Religious Persecution Is Worsening Worldwide

Dictators are the worst persecutors of believers.

This perhaps uncontroversial finding was verified for the first time in the Pew Research Center’s 11th annual study surveying restrictions on freedom of religion in 198 nations.

The median level of government violations reached an all-time high in 2018, as 56 nations (28%) suffer “high” or “very high” levels of official restriction.

The number of nations suffering “high” or “very high” levels of social hostilities toward religion dropped slightly to 53 (27%). However, the prior year the median level recorded an all-time high.

Considered together, 40 percent of the world faces significant hindrance in worshiping God freely.

And the trend continues to be negative.

Since 2007, when Pew began its groundbreaking survey, the median level of government restrictions has risen 65 percent. The level for social hostilities has doubled.

Over the past two weeks, Christians prayed for their persecuted brethren around the world.

Launched in 1996 by the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), the International Day of Prayer (IDOP) for the Persecuted Church is held annually the first two Sundays in November.

This year’s campaign was called One With Them.

“Them” is the 260 million Christians worldwide who face persecution, according to Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the WEA Religious Liberty Commission. Eight Christians are martyred for their faith each day.

But Christians are not the only ones who suffer.

Ahmed Shaheed, UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion and belief, said that of the 178 nations that require religious groups to register, almost 40 percent apply it with bias.

“The failure to eliminate discrimination, combined with political marginalization and nationalist attacks on identities,” he said, “can propel trajectories of violence and even atrocity crimes.”

In addition, 21 nations criminalize apostasy.

“Faith has to be voluntary,” Shaheed told CT in an interview conducted in April. “There is no value in faith if it is not free.”

The worst offenders are familiar.

Among the world’s 25 largest nations, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Russia had the highest overall levels of both government restrictions and social hostilities.

But while not all of these are autocracies, Pew noted that authoritarian governments lead the way.

Using terminology from the Democracy Index, of the 26 nations ranked as “very high” in government restrictions, 65 percent are authoritarian. And of the 30 nations ranked as “high,” 40 percent are authoritarian, while 37 percent are a hybrid regime with some democratic tendencies.

Denmark was the only full democracy, after banning the Muslim face veil.

Social hostilities are not as straightforward.

Of the 10 nations ranked as “very high,” four are authoritarian, three are hybrid, and three are flawed democracies—India, Israel, and Sri Lanka. And in the 43 nations ranked as “high,” 21 percent are authoritarian, 14 percent are hybrid, 30 percent are flawed, and 12 percent are full democracies.

These included Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Some authoritarian states with high restrictions on religion were successful in tampering social hostilities, such as Eritrea and Kazakhstan. Others, like China, Iran, and Uzbekistan, still recorded moderate social hostilities.

“High levels of government control over religion may lead to fewer hostilities by nongovernment actors,” stated Pew researchers.

But it has not stopped the growth of the church.

The WEA noted that in China, the Protestant church has grown from 1.3 million members in 1949 to at least 81 million members today. The Catholic Church in China has grown from 3 million members to over 12 million during the same 50-year period.

Shaheed, meanwhile, highlighted the 1 million Uighur Muslims held in Chinese “reeducation camps,” as well as China’s restrictions on Falun Gong and Tibetan Buddhists.

But the region with the highest median rank in terms of government restrictions is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): Eighteen of its 20 countries (90%) rank “high” or “very high.”

Shaheed said 4 are among the 12 nations that criminalize apostasy with the death penalty.

The WEA noted that persecution is better regarded as a consequence of church growth rather than its stimulant. Iraq and Syria are among the Middle East nations where the church has shrunk in size over past decades.

“While persecution brings disaster, it is nevertheless a phenomenon that lies within the sovereignty of God,” stated an IDOP study on Acts 8.

“Persecution does not define the destiny of the church. God does.”

After MENA, Asia-Pacific was the second-highest region in terms of government restrictions. Half of its 50 nations qualified, but it also represented the largest median increase. On Pew’s 10-point scale, China (9.3) and Iran (8.5) led the region, while Tajikistan, India, and Thailand recorded new highs.

Shaheed highlighted Thailand’s surveillance of Muslim groups, as well as Vietnam’s denial of citizenship to Hmong Christians.

There were no evangelical Christians among the Hmong in 1989, the WEA said. But today there are over 175,000, despite “brutal” oppression.

“Persecution does not thwart the purposes of God,” stated the IDOP study.

“Instead it can serve in establishing it, through the obedience and witness of the believing community.”

The Pew report noted that worldwide, social hostilities ticked downward in its most recent survey.

But as with the government rankings, MENA was highest with 55 percent of its nations suffering “high” or “very high” social hostilities. Europe was second with 36 percent, and Asia-Pacific was third with 28 percent.

The Americas ranked lowest in both categories.

And of the world’s 25 largest nations, Japan, South Africa, Italy, Brazil, and the United States had the lowest overall levels of both government restrictions and social hostilities.

Three nations were newly added to the “very high” government restriction list: Iraq, Western Sahara, and Yemen. Four nations were removed: Comoros, Laos, Pakistan, and Sudan, though all remained “high.”

Repeat members from 2017 include: Algeria, Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam, among others.

Libya and Sri Lanka, meanwhile, were added to the “very high” social hostilities list, while Bangladesh and Yemen were removed yet remained “high.”

Repeat members from 2017 include: Central African Republic, Egypt, India, Iraq, Israel, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria, among others.

Meanwhile, Christianity and Islam remain the most harassed religions worldwide, in 145 and 139 nations, respectively. These numbers have risen from 107 and 96 nations, respectively, in 2007.

