Hebrews

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This 59 part expository study of Hebrews was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2003-05. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.

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Lesson 1: God Has Spoken (Hebrews 1:1-2a)

All of the world’s religions and philosophies attempt to answer the fundamental questions of our frail and short human lives: Is there a God? Can we know Him? If so, how? How can we make sense of the trials of this life and the certainty of death? Does it really matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere?

The Letter to the Hebrews answers all of these basic questions. But I will warn you, its answers cut cross-grain to the popular views of our day. We live in a time when being tolerant and non-judgmental are primary virtues. Truth is viewed as subjective and personal, not absolute and universal. Thus, if Buddhism makes sense to you and gives you fulfillment, who am I to say that you are wrong? If you believe in Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, or any other of the world’s religions (or any combination of them), as long as you’re not hurting others, it would be judgmental of me to say that you are believing a lie. That is the prevailing mindset of our tolerant culture. The only person they will not tolerate is someone who insists that his view is the only true view.

The Letter to the Hebrews cuts across this modern mindset by affirming that God is, that He has spoken, and that His Son, who is the epitome of His revelation, is supreme over all. He demands total allegiance. He is not tolerant of any rivals. To turn away from Him to any other system or way of approaching God is to turn toward certain judgment. He alone will help us make sense of our trials. Thus we must consider Him more fully, submit to Him at all times, and trust Him in all the trials of life.

This is the theme, then, of Hebrews, that the absolute supremacy of Jesus Christ should motivate us to enduring faith in the face of trials. While almost all scholars agree with that theme, there are many divergent opinions on some of the background matters of this letter.

As you probably know, there is a debate over who wrote Hebrews. Many say that the apostle Paul wrote it (perhaps A. W. Pink is the most convincing on this position). The earliest statement on the author is from Clement of Alexandria (c.155-c.220), who said that Paul wrote it in Hebrew and that Luke translated it into Greek (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 6.14.2, A.D. 325). But the language and thought forms are not like those of Paul. And, the statement in 2:3-4 seems to indicate that the author, like his readers, was a second-generation Christian who had believed the testimony of the apostles. But Paul heard the gospel directly from the risen Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:12-17).

If Paul did not write Hebrews, who did? Other suggestions have included Barnabas (Tertullian, c. 225, is the earliest proponent), Apollos (Luther’s view), and Priscilla (Harnack). All of the views have problems, and so we probably should conclude, with the early church father, Origen (died c. 254), that “God only knows the truth” about who wrote Hebrews.

Perhaps because of the lack of agreement about authorship, there is also a divergence of opinion about the date Hebrews was written and the place to which it was written. Clement of Rome seems to quote it in about A.D. 96. Most scholars agree that it had to be written before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70. If this cataclysmic event had happened, it would have contributed to the author’s argument about the supremacy of Christianity over Judaism, but there is no mention of this.

The recipients of the letter were suffering persecution, but not yet to the point of martyrdom (10:32-34; 12:4). This last fact seems to rule out the church in Jerusalem as the recipients of the letter, since both Stephen and James had been martyred there early on. At the conclusion of the letter (13:24), the author sends greetings from “those from Italy.” This could mean those living in Italy, where the writer is also living, or those from Italy who are living away and sending their greetings back home. If the latter is the case, the letter was probably written to Christians in Rome just before the outbreak of the persecution under Nero in A.D. 64. But we must remain tentative in these matters.

To whom was Hebrews written? The title of the book “goes back to the last quarter of the second century, if not earlier” (F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. xxiii), but was not a part of the original manuscript. Most scholars agree that it was written to a group of second-generation Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, who were tempted because of persecution to go back to Judaism. It is filled with Old Testament quotes and allusions, and presupposes a detailed knowledge of the Jewish sacrificial system.

These people had begun well, submitting joyfully to trials and persecution (10:32-34). But as the trials continued, some of them were stalled in their Christian growth. They were thinking back to the good old days, when they could go through the motions of their Jewish religion without much interference. (Judaism was a tolerated religion in the Roman Empire, but Christianity was not.) Their foreboding about the looming persecution tempted them to abandon their faith in Christ and go back to Judaism. They were tempted to opt for temporary relief, but at the expense of abandoning the supremacy and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

So the author writes, very strongly at times, to warn the readers against this danger. He refers to his letter as “a word of exhortation” (13:22). It contains several strong warning sections (2:1-3; 3:12-19; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; 12:25-29). We all are prone to drift into our former ways of life, especially when it is difficult and costly to follow Jesus. Also, second generation believers are often more prone to fall into an outward, go-through-the-motions kind of religion, as opposed to a vital, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Hebrews exposes the inadequacy of that kind of formal religion and shows that we must have an enduring faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Hebrews is the only New Testament document that expressly calls Jesus a priest, although it is implied in others (Bruce, p. lii). It shows how Jesus fulfilled the entire Old Testament ceremonial system of the temple and sacrifices. Perhaps the Book of Hebrews is the closest thing we have to an inspired expansion of what Jesus must have told the two men on the Emmaus Road: “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27).

Gleason Archer observes, “The Church must ever revert to this sublime Epistle in order to bring the two Testaments into focus with each other. More than any other single book, Hebrews serves to demonstrate the underlying unity of the sixty-six books of the Bible as proceeding ultimately from one and the same divine author, the blessed Holy Spirit” (The Epistle to the Hebrews [Baker], p. 4). The author of Hebrews has an unusual way of citing Old Testament scriptures, in that he almost always neglects the human author and instead ascribes the quotes to God (Leon Morris, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:7). (See, for example, 1:5, 6, 7, 13; 2:11-12; 10:5 [ascribed to Christ]; 3:7; 10:15 [ascribed to the Holy Spirit].) As Leon Morris (ibid.) puts it, “The effect is to emphasize the divine authorship of the whole OT. For the author, what Scripture says, God says.”

Again, the overall theme is that because Jesus Christ is supreme over all, Christians must endure their current trials by faith. A brief outline of the contents is:

1. Jesus Christ is superior to all in His person (1-4).

A. Jesus Christ is superior to the prophets (1:1-3).

B. Jesus Christ is superior to the angels (1:4-2:18).

C. Jesus Christ is superior to Moses (3:1-19).

D. Jesus Christ is superior to Joshua (4:1-16).

2. Jesus Christ is superior to all in His priesthood (5-10:18).

A. Jesus Christ is superior to Aaron and his priesthood (5:1-7:28).

B. Jesus Christ is superior to the Old Covenant (8:1-10:18).

1). Jesus Christ offers better promises (8:1-13).

2). Jesus Christ offers a better tabernacle (9:1-14).

3). Jesus Christ offers a better sacrifice (9:15-10:18).

3. Christ’s superiority should stimulate us to enduring faith in the face of trials (10:19-13).

A. Enduring faith obeys God when under trials (10:19-39).

B. Enduring faith is illustrated throughout the Scriptures (11:1-40).

C. Enduring faith looks unto Jesus and submits to His discipline (12:1-13).

D. Enduring faith expresses itself in practical holiness with God’s people (12:14-13:25).

With that as an overview and general introduction, let’s examine in more detail Hebrews 1:1-2a, which shows…

God has spoken to us in His Word, with His Son being the supreme and final revelation.

“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, …” The text falls into two sections, God’s speaking in the past, and God’s speaking in the present.

1. In the past, God spoke to the fathers in the prophets.

The author begins without any formal greetings or comments with two key assumptions: God is, and God has spoken.

A. God is.

Hebrews 1:1 reminds us of Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God …” It doesn’t mess around with speculation or philosophizing. It doesn’t compile arguments to persuade the skeptic that God exists. It starts with the fact of God. For the author of Hebrews, God is central. He uses the word 68 times, an average of about once every 73 words throughout the book. “Few NT books speak of God so often” (Morris, 12:12).

Somebody may say, “But I’m an agnostic; I’m not sure whether or not God exists.” Or, “I’m an atheist; I don’t believe in God.” To all such persons, the Bible says, “Your doubts or your beliefs do not affect the fact that God is.” The Bible thrusts God in your face as a prime reality. You ignore Him to your own peril and final destruction. Unbelief is not a matter of rationalism. It is a matter of sin.

B. God has spoken.

He is not silent! He has chosen to reveal Himself to the human race. In Romans 1:18-23, Paul shows how God reveals Himself generally through His creation. People should be able to look at the amazing complexity and design of creation and conclude that there is an awesome Creator. But because people love their sin, they suppress the truth that God reveals through His creation.

The author of Hebrews, writing to Jews who accepted God as the Creator, focuses rather on God’s special revelation through the written Word of God. God spoke to the fathers (their Jewish ancestors) in the prophets, a term for all of the Old Testament writers who received and recorded God’s message to His people. Thus the author is affirming here what he repeats throughout the book, that the Old Testament was inspired completely by God.

The inspiration of Scripture does not mean that God dictated the very words, although on occasion He did that (e.g. the Ten Commandments). Rather, using the different personalities and styles of the various authors, God superintended the process so that the authors recorded without error God’s message to us in the words of the original autographs. The apostle Peter put it, “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:21). Charles Hodge defined inspiration as “an influence of the Holy Spirit on the minds of certain select men, which rendered them the organs of God for the infallible communication of his mind and will. They were in such a sense the organs of God, that what they said God said” (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans], 1:154).

It is important to understand that if God had not chosen to reveal Himself, no one could know Him. Men can speculate and philosophize about what they think God is like, but even the most brilliant discourses on the subject would be mere guesses. Furthermore, the Bible is clear that because of the fall, Satan, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). The “natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Cor. 2:14).

There is a common misconception among evangelicals that anyone can choose at any time to understand the gospel and believe in Jesus Christ. Our job is to explain the gospel, but then people are free to decide whether to believe it or not. But this view seriously underestimates the effects of the fall and it goes directly against the very words of Jesus. He said, “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Luke 10:21-22).

Those words do not make sense if Jesus wills to reveal the Father to everyone. Clearly, the primary factor in whether or not a person knows God lies with Jesus’ choice of that person, not with the person’s choice of Jesus. To say anything different denies the plain statement of our Lord and exalts proud, fallen man. The Bible humbles the pride of man by showing that if God had not chosen to reveal Himself to you through His Word, you would be in complete spiritual darkness. You could not know Him at all!

The author of Hebrews directly says two more things about God’s specific revelation in the Old Testament prophets, plus he implies a third fact. First, God spoke “in many portions.” This refers to the 39 different books of the Old Testament: the law of Moses, the different prophets, and the writings, which included the poetic and historical books.

Second, God spoke “in many ways.” Sometimes He revealed Himself through angels. He spoke to Moses through the burning bush, and later directly on the mountain. He revealed Himself to the Israelites through fire, thunder, earthquake, and clouds. He also revealed Himself through the miracles that He did through Moses. He spoke to Isaiah in the vision of His glory and to Ezekiel in the vision of the wheels and creatures. He sometimes used dreams, object lessons, natural events and other means. All of these things are recorded in His written Word for our instruction.

Third, it is implied here that God’s revelation in the Old Testament was progressive. All of it was true, but it was incomplete, or else there would have been no need for His final and complete revelation in His Son. The Old Testament was like a developing mosaic, with each part adding more until the totality pointed clearly to Jesus Christ. The picture continued to grow more clear, but it was not complete until the New Testament revealed Jesus Christ to us. Thus to understand the Old Testament correctly, we must view it through the completed revelation of the New Testament. God spoke in the past through His written Word.

2. In the present, God has spoken supremely and finally in His Son.

As the divine voice from heaven boomed on the Mount of Transfiguration, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” (Luke 9:35). The Greek phrase, “in these last days,” is found in the Septuagint, where it often refers to the day of Messiah. F. F. Bruce (p. 3) says, “His word was not completely uttered until Christ came; but when Christ came, the word spoken in Him was indeed God’s final word…. The story of divine revelation is a story of progression up to Christ, but there is no progression beyond Him.”

So in Christ there is both continuity and contrast. The continuity is that God spoke through the prophets and God spoke through Christ. But the contrast is, the prophets were many and fragmentary; Christ was one and complete. The prophets were all sinners; Jesus alone was perfectly holy. The prophets were preparatory; Jesus is the final fulfillment.

There is also a contrast of being. The prophets were mere men, but Jesus was God’s Son. In the Greek, there is no word “His” and no definite article before “Son.” The construction emphasizes the Son’s essential nature (Morris, ibid.). Jesus is the Son of God in two aspects: eternally, He is the Son, one with the Father, the second person of the Trinity. Temporally, He is God’s Son incarnate, born of the virgin Mary, taking on our human nature so that He could bear our sins (Luke 1:38). It is in this second aspect that He is referred to here. Jesus, who is eternal God in human flesh, supremely and finally reveals God to us.

A. W. Pink (An Exposition of Hebrews [electronic ed.] Ephesians Four Group: Escondido, CA, p. 27) explains the use of Son here this way: “Were a friend to tell you that he had visited a certain church, and that the preacher ‘spoke in Latin,’ you would have no difficulty in understanding what he meant: ‘spoke in Latin’ would intimate that that particular language marked his utterance. Such is the thought here. ‘In Son’ has reference to that which characterised God’s revelation. The thought of the contrast is that God, who of old had spoken prophetwise, now speaks sonwise.”

Why did the author mention Jesus’ Sonship without mentioning Him by name (he doesn’t use Jesus’ name until 2:9)? Perhaps these Jewish believers, under pressure, were tempted to deny the Trinity and go back to the strong Jewish unitarianism. He will go on immediately to show that the Son is the eternal Creator and that the Old Testament affirms Him to be God (1:2, 8). To go back to their old way of thinking would be to turn their backs on God’s supreme, complete and final revelation of Himself in His Son. To deny the Trinity is to deny the very being of God!

Conclusion

I conclude with three applications: First, we should interpret the Bible Christologically. That is to say, we must understand the Old Testament to be looking forward to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The New Testament shows us how He is the complete and final revelation of God to us. Christ fulfills the Old Testament types. He is God’s final and sufficient sacrifice for our sins. The Old Testament law is our tutor to bring us to Christ (Gal. 3:24). Many Old Testament prophecies point ahead to Him. All of this implies that if you do not read and study the Old Testament, you will miss much that God is saying to you.

Second, we should not look for or expect any new revelation from God after the completion of the New Testament. Anyone who claims to have further revelation is a false prophet. This includes everyone from Mohammed and the Koran to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon to Mary Baker Eddy and her teachings. God has spoken definitively and finally in the Old and New Testaments which point to Jesus Christ, His Son.

Finally, if we are not using the Bible to come to know Jesus Christ in a deeper, more personal way, we are not using it correctly. That is not to say that we should not study theology, Bible history, prophecy, and many other biblically related subjects. But it is to say that our study of all these areas should lead us to know Christ better and to submit more completely to Him. As the title of a book by W. H. Griffith Thomas put it, Christianity is Christ [Moody Press]. After beginning by pointing out that no other world religion rests on the person of its founder, he states (p. 6), “Christianity is nothing less and can be nothing more than relationship to Christ.”

And so the most crucial question in life for every person is the one Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). The Book of Hebrews will help us to grow in our understanding of that question as we consider Jesus (3:1). If you’ve never heard God speak, bow before Him and ask Him to reveal Himself to you through His Son, as revealed in His written Word.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the correct identity of the person of Jesus Christ the most important question in life? How would you answer a critic who said that the gospels are fabrications about Jesus?
  2. Why is philosophy useless when it comes to knowing God?
  3. Does God give any extra-biblical revelation in our day? How can we evaluate such claims (“I have a word from God,” etc.)?
  4. What pressures tempt you to abandon Christ and go back to the world? How (practically) can knowing Him more fully strengthen us to stand firm in the face of trials?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 2: The Supremacy of the Son (Hebrews 1:2b-3)

How many of you have ever visited the Canadian Rockies, near Banff and Lake Louise? If you have been there, you know that it is some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Marla and I have visited there twice, and both times we were awestruck by the magnificent beauty of the glacier-capped mountains and turquoise lakes. Each evening that we camped at Lake Louise, we drove over to a viewpoint to watch the hour-long sunset that began around 9 p.m. It is difficult not to feel close to God in a place like that, as you drink in the handiwork of His creation!

If gazing on beautiful scenery causes us to rejoice in our glorious Creator, then gazing on the Lord Jesus Christ should cause us to worship even more so. Creation reveals God’s “invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:20). But God’s Son is “the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Heb. 1:3).

My verbal description of the beauty of the Canadian Rockies is woefully inadequate. At least once in your life, I hope that you can go there and drink in what God has made, because you have to experience it personally to appreciate it. Likewise, my feeble attempts today to describe to you the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ are going to be deficient. I hope that you will not only listen to what I say, but also that you will take the time personally to visit these verses over and over again, asking God to reveal more of the beauty of His Son to your soul!

Last week (also, see my message, “The Crucial Question,” on Luke 9:18-22, October 2, 1999) I said that the most crucial question for every person to answer is Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Everything hangs on the correct answer to that question! If you are mistaken about Jesus’ identity, you will not bow before Him as Lord and Savior, and you will spend eternity in hell. That is why the cults, such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, are so destructive. They mislead and deceive people about the person of Jesus Christ.

If you answer that question correctly, you will recognize that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, the only One who can save you from your sins. You will fall down before Him in adoration and praise. You will yield yourself totally to Him in love and live to glorify Him. You will spend eternity with Him, singing with all of the angels and saints, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain…” (Rev. 5:12). As Jesus told Peter after he answered that question, the correct answer cannot come from any human source. The Father in heaven must reveal it to you (Matt. 16:17). So let’s pause and ask God to reveal the supremacy of His Son to our souls.

Our text continues the opening sentence of Hebrews. The author is showing that Jesus Christ is God’s supreme and final revelation to us. All of the Old Testament prophets pointed ahead to Christ. The New Testament reveals that God’s eternal purpose is to sum up all things in Christ (see Eph. 1:10-12).

Now the author unfolds seven brief, but profoundly packed phrases that reveal the supremacy of God’s Son. Together they reveal the threefold office of Christ as God’s Prophet, revealing His final word; God’s Priest, who made purification for our sins; and God’s King, who is enthroned at the right hand of the Majesty on high. The arrangement of these seven statements may be chiastic, with the first and last statements speaking of the Son in His incarnation and the clauses in between speaking of the Son in His eternal existence (Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 49).

Although there is some deep theology here about the relationship between the Father and the Son, I was a bit surprised to find John Calvin emphasize that the point of the author is not theological, but practical: “His purpose was really to build up our faith, so that we may learn that God is made known to us in no other way than in Christ: for as to the essence of God, so immense is the brightness that it dazzles our eyes, except it shines on us in Christ” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint], on Hebrews 1:3, pp. 35-36). The practical import of our text is:

Since God’s Son is supreme over all, we must bow before Him as the Sovereign Lord.

Let’s consider the seven phrases that reveal His supremacy:

1. Jesus is supreme as the heir of all things.

As the Son, Jesus is also the heir. The early church fathers and the medieval writers associated this statement with Psalm 2:8, where the Father says to the Son, “Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, and the very ends of the earth as Your possession” (P. Hughes, p. 39). Thus it speaks of Christ in His role as Redeemer and as Lord over the nations in His kingdom. Leon Morris (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:13) says that heir of all things “is a title of dignity and shows that Christ has the supreme place in all the mighty universe. His exaltation to the highest place in heaven after his work on earth was done did not mark some new dignity but his reentry into his right place (cf. Phil. 2:6-11).”

Calvin (p. 34) says that the word heir is ascribed to Christ in His humanity “for this purpose, that he might restore to us what we had lost in Adam.” Calvin applies this truth by saying, “It hence follows that we must be very miserable and destitute of all good things except he supplies us with his treasures” (p. 33). As Paul proclaims, if we are in Christ as His children, we are heirs with Him (Rom. 8:15-18; Gal. 4:4-7). All that is His is ours! We will someday share His glory throughout eternity!

But you only share in Christ’s inheritance if you are in Him through faith. If you have not applied the purification of sins that He obtained to your sinful heart by faith, then you are not His child and you do not share in His inheritance. Make sure that your trust is in Him alone!

But many of His children are only vaguely aware of their inheritance. Thus, we should pray for one another and for ourselves, that “the Father of glory may give to [us] a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him,” that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened, “so that [we] will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18).

2. Jesus is supreme as the creator of all things.

“Through whom also He made the world.” World is literally ages in the Greek text. Here it refers to “the whole created universe of space and time” (F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 4). It means that Jesus is Lord over time and all that has been created in time, because He created it. As John 1:3 asserts, “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” Or, as Paul puts it (Rom. 11:36), “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

These affirmations show that Jesus Christ is eternal God, one with the Father before time began. Athanasius, who contended against the Arian heresy (whose modern counterpart is the Jehovah’s Witnesses), said that when the sacred writers affirmed that Jesus created the world, “they proclaim the eternal and everlasting being of the Son and thereby designate him as God” (in P. Hughes, p. 40). The Jehovah’s Witnesses latch onto Colossians 1:15, where Paul refers to Jesus as God’s “firstborn.” They say that the term means that Jesus was created, not eternal. But they fail to notice that verse 16 explains (“For”) the term in verse 15: “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:16). “Firstborn” is not a chronological term, but has to do with the legal rights of authority and inheritance. The fact that the Father created all things through Jesus shows that Jesus is Almighty God!

Think of the intricacies of the atom, or the mysteries of human and animal DNA, which modern science only barely understands. It all reflects amazing design, and that design is often interdependent, so that you can’t have only part of it. The parts depend on the design of other parts that work in harmony. Or, consider the immensity of the universe. Our galaxy is just an average-sized galaxy that takes 100,000 light years to cross (600 trillion miles). Modern telescopes can see about 100,000 million galaxies, with each galaxy containing 100,000 million stars. The average distance between these galaxies is three million light years. Some estimate that the most distant galaxy is about eight billion light years away! (These figures are in R. Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul [Crossway Books], 1:27, citing Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time [Bantam], pp. 37-39.) Jesus spoke all of this into existence out of nothing (Heb. 11:3; Gen. 1:1)!

3. Jesus is supreme as the radiance of the Father’s glory.

The early church fathers often used this verse to refute the heretics, especially the Arians. Theodoret says that the Arians rejected Hebrews from the canon because of this text (P. Hughes, p. 41). This statement and the next, that Jesus is “the exact representation of His nature,” reflect both the oneness of the Son with the Father and yet His distinctness from the Father. Thus the two phrases fit together and balance each other (P. Hughes, ibid.).

The ascription of Jesus as “the radiance of His glory” pictures the rays of the sun displaying its brilliance. Jesus, of course, reflects the Father’s glory, but also possesses an inherent glory of His own, as seen on the Mount of Transfiguration and by John in Revelation 1. Athanasius asks, “Who does not see that the brightness cannot be separated from the light, but that it is by nature proper to it and co-existent with it, and is not produced after it?” Ambrose explains, “Where there is light there is radiance, and where there is radiance there is also light; and thus we cannot have a light without radiance nor radiance without light, because both the light is in the radiance and the radiance in the light” (both citations in P. Hughes, p. 42).

In other words, “the Son is co-eternal with the Father, just as brightness is coeval with the sun…. The Son exists essentially in the Father and the Father in the Son” (Herveus, in P. Hughes, p. 43). The reason it is important to affirm this, as Athanasius saw, is “that a false doctrine of the person of Christ must inevitably result in a false doctrine of the work of Christ and consequently undermine the whole system of the gospel” (P. Hughes, ibid.).

4. Jesus is supreme as the exact representation of the Father’s nature.

The Greek word translated exact representation refers to the engraved character or impression made by a die or a seal as, for example, on a coin. The word translated nature “denotes the very essence of God. The principal idea intended is that of exact correspondence. This correspondence involves not only an identity of the essence of the son with that of the Father, but more particularly a true and trustworthy revelation or representation of the Father by the Son” (P. Hughes, ibid.). As Jesus told Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). To know God, we must know Him as He is revealed to us by the Son (Luke 10:22).

While these terms express some deep theology concerning the nature of the Trinity, and thus were rightly used by the church fathers to defend the faith against destructive heresies, we should not forget Calvin’s point, that these terms teach that we can only know God through Christ. We never could have understood the God “who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16), unless Jesus had come to earth as a man to reveal Him.

The story is told of a devout Hindu man who was confronted with the claims of Christ. But he could not grasp the concept that God had taken on human flesh in the person of Jesus. This Hindu regarded all of life, including insects, as sacred. One day as he walked in a field wrestling with the concept of God becoming man, he came upon an anthill with thousands of ants. This anthill was in the path of a farmer plowing the field.

Gripped with a concern that you or I would feel for hundreds of people trapped in a burning building, he wanted to warn them of their impending destruction. But, how? He could shout to them, but they would not hear. He could write in the sand, but they would not understand. How could he communicate with them? Then it dawned on him: if he only could become an ant, he could warn them before it was too late. Now he understood the Christian message, that God became a man in Jesus to communicate to us His message of salvation (Teacher’s Manual for the Ten Basic Steps Toward Christian Maturity [Campus Crusade for Christ], pp. 18-19).

Thus we’ve seen that Jesus is supreme as the heir of all things; as the creator of all things; as the radiance of the Father’s glory; and, as the exact representation of His nature. Next,

5. Jesus is supreme as the sustainer of all things by the word of His power.

This phrase refers to Christ’s “carrying forward and onward of all things to the predestined consummation which is also implicit in their beginning” (P. Hughes, p. 45). It refers to His sustaining providence and governance of all things (ibid.). “It does not simply mean ‘sustain,’ but has the sense of active, purposeful control…” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan], p. 316). The use of the present participle in our text indicates that Jesus is continually upholding all things in the universe by His word of power (ibid.). If He ceased from doing this, the universe would disintegrate! Paul states the same truth when he says, “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

This refutes the idea of Deism, that God created all things, but then bowed out and let everything run on its own. Scripture shows that there is not a single atom in the universe that acts apart from God’s providential governance. Every raindrop, snowflake, gust of wind, and lightning bolt obey God’s command (Ps. 148:8). He directs everything from the roll of the dice (Prov. 16:33) to the rise and fall of nations (Job 12:23). He determines in advance the number of days that each of us will live (Ps. 139:16). Our text says that Jesus exercises this immense power simply by speaking, or as Calvin says (p. 38), “with a nod.” This means that there is no such thing as random chance or luck. We are totally dependent on God, and we must receive all things as coming from Him according to His purpose for our good (Gen. 50:20; Job 2:10; Rom. 8:28).

6. Jesus is supreme as the One who made purification for our sins.

The juxtaposition of Christ’s upholding all things by the word of His power and the next phrase, “when He had made purification of sins,” is stunning! The almighty Lord who could simply “let go” and sinners would disintegrate, instead left the glory of heaven, took on the form of a servant, and became obedient to death, even death on a cross, to purify us from our sins (Phil. 2:5-11)! “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God shouldst die for me” (Charles Wesley)!

The Greek aorist tense indicates that Jesus accomplished purification for sins once and for all. The author will expound on this further in chapter 10. Jesus did not just make purification of sins possible, but effectual through His death on the cross (see 10:10, 12, 14, 18). What I am about to say here is controversial, but I ask you to consider it and ask God for understanding. I believe that on the cross, Jesus did not actually make purification of sins for all people. If He did, all would be purified, and everyone would go to heaven. Rather, He actually secured purification of sins for all that the Father had given to Him (John 6:38-39).

C. H. Spurgeon put it this way when he preached on this text (“Depths and Heights,” [Ages Software], sermon 2635, p. 521):

I tremble when I hear some people talk about the disappointed Christ,— or about his having died at a peradventure, to accomplish he knew not what,— dying for something which the will of man might give him if it would, but it might possibly be denied him. I buy nothing on such terms as that, I expect to have what I purchase; and Christ will have what he bought with his own blood; especially as he lives again to claim his purchase.

It is of great comfort to know that our purification is secure because Christ paid for us and He will get what He paid for!

7. Jesus is supreme as the One who sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

Christ’s sitting signifies the completion of the work of redemption. In the Old Testament, the priests always stood in the Holy of Holies when making atonement. But Jesus offered Himself for our sins once for all and took His seat on high. His sitting at the right hand of the Majesty on high (a reverent term for God) also signifies His being in the place of highest honor. This is not a literal place, in that God, who is Spirit, does not have a right hand or left. But it uses human language to convey that there is no higher designation possible! Sitting at the right hand of God also pictures Jesus as the Sovereign Ruler of the universe (1:8, 13).

While this phrase affirms Jesus’ deity (how could any created being sit at the right hand of the Majesty on high without being consumed?), it also indicates a degree of subordination of the Son to the Father (P. Hughes, p. 48). Though equal with God in His essential being, the Son voluntarily submits to the Father to carry out the divine purpose (1 Cor. 15:24-28). Paul uses this order in the Godhead to argue for the leadership of men over women in the local church (1 Cor. 11:3-16). Men and women are equal in their being and as heirs with Christ, but there is to be an order of headship and submission to reflect the image of God.

Conclusion

When I went to Coast Guard Boot Camp, we were pretty much on our own for the first weekend, which was a holiday. But in our barracks was the office of the most ill-named man I have ever met, Mr. Angel. This man’s reputation went before him and grew bigger up to the first moment that he strode into the barracks and sent terror into every heart. We had heard that he was meanness personified. For recreation, he liked to go into bars and pick fights. A sign on his door said that before he was through with you, you would know his shoe size from intimate contact with your behind. He reputedly marched one company off the end of a pier into the water to see if they would obey his commands.

So when Mr. Angel stomped into our barracks and barked, “On your feet, squirrels!” (plus a few unrepeatable expletives), there was not a single man who stayed on his bunk and said, “I don’t feel like getting on my feet just now!” The point is, because Mr. Angel had authority to do you great bodily harm, you obeyed his every command! Whatever Mr. Angel commanded, we did with great haste!

I hope that you see that this glorious description of our Lord Jesus Christ is not just interesting theology, but that it applies practically to every one of us. If Jesus Christ is who the writer here proclaims Him to be, then we all must bow before Him in worship and obey His every claim on our lives. To brazenly disobey the Sovereign, Almighty Creator and Lord of the universe would be utterly arrogant and stupid! God’s Son is supreme over all. We must live to obey Him completely!

Discussion Questions

1.      Why is our understanding of who Jesus is so vitally important?

2.      The Jehovah’s Witnesses say that Jesus is the highest created being. Can a person believe this and be saved? Why not?

3.      How can we know that the claims of Christ are genuine and not made up later by His followers?

4.      Can any for whom Jesus made purification of sins reject Him and be lost? Defend biblically.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 3: The Son’s Supremacy over Angels (Hebrews 1:4-14)

A few years ago, the Chicago Tribune reported the story of a woman in New Mexico who was frying tortillas when she noticed that the skillet burns on one of her tortillas resembled the face of Jesus. She excitedly showed it to her husband and neighbors, who all agreed that the face etched on the tortilla truly bore a resemblance to Jesus.

The woman went to her priest to have the tortilla blessed. She testified that the tortilla had changed her life, and her husband agreed that she had become more peaceful, happy, and submissive since the tortilla had arrived. The priest was a bit reluctant, not being accustomed to blessing tortillas. But he agreed to do it.

The woman took the tortilla home, put it in a glass case with piles of cotton to make it look like it was floating on clouds, built a special altar for it, and opened the little shrine to visitors. Within a few months, more than 8,000 people came to the “Shrine of Jesus the Tortilla.” All of them agreed that the face in the burn marks on the tortilla was the face of Jesus, except for one reporter, who said he thought it looked like former heavyweight boxing champion, Leon Spinks.

We may laugh at that story, but to be mistaken about the person of Jesus Christ is no laughing matter. As we’ve seen in the past two studies, the most crucial question for each person to answer correctly is Jesus’ question to His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). If we have an inadequate or incorrect view of who Jesus is, we will not bow before Him and trust in Him as Savior and Lord. Thus our eternal destiny rides on correctly understanding the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Since this is such a crucial matter, it is not surprising that Satan has launched repeated attacks against the person of Christ. Sometimes the attacks have denied Jesus’ true humanity. At other times (far more frequently in our skeptical day), he undermines the true deity of Jesus. One of his most dangerous tricks is to lower Jesus just “slightly” below the status of God. Thus the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus is “a god,” and even “a mighty god,” but not God Almighty. They teach that Jesus was created as the archangel Michael and that through him, all other things in the universe were created. Thus they hold to a relatively high view of Jesus, but they deny His full deity. But as Bishop Moule once said, “A Savior not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.”

Satan has used the same tricks to deceive people for centuries. After one trick gets old, he puts it back into his bag and saves it to bring it out later when everyone has forgotten it. Holding to wrong views of angels in relation to Jesus Christ is such a trick. The Jewish Christians to whom our author was writing were tempted by teaching that elevated angels to a position that rivaled or even surpassed that of Jesus Christ Himself.

We know that Paul warned the Colossian church about the early Gnostic heresy that included angel worship (Col. 2:18). It is debatable whether these views were in our author’s mind when he wrote this section (Philip E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 52). There was also a Jewish Dead Sea Sect, which believed in a dual messiah, both of whom would be subject to the archangel Michael (P. Hughes, pp. 14, 53). These views may have infiltrated this Jewish church.

Also, the Jews at this time had begun to embellish the Old Testament teaching on angels (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Hebrews [Moody Press], pp. 24-25). The Bible says that the Old Testament Law was ordained through angels (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19), and it shows that they are impressive and important beings. So if our author was going to convince his readers that Jesus is supreme over Judaism, he had to show how He was not only supreme over Moses, but also over the angels. He had to show them that Jesus’ becoming a man did not place Him beneath the angels in terms of His essential nature as eternal God. In our text he shows (as other Scriptures teach, cf. Col. 1:16) that Jesus created the angels. His overall point here is that…

Jesus’ superiority to the angels rests on the fact that He is God.

The author uses the Old Testament to prove his point, since his readers accepted its authority. He uses seven passages, all taken from the Septuagint (LXX = the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament). We may group his arguments under five headings:

1. Jesus is superior to the angels because He is uniquely the Son of God (1:4-5).

The author says that Jesus has “become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they” (1:4). For the Hebrews, the name signified “the essential character of a person in himself and in his work” (P. Hughes, p. 50). In the sense of His eternal existence and His essential nature, Jesus always had a more excellent name than the angels.

