Do Not Be Deceived: Hell Is Real

Last Judgment – Michelangelo Buonarroti (1541)

There is a verse from the Letter to the Hebrews that deserves attention because it is a more common problem than many imagine:

See to it, brothers, that none of you has an unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  But exhort one another daily, as long as it is called today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Heb 3:12-13).

When most of us read a text like this, we think only of obvious and dark cases. For example, someone’s tendency to lash out at others leads him to increasing violence and cruelty, or someone’s desire for possessions leads him to increasing stinginess and unkindness, or someone’s lust leads him to sexually promiscuity that is more and more debased and perverse. However, there are less egregious versions of what this text describes that can lead even religiously observant Catholics to become hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

An example of this is the outright, almost categorical denial of the doctrine of Hell by a large number of Catholics, even ones who attend Mass faithfully each week. Although Jesus taught it consistently, many today firmly resist the biblical teaching that many people are in significant danger of going to Hell.

It can be argued that 21 of the 38 parables have as their theme the warning of impending judgment in which some are judged unable or unwilling to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. For example, there are sheep and goats; wheat and tares; those on the right and those on the left; wise virgins and foolish ones; those who accept the invitation to the wedding and those who refuse; those properly dressed and those who are not; those who are told, “Come, blessed of my Father” and those who are told, “Depart from me.” This is not the place for me to give a full teaching on these doctrines. (I have posted in more depth on these topics previously: here and here and here.)

Many today, even among the religiously observant, do not take these consistent teachings seriously. “God wouldn’t do that because He is love and compassion,” they say. “There aren’t many people in Hell, except maybe Hitler.” Most people are quite “hardened” in this “deceitful” view, to use the language from Hebrews. Even when presented with verse after verse from Scripture—most directly from Jesus’ mouth—many still stubbornly persist in rejecting what is clearly taught, saying: “Yeah, I know, but He didn’t really mean it. He won’t really do that.”

To illustrate, some years ago a woman confronted me after Mass objecting to my sermon, which included a warning about Hell for those who refuse to repent. (The Gospel for that Sunday included Jesus’ sad warning that the road to Hell was wide with many on it, while the road to salvation was narrow and only a few were walking its way and would find salvation). She said to me, “I didn’t hear the Jesus I know in your sermon about Hell today.” I replied, “But ma’am, I was quoting Jesus!” She did not miss a beat, saying, “Oh, please! We know He never really said that.” This reply indicates a hardening by the deceit of sin on several levels: she rejects the revealed Word of God in favor of her own views, she rejects the doctrine and warnings of Hell itself, and she remakes the Lord so that He conforms to her notions and can be worthy of her credence and worship. (We used to call this last thing “idolatry.”)

Listen again to the words from Hebrews: See to it, brothers, that none of you has an unbelieving heart … so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. This refers to more than just wicked behaviors. Sometimes the hardness is a refusal to believe revealed doctrines or to accept the Lord’s serious warnings. A world hardened by the deceit of sin will not accept that there are lasting consequences for the refusal to repent. Many have allowed themselves to be influenced by it, setting aside God’s Word in favor of human ideas and preferences.

Beware of this tendency, which is so common today. Study the doctrines. Read the warnings of the Lord in Scripture. Ask questions about things that puzzle or trouble you; pray for insight—but do not be misled into sinfully and stubbornly rejecting what is revealed.

The reading for Wednesday’s Mass contains a salutary warning:

Rely not on your strength in following the desires of your heart. Say not, “Who can prevail against me?” for the LORD will exact the punishment. Say not, “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me?” for the LORD bides his time. Of forgiveness be not overconfident, adding sin upon sin. Say not, “Great is his mercy; my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger alike are with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the LORD, put it not off from day to day; For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance, you will be destroyed. Rely not upon deceitful wealth, for it will be no help on the day of wrath (Sirach 5:1-10).