MENA is the worst region for both. Christians suffer government restrictions in 95 percent of its countries, and social hostilities in 75 percent. Muslims, including Muslim majorities, suffer restrictions in 100 percent of MENA nations and hostilities in 65 percent, respectively.

Jews, harassed in 88 nations, are the only religious group to face more societal hostilities than government restrictions.

Buddhists suffered the highest increase in global harassment, from 17 nations in last year’s report to 24 in this year’s report.

The unaffiliated, including atheists, agnostics, and humanists, had the largest decrease, from 23 nations last year to 18 this year.

Shaheed stressed that proper religious freedom advocacy needs to represent all belief systems. He was pleased with how US officials in the State Department and Ambassador-at-Large Sam Brownback made this a priority.

He also praised the WEA for being “very inclusive.”

“Beyond praying for Christians, IDOP has highlighted the plight of people who belong to other religious groups and of adherents to non-religious worldviews,” wrote Thomas Schirrmacher, newly elected secretary general of the WEA, for IDOP.

“So even though it is a Christian worship service, several governments have taken up the topic of religious freedom for all after years of IDOP in their country, as they know that the topic will not go away.”

Which is the same patience Shaheed shows through the UN.

“Human rights work is like dropping water on a stone,” he told CT. “Given enough time, it will eventually break it down.”

Supreme Court Reconsiders Religious Liberty Rule in Foster Care Case

While the nation focused on counting votes on Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that could dramatically expand protections for religious liberty.

Lawyers for Philadelphia argued that the city should be allowed to discriminate against religious social service providers as long as the rules it uses are “neutral laws of general applicability,” citing a 1990 decision penned by conservative legal giant Antonin Scalia. Lawyers for Catholic Social Services, on the other side, argued the court should reconsider Scalia’s previous ruling in Employment Div. v. Smith, because it established a standard that allows governments to target religious minorities and place significant burdens on what the First Amendment calls their “free exercise.”

“The Free Exercise clause is at the heart of our pluralistic society, and it protects petitioners’ vital work for the Philadelphia community,” attorney Lori Windham argued in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.

“The city is reaching out and telling a private religious ministry—which has been doing this work for two centuries—how to run its internal affairs. And trying to coerce it to make statements that are contrary to its religious beliefs as a condition of continuing to participate in the religious exercise that they have carried out in Philadelphia for two centuries.”

In 2018, a city official read a newspaper story about conservative Christian opposition to same-sex foster parents. Philadelphia had long contracted foster care services to Catholic Social Services. There weren’t any complaints about the church-run organization discriminating against LGBT people, but the official was nonetheless concerned and brought the issue to the city council. The council changed its contracting policies and passed a resolution opposing “discrimination that occurs under the guise of religious freedom.” The entire process took three days.

Catholic Social Services asked for an exemption from the city, noting it would be happy to refer same-sex couples who wanted to foster to the more than two dozen other agencies that also contract with the city. LGBT people wouldn’t be prevented from fostering, and the Catholic agency shouldn’t be required to give up its religious convictions just because they are unpopular. The city refused, saying the new standards had to be equally applied to everyone.

“A universal clause in every contract bars sexual orientation discrimination,” said Neal Katyal, the attorney representing Philadelphia. “That clause contains no exceptions, and it applies equally to every [foster care agency], religious and secular alike.”

Scalia, writing for the majority, said laws that specifically prohibit religious activity were not allowed under the First Amendment, but laws that incidentally prohibit religious activity are. As long as the law is not targeted at religious exercise, it is fine.

According to Scalia, this does “place at a relative disadvantage those religious practices that are not widely engaged in.” But that’s unavoidable. Religious minorities will receive less leeway for the exercise of their faith if it’s unpopular and they don’t have the political power to win legislative exemptions for themselves. The other option, he wrote, is “a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself”—pluralism leading to complete anarchy.

As American culture grows more accepting of LGBT people and the court has expanded protections of LGBT rights, religious conservatives have begun to worry that they will be the ones at a “relative disadvantage.” If traditional Christian teaching rejecting homosexual activity as sinful is widely unpopular, then cities and states are not likely to exempt religious organizations from “generally applicable” laws against LGBT discrimination. That could make life difficult for foster care services, Christian wedding cake bakers, evangelical colleges, and others, just as laws against drug use have made it hard for the Native American Church to practice its peyote sacrament.

The standard that Scalia set up has also been applied to Santeria priests who wanted exemption from local animal cruelty ordinances to sacrifice chickens, peace activists who don’t want to pay the portion of their taxes that funds the US military, and, quite recently, churches seeking exemptions from COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings.

The court has, in recent years, protected religious liberty in multiple rulings, deciding in favor of religious business owners, religious employers, and religious schools. With the recent addition of three conservative justices—two of them Catholic—it does not seem like the court is poised to change course.

Court observers say, however, that the justices may not take the opportunity. They could, instead, say the city of Philadelphia did not meet the standard of a “generally applicable rule” because the council was specifically targeting the Catholic foster care agency. That would be similar to the court’s ruling in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in 2018, which focused narrowly on the commission’s process for evaluating the cake shop owner.

The justices might worry that overturning Smith would open up every city and state to unending lawsuits, as people attempt to win exemptions from every possible regulation. “The practical advantage of Smith,” a legal advocate for local governments argued, “is that it is simple. Smith is a bright line rule; no one is entitled to an exception from a valid, neutral, generally applicable law.”

The case is also one of the first heard by the newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett. Barrett clerked for Scalia and is seen as his legal disciple. It would be surprising if one of her first votes overturned one of his landmark opinions.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the more liberal judges, indicated interest in a limited ruling on religious liberty during the oral arguments.

“If one wanted to find a compromise in this case,” she asked one of the lawyers, “can you suggest one that wouldn’t do real damage to all the various lines of laws that have been implicated here?”

