Series Title: Going Up with the Psalms of Ascent (episode 7)
These edited transcripts are taken from Dwight's most loved audio series, Highways in Their Hearts. Click here to see the downloadable audio version in our online store.
There is a spiritual archetype in the Tabernacle's divine design. The closer you get to the Holy of Holies, the less furniture and fewer people you will find. To continue our pilgrimage metaphor, we continue up the steps and into the Temple through places with altars, basins, tables, and lamps. As we draw nearer, there are fewer and fewer people until we reach the Holy of Holies, where we only find one thing: the presence of the living God hovering over the ark of the covenant.
Oh God, set our hearts on fire so we refuse to settle for anything less than the blessing of your presence! That is what it means to be a pilgrim, to walk with Jesus.
I desire this and know you do as well. And I, like you, struggle with attachments to things of this world. But we must cast off these weights and encourage one another to do the same. The weights pull us downward; we are called to look up to the LORD our God for our help.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus [...]. - Hebrews 12:1-2
Not only must we deal with weights that entrap and entangle us, but we must set aside the sin that so easily beset us, that clings so closely to us. The literal rendering of the Greek is "the easily surrounding sin."
It is not hard to sin. Sinning is easy; it comes naturally. There is within us an inclination to go our own way, to believe lies that offer what we want on our terms. The Bible calls the force that bends, twists, and distorts the truth iniquity, and we all fall prey to it occasionally. No wonder Jesus exhorts us to pray, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from the evil one.
In contrast, pilgrimage is hard, and it comes about supernaturally.
Here is the key. When you stumble or fall, do not cling to, do not cherish the sin. Confess it instead. Confess both the sin and the harsh reality that the Father had to lay your sin on His Son. And be on guard against the religious spirit, that insidious form of iniquity that cloaks itself in spiritual language, enabling us to rationalize and get away with doing our own thing. We are adept at finding ways to keep the letter of the Law while carefully avoiding the Spirit.
To have the King's Highway in our hearts means a willingness to confess, repent, and be purged of iniquity. The cry of the pilgrim is, "Forgive me, LORD, for I have sinned. Cleanse me and set my feet on the path of life once again that I may glorify your great name."
Come and hear, all you who fear God,
and I will tell what he has done for my soul.
I cried to him with my mouth,
and high praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
But truly God has listened;
he has attended to the voice of my prayer.
Blessed be God,
because he has not rejected my prayer
or removed his steadfast love from me!
- Psalm 66:16-20
Here are three life lessons from Psalm 121 that can help us reach our goal as pilgrims.
1) To be conformed to the image of Christ and experience the presence and power of God, we must recognize the need to simplify our lives.
We have had to move several times in our lives, and if you ever have to move, you know how taxing it is because of the way we accumulate stuff. Usually, about once every year, I'd get into a decluttering state of mind, and we'd have a garage sale. Do you know what I discovered? As soon as we would clear the house, different things would find their way in. Almost the next day after we had our garage sale, we'd stop at another garage sale, buy their things, and bring them back to our house. [laughter]
It finally dawned on me that the secret to simplifying is what you do, not necessarily something you do without. Think about it this way: there is going to be complexity to life along with responsibilities and demands regardless of your situation. The key is to have a focus that is continually prioritizing your activities while continually sanctifying your actions.
We need a focus, a priority, a commitment that everything we do is done in the name of Jesus—for the sake of Heaven. "In the name of" is a Hebrew idiom for "in the authority of the one named." The same Spirit power that worked in Jesus is at work in you so that whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). Simplify by deciding what is important to you and make that a priority, counting each day as a gift not knowing how many you have.
2) To be conformed to the image of Christ and experience the presence and power of God, we must recognize the way will not always be easy.
The journey will not always be smooth because it is uphill not downhill. Sin is easy; sanctification is challenging. There is a perverted gospel that promises our selfishness health and wealth as the result of faith. The truth is there are times when there are unexplainable struggles and troubles. The Bible witnesses that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:12), and Jesus counsels that in the world you will have troubles (John 16:33).
Let me be clear: the rewards of biblical faith are indeed great. Though the way is narrow, risky, and difficult, there is good news for those who set their heart on pilgrimage. What you and I cannot accomplish in the natural, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus will accomplish in the supernatural! Take heart, I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
Psalm 121 proclaims that the Father watches over His children. He is referenced nine times in eight short verses, five of those using the sacred name given as a revelation to His redeemed people, Yahweh. And six times, His help and care for them is indicated by the English word keep or watch over.
GOD accomplishes the desire He places in the hearts of those on pilgrimage. They know the God of Israel does not slumber or sleep. In a modern idiom, He is on the job 24/7. What is He doing? Helping: keeping our feet from slipping, providing shade in a scorching hot world, protecting us from evil. He is leading and giving us life. Hallelujah!
3) To be conformed to the image of Christ and experience the presence and power of God, we must recognize the greatest obstacle to spiritual growth is not weakness. It is self-reliance.
As a pilgrim, you must recognize that not only is Yahweh your help, but that you need His help. When you do, you realize that relying solely upon Him runs contrary to the pride and self-centeredness so familiar to us.
Hebrews 11:21 paints a beautiful picture of faithfulness for us. Jacob, at the river Jabbok, had an encounter with the Holy God that left him limping (Gen 32). Now, at the end of his life, he blesses the sons of Joseph, who represent the continuation of God's promise to the next generation. It is there we see Jacob worshipping God while leaning upon his staff.
From a young age, we are taught to derive value from our strengths, talents, and accomplishments (or lack thereof). Spiritual pilgrimage begins when you realize your strength can get you many places but not into the Holy of Holies. You draw near by grace alone, which becomes evident when you humble yourself, when you cast aside encumbering weights and besetting sins, and when you seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.
Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.
Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.