But the statement here about His having become as much better than the angels refers to what Jesus accomplished through His incarnation, death on the cross for our sins, resurrection, and ascension into glory again. The name that is especially in view here is, “Son of God.” While the angels were sometimes referred to in the plural as “sons of God” (Job 1:6), and while believers are called “sons of God” (John 1:12), no single angel or believer was ever referred to as “the Son of God.” That title uniquely belongs to Jesus and signifies His deity, as the Jews themselves knew (John 5:18).

The author backs up the claim to Jesus’ more excellent name by quoting the well known messianic Psalm 2:7, “You are My Son, today I have begotten You.” In that psalm, the verse quoted here is preceded by the statement, “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord.” Because that decree took place in eternity, before creation, the church has affirmed the eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ and has said that He is “eternally begotten” by the Father, not made (“The Nicene Creed”). In other words, since God exists in eternity, begetting is not an event that took place in time. Rather, it describes an eternal relationship between the first and second members of the Godhead. They always have and always will relate to one another as Father and Son. Like a human father and son, God the Father and Jesus the Son share the same essential nature, which is the main point. Unlike a human father and son, God the Father did not pre-date the existence of God the Son, because Jesus shares His nature as eternal God (John 1:1-3).

But, in our text, the author omits the statement about the decree because, in conjunction with verse 4, his focus is more on the incarnational aspects of Jesus as the Son of God, than on the eternal aspects of that truth. Some relate “today” to Jesus’ baptism, when the Father declared, “This is My beloved Son.” Others relate it to Jesus’ resurrection, which declared Him to be the Son of God with power (Rom. 1:4). Paul preached that Jesus’ resurrection fulfilled Psalm 2:7, proving Him to be God’s Son (Acts 13:33).

F. F. Bruce (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 13) relates “today” to the exaltation and enthronement of Christ, which is an emphasis throughout Hebrews. He explains that this does not in any way question the eternal Sonship of Christ. Rather, he says, “He who was the Son of God from everlasting entered into the full exercise of all the prerogatives implied by His Sonship when, after His suffering had proved the completeness of His obedience, He was raised to the Father’s right hand” (ibid.).

The second quotation to back up Jesus as God’s unique Son comes from 2 Samuel 7:14, where God promised David that He will be a Father to David’s son, and “He shall be a Son to Me.” That promise had an initial fulfillment in Solomon, who built the Temple, but its final fulfillment was in David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. As the angel told Mary (Luke 1:32, 33), “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

Thus the author’s first point is that Jesus is greater than the angels because of His unique position as the Son of God, as seen in two Old Testament prophecies. To demote Him to the level of the angels, who are mere messengers (1:14), would be blasphemy!

2. Jesus is superior to the angels because they worship and serve Him (1:6-7).

The overall point of these verses is clear, that the angels worship and serve Jesus, not vice versa. But there are several details that require explanation.

First, the author refers to Jesus as God’s firstborn. To our minds, firstborn sounds like a chronological concept, that someone was born first in time in a family. But for the Hebrews, firstborn signified position, not time. The oldest son was usually, but not always, the heir to the father’s estate. As such, he was in a position of privilege and preeminence over his brothers. The title is used in Psalm 89:27, where God says of David, “I shall also make him My firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” David was not the firstborn son of Jesse. In fact, he was the youngest son. But he was the most prestigious and preeminent son, because God had chosen him above his brothers.

If “firstborn” meant what the Jehovah’s Witnesses say it means, that Jesus was the first one created, then why would God command the angels to worship Jesus? To worship anyone less than God Himself would be blasphemy. Surely God would not command such a thing!

There are two other interpretive issues in verse 6. The first has to do with the adverb “again.” Should it go at the front of the sentence, and thus mark the following quotation as yet another Scripture that sets forth the exalted position of Christ? Or, should it be connected with the verb “brings” (as in the NASB), thus pointing not to the first coming of Christ, but to His second coming? While some reputable scholars argue for the second view, the majority favor the first view (P. Hughes, p. 58). It is not a major issue, in that all who believe in Jesus would agree that the angels worshiped Him when He came to earth the first time (Luke 2:13-14) and that they will worship Him when He comes again (Rev. 5:11-12).

The other issue in verse 6 is the source of the quote. It is similar, but not exact, to Psalm 97:7 [96:7] in the LXX. But it is verbatim from the LXX of Deuteronomy 32:43. The problem is, this line in the LXX is not in the Hebrew Bible. But it has been found in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so perhaps was original.

The main point of verse 7 is that the angels belong to Jesus (“His angels”) and that they obey His commands. Thus they are His servants, and not vice versa. Also, the terms “winds” and “fire” point to the transitory, changing nature of their service, as contrasted with the eternal sovereignty and glory of Christ, as portrayed in verse 8. The point is that Jesus is superior to the angels because they worship and serve Him.

3. Jesus is superior to the angels because He is the God who reigns eternally (1:8-9).

Note the contrast between the angels (1:6-7) and the Son (1:8). Here the author quotes Psalm 45:6-7. This psalm celebrated a royal wedding, perhaps of King Solomon or one of David’s other descendants (Bruce, p. 19), addressing the king as God. F. F. Bruce (ibid.) explains that this is not the only place in the Old Testament to use such hyperbolic language (see Isa. 9:6; Jer. 23:5-6). Some would translate it as, “God is your throne,” but other than theological bias, there is no reason to do so. If someone objects to the Son being addressed as God in verse 8, they still have to contend with verse 10, where He is addressed as the Lord and Creator.

The author’s clear point is that, as God, Jesus reigns forever and ever. His rule is marked by the love of righteousness and the hatred of lawlessness. These qualities marked Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, and they will supremely mark His coming kingdom, when He rules the nations with a rod of iron (Rev. 19:15). The oil of gladness refers to His triumph over sin and death and His return to His rightful glory. The “companions” may refer to angels, but more likely refers to the “many sons” that He brings to glory through His suffering and resurrection (2:10, 11). Note also that righteousness and joy always go together. It is Satan’s lie that righteousness is boring! In God’s holy presence are fullness of joy and pleasures forever (Ps. 16:11).

Thus Jesus is superior to the angels because He is uniquely the Son of God; because they worship and serve Him; and, because He is the God who reigns eternally.

4. Jesus is superior to the angels because He is the eternal Creator of heaven and earth (1:10-12).

This sixth quotation is taken from Psalm 102:25-27, which begins, “A prayer of the afflicted when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the Lord.” The psalmist has gone through some difficult trials, which he describes in strong poetic language in the first part of the psalm. He feels as if he is about to be taken away in the midst of his days. But in his weakness and desperation, he considers the eternality, power, and unchangeableness of the Lord as Creator. He says that even though heaven and earth will perish, God remains. Like a man throws away old clothes, God will throw away the universe, but He remains the same, and His years will never come to an end.

The remarkable thing about the quote is that in the psalm, these verses clearly describe Almighty God, and yet the author of Hebrews applies them directly to Jesus. Oscar Cullman observed, “We should generally give much more consideration to the by no means self-evident fact that after the death of Jesus the first Christians without hesitation transferred to him what the Old Testament says about God” (in P. Hughes, p. 68).

To this Jewish church, these words were not just a theological statement about Jesus’ superiority to the angels. They were also meant to be a source of great comfort in the midst of trials. The same eternal Creator who sustained the psalmist in the midst of his calamity would sustain them in the midst of their troubles. And that eternal Creator is none other than their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8). Even if you are taken away in the midst of your days, you have a lasting refuge in the eternal, unchanging Lord Jesus Christ!

5. Jesus is superior to the angels because He sits at God’s right hand, whereas they are sent out to serve the saints (1:13-14).

Verse 13 introduces the seventh quote with a rhetorical question: “But to which of the angels has He ever said, ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet’?” The implied answer is, None! The quote comes from Psalm 110:1, which is cited in the New Testament more often than any other Old Testament verse (14 times). Jesus used these verses to stump the Pharisees. He asked them, “Whose son is the Messiah?” They correctly answered, “The son of David.” Then Jesus asked, “Then how does David in the Spirit call Him ‘Lord,’” and quoted this verse. His clinching question was, “If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his son?” (Matt. 22:42-45).

As we saw in verse 3, Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of the Majesty on high affirms His supreme authority and lordship. No created being could occupy that place. In the Bible, when men encountered angels, they often fell before them in fear and obeisance, but invariably the angel did not accept such worship, claiming, “I am a fellow servant… worship God” (Rev. 19:10). But even when He was on this earth with His glory veiled, Jesus accepted and encouraged those who fell before Him in worship (Luke 5:8-10; John 9:35-39; 20:26-29). How much more should we worship Him who now sits on the throne of God! How blasphemous it is of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to say that Jesus is a created being, an angel! As verse 14 states, the angels are “ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation.” To mistake Jesus for an angel is to mix up the Lord with His servants!

The descriptions of angels in the Bible show that they are impressive beings. In Genesis, two angels rescued Lot and his family from Sodom and then called down fire and brimstone from heaven on the wicked cities. On another occasion, an angel struck down 70,000 in Israel on account of David’s sin (2 Sam. 24:15-17). One angel went out into the camp of Sennacherib’s army and struck down 185,000 soldiers in a night (Isa. 37:36). An angel shut the lions’ mouths so that Daniel was kept safe, and an angel revealed to Daniel the amazing prophecies of things to come. When Daniel saw the angel, it wiped out his strength and took his breath away (Dan. 6:22; 9:20-27; 10:17). An angel delivered Peter from prison and then struck the proud Herod Agrippa, so that he was eaten by worms and died (Acts 12:3-23).

The Bible teaches that angels guard believers (2 Kings 6:15-18; Ps. 91:11-12; Matt. 18:10) and look in on our church services (1 Cor. 11:10), although we are not able to see them. And yet, as great and powerful as angels are, they are just servants who stand before Him who sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high! Worship Him alone, because He is Almighty God!

Conclusion

I want to encourage you to apply this message in two ways. First, if anyone tries to persuade you that Jesus is not fully God, recognize it as a temptation that comes straight from Satan! He is currently deceiving a billion people worldwide with the lie that Jesus was a great prophet, but that He is not God (Islam). Even in our country, millions think that Jesus was a good man and a great moral teacher, but they do not bow before Him as Savior and Lord. All of these lies lead people into hell. If He was not God in human flesh, His sacrifice could not atone for our sins. He is the only way for us to know God and have our sins forgiven. Hold firmly to His absolute deity!

Second, I want to challenge all of you to do something that may be outside your comfort zone: Buy and read a good systematic theology to ground yourself in the doctrines of our faith. It is to our shame that most Jehovah’s Witnesses can run circles around evangelical Christians when it comes to knowing their Bibles. Granted, they do not know their Bibles correctly, and they pervert the truth. But could you refute them from your Bible?

We live in a day that despises doctrine and opts for experiences and feelings. But if our experiences are not resting on solid truth, they are planted in air! Our lives must be founded on the truths of God’s Word. The practical sections of Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, and Hebrews all follow chapters establishing solid doctrine

I recommend Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology [Zondervan] or the abridged edition, Bible Doctrine. There is a good one-volume abridged version of Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology [Baker]. Or, although it is not a systematic theology, read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster] (get the version edited by John McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles). As Calvin himself believed, the aim of theology is not head knowledge, but godliness that stems from knowing God (see McNeill’s introduction, pp. li, lii). Just five pages a day will get you through the whole thing in less than a year. Ask God to deepen your knowledge of Him and our exalted, divine Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it absolutely essential to the Christian faith to affirm the full deity of Jesus Christ?
  2. A Jehovah’s Witness tells you that “firstborn” means that Jesus is not eternal, but created. What Scriptures would you use to refute him?
  3. Does God still use angels to minister to His saints? Are most “angel encounters” today genuine or counterfeit? How can we evaluate such encounters?
  4. Why must sound doctrine be the basis of our Christian experience? How can we counter the anti-doctrinal bias of our day?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 4: The Danger of Drifting Spiritually (Hebrews 2:1-4)

I read recently that the Tour de France bicycle champion, Lance Armstrong, and his wife are divorcing. The article stated that at this point, he does not have another woman in his life. Rather, his many hours spent pursuing his bicycle career have left no time for his marriage.

I would predict that 25 years from now, Armstrong will look back at his life and say, “I was a fool to sacrifice my family for my sport!” But at this point, the fame and fortune are blinding him to the more satisfying value of a lasting, loving marriage relationship.

It’s easy in life to get caught up in matters that seem very important at the time, but in the light of eternity will shrink into oblivion. Because we all have only so many hours in our day, our focus on these seemingly important matters also means that we neglect matters that are huge in light of eternity. When these things nag at our consciences, as invariably they do, we justify our current priorities by saying, “Someday I will attend to these eternally important matters, but right now, I’m too busy.” But such procrastination can be eternally fatal!

The one sure fact of human existence is death. As George Bernard Shaw observed, “The statistics on death are quite impressive: one out of one people die!” Since we all have to face death, you would think that we all would live in view of eternity, but we don’t. Other pressing matters come up to divert our attention: “I’ve got to get through school.” “I’ve got to get established in my career.” “I’ve got to get the kids raised, and then I’ll have some time.” Many of these pressing matters are good and important, but they easily can crowd out the most important thing. As a result, even we who know the truth of the gospel are always in danger of drifting spiritually.

The author of Hebrews has spent the first chapter extolling the supremacy of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. He has not mentioned a word of application or exhortation to this point. But now, as a concerned pastor, he pauses in his argument to apply what he has written. Our text is the first of five warning sections in this letter. These warnings are addressed to professing Christians who were in the church. By using the first person plural pronoun, “we,” the author identifies himself with his readers. He faced the same temptations that they faced. He was not in an ivory tower, exempt from these pitfalls. Like every faithful pastor, he was exhorting himself first, even as he exhorted his congregation.

The danger that he was confronting was this: You are either drifting with regard to your salvation because of neglect, or you are growing because of deliberate effort and attention. But nobody grows by accident.

Since we have encountered such a great salvation, we must be careful not to drift away from it.

There are three main points:

1. The salvation Christ offers is indescribably great.

He calls it “so great a salvation” (2:3). He gives us four reasons that this salvation is indescribably great.

A. Salvation is great because it is the one thing that every person needs more than anything else.

In church circles we toss around the word “salvation” so often that it loses its true meaning. But verse 3 contains another word to alert us to the significance of the concept: “escape.” “How shall we escape…?” An escape points to a situation of great peril. You don’t need to be saved unless you are in grave danger of perishing. Our soldiers in Iraq rescued Jessica Lynch from hostile enemies. They saved her so that she escaped further torture and perhaps death.

Outside of Jesus Christ, every sinner (that is, every person, since all have sinned) is under God’s just condemnation. Breaking God’s holy law incurs a just penalty (2:2), namely, eternal separation from God in hell. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). God’s wrath abides on the one who does not obey Jesus Christ (John 3:36). As Jonathan Edwards pictured it in his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” every sinner is like a spider dangling by a thread over a fire. Only God’s mercy keeps us from falling into the eternal flames.

Salvation does not mean, as one popular TV preacher put it, “to be changed from a negative to a positive self image” (Robert Schuller, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation [Word], p. 68). Salvation does not mean that Jesus helps you fulfill your dreams. Salvation is not about Jesus improving your marriage or giving you peace and joy. God’s salvation isn’t a nice thing to round out your otherwise successful and happy life. Salvation is about Jesus rescuing you from the wrath to come! And since every person is in imminent danger of facing that wrath, salvation is every person’s greatest need!

B. Salvation is great because it comes to us from none other than the Lord Jesus Himself.

“For this reason” (2:1) points back to chapter 1, where the author has extolled the supremacy of Jesus, God’s eternal Son. He is God’s final word to us, the heir of all things, and the creator of the universe. He is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature. He upholds all things by the word of His power. He made purification for sins and now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high (1:2-3). He is far superior to the angels, who worship and serve Him (1:4-14). “For this reason,” because Jesus is the glorious Son of God who went to the cross to secure your purification from sin, your salvation is indescribably great.

As I said, there is not a word of application in chapter 1. Rather, chapter 1 sets forth the doctrine of the exalted Person of Jesus Christ in relation to the Father and to the angels. It is only after the author has set forth this doctrine that he gives this first exhortation. Sound doctrine must always be the foundation for practical application.

And yet we live in a day when many pastors are minimizing doctrine. I’ve heard things like, “Doctrine is divisive.” Or, “People don’t need theology or biblical content. They need to know how to get along in their marriages and how to deal with life’s problems.” So pastors are giving sermons (if you could even call them that!) that are devoid of doctrine. Frankly, many such sermons could easily appear in Reader’s Digest without much modification!

But our author wants us to see the connection between the great doctrines about Christ in chapter 1 and his exhortation here: “For this reason…” (2:1). Our salvation is indescribably great because it comes to us from none other than the eternal Son of God who left the Majesty on high to become the sacrifice for our sins. He announced this good news during His earthly ministry (2:3). His teaching shows us the way to be reconciled to God. Having offered Himself for our sins and rising from the dead, He is now back at the right hand of God, awaiting the time when His enemies become His footstool (1:13). How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation!

C. Salvation is great because eyewitnesses confirmed it as true.

Salvation is only great if it is true. If it’s just someone’s fanciful idea, with no factual basis, it may be nice, but it certainly isn’t worth suffering the loss of your property or shedding your blood for (10:34; 12:4). This great salvation was not only “at the first spoken through the Lord,” but also “it was confirmed to us by those who heard” (2:3). That statement seems to place the author, along with his readers, in the category of those who did not hear the gospel directly from Jesus Christ, which would exclude Paul from being the author. Those who hold to Pauline authorship say that this is just an editorial “us.” But whoever he was, the point is the gospel that Jesus proclaimed comes to us from those who directly witnessed His earthly ministry.

The gospel is not the best ideas of a bunch of religious philosophers speculating about how they think we can be reconciled to God. The gospel is a matter of revelation and historical fact. Jesus really lived. His teaching and miracles are truthfully recorded in the gospels. He died on the cross and was raised physically from the grave before He ascended bodily into heaven. Many eyewitnesses saw these things and recorded them for us. If they were fictional stories, those in that day who read these accounts would have laughed the apostles out of town. But rather, these witnesses held to the truth about Jesus, even when cost them their lives.

D. Salvation is great because God Himself confirmed the message by miracles through the apostles.

God testifies through these witnesses “by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His will” (2:4). He is referring to the miracles performed mostly by the apostles as recorded in the Book of Acts. The terms, “signs, wonders, and miracles” are basically synonymous, but have different nuances. Signs point to the fact that miracles have spiritual significance. When a lame man is healed or a dead man is raised, it points to something beyond the bare fact. These are pictures of how God powerfully acts to save souls. Wonders emphasize the human response of awe and amazement when we witness God doing the humanly impossible. Various (= “manifold” or “many-colored”) miracles (= Greek, dynamis) focus on God’s power displayed in numerous ways.

Gifts [lit., distributions] of the Holy Spirit are given “according to His will.” This emphasizes God’s sovereignty in bestowing spiritual gifts as He sees fit for His purposes (1 Cor. 12:11). As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12, not everyone has the same gifts, but as in the human body, so in the body of Christ each member has a vital function for the overall health of the body.

Many claim that the church should receive and exercise the miraculous gifts (miracles, healings, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, word of knowledge, and prophecy) to the same extent as the early church did. Others argue that such gifts entirely ceased with the close of the New Testament canon. It seems to me that those who emphasize such gifts overlook God’s purpose for them. He gave these gifts to confirm the gospel. If you study miracles in the Bible, you will find that they are not uniformly distributed. They occur in clusters at critical times in history.

It would seem that these gifts had diminished by the time Hebrews was written. Otherwise the author would not have referred to the miracles done by the apostles. Rather he would have called attention to the ongoing phenomena in their midst, which would have strengthened his point. Even in Paul’s ministry, there seems to be a chronological tapering off of such miracles. In Acts 19, even handkerchiefs carried from Paul to those who were sick brought healing. But at the end of his life, he didn’t tell Timothy to claim healing for his stomach problems by faith, or to wait until the handkerchief arrived. He told him to drink a little wine (in modern terms, “take your medicine”; 1 Tim. 5:23). Paul didn’t heal Trophimus, but left him sick at Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20).

So it would seem that these miraculous gifts are not God’s normal way of operating in this era. But we should not restrict His ability to perform miracles if it is His sovereign will. With regard to speaking in tongues, Scripture clearly teaches that the genuine gift is miraculously speaking in an unlearned foreign language. It definitely is not jabbering in nonsense syllables! That fact alone eliminates about 99 percent of what goes under the guise of speaking in tongues in our day. Paul gives a number of other guidelines that should govern the practice of this gift, but which most charismatic churches ignore (1 Cor. 14:27-34).

To sum up the first point: because every person desperately needs salvation, because it comes to us from none other than God’s exalted Son, because it was confirmed to us as true from those who were with Jesus, and because God confirmed their testimony through miracles, it is indescribably great.

2. Because God’s salvation is so great, the consequences of neglecting it are terrible.

The author does not specify here what we would face if we neglect this salvation. But all we have to do is read ahead (10:27), where he gets more graphic: If we don’t escape, we face “a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” (see also 12:25-29). Some may be thinking, “How can these frightening warnings apply to Christians? Aren’t believers eternally secure?”

One of the mistaken ideas that the author of Hebrews confronts in this and in every other warning section is what we could call “the myth of the carnal Christian.” This idea was popularized by Lewis Sperry Chafer’s He That is Spiritual [Dunham] and by the Schofield Reference Bible (note on 1 Cor. 2:14) early in the 20th century. It was later picked up by Campus Crusade’s booklet, “How to Be Filled With the Holy Spirit.” The idea is that there are three classes of people: the natural man (unbeliever); the spiritual man (the Spirit-filled believer); and, the carnal man (the believer who is running his own life, not subject to the Holy Spirit). For the sake of time, I cannot go into many of the problems with this classification (see Ernest Reisinger’s booklet, “What Should We Think of the Carnal Christian?” [Banner of Truth]).

But one problem is that it gives false assurance to the person who says, “I believe in Jesus as my Savior, so I am going to heaven. But I am not submitting to Him as my Lord.” For the author of Hebrews, either you are holding fast to your confession of faith in Christ and are striving against sin, or you are drifting spiritually and are in danger of frightening judgment. Those are the only options.

True believers may drift and may get entangled in sin. But when they are confronted with the truth, they will turn from their sin and pursue holiness. If they do not turn from it, they have no basis for assurance of salvation. The longer they continue in sin, the more reason they have to question whether their profession of faith was genuine. But no one has the option of saying, “I’m just a carnal Christian. I’m living for this world now, but when I die I’ll go to heaven.” That option does not exist.

The author sets forth the consequences of neglecting salvation by contrasting the Law with the gospel.

A. The Law imposed some frightening penalties for disobedience.

“The word spoken by angels” refers to the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Old Testament does not state directly that angels gave the Law to Moses, but it implies such (Deut. 33:2; Ps. 68:17) and the New Testament confirms it (Acts 7:38, 53; Gal. 3:19). That Law imposed frightening penalties for sin. Any defiant disobedience was punished by stoning to death (Num. 15:30, 32-36; Josh. 7:1-26). Sometimes God sent punishment directly from heaven, such as when the ground opened and swallowed up Korah and his fellow rebels (Num. 16), or when God sent plagues among the people (Num. 16:46-50; 21:6-9; 25:8-9). In these judgments, God was not being cruel; He was acting in justice (Heb. 2:2).

B. The neglect of the gospel will bring far worse consequences.

The argument is from the lesser to the greater. Greater revelation imposes greater responsibility. If the Jews under the Law were punished for their disobedience, how much more will we come under God’s judgment if we associate with God’s people, but turn our backs on the great salvation that is offered through the death of God’s own Son? That is his argument and appeal.

We err if we think that the demands of the gospel are less exacting than those of the Law. We also err if we think that grace means that we can be sloppy about God’s standards of holiness and He just shrugs His shoulders. That is a dangerously wrong way to think! As the author states (10:29), “How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?” To drift away from the gospel after you’ve been exposed to it is to turn away from God Himself, who sent His Son so that we could have His gift of salvation. You don’t want to do that!

3. In spite of the greatness of God’s salvation, we all are in danger of drifting away from it.

As I said, the author uses “we” to include himself as vulnerable. The immediate cause of the Hebrews’ drifting was that they were facing trials and the threat of persecution. Whenever we are there, we need to be on guard. We are then most in danger of drifting. But even at other times, drifting is easy because all it requires is neglect.

A. The cause of drifting is neglect.

Usually drifting is inadvertent. If you’ve ever steered a boat, you know that if you do not deliberately keep it on course, you will drift with the currents. The stronger the current, the more you have to give constant attention to keep the boat on course. Since we live in the strong current of this evil world, we all are prone to drift with the culture.

It does not take active rebellion or defiance against God to go to hell. Simple neglect of salvation while you attend to other things will do the trick nicely. The Greek word “pay attention” (2:1) is used in the parable Jesus told about the king who invited guests to his son’s wedding party: “they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business” (Matt. 22:5). There’s nothing inherently sinful about farms and businesses—unless they cause you to neglect the king’s invitation! Someone put it this way: “What must I do to be lost? Nothing!” Just drift through life, paying attention to other things.

B. The antidote to drifting is paying attention.

“We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard” (2:1). If you attend a church where God’s great salvation is proclaimed from week to week, pay attention to the message! Don’t tune it out and think about what you’re going to do with your week. Don’t yawn and think, “I wish the pastor would be more interesting.” Pay attention to this great salvation!

Start with the basics: Are you giving deliberate effort to seeking God and His salvation? How much attention have you given to understand the gospel? Do you pore over Scripture as you would read a will if you thought a rich relative had left you an inheritance? Do you read and study God’s Word as His treasure entrusted to your soul? Is spending time alone with God in His Word and prayer a priority in your schedule?

How much effort do you put into such a great salvation? Do you set some spiritual goals to help you grow? Do you look for solid books to read that will help you know God better? Do you listen to sermons from godly men that help you become more godly? Do you cut out of your life anything that would divert you from such a great salvation?

Conclusion

It’s wonderful to fall in love and get married. I highly recommend the experience! But marriage is a relationship and relationships take time and effort to maintain. I don’t care how deeply you were in love when you got married, if you neglect your marriage and devote your attention to other things, your marriage will fail. Marriage is a wonderful gift from God and is worth the time and effort it takes to maintain and deepen that relationship.

But salvation is a far greater gift than marriage, because it has to do with our eternal destiny! Don’t let it drift! Don’t neglect it! Don’t get distracted with other things, even with good things! Because our salvation is so great, we must pay closer attention to it, so that we don’t drift away from it. You are either drifting with regard to your salvation because of neglect, or you are growing because of deliberate effort and attention. Which is it for you?

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some practical ways to keep the greatness of salvation before you at all times?
  2. Agree/disagree: A professing Christian who is in sin has no basis for assurance of salvation.
  3. Should we seek the miraculous sign gifts in our day? Give biblical support for your answer.
  4. Some teach that the Christian life does not involve our effort. Does this view reflect the biblical balance? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 5: Our Glorious Destiny in Christ (Hebrews 2:5-9)

What would you do with a 19-year-old Christian young man, who wrote in his diary, “9. Resolved, To think much, on all occasions, of my dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death”? As you read through his 70 resolutions, you encounter things like, “7. Resolved, Never to do any thing, which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.” “17. Resolved, That I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.”

If that young man lived in a modern evangelical home, his parents would probably be looking for a good Christian psychologist to get this kid’s focus off of such morbid subjects. Maybe a prescription for Prozac would help!

That young man was Jonathan Edwards, who went on to become the great revivalist preacher of the First Great Awakening (his resolutions are in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:xx-xxi). His writings are still immensely helpful to believers, 300 years later. Lest you think that he was a gloomy, depressive type, I should point out that his first resolution was, in part, “1. Resolved, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to the glory of God, and my own good, profit, and pleasure, in the whole of my duration; without any consideration of the time, whether now, or never so many myriads of ages hence.” Edwards realized, even as a teenager, that to live for God’s glory in light of death and eternity was to live for the greatest personal good, profit, and pleasure.

It seems to me that modern evangelical Christians are far too focused on the here and now. We’ve lost the central focus that Edwards had, even as a teenager, of living each day in view of death and eternity. The modern view is, “Heaven is a nice thought, but I want the good life now. If Jesus can help me succeed in my family, in business, and in my personal emotional life, that’s what I want! I’ll think about heaven when I’m in my eighties.”

As a result of our shortsightedness, we don’t handle trials well. It is unknown how we might handle persecution, should such arise against the church, but it probably would free up a few seats on Sunday mornings. I agree with John Piper, who observed (in a tape on Charles Simeon; order from www.desiringgod.org) over a decade ago that evangelical pastors are too emotionally fragile. If we catch strong criticism or personal attacks, we’re quick to bail out of the ministry. One main reason for this weakness is that we are not focused on our glorious eternal destiny in Jesus Christ.

A main practical theme of the Letter to the Hebrews is endurance under trials. The author frequently exhorts his readers, “Hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end” (3:6; see also 3:14; 4:14; 6:11-12). “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised” (10:36).

In order to give his readers the perspective to endure, the author focuses on their eternal destiny in Christ. In 1:14, in his argument that Jesus is greater than the angels, he pointed out that the angels serve “those who will inherit salvation.” While we now possess salvation (if we have trusted in Christ), much of it is reserved for eternity as our inheritance. As Paul puts it in Romans 8:17-18, we are now children of God, “and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” To endure our present sufferings, we must focus on the glory ahead in Christ.

That is the train of thought in Hebrews 2:5-9. After his brief exhortation to pay attention so that we do not drift (2:1-4), he comes back to deal with Jesus’ superiority over the angels. It is difficult to say whether the opening word, “for,” links back to 1:14 or to the entire preceding argument. It is likely that he was thinking of an objection that some of his Jewish readers who were wavering might have had. They may have been thinking, “If the Son of God is greater than the angels, having obtained a more excellent name than they (1:4), then how does this fit with His becoming a man, since men are lower than the angels? Furthermore, how does this fit with His dying on the cross, since angels never die? How then is Jesus superior to the angels?”

The author responds by showing that God did not subject the world to come to angels, but to man. To support this point, he cites from Psalm 8 (LXX). His introduction of the quote, “one has testified somewhere,” does not mean that he couldn’t remember where the quote was from. He cites it accurately (the original probably omits the last part of 2:7, “and have appointed him over the works of Your hands”). Rather, the author wants to emphasize that the quote comes from God, rather than to draw attention to David, the human author. Psalm 8 reflects on the high position to which God appointed man, putting him over all creation.

But, the author adds, “we do not yet see all things subjected to him” (2:8). The unstated but obvious event that overturned man’s high position was the fall. Then, in verse 9, he shows that Jesus (the first use of His name in the book, obviously emphasizing His humanity), because of His death on our behalf, was crowned with glory and honor. Thus He recovered what man lost in the fall. In the world to come, redeemed man will reign with Jesus as God intended. So the main idea is that…

Although God’s original high purpose for man was lost in the fall, it will be recovered through Jesus Christ.

Because the train of thought is not easy here, I need to explain the text first. Then I will apply it.

1. God’s original intent for man was that we rule over the earth (2:5-8a).

He makes two points here:

A. Man’s destiny is higher than that of the angels (2:5).

“For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking.” There is debate about the meaning of the phrase, “the world to come.” The Greek word for “world” means “the inhabited earth.” Some take the whole phrase to refer to the messianic age inaugurated by Christ at His first coming. Others understand it to refer to the future Millennial Kingdom.

In the original creation, God created man in His image to subdue the earth and rule over it (Gen. 1:26-28). Man lost that dominion to Satan in the fall, so that he is now “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; also, 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; 6:12; 1 John 5:19). At the cross, Jesus overcame Satan’s power (John 12:31; 16:11). Christ’s victory will be finalized in His second coming and kingdom rule. At the end of that 1,000-year kingdom, Satan will be loosed briefly for one final assault on Christ’s kingdom, only to be defeated and judged forever (Rev. 20:7-10).

Thus I understand “the world to come” to refer primarily to the future Millennial Kingdom. But there is currently a heavenly conflict for dominion on earth. We participate in this conflict and reign with Christ as we conquer the strongholds of Satan through spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:10-20; Dan. 10). To the extent that we live under Christ’s lordship, we experience a taste of His kingdom rule now. But the full expression of Christ’s kingdom awaits His return, when He will reign over all the earth. Then we will reign with Him and we will judge the angels (1 Cor. 6:3). So our ultimate destiny is higher than that of the angels, since we will rule the world to come with Christ.

B. God’s original intent for us is described in Psalm 8 (2:6-8).

David was probably standing out under the night sky, gazing at the impressive array of stars, when he marveled, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth, who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!” As he considers his own smallness in light of the immensity of the universe, he marvels, “What is man, that You remember him, or the son of man that You are concerned about him?” David stands amazed as he realizes that, in spite of man’s insignificance compared to the vast universe, God has appointed man below the angels to rule over creation.

The phrase, “a little lower than the angels,” is ambiguous. It can mean either “by a small degree” or “for a short time.” The former sense fits the psalm as applied to man, who lacks the supernatural powers of the angels. The latter sense fits the psalm as applied to the Son of Man, who laid aside His glory for a short time to take on human flesh while on this earth (Philip E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 85). He retains His humanity forever, but when He ascended, He took back His glory (John 17:5; Rev. 1:12-18).

As the Psalm unfolds, God created man as the apex of His creation, giving him great glory and honor. He gave man a position of authority, to rule over all other creatures. Adam and Eve were in a perfect environment, enjoying perfect fellowship with their Creator. Man’s original high position of honor shows how utterly inexcusable the fall was! What more could Adam and Eve have wanted? What did they lack? They had position, prestige, and power over everything on earth! Yet, they wanted more, to be like God Himself.

