|Series Theme: Meditations in Hebrews|
47. Jesus Focus Heb 12:1
48. God who disciplines Heb 12:5,6
49. Personal action overview Heb 12:12,13
50. Personal action specifics Heb 12:14
51. Two Mountains Heb 12:18,22
52. An Unshaken Kingdom Heb 12:28
Meditations in Hebrews 12: 47. Jesus Focus
Heb 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
The link with the previous chapter: We have jumped to chapter 12, we said, because we have previously covered chapter 11 in a separate series called ‘Focusing Faith', but our opening verse of this chapter refers back to all that “cloud of witnesses” that made up chapter 11. We have said previously that stating our testimony is not only powerful in respect of impacting others, but it also strengthens our own faith to think back on what God has gone for us personally and be able to put that into words. Now, he implies, all these people I have called to mind in the previous chapter should act as a tremendous host of witnesses, people who speak about their encounters with God, and as such they challenge and strengthen our faith.
The effect of those witnesses : It is an interesting expression he uses, a “cloud” of witnesses. No, they are not real or alive today but they come to us from the past reminding us of their encounters with God. Clouds are up in the heavens and these are believers in heaven who still speak to us today. This is one of the values of having a written record of these lives, we have it before us and can refer to it again and again and in so doing we are stirred and strengthened. But he uses this picture of all these people from the past, as we have said, to stir and strengthen us, so that yet again he is both warning us and challenging us and encouraging us to keep going in our walk with God. Look at those things in this first verse.
The warning : against “sin that so easily entangles ” An act of sin rarely is just a one-off quick act that is forgotten. Whether we realise it or not, when we sin we go against the indwelling Holy Spirit and He will be grieved. But even more we have to overcome our own conscience to sin and so we are weakened; we make excuses and until we repent we become more vulnerable to further temptations. But then so often a sin has ongoing effect. We sin and try to cover it up and the cover-up involves a lie or further action to try to keep it hidden. The illustration of David and Bathsheba is an apt one.
The challenge: to “throw off everything that hinders”. What are the things in our lives that distract us, that fill up our time. We can't go to the Bible Study because our favourite TV program is on. We can't get involved with outreach activities because we're too busy with friends. We can't have a quiet time because we say we need the sleep. There can be so many things that slow up our spiritual lives and he challenges us to identify them and get rid of them.
The encouragement: “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” God has got a path marked out for us, He will show it to us and so all we have to do is hang on in there and keep going, i.e. persevere, and He will give us the grace to be able to do that. We can be a winner. We can be victorious; that is God's intent for us. This is our writer yet again exercising his pastoral heart to keep these Jewish Christians on track. It is not a legalistic thing but a heart thing. He has them on his heart and he is aware, as we have seen, that the days are difficult and so these believers need encouragement or warning again and again. The warning is the negative side – the thing to be avoided that might pull us down so we lose the wonder of our inheritance. The encouragement is the positive side that says, “You can do it!” and urges us on to higher ground, to a place of greater strength, of greater assurance, of greater blessing.
The encouragement of Jesus: So now he gives us fuel to do this. He has used one thing – the testimonies of the Old Testament saints – and now he returns, as a second means of encouragement, to the ultimate heart of this letter, the life being and ministry of Jesus Christ: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (v.2)
Back in 3:1 he had encouraged us to “fix your thoughts on Jesus ,” and now he says “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus ,” which is slightly stronger. Both of them said ‘fix', i.e. anchor your thinking and your vision on him, don't let go of your thoughts about him in your Christian faith because it is all about him. Jesus, he says, is the author or originator of your faith (through his work on the Cross), but he is also the perfecter of your faith, the one who will help you keep on until you enter into all that your salvation means.
But then he points out how Jesus had done it, and we noted this recently: “for the joy set before him” – for the wonder of all that would follow – “endured the Cross” i.e. he looked beyond the awful experience of the Cross that confronted him to what would be the other side of it and that sustained him and helped him remain true to his task.
He adds, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (v.3) If Jesus could handle opposition, with his help, so can we. This is not academic theory but practical reality. Jesus has walked this path and overcame, and so he now walks it with us if we have to walk it. He understands all you are going through and his grace and power (his Holy Spirit) is there within you to enable you to walk it in the same way.
Do you see the similarity between this and the people of chapter 11. They were saints (believers) who so often had to walk difficult paths and they overcame with God's help. The Lord does not ask us to walk it alone for, as we will see later, He says, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb 13:5) We are not alone! Hallelujah!
Meditations in Hebrews 12: 48. God who disciplines
Heb 12:5,6 "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.
The writer to the Hebrews earlier faced the fact that the Church had suffered under persecution and was constantly at war against heresies. He was aware that life was often tough for the Christian and in his encouraging his readers, he now acknowledges a further way that life sometimes seems difficult – when we are being disciplined by God.
Press on despite opposition: The context of this is a further encouragement to press on: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons.” (v.4,5) Yes, they may have suffered persecution but that had not resulted in deaths. But perhaps this is more than just persecution (as bad as that might be) for he speaks of it in the context of “you struggle against sin.” Resisting temptation to sin is one of the struggles of the Christian life but so also is the struggle to counter lies, deceptions and false teaching. Behaviour and beliefs are both areas where the enemy attacks.
Now here is the strange thing: the enemy comes against us seeking to lead us astray in both our behaviour and our thinking and yes, the Lord does encourage us, as we have seen time and again in the book, but that is not all He does. When He sees we are slipping in behaviour or belief, this really means that we are drifting away from Him, and so He takes action to draw us back close to Him again.
Discipline from God: Now in verses 5 and 6 that we have above, he reminds us that a) the Lord does discipline and b) He does rebuke and c) He does these things to those He loves. Verses 5 and 6 are quotations from Prov 3:11,12. The word discipline means ‘to train' or ‘to bring about a change in behaviour'. We usually hear about discipline in the armed forces and discipline is the first and foremost thing instilled in new recruits, to change their behaviour from self-centred, self-willed individuals into an authority-centred fighting force. Discipline changes their minds and their bodies. It is perhaps the biggest difference between a member of the armed services and a civilian.
The writer lays down some basic principles of discipline: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.” (v.7a) Discipline is hard and requires you to persevere. For the Christian it means pressure of the Holy Spirit and of God inspired or God-allowed circumstances to knock out of you the ways of the world and to conform you to the image of Christ. Discipline comes because you are a son or daughter of God and it is intended to drive you closer to Him. Now some of these seem hard words that I have used – knock out and drive – but they are necessary when we have allowed ungodly attitude or behaviour in, and it is only tough words or circumstances that will get us to deal with them, and because God loves us so much He will do what He sees will bring about that change.
Human Discipline: The writer appeals to human behaviour: “For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” (v.7-10) In a day when fathers are abandoning their first families and children are being left without discipline, these may seem strange words. They are also strange because there is much confusion today over parenting. As a trained parenting trainer, may I suggest a summary: for us as a parent, all discipline must come in an environment of love. When our children know they are truly loved and their parents have proved it by laying down their lives for them, THEN discipline, which is correction with an aim, can be safely brought.
Failure to say no, accompanied by an explanation but backed by a strong action – in a context of loving care – may prevent your child a) from going wrong and b) from finding the law or an employer acting against them in later years in ways they find thoroughly uncomfortable. I will always remember a murder case, I think it was, where a judge said of a seventeen year old, “This young man has no consideration for others or for the Law because no one has ever said no to him before.”
The object of discipline, whether it be us with our children, or God with us, is to restrain wrong in us and develop self-control that can work to bring out good in us: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (v.11)
Balance Needed: I have been preaching for over twenty five years that “God loves you exactly as you are, but He also loves you so much that He has something better for you that he doesn't want you to stay like you are.” Now I have heard, and seen in books, the first part of that and it is right, but without the second part, we fall short of understanding God's love for us. If sometimes it seems a bit tough, the verses we've read say, see it as a means of changing you for the better. That is the encouragement being brought here.