The Lord says these things because He loves us. He does not want us to be lost. In the end, though, God respects our freedom to say no to what He is offering. He knows how we are made and how stubborn we can be. He knows that the values of Heaven (particularly love of our enemies, forgiveness of those who have wronged us, and chastity) are not pleasing to many people. The Lord will not force us to live values like these, but they are what Heaven is about. Thus, He warns us to let Him instill a desire in us for what He offers so that we will desire the Heaven He describes. Listen to Him; He warns us in love so that He can take our heart of stone and give us a true heart to desire the Heaven He is offering.

Do not be hardened by deceitful teachings rooted in this world of sin!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Do Not Be Deceived or Hardened in the Error of Those Who Say Hell is Unlikely or Unreal

God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

balance-1475025_1920One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him. Both of these are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, but how?

Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive, or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the wicked.

A recent reading from the Letter to the Hebrews at daily Mass (Saturday of the First week of the Year) presents us with a balance. It speaks of two very different experiences of God, both of which are needed to balance each other.

The word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help (Heb 4:12-16).

The two parts of this passage are very different. The first uses somewhat violent imagery in describing how closely the Word of God examines us, exposing our hidden thoughts and actions. It speaks to God’s justice, His passion to set things right. The emphasis is on the sobering and frightening truth that we will have to render an account to the Lord for every word, thought, and action, no matter how hidden. Jesus is our savior and brother, but He is also sovereign Lord and judge of the world. He is not to be trivialized, minimized, or domesticated. He is the Lord and we will have to answer to Him.

In contrast, the second half of the passage bids us to remember that we have a compassionate Lord, one who sympathizes with our weakness and offers us mercy, grace, and help. We are encouraged to approach the throne of grace. The emphasis here is on a merciful and kind Lord, ready to be approached and to give us every assistance we need in order to be saved.

So, notice the balance in this passage between God’s justice and His mercy. Remember that both are necessary. God’s mercy is needed now because there is a day of judgment. God is not going to stop being God. He is all-perfect and all-holy. He is the Truth Himself, the refulgent light of all glory. We cannot simply walk into His unveiled presence without first being prepared and purified. And thus He makes every help and grace available to us. He is good to us and patient with us. He is merciful and kind.

In this way, God’s mercy and grace prepare us for us his Justice. But there is no justice if sin is unanswered, or injustice is not rectified. That is why we need both His grace and His mercy. Their purpose is to bring the needed changes so that we can be ready for the day when we shall see the Lord.

As a whole, the text therefore speaks of the Lord Jesus in tightly woven tapestry of darker and lighter themes. It requires careful balance.

Too easily in our times we set mercy and justice in opposition to each other. But where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good; that is why the balance of this passage is necessary. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.

So, orthodoxy is in the balance. Both visions of the Lord in the reading from Hebrews above are accurate and necessary. To overemphasize or minimize one is to harm the other.

A mercy that would cancel the requirements of justice would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.

Further, a justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.

So, balance is the stance of orthodoxy. We cannot ever hope to attain to the glory of God without both the justice and mercy of God.

Balance or bust!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

Of the Glory and Means of our Salvation in Christ Jesus

The Crucifixion – Giotto (1304-06)

As we continue to read the Letter to the Hebrews in daily Mass, we are reminded that although the Temple liturgies were glorious and elaborate, they merely pointed to the perfect sacrifice of Christ.

Let’s consider three things regarding the saving work of Christ:

IT IS SURPASSING. At Tuesday’s daily Mass we read this passage:

The Law is only a shadow of the good things to come, not the realities themselves. It can never, by the same sacrifices offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would not the offerings have ceased? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all and would no longer have felt the guilt of their sins. Instead, those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and of goats to take away sins (Hebrews, 10:1-4).

All the shed blood of lambs could not save. Those offerings only pointed to the true Lamb of God and our Passover, Jesus Christ. Even the extravagant offering of a bull could never pay our debt of sin; only Jesus could redeem us, paying the price of our salvation. All those ancient sacrifices could only remind us that by our sins we had a debt we could not pay; they could only serve to symbolize our repentance.