You Figure It Out?

(Please read the following news report and comment on how you think this conundrum should be handled.)

British police interfered with a baptism service held in England due to the religious event having more people in attendance than allowed by recently implemented lockdown restrictions.

The London-based congregation The Angel Church held a baptism ceremony on Sunday, led by 28-year-old Senior Pastor Regan King, which 30 people tried to attend.

Once alerted to the event, police officers stood at the entrance of the church and prevented people from entering, though they allowed 15 people to remain indoors, according to Sky News.

Police spoke with King about the event, with the pastor reportedly agreeing to stop the indoor service and instead switch to a socially-distanced, outdoor gathering.

In a statement given to Sky, an unnamed police spokesperson explained that the officers who talked with King explained that “due to COVID-19, restrictions are in place preventing gatherings and that financial penalties can be applied if they are breached.”

“The pastor agreed not to proceed with the baptism or the in-person indoor service,” continued the spokesperson. “A brief socially-distanced outdoor gathering was held instead which was agreed to by officers as a sensible compromise in the circumstances.”

For his part, King has been a staunch critic of the national lockdown, arguing in a Facebook post that he believes “it was wrong for churches to be deemed non-essential and to be forced into lockdown.”

“If it is wrong for the government to do this, then how is it right for us to comply?” he wrote. “How can I go to countries where it is illegal to practice faith as a Christian in a Biblical way and encourage illegal churches to endure (which I have done) and come back and not do the same?”

On Oct. 31, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that there would be a second national lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, beginning Nov. 5 and ending Dec. 2.

“We should remember we are not alone in what we’re going through. Our friends in Belgium, France and Germany have had to take very similar action,” said Johnson at the time.

“We are not going back to the full-scale lockdown of March and April. It is less prohibitive and less restrictive, but from Thursday the basic message is the same: Stay at home.”

The lockdown order required people to remain at home with the exception of necessary trips like work that cannot be done online, medical appointments, or shopping for groceries.

Businesses labeled nonessential and entertainment venues were ordered to be closed, with restaurants only being allowed to provide take-out and delivery services to customers.

Houses of worship were among the entities required to close, with exemptions given for assorted activities like private prayer, funerals, and formal childcare.

News of the second lockdown was criticized by many faith leaders, who argued that their worship services take sufficient precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, a group of more than 120 religious leaders filed legal action against the government over the lockdown, being represented by The Christian Legal Centre.

“We have been left with no alternative but to pursue a judicial review on this crucial issue and at this significant moment for the freedom to worship in church in this country,” stated Pastor Ade Omooba, who is part of the legal challenge.

“We call on the government to recognize the vital importance of church ministry and the principle of church autonomy from the state.”

Michael Gryboski

To the Four Monuments of Human Nature

Fortune, Fame, Power, Pleasure

Built in clusters, making them appear formidable . . . and acceptable. As the idols in ancient Athens, our society is saturated with them.

Fortune. How neatly it fits our times! Its inscription at the base is bold: “Get rich.” The figure in the statue is impressive—a hardworking young executive, a clever, diligent businessman unwilling to admit the greed behind his long hours and relentless drive.

Fame. Another monument tailor-made for this twenty-first century. It reads: “Be famous.” All its figures are bowing in worship of the popularity cult . . . eagerly anticipating the day when their desire to be known, seen, quoted, applauded, and exalted will be satisfied. Young and old surround the superficial celebrity scene.

Power. Etched in the flesh of this human edifice are these words: “Take control.” These figures are capitalizing on every opportunity to seize the reins of authority and race to the top . . . regardless.

Pleasure. The fourth monument is perhaps the most familiar of all. Its message is straightforward: “Indulge yourself.” If it looks good, grab it! If it tastes good, eat it . . . drink it! If it feels good, do it!

Conspicuous by its absence is the underlying philosophy of Jesus Christ. He’s the One who taught the truth about being eternally rich through giving rather than getting. About serving others rather than ripping them off by looking out for number one. About surrendering rights rather than seizing control. About limiting your liberty out of love and saying “No” when the flesh pleads for “Yes.” You know—the whole package wrapped up in one simple statement . . .

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

No elaborate set of statues. No sculptures done in marble—not even an epitaph for the world to read. And when He died nobody cared because they were too busy building their own monuments. We still are.

Chuck Swindoll

Childlike or Childish

One of my clearest memories of my early childhood was sitting at the bottom of the slide on the swing set in my back yard, on an Indian Summer’s day in early September. I noticed the big yellow school bus stop outside of my neighbor’s house to drop him off from Kindergarten, and the thought crossed my head, “when I’m in school next year, I’ll be so old!”

Throughout my life, whether in elementary, middle or high school, college or my first job, buying a house and getting married; I’ve always thought the next step would qualify me as positively grown up.

A couple years ago I remember telling my wife that I was concerned I’d never grow up, to which she responded that she thought I never would.

In a familiar scene from chapter 9 in the Gospel of Luke, we find the disciples arguing over who is the greatest among them. Christ responds with what seems, on its face, to be a rather perplexing solution: He takes a child by His side and says “whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you is the one who is great” (Luke 9:46-48).

This near-obsession with this notion of childhood, the presentation of a child as being supremely acceptable before God, is a strain that runs through the New Testament. The concept is particularly exemplified in the words of Christ. In the Gospels we’re presented with the veneration, in a way, of an ideal that can never again be matched even by those who strive with their whole hearts toward spiritual maturity.

Jesus said “let the children come to me” Matthew 19:14), and then insisted that unless we become like them, we’ll never really know Him. The Kingdom of God, He said, belongs to such as them. When Christ told Nicodemus in the Gospel of John that he must be born again, Nicodemus simply couldn’t wrap his head around it (John 3:4). For one, it was impossible. That was the given. But the underlying question may have been why this rabbi would revere, indeed treasure, a state in which human beings seem so helpless, so impractically optimistic, so immature and unaware of the world.