Some of us get caught up in ‘church life' whether that is services and ritual or Bible Studies or Prayer Meetings. It may also mean a variety of other meetings or gatherings as we lay on activities that either build and strengthen the church or reach out to others. However God's goal for us is first and foremost to change us to be more like Jesus in character – righteous and full of peace – and righteous in this context will mean full of love and goodness and grace and wisdom. Those are His goals for you and me and if He cannot get them into us by simple teaching, then he will take other measures that will result in us drawing closer to Him and become more like Him. That is what this is all about.
Meditations in Hebrews 12: 49. Personal action overview
Heb 12:12,13 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. "Make level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
A Partnership: The Christian life is always a partnership. One of the partners is God and He provides our salvation in the form of the work of Christ on the Cross, and then the indwelling Holy Spirit who motivates, guides and teaches us. The other partner is us. We have to make choices, acts of the will, and we have to live out in our daily behaviour the work of Christ in and through us.
Much of this book has been theology, explaining the work of God, especially in the Jewish context, but there have also been warnings and exhortations and encouragements that require our response. Following the hallway of faith in chapter 11, this chapter started with an exhortation to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race… Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, a fourfold exhortation. He reminded us of Jesus who suffered opposition and called us to remember that we are God's sons (and daughters) and as such, from time to time we will experience His disciplining.
Three weaknesses: It is in this context we have another link word: “Therefore” i.e. in the light of all of this, now play your part. There are things for you to do. In verses 12 and 13 there are three things to do, and an explanatory reason to do them: “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. "Make level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” The first part of verse 12 is an echo of Isa 35:3 and that quote in verse 13 comes from Prov 4:26. Let's observe each of those three things which are expressions of weakness that comes about, I suggest, as a result of the enemy's work:
Activity: “strengthen your feeble arms.” The word for arms is literally ‘hands'. When Solomon wrote, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might,” (Eccles 9:10) he added, “for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom,” clearly indicating the use of hands is shorthand for working, for activity. The Christian life is about activity, about serving God, doing the will of God as inspired by the Holy Spirit. When we start to ease away from God, those are the first steps to backsliding and backsliding is the precursor to apostasy. The first signs include ceasing to be fruitful in the kingdom, our hands, our activity becomes feeble and we need to seek Him for fresh strength.
Being: “and (strengthen your) weak knees. The call, we have noted previously, in Paul's warfare teaching is “to stand”. Weak knees are a picture of giving way, of collapsing in a heap, of failing to stand, and that is a spiritual picture of the person who has become spiritually weak, poor in witness and testimony and the call is the same, to seek God for restoration, to be spiritually strengthened so that you and others around you know exactly who you are – a man or woman of God. If that is not clear, there is some strengthening to be done.
Making Progress: "Make level paths for your feet," Walking or even running is about forward movement, progress in the Christian life. We are not called to stand still but to mature, to grow up, to progress. The call to work at making level paths ahead of you, is a call to clear away any obstacles to growth or fill in any holes, things that make you vulnerable and might make you fall. This is a call to go on in the faith.
Purpose: “so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” A spiritually lame person is someone who has been wounded or injured and who hobbles through life but unless they get healed, that injury or wound will only get worse and they will become fully disabled. A spiritually disabled person is someone the enemy has been able to weaken and then immobilize and thus become completely ineffective in their daily walk.
Overview: Now we should see these two verses as links between all that had gone before, to a list of specific things to be done, ways to live out the Christian life righteously, things to do and things not to do, which we've start considering in the next study. These two verse are thus general descriptions about the quality of life or state of life that came come about when we have given way to enemy attack. Put in reverse order, those are people who have lost their way and are unclear of their direction, they are those who question who they are, and they are those who have ceased to be fruitful in the kingdom of God . The calls are therefore to make your paths clear, your direction and progress purposeful, to stand strong knowing you are an anointed child of God, who knows their gifting and call to service. Is that you and me?
Meditations in Hebrews 12: 50. Personal action specifics
Heb 12:14 Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
Direction – Goals to work for: We have said that the Christian life is always a partnership between us and God and as we approach, in more detail, the things we can do, we saw three ways where, in general terms we could show weakness, ceasing to be fruitful, ceasing to remember who we truly are and ceasing to remember that we have a direction to go in this life. This leads us on to verses which pick up on specific things we can do or not do in the Christian life.
Peace: He starts with, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men.” (v.14a) We live in God's world and there we are to seek to create the environment of the kingdom of God – peace. Sin is disruptive, hurtful and harmful. We now are to work against such things and it must start in our heads and then be translated into our lives.
Holiness: He continues, “Make every effort to… be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” (v.14b) To be holy is to be utterly different with that unique God-like characteristic that is described by such words as wholeness, complete, perfect, pure, utterly righteous. Holiness comes with God's presence but the warning, “without holiness no one will see the Lord,” implies that we have a part to play in being holy. As we draw near, as we spend time in God's presence as we direct our lives on him, so we will find His glory, his holiness will be reflected in us (see 2 Cor 3:16-18) We have added an additional note at the end of this particular study.
God's Resources – His Grace: So the first two encouragements are to focus us on our relationships with other people and with God. The Christian life is all about relationships, but these relationships with other people can go wrong and so we need God's resources to help us : “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” (v.15) The grace of God here is the sum of all the resources that God makes available to us to enable us to cope with life on this fallen world. Without it we can become vulnerable to wrong ways of thinking about other people, especially when Satan sows discord between us and others. We do not expect disagreements within the Church so that when it does happen (e.g. Paul and Barnabas Acts 15:37-40) we need to learn how to disagree peaceably and not let it fester and cause ongoing trouble and embroiling others in it as well.
Linking Two Failures: But then he says two things that initially at least appear unconnected: “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.” (v.16) So what is the link? Well Esau's sin, for that is what it was, was to be indifferent to his family heritage and his family's inheritance. If you like it is not bothering about the family name. He gave it aware because of human desire, he was hungry, that was all, and he threw away his inheritance. Now what happens when someone is sexually immoral? Well starting in reverse order, they live by their desire for sex. But then they forget who they are, a holy child of God; they show that for that moment at least they don't care about the name of God.
In both cases we have a warning not to be ruled by what used to be called ‘carnal appetites', physical desires of the moment. How strong these things can be! Do I say that because I have been down that path? Thankfully no, but I have known a number Christian leaders who have, and those who were not leaders. In a world that declares that sex between unlimited numbers of adults is normal the pressures to give way to temptation increase and so we need to increase both our vigilance and our inner faith building. The problem with these sorts of failures is that they have big repercussions. Existing relationships are demeaned and made meaningless, and future relationships are weakened (those with regular different sexual partners find it more difficult to establish ongoing relationships and we are creating a people who grow old in loneliness and in insecurity).
The Repercussions: But it is the spiritual repercussions that are more serious. Here comes a warning he has given at least twice already “Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.” (v.17) Once he had sold his birthright, it was too late, he could not get it back. Once you have committed adultery you cannot get back to how it was before. Now there is a question of guilt to be dealt with which may hang around for decades. Now there is a question of trust to be regained should you wish to maintain our existing relationship, and that will be hard going. But then there may be all your family and friends whose love for you for damaged because of the desire of a moment.
Recap: What have we seen in these verses? In verses 14 and 15 we are reminded that life is all about relationships, with people and with God and, in a sin-inhabited, fallen world, it is so easy for those relationships to be damaged. We are challenged to “make every effort” to preserve these relationships.