The Temple, though glorious—one of the wonders of the ancient world—was not Heaven itself, but a poor copy. Monday’s reading said,

For Christ did not enter into a sanctuary made by hands, a copy of the true one, but heaven itself that he might now appear before God on our behalf. Not that he might offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters each year into the sanctuary with blood that is not his own; if that were so, he would have had to suffer repeatedly from the foundation of the world. But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice (Heb 9:24-28).

Christ does not operate on some movie set or some earthly copy of Heaven. No, he enters the real temple, the Holy of Holies in Heaven, a place not made with human hands but eternal.

Unlike the high priest, who must repeat the offering again and again, Jesus does this once and for all. Thus, the Mass is not a re-sacrificing of Christ but a making present of His perfect, once-for-all sacrifice. Calvary and its fruits are made present and applied to us in every Mass.

IT IS SUBMITTED. What was the sacrifice that Christ offered? It was surely His suffering and blood, but it was more than that and deeper as well. We also read this passage at Tuesday’s Mass:

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, He said, “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You prepared for me. In burnt offerings and sin offerings You took no delight. Then I said, ‘Here I am, it is written about Me in the scroll: I have come to do Your will, O God’” (Heb 10:7-9).

Thus, it is also by Christ’s submission to the Father’s will, by His obedience, that we are saved. His suffering and the shedding of His blood are expressions of that obedience. His suffering and obedience are so together as to be one, and yet we can distinguish them. Had Christ suffered without having obediently willed it, we would not be saved. It was thus necessary for Him to take a human nature—and thereby a human will—so that he could obey His Father. We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. Christ’s obedience to the will of the Father undoes Adam’s disobedience, and that obedience is expressed in His sufferings.

Tuesday’s reading from Hebrews concludes as follows:

By thiswill, we have been consecrated through the offering of the Body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:10).

IT IS SINGULAR. Christ Himself is singularly and personally the sacrifice that saves us. In the older, imperfect Temple rituals, the priest sacrificed something distinct from himself (a lamb, a goat, a bull, or some turtle doves), but Christ the perfect priest sacrifices His very self! As we read in the text just above,

… but a body You prepared for me. … Then I said, ‘Here I am, it is written about Me in the scroll: I have come to do Your will, O God.’

On coming into the world, Christ did not sacrifice something else or someone else (none of which could save). No, He sacrificed His very self, who alone can save us!

Consider well, then, Christ’s surpassing priesthood, His submitted obedience and His singular sacrifice. Be grateful for what He endured out of love for us and for His Father. His is the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice to the Father.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Of the Glory and Means of our Salvation in Christ Jesus

Who Was Melchizedek?

Abraham Meets Melchizedek – Basilica di San Marco

Wednesday’s first reading spoke of the mysterious Melchizedek:

This Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High, met Abraham as he returned from his defeat of the kings and blessed him. And Abraham apportioned to him a tenth of everything.

His name first means righteous king, and he was also “king of Salem,” that is, king of peace. Without father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life, thus made to resemble the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. See how great he is to whom the patriarch Abraham gave a tenth of his spoils (Heb 7:1-4).

Who was Melchizedek? Abraham paid tithes to him—something that rightly belongs to God—so he must have been pretty important!

From a worldly point of view, Melchizedek was the king of Salem (later called Jerusalem). Not only was he a king, but he was a priest who worshiped “The Most High God” (EL-ELYON). Although some claim that this likely was a Canaanite God, at this point early in revelation the later textual distinctions and names for God were not yet as clear.

From a secular point of view, we see that Melchizedek, even if he was a Canaanite Priest-King, honored Abraham for his conquests. (Because Abram had just defeated ten kings, many other local kings would seek to ingratiate themselves to him.)