This idealization of a childlike state seems at first to contradict Paul’s admonition to put childish things behind us, a notion that C.S. Lewis clarifies in his defense of children’s literature. “Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term,” he said, “cannot be adult themselves … When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown-up.”

The fact of the matter is simple: The idea of adulthood is a dangerous one for young adults venturing out into “the real world,” whatever that may be. When we graduate from college, get a job and enjoy the legal benefits afforded to the post-21 crowd, we’re bombarded on a nearly moment-to-moment basis with opportunities. Often, we justify many of these opportunities implicitly or explicitly with the singular notion that “this is what adults do”—as though “this is what adults do” were on its own merit an appropriate justification for a thing.

Adulthood is potentially dangerous because it can create the false expectation that at some magic point we’ve got things pretty well figured out when, in reality, we’re adrift in a sea of people who are literally making it up as they go. As Christians living in a culture that tends to present opportunities counter to our identities in Christ—children of God, as we’re referred to time and again—the danger is that we may be influenced into believing the lie that the decisions we make are without the burden of consequence we could expect when we were younger. Using “adult” as C.S. Lewis described it, a term of approval, can beget the idea that adulthood carries a sense of gravitas lacked by childhood. Scripture makes it clear that this simply is not the case.

What does it mean to embrace the alternative as children of God? First, it means that we have a Father who holds us responsible for the decisions we make, but also one that will guide the confusing decision-making process the state of adulthood lends us. It means we have the protection of One who bears the very consequences of obedience to Him. Contrary to the dynamic of parent-child relationships, this is actually an incredibly freeing prospect.

When we embrace the child, as we are commanded to do, we can train ourselves to instinctively distrust the excuse that “this is what grown-ups do.” This allows us to react against the notion that we must grow up; that is, we’re actually afforded the right to reject the very concept of “growing up” without any further thought. Being childish isn’t the same as being childlike. One is a simple state of development and nothing more; the other is expressly required of us as Christians.

Finally, it bears mentioning that while all adults (our parents included) truly do make it up as they go along, for better or worse, traversing our world as young adults can present to us positive opportunities—opportunities that allow us to shepherd and encourage others in our churches and communities, even the wee ones or our own children who desperately want to grow up.

Chesterton once said that God “has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” And indeed, the veneration of the child makes perfect sense in this context: having been born again, we are sanctified as we approach the sinless nature of our Father, the Ancient of Days.

 Brandon W. Peach

A Hebrew Look at Heaven

The book of Hebrews presents Christ’s offering and intercession as two central features of his priestly work. Although some interpreters locate the offering of Christ solely at the cross, Hebrews suggests that Christ, like the high priest on the Day of Atonement, presents his offering after entering the Holy of Holies — in this case, the true Holy of Holies in heaven. After offering his finished work, once for all, in the presence of God, Christ sat down at the right hand of the Father, where he now intercedes on the basis of his offering. Together, Christ’s offering and intercession assure God’s people of welcome in heaven, both now and forever.

So much of life is lived in tense times in between. You have applied and interviewed for the job, and now you await their decision. You signed a contract on the house, but you have not yet moved in. The Lego set you purchased for your son is due to arrive today, and he will not peel his eyes from the front window.

The whole Christian life is lived between times. Christ has come, died, risen, ascended, and poured out his Spirit. He hasn’t returned yet, but he has promised to, and he will. As individual Christians, we have been born again, justified, forgiven, and filled with the Spirit, but we have not yet been perfected, resurrected, and glorified.

What is already yours in Christ? What promises of God remain outstanding? And what help do you need to persevere in the tense time in between?

What We Need, What We Have

The epistle to the Hebrews was written to Christians living in a tense time. They had already suffered for their faith (10:32–34), and more suffering seemed likely. The recipients of this letter were likely wondering, “Is it worth it to be a Christian?”1 They needed reminding of what was already theirs in Christ, what God promises to those who persevere, and how Christ helps us persevere to the end.

Hebrews’ answer to the questions of what we need and what we have is a single word: Christ. Over and over again, Hebrews emphatically announces that we have Christ, and in him we have all we need (4:14–16; 6:19–20; 8:1–2; 10:19, 22; 13:10). More specifically, as we will see, Hebrews underscores the sufficiency of Christ’s high-priestly service. He is the only mediator we need in order to gain unhindered access to God.

Two central features of Christ’s priestly work are his offering and his intercession (e.g., 7:25; 9:11–10:18). Christ’s offering is finished, complete, once-for-all (7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10); his intercession, by contrast, is ongoing (7:25). Christ’s offering and intercession are complementary aspects of his saving ministry as our High Priest. But how do they relate to each other? And how do they together guarantee our free acceptance with God?

This essay will explore these questions in three steps. First, I will argue for an often-overlooked feature of Christ’s self-offering in Hebrews — namely, that Jesus offered himself to God the Father, in person, in heaven, after his resurrection and ascension. Second, I will examine Hebrews’ presentation of Christ’s ongoing intercession and ask how this relates to his singular, completed offering. Third, I will show how Jesus’s offering and intercession should embolden every believer to draw near to God with a true heart and full assurance of faith (10:22).

Where and When Did Jesus Offer Himself?