But then he reminded us that so often such relationships can be broken by sexual immorality and we become just like Esau who threw his heritage away for a simple human desire – hunger – so that other powerful human desire – sex – can also cause lasting damage and may even threaten our spiritual inheritance. True repentance is always the way back, but even then immense grace is needed on all sides which is yet another reason why we need the grace of God.
Human life and experience can be very fragile and it is so easy to throw away what is good in a moment. No wonder this pastoral writer is so concerned to keep on warning and warning and warning his readers to be vigilant, making every effort to hold to their faith and to the love and goodness of God. be aware of the temptations facing you even today and turn to the Lord and cry for His help. He is there for you.
Addendum on ‘Holiness'
Being: Holiness we have said is about being utterly different, about having that God nature that is unique. First, we ARE Holy because the Holy Spirit indwells us. Second we are becoming more holy because we are bring changed, stage by stage by the Holy Spirit, more and more into the likeness of Jesus.
Behaviour: Now there are two wrong behavioural extremes, I observe, in Christians. First there is to measure oneself by how we see ourselves conforming to certain ‘do's' and ‘don'ts' and, second, there is cut oneself off entirely from the culture of the world around us. Jesus did neither of these two things.
Attitude or Outlook: Holiness grows in as much as we hear and encounter God. Growth is always about response to God for the Christian. Second it is about ‘being', as we said above and therefore we can be just like Jesus and be part of the experience of the world around us without shame and without compromise. We look, assess, enjoy, be aware of differences and take His love to our culture, being in it but not of it.
Meditations in Hebrews 12: 51. Two Mountains
Heb 12:18,22 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire…. but you have come to Mount Zion , to the heavenly Jerusalem
The flow: This book is full of analogies and now we come to yet another one. It is difficult at first sight to see the continuation, how this flows on from what he has just said but in the verses we have recently been considering he was speaking about discipline from God which only showed we are sons (v.5-11), then there was a call to strengthen up (v.12,13) and then some practical exhortations (v.14-17), at the heart of which there is the emphasis on the need for God's grace (v.15) in order to be holy (v.14) and not to demean our spiritual heritage (v.16,17).
Two ways of looking: Now depending on how you think about God, those verses can either appear bad (painful discipline, needing to be holy, hard God who calls you to account) or good (God treating as sons who he loves and for whom He desires strength and blessing in the Christian life.) It depends very much on our starting position, what we think about God, and so perhaps that is why our writer now gives two pictures of how God has been revealed, in the Old and then New Testaments.
Sinai NOT our experience: Verses 18 to 21 remind us of some of the aspects of the experience Israel had with the Lord as an embryonic nation but says that this is NOT what WE have come to: “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned." The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear.” There was mount Sinai, scary signs, and a trumpet blast and a warning to not even touch the mountain and even Moses found it scary. But that is NOT our experience. It was their because they were in the early stages of learning about God but in our case we are a long way down the path of revelation with the whole Old Testament, and now much of the New in existence when this writer was writing.
Our Experience, Mount Zion : No, our experience is something quite different: “But you have come to Mount Zion , to the heavenly Jerusalem , the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.22-24) We need to look at the various elements of this passage.
God's home: A threefold description of the dwelling place of God which perhaps is more easily understood in reverse: “But you have come to Mount Zion , to the heavenly Jerusalem , the city of the living God.” (v.22a) The city of the living God – the dwelling place where the heart and life of all existence dwells. It is a heavenly city, a place of fellowship and community, the reality of the dwelling place that had for years been considered to be the temple on one of the hills of earthly Jerusalem , Zion . But that had been like a temporary stopping place for God's presence which had slowly departed prior to the Exile, as seen in the book of Ezekiel. But we haven't come (notice the verb indicates this has already happened - ‘have come') to a temporary place but the eternal dwelling or place where God can be found.
Home of the angels: “You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” (v.22b) Wherever there is revelation of the heavenly throne room, there are angels. Be under no illusion, we have access to the heavenly throne room, for the moment purely by the Spirit in prayer or worship, but one day in reality. This is our home, our ultimate destination.
Home of the church: “to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.” (v.23a) Again revelations of heaven in scripture show there are people there. This is the destination for the church, all those born again, known from before the foundation of the world and whose names are recorded there.
Home of God the Judge: “You have come to God, the judge of all men.” (v.23b). We're on a repeat track now, a form of Hebrew parallelism. We've already noted that it is God's home, but it is also the place where He holds court , where He judges and holds all mankind accountable.
Home of the redeemed: “to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” (v.23c) But it is not the place of condemnation, it is the place of revealing the saints, all the believers who have received Jesus as their Saviour, who have come to perfection, completion in the work of God. it will be a place of great joy.
Home of the Redeemer: “to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (v.24) Jesus comes bringing in the new covenant sealed with his own blood, bringing about a completed work.
The blood of Abel? Abel was slain by Cain and God said to Cain, “ Your brother's blood cries out” ( Gen 4:10) i.e. it cries out for justice. Jesus said, “Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Lk 50:51) i.e. Abel was the first human being to have his blood shed by violent means, the first to cry out for justice. The Hebrews writer writes of him, he “still speaks, even though he is dead” (Heb 11:4), and so there is a sense whereby his spilled blood continues to cry out to God for justice to be applied, i.e. it demands for justice to be done, but, we now read, the blood of Christ "speaks a better word" The Message version puts it well: “ The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel's—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace.” And the Living Bible puts it, “ Jesus himself, who has brought us his wonderful new agreement; and to the sprinkled blood, which graciously forgives instead of crying out for vengeance as the blood of Abel did.” Abel's blood demanded justice, Jesus blood brought mercy and grace and forgiveness through justice being satisfied.
And so: We started out by saying that it is possible to take some of the earlier verses negatively and so that is why the writer comes with these explanations. Everything about these verses shouts, “God loves us, Jesus died for us, he's for us, all so we could share eternity with him in the most wonderful of experiences.” Hallelujah!
Meditations in Hebrews 12: 52. An Unshaken Kingdom
Heb 12:28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.
The writer has just set up two pictures, one of Mount Sinai and one of Mount Zion . Sinai represented the old covenant and Mount Zion represents the new covenant. Now he takes those two pictures and, slightly extending them, uses then as a further argument to encourage ongoing faith.
Don't refuse God: He starts this part with a simple exhortation : “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.” (v.25a) Both covenants are about God and us, about how God speaks and we obey; that is at the heart of both. But then he uses the first as a comparison to highlight the second and provide the basis of the argument to put teeth into the exhortation: “If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?” (v.25b) In the days of Moses, the people were slow in obeying the Lord who spoke from Mount Sinai; that is the starting point of this argument. So if we have God who now speaks directly from heaven, he continues, shouldn't we all the more pay attention when He brings us warnings.
Old Covenant Shaking: But he then takes us on to a new avenue of thought: “At that time his voice shook the earth.” (v.26a) He refers to what happened when Israel got to Mount Sinai : “The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently.” (Ex 19:18) That was the old covenant experience but since then the Lord has spoken again: “but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” (v.26b) This was a reference to an Old Testament prophecy: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: `In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,' says the LORD Almighty.” (Hag 2:6,7)
A Future Shaking: He explains this: “The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken--that is, created things--so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” (v.27) When the Lord said, ‘once more' through Haggai it was like Him saying, “Once again I will shake everything, and the intent was that material things would be removed and only spiritual things would remain.
The Present Kingdom : This brings us to the present kingdom of God : “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” (v.28a) i.e. because we are receiving a spiritual kingdom that cannot be shaken and removed, there is a natural follow-on: “let us be thankful .” (v.28b) i.e. because we have a new long-term security this should leave us feeling thankful but, more than that it should stir something deeper within us in respect of the Lord: “and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe .” (v.28c)
Right Response is Awe: The reference to ‘reverence and awe' again has its origin in the Old Testament record: “for our "God is a consuming fire.” (v.29 quoting, “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” Deut 4:24) The thinking behind that is that God is protective about His kingdom and His people and, wanting us to understand the reality behind these things, wants us to have right responses to them. A right response to knowing Him and experiencing His kingdom should be an awe or respect for the Lord that stirs not only thankfulness but also worship.