After citing the line of the Psalm, “You have put all things in subjection to his feet,” the author of Hebrews explains, “For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him” (2:8). The question is, does “him” refer to man or to Christ? It probably refers to man in the first place, but also beyond man to Christ as the representative Man (F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 37). As Bruce explains (ibid.), “The writer confesses that it is not easy to recognize in man the being whom the psalmist describes as ‘crowned with glory and honor’ and enjoying dominion over all the works of the Creator’s hands.” But, as he will explain in verse 9, man’s failed purpose is fulfilled in Christ. The author refers to that failed purpose in 2:8b:

2. God’s original intent for man was hindered by our fall into sin (2:8b).

The fall looms behind the words, “But we do not yet see all things subjected to him.” The author, then, is saying that Psalm 8 had reference to the first Adam, created in God’s image to have dominion over His creation. Everything without exception was to be subject to man. That was God’s original intent, but that is not what we now see. Man fell through sin, thus thwarting the fulfillment of everything in creation being subject to him.

As a result of the fall, God ordained that the earth would be cursed, so that man would have to till it by the sweat of his brow (Gen. 3:17-19). Adam and Eve were put out of the garden, losing their place of dominion. The human race became subject to sickness, injury, and death. The effects of sin infected the entire race, so that Adam and Eve’s first son murdered his brother. Man became subject to what we call “natural disasters,” such as earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, drought, and extremes of heat and cold.

John MacArthur describes it this way (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Hebrews [Moody], p. 57):

Man lives in jeopardy every hour. Just at the height of professional achievement, his brain may develop a tumor, and he becomes an imbecile. Just at the brink of athletic fame, he may be injured and become a helpless paralytic. He fights himself, he fights his fellowman, and he fights his earth. Every day we read and hear of the distress of nations, of the impossibility of agreement between statesmen in a world that languishes in political and social conflict—not to mention economic hardship, health hazards, and military threats. We hear the whine of pain from dumb animals and even see the struggle of trees and crops against disease and insects. Our many hospitals, doctors, medicines, pesticides, insurance companies, fire and police departments, funeral homes—all bear testimony to the cursed earth.

Even if we look beyond man as the reference in 2:8b, to Christ as the representative Man, we do not yet see all things subjected to Him. That idea ties back to 1:13, where the Father says to the Son, “Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.” That has not yet happened. In God’s sovereign plan, He allows wicked men and nations to rage against His Messiah in this present age. But the day is coming when He “shall break them with a rod of iron” and “shatter them like earthenware” (Ps. 2:9). This leads to the third link in the author’s thought:

3. God’s original intent for man will be realized through Jesus Christ (2:9).

The order of thought here follows Paul’s treatment of Jesus’ humiliation and glory in Philippians 2:5-11. There, Jesus who existed in the form of God emptied Himself of His glory, took on the form of a servant, and became obedient to death on a cross. Therefore, God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.

Here, Jesus, the eternal Son of God (Hebrews 1) humbled Himself by taking on human flesh, becoming “a little lower than the angels.” But He didn’t stop there. He submitted to “the suffering of death,” “so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” As a result, He is now “crowned with glory and honor.” To “taste death” means not to nibble at it but, rather, to experience death to the fullest degree. “Everyone” refers to all that will experience the benefits of Christ’s death through faith, the “many sons” whom He will bring to glory (2:10).

The risen Jesus chided the two men on the Emmaus Road for not believing in all that the prophets had spoken. Then He said, “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:26). Peter said that the prophets sought “to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow” (1 Pet. 1:11). In other words, Jesus’ death was not unforeseen. The Old Testament prophets had predicted His death and after it, His glory.

This was God’s ordained means of rescuing the fallen human race from the ravages of sin and restoring us to the place of His original intention. If we are in Christ through faith, then we are seated in the heavenly places in Him. If He is now crowned with glory and honor, then we share that glory and honor, although we do not yet see it (Heb. 2:7; Ps. 8:5). When He comes again to reign in His kingdom, we will reign with Him! That is our glorious destiny in Christ!

To recap, Christ’s incarnation and death did not in any way imply His inferiority to angels. This is supported by the fact that God ordained that man will rule angels in the world to come. Psalm 8 shows that this was God’s original intent. That intent was hindered by the fall, but now has been recovered in the second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ. Through His death, resurrection, exaltation on high, and coming again to reign, we will reign with Him.

Conclusion

Hopefully, you now understand the flow of thought in this text. How should we apply these verses practically?

First, we should not let present trials cause us to neglect our great salvation, because one day we shall reign with Christ. A. W. Pink (An Exposition of Hebrews [electronic ed.], Ephesians Four Group: Escondido, CA, p. 97) said, “The practical bearings of this verse on the Hebrews was: Continue to hold fast your allegiance to Christ, for the time is coming when those who do so shall enter into a glory surpassing that of the angels.” In other words, we need to develop and maintain the eternal perspective of our glorious destiny in Christ so that we can endure joyfully our present trials. If Jesus had to suffer first and then enter His glory, so do we. God used suffering to perfect His Son (2:10), and He does so with us. Jonathan Edwards was right: we should focus often on the shortness of life in light of eternity.

Victoria was Queen of England from 1837 to 1901. When she was young, she was shielded from the fact that she would be the next ruling monarch of England, lest this knowledge should spoil her. When her teacher finally let her discover that she would one day be Queen of England, Victoria’s response was, “Then I will be good.” Her life would be controlled by her future destiny.

Our situation should parallel hers. Our future destiny is that we will reign with Jesus Christ, not for a few years, but throughout eternity. Our knowledge of that should enable us to endure present hardships and trials. We should live as set apart unto Christ because we look ahead to our glorious destiny.

Second, by faith we should see Jesus and marvel at what He did for us and that we are now in Him (2:9). He left the splendor of heaven and not only took on human flesh, but also went to the cross on our behalf! “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” (Charles Wesley). That is why our Lord ordained Communion, so that we would remember Him and what He did on the cross for us. Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).  Paul daily saw Jesus, who endured the cross on his behalf. And, he saw himself in Christ, so that all the benefits of Christ’s death applied to him. That is how we should live each day.

Third, if you feel weak, despised, or insignificant in this evil world, take courage! In Christ, we are more than conquerors. Although it is difficult to fathom, in the ages to come we will reign with Christ in His kingdom. It doesn’t really matter what the world thinks of you. What matters is what God thinks of you. If you have trusted Christ as the One who bore your sins on the cross, then God has imputed His righteousness to you. You are purified from your sins. You can know that although you are just a speck on planet earth, which is just a speck in this gigantic universe, God cares for you and has a purpose for your life. That purpose transcends the short life we have in this body, and extends through eternity in our glorified bodies that we will receive when Christ returns.

But there is a final truth that may apply to some: If you are not in Christ, you should greatly fear. Though He is now despised and ignored by millions around the world, the day is coming when they will cry out for the rocks to fall on them and hide them from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb (Rev. 6:16). He is that chief cornerstone, which the builders rejected. If you build your life on Him, you will find a sure foundation for every storm in life (Matt. 7:24-25). But if that Stone falls on you, it will scatter you like dust (Matt. 21:44). “Do homage to the Son, that He not become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him” (Ps. 2:12).

Discussion Questions

  1. How, practically, can we keep our focus on our eternal destiny in the midst of life’s problems?
  2. Sometimes Psalm 8 is used to teach the unbiblical concept of “self-esteem.” Was David’s response to these truths to glorify himself or God? Is it proper to have a sense of significance as those created in God’s image?
  3. To what extent do the effects of the fall remain in believers? To what extent are these effects removed?
  4. Is the Christian life just “pie in the sky when you die”? To what extent should we experience the abundant life now? What exactly does that mean?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 6: Why Jesus’ Death Was Fitting (Hebrews 2:10)

Although there are many that oppose capital punishment, when a notoriously evil person, such as a terrorist or mass murderer, dies, most of us would say, “It was fitting that he die.” After all, he was responsible for the deaths of many innocent people. Capital punishment serves justice and warns those who may consider committing a similar crime that they will be executed. And so we can rightly say, “It was fitting for that despicable man to die.”

But we would be shocked if someone whose father had died of natural causes said, “It was fitting for him to die.” Or, consider a good man who never did anything to hurt others. To the contrary, he did many good deeds to help those in need, even at great personal cost. He always took kind interest in those whom society rejected. He had a special love for children. He labored to the point of exhaustion in serving others. If this kind of man were executed, how could anyone say, “It was fitting that he die?”

But that is precisely what the author of Hebrews says about the death of Jesus Christ. He says that it was fitting for God to put His own Son to death (2:10). This verse must have jarred his Jewish Christian readers! They were struggling with the offense of the cross. Although they had believed in Jesus, they were being tempted by unbelieving Jews who said, “How could Jesus be the Messiah if He died? Our Messiah will conquer all our enemies, not die. Your Messiah didn’t die a heroic death or even a normal death. Rather, He died as a common criminal, in the most shameful death imaginable, on a Roman cross! You want us to believe that this Man is our Savior? You’ve got to be kidding!”

So the author is showing why Jesus’ death did not disqualify Him as Messiah and Savior. It did not mean that He was inferior to the angels, who do not die. In fact, Jesus’ death was God’s very means not only to glorify Jesus, but also to bring many sons to glory. It was part of God’s eternal plan. So the author wants to remove the offense of the cross for his readers so that they will not be ashamed to proclaim it as the very power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:23-24) and to rejoice in it. Our text shows that…

It was fitting for Jesus to die in order to effect our salvation in line with God’s eternal plan and His perfect attributes.

Before I started studying this passage, I had planned to cover verses 10-18 in one message. After I dug into it, I shortened it to verses 10-13. But further study made me think, “There’s more than enough in verse 10 alone for one message!” The author gives us five reasons why it was fitting for Jesus to die. I hope to deepen our understanding of the glory of the cross of Christ.

1. Jesus’ death was fitting because it works for God’s glory in accord with His eternal purpose.

The author could have just referred to God as God. Why does he here add, “for whom are all things, and through whom are all things”? Leon Morris explains, “The words show that the sufferings of Jesus did not take place by chance. They have their place in God’s great eternal purpose” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:26). The cross did not thwart God’s plan; it fulfilled it.

Peter emphasized this same truth in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost: “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). God’s foreknowledge does not mean simply that God knew in advance what wicked men would do, and passively endorsed their behavior as His plan. Rather, in His eternal purpose God the Father determined to put His Son to death, and yet He is not responsible for the sin of those that did the horrible deed.

This truth is important enough that Luke saw fit to repeat it again in Acts 4:27-28, where in response to the threat of persecution, the early church prayed, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” The cross did not catch God or Jesus off guard. To the contrary, it was the very reason that He came to earth. In John 12:27 He said, “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour.”

When I say that the cross works for God’s glory, I mean that it displays the splendor and majesty of God’s perfect attributes more than anything else in the universe. Glory is a somewhat elusive word to define. The Hebrew word has a root meaning of “heaviness,” and thus of inherent worth or excellence. In the Bible, God’s glory is often portrayed by a bright light, the Shekinah. Thus His glory is the outward, visible manifestation of His inward excellence and infinite worth.

Jonathan Edwards, in his treatise, “The End for Which God Created the World,” gives a four-fold definition of glory (in John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory [Crossway Books], pp. 231-239). First, it denotes a person’s internal excellence or greatness. Second, it refers to the exhibition of the internal glory, often seen as brightness in the case of God. Third, God’s glory is the honor that we, as creatures, accord Him because He has imparted a knowledge of His excellence to us. Fourth, God’s glory is the praise that we give Him. The third point emphasizes our perception of God’s excellence, whereas this point emphasizes our proclaiming it.

When the author says that all things are for God and through God, he means that God is the first and final cause of all that is (see Piper, p. 184). Colossians 1:16 proclaims of Christ, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.” In Romans 11:36, Paul exults, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” (See also, Proverbs 16:4.)

While we must never say that God is the author of evil (1 John 1:5; Hab. 1:13), we must not fall into the error of saying that evil is somehow not under God’s sovereign decree or that evil operates outside of God’s sovereign control. As we have already seen, the worst evil ever committed in the history of the world, the crucifixion of Jesus, was predetermined by God, and yet those who did it are fully responsible. While our finite brains cannot reconcile these things logically, we must accept them as God’s revealed truth.

Also, the phrases, “for whom are all things, and through whom are all things,” teach us that God actively governs His creation. Nothing can happen apart from His governance. He is working “all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). As the humbled King Nebuchadnezzar put it (Dan. 4:35), “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’”

A. W. Pink wrote, “To believe and affirm that ‘for Him are all things, and by Him are all things’ is simply owning that He is God—high above all, supreme over all, directing all. Anything short of this is, really, atheism” (An Exposition of Hebrews (electronic ed., 2000), Ephesians Four Group: Escondido, CA, p. 112).

And yet there are many Christians who deny that God is sovereign in salvation. They claim that to affirm this is to deny so-called “free will” and turn people into robots or puppets. Asahel Nettleton, a preacher whom God used in the Second Great Awakening to bring thousands to Christ, has a sermon on Psalm 97:1, “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice” (Asahel Nettleton: Sermons from the Second Great Awakening [International Outreach], pp.371-376). He raised the objection against the doctrine of election, that it robs people of free will. Then he said,

We will drop the doctrine of decrees—How is it then? Does God operate on the hearts of men, or does he not? If not, then we must not pray that he would do it.

No person can pray for himself without admitting that God can operate on his heart, and yet he be free…. [He then cites several verses that ask God to change our hearts.] But persons ought not to have prayed in this manner, if God could not answer their prayers without destroying their free agency. Ought we to pray that God would destroy our freedom?—that he would make us machines? This no one will pretend. How then can we pray that God would work in us that which is well pleasing in his sight, if as the objection supposes, he cannot operate on our hearts without destroying our freedom? ...

It is a doctrine clearly taught in the scriptures, that a change of heart is absolutely necessary to prepare sinners for heaven. “Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” We are also taught that God is the author of this change. “Born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” But if God cannot operate on the hearts of men without destroying their freedom, then we ought not to pray that God would renew the hearts of sinners. Surely we ought not to pray that God would convert men into machines. However wicked mankind may be, we cannot pray that God would stop them in their career of sin, because he cannot do it without destroying their freedom. When sinners have proud stubborn and rebellious hearts, we cannot pray that God would make them humble, submissive and obedient; because he cannot do it without converting them into machines.

He goes on to ask the question, “does God govern all his creatures and all their actions? Does he govern the actions of wicked men and devils?” He shows that God not only does this—without removing the freedom of sinners and without becoming the author of evil—but that this is a desirable thing, and a cause for rejoicing. Because if God does not govern all creatures, then we are in a desperate situation.

Thus it was fitting for God to put Jesus to death, because it works for His glory in accord with His eternal purpose.

2. Jesus’ death was fitting because it displays God’s perfect attributes.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Why can’t God just forgive sins without the cross? Why does He need to have blood shed in order to forgive? If someone wrongs me, I don’t demand blood to be shed in order to forgive. Why can’t God do that?”

The person saying that does not understand God’s attributes. If God forgave sins without the shedding of blood, it would compromise His perfect righteousness and justice. Justice demands that the penalty for sin must be paid. On a human level, if a man broke into your parents’ home and murdered your mother so that he could steal a few dollars for drug money, you would be outraged if the judge said, “We all make mistakes. Let’s just let it go.” That is not justice! So Jesus’ death was befitting to the character of God.

Consider this a bit further. It befit God’s righteousness and holiness to put His Son on the cross. God never winks at sin or lowers His standard of holiness. He hates sin so much that every wicked thought must be judged. All of the sins of God’s elect were put upon His Son, so that it could be said, “[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). God’s forgiveness never means that He just shrugs it off. Forgiveness means that Jesus bore God’s awful wrath that I should have borne.

Also, the cross befit God’s power (1 Cor. 1:24). The wrath of God is described as the lake of fire burns forever and ever without exhausting His wrath (Rev. 20:10-15). Jesus bore that wrath not on behalf of just one person, or a small group, but on behalf of the many sons that He would lead to glory! All of the sins of all of God’s people for all time were piled on Jesus for those three hours of darkness on the cross, and yet, by God’s strength, He endured!

Also, it befit God’s wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24). How could God uphold His holiness and the just demands of the law, and yet be merciful to sinners? As Paul shows in Romans 3:21-26, the cross allows God to be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

But the cross also befit God’s love and grace. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). F. F. Bruce (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 43) wrote, “ It is in the passion of our Lord that we see the very heart of God laid bare; nowhere is God more fully or more worthily revealed as God than when we see Him ‘in Christ reconciling the world unto himself’ (2 Cor. 5:19).” “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Charles Wesley wrote, “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God shouldst die for me!”

Thus Jesus’ death was fitting because it works for God’s glory in accord with His eternal purpose, and because it upholds God’s perfect attributes.

3. Jesus’ death was fitting because it confirms His perfect humanity.

God perfected the author of our salvation through suffering. What does that mean? Wasn’t Jesus already perfect? Yes, He is perfect in His divine attributes and He is perfect in His moral obedience. But to be qualified as the Captain or Leader of our salvation, He had to experience the suffering that humans go through as a result of the fall. To be our perfect substitute, He had to be without sin Himself, but He had to experience life as a human in this fallen world. To be our perfect sympathetic high priest, He had to be tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin (4:15).

I will deal with this more when we get to 2:18 and 4:15, but when we talk about Jesus being tempted, we must be careful not to project the pattern of our temptations onto Jesus. When we are tempted we are carried away and enticed by our own lusts (James 1:14). But Jesus did not have a sin nature as we do. In His humanity, He was like Adam and Eve before the fall. The trials that Jesus endured were real temptations in the sense that He experienced enticement from Satan to disobey God (Matt. 4:1-11). (The question of whether or not Jesus could have sinned will have to wait until chapter 4. My brief answer is, No!) But, He experientially learned obedience through the things that He suffered (Heb. 5:8). His suffering and death confirmed His perfect humanity and qualified Him as the Captain of our salvation.

4. Jesus’ death was fitting because it confirms Him as the Captain of our salvation.

The word translated “author” (NASB) is used only four times in the New Testament, every time with regard to Jesus (Acts 3:15; 5:31; Heb. 12:2). It is one of more than 300 titles given to Jesus in Scripture (Pink, p. 112). It refers to one who “himself first takes part in that which he establishes” (B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 49). Thus it can be translated “Captain,” “Leader,” or “Pioneer.” Jesus blazed the trail of salvation before us (Bruce, p. 43). As the captain, He did not stay in the rear of the battle, giving orders to His troops on the front lines. Rather, He led the troops out in front, giving us the example to follow. Like Joshua leading Israel into the Promised Land, Jesus goes before His people, leading them to salvation.

John Owen (An Exposition of Hebrews [The National Foundation for Christian Education], 3:387-388) pointed out that Jesus went before us in three ways. He went before us in obedience, completely obeying and fulfilling God’s holy law. He went before us in suffering, leaving us an example to follow in His steps (1 Pet. 2:21). And, He went before us into glory. Through His resurrection He has shown us that death is a defeated foe. Because He went through suffering into glory, He will take His people through the same course. He is leading many sons to glory.

5. Jesus’ death was fitting because it results in God’s bringing many sons to glory.

“Many” emphasizes the great number of the redeemed. Critics of the doctrine of election falsely accuse those who hold to it of believing that only a “select few” will be saved. But the Bible says no such thing! Charles Spurgeon and B. B. Warfield, who both vigorously defended the doctrine of election, also believed that the number of the saved will be greater than the number of the damned (see C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography [Banner of Truth], 1:171; and B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies [P & R], pp. 334-350). Jonathan Edwards wrote, “As much fruit is the glory of the seed, so is the multitude of redeemed ones, which should spring from his death, his glory” (in Piper, p. 236, italics in original).

Jesus prayed that we might be with Him to see His glory (John 17:24). Paul said, “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4). What does it mean to be brought to glory? No one can say, this side of heaven. It means, at the very least, that we will have glorious resurrection bodies, free from sin, sickness, infirmities, and death. It means that we will have a glorious purpose, to be with Christ and to praise and serve Him throughout eternity. “We will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:3).

We can be assured that the Father will succeed in bringing many sons to glory, because it is His work that gets us there. The word “bring” is used in Luke 10:34 of the Good Samaritan, who brought the wounded man to an inn and took care of him. The man was too weak and wounded to bring himself there. The Samaritan did for him what he could not do for himself. “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). Since salvation is God’s work, secured for His people by the death and resurrection of His Son, He will succeed in spite of the onslaughts of the world, the flesh, and the devil against His sons and daughters.

Conclusion

I like the way John Calvin expressed it (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster], 2:1362):

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.

Have you experienced this wonderful exchange personally? It is available to all who will come to the cross of Christ. Let go of the filthy rags of your own righteousness. Confess to God that you are a sinner deserving His wrath. Trust in the death of Jesus as the only acceptable payment for your sins. Then the cross will not be a stumbling block or foolishness to you, but rather the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:23-24). You will boast only in the cross (Gal. 6:14).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the blood of Christ essential to our salvation? Why couldn’t God just forgive us apart from the cross?
  2. How would you respond to a critic who asked, “Does God govern a world that includes child molesters and evil murderers? If He does, He is not good”?
  3. In what sense was Jesus perfected through suffering? In what sense did He not need to be perfected?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 7: Jesus Our Brother and Savior (Hebrews 2:11-15)

Many years ago, I came to the realization that ideas drive the world. Karl Marx had some ideas about politics and the economy, called Communism, that held millions under its sway for the better part of the 20th century. Over a billion Chinese are still under that ideology. Quite often, the man in the street is unaware of the philosophic underpinnings for his behavior, but he is still very much influenced by certain prevailing philosophies and ideas.

For example, the teenager who dresses in black, mutilates his body, and listens constantly to rock music that exalts death, probably has not read any books on the philosophy of nihilism, but it controls his thought patterns and behavior. Millions of Americans could not articulate the philosophy of post-modernism, but it governs their daily lives. Wrong ideas can have devastating effects.

That is why I am committed to sound doctrine. Our ideas about God, man, sin, and salvation greatly affect the way we think, feel, act, and relate to one another. Sound doctrine produces healthy minds, hearts, and relationships. False doctrine results in wounded minds, hearts, and relationships.

Several years ago, I read a book titled The Cruelty of Heresy [Morehouse Publishing, 1993], by C. FitzSimons Allison, an Episcopalian bishop. In trying to communicate to his students the importance of the early church councils and creeds, Allison began asking the question, “What happens to someone who follows heretical teachings?” He says (p. 17), “It became quickly and readily apparent how cruel heretical teachings are and how prevalent the heresies are in contemporary times.” Then he makes this astute observation:

We are susceptible to heretical teachings because, in one form or another, they nurture and reflect the way we would have it be rather than the way God has provided, which is infinitely better for us. As they lead us into the blind alleys of self-indulgence and escape from life, heresies pander to the most unworthy tendencies of the human heart. It is astonishing how little attention has been give to these two aspects of heresy: its cruelty and its pandering to sin (ibid., italics his).

The Letter to the Hebrews begins by spelling out the vital doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ. In chapter one, the author makes it clear that the Son of God is distinguished from the Father, and yet is fully God. “He is the radiance of [God’s] glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). He goes on to show that the Son of God is higher than the angels, whom He created and who worship and serve Him (1:4-14).

In chapter 2, after a brief exhortation, the author sets forth the truth that Jesus is also fully human. As the Cappadocians, a group of early church fathers, affirmed, “What he (Christ) did not assume he could not redeem” (Allison, p. 107, citing Gregory of Nyssa, Against the Eunomians, 2.10). To redeem people, Jesus had to assume human nature in its entirety, yet without sin.

In the early centuries of the church, there were several heresies regarding the person of Christ. All heresies contain some truth, but they emphasize those truths to the neglect of other biblical truths. The Docetic (from the Greek, dokeo, “to seem”) heresy affirmed Jesus’ deity, but denied His true humanity. They could not accept that, as God, Jesus really suffered. So they taught that He only appeared to suffer. A modern version of this heresy is Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science cult, which teaches that suffering and even death are illusory and only exist because we lack faith (Allison, p. 30).

The Arian heresy denied Jesus’ true deity, and declared that He was an intermediate deity, neither fully God nor fully man. Arius affirmed that Jesus was God’s agent in creation, but he taught that Jesus was the first created being and was therefore subordinate to the Father. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are modern Arians.

Apollinarius joined with Athanasius in fighting the Arians, but he went too far by asserting the unity of Christ’s person as God, but at the expense of His true humanity. He did not go as far as the Docetists, in denying Jesus’ physical existence or His suffering. But he limited Jesus’ humanity to the physical, and taught that His soul and mind were divine only. Jesus had a human body, but His nature was not human, but divine. This is also called the Monophysite (= “one nature”) heresy (Allison, pp. 107).

All of these imbalances were worked out at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which affirmed that Christ is one person with two natures, the divine and the human, in unchangeable union. It maintained the unity of Christ’s person, while distinguishing between His two natures, which are not confused or abolished because of the union (J. H. Hall, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter Elwell [Baker], p. 204).

All of this is background to our text, which affirms the humanity of Jesus. The author is showing that …

As the Captain of our salvation, Jesus became man in order to bring us to God.

The Puritans used to structure their sermons as “Doctrine” and “Use,” which meant, “application.” I think that their approach is helpful with this text, and so I follow it here:

The doctrine: Jesus became man to save us.

There are three points here:

1. As a man, Jesus’ death secured our salvation (2:11a).

The word “for” directs us back to 2:10, where he said that God saw fit “to perfect the author of [our] salvation through sufferings.” To save humans, Jesus had to assume full humanity. But, for His suffering and death to have merit before God, Jesus had to be fully God. In the incarnation, He did not lay aside His divinity, although He set aside His glory and He temporarily gave up the use of some of His divine attributes (omniscience, for example, John 11:34; Matt. 24:36). But He did fully assume our human nature.

In verse 11, Jesus is the one who sanctifies, which requires His being without sin. In Hebrews, the verb, “to sanctify,” refers to the whole of salvation, not just to the aspect of progressive holiness (see 9:13; 10:10, 14, 29; 13:12). As Hebrews 10:10 puts it, “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” F. F. Bruce explains (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 45), “By His death they are consecrated to God for His worship and service and set apart for God as His holy people, destined to enter into His glory. For sanctification is glory begun, and glory is sanctification completed.” Philip Hughes explains (A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 103), “the ‘sanctification’ of which our author speaks is intimately connected with and flows from Christ’s priestly offering of himself on the cross. His consecration of himself is the source of our consecration (cf. Jn. 17:19).” The present tense participles in 2:11 “mark the continuous, personal application of Christ’s work,” both “in the individual soul and in the whole body of the Church” (B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 50).

The author says, “both He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all from one” (“Father” has been added by the translators, but it is really an interpretation). Some (as the NASB) interpret this to refer to our common spiritual bond in God, but the context favors viewing it as a reference to our common human nature (see Hughes, pp. 104-105). The difference is that Jesus was holy and thus the sanctifier, whereas we are sinful and thus the object of His sanctification, which He accomplished on the cross. The main point is that Jesus had to assume our human nature fully in order to offer Himself as our substitute on the cross.

Before we leave this point, let me apply it briefly: There is no such thing as salvation apart from sanctification. It’s all one package. When we get saved, we are set apart unto God. The actual working out of that holiness takes a lifetime, which invariably includes setbacks when we yield to sin. But the point is, every true believer is involved in the process of growing in sanctification, or holiness. As we’re commanded in 12:14, we are to pursue “the sanctification, without which no one will see the Lord.” It is not optional for believers to do battle against the flesh! Holiness is bound up with the very notion of salvation.

2. Jesus’ humanity is so complete that He is not ashamed to call us brethren (2:11b-13).

Because Jesus took our humanity on Himself, He is not ashamed to call us brethren. In verse 14, it states that as God’s children, we share in blood and flesh (literal order in Greek; it probably has no special significance; see Hughes, p. 110, note 101). But Jesus “partook” of the same. Here a different verb and verb tense are used; the meaning is that the children naturally share in humanity (blood and flesh), but Jesus, at a fixed point in time, chose to partake of humanity (Bruce, p. 41, note 55). He existed eternally as God, but in the incarnation, He added a human nature and body to His deity, in order to redeem us. If Jesus were only a man, and not God, neither verse 11 nor 14 would make sense. Why would a man be ashamed to call fellow men “brothers”? Why would a man need to partake of human nature? Jesus’ deity is assumed behind both verses.

The author goes on to support his point about Jesus’ oneness with our humanity by quoting three Old Testament texts (from the Septuagint, the Greek translation), each of which makes a slightly different point.

A. As our brother, Jesus proclaims God’s name to us (2:12).

Verse 12 quotes from Psalm 22:22. Psalm 22 is one of the most obviously messianic psalms in the Bible. It describes in detail a death by crucifixion centuries before that was known as a means of execution. Jesus cited Psalm 22:1 from the cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The psalm goes on to describe the mocking of those who witnessed the crucifixion, the physical agony of the victim on the cross, and even the gambling for his clothes on the part of the soldiers. This section ends with the cry, “Save me from the lion’s mouth,” and the confident affirmation, “From the horns of the wild oxen You answer me” (Ps. 22:21).

Then, the next verse is the one quoted in our text: “I will proclaim Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise.” There has been an obvious, radical change between verses 21 and 22, and we know that that change was the resurrection. God’s name refers to His character and attributes, and here, especially, to His grace and mercy as seen in the cross. The word “brethren” in the first line of this verse is parallel to “congregation” in the second line, which is the Greek ekklesia, usually translated “church” in the New Testament. Jesus’ brothers are the members of His church, those who are redeemed by His blood.

Two unrelated observations before we move on: First, the fact that Jesus calls us His brethren should cause us to marvel and draw near to Him as One who understands our humanity. But, we should refer to Jesus as our brother only in the most reverent and careful manner. While we should draw near in fellowship to Christ, we should never be too casual about our relationship with Him. Yes, we can marvel that He condescends to call us His brothers and sisters, but we must always remember that He is Lord. It would be as if you were a private in the army, and a general told you to call him by his first name. You may do that in certain situations, but on the base, around other soldiers, you should respect his office and always refer to him as the general. It would be arrogant for a private to be too chummy with the general. It would be a mark of humility for the general to call the private his brother.

Second, notice that Jesus sings! I don’t often think of Him in that way, but here He says, “In the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise.” We know that after the Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn before they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:30). If you want to know the words that they sang, you will find them in Psalms 115-118, the last part of the Hallel (they sang the first part, Psalms 113-114 before the Passover meal). We don’t know the tunes! But if Jesus sang God’s praise, and did it right before He went to the cross, as His people we, too, should sing God’s praises, even when we face trials.

B. As our brother, Jesus shows us practically how to trust God in the midst of trials (2:13a).

The second quote probably comes from the LXX of Isaiah 8:17 (it could be from 2 Sam. 22:3), with the third coming from Isaiah 8:18. This is a messianic section of Isaiah. Isaiah 7:14 is the familiar prophecy of the virgin bringing forth a son whose name would be Immanuel. In 8:14, it mentions that the Lord would become to Israel “stone to strike and a rock to stumble over” (see Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:8). In 9:6 is the well known prophecy, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

The point of this quote, where Messiah says that He puts His trust in God,” is that in His humanity, Jesus depended on the Father for all things (John 5:19; 14:10). We see this supremely in His prayer life, since prayer is an expression of our complete dependence on God. As a man, Jesus demonstrated for us how we are to live, taking everything to God in prayer, trusting God for His sustenance and strength in every situation.

C. As our brother, Jesus is the Son of God and we are the children of God (2:13b).

Even though the quotes come from successive verses in Isaiah, the author adds, “And again,” because he is making a different point. This quote may place Jesus in the role of Father (not brother), with the church as His children. Or, if Jesus is still viewed as our brother, then He is speaking as God’s Son, thanking the Father for the spiritual children that the Father has given to Him, who are thus His brothers and sisters. Jesus is uniquely God’s Son by eternal generation. We are God’s children by the new birth, which God bestows on us through Christ (John 1:12). Either way, the point of the quote is that Jesus is identified with those He came to save. In John 6:37, Jesus refers to those who come to Him as those whom the Father gave to Him. Here, He calls us His children, whom God has given Him (John 13:33; 21:5). We can be sure that Jesus will not lose any of the children that the Father gives to Him (John 6:39). We are more precious to Him than any earthly father’s children are to him, because Jesus gave His life so that we could join His family!

The first doctrinal point is that Jesus’ death secured our sanctification. Second, Jesus’ humanity is so complete that He is not ashamed to call us brethren. Finally,

3. Jesus’ humanity and victory over death frees us from the power and fear of death (2:14-15).

This section goes to the end of the chapter, but for sake of time, we must close here. The fact of the incarnation is emphatically stated here, along with its purpose, “that through death, [Jesus] might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” The bodily resurrection of Jesus is implicit behind these verses. If He had remained in the grave, He could not have rendered the devil powerless, nor could He have freed us from the power and fear of death. Those statements assume His victory over death through His resurrection.

Satan is described as the one who had the power of death. This does not mean that he has the power to kill people at will. The risen Christ holds the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:17, 18). God determines the length of each person’s life (Ps. 139:16) and He alone has final authority in this matter (Job 2:6; Luke 12:5). But Satan tempted Adam and Eve to sin, and through sin, death entered this world. Satan was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). He delights in seeing people die outside of Christ, because they then join him in hell throughout eternity, which is the second death (Rev. 20:14-15).

Through His death and resurrection, Jesus paid the penalty of spiritual death that we had incurred through sin. Thus He delivers us from Satan’s domain. Though believers still die physically, spiritually they are delivered from the second death. Thus Satan’s power is broken. In Christ, we do not need to fear death any longer. As Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

Thus, the main doctrine of our text is that Jesus became man in order to save us. He took our humanity in order to bear the penalty for our sins. But this is only true for those who are His children through the new birth, to those who believe on His name (John 1:12-13).

The application: The fact that Jesus became man to save us should cause us to draw near to Him in times of trial and to proclaim His name, even in the face of persecution.

Remember, the Book of Hebrews was written to a suffering church that was facing persecution. They were tempted to give up their profession of Christ and retreat to their old, more comfortable ways. But the author is showing them the excellency and supremacy of Jesus Christ so as to say, “You can’t go back!” If Jesus is eternal God who took on human flesh to die for our salvation, you can’t turn back to any other system of belief. He is God’s final word to us (1:2). He entered glory only after suffering; you must be prepared to follow the same path.

The doctrines of Jesus’ deity and humanity are not just nice theological points for intellectual debate. They are precious truths to sustain our souls in the trials of life! Whenever we face trials or are fearful of death, we have a personal refuge in our Brother who is our Savior! Jesus suffered in the flesh and was triumphant through His trust in God. “Since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (2:18).

