The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“Make every effort….to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
“Endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sons…(he) disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12: 7-10 NIV)
Holiness and the Way of the Cross
There are a few verses of Scripture that used to scare me to death (and still make me tremble). This is one of them. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord,” the author to the book of Hebrews tells us. What are we to make of that? These words come in the context of our discipleship in the way of the cross. We already know that we are to expect hardship, persecution, suffering and even death if we are going to follow Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. Seeking the new Jerusalem life of spiritual unity, anointing and abundant life in Christ. It will not be easy.
The author of the book of Hebrews tells us to “endure hardship as discipline. God is treating you as sons…(he) disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12: 7-10 NIV). I like the words “that we may share in his holiness.” I just don’t like the words “endure hardship as discipline.” The two things don’t seem to go together. I understand the first passage that says that we must “make every effort” to be holy, but the second passage is about “enduring hardship.” The first seems to be about an internal type of effort to become a better person, like Christ while the second seems to be about how we handle external circumstances.
They are both, apparently, true and both are necessary for the development of holiness. If you want to share in the holiness of God, you need to deal with the sin within and the hardships without. Otherwise you will not see God.
I don’t like that last part at all. It sounds like my salvation is dependent on my holiness. I thought I was going to see God and be accepted by him because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, not because of my holiness. It’s a good point. How do we make sense of this?
The first thing to remember is that the root word for “discipline” is the same as the word for “disciple.” The problem is that “discipline” has gotten a bum rap in recent years. The word, itself, is enough to make your heart sink and your stomach flutter in apprehension. Even the words “make every effort” are already making a demand on my life that I am not sure I can complete. I feel defeated before I even start, especially if I am not going to see God or share in his holiness without that burden of discipline and effort. Sigh.
Well, stop being such an Old Testament type of Christian, then, and throw off that mantel of expectation and defeat and enter into the joy of your salvation. Many of us are still very Old Testament about our faith. We are not under law but under love, under a relationship, under faith. We don’t have a bunch of rules to follow but rather a person to follow, a relationship to develop.
Many of us associate holiness with the Old Testament command to “be perfect, because I, the Lord your God, am perfect.” Oh, wait. There is no verse for that. It doesn’t exist. The verse in Leviticus actually says, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 NIV). But I’m sure that I read that we had to be “perfect” like God is perfect. Yes, it’s true. But Jesus said it, in the New Testament, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 4 and 5).
Remember the context. Jesus has come to earth at a time when the Pharisees have re-interpreted the Old Testament laws in such a way as to reduce them to a manageable system of “do’s and don’ts” that you could actually accomplish if you paid close enough attention and followed all of the nitpicky advice of the Scribes and Pharisees who simply missed the point altogether. They assumed that to be accepted by God, they had to fulfill the laws of Moses, not realizing that it was (and is supposed to be) impossible. The law reflected the character of God.
But, according to the Pharisees, if you kept the whole law, you could be considered “godly.” Paul tells us that the law was “put in charge to lead us to Christ” (Galatians 3:24a NIV). In a world full of rebellion and sin, the only standard was what every man deemed for himself what was right or wrong. Society and government got involved. Laws were enacted to curb our natural instincts but until the law of God came on Mt. Sinai, there was no way to know what God’s standards were for mankind.
But the point of the law, even in the Old Testament, was to show how impossible it was for us to keep it entirely. That is why the sacrificial laws were also given to the people so that, when they sinned, they had an avenue for forgiveness before God and reconciliation with the community. Sin was both individual as well as corporate and the sacrifices kept them aware of this fact on an ongoing basis. We know that the sacrifices pointed to Christ.
