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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Get Something Better This Christmas


"These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect." Hebrews 11:39-40

Some people refer to the Old Testament, Jewish, system as one of ‘shadows’, as though things were seen but they lacked clarity.  This letter to the Hebrews compares that old system, with New Testament sight and substance.  In reference to the New, it uses the word ‘better’ a lot, and for good reason. 


When I go to the opticians for my eye check, they test my focus with various lens.  During that test they will swap one lens for another.  They ask which one is better.  When they finally write up my prescription, they don’t choose those lenses that were less clear.  The reason I’ve gone there is to see better.  Seeing better is… well, better. 


In the Old Testament, the coming of that first Christmas – the coming of Christ Jesus – was promised.  Jesus said this about the Old Testament writings, ‘These are the very Scriptures that testify about me’ (John 5 39).  Sometimes, like in Isaiah’s prophecy, it’s as if the name of Jesus is being shouted, loud and clear – his arrival, his life, his suffering and death seem covered in wonderful detail.  In other places the voice is softer – the name of Jesus seems but a faint whisper – but always, as Jesus said, ‘these… scriptures… testify about me’.


The New Testament gives us more glorious detail.  With this lens we can see Jesus better.  And let’s face it, with the sin problem we’ve got, we should be so thankful to see Jesus better!


As people of faith now, we look back to that first Christmas coming of Jesus.  In the old times, people of faith were looking forward to it.  But why was this letter written.  Well, it’s because believers were starting to look back in a bad way.  It was written to ‘Hebrews’, so believers who had Israelite backgrounds.  They had heard the good news that Jesus was God’s promised Son and Saviour, and they had believed.  But now, they were really struggling.  The life of faith was proving difficult.  Society around them just heaped pressure on their new way of life.  They were criticised for what they believed and were mocked for their Jesus views.  They’d had enough.  They’d been in life’s boxing ring for too many rounds and just wanted the towel to be thrown in - if new life is like this, wouldn’t it be better for them to go back to their old ways?


Sometimes we can be tempted similarly.  The Christian life isn’t easy.  Living a life where we constantly need to ask, ‘what would Jesus have me do’, is a huge challenge.  Wouldn’t it be easier to just go back to the old way of life when all I had to ask is what would I do?  That was so easy.  I didn’t even have to ask – I just did it automatically!  But Hebrews is telling us, ‘No!’.  It’s not telling us that the Christian life is easy.  It is telling us that it is better.  It is telling us to keep looking forward and to keep moving forward.  Should we not look back?  Well, Hebrews 11 shows us the right way of looking back.  If looking back helps us to move forward, then we should do it. 


Hebrews 11 contains lessons from the past – lessons from past lives.  Not just any old past lives, but lives lived ‘by faith’.  These old, Bible characters, were forward looking.  The thing that they most looked forward to was the coming of the first Christmas – the giving of God’s gift to humankind.  Yet what they hoped was coming, never came in their lifetime.  Verse 39 says, ‘none of them received what had been promised’, meaning not while they were alive.  It wasn’t the right time – It wasn’t God’s time.  God had a time, and God had a plan, and he, as verse 40, ‘had planned something better for us’.


These were people who understood that God’s sin solution was wrapped up his Christmas promise.  But for them, it was still wrapped up.  They were a bit like us pre-Christmas Day.  We look at the gifts under the tree and we expect to receive.  We may understand something of the size and shape of what we are getting, but our knowledge will not be complete until the wrapping paper comes off.  Their knowledge was incomplete.  Although, I suspect that the prophet Isaiah was the type of character that felt his presents through the wrapping paper when no-one was looking – I mean, how else did he know all that detail about God’s gift so far in advance?! (For the answer, see 2 Peter 1 21!)  Even so, his - and their - knowledge was still incomplete.  Ours is better.  But their belief in what was coming is as awesome as it is instructive. 


Their faith should meet with our approval… because it met with God’s approval.  Verse 39 says that even though God’s gift remained wrapped up throughout their lifetime, ‘these were all commended for their faith’.  In fact, this is not only how this chapter ends, but also how it begins.


‘Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for’.  What is it to be ‘commended’?  It happens in schools.  When I was at school you could get a commendation for learning to swim.  I swam a width of the swimming pool and was invited to the front during assembly time to receive a certificate.  It happens in the military.  When a soldier does something in combat that shows bravery in action then they may later attend an awards ceremony and receive a medal.  The Oxford Dictionary says that a commendation is, ‘an award given for very good performance’.