Also, since in spite of our many sins and shortcomings, Jesus is not ashamed to call us brethren, we should not be ashamed to proclaim Him as Savior and Lord in this evil world, even if it results in persecution for us. Even if we die for our faith, we have a sure hope of being with Him throughout eternity.

Coming back to our starting point, I hope you see that sound doctrine matters greatly! As Baptists, I fear that we have gotten away from the great creeds, confessions, and catechisms that were learned verbatim by earlier generations of Christians. I close with the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):

Question 1: What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto him (in The Creeds of Christendom, ed. by Philip Schaff [Baker], 3:307-308).

Discussion Questions

  1. Some say that doctrine just leads to spiritual pride and division; thus it should not be emphasized. How would you reply?
  2. Modern evangelicals are prone to believe in God as they want Him to be, not in God as revealed in His Word. What dangers does this expose us to? How can we avoid this propensity?
  3. How can a believer who fears death overcome this fear?
  4. Where is the proper balance between Jesus as our Brother and Jesus as the Lord to be feared?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 8: Why Jesus Became a Man (Hebrews 2:16-18)

If we were to go out on the streets and ask people at random, “What is your greatest need?” we would probably hear a number of responses. Some would say, “My greatest need right now is to get a decent job. I can’t pay my bills and get out of debt in my current situation.” Others may say, “My greatest need is that I’m lonely. I need a mate or some good friends.” Others might say, “My family is a war zone. My husband is abusive towards the kids and me; the kids are defiant and disrespectful. We need peace in our home.”

If we went to a poor country, like India or Bangladesh, the answers to our question would center more on raw survival: “I am starving. I need food!” “I’m dying of a disease that is treatable, but I can’t get the proper medicine.” “I live on the streets. I need a roof over my head.”

Without denying the legitimacy of any of those needs, according to the Bible, the people giving those answers are blind to their greatest need. Their greatest need is for God to forgive their sins and give them eternal life. They need to learn how to live in accordance with God’s Word, so that their lives bring glory to Him. Without this focus, we could meet all of the perceived needs, but their greatest need would go unmet. If they were to die, they would spend eternity in hell.

I just read K. P. Yohannan’s powerful book, Revolution in World Missions [gfa books]. He grew up in India and didn’t wear shoes before he was 17 (p. 55). He has preached the gospel all across India. He is not oblivious to India’s oppressive poverty. But he strongly contends against getting distracted with meeting physical needs, but ignoring the spiritual needs. He says that India has seen 150 years of schools and hospitals brought to them by British missionaries, but it has not had any noticeable effect on either their churches or society (p. 103, 110).

Yohannan says that it is one of Satan’s lies that people will not listen to the gospel unless we offer them something else first (p. 109). He has sat on the streets of Bombay with beggars who are about to die. He has told them that he does not have material goods to give them, but he has come to offer them eternal life, and he has seen many respond. He says (p. 111),

There is nothing wrong with charitable acts—but they are not to be confused with preaching the Gospel. Feeding programs can save a man dying from hunger. Medical aid can prolong life and fight disease. Housing projects can make this temporary life more comfortable—but only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can save a soul from a life of sin and an eternity in hell!

Thus our emphasis should always be first and foremost on evangelism and discipleship. Social concern is a result of the gospel. We must not put the cart before the horse (pp. 106, 99).

This relates directly to our text. Many would read these verses and think, “This isn’t relevant to my needs. I’ve got to find a job. I’ve got to solve my personal problems. I’ve got a number of issues pressing in on me right now. These verses don’t relate to me.”

But the greatest need for us all is for a high priest to reconcile us as sinners to the holy God. Verse 17 shows how Jesus is that merciful and faithful high priest. If Jesus is your high priest, then your greatest need is to learn to live in victory over the power of sin, which will destroy your life if left unchecked. Verse 18 shows how Jesus is able to come to your aid when you are tempted.

To review, in chapter 1 the author demonstrated to his readers, who were tempted to leave Christ and go back to Judaism, how Jesus is God’s final word to us. As the Son of God, He is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature. He upholds all things by the word of His power (1:3). He is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high, supreme over all angelic beings (1:4-14). After a brief exhortation not to drift (2:1-4), he shows that Jesus is not only the eternal Son of God, He is also fully human. God’s original intent was for man to rule over the earth, but that was hindered by the fall (2:5-8). By His incarnation and death for our sins, Jesus recovered what we lost in the fall (2:9-10). As the Captain of our salvation, Jesus became man in order to bring us to God (2:11-15). Our text continues the theme of Jesus’ humanity, showing us why He became a man:

Jesus became a man so that as our high priest, He could offer Himself for our sins and come to our aid when we are tempted.

He makes three points:

1. Jesus became a man, not an angel, because He came to save men (2:16).

The author is wrapping up his argument that he began in 2:5, that God put man on the earth to rule, and that the role of angels is “to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation” (1:14). The word “for” (2:16) relates to the previous two verses, about Jesus freeing us from the power and fear of death. There is debate about the meaning of the word translated, “give help.” It literally means, “to take hold of” (NASB, margin). It is used of Jesus taking hold of Peter when he was sinking after walking on the water (Matt.14:31; see also Mark

The early church fathers uniformly interpreted it to refer to Jesus’ taking hold of human nature in the incarnation (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 115). In this sense, the verse means, “Jesus did not take to Himself the nature of angels, but rather He took on the seed of Abraham,” that is, He became a Jew in fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to Abraham. About the 17th century, some commentators began to interpret the verse to mean that Jesus does not give help or assistance to angels, but rather to people. In this view, “the seed of Abraham” refers to those who are Abraham’s true children by faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:7).

The difference does not seem that great to me. The first view emphasizes the fact of the incarnation, whereas the second emphasizes its purpose. The extended context discusses both the fact and the purpose of the incarnation. Thus I understand the sense of the verse in context to be: “While the Messiah is God, and thus superior to the angels, He also had to become man so that He could suffer and die for our salvation. He did this in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, that through his seed, He would bless all peoples. So don’t look to any angelic Messiah, and don’t despise the fact that Jesus suffered and died. He had to do this to atone for our sins.”

Before we move on, let me point out that this verse refutes an objection raised by those who deny the doctrine of God’s sovereign election. They argue that if God does not choose everyone, then He is unloving and unjust (C. H. Spurgeon refutes this error in his sermon, “Men Chosen—Fallen Angels Rejected,” New Park Street Pulpit [Baker], 2:293; Dave Hunt promotes this error in What Love is This? [Loyal], pp. 111-112, 114-115). If they are wrong, they are also guilty of blasphemy, because they are accusing the Sovereign God of being unloving and unjust!

They are wrong, for at least two reasons. First, it is plain from Scripture and history that God did not make His salvation equally available to all people in all places. He chose Abraham, but not Abraham’s extended family and not anyone else in any other place on earth. He later chose Abraham’s descendants through Isaac and Jacob, not because they were more deserving than others, but simply because He chose to do it (Deut. 7:6-8). This meant that God chose to reject Ishmael, Esau, and their descendants (Deut. 7:1-5). As far as Scripture reveals, all the other peoples in the world in the centuries before Christ only had the general witness of creation, which is not sufficient for salvation. God permitted them to go their own ways, but He didn’t reveal to them the truth about the Savior to come, as He did to the Jews (Acts 14:16-17).

Second, our text makes it clear that God did not provide for nor offer salvation to fallen angels (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). He could have devised a way to offer salvation to the angels that joined Satan in his rebellion, but in His sovereign purpose, He chose not to do this. Would we dare say that this negates His love and justice? Can the fallen angels bring a charge against God because He didn’t give them a way out of their condemnation? Of course not! And neither should rebellious people claim that God is unloving or unjust if He chooses some as vessels of mercy, but demonstrates His wrath and power on others as vessels of wrath prepared for destruction. As the Potter, He is free to do with the clay whatever He chooses to do, and we are not free to challenge Him (Rom. 9:19-24). I contend that the main problem with those who reject God’s sovereign election is not just deficient theology. They are not in submission to God’s claim to be the sovereign over His creation.

Anyway, the author’s main point in 2:16 is that Jesus became a man, not an angel. As the next verse makes clear, He did it to provide salvation to men.

2. Jesus became fully human for a specific purpose, to become a high priest to offer Himself for our sins (2:17).

Verse 17 makes three points:

A. Jesus became fully human for a specific purpose.

The verse reads, literally, “Therefore, He was obligated to be made like His brethren in all things, …” The obligation relates to the purpose that the rest of the verse delineates, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. And, as verse 18 states, as a result of His complete humanity, which included His being tempted, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.

But the significant words in this opening phrase are, “in all things.” This refutes the Docetic heresy, that Jesus only seemed or appeared to be human. No, He adopted a complete human nature, yet without sin (4:15). His body had normal human needs (for food, rest, etc.), human emotions (although not sinful emotions), and human limitations (His body was not omnipresent, although in His deity He is omnipresent). A. W. Pink (Commentary on Hebrews [Ephesians Four Group], vol. 1) states firmly that since Jesus was not subject to sin, He was not subject to illness. I’m not sure that this is a necessary inference, since He did live in this fallen world (harmful germs are a result of the fall) and He was subject to death. So I don’t know if Jesus ever had a cold. But clearly God protected Him from any illness that would have hindered His accomplishing His ministry.

B. Jesus is our merciful and faithful high priest in the things pertaining to God.

This is the first mention of Jesus as our high priest in Hebrews, which is the only book in the New Testament to mention this truth. It is a vital concept for us to grasp, but we are at a disadvantage in that we did not grow up under the Jewish system. The Jews knew that they could not approach God directly. They had to come to Him through the priest, who would offer their sacrifices on their behalf. He represented them in everything pertaining to God. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would represent the entire nation by entering the Holy of Holies and presenting the blood on the mercy seat. If anyone else dared to enter that sacred place, or even if the high priest went in there on any other occasion, it meant instant death (Lev. 16:2). Thus the role of the high priest was essential so that the nation could be cleansed from its sins each year (Lev. 16:30).

Have you ever thought about what an expensive hassle it would have been to be required to bring a sacrifice to the priest every time you sinned? It would have been embarrassing, too! All the neighbors stop to look up from what they’re doing as you trudge toward the tabernacle with your sacrifice. “There goes Steve again! You’d think he would learn! I wonder what he did this time?” But, as our author will develop later, Jesus offered His own blood once and for all, so that there is no need for continuing sacrifices (7:27; 9:12; 10:11-14). This must have been a huge relief to believing Jews! Jesus is our permanent, final high priest, who offered Himself once and for all for our sins! Thank God!

But He wasn’t just any kind of high priest. He is a merciful high priest. That describes His motive in going to the cross (Hughes, p. 120). He had compassion on us as sinners. This means that we should never hesitate to draw near to our Lord for fear of rejection, or for fear that He will not understand. Although He will discipline us as a loving Father (12:5-11) for our good, He is never harsh or lacking in compassion. As David put it (Ps. 103:13, 14), “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust.”

John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Hebrews, p. 75) explains that a priest needed to be merciful so that he could help the miserable, raise up the fallen, and relieve the oppressed. Jesus, of course, did not need any experience to become merciful, but the trials that He endured assure us that He understands our trials. As Calvin puts it, “it is a rare thing for those who are always happy to sympathize with the sorrows of others.” He adds, “Therefore whenever any evils pass over us, let it ever occur to us, that nothing happens to us but what the Son of God has himself experienced in order that he might sympathize with us; nor let us doubt but that he is at present with us as though he suffered with us” (ibid.).

Jesus was also a faithful high priest. This refers to His faithful obedience to God in all things, culminating in His perfect obedience in going to the cross. He always trusted in and obeyed the Father, even to the point of death on the cross. You can trust in a faithful person completely. He will never let you down. So the character of Jesus as merciful and faithful invites us to draw near to Him in our every need. But that is especially true in the greatest need that every person faces:

C. Jesus’ offering of Himself on the cross satisfied God’s wrath for our sins.

He became fully human “to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” The NIV translates it “atonement”; the RSV has “expiation.” Atonement and expiation refer to the cancellation of sin, whereas propitiation refers to the turning away of God’s wrath. John Owen pointed out that there are four elements in propitiation: (1) an offence or crime to be taken away; (2) a person offended, to be pacified or reconciled; (3) a person offending, to be pardoned; and, (4) a sacrifice or other means of making atonement (An Exposition of Hebrews [The National Foundation for Christian Education], on Heb. 2:17, p. 476).

The notion of God’s wrath is not popular. User-friendly churches don’t mention it. Liberals argue that it was borrowed from the pagan idea of appeasing an angry god with a sacrifice. But it occurs no less than 585 times in the Old Testament (Leon Morris, “Propitiation,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter Elwell [Baker], p. 888), and more than 30 times in the New Testament. Jesus often spoke in frightful terms about the future judgment (Mark 9:48; Luke 16:19-31). The Gospel of John (3:36) speaks of the wrath of God abiding on the one who does not obey the Son. Paul spoke often of God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18, plus nine other times in Romans; 2 Thess. 1:7-9). The Book of Revelation is filled with horrifying images of the wrath of the Lamb (6:16).

God’s wrath is not an angry outburst, but rather His active, settled hatred and opposition to everything evil, arising out of His holy nature. The Bible states that God not only hates sin; He also hates sinners (Ps. 5:5; 11:5). While as fallen sinners, we are to love even our enemies (Luke 6:27), we also are warned with some to “have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh” (Jude 23). We who love the Lord are commanded to hate evil (Ps. 97:10).

The important point is that if we diminish the wrath of God against all sin, we also diminish the love of God for His people. What God’s holy justice required, His love and mercy provided, in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). As Philip Hughes exclaims (p. 120), “Our hell he made his, that his heaven might be ours. Never was there such mercy, never such faithfulness, as this!” So we must hold firmly to the biblical idea that Jesus became a man to offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice that the wrath of God demands for our sins.

The chapter ends with a practical consequence of Jesus’ becoming a man:

3. Because Jesus became a man, He is able to come to our aid when we are tempted (2:18).

Because Jesus was fully human, He was fully tempted, although not in the same sense as those who have a sin nature. He was tempted in the same sense that Adam and Eve were tempted before the fall. We would be wrong to assume that because Jesus never fell into sin, He doesn’t understand the depths of our temptations. As Hughes explains (p. 124), Jesus “knows the full force of temptation in a manner that we who have not withstood it to the end cannot know it. What good would another who has failed be to us? It is precisely because we have been defeated that we need the assistance of him who is the victor.”

The Greek verb translated “come to the aid” means to run to the aid of those who cry out for help. Imagine a parent who hears his or her child cry out, “Help me!” We would drop what we were doing and run to help our child. That is the picture here of our merciful high priest. It also means that we are responsible to cry out to Him when we are tempted, and to flee when necessary. God’s Word promises, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).

Conclusion

What is your greatest need? I hope that you see that your greatest need is to be reconciled to the holy God. Have you come to Jesus in faith that He is your propitiation, the one who bore the penalty that you deserve? If not, the wrath of God abides on you! Do not rest until your faith is in Jesus as your high priest!

If you do know Him as your high priest, are you crying out to Him for help when you are tempted? Do you know experientially the consistent deliverance from sin that is yours in Christ? He is your merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God. He is able to come to your aid when you are tempted!

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the biblical answer to the charge that God is not fair if He does not choose everyone for salvation?
  2. Why is it essential to affirm Jesus’ full humanity? What are the practical ramifications?
  3. Why is it essential to hold to the doctrine of God’s wrath against all sin? What do we lose if we compromise here?
  4. Where is the balance between God’s responsibility and ours when it comes to overcoming temptation?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 9: To Endure, Consider Jesus (Hebrews 3:1-6)

I won’t ask for a show of hands, but there are probably many of you who made New Year’s resolutions that have already fallen by the wayside. It’s easy to begin a diet, but it’s tough to stick to it when tempting foods are set before you! It’s easy to begin an exercise program, but it’s not so easy to work out when your body is screaming, “You deserve a break today!”

Or, more seriously, it’s easy to begin a marriage. You’re in love, you’re young, you’re healthy, and you think, “How could I ever have problems with this wonderful person?” But as we who have been married for many years know, it’s not so easy to sustain a loving marriage when the problems of life press in.

The same is true of the Christian life. It’s easy to trust in Christ and receive eternal life as a free gift. Such a deal! In our culture, it’s usually easy to confess your faith in Christ through baptism. In Muslim or Hindu cultures, it can mean giving up your family and friends, and perhaps your life. But in America at present, it’s fairly easy to be baptized. At first it’s easy to join a local church. It’s wonderful to be a part of a loving body of believers.

But, as those of us who have been Christians for a while know, it’s not easy to endure. The Christian life is warfare against the powers of darkness, and there are many casualties. Yielding to sin brings down many. Others drift gradually, neglecting to spend time daily with the Lord. The crud of the world gradually builds up, like the salt and dirt on our cars during the winter months when it’s difficult to wash them. Soon they are far from the Lord.

Others seem to do well for a while, but they lose their first love and settle into a humdrum Christian existence. Others fall away because they get wounded by fellow Christians who spread half-truths about them, or who treat them poorly. At first they claim to be following Jesus, but their bitterness towards His body, the church, takes a toll. They do not endure.

The Hebrew Christians had begun well. Early in their Christian experience they endured great suffering and persecution. Many had their property confiscated on account of their faith, and they endured it joyfully (10:32-34). But now they were in danger of drifting back into Judaism and neglecting their great salvation in Jesus Christ (2:1-4). So the author is exhorting them to endurance. In our text, his message is simple:

To endure, consider Jesus.

“Consider” means to think about something by taking the time to observe it carefully. Jesus used the word when He told us to consider the ravens and the lilies (Luke 12:24, 27). We see ravens almost every day, but we don’t usually stop to consider them. Jesus pointed out that they do not sow nor reap. They have no storerooms or barns, and yet God feeds them. He concludes, “How much more valuable you are than the birds!” Why didn’t I think of that? Because I didn’t stop to consider the ravens!

To consider something requires time and effort. It doesn’t happen automatically, especially when you’re busy. But if you take the time to do it, it usually yields rich rewards. We had some friends in California who visited Yosemite. They had heard us raving about its beauty. They told us later that they spent an hour there, saw it, and left. We were stunned! An hour in Yosemite?

I later read about an old park ranger there who was still working in his late eighties. He had literally spent his life exploring and enjoying the spectacular beauty of Yosemite. One day a citified woman hurriedly approached him and asked, “If you had only one hour to see Yosemite, what would you do?” He slowly repeated her words, “Only one hour to see Yosemite.” After a pause, he said, “Ma’am, if I only had one hour to see Yosemite, I’d go over to that log, sit down, and cry!”

How much time did you spend this past week considering the beauty of Jesus Christ? The Bible has page after page revealing His majestic glory. It is our only source of information, by the way. Some Christians make up a “Jesus” in their minds, but He isn’t the Jesus of the Bible. Their Jesus is nice and never judgmental. When they sin, which is often, their Jesus just hugs them and assures them that we all make mistakes. Their Jesus loves them just as they are, which is how they like it, because they don’t want to confront their sins and discipline themselves for the purpose of godliness. The problem is, their “Jesus” isn’t the Jesus of the Bible!

And so our antidote to drifting and our strength for endurance is to see and savor Jesus Christ from His Word. I implore myself first, because I’m prone to drift, and I implore you: Take time to consider Jesus often!

1. Consider Jesus as the Apostle and High Priest of our confession.

“Our confession” refers both to the body of Christian truth that we call “the faith,” and to our heartfelt consent to this truth. The great creeds and confessions of Christian doctrine define in a concise way what we believe. We verbally and from the heart confess that we believe these things. The author mentions two truths about Jesus to consider:

A. Consider Jesus as the Apostle of our confession.

This is the only time in Scripture that this title is applied to Jesus. The name “Jesus” used alone focuses on the humanity of our Savior, which the author has just developed in chapter 2. As a man, born of the virgin Mary, Jesus came to earth in obedience to the Father to fulfill a specific purpose.

“Apostle” literally means, one who is sent under authority. The Gospel of John often refers to Jesus as being sent by the Father (John 3:17, 34; 5:36-38; and others). He came to reveal the Father to us and to accomplish the Father’s purpose, to redeem us by shedding His blood. Jesus said that He did nothing on His own initiative, but He only sought the will of the one who sent Him (John 5:30).

We cannot know God except through Jesus (Luke 10:22). We cannot know about heaven and eternal life, except that One who eternally dwelled there left His glory there and came to reveal these things. Jesus prayed (John 17:6), “I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world.” We have the inspired record of what these men saw and heard in the New Testament. Jesus told the disciples after His resurrection, “all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Those are the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible. Thus the Old and New Testaments point to Jesus, the one who was sent under God’s authority to reveal Him and to accomplish His will.

B. Consider Jesus as the High Priest of our confession.

The author already mentioned this in 2:17 and will develop it at length later. Here he only mentions it in passing, and so will I. The Apostle of our faith brings God down to us; the High Priest brings us up to God. He presented His blood on the mercy seat as the propitiation for our sins, thus satisfying the just wrath of God, so that we are now welcome in His presence.

Although he was never called an apostle, in function Moses fulfilled that role in Israel. God sent Moses under authority to deliver His people from bondage in Egypt. But Moses was not a high priest. That role fell to his brother, Aaron. Jesus fulfills both roles in one. He is our Apostle and High Priest. We must submit to His commands as the authority of God Almighty. We must come before God only through the merits of Jesus’ blood. Think often and carefully of Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession!

2. Consider Jesus as greater than Moses.

From verse 2 through 6b, the author develops the theme that Jesus is greater than Moses. To understand this, you must realize that for the Jews, there was no greater leader than Moses. For them, he was the greatest man in history. God had miraculously preserved Moses’ life as a little baby. God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush and sent him to deliver His people from 400 years of bondage in Egypt. God used Moses to bring the plagues on Egypt and to part the Red Sea for the deliverance of the Jews. He struck the rock in the wilderness to provide water. He went up on the mountain to commune face to face with God and receive the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the elaborate instructions for the Tabernacle. Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, showing Israel how to live before God.

On one occasion, even Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, challenged his leadership. God came down in a pillar of cloud and said (Num. 12:6-8),

Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, shall make myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak with him in a dream. Not so, with My servant Moses. He is faithful in all My household; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly, and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?

When the cloud had lifted, Miriam had become leprous! Moses graciously cried out to God to heal her, which He did. In all of the history of the Jews, there was none greater or held in higher esteem than Moses.

But Moses was not perfect, and the author could have focused on his mistakes. But he does not do that. Instead, he begins by showing that…

A. Both Jesus and Moses were faithful men (3:2).

Twice (3:2, 5) the author cites Numbers 12:7, that Moses was faithful in all God’s house. As Paul said (1 Cor. 4:2), “it is required of stewards that one be found [faithful]” (same Greek word). A faithful man lives all of life, including his inner thought life, with a God-ward focus. As Paul told the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 2:3-6), he didn’t come to them with flattering speech or a pretext for greed. Then he interjected, “God is witness.” Paul said that he spoke, “not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts.” He knew that God knows our every thought and motive. So he wasn’t playing to the crowds. He sought to please God in everything that he did, whether in public or in private. That is the key to being faithful.

The author’s point here is that both Jesus and Moses were faithful men. He compares rather than contrasts them because he knew that his audience thought highly of Moses and because God Himself commends Moses as a faithful man. In Exodus 35-40, there are 22 references to Moses’ faithfulness to God (John MacArthur, Jr., Hebrews [Moody Press], p. 82). Jesus, of course, was more faithful than anyone, including Moses, because He never failed even once. But the author begins with this comparison. Then he goes on to show how Jesus is greater than Moses.

B. Jesus is worthy of more glory than Moses, as the builder of the house is greater than the house (3:3-4).

The main point here is that although Moses was a great leader, he was just a member of God’s house, but Jesus was the builder. Verse 4 clarifies that God is the builder of all things. Since Jesus is the builder of God’s house (2:3), Jesus is God. As the author began this epistle, it was through Jesus that God made the world (1:3).

So without in any way demeaning Moses, who was a great leader, the author is saying, “Jesus is in a totally different class! Moses was a faithful leader in God’s house, but Jesus built the house. If you marvel at how Israel became a nation after 400 years in slavery, and you’re amazed at how God used Moses to lead them out of Egypt, marvel still more at the fact that it was Jesus who designed the whole program! He called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees and promised to bless all nations through his descendants. He revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush. He was with Israel in the wilderness in the pillar and cloud. He fed them with manna and gave them water from the rock (see 1 Cor. 10:1-4). While Moses is worthy of honor, Jesus is worthy of far more glory. So don’t turn back from Jesus to following Moses or you’ll be turning from God Himself to mere man.”

C. Moses was faithful as a servant over God’s house, but Jesus was faithful as the Son (3:5-6).

The Greek word for “servant” is used only here in the New Testament. It comes from the Septuagint of Numbers 12:7, and has the nuance of one who serves voluntarily (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 108). The contrast is, although Moses was great, he was only a servant, whereas Jesus is the Son of God, the heir of all things.

As a servant, Moses’ role was to testify “of those things which were to be spoken later” (3:5). All that Moses wrote looked ahead to Jesus, who rebuked the Pharisees, saying, “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46). Moses was just a servant, pointing ahead to the heir, who is Jesus. And so the argument is, “Don’t go back to Moses. Consider Jesus, because He is greater than Moses.”

Probably none of us are tempted to turn back to Moses, but we are easily tempted to turn to good things in such a way that we miss the best. Some believers emphasize obedience, and certainly obedience is a good thing. God forbid that we not obey His Word! But sometimes those who emphasize obedience start adding things that go beyond God’s Word and they fall into legalism. They camp on minor issues, but neglect the majors. They push man-made rules or standards as if they were binding on all Christians. They take pride in their conformity to these rules, and look down on those who don’t keep them. Jesus confronted the Pharisees, who were meticulous about tithing even their table spices, but who neglected “the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).

I have seen others who emphasize Bible knowledge or correct theology, and again, those are very important things. But if our Bible knowledge and theology do not lead us to know and worship Jesus Christ more fully and to submit our hearts more completely to Him, we’ve traded the best for the good. If we take pride in our great knowledge and look down on those who are not as enlightened as we are, we’re off track. True knowledge of the supremacy of Jesus leads to humility, not pride.

So, consider Jesus! To endure the many trials and temptations of the Christian walk, consider Jesus as the Apostle and High Priest of our confession. Consider Jesus as greater than Moses.

3. Consider also what Jesus had made us.

It is significant how the author addresses his readers:

A. Jesus has made us “holy brethren” (3:1).

The name “brethren” probably points back to 2:11, where he said that Jesus is not ashamed to call His people brethren. It brings out the close relationship that we enjoy with our Savior. The adjective “holy” looks back to the same verse, where he says that Jesus is the one who sanctifies and we are the sanctified. Both terms come from the word that is translated “holy.” It refers to those who are set apart unto God from the world. The apostle Paul often addresses God’s people as “saints,” which means, “holy ones.” “Saints” are not a special class of extraordinary Christians, who deserve special recognition. All who know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord are saints or “holy brethren.”

There are three senses of sanctification, or holiness. In the sense we are considering, we have once for all been set apart unto God at the moment of salvation. In an ongoing sense, we are progressively being sanctified as we grow in godliness. In the future sense, when we see Jesus, we will be totally sanctified forever, so that we will never again sin. If we would keep in mind our present position as saints or holy brethren, it would help us to say no to temptation and to live as people who are set apart unto God.

B. Jesus has made us partakers of a heavenly calling (3:1).

The author of Hebrews uses the word “heavenly” more often than any other New Testament book (6 times: 3:1; 6:4 [gift]; 8:5 [sanctuary]; 9:23 [things]; 11:16 [country]; 12:22 [Jerusalem]). “In all cases, the ‘heavenly’ is contrasted with the earthly, and in all cases the heavenly is the superior, the real as compared with the shadow” (Donald Guthrie, Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [IVP/ Eerdmans], p. 97). Our calling is heavenly in that it comes from heaven and it culminates in heaven. The initiative comes from God, who calls us to be His “called-out ones” (ekklesia, the Greek word for “church”). To be partakers of a heavenly calling means that our focus must be on heaven and the blessings God has promised us there, not on the things of this earth.

C. Jesus has made us His house (3:6).

“House” is used seven times in this paragraph. It is a metaphor for God’s people, in whom He dwells (Eph. 2:19, 22; 1 Tim. 3:15; 1 Pet. 2:4-5). The Bible never calls a church building “God’s house.” God’s people are His house. They may gather in a barn or an open field or a house or a building constructed specifically for worship. But the building isn’t sacred; the people are sacred! We are to be built together into a holy temple of the Lord, a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:21-22).

All of this is very comforting, but then the author throws in one of those uncomfortable warnings: “if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope.” (The phrase, “firm until the end” was probably not original and was inserted from 3:14; Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [United Bible Societies], second ed., p. 595). F. F. Bruce explains the “if” clause (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 59):

Nowhere in the New Testament more than [Hebrews] do we find such repeated insistence on the fact that continuance in the Christian life is the test of reality. The doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints has as its corollary the salutary teaching that the saints are the people who persevere to the end.”

He goes on to cite the parable of the sower, where the seed thrown on the rocky ground made a good showing at first, but then faded away in the hot sun, because it had no deep roots. Jesus interpreted this to refer to those who welcome the word with joy at first, but are only temporary, because “when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17). As Bruce explains, this is precisely what the author of Hebrews fears will happen with his readers. Thus he emphasizes repeatedly the need for bold confidence and joyful hope.

Conclusion

The Christian life is not a 100-yard dash; it’s a marathon. That name comes from the decisive Battle of Marathon, where the Greeks fought the Persians. If the Persians had conquered, the glory that was Greece never would have been known. Against fearful odds, the Greeks won the battle. A Greek soldier ran all the way, day and night, to Athens with the news. He ran straight to the magistrates and gasped, “Rejoice, we have conquered!” Then he dropped dead. He had completed his mission and done his work (William Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon [Westminster Press], pp. 210-211).

It is significant that when Paul wrote his final letter to Timothy, he did not report on how many he had won to Christ, how many churches he had planted, or how many evangelistic campaigns he had conducted. He said simply, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). He fought and he finished—he endured! If you want to join his ranks, take time often to consider Jesus.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is important to derive our understanding of Jesus from the Bible alone, not from personal experience or popular ideas?
  2. What are some practical ramifications of Jesus being the Apostle of our confession?
  3. What are some practical ramifications of Jesus being greater than Moses?
  4. Many Christians are bitter towards the church and prefer to worship “outside” the church. Why is this not God’s plan?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 10: A Warning Against Hardness of Heart (Hebrews 3:7-11)

If you have been a Christian for very long, you have watched someone make a profession of faith in Christ, followed by dramatic changes in his life. It’s exciting to see his new joy. But then a difficult trial hits. His faith is shaken. He stops coming to church and begins to avoid other Christians. Soon he is back into his old ways. And you wonder, “What happened? Was his conversion genuine? Can Christians lose their salvation?”

Jesus explained what I just described in the parable of the sower. He said that the seed of the gospel falls on four kinds of soils: the hard road; the thin soil over a hard rocky layer; the soil infested with thorns; and, the good soil. I just described the seed that fell on the rocky soil. In Jesus’ words, “When they hear the word, immediately [they] receive it with joy; and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:16-17). Neither they nor the thorny ground persevere to bear fruit unto eternal life.

The author of Hebrews is concerned that his readers may be the rocky soil that withers under affliction or persecution. They were in danger of going back to a more comfortable life in their old Jewish religion because of the imminent threat of persecution in their newfound Christian faith. So as he concludes his comparison showing Jesus’ superiority over Moses, he says that we are God’s house, but then adds, “if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope” (3:6).

He continues by illustrating his point with a story from Jewish history that all of his readers knew well, the story of Israel in the wilderness. He quotes the latter half of Psalm 95, which in its entirety was the call to worship in the Jewish synagogues. It tells about a people who had been redeemed from Egypt by applying the blood of the Passover lamb to their homes. They had been “baptized” into Moses through the cloud that enveloped them and through the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:2). They had eaten the heavenly manna and drank water from the rock. Seemingly, they were a “redeemed” people. Yet, as Paul states, “with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness” (1 Cor. 10:5). As he goes on to say, “these things happened as examples,” so that we would not fall into their same sins.

The author of Hebrews uses this story to make the same point. He is warning us against the soul-destroying sin of hardness of heart. He is saying,

To avoid hardness of heart, we must submit our hearts to God’s Word and God’s ways, especially in times of trial.

We can divide our text into four lessons:

1. To avoid hardness of heart, we must submit to God’s authority through His inspired Word.

He begins, “Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says,” and then quotes from Psalm 95. In 4:7, he mentions that David was the human author of the psalm, but here he emphasizes that it was really the Holy Spirit who spoke and who continues to speak to us (“says” is present tense). This means:

A. What the Bible says, God is saying to us now.

Although the author isn’t directly speaking to the issue of the inspiration of Scripture, his attributing Psalm 95 to the Holy Spirit shows his implicit belief that God inspired Scripture. The Holy Spirit used human authors, but He is the divine voice behind all Scripture.  As Peter explains, “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:21). Or, as Paul puts it, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (literally, 2 Tim. 3:16). Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans], 1:154) wrote,

On this subject the common doctrine of the Church is, and ever has been, that inspiration was an influence of the Holy Spirit on the minds of certain select men, which rendered them the organs of God for the infallible communication of his mind and will. They were in such a sense the organs of God, that what they said God said.

The starting point for avoiding a hardened heart is to recognize and submit to God’s authority through His inspired Word. If we sit in judgment on the Word, criticizing the things we don’t agree with as outdated or in error, our hearts are challenging God. To learn from God, we must submit to His inspired Word.

B. We should learn from the biblical stories how to avoid the sins of those who lived before us.

As Paul says, these things “were written for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11). We disobey or ignore them to our own peril. The starting point is that we hear His voice (Heb. 3:7). “To hear” in Hebrew often has the nuance of not just hearing sounds, but also of obeying what we hear. In this regard, it is amazing how many Christians never read the Old Testament. They are unfamiliar with the many stories of triumph and tragedy that are recorded there for our instruction in the faith.