So, why in the world did Jesus say to his disciples, “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5: 46 NIV). He knew what he was doing. In the face of the legalistic teaching about “perfection” or “righteousness” by the Pharisees that could be fulfilled (and therefore could justify you before God), Jesus puts the standard back where it belongs. In the realm of the impossible. “You have heard that it was said…..but I say unto you….” (Matthew 5 NIV). And Jesus truly makes it impossible. If you even think about a woman in your head, you have committed adultery with her. If you feel anger against your brother, you have already murdered him in your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself said the Old Testament law but the Pharisees only required love for your fellow Jew. God requires love for your enemies and the people who persecute you. On and on Jesus goes, showing the absurdity of the Pharisees in trying to reduce the character of God to a bunch of laws that they truly believed they could follow. Not on your life.
The Sermon on the Mount was both a rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees who wanted to be justified by works as well as a guide to righteous living by those who are already justified by faith because of the righteousness of Christ. Those who are empowered by the Holy Spirit because they are already justified by faith can make great strides towards the actual righteousness of God and thereby “share in his holiness.”
When our concept of holiness is rooted in the Old Testament ideas of perfection and righteousness under the law, then the call to holiness is just another burden, another form of legalism, another impossible requirement for salvation. When our concept of holiness is rooted in the cross, in the work of Christ on our behalf, in the righteousness and holiness of Jesus which fully belongs to me, and is mine for all eternity, then it is a call to discipleship, to following, to wanting to share in the holiness of God, to taste of its divine nectar but without condemnation. That isn’t to say that effort is not needed or that hardships will not come.
Because of the sin within and the evil without, there is no other way to share in his holiness then to walk the way of the cross, to follow Jesus into that dark vale, to seek Jerusalem without fear, without concern that our salvation is somehow at stake.
This effort that we must make and these hardships we must endure are never done alone. Not only do we have a band of brothers and sisters who also seek the new Jerusalem of spiritual unity, anointing and abundant life together with us, we also have the Holy Spirit and Christ, himself, who goes with us, helping us, praying for us, managing every detail for us, turning every evil into our good because he is the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV). That is his promise to us.
Listen to how Paul puts it in his second letter to the Corinthians. “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (II Corinthians 7: 1 NIV).
So it isn’t about becoming holy in order to see God since we are already made holy by Jesus Christ? Yes, and no. The author of the book to the Hebrews is saying something a bit more, isn’t he? There is still an expectation, a demand of some kind, a requirement almost in terms not of Christ’s holiness but our actual holiness. You can’t deny that there is something that we are still missing.
Discipleship is about holiness. Yes, we are saved by the holiness of Christ but if that is true, then we have the Holy Spirit who will convict us of sin, bring us to confession, work in us the faith needed to repent, give us the conviction of the power of forgiveness based on the cross, and stir in us the deep desire for reconciliation with God and our brothers and sisters.
In other words, if we are made holy, we will seek to be holy and make every effort to do so in the power of the Spirit in the context of the joy of our salvation, not to be accepted by God but to see Him in his holiness and to share in His holiness, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to enter the battle against sin and evil. And if we need to endure hardship and persecution from without and deal with sin from within, then so be it.
But the key is that we are, together with Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, “perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (II Corinthians 7:1 NIV). Not out of fear but out of love and reverence for the One who has saved us and invites us to “share in his holiness.”
The way of the cross may be hard but it is full of blessing and glory and holiness and righteousness. The wonder is that I want to follow him down that road, that I hunger and thirst for his righteousness and that I will give up my small ambitions to gain this one thing, to please Him who loves me to death. That is the way of the disciple who follows Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. Come, he said. Follow me.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s tell him that we hunger and thirst to share in his holiness.
Lord, it’s true. We hunger and thirst to share in your holiness. Some days more than others, I know. We are terribly inconsistent, but when push comes to shove, our heart’s desire is to follow you and seek that pearl of great price, the kingdom of God within, taking root and bringing forth a harvest of righteousness. I know that you are creating a new type of person, a witness, a follower, a new-creation Christ-like martyr who has an eye on eternity and will not be distracted by the cares of this world. Thank you, Lord for going with me on this journey of faith. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.