Many evangelical interpreters of Hebrews, whether scholars, pastors, or laypeople, understand Hebrews to teach that Jesus’s offering of himself began and ended with his death on the cross.2 In contrast, I will argue, in four brief steps, that Jesus offered himself to God upon his bodily, post-resurrection entrance to God’s dwelling in heaven.3

1. Resurrected High Priest

First, Hebrews asserts that Jesus was appointed High Priest after his resurrection.4 The most crucial verse here is 7:16: “. . . who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life.”5 Throughout Hebrews 7, the author contrasts the mortality of the Levitical priests with Jesus’s immortality. The Levitical priests were many, since the death of each required continual succession in office (7:23). But Christ “holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever” (7:24). This continuing forever is not a feature of Jesus’s divine nature, but of the glorified human existence he obtained at his resurrection. In other words, the key difference between Jesus and the Levitical priests, the difference that enables his perpetual priesthood, is his resurrection life. Which means, as 7:16 says, that Jesus’s resurrection is what enabled him to be appointed High Priest in the order of Melchizedek.

In addition, Hebrews describes Jesus’s qualification for and appointment to high priesthood in terms of his perfection, which took place after his entire earthly life of weakness and suffering:

Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (5:8–10)
For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (7:28; cf. 2:10)

Jesus’s perfection is the outcome of his suffering and coincides with his resurrection. And this perfection is prerequisite to his being appointed High Priest. When Hebrews says that Jesus was “perfected,” it does not mean that he was previously morally flawed and only later attained to sinlessness (see 4:15). Instead, Hebrews uses the language of perfecting to say that Jesus completed the course of prerequisites for appointment to priesthood. He became completely qualified to be our all-sufficient Savior.

Further, Hebrews twice asserts that every high priest is appointed in order to offer sacrifice (5:1; 8:3). Appointment is prerequisite to, and therefore logically prior to, offering sacrifice. Since offering sacrifice is a central purpose for which priests are appointed to office, the author of Hebrews clearly presupposes that priests, including Jesus, are appointed to office before they offer sacrifice.

2. Final Day of Atonement

Second, Hebrews plots the Day of Atonement sin offering in the sequence “enter in order to offer.” The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:1–34) is the old covenant rite that Hebrews draws on most extensively as a model for the saving work of Christ. And the most distinctive act of the Day of Atonement was the high priest’s entry with blood into the Holy of Holies in order to sprinkle blood in that innermost sanctum (Leviticus 16:14–16). In casting Christ’s saving work as an eschatological fulfillment of the Day of Atonement, the author zeroes in on the high priest’s entry into the Holy of Holies, and Christ’s corresponding act of entering the inner sanctum of God’s dwelling in heaven (Hebrews 6:19–20; 9:11–12, 24).

Specifically, in 9:7, the author goes out of his way to narrate the high priest’s inner-sanctum sin offering in the sequence “enter in order to offer.” Consider: “These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (9:6–7). Note the sequence, both implied and explicit. The Levitical high priest first slaughters the animal and gathers its blood. Then he enters with that blood into the Holy of Holies. Then, inside the Holy of Holies, he “offers” the blood. Apart from Hebrews, no ancient Jewish or early Christian source labels the high priest’s inner-sanctum blood manipulation an “offering.” Hebrews’ description of this act as an offering is both unusual and deliberate.

3. First Enter, Then Offer

Third, Hebrews’ portrayal of Jesus’s self-offering presupposes this “enter in order to offer” sequence. Here 9:24–25 is decisive: “Christ has entered, not into a Holy of Holies made with hands, which is a copy of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor did he enter in order to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy of Holies every year with blood not his own.”6

Where did Christ enter? The Holy of Holies of the tabernacle in heaven. What did he do when he got there? Offered himself.

What this passage denies is that Christ offered himself repeatedly. That is a key difference between Christ’s self-offering and the Levitical high priests’ sin offering. But both sacrifices share a single sequential script: first enter, then offer.

4. Minister in the Holy Places

Fourth, in Hebrews 8:1–5, the author locates Jesus’s entire high-priestly ministry, including his self-offering, in the heavenly tabernacle, in contrast to the earthly tabernacle in which the Levitical priests ministered.

Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

Where did, and does, Jesus serve as high priest? In the true tent that the Lord set up, not man — that is, the one in heaven, not the one on earth (8:2). If Jesus were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since he is not qualified to be a priest according to the law that governs the earthly tabernacle (8:4). And this service as high priest includes his offering (8:3).

Putting this all together, we can conclude that Jesus offered himself to God, in person, in the inner sanctum of God’s dwelling in heaven, after he died, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven.7

What About the Cross?

This immediately raises two questions. First, what about Jesus’s death? Hebrews repeatedly ascribes decisive soteriological efficacy to Jesus’s death. By his death he tasted death for all (2:9). By his death he destroyed the devil’s power and delivered us from lifelong bondage through fear of death (2:14–15). By his death he obtained redemption for transgressions against the old covenant and inaugurated the new (9:15–17). By his death he bore the sins of many (9:28). So, Jesus’s death is not merely preparation for his heavenly offering; it is a decisive atoning event in its own right.

But we can go further. Jesus’s death is also the substance of what he offers to God in heaven. Jesus’s death is not when and where he offers himself, but it is what he offers. This is evident in Hebrews’ references to blood. Consider Hebrews 9:22: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” In this paraphrase of Leviticus 17:11, Hebrews asserts the need of a life-for-life exchange in order for forgiveness to obtain. This life-for-life exchange is precisely what Christ’s death accomplished. As such, when Hebrews implies that Jesus’s blood is, in some sense, that which he offers to God in heaven (9:12, 14, 25; 12:24), we should take this to mean that what Christ’s death achieved is what he subsequently presented to God. In his death, Christ suffered as the sacrificial victim (9:28); upon his ascension, he offered himself as both priest and sacrifice.