The Scriptures say this of the mysterious priest-king:

  • Psalm 110 indicates that when the Messiah comes, he will have a priesthood derived from Melchizedek’s (not from the Levitical priesthood): You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4b).
  • Hebrews 7, as quoted above, sees Melchizedek as a foreshadowing of Jesus. Note that Melchizedek is described as without ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life.

Was Melchizedek in fact a vision of Christ pre-incarnate? He was said to be without earthly father, mother, or ancestry, without beginning of days or end of life. This could only be the Lord! (That would help to explain Abraham’s unusual behavior of paying a tithe to him.) Yet this is probably not the proper conclusion because the text says that he was made to resemble Christ. So, Melchizedek is more of a type or prefigurement of Christ.

The main point is that Hebrews clearly states the basis for the priesthood of Jesus Christ as rooted in the priesthood of Melchizedek. It is also declared in Psalm 110.

The author of Hebrews declares this priesthood to be far superior to the Levitical priesthood. Why? First, Melchizedek was superior to any Levite because he received tithes from Abraham and because he lives forever. To the Jewish world, no one was greater than Abraham, their father in faith, yet Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, indicating that Melchizedek was even greater.

Second, the Levitical priesthood was inaugurated due to sin. As such, it was a poor replacement for priesthood in the Order of Melchizedek. We read in Scripture of the origin of the Levitical priesthood in the aftermath of the golden calf incident:

And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. And Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day” (Ex 32:25-31).

Hence, the superior and more ancient priesthood of Melchizedek led to the lesser, limited priesthood of the Levites. Hebrews continues,

The descendants of Levi who receive the office of priesthood have a commandment according to the law to exact tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, although they also have come from the loins of Abraham. But he who was not of their ancestry received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had received the promises. Unquestionably, a lesser person is blessed by a greater. In the one case, mortal men receive tithes; in the other, a man of whom it is testified that he lives on. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, was tithed through Abraham, for he was still in his father’s loins when Melchizedek met him. If, then, perfection came through the Levitical priesthood, on the basis of which the people received the law, what need would there still have been for another priest to arise according to the order of Melchizedek, and not reckoned according to the order of Aaron? (Heb 7:5-11)

So, the Letter to the Hebrews states that Melchizedek and his priesthood are superior to the Levitical priesthood using this logic:

  • Because a lesser person is blessed by a greater—and Melchizedek blessed Abraham—Melchizedek must be greater than Abraham.
  • The Levites are lesser than Abraham, and Abraham is lesser than Melchizedek. Therefore, the Levites and their priesthood are beneath the priesthood of Melchizedek.
  • Because Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek, even the Levites owe tithes to Melchizedek.
  • The Levitical priesthood could not bring perfection; if it could, why would the order of priesthood in Melchizedek have needed to be re-established when the Messiah came?

To anyone who would deny that Jesus could be a priest because He was not of the tribe of Levi, point to the Letter to the Hebrews, which says that Jesus is a priest. He is not a lesser Levitical priest; He is a priest in the higher and original order of Melchizedek. Indeed, Psalm 110 (a Messianic psalm) calls Him Lord and priest:

The LORD said to my Lord:
“Sit at My right hand
until I make Your enemies
a footstool for Your feet.”

The LORD has sworn
and will not change His mind:
“You are a priest forever
in the order of Melchizedek”
(Psalm 110:1, 4).

This also explains Jesus’ use of bread and wine in the Eucharist, for as Genesis 14:17-19 recounts, this was the offering of Melchizedek:

After Abram returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings allied with him…. Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine—since he was priest of God Most High—and he blessed Abram … (Genesis 14:17-19).

So, who was this Melchizedek? He was an historical figure, but also one who prefigured Jesus Christ, our High Priest and Lord. Although not of the tribe of Levi, Jesus has a superior and more ancient priesthood than theirs—a priesthood in the order of Melchizedek.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Who Was Melchizedek?

The Word of God: Handle with Care

The first reading from last Saturday’s daily Mass reminds us of the power that the Word of God can have in our lives if we listen to or read it with devotion. It also reminds us that God’s Word is like a scalpel with which to cut away evil.

Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Heb 4:12-13).

The Word of God prunes or cuts away our error by shining the light of truth on our foolishness and worldliness; it exposes our sinfulness and our silly preoccupations. It lays bare our inordinate self-esteem and all the sinful drives that flow from it: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. A steady diet of God’s Word purifies our mind, reordering it gradually.

The word of the Lord can also give us greater discernment. The word “discern” comes from a Latin root that means to sift, sort, divide, or distinguish.

We need to make distinctions, not only between good and evil, but among the things that are good. Indeed, Satan steals from what is good and then distorts it, presenting it back to us as temptation. This is because evil is a privation, a lack of what should be there. Something cannot be totally evil, because if that were the case there would be nothing at all. Satan takes something that is good and mixes in evil and lies. He is a deceiver, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Evil is not attractive, so Satan uses what is good as bait but adds a hook.

There is an unfortunate tendency today to reduce love to kindness. Kindness is an aspect of love but so is rebuke. It is an immature notion of love that reduces it to affirmation or that refers to proper correction as a form of “hate.” Satan deftly substitutes a solely-affirming love (which ignores a person’s long-term happiness and salvation) for full-fledged, vigorous love, which wants the ultimate good and salvation of the other.

Thus, even in the good things in our life, we must root out any distortions. The Word of the Lord can help us to do this.

So, the Word of God is like a pair of eyeglasses, helping us to see more clearly. In so doing, it challenges us, because we often like to hide behind a bit of confusion, murkiness, and ignorance—to blur the lines. If you put on your “Gospel glasses” and read His Word with the Church, you will be able to recognize these convenient excuses for what they are.

In this sense, it takes courage to read the Word of God with care and devotion—frequently. It will comfort the afflicted, but it will also afflict the comfortable. Each of us is a little of both.

The imagery of the God’s Word as a two-edged sword reminds us to handle it with care. It is like a strong medicine that must be used carefully, following the instructions of the Church. There will be negative side-effects to be sure, but ultimately it heals, even as it wounds or challenges. It prunes, it clarifies, and it helps us to discern and distinguish.

Respect the Word of God like the sharp sword that it is. Handle it with care and realize its power.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Word of God: Handle with Care

Our Most Primal Fear and the Source of Our Bondage

At Mass for Wednesday of the first week of the year, we read a text from Hebrews that describes our most basic and primal fear. Our inordinate fear of what people think of us is rooted in an even deeper fear, one that is at the very core of our being. The Hebrews text both names it and describes it as being the source of our bondage. In order to unlock the secret of the text, I want to suggest to you an interpretation that will allow its powerful diagnosis to have a wider and deeper effect.

Consider, then, this text from Hebrews:

Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).

This passage is clear in saying that the devil is the origin of our bondage to sin, but also that hold on us is through the fear of death. This is what he exploits in order to keep us in bondage.

When I have explored this teaching with people, I have found that many have difficulty understanding it at first. Especially for the young, death is almost a theoretical concept; it is not something they consciously fear. This is particularly true in the modern age, when medical advances have so successfully pushed back the boundary between life and death. Every now and then something may shake us out of our complacency (perhaps a brush with death), but in general death does not dominate our thoughts. So, then, what is meant by the fear of death and how does it hold us in bondage?

Well, what if we were to replace the word “death” with “diminishment”? To be sure, this is an adaption of the text (the Greek text (φόβῳ θανάτου – phobo thanatou) is accurately translated as “fear of death”), but doing so can help us to see what the text is getting at in a wider sense. It doesn’t take long to realize that each diminishment we experience is a kind of “little death.” Diminishments make us feel smaller, less powerful, less glorious.