Recap Chapter 12: So let's recap what we have seen in this chapter:
First, (v.1) an exhortation , bearing in mind all the testimonies of chapter 11, to throw off anything that might cause us to fall short of them (implied),
Second, (v.2,3) an exhortation to use Jesus as a further example to encourage us,
Third, (4-11) teaching on understanding discipline which God brings to all His children in His desire to change us to conform to Jesus; discipline is simply training that brings us into line with His will,
Fourth, (v.12-17) various exhortations to live holy lives ,
Fifth, (v.18-24) a teaching using the analogy of two mountains representing the old and new covenants and their differences
Sixth, (v.25) a further exhortation to listen to God and obey Him ,
Seventh, (v.26-27) a teaching that although there were shakings with the coming of the old covenant, the Lord had said He would shake things (in the end days?) so that only His kingdom would stand.
Eighth (v.28,29) a final exhortation that this should stir within us a sense of thankfulness and worship in respect of our God who has done these things.
A Review: Now as an overview of this list, note there are five sets of exhortations – to cast of distractions, for focus on Jesus, to live holy lives, to be obedient and to be thankful worshippers. These are backed by three teachings
– about discipline as part of the life of the Christian,
- about the differences between the two covenants and how the second one should motivate us and, finally,
- about our present experience in an unshakable kingdom that gives cause to be thankful and worship.
Many of these things can be seen as things to help the first century believers as they struggled in the face of persecution and countering heresies. We might find it valuable to go back through the list above and check off our lives against the five sets of exhortations to see if we are conforming to them in our lives today.
53. The Christian love thing Heb 13:1
54. And then to Hospitality Heb 13:2
55. Care for the suffering church Heb 13:3
56. Moral Ethics (1) Heb 13:4
57. Moral Ethics (2) Heb 13:5
58. A Life of Praise Heb 13:15
59. A Life of Goodness Heb 13:16
60. Church Leadership (1) Heb 13:7
61. Church Leadership (2) Heb 13:17
62. The Unchanging Jesus Heb 13:8
63. The Experience of Prayer Heb 13:18,19
64. Holding the Truth Heb 13:9
65. Strengthened by Grace Heb 13:9b
66. A City to Come Heb 13:14
67. The God of Peace Heb 13:20,21
68. God who Equips Heb 13:20,21
69. God working in me Heb 13:20,21
Meditations in Hebrews 13: 53. The Christian love thing
Heb 13:1 Keep on loving each other as brothers.
Intro to Ch.13: As we have gone through this book (although the writer calls it a short letter – Heb 13:22) we have observed a number of what I have referred to as ‘exhortations ‘, appeals to his readers to hear and respond. In this final chapter we are now going to observe a number of basic instructions. These are not so much appeals to keep to the faith as we have had mostly so far, but specific instructions to DO certain things or hold certain attitudes.
The temptation is to skim through these fairly ordinary things but we will resist that with the thought that this are particular basic issues that the writer was bringing to the early church and if they were basic for them, they should be basic for us, and we therefore need to pause over each one. There are, depending on how you read these verses, at least twelve of these instructions in chapter 13.
1. Love each other: The first one is to “Keep on loving each other.” Now that appears so fundamental that you might wonder why we give a full meditation to it. My reason is that it is so basic we all know it in our minds but I am not sure of the practice in the church of the twenty first century. Let's establish the basic teaching about love in the New Testament.
Love in the NT: Well, first of all, it is the same as found in the Old Testament and Jesus quoted the Old when he said, “ Jesus replied: " `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:38,39) Love is the fundamental and most basic character of the Christian faith. It starts with wholeheartedly loving God and continues with loving all those in our vicinity.
The Meaning of Love: I had cause some while ago to stop and consider what love actually means. A dictionary says, “ 'Love' - warm affection, attachment, liking, benevolence or strong benign feelings for.” Note that last part in particular – ‘strong benign feelings for' . Benign means caring, kindly, gentle, compassionate, thinking good for, wishing the good for. Is that how we feel about each person in our vicinity? When I took that definition and applied it to God, for “God is love” (1 Jn 3:8,16), I felt it fell short and so a better and more appropriate definition of love in respect of God is, “selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good will towards all others .” Note the unrestricted good will towards all others.
A New Commandment: Now understanding how God loves is important because Jesus said to the disciples at the Last Supper, “ A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn 13:34,35). Now we may want to restrict this measure of love to fellow-believers because Jesus was talking to his disciples but even so it presents quite a challenge. Stop and think about the people you encounter at your church. Can your feelings for them be described as "selfless, sacrificial, unrestricted good will towards all others”. Do you have that sort of ‘good will' towards all of them, because that IS Jesus requirement for his church? Now you may see why I said earlier I am not sure of the practice in the church.
Some Applications: Take the people closest to you in the church. Do you know them well, do you know about their lives? Do you know the things that worry them? Do you know the difficulties they are going through? Just knowing people like this has to be the starting point in considering love in the church. Now you cannot know everybody like this in a big church but we must know some. Now what happens when you find out how they are, you find out about their worries, their difficulties etc.? Are you there for them? Love means being there for them. Love means accepting them like they are. Love means praying for them and over them. Love means giving them help. Love is always practical, it does not just sit and watch. Is your church community like this?
Love for Enemies? But before we finish we have to note that Jesus' teaching went way beyond this: “ You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 5:43,44) This love thing is to be extended beyond my close contacts in church, beyond those in my vicinity, it is to be extended even to those I might consider my enemies. We cannot escape Jesus call to ‘love your enemies'. Love means we dare not tolerate barriers between us and this needs saying in a day where there have been surprise shock at national levels of voting. As Christians we dare not hold on to hostility for those who voted in a different way to us. Oh yes, this love thing is very practical and in the kingdom of God it does not stop at boundaries, group boundaries, cultural boundaries or national boundaries.
How? Now much of this is ‘a hard word'. How can I love people like this? And the answer has to be, only by the grace of God. It can only be as we turn to God, surrender our feelings of self to him and ask Him to fill us with all of His grace, His resources to enable us to conform to His will, to comply with His instructions, and they cannot be more basic than this first one in this chapter – “keep on loving each other.” Oh yes, ‘as brothers', as those closest to you, part of the family. Yes, it starts with God, it continues to the church and then it extends to outsiders and even to enemies. Basic but very challenging, that's why we need to pause over each of these things, as simple and as basic as they may appear because if we don't conform to the basics, you have to wonder are we really Christians?
Meditations in Hebrews 13: 54. And then to Hospitality
Heb 13:2 Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
A Climate for Hospitality: I suspect that eastern peoples of old knew more about hospitality than we do today and maybe it is because so many of them lived in inhospitable desert lands. When a stranger arrived, you took pity on him and welcomed him into your home where he could be refreshed and escape for a while at least from the harsh climate. A hospital is a place of recovery and hospitality has at its roots the same idea, that of recovery for the weary traveler in a harsh world. The fact that eastern peoples worked on hospitality because of the harshness of climate and countryside, should not make us think that this is not part of the life of the Christian in a different part of the world that may not appear so hostile. Modern life in the West is, I suggest hostile in other ways and the need for hospitality is just as great as in Middle Eastern countries in New Testament times. Indeed we may have to think even more about how we go about giving hospitality.