Second, does this interpretation undermine the finality of the cross? That is, does it stand in tension with Jesus’s triumphant cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30)? In brief, I would suggest that this reading of Hebrews does not threaten the finality of the cross any more than Paul’s assertion in Romans 4:25 that Jesus was raised for our justification, or his claim in 1 Corinthians 15:17 that if Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. In other words, all that Christ did in his incarnate mission, he did to save us. Each stage of Christ’s saving mission has saving significance. Christ’s work from incarnation to ascension and session is an unbroken chain; Hebrews simply zooms in on later links in that chain.

What Is Christ’s Intercession, and How Does It Relate to His Offering?

One passage in Hebrews explicitly asserts that Christ intercedes for his people, and two more prepare a thematic context for it.

He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (2:17–18)
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. (4:14–16)
He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (7:24–25)

We can identify two aspects to Christ’s intercession: pleading for our help, and pleading for our forgiveness.8

First, Christ intercedes for our help. Hebrews 2:18 asserts that Christ is able to help those who are being tempted, since he himself has faithfully endured temptation. Hebrews 4:16 exhorts us to ask God for that help when we need it, confident that we will receive it because Christ is our sympathetic High Priest. Hebrews 7:25, then, answers a how question implied in both these verses. How does Christ provide the help we need in trials and temptations? By interceding for us.9 As he prayed for Peter before his trial, Jesus intercedes before the Father for all believers now, that our faith may not fail (Luke 22:32).

Second, Christ intercedes for our forgiveness. The assertion that Christ intercedes for us in 7:25 grounds the exultant claim that “he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him.” In other words, Christ’s intercession is a key ingredient in his mediation of salvation. His intercession is an element in what enables us to draw near to God through him; it is part of how he applies to us the fullness of salvation that he has achieved for us (cf. Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1).

Hence, though Hebrews does not say so explicitly, it seems warranted to infer that Christ’s intercession is an application of his once-for-all offering.10 Once he finished his atoning work by presenting himself before the Father in the heavenly throne room, Christ sat down (Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12–13; 12:2). He no longer stands, as priests do when they perform their sacrificial service (10:11). Instead, he sits. That seated posture proclaims both his royal repose as the enthroned Messiah, heir of all things (cf. 1:2), and his continuing appeals for our help and forgiveness.11

What Does This Mean for Us?

How do Christ’s completed offering and ongoing intercession encourage us to draw near to God? How do they together provide the help we need in our tense time in between? Consider four practical encouragements.

First, Christ’s offering and intercession assure us of welcome in heaven, now and forever. That is the conclusion the author of Hebrews himself draws:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (10:19–22)

And consider Calvin’s beautiful meditation on the assurance Christ’s intercession offers us:

As faith recognizes, it is to our great benefit that Christ resides with the Father. For, having entered a sanctuary not made with hands, he appears before the Father’s face as our constant advocate and intercessor. Thus he turns the Father’s eyes to his own righteousness to avert his gaze from our sins. He so reconciles the Father’s heart to us that by his intercession he prepares a way and access for us to the Father’s throne. He fills with grace and kindness the throne that for miserable sinners would otherwise have been filled with dread.12

If you are in Christ, then Christ has offered himself for you and continually intercedes for you. And that means you are always welcome in God’s presence. God will never turn you away with a frown or a curt “not now.” No failure you bring with you into God’s presence can bar the doors against you. God’s arms will always be open to you. However great a sinner you are, Christ is a greater savior.

Second, Christ’s offering and intercession show us that his saving work addresses every dimension of our need before God. Christ’s self-offering has obtained for us purification (1:3), redemption (9:12), a purified conscience (9:14), forgiveness (9:22; 10:18), sanctification (10:10), and perfection (10:14) — that is, unhindered access to God. And Christ’s intercession applies those benefits to us and obtains for us the timely help we need in order to persevere. We live between times, between receiving salvation’s spiritual benefits and having our entire existence — body, soul, and created environment — transformed. Christ is sufficient for every time. He has provided an atonement sufficient for all our past, present, and future sins. And his intercession can sustain us through every trial that stands between us and glory.

Third, Christ’s intercession is based on this: he has been where you are. Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15 ground Christ’s present ability to help in his past endurance of the whole miserable human condition. Christ has faithfully persevered through the severest temptation and most intense suffering (cf. 12:1–2). No matter how sorely you are tempted or how severely you are tried, Christ has been there. He knows by experience what you are enduring. Which means he knows just how to help.

Fourth, Christ’s heavenly offering and ongoing intercession make this promise: where he is, you will be. It might seem strange to conceive of Christ’s offering as his bodily self-presentation to God in heaven. One reason for that strangeness might be that your doctrine of the incarnation unwittingly stops with Christ’s death. But of course, Scripture’s does not. Christ’s resurrection demonstrates that he remains, and always will remain, human — but a new kind of human, fit for the endless glory of the age to come.

Bobby Jamieson

You Knew It Would Happen

Amazon is doing what Amazon does, shifting its enormous glowing eyes to unconquered terrain. Next up in its conquest: meds. Bezos and Co. are getting into the online pharmacy business, adding insulin, inhalers and prescription refills to their formidable online catalog. Order your meds on Amazon and they’ll show up at your door a couple days later, no human contact needed.

The announcement alone set CVS Health Corp., Walgreens and Rite Aid stocks into a free fall, and no wonder. The marriage of pharmacy and grocery store is a pretty old one, and these chains rely on pharmacies for a flow of customers who swing by to pick up their medications and run a few errands in the process. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted all of our grocery shopping schedules and big stores have been trying to pivot to contact-free styles of delivery. But Amazon developed infrastructure for this kind of work a long time ago.

Amazon’s clearly looking to claim another scalp here. Its life began as a bookseller, pioneering the online market in a way that left other booksellers like Borders in the dust. Its lauded shipping business has also put a squeeze on UPS and the purchase of Whole Foods set major grocery stores scrambling.