The story behind Psalm 95 (Heb. 3:7-11) is recorded in Exodus 17. Israel had just come out of Egypt through God’s mighty deliverance. They went three days into the wilderness and found no water, except bitter water. Did the people say, “Well, God didn’t go to all the trouble of delivering us from Egypt so that we would thirst to death in this desert”? No, they grumbled at Moses. He cried out to God, who showed him a tree. When he threw it into the water, it became sweet (Exod. 15:22-25). Exodus 16 tells how God provided manna to feed Israel each day.

You would think that after these gracious miracles, the people would have implicitly trusted God. But then you come to Exodus 17, when again they came to a place where there was no water. Rather than asking God to provide, the people quarreled with Moses and put God to the test. God instructed Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and water gushed forth. Moses named that place Massah (= a test) and Meribah (= a quarrel). The Greek translates the Hebrew, “as at Meribah,” into, “as when they provoked Me” (3:8a). It translates, “As in the day of Massah,” into, “as in the day of trial” (3:8b).

The last part of the Psalm, referring to God’s swearing in wrath that they would not enter His rest, probably refers to Numbers 14, when the people grumbled after the report of the spies. In spite of all that God had done, they were ready to stone Moses and return to Egypt, when God intervened. On that occasion, He swore that all that had grumbled against Him would die in the wilderness, and thus not enter the land of rest. Only Joshua and Caleb, who believed God, were spared. The point is, we should learn from their sins and do differently!

C. God’s Word speaks directly to us today.

Says is in the present tense. “Today, if you hear His voice…” This very day, God speaks to us through His Word! Today lends a sense of urgency to this message. It says, “Don’t put off obedience to a more convenient time. Now is the day of salvation! Now is the time God is speaking to you. Don’t ignore Him! You may not get another opportunity!”

We have to apply Scripture to our lives in line with proper rules of interpretation, or we may misapply it. Before we apply it to ourselves, we need to figure out what it was saying to the original hearers in their historical context. We need to compare Scripture with Scripture, and interpret the text in its context. For example, we are not under the Jewish laws of sacrifice or cleansing. But there are lessons in these things that do apply to us who have seen the fulfillment of them in Christ. To sum up this point: to avoid hardness of heart, we must come to God’s Word with submissive hearts, ready to obey His will.

2. To avoid hardness of heart, we must make sure that our hearts are in proper relationship to God.

Note 3:8, “Do not harden your hearts,” and, 3:10, “They always go astray in their hearts.” In the Bible, the heart refers to our total inner being—the mind, the emotions, and the will. As Proverbs 4:23 warns us, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”

A. All sin begins in the heart.

Jesus taught, “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). We tend to look at the outward man, but God looks on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).

For example, we see a man in ministry, who preaches God’s Word. He serves the church selflessly. He seems so kind and caring. Suddenly, he falls into adultery and we are shocked. How could this happen? We didn’t see that in his heart, he was lusting after women and was not judging his sin. He was not walking in holiness before God in his thought life. What came out in his behavior stemmed from his heart. This is one of the most helpful lessons I have learned about the Christian walk: all sin begins in the heart. If you deal with your thought life before God, you stop sin at the root.

B. Our hardness of heart stirs up God’s anger and incurs His severe judgment or discipline.

God says that He was angry with the generation in the wilderness (3:8). This word has the nuance of being disgusted with, or loathing someone. He swore in His wrath (3:11). Wrath refers to God’s settled, passionate opposition to sin. God is not passive when it comes to sin. If we profess to be His children, but have not truly repented of our sins (as was the case with many who perished in the wilderness), God’s eternal wrath is upon us (John 3:36). If we are truly His children through faith in Christ, then Jesus bore God’s wrath for us on the cross, so that we do not need to fear His eternal punishment. But we should fear His discipline, which is never pleasant (Heb. 12:6, 11). He disciplines His children in love, that we may share His holiness. But He can get pretty rough if He has to! If we judge our own hearts, we will avoid God’s discipline (1 Cor. 11:27-32).

Thus, to avoid hardness of heart, we must submit to the authority of God’s Word and we must do business with God on the heart level.

3. To avoid hardness of heart, we must recognize and submit to God’s ways.

God says of Israel in the wilderness, “They did not know My ways” (3:10). He says (Isa. 55:8-9), “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’” The only way that we can know God’s ways are as He has revealed them to us in the Scriptures.

A. We are responsible to learn and submit to God’s ways.

We can’t plead ignorance. We can’t protest, “But, God, I didn’t know that You were working in that way!” These people in the wilderness should have known God’s ways. But since they didn’t know His ways, they didn’t submit to them. The time to learn God’s ways is before we get into a difficult situation (Prov. 1:20-33). If we neglect wisdom when we have opportunity to learn it, we will be overwhelmed when we get into a crisis without it.

B. God’s ways sometimes reveal His mighty power, but miracles alone will not change a stubborn heart.

Those who went astray had seen some of the greatest miracles that God has ever done. They saw the ten plagues in Egypt. They witnessed the Red Sea part for them and close up again on Pharaoh’s army. They had seen God provide water and manna already in the barren Sinai desert. God emphasizes that for forty years they saw His works (3:9). If miracles alone could soften hard hearts, these people should have been mighty in faith! But they weren’t.

You hear people say, “If I just saw a miracle, I’d believe.” Sometimes God does use miracles to bring people to saving faith. But often, those words are just a smokescreen. The skeptic is just making an excuse so that he can continue in his sin. The rich man in Hades pled with Abraham to send someone to his brothers and warn them, so that they would not come to that place of torment. Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” The rich man replied, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” Just let them see a miracle! But Abraham answered, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:27-31).

C. God’s ways often involve situations of extreme trial for His people.

Remember, His ways are not our ways. He often works in an upside down sort of way that seems strange to us. Again, His Word reveals His different ways to us so that we will recognize them when they actually happen to us.

Consider God’s ways in delivering Israel from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. To pull this off, He needs a strong Jewish leader. Pick a man who has been raised in Pharaoh’s household, trained in all of the wisdom of the Egyptians, a man powerful in word and deed (Acts 7:22). So far, so good! Then, have this man fail in a colossal manner and spend the next forty years of his life tending sheep out in the wilderness. Whoa! Then, when God calls him to his task, He will harden Pharaoh’s heart repeatedly, so that he will make the Israelites’ task harder and will refuse to let them go.

Once he lets them go, march Israel to the Red Sea, where they’re helplessly trapped for Pharaoh’s strong army. Once they get through this crisis, lead them out into the barren desert, where there is no water. When they find water, make it bitter water. Rather than lead them directly into the Promised Land, an eleven-day journey (Deut. 1:2), take them on the “scenic route,” a forty-year journey through the barren desert. That was God’s way with His chosen people! He wanted to teach them to trust Him and learn warfare (Exod. 13:17).

Regarding Canaan, God could have sent a plague to wipe out the wicked Canaanites. Israel then could have moved in and lived happily ever after. Instead, God required Israel to fight many difficult battles to get rid of the Canaanites. Later, when Israel needed a prophet, God’s way was to make a woman barren. There were many women with children in Israel, but God’s way was to bring a woman to desperation, where she knew that she could not produce a son. When she cried out to God, He gave her Samuel, who became His prophet (1 Samuel 1 & 2). Later, when God wanted a man after His heart to be on Israel’s throne, He didn’t pick the man whom Samuel would have picked. He chose the youngest of Jesse’s sons, a teenage shepherd, named David. Then, rather than putting him on the throne immediately, God had his chosen one run for years, in fear of his life, from the mad King Saul.

I could multiply examples, because they are all through the Bible. God’s ways usually involve bringing His people to the end of themselves, so that they know that their trust must be in Him alone. If we do not know His ways, when we are put in the wilderness with no water, or when we are barren with no strength to produce anything for God, we will be prone to grumble, as Israel did. So we must learn to know His ways through His Word.

D. When we are confronted with God’s ways, we have the choice of submitting to Him or grumbling and going back to the world.

Psalm 95:1-3 reads, “O come, let us sing for joy to the Lord, let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms. For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” The warning of our text comes after seven verses of praise. The choice is clear: rejoice in the Lord by faith, or grumble and turn back to the world (Egypt).

The apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians demonstrates the proper response to God’s ways. He was in prison in Rome on false charges. Fellow Christian leaders in Rome were criticizing him and preaching out of envy. As God’s great apostle to the Gentiles, Paul easily could have complained about his unfair, difficult circumstances. And yet he wrote, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Phil. 2:15). The words “rejoice” or “joy” occur over 15 times in this short letter. It’s not a coincidence that the Greek word for “attitude” also occurs ten times. Our attitude of submission and trust in God will lead us into joy, even in the midst of great trials. An attitude of pride and self-centeredness leads to grumbling, where we resist God’s ways and turn back to the world.

E. To refuse to submit to God’s ways is to put God to the test.

God says, “your fathers tried Me by testing Me” (3:9). At the root of testing God is the sin of unbelief (which we will examine in more detail next week). When God promises something and we face trials that seem to negate His promise, we again are faced with a choice: Is God faithful to His word or not? Granted, we’re in a barren desert with no water. Granted, there are huge giants that live in the land. In ourselves, we are completely unable to deal with these problems. Will we trust in God and His promises, or will we allow the problems to cause us to grumble and not take God at His word? If we do not submit to God’s ways and trust in His word, we put Him to the test, which is normally not a good thing to do! (There are rare exceptions; see Mal. 3:10.)

Thus, to avoid hardness of heart, we must submit to God’s authority through His Word. We must make sure that our hearts are properly submitted to Him. We must recognize and submit to His ways of dealing with us. Finally,

4. When we submit to God’s Word and His ways, we enter into His rest.

We will deal with this more in chapter 4. But for now, note 3:11. God’s oath refers to His settled determination that those who rebelled in the wilderness would not enter the land of Canaan (Num. 14:21-36). When God swears in His wrath, we had better believe that He means business! There is no rest for the soul that is under God’s wrath!

God’s rest had an initial reference to Israel’s settling into the land of promise, but it also has a spiritual fulfillment, as we’ll see in chapter 4. Leon Morris (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:35) says that God’s rest refers to “a place of blessing where there is no more striving but only relaxation in the presence of God and in the certainty that there is no cause for fear.” God’s spiritual rest comes to the person who “does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).

Conclusion

One of God’s ways that is most unlike our ways is the cross. Jesus, the sinless Son of God died as the sacrifice for ungodly sinners. God justifies the ungodly through faith alone. That runs counter to human pride.  Have you trusted in Jesus’ blood alone as your hope for heaven? Is your heart in submission to God’s Word and His ways, especially when those ways involve a trip through the barren wilderness? Your heart is either hardening against God because you are resisting His sovereign ways with you, or it is growing softer toward God because you are submitting to His Word and His ways. Your response to trials reveals your heart. Send down spiritual roots, deep into the fertile, moist soil of God’s Word, so that you can endure when the hot sun of affliction beats down on you!

Discussion Questions

  1. Since God’s Word does not all apply directly to us, how can we be sure that we are applying it properly?
  2. Since the sinful heart is deceitful (Jer. 17:9), how can we know when our hearts are properly submissive to God?
  3. Why do God’s ways often involve trials for His people? Is it wrong to pray for these trials to be lifted? Why/why not?
  4. Why is grumbling about our circumstances a serious sin? What does it really reflect?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 11: Persevering in Faith (Hebrews 3:12-19)

One of the most controversial issues among Christians is, “Can a believer lose his salvation?” Our emotions can get involved, since most of us have loved ones who at one time made a profession of faith in Christ, and perhaps were even involved in some ministry. But today they are far from the Lord. We wonder, “Is this person truly saved?” Our hearts want to say “yes,” but there are scary verses, such as several in our text, that make us hesitate.

Among evangelicals, there are three main camps. Consistent Arminians would say that this person was saved, but he lost his salvation. These folks view salvation primarily as a human decision. If your decision to believe gets you in, your decision to deny the faith puts you out. I dismiss this view as indefensible in light of many Scriptures that promise security to God’s children (such as Rom. 8:1 & 29-36).

Among those who hold that believers cannot lose their salvation, there are two main camps. Some argue that perseverance is not necessary for salvation to be secure. Their motto is, “Once saved, always saved.” They argue that to make salvation require perseverance makes it depend on works. And they argue that if final salvation depends on perseverance, then assurance of salvation is impossible. What if I fall away in the future? And so they say that all that matters is that a person once believed in Christ.

This view shares with the Arminian view the idea that faith is a human decision. It is not a gift that God imparts to those He regenerates. Rather, faith is like a lever that we pull. Once we pull it, all the benefits of salvation come pouring out, and we can’t stop the process. We can walk away and say that we don’t want those benefits, but they still belong to us. How we live after we believe has nothing to do with our eternal destiny or security.

The other main view is that of Reformed theology, that saving faith is God’s gift, imparted to us when He saves us. Salvation originates with God and depends totally on His purpose and power. Since He promises to complete what He began to the praise of His glorious grace, all of God’s elect will persevere in faith unto eternal life. This view, which I believe is the truth, holds that there is such a thing as false faith. It is possible for some who profess faith in Christ later to fall away from the faith, thus demonstrating that their faith was not genuine. But saving faith, by its very nature, perseveres. Continuance in the faith is the evidence that our faith is from God, and not from man.

This is not to say that persevering faith is effortless or automatic. God ordains the means as well as the ends. God’s sovereignty in salvation never negates human responsibility. God elects all whom He saves, but the elect are responsible to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ. Although God promises that His elect will all finally be saved, we are exhorted to persevere in faith. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are not at odds!

Our text is a strong exhortation to persevere in the faith. Genuine believers will heed the warning and hold fast their faith in times of trial. False believers will grumble against God and fall into sin and unbelief when trials hit, just as many in Israel did in the wilderness. So the author exhorts the church (“brethren,” 3:12) to “hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end” (3:14). He shows us four aspects of persevering faith:

To persevere in faith, there is a great sin to avoid, a great service to practice, a great salvation to hold to, and a great story to personalize.

1. To persevere in faith, there is a great sin to avoid (3:12).

If I were to ask you to name what you consider to be the very worst sins, we would probably hear mass murder, genocide, child molestation, cannibalism, and degraded sexual practices. Unbelief probably would not occur to us. But it’s on God’s list of terrible sins: “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, …” (3:12).

A. To avoid this terrible sin, we must see how evil unbelief really is.

If we shrug it off as no big deal, we won’t be on guard against it. If I told you that there is a stray cat on the loose outside, you’d say, “No big deal.” You wouldn’t be cautious about encountering this wild animal. But if I mentioned that the stray cat was a hungry lion, you’d be a bit more careful! Consider five aspects of unbelief that should cause us to be on guard against it:

1). Unbelief is the worst of all sins, because it is the root of all sins.

Unbelief is behind every other sin that people commit. When Satan tempted Eve in the garden, he got her to disbelieve the word of God: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’” (Gen. 3:1). He was saying, “You really can’t believe that, can you?” If people really believed God, they would not practice any of the terrible sins mentioned earlier, because they would know that they will face His severe judgment. But not believing God, they do as they please. Unbelief is the root of all sins.

2). Unbelief is a sin that hardens the heart.

In 3:13 the author warns that they may be hardened by this sin. He repeats the warning again in 3:15, where he cites again the verse from Psalm 95 (see 3:8). Sin is like the calluses that form on our skin. If we don’t have calluses, our hands are sensitive to any pain. But once calluses form, we can do things that previously would have caused pain, and we barely feel it. Our consciences are that way. The first time we commit a sin, our conscience goes “Ouch!” The second time, it hurts, but not as bad. After a while, we can do it without even being aware that we are sinning. I’ve read of hardened hit men with the Mafia that can shoot a man in the face at close range and then go out for lunch to celebrate. Unbelief hardens our hearts against God’s standards of holiness.

3). Unbelief is a persistent threat to all of God’s people.

In 3:13, the author tells us to “encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today.’” He is referring back to the word “today” in Psalm 95. It warns us that this sin of unbelief is a persistent, daily threat. We may have been strong in faith yesterday, but then we run out of water in the wilderness today. How will we respond? Will we trust God and look to Him in faith to provide, or will we grumble and turn back to the world?

True believers can fall into the sin of unbelief. God had promised David that he would sit on the throne of Israel, but David was running for his life from the mad King Saul. After years of this, David said to himself, “Now I will perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than to escape into the land of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 27:1). That was not a statement of faith in God’s promise! It got David into all sorts of trouble before he finally came to his senses (1 Sam. 30:6). But the point is, believers are not immune from unbelief! Be on guard!

4). Unbelief, like all sin, deceives us.

The author refers to “the deceitfulness of sin” (3:13). Sin fools us into thinking that it will get us out of our current problems and will deliver what we want, and that obedience to God will deprive us of what we want. When David went over to the Philistines, Saul stopped pursuing him. The Philistine king gave David his own city. Instead of living from cave to cave, David and his wives could settle down in a normal way of life. Sin always works that way. It fools us into thinking that we’re getting what we want. But then the bills of sin come due!

You’re single and lonely. There haven’t been any godly men calling you for a date. Satan comes along and says, “You’ll never get what you want if you wait on God! Here’s a nice unbeliever. Go out with him!” Or, you’re having problems in your marriage. Your wife constantly nags you. She doesn’t meet your needs sexually. Along comes a beautiful, sensitive, understanding woman who offers herself to you. Satan whispers, “She will meet your needs!” Sin, including unbelief, always deceives us.

5). Unbelief is inseparable from disobedience.

In verse 12, the warning is against unbelief, but in verse 13, without any shift in subject, he warns against the deceitfulness of sin. In verses 17 & 18, he mentions those who sinned and were disobedient. In verse 19 he explains that they were barred from entering the land because of unbelief. The Bible repeatedly uses “faith” and “obedience” interchangeably (John 3:36; Acts 6:7; Rom. 1:5; 10:16; 15:18; 16:26; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Pet. 1:2; 2:8; 3:1; 4:17). We are saved by faith alone, but saving faith always results in a life of obedience to God (James 2:18-26). If you truly believe God, you will obey Him. If you disbelieve God, you will disobey Him.

Thus to avoid this terrible sin of unbelief, we must see how evil it really is.

B. To avoid this terrible sin we must exercise great caution.

“Take care, brethren” (3:12)! “Look out! Be on guard!” It does not require carefulness to go to hell, but it does require great carefulness to go to heaven. If you’re nonchalant or unconcerned about your soul, the powerful stream of the world, the flesh, and the devil will sweep you into hell. You must strive to enter at the narrow gate of heaven (Luke 13:24). Vigilance and watchfulness are marks of true believers. True believers do not flippantly say, “Hey, don’t worry about a little sin! Once saved, always saved!” True believers examine their hearts often to make sure that they are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). They take care that their hearts do not become evil and unbelieving, so that they do not fall away from the living God.

C. To avoid this terrible sin, we must avoid ritualistic religion and walk closely with the living God.

As we saw last week, Christianity is a matter of the heart before God. It’s easy to put on a good show in front of others, so that they think, “What a godly man Steve is!” I can sing with a loud voice, I can lift my hands in worship, I can pray with intensity, I can partake of communion, and I can even preach sermons with fervency—but it could all be outward! God is the living God (9:14; 10:31; 12:22) who looks on the heart. “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (4:13). The living God knows my every doubt and sinful thought. I can’t fool Him, even for a second! If I want to avoid falling into this terrible sin of unbelief, I must bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. I must confess my doubts as sin and walk in reality before the living God every day. To persevere in faith, there is a great sin to avoid, namely, unbelief.

2. To persevere in faith, there is a great service to practice (3:13).

“But encourage one another day after day, …” The verb can also mean to exhort. The root word has the idea of coming alongside someone to give aid. It is used as a name for the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26, “Helper”). Briefly, note three things about this service of encouragement:

A. Encouragement is a service for every member of the body.

This is not just something that pastors should do. It is a necessary ministry for every member of the body to practice mutually. Sometimes I need to exercise this ministry to someone, but at other times, I will need him to exercise it towards me. This command assumes that you are having personal contact with other believers during the week and that they know what is going on in your life well enough to offer this ministry when you need it. Also, to exercise this service, you must realize that you are your brother’s keeper! If you see your brother being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, and you shrug it off, you are not obeying this command. You are responsible to help your brother who is struggling with unbelief or sin. You can’t keep your distance.

B. Encouragement is a service that is needed daily because the enemy attacks daily.

We are to do this “day after day.” Don’t assume, “Well, I’ll let the pastor deal with him someday, but that’s not my responsibility.” It is your responsibility if you see your brother turning away from the Lord! Since Satan does not let up in his attacks, we must not let up on encouraging one another in the faith.

C. Encouragement is a service that is needed because of the deceitfulness of sin.

A deceived person can’t evaluate himself properly. He thinks that everything is fine when it’s not fine. If you’ve ever been deceived by a con artist, he was long gone with your money before you realized that there was a problem. An outside party could have warned you, “Look out for that guy!” Maybe you would have avoided getting ripped off. Because sin fools us, we need one another to come alongside and give this ministry of encouragement.

To persevere, there is a great sin to avoid—unbelief. There is a great service to practice—encouragement.

3. To persevere in faith, there is a great salvation to hold fast to (3:14).

“For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.” Two things:

A. Salvation unites us to Christ.

“We have become partakers of Christ” (see also, 1:9; 3:1; 6:4; 12:8). Scholars are divided over whether this refers to our sharing with Christ in His kingdom work; or to our union with Christ, what Paul frequently calls, being “in Christ.” While both are true, the context seems to refer to our share in Christ Himself. When God saves us, He places us in Christ so that all that is true of Him is true of us. As Paul boldly states, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

B. While final salvation for believers is certain, it is not auto­matic.

While “partakers of Christ” focuses on what God has done for us by grace, the “if” clause focuses on our responsibility. “The beginning of our assurance” refers to our initial faith in Christ for salvation. Saving faith isn’t just a one-time action. If it is genuine, we go on believing until the time that we see Jesus (“the end”). It is our responsibility to hold fast to such faith and assurance.

In Philippians, Paul presents the same balance. He says that God will complete the good work that He began in us, but at the same time he exhorts us to work out our salvation, recognizing all the while that it is God who is at work in us (Phil. 1:6; 2:12-13). In other words, the promises about the certainty of our salvation should never cause us to kick back and assume that we have no responsibility in the process. Those who truly believe in Christ will continue to hold fast to faith in Him until the end. If they let go of their faith in Him, turn back to the world, and are content to stay there, it indicates that they never really trusted in Him as Savior at all. True believers may go through times of doubt and sin, but they can’t remain there. God’s discipline will bring them back (12:8).

To persevere in faith, there is a great sin to avoid, a great service to practice, and a great salvation to hold fast to. Finally,

4. To persevere in faith, there is a great story to personalize (3:15-19).

The author comes back to the story of Israel in the wilderness, quoting again from Psalm 95: “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.” Then he brings this story home to his readers by asking three sets of two rhetorical questions each (the KJV mistranslates 3:16). The first question in each set is answered by the second question. He wants his readers to see that their situation parallels exactly that of Israel in the wilderness. In 3:19 he sums up his point, tying it back to the idea of unbelief in 3:12.

The first question and answer show that this story applies to all professing believers. Who provoked God when they heard His voice? The same group that Moses had led out of Egypt. While there was a truly saved remnant in that company, most of them grumbled, disbelieved God, and died in the wilderness. The author is saying to all professing Christians, “This applies to you!” Even if we are true believers, John Owen’s comment is apropos: “The best of saints have need to be cautioned against the worst of evils” (Hebrews: The Epistle of Warning [Kregel], p. 53).

The second question and answer show that professing believers who persist in sin should expect God’s anger, not His rest. If we are not true believers, our sin in the face of knowledge will incur God’s final judgment. If we are true believers, our sin will bring on His strong discipline. Either way, you don’t want to go there!

The third question and answer show that those who incurred God’s judgment in the wilderness were not only unbelieving; they were disobedient. As we’ve seen, you cannot separate the two. Unbelief that is unchecked quickly moves into disobedience. Often unbelief is a smokescreen used to hide disobedience. Unbelief is more socially acceptable than sin, so we posture ourselves as struggling with intellectual issues. But beneath the surface, we know that if God’s Word is true, then we need to turn from our sins, and we don’t want to do that. The disobedient who failed to enter God’s rest were one and the same with the unbelieving.

His final summary (3:19) also shows that unbelief renders us not only unwilling, but also unable to appropriate God’s blessings. Either faith opens the blessings of God’s eternal rest to you, or unbelief bars you from them. To persevere in faith, we need to personalize the story of Israel in the wilderness. We need to avoid their awful sin of unbelief that rendered them unable to enter God’s promised rest.

Conclusion

I had a neighbor in California who could be described as an all-out macho man. His face and tattooed arms were tanned from working on a road crew and from riding his motorcycle in the California sun. He had a quick temper. I once heard him from over 100 yards away cussing out the snowplow driver for plowing a berm in front of his driveway. He had copies of Penthouse magazine lying around his house. He never went to church.

One day I got an opportunity to share Christ with him. But he quickly held up his hand to silence me and then said, “Steve, I’ve got that all fixed up with the Man Upstairs.” I’m always worried when someone refers to Almighty God as “the Man Upstairs.” I said, “What do you mean?” He proceeded to tell me that when he was a teenager, he attended a large Baptist church in the Los Angeles area. The youth pastor had told him that if he would accept Christ, he would be assured of going to heaven. He said, “I did that, and so you don’t need to worry about me.” Even though there was not a shred of evidence that he was persevering in the faith, and in spite of much evidence that he was not, he thought that because he had once believed, he had eternal life!

The author of Hebrews had a different view of things. He says that to enter God’s rest, we must persevere in obedient faith. To persevere, we must avoid the great sin of unbelief; we must practice the great service of mutual encouragement; we must hold fast our great salvation in Christ; and, we must personalize the great story of Israel in the wilderness. Take care, brethren!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is unbelief such a terrible sin? Does this mean that true Christians never doubt? Why/why not?
  2. Since sin is so deceptive, how can we recognize and deal with our unbelief? Is unbelief primarily intellectual or moral?
  3. Should we share assurance of salvation with a person who says that he believes in Christ, but who is persisting in sin? What guidelines should we follow here?
  4. Is the criticism valid, that if salvation entails perseverance, then we can never have assurance? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 12: Cultural Religion Versus Saving Faith (Hebrews 4:1-11)

For me, some of the most frightening words in the Bible are Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:21-23:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”

Clearly, Jesus is warning us that it is possible not only to claim to follow Him, but also to serve Him in some remarkable ways—prophesying, casting out demons, and performing miracles—and yet be excluded from heaven! Jesus was not talking about pagans, who spent their lives partying and disregarding God. These were men that had spent their lives serving Him, or so they thought. Their cry, “Lord, Lord,” shows that they professed Jesus as their Lord. Clearly, they were shocked at being shut out of heaven. They expected to get in, but when they got there, the door was barred! If Jesus’ words do not strike fear into your heart, they should!

Both Jesus’ words and the words of our text warn us against the danger of cultural Christianity. Cultural Christians go to church. They claim to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Many of them serve in the church. But on that great and terrible day, they will hear Jesus utter the chilling words, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” I want to explain how to avoid being a cultural Christian and how to be genuinely saved.

Hebrews 4:1-11 is a difficult text to understand. While I think that I am on the right track here, I confess that for many years I could not understand these verses. Many pastors and Bible scholars apply these verses along the lines of how believers can experience God’s peace or rest in the face of trials in our daily walk. I grant that there may be a valid secondary application in that sense.

But as I have wrestled with these verses in their context, I think that to apply them primarily as an encouragement to believers to rest in Christ in the midst of trials is to misapply them. Rather, I think that the main message is:

All who are associated with the church must beware of the cultural religion that falls short of personally experiencing God’s salvation.

In other words, I view them as a warning to professing Christians to make sure that their faith is genuine. I am going to follow the old Puritan approach to sermon structure, first explaining the doctrine and then giving “the use” (applying the text).

Doctrine: the text explained in its context:

Two statements will help us understand the text:

1. The author is not talking about an experience of inner calm that some believers may lack; rather, he is talking about experiencing God’s salvation (Context).

“Therefore” (4:1) takes us back to chapter 3, especially to verses 12 & 19. He is warning against having an evil, unbelieving heart. His readers were Jewish believers in Christ who were tempted in the face of persecution to go back to Judaism. Twice he exhorts them to “hold fast” their confession or assurance of faith (3:6, 14). He cited Psalm 95:7-11, which recounts how the Israelites in the wilderness provoked God and were thereby excluded from entering His place of rest, the Promised Land. They all had applied the blood of the Passover lamb to their doorposts. They all had passed through the Red Sea and escaped from Pharaoh’s army. But even so, with most of them, God was not well pleased, and He laid them low in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:5).

To understand that story correctly, it is important that we not push the typology too far. We would be mistaken to conclude that all of those who came out of Egypt were true believers who were “living in carnality.” I have often heard the story applied in this way. Those in Israel who grumbled in the wilderness are likened to “carnal” Christians. They are saved, but they just haven’t yet moved into Canaan’s land, which is the experience of victory over sin. Sometimes this is phrased that they are still in Romans 7, but they haven’t yet moved into Romans 8. I contend that that is to misapply this story.

Rather, I think that those who rebelled in the wilderness and incurred God’s wrath represent what I am calling “cultural believers.” They were a part of the people of God (Israel), but their hearts were far from trusting in the Lord. Their hearts are repeatedly described as hardened (3:8, 13, 15; 4:7). They were under God’s wrath (3:10, 11, 17, 18; 4:3). Their basic problem is called unbelief (3:12; 4:2), disobedience, and sin (3:17, 18; 4:6, 11).

The author plainly is talking about a person’s response to the gospel, not to an experience of a deeper Christian life. Twice he states that these people, like us, had the good news preached to them (4:2, 6). Even under the Law of Moses, people were not saved by keeping the Law, but by the righteousness of faith (Gen. 15:6; Exod. 34:6-7; Ps. 32:1-2; cf. Rom. 4). But the good news did not profit these people, because it was not united with faith (4:2).

Thus when the author exhorts us to fear, lest we may come short of entering God’s rest (4:1), the thing we are to fear is unbelief and its terrible consequences, namely, eternal judgment. We should fear that like these grumbling unbelievers, we may fall through the same example of disobedience (4:11; cf. 3:17). Either we have entered God’s rest (His salvation) through faith or we are the objects of His wrath through unbelief and disobedience (3:10-11, 16-18; 4:3, 5). If we do not believe God’s promises, those very promises turn into frightening threats of judgment!

So I contend that the context shows us that the author’s pastoral concern was not that some “carnal” Christians in the Hebrew church would miss out on the experience of God’s peace in the midst of their trials. His main concern was that some of them may be like those in Israel in the wilderness. They may be a part of the religious crowd, but not true believers. His concern was for their salvation from God’s wrath through genuine saving faith.

A second statement will help us understand our text:

2. God always has offered His salvation to people, and still offers it, under the imagery of rest (4:3-10).

The train of thought in 4:3-10 is difficult, but I think that the author is explaining from the Old Testament how the imagery of God’s rest has been a picture of salvation in four different time periods.

A. At creation, God’s rest on the seventh day was a picture of the rest that we enjoy in Him (4:3-4).

The author begins by stating, “For we who believe enter that rest.” Then he cites again Psalm 95:11, “As I swore in My wrath, they shall not enter My rest” (see Heb. 3:11). Then he adds, “although His works were finished from the foundation of the world.” He goes on to cite from Genesis 2:2, how “God rested on the seventh day from all His works.” F. F. Bruce (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 74) explains the thought connection: “It was not because the ‘rest’ of God was not yet available that the wilderness generation of Israelites failed to enter into it; it had been available ever since creation’s work was ended.”

In other words, the Jewish Sabbath, which was rooted in the creation narrative, was a picture of the rest that God’s people enjoy through His salvation. It was a day to cease from normal labors and to be refreshed through time with God. It was a weekly opportunity for God’s people to stop and reflect on His goodness and care for them. From the beginning, there was a spiritual element to the Sabbath. The soul in harmony with his creator found a sense of satisfaction and rest on that day.

B. At Canaan, the Promised Land was a picture of the rest that God offers through faith in Him (4:5, 8).

The author repeats (see 4:3) the last phrase of Psalm 95:11, “They shall not enter My rest,” to refer to the generation that perished in the wilderness. In 4:8 he shows that even those who entered the Promised Land under Joshua did not experience the fullness of God’s rest, in that David, over 300 years after Joshua, spoke of the need to enter God’s rest. In the Greek text, Joshua is Iesous, “Jesus,” which means, “Yahweh saves.” So the original readers would have seen the play on the names: the original Jesus (Joshua) was only a type of the Jesus to come. Joshua led the people into the Promised Land, but that was only a picture of the rest of God’s salvation that Jesus Christ provides.

C. Canaan was not God’s final rest, since David wrote of a rest available to God’s people in his day (4:6-7).

Since those in the wilderness failed to enter God’s rest, and since David wrote, “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts,” there is still a day of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of rest. The emphasis here is on the word “today.” The gist of the argument here is that God’s promises always have a present application to them. Even though Israel in the wilderness failed to appropriate God’s rest, God offered it again through David. Every generation has the opportunity to respond in faith to God’s promises. This leads to the bottom line:

D. God is still appealing to us to enter His rest through faith (4:9-10).

The author here uses a unique word for rest, translated “Sabbath rest.” Some think that he coined the word. It calls attention to the spiritual aspect of God’s rest. It goes beyond observing the seventh day as holy. It goes beyond entering the physical Promised Land. This Sabbath rest is a soul-rest. It is what Jesus promised when He said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).

The author says that this rest remains for “the people of God” (4:9). Then he explains that “the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His” (4:10). “The people of God” refers to Israel in the Old Testament, and here to all who are associated with God’s church. Bruce (p. 78) thinks that verses 9-10 refer to “an experience which they do not enjoy in their present mortal life, although it belongs to them as a heritage, and by faith they may live in the good of it here and now.” He refers to the believers in chapter 11, who did not experience the fullness of the promises in their lifetimes, but who were looking for the heavenly city that God prepared for them (11:16).

