Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
Throughout world history, there has been much that has invoked fear.
Take just the last 100 years…
The extermination of the Armenians in Turkey,
goose-stepping Nazis running death camps,
the purges of Stalin,
the horrid fruit of Mao’s Black Book,
the killing fields of Cambodia,
the Twin Towers, here, on our own soil.
These pictures cause fear and dread.
Run to the Bible right!?
But in today’s Gospel reading, we also see the words of the Son of God that, throughout the ages, have caused many to tremble!
Jesus speaks of the final judgement, alerting us to the fact that there is indeed a “narrow door…”
The Old Testament passage from Isaiah 66 is also all about the final judgement! (even though this is not so obvious from the particular section we read…) and likewise our Psalm….
When it says “before [the Lord] is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest…”
…we might also think about how in the Hebrews reading it speaks of the dread at Mt. Sinai….
A mountain…”burning with fire” and filled with “darkness, gloom, and storm…”
The author of Hebrews says the sight was so terrifying that even Moses himself said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’”
Fear and dread….
And perhaps this passage I selected from Hebrews also caused you to wince, at least a bit:
“Strive for peace with everyone, and for holiness without which no one will see the Lord…”
Let’s unpack this a bit…
First of all, let’s look at that passage again in a bit larger context…
No discipline [from God] seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,”[b] so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son…
Interesting and important stuff, to be sure…
Second, let’s ask this: just what is holiness?
The Bible speaks about
“holy prophets” (Acts 3:21),
“holy apostles” (Eph 3:5),
a “holy calling” (2 Ti 1:9),
“holy scriptures” (Ro 1:2),
a “holy covenant” (Lk 1:72).
Holiness sets God apart from not only the fallen, sinful world, but also from his creation in general! He is set apart from that which He made…
And yet, through His Spirit working by His Word, He calls us His “saints,” or “holy ones.” That is, those who share in His divine life….
In sum, holiness insofar as it has to do with us it is related to the biblical word “sanctification”…
This describes the process of being made pure, as the Lord is pure… It is the process whereby our affections, thoughts, will, and acts are brought into conformity with God’s….[i]
And you see, holiness is connected with not just what someone does, but who they are…
Have you ever felt like you were among people who really didn’t want you there?
Or, even more, have you ever known—from pretty clear indications from those around you—that your presence wasn’t really wanted?
I had an experience like that just recently (and no, I wasn’t just being annoying)
If you have that experience as a Christian, because you are a Christian, that is a taste, you know, of why the Final Judgement is coming… must come….
Because the pure and impure cannot forever abide with one another….
[God’s final purification]
You see, the Scriptures tell us that it is the pure in heart—that is God’s people—who will “see him as he is…”
And again, the immediate context for this meeting, this seeing God, is the end of the world!
God’s final purification.
Human beings certainly make their own attempts at purification—sometimes with horrifying results—and in the beginning of this message I briefly mentioned some of those…
Nevertheless, God’s purification, His final purification, stands out like none of the others!
The Moon the color of blood,
the sky being rolled up like a scroll,
the veil being removed!
…a loud trumpet,
and Angel armies accompanying the King of Heaven and earth, riding on a White Horse.
The Great last judgment of the sheep and the goats.
It’s not the season of Advent yet, but nevertheless these are the kinds of things that are spoken about in our Scripture readings for today: the “Last Days”… the end of the world!
And as our Hebrews reading for today ends:
“since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”[f]
We can get a glimpse of what is happening here: though God’s people face the Fearsome God, the Lion of Judah, they are encouraged to thankful… again, not to be terrified, but ultimately encouraged!
For He is “our” God who saves us….
So in when this day comes, God’s people, the “pure in heart,” are told to “Lift up your heads – for your redemption is near!”
So do not fear this judgment—you who He makes pure!: For this judgment is one of the enemies of God and Jesus Christ – those who consider you impure!
The True Judge of Heaven and Earth comes to save those who trust in Him, the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the persecuted,
The true pure.
The time for those who hate us is not long… we will be rescued by our Conqueror when He comes again.
Perhaps it will even be something like from the story the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — where the royal priesthood of believers wield swords and participate in the final battle….
This battle where The Evil One will be defeated forever….
With the result being that people from all tongues, tribes and nations – will be saved by the Rider on the White Horse, Faithful and True, the Son of God.
It will be “Back to the Garden of Eden…. So like it says in the Psalm:
3 Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
4 For the Lord takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with victory.
How can we not rejoice?
For this world, the empty way of life, all which opposes the goodness God brings…is passing away.
Much more awaits us.
Therefore, as the Scriptures urge us to do…..
“…we know that when Christ appears,[a] we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Now, if you are like me, perhaps you think at this point “Have I ‘purified myself’? And focusing on our Hebrews passage we are looking at, you might ask: “do I know what it means to strive for holiness?”
I mean, it seems kind of important.”
We Lutherans don’t usually talk this way, right?
So what does this mean?
How are we made pure?
Before we can answer this question, let’s think a bit more about what it really means to be made holy… to be made pure…
Have you heard the phrase “pure as the driven snow”? Driven snow is snow that has been blown by the wind, into drifts and such.