But the pharmaceutical biz is a complicated and contentious industry, and Amazon’s move comes as places like Walgreens and CVS attempt to catch up to online shopping by offering things like same-day delivery. Amazon will accept most major insurance companies and offer medication to uninsured Amazon Prime members at a discount. Amazon will not offer medication with a high risk of being abused, according to the Associated Press.

For a country currently at odds about how fix a healthcare system in which the soaring costs of necessary medication plays a huge part, Amazon’s disruption has the potential to be seismic — though for good or bad is hard to tell.

Doctors Warn Against Assisted Suicide

Over fifty doctors working in palliative medicine and care for dying patients have signed a letter to The Times in opposition to any proposed changes in the assisted suicide law.

In the face of continual attempts to legalise assisted suicide, fifty doctors have signalled their continued support for protections in the law for the most vulnerable. In particular, the doctors have called attention to a recent British Medical Association survey on assisted suicide which shows the unwillingness of doctors to participate in assisted suicide and euthanasia.

In the letter, the doctors point out that whatever marginal support there is for the idea of assisted suicide, it remains the case that a “majority of doctors licensed to practise would not agree to prescribe lethal drugs (assisted suicide) and a larger majority would not administer them (euthanasia).”

In other words, when the doctors who answered the survey were asked if they would personally “participate in any way in the process” of assisted suicide, 45% said ‘no’, as opposed to 36% who said ‘yes’. When asked if they would personally “participate in any way in the process” of euthanasia, 54% said ‘no’, and only 26% said ‘yes’.

The same BMA survey showed that 84% of doctors in palliative medicine would not be willing to perform euthanasia on a patient should the law ever change.

The letter also notes that supposed safeguards in euthanaisa and assisted suicide laws are regularly breached. “Every legislature that allows ‘safeguarded’ assisted dying has seen its safeguards breached, starkly illustrating the gap between principle and practice.”

In the Netherlands, for example, reports indicate that the requirement for explicit consent is frequently ignored, as is the required reporting of all instances of euthanasia.

The signers of the letter also emphasise the role medical professionals, which “if ever assisted dying were to be legalised… must be limited to the provision of an opinion on the applicant’s medical condition. It should be for the courts alone to make decisions – as they do now – on life-or-death issues.”

Calls for the legalisation of assisted suicide come at the same time as countries that have already legalised the practise reveal that the motivations for assisted suicide are social and not medical.

For example, in 2019 Canada reported that more than a third (34%) of those who opted for “medical assistance in dying” cited concerns of being a burden to family or carers. A further 13.7% cited “isolation or loneliness” as their reason for procuring an assisted suicide.

Right To Life UK’s spokesperson Catherine Robinson, said: “Once again, this letter shows that the vast majority of those doctors working with dying patients are opposed to the introduction of assisted suicide.

“The data from Canada shows that ‘isolation or loneliness’ is a reason people choose assisted suicide. With the current Covid-19 lockdowns, loneliness is likely to get worse. This is a serious social problem, not a medical one, and the solution to it is not to end the lives of those suffering.”

Quitting with Grace

I remember my first job. As a 15 year old, I served as a referee for a youth soccer league that played on Saturday mornings.

My first workday included tears and frustration—from myself, the players, and their parents. I was expecting a fun-filled Saturday, but a few missed calls turned it into a tormented beginning. What had I gotten myself into? I was ready to turn in my two weeks’ notice after week one.

Even then, I was realizing that work of all types is toilsome. Ever since the rebellion of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3), humanity has felt work’s thistles and thorns. One of the chief ways brokenness creeps into the workplace is dissatisfaction and frustration. Be it a corrupt culture or our own proclivity to sin, we don’t experience work and the workplace as it was intended. What was designed to be a place for creativity and service to the Lord (Gen. 1:27) has become a place of dread, turmoil, and harm.

For those struggling with how to quit a job, this feeling cuts to the bone. It’s a terrible feeling to begin dreading Sunday evening because it means you’re that much closer to Monday morning.

Before you start searching job sites, though, here are a few things to consider.

Reasons for Quitting

Early in the process, it’s wise to consider your reasons for wanting to quit your job. 

A time of self-reflection can help clarify what might feel fuzzy and irritating. For instance, is there a moral compromise that rubs against biblical principles? Is there systemic abuse of power taking place in the workplace?

If either of these instances apply, you can move away from your position with a degree of certainty that the workplace is infringing upon its employees’ human flourishing. For many, this is their story at work; if it’s yours, you should feel freedom to pivot into something new with confidence.

Christians should see their work both as an opportunity to share Christ’s love with coworkers and as a way to press back against the ways darkness infiltrates societies and structures.

However, there’s also a case to be made for not throwing in the towel so easily if your work is simply challenging or boring. Consider Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:13–16, where he charges his followers to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” Christians should see their work as an opportunity both to share Christ’s love with coworkers and to press back against the ways darkness infiltrates societies and structures.

This could mean seeking a more efficient way to stock inventory at a grocery store or proposing a redesign of meetings that seeks to include all voices. The point is that a feeling of frustration could be pointing you not to quitting, but to modeling what faithful Christian presence looks like in action.

Honor Your Boss

When quitting a job, we can learn much by reorienting ourselves to the Fifth Commandment. While honoring our parents might seem a bit confusing in this context, the bounds of father and mother can be extended to those placed in authority over us. The Bible speaks frequently about honoring those in leadership positions (Rom. 13:1).

Part of honoring Christ’s lordship in every area of life means not just seeking your own benefit through your life and work, but also seeking the benefit of those around you.

Thus a boss, much like a parent, is to be treated with reverence and respect.