Leon Morris (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:43) cites Bruce and then comments,

I should reverse his order and say that they live in it here and now by faith, but what they know here is not the full story. That will be revealed in the hereafter. There is a sense in which to enter Christian salvation means to cease from one’s works and rest securely on what Christ has done.

The author’s point here is that from the beginning God has offered His salvation to people, and still offers it, under this imagery of entering His rest. At the heart of it is that we stop trusting in our works to save us and begin trusting instead in the finished work of Christ to save us. As Paul puts it, “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).

To sum up, when the author talks of entering God’s rest, he is not talking about believers learning to trust God in trials so that they experience His inner peace. Rather, he is talking about God’s salvation under this imagery of rest, in line with the Old Testament. He is warning his readers about the danger of being associated with God’s people but missing His salvation because they do not respond in faith to the message.

Use: the text applied to us:

I offer seven applications. Some of them are repeated from earlier messages, but since the writer hammers these things home through repetition, so will I.

1. Cultural religion (general belief) will save no one; to be saved, we must have personal faith in Jesus Christ.

The Jews in the wilderness believed in God in a general sense. They knew and believed in the story of creation and the history recorded in Genesis. They believed that the covenant with Abraham applied to them as his descendants. They even believed God enough to apply the blood to their doorposts and to follow Moses through the Red Sea. They had heard God’s good news, but it did not profit them because they did not believe it personally (4:2). When they heard about the giants in the land, they complained that it would have been better to die in Egypt or to die in the wilderness than to be killed by the Canaanites (Num. 14:2-3). So God granted them their wish; they all died in the wilderness!

It is not enough to grow up in the church and have a general belief in God and in Jesus Christ. Perhaps you’ve heard the gospel all your life, and intellectually, you believe in Jesus and that He died for your sins. But intellectual belief is not enough! Saving faith trusts personally in the shed blood of Jesus as the only payment for my sins. Saving faith believes that God will be gracious to me in the judgment because my sins are covered by Jesus’ blood and that His righteousness has been imputed to me according to God’s promise. Make sure that your hope of heaven is not based on your parents’ faith or on the fact that you hang out with Christians in a church building! You must see your need as a sinner before God and come personally to the cross in faith to receive God’s mercy.

2. Beware of the false peace that comes through cultural religion.

I fear that there are many in our churches today, like those Jesus referred to, who will say, “Lord, Lord,” but who will be shut out of heaven. Jeremiah 8:11 warned about false prophets, who healed the brokenness of the daughter of God’s people superficially, saying, “Peace, peace,” but there is no peace. People today are encouraged to “invite Jesus into their hearts” and then are told that they have eternal life and will never lose it. They are not told that they need to repent of their sins. They are not told that God must change their hearts. Polls show that there is virtually no difference today between the way that “evangelicals” think and live and the way the rest of the population thinks and lives!

Just because a person feels inner peace does not mean that he is truly saved. I encourage you to read Jonathan Edwards’ A Treatise on Religious Affections (a modern English, condensed version is called, The Experience that Counts). He analyzes in great detail, with an abundance of Scriptural support, how a person can know which feelings are valid indicators of genuine conversion.

3. Saving faith is a matter of the heart towards God, not of outward religion.

Verse 7 is the third time the author has repeated the warning about not hardening our hearts (3:8, 15). God looks on the heart, not on the outward performance of religious duties. Salvation is a matter of God doing “heart surgery,” replacing our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26) that are tender towards Him. If you are truly saved, you know that your heart is different than it was before. It is not that you never sin now, but rather that your attitude towards sin is radically different. Before, you loved it; now, you hate it. Before, you were apathetic towards the things of God. Now, you love God and His Word. The bent of your life is a desire to know Him and love Him more and more.

4. Saving faith is always obedient faith.

As we saw last week, the author uses faith and obedience (or, unbelief and disobedience) interchangeably (3:18-19; 4:2, 6, 11). It is not that we are saved by works, but rather that true saving faith always results in a life of obedience to God. Again, I’m not talking about sinless perfection. No one lives perfectly this side of heaven. But a true believer strives against sin (Heb. 12:4). Instead of being a slave of sin, a believer is a slave of righteousness out of obedience from the heart (Rom. 6:17-18). A person who is not growing in obedience to God’s Word should question whether his faith is genuine saving faith, or just cultural religion.

5. Saving faith rests completely on the work of Jesus Christ.

If we are depending on anything in ourselves to get into heaven, we have not entered God’s rest (4:10). It is possible even to depend wrongly on your faith, thinking that your faith gets you into heaven. To do this is to turn faith into a work! It becomes the thing you are trusting for eternal life. Don’t trust in your faith; trust in Christ. If salvation were based on my faith, then it would be due to something in me, and not according to grace (Rom. 11:6). God saves us by His grace, based on the merit of Jesus Christ. Faith simply looks to Christ and relies on Him alone.

6. Saving faith is effortless in one sense, but requires diligent perseverance in another sense.

There is a sense of irony in the exhortation (4:11), “Let us be diligent to enter that rest.” While salvation is a gift that we passively receive, there is also an active responsibility on our part to lay hold of it. We must rest from our works (4:10), but be diligent to enter God’s true rest (4:11). As I said last week, you can cruise into hell without any effort. Just go with the flow of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and you’ll get there. But getting into heaven requires diligence and watchfulness. Jesus said, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Be diligent in seeking God’s rest through His Word, so that you do not come short of it.

7. Saving faith results in great confidence in God in present trials and great hope in God for future eternal joy.

The rest spoken of here is both a present reality and a future hope. The present reality is, as Paul said, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). It also includes, as he goes on to say, that “we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). The future hope is the promise of being with the Lord forever in glory, when “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; and there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4).

Conclusion

I hope that this message has disturbed the comfortable and comforted the disturbed. If you came in feeling comfortable in your standing before God because you are associated with this church, or because you serve in some way in the church, or because of anything you do, I hope you are now disturbed because you see that your standing with God is on shaky ground. To base your hope for heaven on any outward religion is to have false hope.

On the other hand, if you came in feeling disturbed because you were despairing of your propensity toward sin, and you knew that if salvation depends on your performance, you will never qualify, I hope that you are comforted with the good news that you can enter God’s eternal rest through faith in Christ alone. Fear the unbelief of cultural Christianity! Trust in the Savior who gives true rest to His people!

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree with the interpretation offered? Why/why not?
  2. Do doubts mean that our faith is not genuine? How can we know if our faith is genuine?
  3. What are some marks of cultural religion versus true faith?
  4. How can fear (4:1) abide with true faith? See Luke 12:5; Rom. 11:20; Phil. 2:13.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 13: God’s Powerful Word (Hebrews 4:12-13)

Expository preaching has fallen on hard times. Many are saying that people who are used to television and other modern media cannot handle a 40-minute sermon. Sadly, many pastors are heeding that advice. “Seeker” churches advocate 15-minute talks built around some felt need, accompanied by short dramas to hold people’s attention. They say that we should never mention sin or anything else that will make anyone feel uncomfortable! The aim is to make everyone feel good in church.

That approach to ministry is an inherent denial of the power of God’s Word to convert sinners and build up God’s people by exposing our sin and pointing to God’s grace at the cross. History contains numerous testimonies to the power of God’s Word. A guilt-ridden monk named Martin Luther got saved by studying Romans 1:16-17. When people praised Luther for his role in the Reformation, he deflected the praise to the Word. He said (in Eric Gritsch, Martin—God’s Court Jester [Fortress Press], pp. 200-201), “And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip [Melanchthon] and [Nicholas] Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”

In a similar manner, God brought the Reformation to Geneva through the biblical preaching of John Calvin. In Calvin’s Preaching [Westminster/John Knox Press], T. H. L. Parker shows the amazing expository ministry that Calvin carried out in Geneva. He would normally preach two different sermons on Sundays, and then different sermons each weekday on alternate weeks. His sermons normally lasted one hour. The weeks that he didn’t preach at the church, he was teaching ministerial students at the seminary. In addition to his heavy preaching load, he met weekly with the church leaders, visited the sick, counseled those in need, maintained an extensive correspondence, and wrote his many commentaries and books (pp. 62-63)! Think what he could have done with a computer!

I have read several books of Calvin’s sermons. His style is to explain the text in simple terms that ordinary people could understand, even though he preached directly out of his Hebrew and Greek Testaments, without notes. After Easter Sunday, 1538, the town fathers banished Calvin from Geneva. They later realized their mistake, and brought him back in September, 1541. Calvin picked up with the next verse after the one he had taught in 1538, as if it had been the previous Sunday (p. 60)! His theme invariably was to show God’s majesty and holiness, our wretchedness and spiritual poverty, and the riches of grace that God in His fatherly kindness has made available to us through Christ (pp. 93-107).

Hebrews 4:12-13 is one of the great biblical texts on the power of God’s Word. The author has been warning the Hebrew church of the danger of cultural Christianity. His text has been Psalm 95, which refers to the tragic example of Israel in the wilderness. Although they had come out of Egypt by applying the Passover blood, had come through the Red Sea, and had been sustained in the wilderness by God’s provision of water and manna, they did not trust God nor obey His Word. As a result, they failed to enter God’s rest, which was a picture of salvation.

In verse 11 the author warns, “let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.” Verse 12 begins with “For.” The connection is that Israel in the wilderness had God’s Word, but disregarded it. We should not follow their example of disobedience to the Word. It will do a powerful work in our hearts if we hear it, allow it to expose our sin, and obey it. Since God sees and knows everything, including our very thoughts, we would be fools to disobey His life-giving Word. To do so would only bring certain judgment. Thus,

Because God’s Word is powerful to expose our sin and God Himself sees everything, we must be diligent to have our hearts right before Him.

Many early commentators interpreted “the word” here to refer to Jesus Christ, whom John (1:1) calls “the Word.” Granted, the author begins Hebrews by stating, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (1:1-2). But in the immediate context, he has been showing how Israel in the wilderness did not hear (in the sense of obey) God’s voice (3:7, 15; 4:7). They had the good news preached to them, but they did not unite it with faith and obedience (4:2, 6).

In this context, “the word of God” refers to all of God’s spoken revelation, including that which came through His Son. We have it recorded in written form in the Scriptures. If we heed God’s Word, it will keep us from the cultural religion that brings sure judgment. The author is extolling the power of God’s Word to bring us into a personal experience of His rest, or salvation.

1. God’s Word is powerful to expose our sin (4:12).

The text asserts four things about the power of the Word:

A. God’s Word is living.

Since God is the living God (3:12), and His Word cannot be separated from Him, that Word is a living Word. It can never be exterminated. As Isaiah 40:8 proclaims, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” Since God is the author of life, His living Word imparts life in two ways.

1). God’s Word imparts new life to dead sinners.

Because of sin, we all enter this world dead in trespasses and sins, alienated from God (Eph. 2:1, 12). A dead sinner can no more will himself into spiritual life than a dead corpse can will himself into physical life. But God is pleased to use His Word to impart new life to dead sinners. James 1:18 states, “In the exercise of His will [not our will] He brought us forth by the word of truth …” 1 Peter 1:23 says, “for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.”

If you want to see sinners converted, get them to read and listen to God’s Word. John (20:31) stated very plainly his purpose in writing his gospel: “these [signs] have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

Many years ago, Marla’s sister, Sandie, was living a godless life. In her words, she was “living with her boyfriend, drinking, smoking, and cussing.” One of the first times we were together, I asked her when she was going to become a Christian. She sputtered, “Probably never!” I asked, “Why not?” She said, “Because I don’t believe the Bible.” I asked, “Have you ever read it carefully?” I pointed out that Marla and I were both reasonably intelligent people, and we believed the Bible. Finally, after a lot of pestering, she agreed to read the Bible. She ended up reading it cover to cover in two months and became a Christian. I had the joy of baptizing her.

When I emailed to ask if I could use her story she said, “Yes you may definitely use my story. I still thank you and Marla for not giving up on me. If it had not been for your persistence and getting the word of God into my hands, I would probably be dead and in hell today because of my sinful life style in those days. And you can quote me.”

2). God’s Word imparts renewed life to His saints.

All of us that have known God’s salvation for a while have gone through dry times when God seemed distant. God uses His Word to renew and revive us. David wrote, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul” (Ps. 19:7). The entire 176 verses of Psalm 119 extol the benefits of God’s Word. Repeatedly the psalmist cries out, “My soul cleaves to the dust; revive me according to Your word” (119:25). “This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your word has revived me” (119:50; see also, 93, 107, 149, 154, 156, 159).

It only makes sense that if the living God, has spoken to us in His written Word, then we should seek it like a treasure and devour it as a hungry man devours a meal. Being the word of God, it is both a word from God and a word about God. It is our only source of knowing specific truth about God. Creation reveals His attributes in a general way, but the written Word is God’s disclosure of Himself in a way that we could never know through creation alone. And invariably, when we see God as He is, we also see ourselves as we are, as Isaiah experienced (Isa. 6:1-5). While this shatters us at first, it is always for our ultimate healing and growth in holiness.

As the living Word, God’s revelation also speaks to our current needs and situation. As we have seen, the author often quotes Scripture by saying, “He says” (1:5; 2:11-12), or “The Holy Spirit says” (3:7). Even though the Bible was written many centuries ago, the Spirit of God still speaks directly to us through it. It is never out of date or irrelevant. It speaks to the very issues that we face in our modern world. I would encourage you to read the Bible not in a random manner, but consecutively, from both the Old and New Testaments. You will find, as I have, that God will often use what you have read either that day or within a few days of reading it.

B. God’s Word is active.

We get our word “energy” from the Greek word translated “active.” It means that the Word is effectual. It accomplishes what God intends for it to do. As Isaiah 55:10-11 states, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so will My word be which goes forth out of My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” I claim that verse every time I preach! If I am careful to preach God’s Word, and not my own, He promises that it will accomplish His purpose.

You may wonder, “What about people who hear and reject God’s Word?” Jesus explained that these people are only fulfilling another word from God to Isaiah, “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand; you will keep on seeing, but will not perceive; for the heart of this people has become dull, with their ears they scarcely hear, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they would see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their heart and return, and I would heal them” (Matt. 13:14-15, citing Isa. 6:9-10). As John Owen explains, “Sometimes Christ designs by His word the hardening and blinding of wicked sinners, that they may be the more prepared for deserved destruction” (Hebrews: The Epistle of Warning [Kregel abridgement], p. 74).

In my first year here, I was preaching through 1 Peter and came to chapter 3, where he instructs wives to be submissive to their husbands, even if the husbands are disobedient to the word. That week, a single woman in her 30’s came to see me. She said, “You should never preach on that on a Sunday morning.” I asked her if I had misrepresented what the text says. She replied, “No, you taught what it says.” I asked, “Did I say it in an arrogant or condescending manner?” She replied, “No, you had the proper tone of voice and manner of speaking.”

So I asked, “Then what was the problem?” She said, “The problem was, I brought a friend with me who is an ardent feminist. She was offended and will never come to church again!” I said, “Ah! Well, I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and I know that one of two things will happen. Either your friend will be convicted of her rebellion against God and come to repentance. Or, she will harden her heart and be all the more guilty on the day of judgment. But either way, God’s Word will not return to Him void, without accomplishing His purpose.” The woman didn’t like my answer and left the church.

C. God’s Word is sharp and piercing.

It is “sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow…” Some use this verse to draw distinctions between soul and spirit, but that is not the author’s intent. (What then does the distinction between joints and marrow mean?) Rather, he is using figurative language to show that God’s Word is sharp and it cuts deeply, to the very core of our being. Unless your conscience is hardened beyond remedy, you cannot read God’s Word or hear it preached faithfully without getting cut in the conscience.

God’s purpose in cutting us is to bring healing, not to leave us wounded. Sin is like a cancer growing inside of us. Untreated, it will be fatal. The sharp sword of God’s Word, as J. B. Lightfoot put it, “heals most completely, where it wounds most deeply; and gives life there only, where first it has killed” (Cambridge Sermons [Macmillan and Co.], p. 162). David Livingstone, the pioneer missionary to Africa, offered to teach one of the chiefs to shoot a rifle and also to read. But the chief replied that “he did not wish to learn to read the Book, for he was afraid it might change his heart and make him content with only one wife, like Sechele” (another chief who had been converted) (George Seaver, David Livingstone: His Life and Letters [Harper & Brothers], p. 177). He wanted to get five wives before he dared to read the Bible!

The Bible is a dangerous book! It will cut you! When it makes your conscience go, “Ow!” don’t harden your heart. Let God do surgery by cutting out the cancer of sin that the Word has revealed.

D. God’s Word is an authoritative judge of the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

The word “thoughts” refers to negative thoughts related to emotions, such as anger, which a man may wish to keep hidden from others, but which God knows (B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 103; H. Schonweiss, in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown, 1:106). “Intentions” refers here to “morally questionable thoughts” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Kittel, 4:971). The heart refers to the totality of the inner person. We get our word “critic” from the word translated “judge.” So the idea is that God’s Word is able authoritatively to act as critic of our innermost feelings and thoughts, showing us where we are wrong.

I’ve had the experience after I’ve preached of a husband coming to me, looking around to make sure that no one is listening, and asking nervously, “Did my wife talk to you about what went on in our household this week?” I chuckle and assure him, “No, I had no idea what was going on, but God did!” His Word penetrated into the secrecy of that home and heart, revealing things that were not in line with His righteousness.

So in verse 12, the author is showing how God’s Word is powerful to expose our sin, never for the purpose of embarrassing us, but always to bring healing. We cannot rid our lives of sin if we aren’t even aware of it. The Word cuts down to our inner thoughts and feelings, revealing to us the things that are not pleasing to God, so that we can repent of these things and receive God’s restoration.

2. God Himself sees everything, including our deepest thoughts and motives (4:13).

The author moves from God’s penetrating Word to God Himself, who sees everything. It is impossible to hide from God! Adam and Eve tried to hide from God after they sinned, but they could not do it, and neither can we. The word “open” means “naked.” Have you ever dreamed that you were naked in public? What a relief after a dream like that, to wake up and realize that it was only a dream! But we stand naked on the inside before God!

“Laid bare” is used only here in the New Testament, and rarely anywhere else. It means to expose the neck, perhaps as a sacrificial victim’s neck is exposed just before the knife slices the jugular vein. The idea of the two words together is that we are naked and helpless before God. There is no escape from His omniscient gaze. Sin is always stupid, because even if we fool everyone on earth, and think that we got away with it, we didn’t fool God!

3. Since we all will give account to God, we must be diligent to have our hearts right before Him.

The final phrase of 4:13 means either “Him with whom we have to do,” or, “Him to whom we must give an account.” We know that one day we all will stand before God to give an account of the deeds we have done in this body. Therefore, we should have as our ambition to be pleasing to Him (2 Cor. 5:9-10), not just outwardly, but on the heart level.

If that thought terrifies you, keep reading! The author will go on to show how Jesus is our sympathetic High Priest who invites us to draw near to the throne of grace to receive mercy and grace to help in our time of need (4:14-16). But you must make sure that He truly is your High Priest, in the most personal sense. There is no group plan of salvation. It’s not enough to be a part of the company of God’s people. We must be diligent personally to enter God’s rest through faith in Christ and obedience to His Word. Every true believer will develop the habit of judging sin on the thought or heart level, out of a desire to please the Savior who gave Himself for us on the cross.

Conclusion

I close with five practical action steps:

(1) Treasure God’s Word above all worldly counsel! I am amazed at how Christians will pay psychologists hundreds of dollars for advice that is devoid of God’s Word, but they won’t consult the Bible for wisdom on how to live! You say, “But I needed advice on some practical relational problems.” Why do you think the Bible was written? The whole thing is summed up by, “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor.” That’s pretty relational! It’s not only sin to neglect God’s Word and turn to the empty “wisdom” of the world (Jer. 2:13). It’s also just plain dumb!

(2) Read, study, memorize, and meditate on God’s Word. It will not do you any good if you don’t know what it says. You need to memorize key verses because you will not obey it if it’s not in your heart (Ps. 119:11). You won’t stop at work or at home to say, “Just a minute, I know there’s a verse that applies here, but I need to get out my concordance and find it!”

(3) Apply, trust, and obey God’s Word. The point of Bible study is not to fill your head with knowledge about the end times or theological arguments to support your favorite views. It is to change your heart and life! Always study it with a view to obedience.

(4) Live with your heart exposed to God’s Word. Don’t cover up any sinful thoughts. If the Word convicts you, stop and confess the matter to God. If need be, resolve to go to anyone you have wronged and ask forgiveness. Remember, God knows every sinful thought you’ll ever have, and He still sent His Son to bear the penalty of your sin!

(5) Drink in all of the biblical preaching you can absorb. Don’t get sucked in to the “preaching lite” movement! Calvin commented on verse 12, “If anyone thinks that the air is beaten by an empty sound when the Word of God is preached, he is greatly mistaken; for it is a living thing and full of hidden power, which leaves nothing in man untouched” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], 22:102). Be diligent to saturate yourself with God’s Word with the aim of obedience, so that you do not fall as the stubborn Israelites did in the wilderness!

Discussion Questions

  1. Since we know that sin destroys us, why do we persist in covering it up, rather than exposing it so that God can heal us?
  2. Why is the “seeker” church movement inherently flawed?
  3. What principles underlie sound biblical application?
  4. In one sense, the Pharisees “knew” the Word. Why didn’t it profit them? How can we avoid their mistakes?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 14: The Throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:14-16)

All Christians struggle with two crucial areas that will make or break us in the Christian life: perseverance in times of trial; and, prayer. As you know, they are connected. A vital prayer life is essential to endure trials.

Failure to endure trials is the mark of the seed sown on rocky soil. Jesus explained that this seed represents those who, “when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy; and they have no firm root in themselves, but are only temporary; then, when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4:17). Endurance is one mark of genuine saving faith (Heb. 3:6).

Prayer is our supply line to God in the battle. His abundant, sustaining grace flows to us through prayer. Because prayer is so vital, the enemy tries to sever that supply line. When we suffer, the enemy often whispers, “God doesn’t care about you and He isn’t answering. Why waste your time with these worthless prayers?” It’s easy to get discouraged and quit praying, which cuts us off from the very help that we need!

Our text is one of the most encouraging passages in the Bible when it comes to perseverance and prayer. The first readers of this epistle were tempted to abandon their Christian faith and return to Judaism because of persecution. The author has just given an extended exhortation, using the bad example of Israel in the wilderness. They failed to enter God’s rest (a picture of salvation) because of unbelief and disobedience. Therefore, we must be diligent to enter that rest. If we will respond in faith and obedience to God’s Word, it will expose our sin and show us His ways. It is foolish to think that we can hide our sin from God, because everything is naked and laid bare in His sight (4:12-13).

Martin Luther commented on our text, “After terrifying us, the Apostle now comforts us; after pouring wine into our wound, he now pours in oil” (in Philip Hughes, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 169). Rather than trying to hide because of our sin, the author shows how we should draw near to Jesus, our sympathetic high priest, who gives us access to God’s throne. For those who are in Christ, that throne is not a place of fear but, rather, a throne of grace!

Since Jesus is our great yet sympathetic high priest, we must persevere and we must pray.

There are two commands here: Hold fast our confession (persevere; 4:14); and, Draw near with confidence (pray; 4:16). They are both based on the truth about who Jesus is: Since Jesus is our great high priest, the Son of God, who has passed through the heavens, we must hold fast our confession. And, since Jesus is a high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses, we should draw near to the throne of grace for help in our times of need. Thus His transcendence to the right hand of God’s throne and His humanity are both essential elements of His unique effectiveness as our high priest. If we want to persevere through trials and receive His help through prayer, we must understand who He is.

1. Since Jesus is our great high priest who has passed through the heavens, we must persevere (4:14).

The author tells us who Jesus is and how we should respond.

A. Jesus is our great high priest who has passed through the heavens.

We see Jesus’ greatness in two ways here:

1). Jesus is great in His office as high priest at the right hand of God.

We have difficulty relating to the concept of a high priest, but to the Jews, it was an important office. Moses’ brother Aaron was the first high priest. He was the mediator between the people and God. He and his fellow priests offered the sacrifices on behalf of the people. They had to follow a detailed procedure spelled out by God. Any variance or innovation meant instant death, as Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu discovered when they offered “strange fire” on the altar (Lev. 10:1-3).

Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest alone would go into the Holy of Holies to make atonement for all the sins of the nation. If he entered there improperly or at any other time, he would die (Leviticus 16). He would sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat in the very presence of God. When he came out alive, the people heaved a sigh of relief, because it meant that God had accepted the sacrifice for their sins for another year.

Jesus is not just another high priest in the line of Aaron. Rather, He is our great high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (5:6). Rather than entering the Holy of Holies in the temple, He has passed through the heavens (in His ascension) into the very presence of God. The Jews thought of the sky as the first heaven. The stars are the second heaven. The presence of God is the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2). Whether the author has this in mind, or is just using “heavens” in the plural because the Hebrew word is always plural, we cannot say for certain.

But his point is that Jesus, our great high priest, is unlike any merely human high priest. He has entered the very presence of God. The Father has said to Him, “Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies a footstool for your feet” (Ps. 110:1). No earthly priest would dare to sit in the Holy of Holies! They always stood. But Jesus sits at the right hand of God’s throne because once for all He made atonement for our sins (Heb. 10:12). So Jesus is a great high priest, in a class by Himself, because of His office as a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (which the author will explain more in the following chapters).

2). Jesus is great in His Person as God in human flesh.

“Jesus” is His human name, calling attention to the full humanity of the Savior (see 2:17). If He had not been fully human, He could not have atoned for our sins. But He is also “the Son of God,” which refers to His deity (John 5:18). As Bishop Moule said, “A Savior not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.” Our author has shown in chapter 1 that Jesus is fully God. Thus Jesus is uniquely great in His office as high priest and He is uniquely great in His person as God in human flesh. Therefore…

B. We must persevere.

The words, “hold fast our confession,” imply danger and effort on our part (B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 106). Picture someone hanging on for dear life as their raft goes down the raging rapids in the Grand Canyon. “Hold fast!” “Confession” implies not only our private belief in the essential doctrines of the faith (especially with regard to Jesus’ deity and humanity), but also our public declaration of this truth in the face of persecution. We make such a public profession of faith in baptism, but that profession is put to the test when persecution arises. Are we only fair-weather believers who deny the Lord when it becomes costly to believe, or will we stand firm even to death because we know whom we have believed?

J. C. Ryle reports, “When John Rogers, the first martyr in Queen Mary’s time, was being led to Smithfield to be burned, the French Ambassador reported that he looked as bright and cheerful as if he were going to his wedding” (Home Truths [Triangle Press], 1:64). While God must give special grace at such a time, we would not do well in persecution if we grumble and walk away from God when we face lesser trials. Paul says that we’re not only to persevere in trials, but to do so with great joy (Rom. 5:3)! So hold fast your confession of faith in Christ when He takes you through difficult trials. He is none other than your great high priest, God in human flesh, who now sits “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3).

2. Since Jesus is our sympathetic and sinless high priest, we must pray in times of need (4:15-16).

A. Jesus is our sympathetic high priest.

The author uses a double negative, “We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses….” Probably he was anticipating an objection: “You’ve just said that Jesus is a great high priest who has passed through the heavens. How can someone beyond the heavens relate to me and my problems?” The author responds, “No, Jesus is not unsympathetic. He understands your deepest feelings.”

We all need someone to sympathize with our problems and weaknesses without condemning us. Sometimes that is enough to get us through, just to know that someone else understands what we’re going through. I read about a boy who noticed a sign, “Puppies for sale.” He asked, “How much do you want for the pups, mister?”

“Twenty-five dollars, son.” The boy’s face dropped. “Well, sir, could I see them anyway?”

The man whistled and the mother dog came around the corner, followed by four cute puppies, wagging their tails and yipping happily. Then lagging behind, another puppy came around the corner, dragging one hind leg.

What’s the matter with that one, sir?” the boy asked.

“Well, son, that puppy is crippled. The vet took an X-ray and found that it doesn’t have a hip socket. It will never be right.”

The man was surprised when the boy said, “That’s the one I want. Could I pay you a little each week?”

The owner replied, “But, son, you don’t seem to understand. That pup will never be able to run or even walk right. He’s going to be a cripple forever. Why would you want a pup like that?”

The boy reached down and pulled up his pant leg, revealing a brace. “I don’t walk too good, either.” Looking down at the puppy, the boy continued, “That puppy is going to need a lot of love and understanding. It’s not easy being crippled!” The man said, “You can have the puppy for free. I know you’ll take good care of him.”

That is a limited illustration of our Savior’s sympathy for our condition. Since He became a man and suffered all that we experience, He sympathizes with our weaknesses. He demonstrated His compassion many times during His earthly ministry. But His humanity was not diminished in any way when He ascended into heaven. We have a completely sympathetic high priest at the right hand of God!

B. Jesus is our sinless high priest.

He was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” At first, we may wrongly think that being sinless would make Jesus unsympathetic and distant from us, since we all have sinned many times. Perhaps a fellow sinner could relate more to my failures. But that is not so. Charles Spurgeon pointed out (“The Tenderness of Jesus” [Ages Software], sermon 2148, p. 407, italics his),

[D]o not imagine that if the Lord Jesus had sinned he would have been any more tender toward you; for sin is always of a hardening nature. If the Christ of God could have sinned, he would have lost the perfection of his sympathetic nature. It needs perfectness of heart to lay self all aside, and to be touched with a feeling of the infirmities of others.

Others object that if Jesus never sinned, He must not have been tempted to the degree that we are tempted. But as many have pointed out, that is not so. The one who resists to the very end knows the power of temptation in a greater way than the one who yields to sin sooner.

When it says that Jesus was tempted in all things as we are, it doesn’t mean every conceivable temptation, which would be impossible. Nor was Jesus ever tempted by indwelling sin, as we are. In this, He was like Adam and Eve before the fall. Temptation had to come to Jesus from without, not from within.

But Jesus knew every type of temptation. He knew what it is like to be hungry, thirsty, and tired. He knew the horrible agony of physical torture, which He endured in His trial and crucifixion. He knew what it is like to be mocked, distrusted, maligned, and betrayed by friends. From the start of Jesus’ ministry to the very end, Satan leveled all of his evil power and strategies to try to get Jesus to sin. But he never succeeded. Jesus always obeyed the Father.

Verse 15 raises the question, “Was it possible for Jesus to have sinned?” We need to answer this carefully (I am following Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan], pp. 537-539). Scripture clearly affirms that Jesus never committed sin (Heb. 7:26; 1 Pet. 1:19; 2:22). It also affirms that His temptations were real, not just playacting. The Bible also affirms, “God cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1:13). Since Jesus was fully God, how then could He really be tempted, much less commit a sin? Here we plunge into the mystery of how one man can be both fully God and fully human, as Scripture plainly affirms of Jesus.

Since Jesus is one person with two natures, and since sin involves the whole person, in this sense, Jesus could not have sinned or He would have ceased to be God. But the question remains, “How then could Jesus’ temptations be real?” The answer seems to be that Jesus met every temptation to sin, not by His divine power, but by His human nature relying on the power of the Father and Holy Spirit. As Wayne Grudem explains, “The moral strength of his divine nature was there as a sort of ‘backstop’ that would have prevented him from sinning…, but he did not rely on the strength of his divine nature to make it easier for him to face temptations…” (p. 539).

As you know, Scripture sometimes affirms something of Jesus that could only be true of one of His natures, but not both (Matt. 24:36). Jesus’ divine nature could not be tempted or sin, but His human nature could. Don’t stumble over the fact that you cannot fully comprehend this. Rather, accept the testimony of Scripture: Jesus truly was tempted and He never sinned. These facts mean that He understands what we are going through and He is able to come to our aid when we are tempted (2:18).

Because Jesus is a sympathetic and sinless high priest…

C. We should draw near in prayer.

“Draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” “Throne of grace” is an oxymoron. To the ancient world, a throne was a forbidding place of sovereign authority and judgment. If you approached a throne and the king did not hold out his scepter, you were history! You definitely would not draw near to the throne for sympathy, especially with a trivial problem. But the author calls it the throne of grace. He makes it clear that we are welcome at this throne. He answers four questions: (1) Why draw near? (2) When should we draw near? (3) How should we draw near? And, (4) What can we expect when we draw near?

1). Why draw near? We should draw near to the throne of grace because we are weak and we have there a sympathetic high priest.

We don’t come because we’ve got it pretty much together and we just need a little advice. We come because we are weak (4:15). Jesus didn’t say, “Without Me, you can get along pretty well most of the time. Call Me if you need Me.” He said, “Without Me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). And when we come to the throne of grace, He doesn’t ridicule us or belittle us for our weaknesses. He welcomes us as a father welcomes his children to his side to protect them from some danger.

2). When should we draw near? We should draw near to the throne of grace whenever we need help.

We should come in a “time of need,” which is at all times! A main reason we do not pray is that we don’t realize how needy we are. We think we can handle things on our own. Just call in the Lord when things get really intense. But the fact is, we depend on Him for every breath we take and for every meal we eat, even if we’ve got a month’s supply of food in the freezer. Praying without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) is necessary because we are constantly in over our heads. Prayer is the acknowledgement that our need is not partial; it is total!

3). How should we draw near? We should draw near to the throne of grace directly, with confidence in our high priest.

The author does not say, “Draw near through your local priest.” He says, “Let us draw near.” Us means every believer. Dr. Dwight Pentecost, one of my professors in seminary, told how he was in Mexico City during a feast for the Immaculate Conception of Mary. There was a long line of thousands waiting for confession, but only one confession booth. As the noon bells rang, an old, stooped over priest came out of the booth, walking with two canes. A woman with several small children fell on her knees before him and grabbed him by the knees. She cried out to him, begging him to relieve her burdens. But he struck her on the side of the head with one of his canes and went off through the crowd. He was an unsympathetic, weak human priest.

Thankfully, we do not have to go through any human priest to draw near to the very throne of God. We could not dare come in our own merit or righteousness. But we can come with confidence because the blood of Jesus, our high priest, has gained us access (Eph. 3:12). Our confidence is not in how good we’ve been or in how well we can pray. Spurgeon pointed out that God will overlook our shortcomings and poor prayers just as a loving parent will overlook the mistakes in the sentences of his toddler. Even when we have sinned badly, if we draw near to confess our sins, He will cleanse our wounds and begin the healing process, just as a parent would carefully clean and bandage the wounds of his child. Finally,

4). What can we expect when we draw near? We will receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.

