Friday, November 13, 2015

Dentists and Hebrews 4:12

I went to the dentist recently. If there's anything I hate to do more than going to the dentist, it's... well, I can't really think of it right now. The dentist is awful, and I hate going. Always have, always will.

Rarely has a song so accurately captured a profession

The worst part may not be the pleasure they enjoy inflicting on their patient-victims. As much fun as I enjoy having an iron hook jammed into my gums repeatedly, it still might not be as bad as the scolding. You know the part, where they find something, anything, to belittle you for. You're not brushing enough, and if you are you're doing something wrong, and you need to floss more, unless you floss like you're supposed to in which case you probably floss too much and are damaging your gums... No matter how clean your teeth were, no matter if your entire visit took less than five minutes, they have to end it by letting you know that you're utterly incompetent in oral care and your mouth is revolting.

While I was being told that my oral care is so awful it deserves prosecution for war crimes, I couldn't help but think of Hebrews 4:12. Wait, the feel-good verse about the Bible being awesome? Yep, that one. Let's take a look at that verse in context, and see how the fault-finding dentist is a bad parable for one function of the word of God.

In Hebrews, the author is encouraging Christians facing persecution to not abandon the faith and return to their old way of life. He does this by systematically proving the superiority of Christ to every aspect of old covenant Judaism (and by extension all man-made faiths as well). Everything in the old covenant points to Jesus, he is its fulfillment, salvation is only possible through his work alone, and to abandon the faith is spiritual suicide, because any other system is necessarily unable to save. Now that Christ has come as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, there is no other way. So Hebrews has two themes continually interwoven, the absolute supremacy of Christ, and the need to persevere in the faith.

In Hebrews 3-4, the author draws a parallel between the work of Christ and the work of Moses/Joshua. As Moses delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, Jesus delivers us from slavery to sin and fear of death (2:14ff). As Joshua led the people into rest in the Promised Land, Christ is leading his people to the greater rest which still remains, the promised "Sabbath rest for the people of God" (4:9).

But there was a problem with ancient Israel, and a warning for us today. Did all who started on the Exodus enter the Promised Land? No. In fact, other than Joshua and Caleb, every single Israelite 20 years and older died in the wilderness. They had gotten right up to the edge of the Promised Land - and there they rebelled against God. His judgment was to send them back into the desert to wander and die, and their children would enter the land (Numbers 13-14).

The author uses this example as a warning and exhortation to us. "Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end" (3:12-14). And again, our primary text:

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (4:11-13)

As Israel came to the edge of Canaan, the author pictures us coming to the entrance to God's eternal rest. The standard by which we will be judged, by which it will be decided whether we enter the rest or die in the wilderness, is the word of God. Have we obeyed God's word? And not just our actions - even our thoughts and intentions are judged by God's holy standard.

And nothing will be hidden from God's sight - everything is laid bare before Him. You can try lying to the dentist about flossing every day; when your mouth is opened wide, the truth is evident to him. You can try lying to God, saying "All these I have kept from my youth" (Luke 18:21), but do you really imagine God doesn't see?

The dentist's ability to find fault is nothing compared to the convicting power of God's law. "Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no man will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin" (Romans 3:19-20). When our lives and thoughts are laid bare and judged against the standard of God's word, there will be none who pass, and none who can so much as offer a defense. Every mouth is stopped. Every one is accountable. No one will be justified through obedience to the law, but the depth of our sin will be undeniable.

What hope is there? Who can endure such a judgment, having all exposed before God and judged by God's word, which can discern even our thoughts and the intentions of our hearts? What can we do other than accept the guilty verdict and our well-deserved punishment? Keep reading:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

On our own, we are hopeless, destined to die like the rebellious Israelites. But we have a great high priest who, as the next six chapters discuss, has made complete atonement for the sin of his people. In Jesus, and only in him, we find forgiveness of sins and intercession before the Father. Through faith in him we are forgiven of sins, delivered from the judgment, and granted entry to God's rest.

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