In addition, part of honoring Christ’s lordship in every area of life means not just seeking your own benefit through your life and work, but also seeking the benefit of those around you (Phil. 2:3–4).

If God is leading you to quit your job, these truths can serve as a primer for doing so with integrity and respect:

  1. Go to the Lord in prayer, asking for either guidance into a deeper love of your current work or the peace and courage to begin looking for new work.
  2. If the Lord is nudging you to move on, communicate clearly, gently, and definitively with your direct supervisor in an effort to avoid any backchannel conversations about your plans and future with the company.
  3. Offer flexibility in handing off your role, onboarding a new hire, or even creating a manual for the next hire. Such generosity in seeking the flourishing of the people, places, and things around us can be a disruptive witness to God’s better ways.

Is there a Christian way to quit a job? While nothing in Scripture explicitly gives us guidance in this department, much is written about the character of the Christian shaped by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23). Those are the characteristics that should be on display when a Christian quits a job.

Lean on the Lord in your discernment and trust him as you serve your workplace with kindness and respect. Take heart that even delivering potentially tough news can be an opportunity to share the gospel and display neighbor love.

Gage Arnold

Secularism and Infertility

Declining fertility rates have a significant correlation with increased secularization, according to Baylor University professor Philip Jenkins.

Much of modern Africa tends to be devoutly religious and they also happen to have high fertility rates, Jenkins said. By contrast, the lower a population’s fertility rate the greater the likelihood it is for people to separate from faith communities and religious institutions. The fertility rate, then, serves as an insightful window into how societies around the world become more secularized.

“We measure change in a society through fertility,” Jenkins said.

“There is a close correlation between a fertility rate of a particular society or nation and the level of religious involvement or participation in that society.”

Amid the relatively recent collapse in fertility rates around the world, especially in Europe, secularization is rising. Jenkins said that if he were to be told the fertility rate of any given country it would be fairly easy to say whether that nation allows legal same-sex unions, surmise its attitudes toward faith and religion, and how strong its religious institutions are.

While this correlation is not brought about by simple causation, the link is nevertheless demonstrably present, he stressed.

In the 1960s, the fertility rate in Denmark began to drop below replacement level as the country became more secular. Meanwhile, in the sub-Saharan African country of Uganda, the average woman had five children and religious belief was strong. This pattern holds true across the world with a notable few that seem to buck the trend.

“You might argue that as you take children out of the picture there are far fewer links connecting families and people to institutions. … Take children out of the religious picture and see what happens,” he said.

Or, he posited, it could be the reverse. That as people become more secular in their thinking they forego the charge to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Whichever comes first, these changes are happening rapidly. In Italy, the collapse of the fertility rate and the slide toward rampant secularization has happened within a decade, he noted.

Low-fertility societies are more likely to be hostile to religion, Jenkins added. The key factor in this phenomenon is the institutions.

“Once you separate the idea of family, once you separate sexuality and reproduction, people become a lot less willing to have churches or religious institutions tell them what to do with their personal lives,” he said.

When these religiously-informed ethics break down, political campaigns subsequently arise to legalize or permit by referendums such things as abortion or euthanasia. A low-fertility, secularized society is more inhospitable to efforts of churches and religious institutions to push back, and are often prone to believing the worst charges about faith-based organizations and institutions, he explained.

Jenkins went on to describe how one of the largest shifts in consciousness in his lifetime was from the belief that there was going to be a population explosion. What happened was the reverse.

“To put it crudely, we have lost 2 billion people since then [the 1970s] from what was projected versus what we’ve actually got,” he said. “This is happening because so many people in Latin American and Asia gave up having traditional ‘third world’ population growth rates and suddenly became Danish.”

Population rates that many considered Scandinavian have spread around the world. Half of the states in India now have half the replacement level fertility rates, Jenkins continued. Whereas originally, the projection for 2050 was going to be that the global population would number 11 billion. It’s more likely that the figure will be approximately 9 billion. Concern is rising now about “population contraction” and the military, commercial, and economic implications that come with it.

In the 1980s, a typical Iranian woman had seven children in her lifetime, he said. Presently, the rate hovers at 1.5-1.6, about the same level as Canada. Though viewed as a religious country because of their ardent Islamic government, the Iranian people have secularized. The head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard complained that of the 60,000 mosques in the nation, only around 3,000 are actively attended.

Surveys of what average Iranians think show that many consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and plenty more are atheists, he said, whereas mainline orthodox Islam is a “minority pursuit.”

The United States has been somewhat of an anomaly in that it’s a developed nation but remains highly religious and had a relatively high fertility rate. In the last decade, however, it has secularized significantly and the fertility rate has also plummeted. Those who are known as “nones” — people who no longer affiliate with any particular faith tradition — have grown sharply.

“The proportion of nones in the U.S. has risen very dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years in exactly the same period that the fertility rate has dropped. And the three largest religious communities in the U.S. right now are evangelicals, Catholics, and nones. And within just a year or two, the nones are going to be the largest of those three groups. That is a stunning change in a very short time,” Jenkins said.

The U.S. is also culturally divided and it’s easily predictable that states with high fertility rates and high faith practice vote Republican and low-fertility and low faith states vote Democrat, he explained.

“Fertility is an extremely good predictor of religious behavior and the political behavior that grows out of it, particularly in an age of culture wars,” Jenkins said.

Secularization can occur very rapidly, he emphasized, highlighting how the Netherlands was once known for its strong religious practice in the 1940s and 19050s, but that changed by the 1980s. The Dutch have since become one of the most secular people in history.

“Is that the fate of the United States? I don’t know,” he added, noting that it’s possible that the COVID-19 pandemic might accelerate that secularization process.

Brandon Showalter

%d bloggers like this: