Chapter OneDanger Ahead
Jewish Christians living in the first century didn't
have to zoom around on Harleys to stick out like
sore thumbs: everything they did was contrary to
their culture. They were monotheistic-they
believed in one God, Jehovah-while the religious
climate of their day was much less discriminating.
When Paul said, "Gentlemen, I can see that you are
very religious," he wasn't exaggerating.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus,
said. "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way
you are very religious. For as I passed along and
observed the objects of your worship, I found also
an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown
god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this
I proclaim to you."
This passage in Acts was written at about the
same time as Hebrews. It highlights the culture of
the day, which was polytheistic (multiple theologies)
and syncretistic (multiple creeds). Greeks and
Romans weren't antireligious-they were enthusiastic
participants in every conceivable kind of
religion. For instance, when Greece or Rome
conquered another civilization, they just added that
belief system to the ever-growing list. Rome had
more than two hundred god statues on street
corners, a diminutive "deity" guarding virtually
every fork in the road.
Read Acts 17:22-34 for the full account of
Paul's discussion with the hedonistic Greeks in
Athens. What can you pick up about their
culture in light of Paul's clarifications? Do you
know anyone who worships an "unknown" god?
Even Jewish religious leaders gorged themselves
at the counterfeit faith buffet, with some priests
officiating at several different types of religious
ceremonies. Can you imagine if a pastor preached
at your church on Sunday morning-espousing
biblically sound doctrine-then put on a robe and
sashayed over to the Islamic center on Friday
night to preside over their services?
Another interesting ingredient of this religious
smorgasbord was emperor worship. All Roman
citizens were legally required to show loyalty to
the current political leader several times a year by
putting a pinch of incense on an altar and praying
to or for the emperor. We've observed a modern
spectacle of emperor worship on our TV news in
the past few years through the plethora of billboards,
statues, and buildings dedicated to Saddam
Hussein. Much like those ancient taxpayers, some
Middle Easterners still find it personally beneficial-even
necessary-to affirm that their dictator
is also a "god."
Something Old, Something New
In spite of the challenges of the day, Judaism was
still largely tolerated throughout the Roman Empire
in the first century-perhaps because there were 3
to 4 million Jews, most of whom were religious and
believed that Jehovah was the one, true God, but didn't believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah
the Old Testament spoke of-and it would have
been a political nightmare to prohibit them from
worshipping. Also, the Jews were rarely civilly
disobedient; they didn't really bother anyone. And
lastly, Judaism was an ancient religion, and the
Romans were enamored with old things.
But Jews who had embraced Christianity were a
whole new ball game.
Christianity was suspicious because it was
brand-new. Plus it was growing like wildfire,
which made it even more dubious. It was considered
dangerous because its followers were intolerant
of other religions, insisting that some guy
named Jesus was the only liaison to the one true
God. And to make matters much worse, there had
been a huge misunderstanding about the sacraments.
When Christian converts talked about
"eating His body and drinking His blood," people
thought they were practicing cannibalism. Neighbors
of confessing Christians started eyeing them
with suspicion and panicked every time a Jewish
believer invited them to a barbecue!
Have you ever been in one of those matching-purse-and-shoes
Christian settings where you
felt that you stuck out like a sore thumb? How
did you respond?
And these cheeky Christians didn't capitulate in
order to go with the cultural flow. Their morals
made it nearly impossible to live an under-the-radar
existence. They believed in the concept of
family-marriage between a man and a woman,
and if they were blessed, a house filled with children.
But in Greco-Roman society, husbands and
wives were like the pants in my closet that actually
fit: few and far between! Not many people got
married in those days-usually only the wealthy,
for reasons of property disbursement. Fewer still
While abortion was frowned on (Greek mysticism
gave them a healthy fear of homicide), babies
were often abandoned. Especially little girls. Infants
were set on the side of the road like trash. The
surviving girls usually became cult prostitutes, and
the boys ended up in gladiatorial schools, where
they were trained to fight. Archaeologists have
uncovered the ruins of massive coliseums where
hundreds of gladiators in a single day would fight
to the death for the purpose of "entertainment."
But Christians didn't buy tickets to the kill-or-be-killed
championships. They didn't party at the
local bars. They swam against the tide and got
married. They cherished their children. They
didn't discard their daughters. They even rescued
other people's babies from the edge of the interstate.
They delivered chicken soup to pagans with
the flu. They were the last in line and the first to
serve. The Jewish Christians were quickly becoming
the flies in their world's amoral ointment.
It's been said that Hebrews is like an eccentric
millionaire: rich but puzzling. What questions
have already formed in your mind about this
When the Going Gets Tough
Recall the former days when, after you were
enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with
sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to
reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners
with those so treated. For you had compassion
on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the
plundering of your property, since you knew that
you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding
one. Hebrews 10:32-34
This passage makes it clear that it wasn't the
first time these converts had faced an angry mob of
former friends and neighbors. They had been
bullied before for not fitting in. They'd been
arrested for their faith in Jesus Christ, had their
businesses ransacked and their property stolen, and
their kids had been beaten up on the way home
And while we've already painted a pretty grim
picture of these ancient believers' lives, there's one
more bit of bad news. Things were going to get
even worse, and Nero was to blame.
Any portrait of Christianity in the first century
that doesn't include Nero isn't complete, because
it's not bleak enough. Nero was the Darth Vader of
Remember the old saying about Nero fiddling
while Rome burned? Well, it's not far from the
truth. Nero was sliding south in the polls, so many
historians think he was the mastermind behind the
great fire that destroyed Rome in AD 64. Nero
believed he could recapture the people's loyalty by
riding in on a white horse after the tragedy and
rebuilding the city to its former glory. But his plan
backfired-no pun intended-and instead of
returning to cheers, Nero rode back into Rome
facing innuendos and jeers. Rumors circulated that
he was to blame, that his soldiers started the blaze,
and that the emperor had "fiddled" while their
beloved city burned to the ground. So Nero desperately
needed someone else to pin the blame on. He
found the perfect scapegoat in those "intolerant,
monotheistic, cannibalistic" Christians.