The kid in me concludes that it’s the kind of snow you can eat.
In any case the expression isn’t used as much these days, but it is used to speak, sometimes disparagingly, about things like moral purity, chastity, and virginity.
(also rarer terms these days).
And of course in our everyday language, pure means something that is uncontaminated.
There is no defilement or spoliation. And to purify something means to bring it to this state.
And if a person has been purified, is pure, this evokes the idea of not only outer, but inner cleanliness… to the very center of one’s being. Through and through.
How, then, does the Bible say this takes place? It says that true purity, purity that lasts and is never faked, not only looks like God but is rooted in God.
Only God, after all, is truly good, truly pure.
So, when it comes to us poor sinners, being pure, in the most simple sense, means to believe and hope in God, as opposed to the world, false in its love, which rages against Him.
In I Peter chapter 1, the Apostle says you have purified yourselves. How?
“By submitting to what you heard: you believe, Peter says, the words of testimony about Jesus Christ, raised from the dead.”
And revealed in these last times for our sakes!
And it is because of this truth, Peter says, that you have true love for each other. Therefore, he says “love one another deeply, from the heart,”
This is what it means pure.[ii] Again, let’s connect this back to our passage from the book of Hebrews….
First and foremost we must understand the core of what the author of Hebrews has been saying in the whole book.
He has said that according to Jesus’, the Son of God’s human nature, He was “made perfect forever,” (Heb. 7:28)
…and now we, united with our Great Advocate and Intercessor by faith, are also “made perfect forever”.
In other words, this perfection, in one sense, is an accomplished fact!
Status as His child? Or got concerns that you are on His mind and He’s got your back?
Do you not know that our Priest Jesus Christ has “enter[ed] the inner place behind the curtain” and therefore we have a “steadfast anchor for the soul”?
The name of His children is written in the palm of His hand!… And “whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his!” (4:10)
Scripture goes so far as to paint the peace of the child of God like this: Resting in the arms of the mother who nurses and sings over them!
Do we get grace?! Do we get the purposes of God’s grace? That is, what the author of Hebrews says in chapter 10?
Through the work of Christ, who is our priest, our sacrifice, and even our altar! – God has made perfect forever those who are being made holy!
And we are also told in this book that He has given us the “Sabbath rest” – even as He also urges us to “enter that Sabbath rest” more and more (4:11)….
So that sounds a bit like what he says about holiness… striving for it… doesn’t it?
Can we better understand this?
[Living in That Purity!]
We certainly can! Let’s talk about living in that purity.
First of all, let’s note this the author of Hebrews says earlier to the ones who are “being made holy”: “Therefore, holy brethren, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus…”
That means that the question is really this…:
How do we strive for the holiness that we already have?
How do we “purify ourselves” as the Apostle John tells us or how do we “keep yourselves pure…” as the Apostle Paul also tells us? (I Tim. 5:22)?
We identify with, we embrace what we already have… and we live in it…
The question of living in God’s purity has to do with what God’s purity and holiness is.
He is challenging each one of us regarding the question of whether, because of the world’s temptations (to sluggishness, pleasures, etc.)[iii], false understandings of what it means to be a Christian have penetrated our hearts…
So what, ultimately, is God’s purity and holiness? It is this:
He, and He alone, is the Love which burns through Evil en route to rescuing those lost in the darkness.
In Christ’s work, we see the charred remains of sin, death, and the devil.
He did this for us.
We don’t have a God who is arbitrary and unpredictable—like the false gods of the world—we have a God who disciplines those He loves for their good.
We don’t have a God who doesn’t understand what it is like to be a human being. We have a God who was tempted in every way we were and can sympathize with us in our weakness….
We don’t have a God who delights in the same kinds of sinful actions human beings delight in, but One who shows us a better way – a life of simple and humble love that has not only this life but the next one in view.
Again, if we ever doubt any of that, let us look again to the cross.
No matter what your earthly circumstances… no matter what the difficulties or sufferings you are enduring… God Himself has taken the punishment for your sins on the cross. He did it to be just and the justifier of the wicked.
And so when it comes to us…
the implication is that we have – and create – spaces and places where this message can be heard, believed and lived.
The mission we have is never about God’s people being intrinsically superior to others outside of God’s Kingdom…of this house of worship. Rather this mission is about New and True Life!
True sight! True seeing! True purity!
Being blessed to know not only where the bread is which we share – the Forgiveness of sins which heals and nourishes… but also knowing where True Life is in Fullness.
What is that?
There is a King we know who is simple.
Who loves His people, who is loyal… but who does not let sin go unpunished….
Who will not allow us to live in our lies, our lusts, our pride and selfishness….
He is ready to Refine us again, discipline us again, and He will stop at nothing to make us more His…
So don’t say, for example, “am I my brother’s keeper?” They are all your brothers!…
You are to love your brethren in Christ first of all,
and in this world you must look to provide and care for family first,
but all are your brothers…
The Christian life never has as its goal alienation and cutting one’s self off, but we call people–even our enemies–into our spaces, into our places, to participate with us “in the life that is truly life”.
Though He has hard words, demanding words, even damning words, Jesus’ default orientation is not to condemn, but save,
…and His heart is now ours.
This is the life to which he has called us….with these truths we must practically wrestle, in the church… and beyond…[iv]
Don’t live in fear of the world, or even permanently set up camp at Mt. Sinai in trembling, in the presence of the God who chars sin, death, and the devil.
Rather, whoever desires, let him take the refreshing water of life – pure water – freely!
Anyone who is thirsty…
Or as the author of Hebrews puts it:
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
I hope you are confident. With Him, we’re ready.
We were washed and we ARE baptized, belonging to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Come Lord Jesus,
(related to Anglo-Saxon hal, “whole, well”). 1. “Holiness is the absolute purity of God, according to which His affections, thoughts, will, and acts are in perfect consistency and harmony with His own nature, and in energetic opposition to everything that is not in conformity therewith” (A. L. Graebner,* Outlines of Doctrinal Theology, par. 36). In OT God is holy and stands utterly above the created world; He is the wholly other, the transcendent God (Ex 3:5; 19:12–13, 20–24). The holy God imparts Himself; He wishes men to share in His divine life within the scope of His judgment and mercy (Dt 7:6; Lv 11:44). His holiness is dynamic, manifested when He executes judgment (Ezek 28:22). The Holy One of Israel is man’s Redeemer (Is 43:14). The holiness of the Lord is assoc. with the glory of the Lord and with fire (e.g., Ex 3:2–5; 19:18–22).
- NT understanding of holiness is built on the OT (1 Ptr 3:15; cf. Ps 99:9). Jesus is called “the Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24). The NT ch. is successor to the OT community of God’s holy people (Ex 19:6; 1 Ptr 2:9–10); Christians are called to be saints, holy ones (Ro 1:7; 1 Co 1:2); the vocabulary of holiness appears, e.g., in NT statements regarding the work of the Holy* Spirit and the life and conduct of “the saints” and in references to “holy prophets” (Acts 3:21), “holy apostles” (Eph 3:5), “holy calling” (2 Ti 1:9), “holy scriptures” (Ro 1:2), “holy covenant” (Lk 1:72).
- In the hist. of theol. the classical view associates God’s holiness with His righteousness and law. The theol. of F. D. E. Schleiermacher* and A. Ritschl* reduced the content of the concept of holiness, the former saying that God’s holiness in effect was His approval and disapproval of man by His law and man’s conscience, the latter suggesting that holiness is of no concern to man. Current theol. is trying to grasp the Biblical idea of holiness. God’s love is holy love. Holiness is more than an ethical quality; there is also an ontological aspect (see Ontology). For some this means God’s opposition to sin (K. Barth*), for others, God’s transcendence (H. E. Brunner*); for others, the Holy One is unapproachable (P. Tillich*).
- Holiness is joined with love, yet is distinct from it. Holiness creates distance; love conquers distance. The holy God conquers distance. He reveals Himself as both exclusive and inclusive, unapproachable and approachable, transcendent and condescending.
- K. Asting, Die Heiligkeit im Urchristum (Göttingen, 1930); R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy, tr. J. W. Harvey, 2d ed. (London, 1950); S. C. Neill, Christian Holiness (New York, 1960); O. R. Jones, The Concept of Holiness (New York, 1961). LDH
See also Stockmayer, Otto.
[ii] The Apostle John says much the same thing and throughout the book of I John I, John has a lot more to say:
- If we walk in the light as He is in the light we have fellowship with each other, and His blood cleanses us from all sin!
- Keep His word, His teaching, His commandments, abide in Him… [by this, the love of God is perfected in us…]
- You know the love of the Son of God who laid down His life for us. So, beloved, let us love one another!
- Do not love the world, or the things of the world: the lust of the flesh, of the eyes, the pride of life… Even if they hate you because of the paths of righteousness in which you walk!
- As the Son is, so we are in this world! We love because He first loved us
- If we abide in the Son and in the Father, we have the promise of eternal life.
- And we will not be ashamed before Him at His coming….
This is what it means to be pure.
This text from I John is in many ways a great summary of all these things… the King James version did it the best:
Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. 2Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. 3And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.
[iii] Strive to make sure none of you falls short….: All these Apostles, and the author of Hebrews in particular, mean for each one of us to primarily be thinking about ourselves and our family here…not first and foremost wondering about the other members of the congregation around us…..
The writer of the Hebrews here is definitely saying that its possible for a person to look like they are not a Christian… that they have fallen short. This is not exactly the same thing as saying that a person is not a Christian, nor is it encouraging us to be “fruit police” when it comes to our fellow believers…
[iv] We are holy before God by faith. Also, it is important to note this: depending on what we are striving for, what form of life we are living in, we are either decreasing or increasing in faith all the time. Luther also says it well:
“Therefore, unless we too hunger and thirst to know and to understand God’s will more perfectly until we also attain to an everlasting vision in the life hereafter, there is nothing more of it in us than a mere froth which can neither quench our thirst nor satisfy us and neither comfort us nor make us better.” —Sermon, Trinity 24, 1536 #LutherQuotes