Strangers? Our verse from Hebrews 13 is intriguing: “ Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hospitality, it suggests, should be offered to strangers , not necessarily those you know well. Now I would suggest in passing that in many churches, in reality, many people are strangers. For example, take a random person you see in your church regularly. How much do you know of them? Do you know if they are a Christian? (don't assume anything). Do you know when and how they came to the Lord, do you know their Christian experience, do you know their family structure, do you know what jobs they have or the roles they have in life, do you know their gifting or maybe even ministries? If you don't know these things then I suggest to you that these people are strangers.
Angels? The second thing that verse says is that you may be entertaining angels. Abraham had (see Gen 18), as did Gideon (Jdg 6) and also Manoah (Jdg 13), each without realizing initially who they had in their home situation. This says to us, invite in people even without knowing fully who they are and you might end up being pleasantly surprised and blessed by them. (see Jesus' words to his disciples when he sent them out about leaving a blessing o the home).
Wider Teaching: But does the New Testament say much about this subject or is this a rare teaching? The apostle Paul instructed the church at Rome to, “Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” (Rom 12:13) This may challenge us about crossing social boundaries, reaching out to the poor, but then ‘the needy' may cover far more than financial hardship. There may be those around us who have recently lost a loved one, or those who have been through trying circumstances, or those who have a sense of guilt or failure. Each of these need a recovery environment. How can we bless them?
Paul's Teaching: Paul also spoke about, “Gaius, whose hospitality I and the whole church here enjoy,” (Rom 16:23) In other words Gaius was known to bless all around him by practicing hospitality, opening his home to bless any in the church.
When Paul spoke of widows in the church who needed the support of the church, hospitality was one of the markers that indicated they were living good lives, worthy of support by the church: “No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality,” (1 Tim 5:9,10) There are two things to note about that. First, hospitality was one of the things the church expected the members of the church to be practicing. Second, a widow may often feel she has little to contribute to the life of the church but these verses suggest otherwise.
Peter's Contribution: The apostle Peter saw hospitality as one of the expressions of love, as a means of expressing your gifting to bless others: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms.” (1 Pet 4:8-10)
John's Contribution: The apostle John also made reference to providing hospitality for those serving the Church: “It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth.” (3 Jn 1:7,8) How can we bless one another at all levels of the church, taking no one for granted, thinking that a place of retreat is not what they need.
Practicalities: Whether it is just inviting someone (or a couple) round for coffee, or a meal, or having them to stay, remember the basic ideas that we have noted so far – a place for others to retreat from the harsh world out there, a place of recovery, a place to be blessed. The emphasis is on them, not on us. This means you don't have to worry about producing food that is the best in the church, and if we care for our guests who may be coming for a meal, it is only courteous and wise to quietly ask them beforehand if there is any food they do not like or that disagrees with them. Your specialist dish may include garlic but if you served it to my wife, she would have a most violent stomach upset that evening and probably the next day. Check people out. If your guest(s) are in the ‘needy' category that we referred to earlier on, treat them gently, care for them, love them, and bless them. They mayn't want to talk about their circumstances so don't force them. If they do share their lives, don't be critical or judgmental and don't think you have to have the answers to their difficulties.
Hospitality is about taking people into your home to bless them and provide a place of refreshment and possible restoration. How to do it? Start with prayer and ask the Lord for His wisdom as to how to go about it, how to be sensitive to them and their needs – and then do it and bless people.
Meditations in Hebrews 13: 55. Care for the suffering church
Heb 13:3 Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
Prisoners for Faith: Be under no illusion, when the writer says, “Remember those in prison,” he means those who are there for their faith, not those who are there because they are criminals. The first three centuries were centuries of persecution that came and went in waves. The apostle Paul, as he eventually became, was an early instrument of persecution: “ On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem , and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria . Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.” (Acts 8:1-3) The early chapters of Acts show us that the main apostles found themselves in prison, simply for declaring Jesus, more than a few times. Around the world today there are countries where Christians are either banned completely or severely persecuted. The call of this verse is never to forget those fellow believers who are in prison for their faith, and please understand that means people who are there simply because they are Christian believers, and there are many of them today.
Already earlier in this letter, the writer had referred to the difficulties of living as a Christian in those early decades of the first century: “Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.” (Heb 10:32-34) It was a very real problem for the early Christians, as it is for Christians in certain parts of the world today.
Jesus' Teaching: Jesus referred to such people when he challenged his followers to be caring: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Mt 25:35,36) Indeed his words in the wider context of that passage were quite strong, implying that if we didn't care for such people, there was a question mark over our faith.
The Body of Christ: The apostle Paul, while not directly speaking of persecution, may have had such people in his mind when he spoke in that famous chapter on ‘the body of Christ', the Church, when he said, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (1 Cor 12:26) I have a story so bear with me until we get to the punch line.
The Example of One Man: I happen to have the privilege of having as one of my best friends in the world, an American pastor, now retired, who Skyped me in the UK, back in 2005, I think it was, and said, “I would like to run something past you that has been with me for some time, and see what you think.” He proceeded to share with me that he was certain God was calling him to go and demonstrate at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing , on behalf of the persecuted church in China . He was aware it could mean he might end up in prison for ten years for doing what he had in mind. To cut a long story short, he painted slogans calling for release of Christians in prison, in several hotel rooms, videoed them as he did it and had it on the Internet to show it was real, and had a publicity team back in America running press conferences publicizing what he was doing. (He also left money in the hotels for the rooms to be repainted afterwards).
Having got it on the internet, he then went out into the countryside outside Beijing, where he lived under cover for the two week of the Games, so as not to interfere with them, and then on the last evening after the closing of the Games, he went out into Tiananmen Square where he started crying out loud for three quarters of an hour for God's people to be released – the secret police in the area didn't know what to do with him. All this was being recorded back in America because he had a cell phone on him with a live link to the USA . The sound of this all happening, coming through a receiver in the USA, was eerie, as he carried on a running commentary, sharing the Gospel with tourists on the Square, and then carrying on crying out for the church until eventually he was escorted off the square and taken in a car through the back streets until the sounds of him ran out. He was interrogated for twenty four hours and then expelled from the country unharmed. Smart Chinese!
I think it was two years later he felt a similar call to get into Iran and stand outside the most famous prison in the capital of Iran and again in a similar recorded manner call for Christians imprisoned there to be released. He was taken into the prison, interrogated for twenty four hours and then deported.
Quite some time later after each demonstration, he received contact from the persecuted church in both China and Iran and the message was the same: we are just so grateful to you for publicizing our plight. Prisoners from the prison testified, the word spread through the prison that there was this American demonstrating on our behalf and it lifted our spirits and we were all given fresh hope.
Now I am aware that there are other individuals and organizations who give their lives for the persecuted church and I tell of this one simply as an example. The need is real and the church worldwide needs YOU today to remember this call: “ Remember those in prison.” There are many ways you can do it. Contact help organizations through the Internet, write to prisoners, pray for them and so on. The biggest enemies are indifference and the “too busy” syndrome. Persecution around the world is getting worse. Speak up for those who are suffering before our voices are silenced. This verse is as valid as any other in Scripture: “ Remember those in prison.”
Meditations in Hebrews 13: 56. Moral Ethics (1)
Heb 13:4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
God's design: In the next two verses we find two examples of what I will simply call moral ethics. The first is about marriage and sex and the second is about attitudes about money. One of the things many people do not like about the Bible is that it lays down specific rights and wrongs according to God's design for mankind but people do not like being told what that design is and therefore what is behavior running contrary to it.
Design for Marriage: Perhaps nowhere is this rebellion against God's design seen as clearly today, as in the whole question of marriage in the Western world. Marriage design is seen in the earliest pages of the Bible: “A man will leave his mother and father and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) One man plus one woman who separate themselves from their families and become a new single unit, a foundation stone of civilization.
Oneness: The apostle Paul spoke of the oneness that comes from this uniting suggesting it is far more than merely a physical uniting. The Message version is particularly good at expressing what he wrote: “ There's more to sex than mere skin on skin. Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact. As written in Scripture, “The two become one.” Since we want to become spiritually one with the Master, we must not pursue the kind of sex that avoids commitment and intimacy, leaving us more lonely than ever—the kind of sex that can never “become one.” There is a sense in which sexual sins are different from all others. In sexual sin we violate the sacredness of our own bodies, these bodies that were made for God-given and God-modelled love, for “becoming one” with another. Or didn't you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don't you see that you can't live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body.” (1 Cor 6:16-20). In other words, what you do with your body is important to God because your body houses the Holy Spirit and when there is a legitimate God-blessed union of husband and wife, there is a unity that includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. THIS is God's design order and therefore anything less than this cannot receive His blessing.
The failures of Co-habitation: Living together and having sexual relations without commitment is what today is referred to as co-habitation, not only a sign of rebellion against God but also a sign of lack of security. Surveys of cohabitation clearly show that such relationships are more likely to break up than marriages and, even more, those who cohabit before marriage but then get married, are more likely to break up than traditional marriages.
Features of Divorce: When Malachi said that God hates divorce it wasn't only referring to spiritual breakup but also to marriage breakup because God knows the harm that is done to individuals when there is a marriage breakup and, even more, the harm that is done to the children of such a family breakup. Jesus confirmed the Law of Moses that permitted divorce but only because of the hardness of heart of the individuals concerned who cannot receive counsel and help and grace to restore that which has been damaged by infidelity.
Adultery: Infidelity in respect of marriage is called adultery, the crossing the boundaries of a marriage so a sexual relationship occurs between a member of the marriage and a third party. God's feelings about this are quite clear: “ You shall not commit adultery.” (Ex 20:14). General prohibitions against immorality are found in the New Testament (see 1 Cor 6:9 and Eph 5:5) The apostle Paul spells it out: “It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” (1 Thess 4:3-7)
Again his instructions as to how to take control of yourself is are clear: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.” ( Col 3:5,6) and “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people.” (Eph 5:3)
It is sometimes suggested that in the modern church in the West these instructions are often forgotten or ignored. If we do, we do so at our peril for there will come an accounting before the Lord. There are no excuses; merely because others live and behave in ways contrary to God's ways, that gives no allowance to us to do the same. This may become one of the key ways that Christians stand out from unbelievers and in so doing they will reveal a better way.
God's order for Pre-Marriage: Many modern young people appear to have no sexual boundaries and as, many a TV series has shown, find it incredibly difficult to find love. Starting a relationship in God's order of things starts, I would suggest, in becoming friends which is a meeting at intellectual and emotional and social levels. Physical intimacy may begin before marriage but consummation should always be left to after the marriage. Anything less than this leaves guilt and fear.
The teaching here by the writer to the Hebrews is ultra clear: “ Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” i.e. marriage is a relationship God-style and anything less than that may mean adultery or simply immorality (anything outside marriage) and that means being answerable to God and that may be painful. Let's not go that way!
Meditations in Hebrews 13: 57. Moral Ethics (2)
Heb 13:5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have,
We move on the next of the two verses where we find two examples of what I simply called moral ethics. The first was about marriage and sex and now the second is about attitudes in respect of money. If the area of sex and marriage is the first area where the modern world gets it badly wrong, then attitudes towards money and possessions come a very close second.
Holding a Balance of truth: We need to be very simple and straight forward from the outset: having money is not wrong, it is how we may think about it. Solomon was the richest man in all the earth and he got it using the wisdom that God gave him. No, the warning of this is first of all to not let your life get caught up in the “love of money”. In modern society in the West, there is great affluence and often injustice and even exploitation of the poor. The affluence isn't wrong in itself although if exploitation of workers to make owners rich is an expression of the world, it is wrong. One can look back at the terrible conditions that, for instance, coal miners, worked in, or the horrible insecurities of working on the docks in the past, and anguish that we allowed such conditions – and this could be applied to many situations in our not-distant history. In heaven I believe there will have been a major accounting for this. Very often pride and privilege have gone hand in hand to create class divisions that would not be seen in the kingdom of God .
Effects of ‘love of money': Love of money so often blinds the entrepreneur, mill owner, factory owner, big company owner etc., so that they fail to see that they are badly treating others. Although I have said God enabled Solomon to be rich, nevertheless there were often very harsh conditions under his reign and that would not have pleased the Lord.
Love of money also makes people lose perspective of what life is all about and so men and women will work all hours of day or night and lose contact with their families with resultant family breakdowns. I have, for example, watched the world of big city lawyers, particularly in London and also elsewhere. Apart from the staggeringly big fees that are charged, the hours that associates (and partners) are required to work, we must acknowledge, is something that is contrary to the kingdom of God . I have known (and they probably still do) of such lawyers working sixteen hour days and even on occasion having to work right through the right. This, on someone's behalf, is clearly an example of the love of money.
Love of money also fuels covetousness and in a world of heavy marketing and advertising, big business builds dreams for us of what we could be and what we could have. In many this drive is turned into the yearning for a bigger car, a bigger house, the latest technology and media entertainment systems and so on. Behind all these things goes the pressure to achieve more, earn more, and often people climb higher than they are designed to climb!
For those who distinguish between modernism and post-modernism, it is said that ‘moderns' got their meaning through possessions, while post-moderns get their sense of worth through experiences. It is this desire for new experiences, I suggest, that drives the affluent to travel more for different experiences in different countries; all still another expression of love of money. Jesus warned, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (Lk 12:15) Greed is simply wanting more and more, and results in a loss of remembering what life is really all about.
Contentment: But the back half of our verse above is just as important as the front half, which it complements: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have .” Be content! Contentment, the great missing element of modern societies! The apostle Paul spoke clearly about this: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Phil 4:11-12)
Paul had learned that contentment is nothing to do with whether you are poor or well off. There were times when he had nothing, but other times when he had abundance, but at all times he was content. Contentment is about having peace regardless of the circumstances, contentment lifts us up above apparent need, apparent poorness or apparent wealth. You can be poor and grumpy and you can be rich and equally discontented. Possessions – or experiences – are not the things that give us self-worth, meaning or purpose in our lives, only a deep relationship with the Lord. The unbeliever is rarely contented.
Contentment & Goals: To be contented does not mean we don't have goals in life, it just means we are at peace with the resources we have and the person we are while we are working for those (hopefully, God-given) goals. Paul explained his philosophy more fully to Timothy: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Tim 6:6-10) Things to note: first, we bring nothing into the world and we take nothing out of it. If you aim to fill the space in between with getting more and more you are, second, in danger of losing perspective as we saw above, and also falling into wrong ways to get more.
God, our Resource: But verse 5 doesn't end there, for he adds a reminder from the Pentateuch: “ because God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." (Deut. 31:6) Why does he say that? Because often behind all of our striving to get more, is the fear of shortage and not having enough to cope – and remember that in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6) Jesus spoke to that, Father will provide for His children. I have testified elsewhere in these studies, that three times in my life I have given up a decent salary to move into the next phase of life that He was leading us into, and although I took a third drop in salary each time, our standard of living and quality of life went up, and although in the early days we sometimes wondered how we would get by, the Lord always blessed us and we did, and so we have never been in need. Thus he concludes this section, “So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?" (v.6 citing Psa 118:6,7)
When the world is striving their hearts out to attain an impossible goal of peace without God, may we know the wonder of contentment as we rest in His loving guidance, direction and provision. Amen? Amen!
Meditations in Hebrews 13: 58. A Life of Praise
Heb 13:15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise--the fruit of lips that confess his name.
We will jump the verses on leadership because there are more later and we'll take them all together. Instead we will pick up on the two exhortations in verses 15 and 16 which complement the two ethical exhortations we have just considered in verses 4 and 5, in that they are about the Christian's general outlook on life . First of all we'll consider verse 15 and the life of praise and then in the next study, verse 16, a life of goodness.