What a wonderful promise! We won’t be scolded for having a need. We won’t be told that our need is too trivial for such an important high priest to be troubled with. We will receive mercy and find grace to help. “Help” is a technical nautical term that is used elsewhere only in Acts 27:17 to describe the cables that the sailors wrapped around the hull of Paul’s ship during the storm so that it would not break apart. We encountered the verb in Hebrews 2:18, where it has the nuance of running to the aid of someone crying for help. When your life seems to be coming apart at the seams because of the storm, cry out to our sympathetic high priest at the throne of grace. You will receive mercy and find grace to help.

What is the difference between mercy and grace? They somewhat overlap, but mercy has special reference to God’s tenderness toward us because of the misery caused by our sins, whereas grace refers to His undeserved favor in freely forgiving our sins, which actually deserve His judgment (see R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], pp. 169-170). Together, both words reflect the good news that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:18). All that trust in Christ and His shed blood as the payment for their sins have free access at the throne of grace to God’s boundless mercy and undeserved favor!

Conclusion

I like John Piper’s analogy that prayer is our walkie-talkie to get the supplies we need in the spiritual war that we are engaged in. It’s not an intercom to call the maid to bring extra beverages to the den. In other words, prayer isn’t to make us comfortable and cozy, oblivious to the advancement of God’s kingdom purposes. Prayer is our walkie-talkie to bring in the needed supplies as we seek first His kingdom and righteousness. If you’re under fire in the battle, persevere—hold fast your confession, because Jesus is our great high priest. If you have needs, pray—draw near to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in the battle.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does our understanding of the person and work of Christ relate to persevering in trials?
  2. Does Jesus’ sympathy for our weaknesses mean that He tolerates our sins? Explain.
  3. Some Christians argue that if Jesus could not have sinned, His temptations were not real. Is this so? Why/why not?
  4. The term “throne of grace” reflects a fine balance between the reverent fear of God and being accepted by Him. Discuss the implications of this balance.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 15: The Kind of Priest You Need (Hebrews 5:1-10)

We begin here in Hebrews the major section of the book that runs through chapter 10, on Jesus as our high priest. As I pointed out in the introductory message, Hebrews is the only book in the New Testament to teach that Jesus is our high priest.

I would guess that if you were honest, many of you would admit to thinking, “Couldn’t we study something more practical? I’m struggling in my marriage! I’m trying to raise kids in this evil world! I’m wrestling with personal problems! And now we’re going to plunge into six chapters dealing with Jesus as our high priest? Can’t you find something more relevant to preach on?”

On this matter, Donald Hagner (Encountering the Book of Hebrews [Baker Academic], p. 82) offers a helpful word:

Until one gains an adequate sense of the overwhelming majesty of the thrice-holy God and simultaneously a true sense of one’s sinfulness and unworthiness (as Isaiah did [Isa. 6:1-5]), one is not in a position to understand or appreciate the importance of priests and their work. Our failure on these two points probably is what makes the idea of priesthood unfamiliar and without apparent significance or meaning. One of the reasons that the Old Testament is indispensable to understanding the New Testament is exactly here, since on the one hand, it provides us with a sense of the sovereignty, majesty, and power of God, and on the other hand, it confronts us with the reality of human failures and needs. In the light of these two points, the importance of sacrifices and priests readily emerges.

This is one of the most important spiritual truths that you can learn: Growth in the Christian life requires gaining a clearer understanding of who God is and who you are, which drives you in desperation to the cross of Jesus Christ. This is why Paul gloried in the cross (Gal. 6:14): he saw God as the one who dwells in unapproachable light, he saw himself as the chief of sinners, and he saw the cross as the place where he found mercy (1 Tim. 6:16; 1:14-16).

This is the point that John Calvin makes so eloquently in the opening chapters of The Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. by John McNeill [Westminster Press]). His opening sentence is: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” McNeill comments (1:36, footnote 3), “These decisive words set the limits of Calvin’s theology and condition every subsequent statement.” Calvin begins by showing that none of us will seek God until we first become displeased with ourselves as sinners. He also argues (1:37) that…

… [M]an never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy—this pride in innate in all of us—unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured.

Thus if you want to know the significance of this central theme of the Book of Hebrews, you must ask God for a clearer understanding of His absolute holiness and majesty, and for a deeper insight into your own sinfulness and uncleanness apart from Christ. This will lead you into a deeper appreciation of what Jesus did for you on the cross as the high priest who entered the holy place, not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with His own blood (9:11-14). And, you will find that a deeper appreciation of God’s holiness, your own sinfulness, and the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice is one of the most practical doctrines in the Bible, because it humbles your pride. Pride is at the root of every relational conflict and just about any sin that you can name.

With that as an introduction, I am again going to follow the Puritan method of first explaining the doctrine and then giving its “use,” or application. The theme of our text is:

Jesus Christ perfectly fulfills the qualifications for the kind of high priest that we all need.

Doctrine:

1. The qualifications for human high priests were to mediate between men and God, to sympathize with his fellow sinners, and to be called by God to the office (5:1-4).

“For” (5:1) points back to 4:14-15 to show that our high priest fulfills the requirements of the priesthood. In 5:1-4, he lists three qualifications for Aaronic priests: their work (5:1); their identification with the people (5:2-3); and, their appointment (5:4). In 5:5-10, he shows in reverse order how Jesus fulfills and exceeds these, as a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

A. The work of the high priest: As a mediator, he offers gifts and sacrifices for sins on behalf of men in things pertaining to God (5:1).

If men are not sinners, separated from a holy God, then there is no need for priests. They were appointed (5:4 will show that God appointed them) “on behalf of men in things pertaining to God, in order to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.” No Jew was free to enter the Holy of Holies to meet directly with God. Even the high priest could only go in there once a year on the Day of Atonement, and very carefully at that, or God would kill him instantly. Every Jew knew that he desperately needed a mediator between him and God, and the high priest was that God-ordained mediator.

“Gifts and sacrifices” probably here is a general description of all of the designated offerings (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 175). The task of making such offerings was reserved for the priests. Israel’s first king, Saul, took it upon himself to offer sacrifices, and for this presumption, God removed the kingdom from Saul’s descendants and gave it to David (1 Sam. 13:1-14). Later, King Uzziah, who was otherwise a godly king, presumed to take incense and offer it before the Lord. As a result, God struck him instantly with leprosy (2 Chron. 26:16-21). The priests alone were designated to make offerings to God on behalf of the people.

Note that these offerings were “for sins.” The entire Jewish sacrificial system, but especially the Day of Atonement, underscored the problem of human sinfulness in the presence of the holy God. Without the appropriate sacrifice, sinners could not approach God or be reconciled to Him. God designed all of this to point ahead to the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who offered Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice for our sins.

This means that you cannot be reconciled to God until you see your great need as a sinner before His holy presence. It is that awareness of your true condition that causes you to cry out, with the publican in Jesus’ story, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13). The gospel is not, “If you’ve got a few problems, try Jesus. He can help you.” The gospel has to do with our fundamental alienation from God because of our sins, and the gracious provision that God has made in His Son.

B. The identification of the high priest with the people: He can sympathize with them, since he is a fellow sinner (5:2-3).

An effective mediator truly understands the condition of those he represents. The Jewish high priests could understand the problem of sinners because, before they could go into the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of the people, they had to offer a sacrifice for their own sins (Lev. 16:6; Heb. 7:27; 9:7). An awareness of their own weaknesses enabled the Levitical priests to “deal gently with the ignorant and misguided.” The Greek word translated “deal gently” meant to take “the middle course between apathy and anger” (Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:47). The priest should not act indifferently toward sin, but neither should he be harsh with repentant sinners, since he knew from personal experience how prone we are to sin.

C. The appointment of the high priest: He does not take it upon himself, but must be called by God (5:4).

Although in the first century the Jewish high priesthood had degenerated into a political appointment, the author overlooks that and goes back to the original intention. God called Aaron to the office of high priest (Exod. 28:1-3), and he served as the example for all that followed. God’s appointment of Aaron to this office was confirmed during the rebellion of Korah, who accused Moses and Aaron of appointing themselves (Num. 16:1-35). God showed the rebels and all of Israel that He had appointed Moses and Aaron by causing the ground to open up and swallow the rebels and their households. When some in the congregation grumbled at this judgment, a plague broke out and killed over 14,000.

That was a sober lesson that no one may dare to approach God in the way of man’s own choosing. The only way to approach God is through the way of God’s choosing, through His ordained mediator. In the Old Testament, that mediator was the high priest. But the fact that all of these priests were themselves sinners pointed to the inadequacy of that old covenant and the need for the perfect high priest, the Lord Jesus Christ.

2. Jesus perfectly fulfills and exceeds the qualifications for the high priest (5:5-10).

The author shows here how Jesus not only fulfilled the requirements for the Aaronic priesthood, but superceded them by being a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (a theme he will expand on in chapter 7). He presents Jesus’ qualifications in reverse order to those of the high priest:

A. The appointment of Jesus as high priest: He did not take it upon Himself, but God appointed Him as a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (5:5-6).

The author cites again (see 1:5) Psalm 2:7 to show that even though the Christ is the Son of God, in a unique relationship with the Father, He did not glorify Himself by taking the office of high priest unto Himself. Rather, God designated Him as such, and not just a priest in the limited human sense of the Aaronic priests, but “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Ps. 110:4). Psalm 110:1 shows that the Son’s exalted position is to sit at the Father’s right hand in the place of sovereign rule. But Psalm 110:4 shows that in this Messiah, the offices of King and Priest will be united, as He is designated a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. The point of the two quotations here is to show that Jesus did not presume to take the office of high priest by His own authority, but God appointed Him to this place.

B. The identification of Jesus, our high priest, with us: He prayed and learned obedience through what He suffered (5:7-8).

These verses elaborate on 4:15, that Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses because He has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Similar to the Levitical priests, Jesus could identify with the weaknesses of the people. But, unlike these priests, He had no sin of His own. “In the days of His flesh” refers to Jesus’ earthly life, but verse 7 especially points to Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane as He wrestled with the imminent prospect of taking our sins upon Himself. Jesus’ intense struggle in the Garden was not just over the thought of the physical agony of crucifixion. Rather, He was struggling with the thought of being separated from the Father as He bore our sin. This was so intense that He literally sweat blood.

None of the gospel accounts report Jesus’ “loud crying and tears,” but this information probably came directly from one of the apostles who were present. It shows us that even though Jesus is fully God, and the cross was central to God’s predetermined plan (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28), the actual implementation of that plan was not easy. It was not just playacting a role! Jesus’ suffering in the Garden and on the cross was more intense than we can ever imagine, because we do not know what it was like to be one with the Father from all eternity until that dreadful hour.

There is debate about the content of Jesus’ request. If He was asking to be saved from death, in what sense was His prayer heard, since He was not delivered from that awful death? Probably Jesus was asking to be sustained through the agony of bearing our sins, and to be brought through death into resurrection and complete restoration with the Father. The word “piety” (NASB) is better rendered “reverent submission” (NIV). It refers to His reverential submission to the will of the Father when He prayed, “not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

When it says, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered,” it does not mean that He was formerly disobedient. The first phrase is better translated, “Son though He was.” It points to His position as God’s unique Son (5:5). Jesus “learned obedience” in the sense that He experienced what obedience means through what He suffered. He was always obedient to the Father’s will, but the proof of obedience is revealed in situations where obedience is not pleasant. Suppose that when my children were younger, I told you, “I have obedient kids. Let me prove it to you: Kids, eat your ice cream.” You would say, “That’s no test of obedience!” The real test would be, “Kids, clean your rooms!” Jesus experienced obedience to the maximum when He went to the cross.

The author’s point is that Jesus is our perfect high priest in that His prayers and obedience through His sufferings show that He can sympathize with us in our sufferings. Therefore, we should obediently persevere in trials through prayer.

C. The work of Jesus, the perfect high priest: He is the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him (5:9-10).

“Having been made perfect” does not imply that Jesus was imperfect previously. Rather, the idea is that His experience of obediently suffering unto death qualified Jesus as the Savior (we saw the same idea in 2:10). “Eternal salvation” is contrasted with the temporary nature of the Old Testament sacrifices, which could never make perfect those who offered them (10:1-4). The word translated “the source” (NASB, NIV; “author,” NKJV) of eternal salvation means “the cause.” The cause of our salvation is not that God foresaw that we would believe. The cause of our salvation is that the triune God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4).

Jesus became the cause of salvation “to all those who obey Him.” This is not teaching salvation by works. Rather, to have saving faith is to obey Jesus, who commanded, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Paul refers to “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; see also 1 Pet. 1:2). You cannot separate saving faith from obedient faith, or unbelief from disobedience (Heb. 4:18-19; 4:6, 11). Those who truly believe in Jesus as Savior live in obedience to Him as Lord. Those who claim to believe but who live in disobedience to Him are not truly saved (Matt. 7:21-23).

Then (5:10) the author comes back to God’s designating Jesus as a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, which places Him in a category by Himself, above the Levitical priests. He will develop this further in chapter 7, after the extended exhortation of chapter 6. His point, then, in this section is to show that Jesus Christ perfectly fulfills and exceeds the qualifications of the high priest in the Old Testament. To go back to that old system would be to return to a severely inferior system and to abandon the high priest that we desperately need.

Use (application):

Although there are no commands or direct applications in our text, there are many applications just beneath the surface:

1. If our sin is so hideous that God required nothing less than the death of His perfect, sinless Son as the only solution, then we would be foolish to think that any human solution will suffice.

Any system of salvation by good works trashes Christ’s death as unnecessary. Why did He have to offer up loud crying and tears if we’re inherently good enough to get into heaven? Why did Jesus have to suffer and die if we can be saved by our own efforts? Anything that adds our works to Christ’s sacrifice as the necessary condition for salvation is an affront to His atoning death.

2. If God’s wrath against sin is so dreadful, then we need to flee to the cross for refuge and daily live with gratitude that Jesus bore our penalty on the cross.

A. W. Pink wrote (An Exposition of Hebrews [electronic ed., Ephesians Four Group: Escondido, CA], p. 247),

Into what infinite depths of humiliation did the Son of God descend! How unspeakably dreadful was His anguish! What a hideous thing sin must be if such a sacrifice was required for its atonement! How real and terrible a thing is the wrath of God! What love moved Him to suffer so on our behalf! What must be the portion of those who despise and reject such a Saviour!

3. Obedient faith is the only kind of faith that saves.

This is not to contradict the first point, but to clarify and complement it. We are saved by faith alone, apart from works, but the kind of faith that saves necessarily issues in good works (Eph. 2:8-10). The one who says that he has faith, but has no works, is deceiving himself (James 2:14-26). We should be as devoted to God and His will, no matter what the cost, as Jesus was.

4. Prayer and obedient faith are inextricably linked.

Jesus prayed in the Garden so that He could obey on the cross. Prayer and obedience are inextricably linked. “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40). We must follow Jesus in His prayer life if we wish to follow Him in His obedience to the Father.

5. God’s love for us does not preclude His taking us through great trials.

The Father loved the Son, and yet the cross was His destiny. He loves us, and yet brings us to glory through many sufferings. John Piper observes, “No one ever said that they learned their deepest lessons of life, or had their sweetest encounters with God, on the sunny days. People go deep with God when the drought comes” (Don’t Waste Your Life [Crossway], p. 73). C. H. Mackintosh, commenting on the death of Lazarus (John 11), said, “Never interpret God’s love by your circumstances; but always interpret your circumstances by His love” (Miscellaneous Writings [Loizeaux Brothers], 6:17-18, “Bethany”).

6. Feeling deep emotions during trials is not wrong, but we must submit our emotions to the will of God.

The often-repeated comment, “Emotions aren’t right or wrong; emotions just are” has a grain of truth in it, but a lot of error. The truth is, don’t deny the emotions that you are experiencing. The error is, your emotions may be acceptable in God’s sight, or they may be sinful. Grief in a time of loss is acceptable. Railing at God or being bitter towards Him is sinful. Though God strip us of everything, as He did with Job, we should through our tears say with Job, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

7. Even as God answered Christ’s prayers for deliverance through death and resurrection, so He sometimes answers our prayers in ways that seem contradictory to our request.

Some say that we are not praying in faith if we pray, “Lord, Your will be done.” They say that we must be bold to ask God for what we want and claim it by faith. It seems, though, that Jesus didn’t understand this principle. He prayed, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). God answered Jesus’ prayer by sustaining Him through the cross and into the resurrection and ascension. He may not answer our requests exactly as we pray. Often “we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).

You need a high priest because God is infinitely holy and you are a sinner. Jesus Christ is that high priest. Flee to Him for salvation and live daily at the foot of the cross!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the prevalent teaching about building your self-esteem opposed to growth in godliness?
  2. Can you think of any sin in which pride is not at the root? In light of this, how can we grow in true humility?
  3. How can we evaluate whether our emotions in any situation are right or wrong?
  4. Is it always right to pray (for ourselves or for others) for deliverance from a trial? How can we know what to pray?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 16: Grow Up! (Hebrews 5:11-6:3)

Just about every home that has small children has a growth chart somewhere in the house. We sometimes used the inside of a closet doorjamb to mark the height of our kids and the date. Then, perhaps each year on their birthdays, we would measure them again. They were always excited to see how much they had grown!

But can you imagine how shocked and concerned we would have been if, instead of growing up, one of our children had grown down! We would have scheduled an immediate doctor’s appointment to find out what was wrong. Growth is normal and a cause for joy. Shrinkage would have been bizarre and a cause for alarm.

Many of the Hebrew Christians to whom our author wrote had grown down in their Christian walk, not up. He says that they had come to need milk again, not solid food. Imagine a teenager who quit eating regular food and went back to formula and Gerber’s pureed peas! Instead of being able to teach others, they now need someone to teach them the ABC’s of the Christian life all over again. The author wants to talk to them about Jesus being a high priest after the order of Melchizedek, but he fears that it will be over their heads. So before he plunges into that subject, he issues the strong warning that runs from 5:11-6:20. In our text, he is saying, “Grow up, folks!”

Believers must move beyond the basics of the Christian faith and grow up in Christ.

You have no doubt been in a situation where an adult was acting like a child: throwing a temper tantrum, or not dealing with a frustrating situation in a mature way. You want to shout, “Grow up! Act your age!” That’s what the author does here with the Hebrew Christians.

There are several thorny interpretive matters in the text. I do not have time to deal with each issue, but will present things as I understand them based on the context and the words used. I invite you to study more on your own and come to your own conclusions. There are five lessons here on Christian growth:

1. It is possible to be a Christian, but to be slow to grow.

If there is spiritual life, there will be spiritual growth of some sort, but growth rates vary. Some become Christians and instantly drop the sins that have plagued their lives for years and never fall back. Others struggle to get rid of those sins for decades. I have a pastor friend who got saved in his early forties. He was a night club entertainer, addicted to alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. He instantly dropped all of those habits and began to follow Christ. But I know others who have struggled with those habits for years after making a profession of faith. They make a break from them, but then keep falling back into them.

The author hits the Hebrews with the fact that they “have become dull of hearing” (5:11). They didn’t used to be that way, but they have developed this spiritual malady. “Dull” is used only here and in 6:12 in the New Testament, and has the nuance of sluggish or slow. It is used in the Greek papyri of someone being sick and therefore lacking energy. So the word has the idea of spiritual laziness or lethargy. When there is an opportunity to get into God’s Word, this person says, “Nah, let’s see what’s on the tube.” When there is occasion to go and hear the Word taught, he says, “I’m tired. I think I’ll stay home and go to bed early.”

Verse 11 shows that teaching God’s Word is a two-way matter. There is the knowledge and ability of the teacher to explain things clearly and in an interesting manner. But also, there is the receptivity of the hearers. It is significant that the best teacher who has ever lived used to exhort His audience, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” “Take care how you listen; for whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him” (Luke 8:8, 18). If Jesus is the preacher and the message isn’t coming through, guess who is at fault? When hearers are dull, teaching is difficult.

I’m talking here about motivation. Motivation is the key to learning. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Hunger and thirst are strong motivators! When you’re hungry or thirsty, there is only one thing on your mind, to satisfy the craving for food or water. If you are driven by the hunger or thirst for righteousness, you will be satisfied (Matt. 5:6). If you think, “Ho hum!” not only will you not grow; you won’t even know what you’re missing!

There is one other lesson in 5:11: There is no neutral in the Christian life. Either you are growing or you’re shrinking. Which is it for you right now? We fool ourselves into thinking that we’re just treading water, but the strong current of the world, the flesh, and the devil carries us backwards if we’re not striving to move ahead. Let me shoot straight: if you’re not making time daily to spend in God’s Word and in prayer, you’re not growing, you’re shrinking! You’re going from eating meat back to the formula and pureed peas. That stuff is great for babies, but it won’t sustain a growing teenager or adult.

2. Christian growth means moving on to deeper levels of understanding.

The author wanted to teach them about the significance of Jesus being a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek, but they can’t handle it. It’s like trying to get a student to read Shakespeare, but he can’t even recognize the letters of the alphabet! In terms of their years as believers, they should have been capable, but they needed to go back to spiritual kindergarten.

He says, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles (the Greek word means, the ABC’s) of the oracles of God.”  The last phrase is parallel to “the elementary teaching about the Christ” (6:1), and refers to the basic truths about the Christian faith: who Jesus Christ is, what He came to do, how we enter into a relationship with Him, how we live the Christian life, etc.

But beyond these basic truths, there is much in Scripture that is deep and nourishing. Someone has said that the Bible is like an ocean, deep enough to drown an elephant, but shallow enough at the shore for a toddler to play. If you want to see how spiritually dull you really are, read the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Keep in mind that all children in Reformed homes used to be required to memorize this before they could be confirmed and join the church. You all know the first question and answer: “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” There is a lifetime of practical content in that short answer!

But do you know Question 4: “What is God?” Answer: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” Question 5: “Are there more Gods than one?” Answer: “There is but One only, the living and true God.” Question 6: “How many persons are there in the Godhead?” Answer: “There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one God the same in substance, equal in power and glory.” Could you have explained the nature of God and the Trinity so well? Question 7: “What are the decrees of God?” Answer: “The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.”

The Shorter Catechism has 107 questions like that. I dare say that if we Baptists learned that sort of thing, we would be light years ahead in our understanding of sound doctrine, and we would not be tossed around by all of the foolish things being taught in the Christian world today. I recommend, A Faith to Confess, subtitled, “The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, Rewritten in Modern English” [Carey Publications]. It is essentially a modification of the Westminster Confession in accordance with a Baptist understanding of the ordinances. Teach these things to your children!

When the author says that by this time, the Hebrews should have been teachers, it does not mean that he was writing to a select group of leaders in the church. Rather, every Christian who has been a believer for a few years should be knowledgeable enough in the teachings of Scripture to instruct a younger believer. Not all are gifted as teachers for the whole church (James 3:1; Eph. 4:11-12), but all should know enough to present the gospel, to teach the basics about God, man, salvation, and the Christian life. If you cannot do that, either you are a relatively new believer, or you’re one of the older believers that this section of Scripture confronts. Grow up!

Let me add that we live in a day of dumbed-down Christianity, where we have an aversion to sound doctrine. The mantra of our day, even among evangelicals, is, “Doctrine is dead head knowledge that just leads to arguments and division. So be careful not to get into doctrine too far!” But the fact is, every believer has doctrines! They may be sound doctrines, in line with Scripture, or they may be screwy doctrines that are inconsistent with Scripture. Theology is simply the process of synthesizing and harmonizing the teachings of the whole Bible on the major subjects that it discusses. So if you are a Christian, you can’t avoid being a theologian. The question is, are you growing to be sound in your theology, or are you shallow, mixed up, and unbiblical in your theology?

I just read Dave Hunt and James White’s Debating Calvinism [Multnomah Press]. In addition to hundreds of blatantly false and misleading statements, Dave Hunt, who denies Calvinism, says shocking things like, “It is not loving—period—for God to damn for eternity anyone He could save” (p. 260, italics his). In other words, if God has the ability to save a sinner, but He doesn’t exercise that ability, He is unloving. The only conclusion, then, is that God is impotent to save anyone without that person’s cooperation, which is what Hunt actually teaches. That sort of attack on basic Bible doctrine shouldn’t even need to be debated! But what is more disturbing, in Hunt’s earlier similar attack, What Love is This? [Loyal Publishing], Christian leaders like Tim LaHaye, Chuck Smith, and Chuck Missler endorse this blatantly false teaching! I finished the book wanting to shout, “Grow up, people!”

3. Christian growth is directly related to obedience to the truth that we have already learned.

The author says, “For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness” (5:13). He describes the spiritually mature as those who eat solid food, “who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” He uses the phrase “word of righteousness” for the Scriptures, which are designed to produce God’s righteousness in those who believe and obey. The author may be referring to the doctrine of imputed righteousness, taught in Genesis 15:6, and repeated by Paul in Romans 3 & 4. But also, those who are counted righteous by faith in Christ will also progress in practical righteousness, learning what is pleasing to the Lord (Eph. 5:10).

You may think that righteousness and good and evil are obvious, but that is not so. These things need to be learned through practice and training. “Accustomed” means lacking in experience. It is used in Numbers 14:23 (LXX) to refer to “inexperienced youths,” who have not yet learned good and evil. “Good and evil” (5:14) refers not only to ethical conduct, but also to true and false doctrine (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 193). Both require discernment, although ethical behavior is usually easier to discern than sound or false doctrine.

But even behavior needs to be discerned according to God’s Word. Our culture bombards us with immoral behavior as if it were neutral, or even desirable. As a result, many evangelicals currently believe that homosexual behavior is okay, as long as the couple is “committed” or “in love”! I read recently that “55 percent of evangelical Protestants have very unfavorable views of homosexual men, compared to 28 percent of mainline Protestants and Catholics” (from The Washington Times, 11/19/03, p. A14). That means that 45 percent do not have “very unfavorable views of homosexual men”! That’s alarming! But when evangelicals watch the same TV shows and movies as the world does, and read their Bibles only occasionally, is it any wonder?

But the point is, Bible doctrine is not just to fill your head or help you defend some theological system. It is always intended to make you a more godly person. In his introduction to Calvin’s Institutes ([Westminster Press], p. lii), John McNeill points out that to the modern mind the word “piety” has lost its proper implication and status. But to Calvin, piety was “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” “It exists when men ‘recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good.’” Then McNeill quotes A. Mitchell Hunter, who says, “Piety was the keystone of his character. He was a God-possessed soul. Theology was no concern to him as a study in itself; he devoted himself to it as a framework for the support of all that religion meant to him.” McNeill adds, “Since we ‘owe everything to God,’ in Calvin’s pages we are everywhere confronting God, not toying with ideas or balancing opinions about him.” (Keep these comments in mind if you read Dave Hunt’s vitriolic and baseless attacks on Calvin!)

So when you study the Bible or theology, always study with an aim to obedience and godly living. We’ve seen that it is possible to be a Christian, but be slow to grow. Also, Christian growth means moving on to deeper levels of understanding. It is directly related to obedience to the truth that we have learned. Next,

4. Christian growth requires laying a foundation of doctrine and then building on it.

In 6:1, the author exhorts his readers to leave “the elementary teaching about the Christ” and “press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation….” Then he mentions six things that comprise the foundational, elementary teachings. By leaving these things, he is not suggesting that they are no longer important and should be left behind. Rather, he is saying that once you lay a proper foundation, don’t go back and dig it up again and again. Move on, building your life on that foundation.

There are differing views of how to interpret these six things. Some argue that they refer solely to Jewish, Old Testament issues. Others say that they relate to the basics of Christianity. Still others mix these categories. They are arranged in three pairs.

*Repentance from dead works and faith toward God—The phrase “dead works” occurs only here and in 9:14, which talks about the blood of Jesus cleansing our consciences from dead works to serve the living God. All spiritual works of the unbeliever are dead works because they either originate from souls that are spiritually dead or they result in final spiritual death if the person trusts in them for eternal life. In a Jewish setting, dead works refer to “external and self-righteous compliance with the requirements of the law” (P. Hughes, p. 197). If the Jew boasted in his keeping the ceremonial law, or even in his outward compliance with the Ten Commandments, and thought that those works would gain him eternal life, he was in for a rude awakening (Mark 10:17-22; Matt. 5:27-48).

Repentance from dead works and faith toward God are at the heart of the gospel (Mark 1:15). You cannot separate the two. You cannot trust Christ as Savior without turning from sin. The person who turns from sin trusts Christ as his only hope. As to why the author says, “faith toward God,” rather than “Christ,” Philip Hughes answers, “the purpose of Christ’s coming was to bring mankind back to that attitude of spontaneous trustfulness toward God, departure from which led to our condition of fallenness and alienation. It is through the mediation of the Son that we return to the Father…” (p. 198).

*Instruction about washings and laying on of hands”—These phrases are difficult to understand. Some say that “instructions about washings” (Greek = baptismon) refers to teaching about the various ceremonial cleansings in the Old Testament, along with the various baptisms in the New (the baptism of John, of Christ, of the apostles, of the Holy Spirit). “Laying on of hands” would then refer to the conferring of spiritual blessings or gifts early in one’s Christian experience. Charles Simeon (Expository Outlines of the Whole Bible [Zondervan], 19:227) has a different view, that these two phrases are parenthetical and explanatory of the first two. By “washings,” he understands the various cleansings of the law, which pointed ahead to cleansing from sin and dead works through repentance. By “laying on of hands,” he understands the laying of hands on the head of the sacrificial victim before it was offered, pointing ahead to the believer’s faith in Christ as his sacrifice for sin. I would not be dogmatic, but it is an interesting possibility.

*The resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment—These are basic teachings of the gospel, that everyone will be raised, either to eternal life or to eternal judgment (John 5:24-29). As Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 15, if the dead are not raised, then Christ is not raised and our entire faith is in vain.

But the point is, as a believer you must learn basic Bible doctrines and then build upon the foundation. Studying one of the classic catechisms or statements of faith will help you lay a foundation. But then go deeper. Read some books on doctrine or theology. Finally,

5. Christian growth does not happen automatically; it takes deliberate effort along with God’s enabling.

“Practice” (5:14) refers to a habit that is formed by deliberate effort. “Trained” is an athletic term that Paul uses in 1 Timothy 4:7, where he tells Timothy to “discipline himself for the purpose of godliness.” No athlete excels by casual dabbling at his sport. He has a goal and he works at it for hours every day, denying himself other pleasures that may detract from his goal. For the Christian, the goal is godliness or holiness. We should cut everything out of our lives that detracts from godliness and do everything that we can to move us towards godliness. If you need help in this area, I recommend Donald Whitney’s excellent book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life [NavPress].

In 6:3, the author says, “we will” move on to the deeper teaching, “if God permits.” Leon Morris says, “We should take the words not simply as a pious nod in the direction of God but as coming out of the author’s realization that without divine aid the plan he was suggesting was impossible” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:54).

The command, “press on to maturity” (6:1), is a passive verb that has the nuance of “being borne by God toward maturity.” It is the same word that Peter uses (2 Pet. 1:21) when he says that the men who wrote Scripture were “moved by the Holy Spirit.” This word was used of a ship at sea being borne by the wind in its sails. It means that while spiritual growth is our responsibility and requires our effort, beneath the whole process is God’s power. As Paul finely balances it, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

Conclusion

I realize that spiritual growth is more difficult to measure than your children’s physical growth. But you can be sure that you’re not growing if your spiritual life is running on autopilot. You are not growing if you are haphazard about Bible-reading and prayer. You are not growing if you are not making a deliberate effort to discipline your life for godliness. If you’re not growing, you’re shrinking! The author of Hebrews says to you, “Grow up!”

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we tell, as believers, whether or not we’re growing?
  2. What should a professing Christian who lacks the motivation to grow do about it? How can he get motivated?
  3. Discuss: If doctrine doesn’t help you to be more godly, you’re not using the doctrine properly.
  4. How can an undisciplined person learn discipline?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 17: When Repentance Becomes Impossible (Hebrews 6:4-8)

We come to what is arguably the most difficult passage in the New Testament to interpret. The problem is that no view, including the one that I hold, is without problems. So you have to decide which set of problems you want to live with. If you wish to advocate a view that is different than mine, I wish you well! I consulted over 35 different commentaries or sermons, and in my judgment, no one is able to answer all of the difficulties that confront us in this text. So we cannot be dogmatic here, but must continue to ask God for understanding in a spirit of submission and obedience to what we do understand.

While there are dozens of views on the various details of the text, there are basically four major views when it comes to the overall interpretation. Two of these views, in my opinion, may be dismissed without much discussion, since they contradict many other Scriptures. The other two views have merit, depending on which problems you wish to live with. I will explain why the view that I hold to makes the most sense to me.

The Four Major Views:

1. The Arminian view: True believers lose their salvation if they fall away from Christ.

Consistent Arminians deny the eternal security of the believer and the perseverance of the saints. These are not completely synonymous doctrines. The doctrine of eternal security teaches “once saved, always saved.” If a person believes in Jesus Christ as Savior, he receives eternal life at that instant and he cannot lose it. The Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints agrees that if a person is truly saved, God will keep him saved unto eternity, because salvation is from the Lord, not from men.

But Reformed theologians draw a distinction between a person’s decision to receive Christ and God actually saving a soul. People can make decisions apart from God’s regenerating power that is necessary to bring a soul from spiritual death to spiritual life. When a person makes a decision to trust Christ, the question is, did God supernaturally raise that person from death to life? Did God give him a new heart? The Reformed view is that time will tell. As the parable of the sower shows, the stony ground seed and the seed among the thorns looked good for a while, but did not bear fruit to eternal life (Matt. 13:20-23). In other words, the Reformed view is that there is such a thing as false faith. The false believer seems to be saved for a while, but later reveals his true condition and falls away.

Consistent Arminians, however, teach that salvation depends on man’s will to believe in Christ. Since man does it, man can undo it. Serious sin (Arminians are hard pressed to determine which or how much sin) results in a loss of salvation. They say that Hebrews 6 describes a believer who loses his salvation.