But, here, we may come unstuck.  Our idea of what good performance is may differ from the Bible’s idea.  We are wired to believe that commendations are earned by what we do.  The two examples I gave reinforced that – awards for doing.  But God’s commendation comes not by doing, but by believing.  These people were commended for their ‘faith’ – what they ‘believed’ – ‘this is what the ancients were commended for.’


We’ve looked at this recently in Daniel’s series in Romans.  In Romans, we have a man mentioned who appears in today’s chapter, called Abraham.  Romans 4 tells us that Abraham was not made right with God by what he did but by what he believed.  To prove the point, Romans quotes from the detail of Old Testament scripture, in Genesis 15, and says, ‘What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’  Abraham believed God’s promise about the Christ who was coming.  Abraham believed God about his promise of a sin solution that only Christ could bring.  And that made Abraham alright, according to God.  In fact, it made him more than alright – it made him ‘righteous’.


That is helpful because it leads us back into Hebrews 11 and to the first character that is introduced.  One of the very earliest humans called Abel.  His dad was called Adam, and his mum was called Eve – you may have heard of them!  They brought Abel into the world.  But sadly, they also brought sin into the world.  Their son Abel was looking for a solution.  He found one, by believing in God’s solution.  Like Abraham, Abel is also called ‘righteous’ here in verse 4.  ‘Righteous’ is a massive Bible word.  It’s only got nine letters, but it means ten-out-of-ten on God’s reward chart.  Abel ‘was commended as righteous’.  How?  ‘By faith’.


This chapter compares Abel to his brother Cain.  Their story is very well known, familiar to many who, otherwise, have scant bible knowledge. But is the truth of their story understood.  Often, we are presented with a picture of one man who was inherently good, and another who was inherently bad.  But that isn’t so.  Since sin entered the world these two brothers were equal – to each other and to everyone else who would follow.  They were sinners.  But, while Abel seemed to understand his sin from God’s perspective, and therefore was compelled to look for a God solution, Cain did not.


‘By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did’.  Cain fetched some vegetables while Abel brought an animal sacrifice.  Their lives took place before the national system of animal sacrifices given by God to Israel.  But Abel foresaw the meaning.  Hebrews talks a whole heap about sacrifice.  Hebrews 9 22 says, ‘without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness’.  Sin was always serious.  Sin and bloodshed always went hand in hand.  The wages of sin have always meant death - it didn’t begin when Paul wrote Romans 6, but when humankind wrote those solemn pages of Eden’s history. 


Both men understood that God required sacrifice that acknowledged the depths of their own shortcoming and failure.  But, with Cain, it’s as though he was being asked to measure the depth of the Pacific Ocean and decided to use the ruler from his school pencil case – ‘I didn’t hit the bottom so it’s probably 16cm’, was his answer!  And so, consequently, Cain’s response fell woefully short too.  Cain acted in a way that typifies humankind’s lax view of God’s required life standard, and humankind’s misunderstanding of God’s view of sin.   Cain just didn’t get it.  He didn’t get God and he didn’t get himself and he didn’t get his deep, deep need.  It’s as though Cain looked in the mirror that morning and said, ‘Well, what can pay for my life’s mistakes?  I know – here’s a carrot!’  It was an epic-fail!


But Abel didn’t fail – he saw the truth.  The truth is that if we try to fathom the depths of the sin that lies within us, using the Bible’s measure, we’ll never hit bottom, but we’ll know that it’s awfully deep.  Abel saw the deepness and death-demanding reality of his sin.  His action - his animal sacrifice - pointed forward to God’s ultimate sin solution in the sinless, spotless Lamb of God.  And God’s word says that’s ‘better’!  Abel took ownership of his own sin ‘by faith’.  And God took ownership of Abel.


This obituary to Abel ends by telling us that his witness to his God is still ongoing.  ‘By faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.’  Millenia later, his life has something important to say to our lives.


Then, after Enoch, Hebrews 11 comes to Noah.  Do we, in our faith life, ever feel that the world is set against us – is mocking what we are doing – thinks that we are delusional?  Noah more so, I reckon.  His main life focus was on a rescue vessel for humanity – not so different to believers now!  Almost all humanity mocked.  But, when the rain came, the mocking dried up!  Verse 7 tells us that ‘by his faith he condemned the world.’  The world around him was wrong.  Noah was right and he ‘became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.’