Praise, a Bedrock: We have commented before that there have been a number of instructions about very basic things in the life of the Christian, and this is certainly true of this present verse. In fact one might go as far as to say that how the individual reflects and lives according to this particular verse will say a great deal about them. I have entitled this study ‘A Life of Praise' because when the writer uses the word ‘continually', he does not mean every second but that we have a general outlook that is filled with praise for God. It is more than just an occasional thing, because as Christians we have so much for which to praise God that is should be the very bedrock of our lives.
Through Jesus: Now we could praise God for being the Creator of all things and that would be legitimate and right, and I often do that, but that can be a little impersonal and so there are two little words at the beginning of the verse that we could miss but which are important – ‘Through Jesus'. Now there are two things to be said about those two words. The first is that who Jesus is and what he has done for us, provides a rich treasury from which praise should flow, and of course that is more personal because it applies to us; it is what he has done for me. The second thing is that the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, always seeks to honour and glorify the Father. Praise for what He has done through His Son Jesus, always glorifies Him.
Definitions: Now perhaps we should pause up to define the language we use. Praise means to acknowledge achievement, and it honours and congratulates a person for what they have done. Thankfulness is about gratitude, appreciation, thanks, and so there is a difference between praise and thanksgiving. Praise is more objective in that it highlights a person's activity and achievement in general and then praise focuses that achievement on how it has personally blessed or changed us through what has been done and expresses our personal thankfulness for it.
Now in our verse above there is another word we should note – sacrifice . This very simply acknowledges it is all of God and not me and, as in the Old Testament they brought animals to say thank-you, we simply bring as our ‘sacrifice' or ‘offering' praise, the acknowledgment that all else has been done so we need to nothing to put ourselves right with God, Jesus has already done it. It is that awareness, I would suggest, that should bring praise to our lips every day. This isn't to make you a better Christian or anything like that, but it just acts as a reminder to me,, and to the onlooking powers and principalities, that I am what I am because of what God has done through Jesus on my behalf. This stops me striving to be something – for I already am, His child! It also stops me trying to appear great in the eyes of others, for it reminds me that I was lost and helpless and hopeless and so what I am today is not a result of my efforts but of his.
Reasons we don't & effects: A failure to bring this daily offering of praise can be by casual indifference (which indicates an insensitivity to the Holy Spirit) or specific ignorance (we haven't ever given real thought to it), and it makes me vulnerable to enemy attacks, for he will try and either make me feel a guilty failure because my efforts to become holy and good are inadequate, or he will drive me to ever greater self-efforts and make the Christian life seem drudgery – which it is not!!!!
Jesus focus: If the beginning of that verse focuses us on Jesus, so does the end: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise--the fruit of lips that confess his name .” Confess his name? We who are Christian believers, we alone are the ones who can praise God for the work of Christ on the Cross and of the Holy Spirit applying it into our lives. The rest of the world remains silent, self-absorbed and godless, for they have never come to a realization of just who it is who brought this world into being and who upholds it by the word of his power and who has provided a path back to heaven if they will only take it.
The OT Support: The Psalmist summed it up well in one of his exhortations: “Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever. Praise the LORD.” (Psa 117) God is WORTHY of our praise and so when we fail to give it, we reveal our own poverty of knowledge and vision. Why praise him? The psalmist says it well: “For great is his love toward us.” That is the starting place and all that followed in time-space history flowed out of His love. Moreover, “the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.” i.e. He is utterly unchanging and so His love and the things He has done to restore us to Himself will remain there, valid and for the taking for ever, although we now there that there is a time limit, because one day Jesus will return as a conquering king to wind it all up, but until then we can utterly trust Him and for that we should praise Him AND give thanks.
Meditations in Hebrews 13: 59. A Life of Goodness
Heb 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Don't forget goodness: The second of what I have referred to as the Christian's general outlook on life is seeing our life as a life of goodness. The words ‘good' and ‘goodness' come up so many times in the New Testament that we may take them for granted. Even the writer here says we might even forget to do good. How can such a thing be for a Christian? It has to be because we get so caught up with our own lives and the materialistic world in which we live today. He fact is that, “ we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10)
Doing Good: Doing good is to be at the very heart of the Christian's life motivated, no doubt, by the love on which are lives are based. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) i.e. our goodness should reveal God to the world around us.
Hang on to Goodness: The apostle Paul speaks of this in a number of ways, for example, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Rom 12:9) Note the call to ‘cling to' what is good. This is not so much about doing as being. There is also a recognition that there is a battle going on and it is sometimes a struggle to hold on to good “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom 12:21) i.e. use goodness to counter evil in the world. But is will be a battle!
Do good TO PEOPLE: The call is in general to bless people and especially (perhaps because we have greater opportunity to do this) to bless fellow believers: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people , especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal 6:9,10)
The apostle spells it out even more, do good to all around us, especially those who are weaker: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good , to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself” (Rom 15:1-3)
Even when Paul was talking about what was permissible in the Christian life he makes this call to consider the wellbeing of others: “Everything is permissible"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others .” (1 Cor 10:23,24) He even adds his own testimony to strengthen this: “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God-- even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” (1 Cor 10:32,33) Notice the double motivation in this: not only is goodness an expression of love in general, but our goodness can be a means of drawing others to Christ.
Various Applications: This doing good will appear in a variety of ways in our lives. For instance, the work of the Holy Spirit is always to glorify God AND to bless the Church: “to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7) But it is not only in the Church, it is to be the world around us (if we haven't taken that in yet from the above verses): “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work.” ( Col 1:10) But there are also various groups within the Church for whom there may be specific applications. First, women: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds , appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” (1 Tim 2:9,10) Second, there are the rich: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds , and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Tim 6:17-18)
Indeed, the more we look, the more we find these references to goodness, for example, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work ” (2 Tim 3:16,17) The purpose of our reading God's word, studying it, and preaching and teaching it is to produce good lives!
It even gets linked with the second coming of the Lord: “we wait for the blessed hope--the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good .” (Titus 2:13,14) i.e. when Jesus comes back he wants to find a people who are doing good.
Sharing: There is one word that we have not picked up on and it is the word ‘share'. Our starting verse had “ And do not forget to do good and to share with others .” Also Paul's word to Timothy about the rich was, “ Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share .” We might expect such a teaching of those who are well off and have much to share, but our verse from Hebrews extends that to all of us. An expression of doing good is to share what you have with others, i.e. to bless them.
A Sacrifice: Now this may not come naturally, and so we find the writer closes this verse with, “for with such sacrifices God is pleased . ” The word ‘sacrifice' was also used in the previous verse in respect of praise but both these verses follow a section (v.10-12) which has a number of Old Testament references to worship. Today we no longer bring physical sacrifices or offerings but both praise (acknowledgement of God's greatness) and goodness (the practical outworking of that praise to God's world) are to be the ways we seek to bless the Lord so that “God is pleased”. His desire is that His world is a place of goodness, but since the Fall, it is a battle to reclaim that original world.
Meditations in Hebrews 13: 60. Church Leadership (1)
Heb 13:7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.
We now backtrack to pick up on the subject of church leadership which comes up twice in chapter 13, here and then later in verse 17 onwards. Because there is a different thrust in the two parts on leadership, we will consider them separately. In this study we will just consider the things that flow out of this verse. Our verse above has three instructions within it.
Remember your leaders: Now this seems so simple as being beyond need for comment, but in reality I wonder how often we, the church members, actually think about the lives of those in leadership in the church. Having been a church leader for over twenty five years I cannot remember any time when someone has said to me, “Tell me what it is like being a church leader?” I suggest we take for granted those in leadership, whether the one-man minister or the team of elders. This is a call to be aware of them and to think about them – and not merely for the purpose of gossiping about them; this is to understand them and what they have to go through.
