy places made with hand, figures of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear before the face of God for us: since he had [then] been obliged often to suffer from the foundation of the world.

Hebrews 9:21-26

Having therefore, brethren, boldness for entering into the [holy of] holies by the blood of Jesus, the new and living way which he has dedicated for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, and [having] a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, sprinkled as to our hearts from a wicked conscience, and washed as to our body with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of the hope unwavering, (for he [is] faithful who has promised;) and let us consider one another for provoking to love and good works; not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the custom [is] with some; but encouraging [one another], and by so much the more as ye see the day drawing near.

Hebrews 10:19-24

 

 

A short time ago, one of our elderly sisters in Dundee[*]was taken to be with the Lord Jesus.  In the epistle to the Philippians Paul speaks about transforming our ‘body of humiliation into conformity to His body of glory’ (Philippians 3:21). This dear feeble sister, almost 91 years old, had a body of humiliation; it was physically feeble, and it was a merciful release for her.  Although she found it very difficult to communicate, in the days just before the Lord Jesus took her to be with Himself, her husband had occasion to refer to this well-known passage in Philippians 1 which we read first. Our brother said to her, ‘… having the desire for departure and being with Christ…’.  In spite of having communicated nothing coherent for quite some time, she added, with total clarity, ‘which is far better’ (v. 23KJV). He was very encouraged by that.   Now if she was as feeble as that, one might say that would not be difficult, but I do not think that was the kind of comparison that the apostle was intending to make here.

I’d like to engage us with ‘Better Things’.   My desire is that we might be able to get some impression of the access we have in Christianity to those better things.

Another comparison we might make is with the apostle’s circumstances. Paul was a prisoner of the Roman Empire at this time. This must have been a very unpleasant experience, so the prospect of ‘being with Christ, for it is very much better’ might be compared with that; but I don’t think that is the comparison he had in mind either.   Paul said in chapter 4, ‘I have strength for all things in Him that gives me power’ (v. 13), and a little further down: ‘I have all things in full supply and abound’(v.18). That doesn’t sound like someone miserable, sitting chained in the prison in Rome.  What Paul referred to were good things, and if the apostle was saying that being with Christ was very much better than those, it must be very good indeed!

A characteristic expression in the Epistle to the Hebrews is ‘better things’(ch. 6:9,  12:24etc.).  Later we will also consider Hebrews as the ‘book of the opened heavens’.

I would like to digress and say a little bit about the Jewish law, because it is the background to the Epistle to the Hebrews.  The epistle was written to Jewish believers whose background was the Jewish law.  I think that it is fair to say that the law that was given to the Jews was a mark of God’s favour to them. It may have made demands, but it was a system by which a man could establish himself as righteous before God.  In principle, the Jewish law was a good thing, but Hebrews is about what is better than that.  Indeed Paul said that the law was more than ‘holy, and just, and good’: it was spiritual (see Romans 7:12-14).

Galatians 6:7tells us, ‘whatever a man shall sow, that also shall he reap’ .  This shows that there are moral consequences to all of our actions.  Any person who does right or wrong will reap accordingly: it is a law of the moral universe.  In the New Testament, I don’t think that it is retributive.

So, in the physical universe: if you apply a force to a moveable object, it will start to move in the direction of the force and accelerate until an opposite force slows it down.  That always happens: the acceleration is a consequence of the force. In the same way, reaping what one sows is morally inevitable.   A Jew knew that: the law was in the inspired Word of God, and he must give consideration to it in all his actions.   That was in his favour.

We read in Philippians 3because it speaks of the transformation which the apostle Paul experienced.   As Saul of Tarsus, he had been proud of his national and social distinctions: ‘of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee. As to righteousness which is in the law, found blameless’(v.5-6).  He had reckoned that his compliance with the requirements of the law had given him personal distinction.  However, after his encounter with Jesus, he had a completely different view. ‘I have suffered the loss of all, and count them to be filth, that I may gain Christ’(v. 8).  Included in what Paul counted filth was his pride in his blamelessness as to the requirements of the law. (Of course, the law itself could not be counted loss and filth).

Paul was proud of being a Pharisee. The Pharisees advertised, at every turn, their strict conformity to what Moses had indicated.  For example, they made broad their phylacteries[†],  and could quote the law to justify their actions. The Lord Jesus was hard on the Pharisees, but gracious to the moral wrecks.

At one point He condemned them for advertising the fact that they tithed everything, even ‘mint and rue and every herb’(Luke 11:42). That is just like saying that a tenth of the salt and pepper that you put on your meal was set aside and dedicated to the temple system. They were as fastidious as that. But the Lord Jesus, when speaking to them in respect of this, said they were ‘teaching as their teachings commandments of men’ (Mark 7:7). I find it interesting to look at the original in the prophet Isaiah and see how he phrases it, ‘Your fear of me is a commandment taught of men’(Isaiah 29:13).

Their contention would have been that this was part of their Jewish tradition. There was the law that was given by Moses, but over the centuries, up to the point when Isaiah was prophesying, they had added a vast superstructure of additional regulations built on top the law that Moses had given. At that time, it was generally regarded as the ‘oral law’, handed down by those who were initiated, scribes (doctors of the law) and Pharisees. Later this was to be codified into writings such as the Talmudand the Midrash.  They had taken the law and manipulated it, setting out many further requirements, claiming the same authority as the Torah, God’s law given by Moses.  Moses’ law was relatively straightforward, and necessarily so, because everybody, however simple and uneducated, had to be able to understand what God required.  But these people had dedicated the whole of their lives, not only to what Moses commanded, but to the great edifice of additional doctrinal interpretation.  The Lord referred to this in the ‘traditional teaching’ when he referred to the washing of vessels (still practiced by many Jews), and the reference to ‘corban’ negating God’s commandment (See Matthew 15:3and Mark 7:10-13).   This traditional teaching was ultimately used to contradict the Lord Jesus, the only one who glorified God by fulfilling the law in its letter and spirit.

This is something that I think we have to consider, because it has not happened only in Judaism: it has happened in Christianity as well.  We can all, I am sure, relate to this

I would like to speak briefly about one of the leaders in the Reformation, Guillaume Farel (1489-1565)[‡]a Frenchman.  He was very significant in the reformer community in Geneva.  If you go to Geneva, to the Reformation Wall, there are four statues of men who were central to the Reformation.  Farel is one of them, along with Calvin, Knox and Beza.  Farel undertook a translation of the scriptures from Latin into French.  The religious authorities of the day objected to this, because if the people knew what was really said in the scriptures, their control would be diminished.  However, the bishop of Meaux, near Paris, was favourable to Farel’s activity. One day Farel and the bishop’s conversation turned to the vast system of complexity that had been built up around the Roman Mass. The bishop’s comment to Farel was that these things were added, one at a time, for the best of reasons.  Farel’s reply to him was that when Peter said to the Lord, ‘Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee’ (Matthew 16:22KJV), he said it with the best of intentions but the Lord’s reply was, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’ (v.23) I just leave this little anecdote with the brethren, because I think it’s something that we need to consider.  Christianity is a simple matter and it must be within the scope of everyone: what comes within everyone’s scope are better things! Better things are simple things.

To return to Hebrews, those addressed were from the same background as Paul– institutional Judaism.  Hebrews is an interesting book, quite different from most other books of the Bible.  For example, the author’s name is not given – that is not surprising, because the force of its introduction is that the one who speaks is God. ‘God having spoken in many parts and in many ways formerly to the fathers in the prophets, at the end of these days has spoken to us in [the person of the] Son’ (Hebrews 1:1-2). That’s who the speaker is: God in the Person of the Son.

The writer of Hebrews told his readers in Chapter 1that he was going to be speaking about better things, starting with the One whowas ‘[the] effulgence of his glory and [the] expression of his [i.e. God’s]substance, and upholding all things by the word of his power, having made [by himself] the purification of sins, set himself down on the right hand of the greatness on high, taking a place by so much better than the angels, as he inherits a name more excellent than they’(Hebrews 1:3-4).  He was going to take up the system with which the Jews were familiar and show that the real spiritual heavenly substance of them was in what God had established in Christ.   They would get the profit and benefit of better things, for their blessing.

As we read Hebrews, we are introduced to better things.  We understand them because of our direct connection with God, revealed in Jesus Christ. Laying hold of these better things, we ultimately become true worshippers.

The Lord Jesus told the poor woman at the well that God was looking for true worshippers – those that worship in spirit and truth (See John 4:24). So the writer begins with another priesthood.  In this connection, I draw  your attention to Hebrews 7:25, ‘Whence also he is able to save completely those who approach by him to God, always living to intercede for them’.   This makes the purpose of the new priesthood clear: to lead those who have received salvation in their approach to God by Him.

It’s an interesting development that the writer gave in these earlier verses. Basically, he said that Aaron’s priesthood had been superseded. Aaron’s priesthood was represented in the person of Abraham, Aaron being in Abraham’s loins (see ch. 7:5).  Normally, in the Jewish system, tithes were paid to the priests, that is to Levi and the system of priesthood represented by him.  But Abraham paid a tithe to Melchisedec, one who was representative of the Lord Jesus in a new system of priesthood. In other words, the old Aaronic system has been superseded.

The other function of the priest, is to sustain us in infirmity.  We need that service all the time.  It says of this new Priest according to the order of Melchisedec, ‘For we have not a high priest not able to sympathise with our infirmities, but tempted in all things in like manner, sin apart’ (Hebrews 4:15).  What distinction lies upon those who are served by Him! ‘Such a high priest became us, holy, harmless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and become higher than the heavens.’ (Ch. 7:26)

The other characteristic of the Epistle to the Hebrews is its being the book of the opened heavens[§].  So there is a new priest and, in the summary given in the opening  verses of chapter 8, we learn that the new Priest has ‘sat down on the right hand of the throne of the greatness in the heavens’ (Hebrews 8:1).   Not only is the Lord Jesus the new High Priest who goes in to God and sustains those who are there with Him, but He is mediator – the one who acts for God towards men. He is ‘mediator of a better covenant, which is established on the footing of better promises’(v. 6) – two ‘betters’ in the same verse!

Chapter 9begins by setting out the Jewish thought of a sanctuary, ‘a worldly one’(ch. 9:1). The material things of the old system were a figurative representation of the things in the heavens. Both the material and the heavenly sanctuaries had to be purified by blood, but ‘the heavenly things themselves [were purified] with sacrifices better than these’(v. 23). Figuratively, the holy of holies was the place of the presence of God: it was not accessible.  The ark of the covenant was there, and access to it was permitted only once a year, by the high priest alone, ‘with blood not his own’ (v. 25).  In the new arrangement, ‘Christ being come high priest of the good things to come, by the better and more perfect tabernacle not made with hand, . . . has entered in once for all into the [holy of holies], having found an eternal redemption’ (v. 11-12).   So access was not just once a year, with an offering which was repeated each time, but He, our Great High Priest, has gone in once for all in the efficacy of His own blood.   Hence we have access with boldness into the holy of holies, where the sense of the presence of God compels worship.

The new worshippers are introduced in Chapter 10.  The Lord has gone in: now there is a worshipping company that can also go into the presence of God in total suitability.  As we enter in as worshippers, we are sustained the Great High Priest.

I conclude by reading briefly from the end of Chapter 6, referring to the blessing of Abraham, as an introduction, in its reference to Melchisedec, to the four chapters with which we have been engaged : ‘Wherein God, willing to show more abundantly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of his purpose, intervened by an oath, that by two unchangeable things, in which it was impossible that God should lie, we might have a strong encouragement, who have fled for refuge to lay hold on the hope set before us, which we have as anchor for the soul, both secure and firm, and entering into that within the veil, wherein Jesus is entered as forerunner for us, become for ever a high priest according to the order of Melchisedec” (Hebrews 6:17-20).

These are inspiring words: may everybody here have some sense of the enormous elevation, privilege, and blessing, of having this confidence referred to in these last few verses of Chapter 6.

May it be so, for His Name’s sake.

 

Warrenpoint
2ndJuly 2017

Edited by: Daniel Roberts, Strood, Kent  (daniel@adayofsmallthings.com)

 

[*]Mrs Isobel Strachan (1926-2017)

 

[†]Phylacteries consisted of a small leather boxes containing the four passages in which frontlets are mentioned (Exodus 13:2-16Deuteronomy 6:4-9Deuteronomy 11:13-22), written on four slips of parchment.  These were fastened with leather straps, with one box on the heart and the other on the brow. They were worn commonly during the act of prayer (hence the Hebrew name tephillin– prayers).  The Pharisees, in their ostentatious show of piety, made either the box or the straps wider than the common size (Matthew 23:5), and wore them as they walked to and fro in the streets, or prayed standing (Matthew 6:5), that people might see and admire them. (From Ellicott)

 

[‡]For more on Farel see Wikipedia

 

[§]Ministry of J Taylor Vol 44 p.166

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