What of Abraham?  Before God met with him life seemed rosy.  But Abraham saw through life’s illusion.  God told him to leave his former existence behind and Abraham did, ‘by faith’.  Verse 10 tells us why – ‘he was looking forward’.  His future was now wrapped up in God’s promise of a new future.  Abraham could have looked back.  But verse 15 tells us that he wasn’t ‘thinking of’ what he ‘had left’.  His hope, as verse 16, was ‘a heavenly one’.  Some of his immediate family found faith in God’s promise too, and they are listed.  Then we get to Moses.


Moses obituary should put us right in our Christmas thinking.  He was surrounded by the best of life’s trappings.  The painted baubles and tinsel of royal living were his all year round but, when God came calling, he chopped down that tree.  His faith-life choice is still dazzling – (v.25) ‘he chose to be ill-treated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.’   Why?  ‘Because he was looking ahead to his reward’ (v.26).  He was looking far ahead.  He was looking forward to the first Christmas and the arrival of the one who would bring an end to sin – ‘He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt’.


In this Hebrews 11 list, sixteen people are named and many others are referenced but not named – people with a diversity of life roles, but all grouped together ‘by faith’.  We have ‘the prophets’ (v.32).  What was their job role?  They were like heaven’s postmen – they delivered God’s words to Israel. 


And then we have David – he had a job – he was the best king that Old Testament Israel ever had.  And we have Rahab - she was a sex worker.  It fills me with joy the way that God’s word shows their equality before him.  Rahab had a job role that highlighted human need.  David’s role looked so different.  He was clothed in kingly garments and commanded respect and looked oh so good.  But read the Old Testament.  In God’s word there is barely a hint of added criticism for Rahab.  But King David is stripped bare and left exposed by his unholy heart.


David, like all those on this list, knew that the solution to his sin problem lay outside of himself and inside of God’s promise.  When they lived, that promise was still wrapped up in Christmas paper made from pages of the Old Testament.  Verse 39 says that ‘these were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.’  It takes one last look at those who were waiting for that first Christmas and then moves to us for whom it has arrived.  In his sovereign timing, ‘God had planned something better for us.’  Who could argue with that?  We, now, have clear sight of Jesus in God’s full revelation. 


To those struggling with life, and their own shortcoming and failure, what is more needed than a clear sight of Jesus the Saviour?  There is nothing better!


Verses 33-38 list some really troubled experiences that these Old Testament faithful faced.  Despite great opposition, there are times of triumph and, ultimately their faith triumphs. Chapter 12 begins by calling them ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ to us.  Their lives can bring powerful testimony to ours.  Their endurance can help us endure.  In life’s desert heat, this ‘great cloud’ promises refreshing from on high.  When life seems impossible, their lives prove that with their God impossible became possible.  But the life of Jesus is better! 


Hebrews 12 2 tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus.  It calls him the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  The lives of faith of those other witnesses can instruct our faith life.  But the life of Jesus makes our faith perfect and complete.  Without the life of Jesus, we would have nothing to believe in.


God’s gift was unwrapped, for us, that first Christmas.  But let’s not pretend that Christmas is the full story.  It isn’t, and Hebrews doesn’t.  Chapter 11 39 has people looking forward to Christ’s arrival.  In the next verse Christ has arrived and everything is from our perspective – we who have the better view of what began in Bethlehem.  Only two verses later, in Hebrews 12 2, we reach the cross.  Christ’s earthly story may start in a stable, but ‘it is finished’ on the cross.


It began with Jesus being born into a displaced family and into the dirt of facilities used by animals.  Because dirt and displacement are what Jesus came to deal with.  He dealt with them fully and finally – ‘finished’ forever at the cross.  ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1 15).  By dying for the dirt of our lives at Calvary, our displacement - our separation from God - is removed.  Our greatest need is displaced - gone for good. 


What do we need for this to be true of us?  Well Hebrews 11 has the answer.  It’s ‘faith’ -a tiny word that carries eternal weight of promise.  Like Abraham, faith promises us a future which is ‘a heavenly one’.  All we must do is believe.


‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3 16).


I wish you all a happy and safe Christmas.  But more than that – I wish you a saved Christmas!  Don’t be like Cain.  The Lord can make you like Abel.  He has the power to make you able and willing.  So, look to the Lord.  Understand yourself - get yourself.  Get your deep need.  And then get what you really need this Christmas – Get Jesus!


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