Consider the outcome of their way of life: Now within these few words there are two things. First there is, “their way of life”, then there is the call to consider the outcome of that way of life. Let's consider them both. (I hope each of these things are realities – they may not be always – they were for me). First, this way of life is a calling from God . You are a church leader because God calls you to it, and you are answerable to Him.
Second, you are called to look after, protect and care for the people of God and that is a twenty four hour occupation. The church is on your heart and with you in your thoughts every moment of every day. With a secular job you can perhaps leave it behind at the end of the day; that doesn't happen when you are a church leader with a calling.
In his letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul spells out the sort of people, they are to be, these leaders, these elders, these overseers, their personal characteristics . They “must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” (1 Tim 3:2-7) In general terms, within those verses, the leader has to be a mature Christian, a family man who cares for his wife and trains his children (and that comes before his role as a leader!) We could suggest that most of these requirements are the same for any Christian husband and father, but the point is that this leader should be an example to the rest of the flock. How can he teach these things if he doesn't do them himself?
Imitate their faith: There it is, what we've just said, the flock are to be able to see the lives of their leaders and see that they are worth following. Here is a man still happily married after twenty five years, say, who has three children (say) who appear to thoroughly enjoy being part of this family. This is a different experience from so much of modern life. I think there is something in the power of testimony that sets vision for others – I could do that, our family could be like that.
This word ‘imitate' comes up a number of times in the New Testament and the truth is that each of us is supposed to be ‘a copy-cat'! “Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ.” (1 Cor 4:16,17) When Jesus said, ‘Follow me' it wasn't just come and be where I am, and where I go, but also, become like me. The apostle Paul was saying the same thing. He had the confidence about his life that he wasn't afraid to say, ‘Be like me, copy me, imitate me,' and he was sending Timothy to the Corinthians to remind them what Paul was like. It is always easier to have a model before you rather than merely words.
More on Imitating: But Paul went further than that because he knew the ultimate goal: “Be imitators of God.” (Eph 5:1) But then it is not only imitate God and imitate the apostles but also imitate successful churches: “For you, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea , which are in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess 2:14) And yet it goes further than that because as we imitate the good role models, so we ourselves become role models for others: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord; in spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” (1 Thess 1:6,7) The apostle John said it in its most basic form: “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good.” (3 Jn 1:11) See what is good and copy it.
A Warning – family first: Now there are dangers with these things and the first one is about putting ministry before family. After many years of watching the Church, I am absolutely sure that if we put ministry before family, we put our wife under unfair pressures and our children feeling rejected. How many times are there where wives and children of leaders are left feeling second-rate. This is wrong and leaders should get their priorities right.
A Warning – no secondhand Christians: There is a second danger here and it is that we become second-hand Christians. Yes, we are to copy God, copy the apostles, copy successful churches, copy what is good, but we are called first to be those who respond to the Holy Spirit. Yes, we can learn from all these others – and the teaching of the New Testament is vital in providing a basis for the nature of our lives – but I believe there is a danger with the number of Christian books on the bookshelves that we never have an original thought and try and replicate what happened to another famous Christian.
You are unique: That may have been how God dealt with that man or woman, or that particular church, but He was responding to and using the particular characteristics and experiences of that person, or that church, or that area. But the question is, what does God want to do with you as an individual, how does He want to use your church in its unique locality? Yes, all the general characteristics may be true for all of us – love, goodness, revelation, wisdom, power of the Spirit etc. – and we may have general common aims – to glorify God, be obedient, draw others to Him etc. – but how does He want those things to be used in us as individuals or us as a church?
Some goals for today? May I be presumptuous and suggest, to finish this study, three characteristics that I believe all church leaders need today – vision, faith and wisdom. Vision is about catching sight of the sort of people God calls us to be through the New Testament (and not relying on ‘what is'). Faith is the capacity to hear God and rise up in anticipation of being able do His will that He reveals to us. Wisdom is the knowing how to ‘do the stuff' and combat the tactics of the enemy, the practicalities of everyday warfare and Christian living. If you are part of a church where these things are obvious, that is wonderful, but if not, then prayer and grace and humility are the first three ingredients to be used in bringing those things into being in our leaders.
Meditations in Hebrews 13: 61. Church Leadership (2)
Heb 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.
We now pick up on the second aspect of church leadership in verse 17 onwards. I am aware that I often appear critical of so much of modern Church life and so I should state that I love the Lord and I love his people and yet as I look around, so often the church life I observe falls very far short of the New Testament teaching. Having a sense of where this particular study is going I have to say yet again that in most churches that I know they fall short in respect of the things I am about to cover here.
Let's look at verse 17 in its entirety: “ Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” There are clearly a number of things to note here. These men (and I am afraid this is another of the signs that in the kingdom men have to take the responsibility of leadership and be answerable to God – “give an account”), because they are called by God are his representatives and are accountable to Him and therefore have His authority to lead and direct the church.
We will come on to the matter of obedience in a moment, but it is worth noting that already there have been two earlier references in this book that pertain to leaders. Do you remember back in chapter 2 – “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” (Heb 2:3) There was something very obvious back there – we have our salvation today, each one of us, because someone before us heard the message and passed it on to us. If no one else does it, that is the role given to leaders, to ensure that the message is passed on and received by others so that the church continues and grows. A leader who does convey the Gospel is falling short of his calling. The receiving of the Gospel is what generates the church, if we may put it like that, in harmony with the work of the Spirit.
But then in chapter 5 we had a significant challenge that believers should be learners and should grow: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:12-14) Notice those words, “You need someone”. That ‘someone' will be a church leader. But the bigger thrust of that passage is that the apostle teaches that we should ALL be growing up in the faith, i.e. we should be learning and changing and growing into maturity.
To the church at Ephesus, the apostle Paul taught of Christ's work, “ And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [ a ] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, [ c ] to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:11-13) Although we have a list of certain ministries that the Lord has provided for the church, for our present consideration the most important words in the passage are, “ to equip the saints for the work of ministry”
The Message version expands that work of these ministries: “ to train Christ's followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ's body, the church, until we're all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God's Son, fully mature adults.” Do you see the thrust that is here in the New Testament? Leaders are to teach AND train up God's people, releasing them into their individual giftings in Christ, learning to relate together and work together within the body of Christ (see 1 Cor. 12)
In the ‘Great Commission of Matt. 28, Jesus' closing instructions include in respect of all believers, “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” That is about ‘doing' which is why I included the word ‘train' above. Previously Jesus taught, “I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing .” (Jn. 14:12) Perhaps for simplicity sake, we might say here that this means, anyone who believes in Jesus will move in the same supernatural ministry he moved in, under the power of his Holy Spirit.
The role of church leaders thus becomes teaching these truths and releasing God's people in faith into being the part of the body of Christ that he has designed them to be. As we focus on God and Christ, so the Spirit will stir within us the gifting He wants to bring through us. Perhaps one of the most crucial roles of the church leader is, I believe, to release faith in God's people, with a vision of who we are and who we can become in Christ. When leadership operates in this sort of way, the teaching here in Hebrews to “obey your leaders” becomes a joyful thing.
I have recently been watching one of my sons teaching his younger daughter how to swim with a snorkel so she can watch the underwater life in the sea where they live. She has heard her older sister come in exclaiming how wonderful it is to be able to see all the different fish and the vision has been conveyed to her of what she can do – and yet she has to learn and has to take her father's instructions and the more she does the more confident she becomes and the more she can venture into deeper water to see the wonder of God's world under the surface. Aren't there similarities here with what we have been talking about? Following guidance, following instructions is to enable us to enter into a whole new world of the Spirit, as wonderful a world as my granddaughter will be finding under the sea!