What are some examples of diminishments we might experience? On one level, a diminishment is anything that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter or more popular. Perhaps we do not feel attractive enough; we’re too tall, too short, too fat, or too thin. Maybe we resent the fact that others are richer or more powerful. Perhaps we wish we were younger, stronger, and more energetic. Maybe we wish we were older, wiser, and more settled. Perhaps we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, a nicer home, or more accomplished children. Maybe we compare ourselves unfavorably to a sibling who has done better financially or socially than we have.

Can you see how this fear of diminishment sets up many sins? It plugs right into envy and jealousy. Pride comes along for the ride, too, because we try to compensate for our fear of inadequacy by finding people to whom we feel superior. We thus indulge our pride or seek to build up our ego in unhealthy ways. Perhaps we run to the cosmetic surgeon or torture ourselves with unhealthy diets. Maybe we ignore our own gifts and try to be someone we really aren’t. Perhaps we spend money we don’t have trying to impress others so that we feel less inadequate.

Think of the countless sins we commit trying to be popular and to fit in. We give in to peer pressure and sometimes do terrible things. Young people will join gangs, use drugs, skip school, have sex before marriage, pierce and tattoo their bodies, use foul language, etc. Adults also have many of these things on their list. All of these things are done in a quest to be popular and to fit in. This desire to fit in is all about not wanting to feel diminished, and diminishment is about the fear of death, because every experience of diminishment is like a small death.

Advertisers know how to exploit the fear of diminishment in marketing their products. I remember studying this topic in business school at George Mason University. The logic goes something like this: You’re not pretty enough, happy enough, adequate enough, or comfortable enough; you don’t look young enough; you have some chronic illness (e.g., depression, asthma, diabetes)—but just buy our product and you will be “enough”; you won’t be so pathetic, incomplete, and, basically, diminished. If you drink this beer, you’ll be happy, have good times, and be surrounded by friends. If you use this toothpaste, soap, or cosmetic product, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful people and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car, people will turn their heads and be impressed with you. The message is that you don’t measure up now (you’re diminished) but our product will get you there. Just buy it and you’ll be happier, healthier, and more alive!

Perhaps you can see how such advertising appeals to greed, pride, materialism, and worldliness; it puts forth the lie that these material things will solve our problems. In fact, appeals like this actually increase our fear of diminishment (and death) because they feed the notion that we have to measure up to these false and/or unrealistic standards.

It is my hope that you can see how very deep this drive is and how it enslaves us in countless ways.

This demon (fear of death, of diminishment) must be named. Once named and brought to light, we must learn its moves and begin to rebuke it in the name of Jesus. As we start to recognize the thought patterns emerging from this most primal of fears, we can gradually, by God’s grace, replace this distorted thinking with proper, sober, and humble thinking—thinking rooted in God’s love for us and the availability of His grace and mercy.

The text from Hebrews above is clear in saying that this deep and highly negative drive is an essential way in which Satan keeps us in bondage. It also says that Jesus Christ died to save us and free us from this bondage. Allow the Lord to give you a penetrating and sober vision of this deep drive, this deep fear of diminishment and death. Allow the light of God’s grace and His Word to both expose and heal this deepest of wounds.

This song pokes fun at our fad-centered culture, which is always trying to make us feel inadequate.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Our Most Primal Fear and the Source of Our Bondage

Christ’s Victory Is Total, but Often in Surprising Ways

The Disputation – Raphael (1511)

The first reading from Mass for Tuesday of the First Week of the Year is from the Letter to the Hebrews. It sets forth the total victory of Christ and that the Father has subjected all things to Christ. Yet the text also shows how the outworking of this subjugation is paradoxical.

Note first the declaration of all things being subject to Jesus Christ:

In “subjecting” all things to him, he left nothing not “subject to him” (Hebrews 2:8b).

All thingsis a pretty substantial category. Yes, everything is subject to Him: the wicked and powerful men of this earth as well as demons. This, of course, brings to mind a question that is addressed in the very next sentence:

Yet at present we do not see “all things subject to him,” … (Hebrews 2:8c)

The text notes we do not currently see all things subjected to Christ; this implies that our inability to see does not mean that all things are not subject to Him! The fact that a blind man cannot see the sun does not mean that the sun is not there. The defect is not in the sun or in reality; it is in the man. So too for us, who do not see that all things are subject to Christ.

Scripture is a prophetic declaration of reality. In effect, it says to us, “This is what is really going on regardless of what you think. You should conform your thinking to this prophetic declaration of reality from God Himself.”

So, then, although we might not see that all things are subject to Christ, we are challenged to permit God to help us perceive this. This is accomplished by instruction in His word, so that we see and interpret things rightly and in conformity with the prophetic declaration of reality contained in Scripture.

The next verses show forth the paradox of Christ’s triumph:

… but we do see Jesus “crowned with glory and honor” because he suffered death …. For it was fitting that he, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the leader to their salvation perfect through suffering (Heb 2:10).

Here, simply put, is the paradox of the cross. It is by the cross that Christ conquers both Satan and our pride. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that; and hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that. Continuing in that vein, I would add that pride cannot drive out pride; only humility can do that. Christ does not conquer by having more pride than Satan or than us. He does not conquer by becoming an even worse version of His enemy. No, He conquers through humility, obedience, and suffering. Because of this, He has been exalted by the Father and given a name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, whether in Heaven, on earth, or under the earth (See Phil 2:10). The text from Hebrews says that because Christ suffered, we now see Him crowned with glory and honor.

This is the paradox for us as well. As Jesus was crowned because of His humble suffering, we too will have the victory because of our suffering.

We tend to think that “all things being subject to” Christ means that all suffering and wickedness are eradicated—not so. As Christ attained to the highest places in this way of the cross, so will we who follow Him. Suffering is not a sign of defeat but the very path to victory! The devil loses at his own game.

Scripture says elsewhere,

For our light and momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that is far beyond comparison. (2 Cor 4:17).

All things work together for good to them that love the Lord and are called according to his purposes (Rom 8:28).

The more suffering Satan inflicts, the more ground he loses.

This, then, is how all things are subject to Christ: even sufferings that seem antithetical to His sovereignty are part of His plan to give us greater glory. Even when Satan does his worst to the believer he loses. The more he attacks, the greater our glory in Christ if we persevere. It all backfires for Satan. He loses and God is always sovereign. God can make a way out of no way, write straight with crooked lines, and do anything but fail.

All things, even our sufferings, are subject to Christ.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Christ’s Victory Is Total, but Often in Surprising Ways

The Message of the Letter to the Hebrews

Christ at the Last Supper – Duccio (1311)

This week in daily Mass, we are reading from The Letter to the Hebrews, one of the most underappreciated books of the New Testament. It has long been one of my favorites from which to teach; in it we are summoned to faith in Jesus, our Savior and Great High Priest.

The opening lines in the Latin Vulgate are exquisite, particularly to those who can read and recite Latin well.

Multifáriam, multísque modis, olim Deus lóquens pátribus in prophétis. Novíssime, diébus istis locútus est nobis in Fílio.
(In many and varied ways, God once spoke to our fathers through the prophets. In these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son.)

Though many doubt that St. Paul wrote Hebrews, I believe he did; it is here that we best see his priestly identity as an apostle, his deep knowledge of the Temple rituals and how they pointed to Christ and are perfected by Him.

The Letter to the Hebrews does not begin with the usual epistolary greetings and salutations, though it does end with them. Throughout, the text “sounds” more like a sermon. The audience of the letter is clearly Jewish Christians; the writer is exhorting them not to fall back on Jewish rituals, which cannot save, but rather to cling ever more closely to Christ, who alone is savior and Lord.

Hebrews was surely written before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. (References to the Temple speak of sacrifices as still going on there.) It occurs to me that the context of Hebrews is that of the years from 65-70 A.D., a time during which wars and rumors of wars were growing. Indeed, the tragic Jewish war began in 66 A.D. The Romans had had more than enough of Jewish Messianism and uprisings. It was a horrible, bloody war that cost the lives of more than one million Jews. During this period, Jewish nationalism was on the rise, likely even among those who had become Christians.

Politics has a strong pull, and it is in this context that the author addresses his audience. In effect, his position is that they should not return to what cannot save merely out of some sense of loyalty to a doomed nation. Jesus had prophesied the tragic destruction of Jerusalem in the Mount Olivet discourse recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 24 and 25, Mark 13, and Luke 21). With the war clouds gathering, this was the time to cling to Him ever more!

What follows is a quick summary of the exhortation in the Letter to the Hebrews. (In most cases I have not cited chapter and verse below because I pulled from many parts at once.)

Jesus is Lord: Particularly in the first three chapters of Hebrews, the author reminds his audience of the glory of Christ.

Jesus Christ is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. Having provided purification for sins, He now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Christ is far superior to the angels, as the name He has inherited is excellent beyond theirs. To which of the angels did God ever say, “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father,” or “I will be His Father, and He will be My Son”? When God brings His firstborn into the world, He says: “Let all God’s angels worship Him.”

Yes, God has subjected all things to Him, leaving nothing outside of His control. Christ is crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone, bringing many sons to glory. By His death Christ destroyed him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and freed those were held in slavery by the fear of death.

Jesus is the True High Priest: The author of the Letter to the Hebrews then goes on to describe how Jesus has a true priesthood, greater than that of the priests in the Temple.

Jesus has been counted worthy of greater glory than Moses. He is the great high priest who has passed through the heavens, entering the inner sanctuary behind the curtain. Jesus has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever in the order of Melchizedek. Indeed, God the Father says of Jesus His Son, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.”

If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood, why would there have been a need for another priest to appear, one in the order of Melchizedek and not in the order of Aaron?

Jesus is the Perfection that was Promised: The Letter to the Hebrews is essentially an exhortation not to leave the perfect to go back to the imperfect. The Temple and what takes place there is now no more than a movie set filled with actors playing their roles. Jesus is the true and perfect High Priest, who enters into the true and actual Holy of Holies. The Temple rituals merely point to what Jesus actually does:

Jesus is the true High Priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in Heaven and who ministers in the sanctuary and true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not man. He entered the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made by hands (that is, not of this creation).

Because every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, it was necessary for this One also to have something to offer. He did not enter by the blood of goats and calves, but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, thus securing eternal redemption. If the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that their bodies are clean, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, purify our consciences from works of death so that we may serve the living God?

Jesus has established the New Covenant in His Blood: The author exhorts his audience not to return to the Old Covenant from the New Covenant. To this he adds this warning:

By speaking of a new covenant, He has made the first one obsolete, and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear (Heb 8:13).

Anyone who rejected the Law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think one deserves to be punished who has trampled on the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant that sanctified Him, and insulted the Spirit of grace?

Do not throw away your confidence; it holds a great reward. You need to persevere, so that after you have done God’s will, you will receive what He has promised.

What is the meaning of this letter for us who read it so long after the Jewish war of 70 A.D? It is simply this:

We are easily mesmerized by politics and cultural movements, exhibiting more loyalty to them that to our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Distracted by modern ideas and urgencies, we forsake the message of Christ. We’ll salute Christ, but only if His message agrees with our views and priorities. The Letter to the Hebrews tell us not to give our heart to what cannot save, not to return to the obsessions of a worldly kingdom of darkness now that we have been summoned to the Kingdom of Light.

Jesus deserves your highest loyalty; He alone can save you. Put not your trust in princes and in mortal men in whom there is not help (Psalm 146:3-4). If we forsake Christ for something lesser, do we not treat lightly His blood, which sanctified us, and insult the spirit of grace? Are you worthy of Jesus Christ or are you just worthy of a political party or some popular ideologies of this passing world?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Message of the Letter to the Hebrews