The Hebrews had to learn how to stand firm in
the face of persecution. And their first lesson was a
tough one. Their teacher, the writer of Hebrews,
made it clear that the days ahead would be more
dangerous than anything they had walked through
In your struggle against sin you have not yet
resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
Gulp. A bruised ego, black eye, or broken window
is bearable. But bloodshed is something altogether
different. The Hebrews didn't know martyrdom
was part of the deal, and they weren't sure they
could handle it.
Read Hebrews 13:22 and Acts 13:15. There is a
phrase in both of these verses that is translated
from the Greek word parakaleo, which is used
in association with speaking, not writing. This
causes many Bible scholars to believe that
Hebrews was first spoken as a sermon. Are
you prone to pay closer attention when listening
to a dramatic sermon or reading a good
Read Hebrews 5:11; 6:9; and 11:32. List some of
the reasons that the style of Hebrews seems to
be sermonic. How might they affect the way
you'll read it?
Have you been there? Have you ever gotten to
the point of wanting to walk away from God
because walking with Him is so hard? Or maybe
you've pondered being a little less committed .
taking a few steps back from His demanding presence
to the sure footing of mediocrity.
If you have, you're certainly not alone. From the
beginning of history, God's people have found that
following Him can be very difficult. Abraham
decided God was taking too long to fulfill His
audacious promise about his heirs outnumbering
the stars, so he Lave in to Sarah's Jerry Springer
scheme for starting a family. Moses
balked at the burning bush and stuttered
in fear when God told him to go home
and escort the Israelites out of Egypt.
Elijah cried and uttered a halfhearted
suicide threat-right after witnessing
God's power and glory on Mount
Carmel-when evil Queen Jezebel
harassed him. And the disciples wilted,
deserting Jesus when the Cross became reality
instead of rhetoric. We all have a habit of retreating
when the going gets tough.
Devil in a Blue Dress
Several years ago I was invited to teach at a
national Christian women's conference in Chattanooga.
I was excited about the opportunity because
I really liked the other women on the program and
I had a lot of respect for the ministry sponsor.
Little did I know that what was shaping up to be a
wonderful weekend would also include verbal fisticuffs.
Almost everything went smoothly during the
conference. The worship was engaging and Christ-centered,
and the audience was gracious and attentive-except
for this one woman in the front row
who kept disrupting the program with loud
comments, gestures, and strange gyrations that I
assume were her idea of dancing before the Lord.
Needless to say, our upfront dancer was very
distracting, but we all tried to be polite and ignore
At the end of the day I was asked to facilitate a
time of confession and commitment, which is one of
my favorite things to do. It's incredible watching
people's faces transform with the belief that God
actually loves them and the relief that He's
forgiven all the dark secrets from their past.
Anyway, when the time of commitment ended and
everyone began to leave the sanctuary, the gyrating
woman from the front row approached me. I
stepped toward her, thinking maybe she wanted to
talk or pray. Instead, she leaned in too close for
comfort and let me have it.
She angrily declared that God would never bless
me as long as I dressed like a harlot, which was
really confusing since I was wearing an ankle-length
skirt, boots, a turtleneck, and a sweater. I
could have understood her outrage if I was
instructing in a tube top, but the only skin not
covered was on my hands. And I've never been
accused of having provocative wrists or fingers, so
I'm not sure what was so offensive about my outfit!
She went on to call me several more colorful
names, then stopped abruptly, smiled, and walked
That day I really wanted to quit teaching altogether.
Traveling to and from conferences thirty
weekends a year is demanding enough; dealing
with the one or two or ten oddballs who seem to
infect such events is absolutely exhausting. I was
tired of wearing a bull's-eye simply because I stood
behind a podium. I didn't want to deal with the
bruises that come from bumping up against others
in the body of Christ anymore.
The life we're called to lead as followers of Christ
can be very difficult. We're often faced with trouble
from those who don't understand our faith. Rather
than being appreciated for our commitment to
godly behavior, we're criticized-even demonized
by those who don't understand our faith-as being
judgmental and narrow-minded. We're ridiculed for
trusting in an invisible God. We're scorned for calling
God "loving" while also believing He will
condemn unrepentant sinners. And the difficult
people we have to deal with aren't always outside
our faith. Other Christians are sometimes odd and
obnoxious; it can be embarrassing to even be associated
with people the Bible defines as our close relatives.
People in Rome first thought Jews and Christians
were synonymous, until the Jews let them
know they didn't want to be associated with
those "strange believers in Jesus Christ." Has
someone ever assumed you believed in something
you didn't or lumped you in with a religious
group you disagreed with? How did you
In light of all these issues, it's easy to see why
most of us have pondered throwing in the proverbial
towel at one time or another. Have you ever
wondered about how good it would feel to sleep
late on a Sunday, to cuss in traffic with no guilty
conscience, to never be persecuted for your beliefs
It makes perfect sense that the frightened
Hebrews, young in the faith, facing impossible
odds, would also consider quitting.
Read Isaiah 40:28-31. The "sermon" of Hebrews
was given to a group of absolutely exhausted
believers who epitomized weariness. When was
the last time you were so spiritually exhausted
that you didn't think you could go any further?
How did God encourage you to keep going?
did you know?
Although emperor worship was commonly practiced in the first century,
history does reveal that most emperors didn't really believe they were
literal gods. Few actually forced their subjects to adhere to emperor
worship which included offering incense and prayers on their behalf.