But they have two big problems. First, many biblical texts teach that true believers cannot be lost (John 6:39-40; 10:27-30; Rom. 8:28-39). Second, if true believers can be lost, then our text teaches that it is impossible for them to regain their salvation. Most Arminians do not want to go there!

2. Non-lordship salvation view: Genuine Christians can deny the faith and yet remain saved, although they lose their rewards in heaven.

Zane Hodges (Bible Knowledge Commentary, Hebrews [Victor Books]) and the Grace Evangelical Society are the main advocates, along with R. T. Kendall. They hold to a decisional view of salvation and they reduce saving faith to a notional (“mental”) assent that does not include repentance. Once a person believes in Christ, he is eternally secure no matter what his subsequent life is like. He may later become an atheist or he may live in gross sin for the rest of his life. But because he once “believed,” he is eternally secure.

The problems with this view are too numerous to deal with in this message. The biblical books of James and 1 John, and John MacArthur’s Faith Works [Word] refute this view. The Bible is clear that a true believer may sin grievously (David & Peter are examples) and yet be restored. But it is also clear that some profess to believe and yet are not truly saved (Balaam, Judas, Simon Magus, 1 Cor. 15:2; 2 Cor. 6:1; 13:5; Titus 1:16). “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-4). A person who falls away and crucifies again the Son of God, putting Him to open shame, who cannot be renewed to repentance, is not a believer who loses his rewards!

3. The hypothetical view: The author is speaking of something that cannot happen, but is using it as a warning to press on.

The impossibility is variously interpreted as either apostasy or getting saved again. Dr. Ryrie explains (and seemingly advocates) this view in the footnote in The Ryrie Study Bible [Moody Press]:

To “fall away” is impossible (since, according to this view, true believers are eternally secure), but the phrase is placed in the sentence to strengthen the warning. It is similar to saying something like this to a class of students: “It is impossible for a student, once enrolled in this course, if he turns the clock back [which cannot be done], to start the course over. Therefore, let all students go on to deeper knowledge.”

This view has the advantage of understanding the phrases in 6:4-5 to refer to genuine conversion, which they certainly seem to be describing. Charles Spurgeon advocated a version of the hypothetical view (The New Park Street Pulpit [Baker], 2:169-176, “Final Perseverance,” although different than Ryrie’s view), because he could not accept that the phrases in 6:4-5 describe false believers. He explained that true believers cannot fall away because God keeps them from doing so. But Paul (whom he thinks wrote Hebrews) is arguing that the reason they cannot fall away is because it would negate the efficacy of Christ’s atonement on the cross. Thus restoration would be impossible. Others argue that the hypothetical warning is not against falling away from the faith, but against going back and starting the Christian life all over again (“relaying the foundation,” 6:1-2, which is impossible).

I reject this view because of two problems. First, it is an utterly confusing way to make the point. Every time I hear the view explained, I think, “Huh? Why would the author explain something in such a convoluted way?”

Second, a hypothetical warning is no warning at all. If it is impossible to do something, you don’t need to warn me not to do it. Spurgeon tries to counter this objection by saying that God uses the warning (“you can never be restored”) to prevent Christians from falling away. He uses the illustration of a deep precipice. God tells His children, “If you fall over this precipice, you’ll be dashed to pieces.” This leads the believer to cry out, “Father, hang onto me so that I don’t fall over!” The warning keeps the believer in holy fear and dependence on God, because he knows that if he were to fall over the edge, there could be no restoration (p. 175).

But his analogy is valid only if the possibility of falling actually exists. If there were an impossibly high fence around the precipice, and no one could ever climb over it, even if he tried, then what need is there to warn someone not to fall over the edge? A hypothetical warning is not really a warning at all. The same thing applies if the warning is against going back and getting saved all over again (which is impossible). Why warn against something that you cannot do? Besides, this variation ignores the serious implications of the term “fall away.” Something more serious than trying to start over in the Christian life is at stake.

4. The false believer view: The author is speaking of those who are associated with the church and its blessings, but are not truly saved.

This view, which I hold to (in spite of the problems), says that the people described in 6:4-5 are in the Hebrew church and appear to be saved. But at some point, usually a crisis, their true colors come through. They repudiate their faith in Christ, go back either to Judaism or to the world, and side with those who crucified the Son of God. In so doing, they put Christ to open shame. In effect, their lives, if not their words, say to people, “I tried faith in Christ, but it didn’t work! It was a sham! I was on the inside, so I know what I am talking about. The Christian faith is worthless!” For such apostates, the author says, “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.” They have hardened their hearts against the truth that they were exposed to. Although they looked for a while as if they were saved, their lives now show that they never were saved.

There are two major problems with this view. First, the terms in 6:4-5 sound as if they are describing true believers, not false believers. Why would the author pile up all of these terms if he is describing false believers? Second, if they were not truly saved, then what is there to fall away from? How can they be renewed to repentance if they never truly repented in the first place? I admit that these are difficult problems. That’s why I said at the first that no view is problem-free. You have to pick the problems you can live with. Some principles for interpreting these verses that I will now explain help to mitigate these two objections.

How do we decide which view is correct?

There are two main factors:

1. Which view best fits with the argument, context, and situation that the Book of Hebrews addresses?

As we’ve seen, the Book of Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish believers in Christ who were tempted under the threat of persecution to return to Judaism. The author is arguing for the superiority of the person and work of Jesus Christ. To abandon Christ for the old Jewish system is to turn from God’s supreme and final provision in His Son to that which is inferior.

In chapters 3 & 4, the author used the negative example of Israel in the wilderness (from Psalm 95) to warn these Hebrew Christians not to fall away because of an evil, unbelieving heart (3:7-12, 15; 4:3, 5, 7). He urges them not to fail to enter God’s rest through disobedience and unbelief (3:18; 4:6, 11). He tells them, “We have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end” (3:14).

As I pointed out in our study of those chapters, the entire nation had put the blood on their doorposts, which is analogous to saving faith. They all passed through the Red Sea, which is a type of baptism (1 Cor. 10:2). They all ate the same spiritual food and drank water from the rock, which was a type of Christ. They all lived under the illumination and protection of the cloud and the pillar of fire. They all enjoyed these many spiritual benefits, and yet most of them were not genuinely saved. In his wrath, God laid them low in the wilderness and they did not enter His rest. They had the gospel preached to them (4:2, 6), but it did not profit them because of their unbelief and disobedience.

There are many parallels between Israel’s experience in the wilderness and the terms that the author uses in 6:4-5. They had been “enlightened,” in the sense of being exposed to God’s ways and to the gospel. They had “tasted the heavenly gift,” spiritually in the deliverance from Egypt, and physically in the manna that God provided. Probably in 6:4 “heavenly gift” refers to salvation, or to Christ Himself.

To be “partakers of the Holy Spirit” means to be sharers in the Spirit, probably with reference to the blessings of salvation and the gifts of the Spirit that were manifested in the Hebrew church. Israel in the exodus corporately experienced the miraculous signs of the plagues and the other miracles connected with that momentous time. To taste the “good word of God” refers to His good promises to His people, especially in the gospel. Again, this was a corporate experience of Israel in the wilderness. All of them had tasted God’s good word of promise by coming out of slavery in Egypt. But not all were saved through personal faith.

They also had tasted “the powers of the age to come.” Israel experienced many miracles, both in the deliverance from Egypt and in God’s sustaining them in the wilderness. In the Hebrew church, it refers to the miraculous sign gifts that God gave to confirm the gospel (2:4). But it’s possible even to perform miracles and yet be lost. Jesus predicted that many on judgment day will say to Him that they had cast out demons and performed miracles in His name, and yet He would say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:22-23).

The analogy that the author uses in 6:7-8 to explain 6:4-6 is a major key to interpreting this text. He talks about ground that drinks in the rain (symbolic of God’s blessings). If it bears a crop, it fulfills its purpose and is blessed by God. But if it yields thorns and thistles, “it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.” This fits with the story of Israel in the wilderness and the point of his warning in 6:4-6. God poured out His blessings on the nation in the exodus and during their wilderness experience. Their lives should have brought forth the fruit of faith and obedience. Instead, they were faithless and disobedient, threatening on several occasions to return to Egypt.

Some in the Hebrew church were in danger of precisely the same sin. They had participated in a corporate sense in God’s abundant blessings of salvation, but now they were tempted to return to Judaism. But to do that would be to fall away from Christ, and even worse, to join those who had crucified Him! In so doing, they would be crucifying Christ all over again, and putting Him to open shame by agreeing with the unbelieving Jews that He is not their Savior and Messiah. To do that would put them close to being cursed, and if they died in this state of renouncing their faith, they would face the fires of eternal judgment.

Verse 9 reinforces this interpretation, when the author says, “We are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation….” The word “and” is epexegetical, or explanatory. It may be translated, “that is.” “Better things” most likely refers back to the five things mentioned in 6:4-5 (Wayne Grudem, in Still Sovereign, ed. by Thomas Schriener & Bruce Ware [Baker], pp. 158-159; Grudem’s 50-page treatment of the Hebrews warning passages is the most comprehensive defense of the false believer view that I read). The implication of 6:9 is that the terms in 6:4-5 refer to those who do not possess genuine salvation.

The question remains, “But if they did not possess genuine salvation, why does the author say that it is impossible for them to be renewed to repentance? If they had never repented in the first place, why talk about renewal?” Here we turn to the second factor:

2. Which view best fits with other biblical texts and examples?

There are many other biblical texts that talk about insincere repentance. Balaam seemingly repented when the angel confronted him, but it was not a repentance unto salvation (Num. 22:34; 31:16; compare 2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11). Judas felt remorse for betraying Jesus and even returned the silver, but his “repentance” was not unto salvation (Matt. 27:3-5). Peter condemned the apostates who, “after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them” (2 Pet. 2:20-21).

Thus I believe that both the broad and immediate context of Hebrews, plus other biblical texts and examples about apostasy, support the view that the author is talking here about false believers who were associated with God’s people and the blessings of salvation, but who were not truly saved. To fall away means deliberately to reject and repudiate the substantial light that they have been given about Christ and the gospel. In so doing, repentance becomes impossible—not for God (Matt. 19:23-26), but rather, it is morally impossible because by this deliberate rejection of the truth, they harden their hearts and place themselves beyond repentance. Thus we can sum up the main idea of our text:

Repentance becomes impossible when a person has been fully exposed to the blessings of God’s people, but falls away through deliberate unbelief and denial of Christ.

In spite of the difficulties, I believe that this interpretation best fits with the tenor of the warning, the context, and the other biblical warnings and examples of apostasy. Now, some brief…

Applications:

1. It is dangerous to traffic in Christian matters, but to reject or disobey the light that God has graciously given to us.

One reason that the author piles up these many terms that sound as if these apostates were converted is to warn us about how far we can go in matters of the faith and yet not be genuinely converted. I remember when I first read Jonathan Edwards’ A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections [Banner of Truth], although I had been a pastor for many years, it caused me to examine my own heart to make sure that I was saved! It also opened my eyes to the fact that many in evangelical churches “profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him” (Titus 1:16).

2. It is dangerous to profess faith in Christ but to have no evidence of fruit in your life.

God is raining His blessings all around, but each of us needs to ask, “Am I bringing forth thorns and thistles, or fruit unto God?” Read through the lists of the deeds of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:19-23) and ask, “Which most characterizes my life? Am I progressively denying the deeds of the flesh and growing the fruit of the Spirit?”

3. It is dangerous not to practice frequent repentance.

Repentance isn’t a one-time thing that you do at conversion and then move on. Nor is it simply a change of mind, not of behavior. Turning from sin ought to be a chief identifying mark of the believer. As I’ve said before, in Eastern Europe, unbelievers call evangelicals “repenters.” That’s not a bad label! If you’re in God’s Word daily, it confronts you with ways that you are not pleasing to God. Repentance is the proper response.

4. It is dangerous not to worry about this warning if your heart is callused, or to worry excessively about it if your heart is tender.

Again, one reason that the author uses such strong terms is to shock those whose hearts are becoming callused so that they wake up before it’s too late. This isn’t just a warning to believers to grow up in their faith (although it is that). It’s a warning to those who think that they are believers, but are not, not to fall away into eternal judgment. True believers do not go back to their old way of life. True believers persevere in faith and obedience. We will see the same thing emphasized again in 10:36, where he tells them that they have need of endurance. Believing the best about them, he says, “But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul” (10:39).

In other words, there is only one way for those who have truly believed in Christ as Savior and Lord: to move ahead in faith and obedience, even in the face of trials or persecution. To give up the Christ who sacrificed Himself on the cross and go back to the pleasures of this evil world or to the empty shell of religion is extremely dangerous and possibly spiritually fatal!

If your heart is tender towards God, and you are striving daily against sin, then you should be concerned about this warning, but not excessively concerned. Keep walking with the Lord and He will bring you safely into His heavenly kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18)!

Discussion Questions

  1. In light of the context and other Scriptures, which of the four views makes the most sense to you? Why?
  2. Where is the balance between examining yourself properly versus excessive introspection (2 Cor. 13:5; 1 Cor. 4:3-4)?
  3. Should we give assurance of salvation to a professing Christian who is not walking with Christ? Why/why not?
  4. Explain the difference between “once saved, always saved,” and the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 18: Things That Accompany Salvation (Hebrews 6:9-12)

The football team did poorly in the first half of the game and is getting beaten badly. They come into the locker room and the coach chews them out: “You guys are playing as if this is the first time you’ve ever played the game! Jones, you missed a key block that allowed them to sack our quarterback. Smith, you didn’t see that receiver that was wide open in the end zone. We could have had an easy touchdown there. Williams, you weren’t paying attention to the signals and jumped offside, costing us a penalty that we couldn’t afford.”

But after a few minutes, the coach changes his focus: “I know that you guys can do better! I’ve seen you play well. I know that you have it in you to go out there in the second half and control the ball. You can win this game! Let’s go do it!”

Our text reminds me of that kind of locker room pep talk. In 6:4-8, the author has warned the Hebrew church about the danger of repudiating faith in Christ and returning to Judaism. He is fearful that there may be some in the flock who are in danger of doing that. But he knows that this is not true of the majority. He also knows that some sensitive souls in the church may be discouraged by his strong rebuke. He wants them to know that his words do not come from anger, but from love and concern. So in 6:9, he changes his focus from warning to encouragement. He addresses them as “beloved” (the only time in Hebrews), and tells them, “We are convinced of better things concerning you, that is, things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.”

That statement implies, as I said last week, that the warning pertains to those in the church who may not be genuinely saved. He hopes that the few souls who may be tempted to turn from Christ will take the warning to heart. But now he wants to encourage the majority to press on in endurance to maturity. He doesn’t want these genuine believers to doubt their salvation, but rather, to realize “the full assurance of hope until the end” (6:11). So he tells them that he—and even more importantly, God—sees the evidence of genuine salvation in them. And he encourages them to press on diligently in serving Christ, so that they will persevere in spite of any persecution or hardship. The main idea here is that…

Genuine salvation is accompanied by diligent, faithful service to God’s saints out of love for Him.

1. Genuine salvation is always accompanied by visible evidence.

In 6:10, he mentions their work and the love which they had shown toward the Lord’s name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. “Shown” points to something visible. He could see how their lives had changed from living for themselves to now living to serve others. Their salvation resulted in visible evidence. He refers to this same evidence again in 10:32-34, where he specifies how in former days they had endured public reproach, had showed sympathy to prisoners, and had joyfully accepted the seizure of their property, knowing that they had a better and lasting possession in heaven.

The point is, if you have faith in Christ, it will manifest itself in your life. There will be other evidences than those listed here (1 John lists many evidences of genuine faith), but there are always visible evidences of the new birth just as there are unmistakable signs of life in a newborn baby. As we saw (6:7-8), it may take a while to see whether the ground that drinks in the rain bears thorns and thistles or a good crop. But as Jesus’ parable of the sower shows, the good soil will yield a crop, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty” (Matt. 13:8). Genuine salvation will result in a life of increasing fruitfulness and holiness. Our text focuses on one such evidence of salvation:

2. A major evidence of genuine salvation is diligent, faithful service to others out of love for Him.

Note three things in this regard:

A. Love for God stemming from His love for us is the primary motive for all Christian service.

The author refers to “the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints” (6:10). The first and greatest commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). It is the basis for the second greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus commanded us to love one another as He has loved us (John 13:34). The basis for loving God is to recognize that He first loved us, even while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:6-8; 1 John 4:19).

Many Christian psychologists wrongly teach that you must learn to love yourself before you can love God and others. But that is to pervert these commandments! The second commandment assumes what we all know to be true, that we all love ourselves quite well! Even the person who goes around dumping on himself loves himself. He is completely self-focused. If he would care about others as much as he focused on himself, he would begin to obey the command. Even the suicidal person loves himself more than he loves others. When he thinks about killing himself, he isn’t thinking about the effect on others. He is only thinking of trying to escape his own problems, even if it devastates his family or friends.

The author mentions the love which they had shown toward God’s name. His name represents all that God is as revealed in His Word. It refers to His holy attributes and His ways. To love His name is to have a passion for His glory, to see God exalted to His true place of honor over every creature. Loving God and His name is the basis for all that we do in service for Him. John MacArthur (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Hebrews [Moody Press], p. 155) points out, “When Jesus recommissioned Peter, He did not ask him if he loved men and, if so, then to go out and serve them. He asked Peter three times, ‘Do you love Me?’ After each of Peter’s affirmative replies, Jesus commanded him to feed His sheep (John 21:15-17).” MacArthur concludes, “We can never love men, saved or unsaved, lovable or unlovable, until we properly love Christ.”

Why does the author begin 6:10 by saying, “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work …”? I think that one reason is that these people had suffered early in their Christian lives, and now they’re facing the prospect of more suffering. At such times, Satan tries to undermine our love for God by whispering, “You trusted in Christ and look where it got you! You’ve had nothing but problems. Is that how this loving God takes care of you?” He wants you to start thinking that either God is unjust or else He has forgotten you. So the author says, “God is not unjust and He has not forgotten you.” He goes on to set their focus on the certain hope of inheriting God’s promises (6:11-12).

Take a moment to apply this to your heart. Perhaps trials or hardships have caused you to doubt God’s love. Maybe the trial is other Christians who have disappointed you. The church has not been all that you thought that it should be. Believers have criticized you when you were simply trying to serve the Lord. The enemy has come in and gotten you to think either that God is unjust or that He has forgotten what you have done for Him. If you buy into that line of thinking, pretty soon you’ll be having a pity party, you’ll cut yourself off from other believers because of your hurt feelings, and Satan will have you right where he wants you to be! You’ve got to come back to love for the Lord and His name as the motivation for everything else.

B. To love others is one way to show love for Him.

These Hebrew believers had ministered and were still ministering to the saints, but the author says that this service reflected their love for the Lord’s name.

The Russian author, Leo Tolstoy (Twenty-Three Tales, online at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu) illustrates this in a story titled, “Where Love is, God is.” It is about an old Russian cobbler who has lost his wife and all of his children. He is bitter and lonely, wanting to die. A traveling monk stops by to visit him and after hearing his story, tells him that he must not question God’s ways. God has a purpose for his life. His despair is the result of living for himself. He must learn to live for God. He tells the old cobbler to read the Gospels to learn how to live for God.

The old man does so and is transformed. He becomes content and at peace. Every night he pores over the gospels. One night, he falls asleep reading in Luke 7 about the Pharisee who did not welcome Jesus to his home. Suddenly, whether in a dream or what the old man doesn’t know, he hears a voice calling his name: “Martin, Martin, look out in the street tomorrow for I shall come.”

The next day, he keeps watch out of his window as he works. He sees an old man that he knows, invites him in and gives him some tea. He tells the man about Christ’s mercy as he had been reading in the gospels. The old man listened with tears running down his cheeks and left thanking him for his hospitality.

A while later, Martin saw outside a woman dressed in shabby summer clothes, trying to keep her crying baby warm. He invited her in to sit by the fire. She was destitute and had pawned her shawl the day before to get something to eat. He fed her, gave her an old coat to wrap around her baby, and gave her the money to get her shawl out of pawn.

Later, he saw a poor woman with a basket of apples for sale. A boy tried to steal one, but she caught him by the hair and was threatening to take him to the police. Martin went outside, calmed her down, and got the boy to ask forgiveness and the woman to forgive. He told them both Jesus’ parable about the master who forgave the servant an incredibly large debt, only to have the servant go out and mistreat a fellow servant who owed him a slight amount. After listening, the woman picked up her heavy load to go, but the boy offered to carry it for her, so they went off together.

It was evening now. Martin went inside, lit his lamp, and opened his Bible. He had intended to read where he had left off, but the Bible fell open to another place. Before he read, he heard a voice call out, “Martin, it is I.” He looked up and saw the old man and then he vanished. This was repeated with the woman and her baby, and with the woman selling apples and the boy. Then he read, “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.…” At the bottom of the page, he read, “To the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matt. 25:35, 40). Tolstoy concludes, “And Martin understood that his dream had come true; and that the Savior had really come to him that day, and he had welcomed him.”

Thus love for God stemming from His love for us is the primary motive for all Christian service. To love others is one way to show love for Him.

C. Love for others is work that requires diligence, faithfulness, and patience.

Love is not spontaneous and effortless. The author calls it “work,” and exhorts them to continue showing the same diligence. He doesn’t want them to grow sluggish or lazy, but through faith and patience, to become imitators of those who inherit the promises. It’s as Paul writes (Gal. 6:9-10), “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”

The Christian life is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. The reward comes at the end of the race. We need to commit to the long haul and fight the natural laziness that we’re all prone to. Let’s face it, it’s almost always inconvenient to show love to others. But love isn’t an optional character trait for those so inclined! It is the primary Christian virtue.

We hear a lot today about burnout, and I do not mean to be overly simplistic. But a lot of burnout stems from the fact that we have not maintained our devotion to Jesus Christ. If we let other things crowd out time alone with God in His Word and in prayer, and if we do not think often on His great love as shown to us at the cross, the work of loving others will soon drain us. Ministry is having your cup full to the brim of God’s love and then slopping over on others. When you let your cup go dry, you burn out.

We’ve seen that genuine salvation is always accompanied by visible evidence and that a major evidence is diligent, faithful service to others out of love for God.

3. Diligent, faithful service to others out of love for God will strengthen your assurance of salvation.

While there may have been a few apostates in the church, the author is confident that the majority are saved because he has seen the evidence in their lives in their ministry to the saints. Then (6:11) he shares his desire that each of them continue with the same diligence and adds, “so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end.” Full assurance of hope is tied in with diligent service, especially practical deeds of love towards fellow believers. As John states, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14; see also 15-20).

The bedrock of Christian assurance is that God has promised eternal life to those that believe in Jesus Christ, and you know that you have trusted in Him. But, how do you know if your faith is genuine, saving faith? Since the apostates had what seemed to be many evidences of salvation (6:4-5), and yet were not truly saved, how can you know that your faith is the real thing?

The biblical answer is, your life should reflect the reality of what God has done in your heart. As John also states (1 John 2:3), “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” The more that you see God’s working through you, the greater will be your assurance that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).

In Hebrews 6:7, the author uses the analogy of ground that drinks in the rain. If it brings forth vegetation useful to those who tilled it, it receives a blessing from God. In other words, fruitfulness is the result of salvation. But when you are fruitful, God adds further blessing, a fuller salvation (Alexander Maclaren develops this point in Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], Hebrews, pp. 364-366). As 6:10 implies, God will reward your service for Him, and one reward is “the full assurance of hope until the end.” Persevering in good deeds is not the cause of why God keeps you, but it is the evidence of it. That evidence strengthens your assurance.

But diligence is hard to maintain and laziness is easy to fall into. So how do we keep running the race when we feel like dropping out?

4. One key to diligent, faithful service to God is to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

The author is referring to the Old Testament saints. He goes on to use Abraham as an illustration of a man who patiently waited in faith and obtained God’s promise (6:15). He will expand this list in chapter 11. All of these heroes of the faith, plus those in the New Testament, are there so that we can learn from them and imitate their faith. Both Jesus and Paul told their followers to learn from and imitate them (Matt. 10:29; John 13:15; 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Phil 4:9; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14; 2 Tim. 3:10-11). I’ve often said, only half-joking, that child-rearing is easy, because kids follow your example. So all you have to do is live a godly life before them!

We are to imitate those who by faith and patience inherit the promises. As Hebrews 11 makes clear, most of the Old Testament saints died in faith without realizing the promises in their lifetimes (11:39). This means, as Paul puts it, that if “we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). God’s promises are fulfilled in eternity. That’s where faith comes into play. Will we trust God to keep His promises, even if in this life we are despised, rejected, and destitute? Will we endure hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, knowing that He will reward us far beyond any sacrifices that we make here below?

Two applications: First, read and study the biographies in the Bible. There are also some biographical novels of biblical characters. Last summer as we drove on our vacation, Marla and I read aloud through Francine Rivers’ account of Bathsheba, which had some interesting insights. But before you read books like that, study the biblical account, so that you know when the author is speculating and when he or she is relating fact. Learn both the positive and negative lessons from the saints in the Bible.

Second, read Christian biographies. I’ve benefited greatly from reading dozens of biographies of pastors and missionaries. I am always reading a biography, along with other types of books. Currently, I’m reading The Journals of Jim Elliot. When that’s done, a biography of Augustine is waiting. Good biographies do not just extol all the amazing things that these spiritual giants accomplished. They also tell you their struggles and failures, so that you can learn from their mistakes. You see how they responded to situations that often are not much different than what you face. Sometimes the differences in time period or culture will help you think about issues in our culture that you may have been blind to. I have a bibliography of Christian biographies available.

Conclusion

Note that our text contains the three cardinal Christian virtues, faith (6:12), hope (6:11), and love (6:10). Those who are genuinely saved will be growing in these three areas, and so they are good yardsticks to measure your life by.

Are you living by faith in God’s promises in your daily life? If you are, you will know God’s promises (through Scripture memory), and you will be praying those promises back to God, claiming by faith what He has promised in His Word.

Are you growing in hope? Biblical hope is not uncertain, as when we say, “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow.” Biblical hope is certain, but not yet realized. It is an attitude that is the opposite of discouragement and depression. The person who hopes in God is buoyed up by the promise of Jesus’ coming, and that the future will be glorious for all of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. As Paul prays (Rom. 15:13), “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Are you growing in love? Do you love God more and more, cherishing His Word? Do you love His people, difficult as they may be at times? Plug in the marks of love from 1 Corinthians 13 and ask, “Do I love my immediate family members in this way?” Do you love the lost enough to give your money and time so that they can hear the good news, that Christ came into this world to save sinners? None of these graces are automatic. You must cultivate them daily through the spiritual disciplines. These are the things that accompany genuine salvation.

Discussion Questions

  1. Some say that if you make assurance depend in any way on works, you undermine all assurance. What does the Bible say?
  2. Why is the motive (love for God) vital in Christian service? What can happen if you have other motives?
  3. Some would say that if love requires effort and is not spontaneous, it is not genuine. Why is this false?
  4. Why is “learning to love yourself” a fundamentally anti-biblical concept? What does the Bible say we should think about ourselves (Rom. 12:3, 10, 16; Phil. 2:3-4; Prov. 3:7).

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 19: An Anchor for Your Soul (Hebrews 6:13-20)

Fishermen tend to be incurable optimists. A guy asked his neighbor how the fishing was going. “Better,” he said. “Last week I went out for four hours and didn’t catch a thing. Yesterday, I got the same result in only three hours” (Reader’s Digest [8/87], p. 80).

Many confuse optimism and biblical hope. Biblical hope is optimistic, but it differs greatly from worldly optimism or positive thinking. Biblical hope is an optimism based on certainty and truth, not upon a cheery disposition that looks on the bright side. If hope rests on mere fantasy, it is worthless. To be valid, hope must be based on truth and certainty. Since our God is the God of hope (Rom. 15:13), we who represent Him to this hopeless world must be people of hope—not mere optimists, but people filled with hope because of the certainty of God’s promises in Christ.

The author of Hebrews was writing to people who were facing hardship and persecution because of their Christian faith. A few were tempted to abandon Christ and return to Judaism. He is urging them to persevere by putting their focus on the superiority of Jesus Christ and the salvation that He has provided. He is trying to instill in them biblical hope—not just a positive, cheerful disposition—but a steady attitude of joy based on the promises of God, who cannot lie.

He uses a metaphor used only here in the Bible, of an anchor. But instead of going down into the ocean, this anchor goes up into the heavens, behind the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us. He has become our high priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek. Thus he brings his discussion back to where he left off before his lengthy exhortation (5:10); in the next chapter he will develop this theme.  But here he is saying,

The certain hope of our future salvation is an anchor to steady our souls while we wait on God in present storms.

The main reason a ship needs an anchor is to ride out storms so that it is not blown off course or into the rocks or reefs nearby. Even in a safe harbor, a ship needs an anchor so that it will not drift, hit something, and sink. Whether in the storms of life or in the harbor during the calm times of life, we all need an anchor for our souls so that we do not destroy our lives.

Verse 19 begins, “which we have” (Greek text). Some understand the antecedent to be “strong encouragement”; others think that it is “hope.” Still others think that since Jesus Himself is our hope, that He is our anchor. All of these views are somewhat overlapping and complementary. God’s sure promises give us strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. In the final sense, we do not hope in hope itself, but in Christ, and all that is promised in Him. But it seems to me that the anchor is the certain hope of salvation that God has provided in Christ. In the storms of life, if we take hold of the hope of His salvation, we will have the steadiness for our souls that we need to endure.

1. The hope of our future salvation is certain.

The author hammers home the absolute certainty of our salvation. He uses Abraham as an example of one who through faith and patience inherited the promises (6:12). He goes back to Genesis 22:16-17, where after Abraham displayed his faith in God by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, God swore by Himself surely to bless Abraham and to multiply his descendants. Then the author applies this to the heirs of the promise, namely, believers in Christ. He gives four reasons why our hope of salvation in Christ is certain:

A. Our hope of future salvation is certain because God’s promises have never failed any that trusted in them.

Abraham is “Exhibit A” of a man who trusted God against all odds and found Him to be faithful. Paul called Abraham “the father of all who believe,” and added, “In hope against hope he believed…” (Rom. 4:11, 18).

Abraham’s life is the story of God initiating and promising, with Abraham responding in faith. God appeared to Abraham while he was still named Abram, living in Ur of the Chaldees. He commanded Abram to leave his relatives and that city and go to a place that God would show him (Acts 7:2-3). Abram’s obedience was not easy. In that day, you didn’t just pack up a U-Haul and head out on the interstate, keeping in touch with the folks back home through frequent emails and phone calls. To move hundreds of miles away meant permanent separation from family and friends. There were unknown hardships to be encountered. Would the people of the new land be hostile or friendly? Could you provide adequately for your family there? What about learning the new language? There weren’t real estate offices to help you get resettled into a new home. Where would you live?

But Abram obeyed. God had promised to multiply Abram, making him the father of a multitude. His name, Abram, meant, “exalted father,” but his wife Sarah was barren. They were getting up in years, but had no children in spite of God’s promise. Can you imagine the encounters he had as he and Sarah moved into Canaan? This 75-year-old man says, “Hello, my name is Abram [exalted father].” The Canaanite responds, “Nice to meet you. How many children do you have?” “None yet.” Right!

But then God added insult to injury. When Abram was 99, the Lord appeared to him, reaffirmed His promise to multiply him exceedingly, and then changed his name to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude”! He has been waiting for 24 years since God first promised to give him a son. He still has no children, except for Ishmael through Hagar. But now he tells everyone that God has given him a new name, “father of a multitude”! It would be like a bald man named Harry, and God says, “Let’s change your name to Bushy-haired Harry”!

When Abraham died at 175, he had fathered several nations through Ishmael’s descendants and through the sons that he had with Keturah (Gen. 25:1-4, 12-16). But as far as sons through Isaac, Abraham died with twin, 15-year-old grandsons, Esau and Jacob. He owned no real estate in Canaan, except for the cave that he bought to bury Sarah. But he died in faith, “looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). Though Abraham didn’t see it, history has validated God’s promise, that his descendants, both physically and spiritually (Gal. 3:7), are as many as the stars of heaven, and as innumerable as the sand of the seashore (Heb. 11:12).

The lesson for us is: There has never been anyone who trusted in God’s promises and was finally disappointed. God may delay the visible answers to His promises, because He always answers in his time, not in ours. We may not see the answer until we’re in heaven. But He is utterly trustworthy to keep His Word. If He has promised eternal salvation to the one who has faith in Jesus, you can count on it as absolutely true!

B. Our hope of future salvation is certain because God’s purpose is unchangeable.

The Greek word translated “desiring” (6:17) is cognate with the noun “purpose” (same verse), and points to “the deliberate exercise of volition” (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 84). It means that God purposed to show the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, which here refers specifically to installing His Son as a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (6:20). This points to His purpose to be glorified by sending His Son to save a people, “the heirs of the promise,” for His name.

It is inconceivable that the Sovereign God would purpose to send His Son to redeem a people for His glory, but then leave the fulfillment of that purpose up to the so-called “free will” of rebellious sinners who are, to use Charles Wesley’s phrase, “fast bound in sin and nature’s night” (“And Can It Be”)! If God had left salvation up to the will of fallen sinners, none would be saved, because there is none who seeks for God (Rom. 3:10-18).

God calls His people here “heirs of the promise.” Heirs do not choose to be heirs. If we could choose to be heirs, we’d all be waiting in line for the fortunes of the Kennedy’s or the Rockefeller’s. Heirs are chosen by the one who owns the estate. It is his prerogative to choose one person and overlook another, because it is his estate and he has the right to dispense it as he chooses.

Yet many today deny that right to Almighty God and say that He must give everyone an equal chance to choose to be His heirs! They stand the biblical doctrine of election on its head, saying that He foresaw that we would choose Him, then He put us on the list! But that view robs God of His sovereignty. His sovereignty means that He chooses the heirs. He chose Abram from everyone else in Ur, and excluded Abram’s immediate family members. He rejected Ishmael and chose Isaac. He rejected Esau and chose Jacob. Such choices are God’s right as the Sovereign Lord. And if you protest, “That’s not fair,” you need to read Romans 9:11-23, where Paul anticipates and answers that response by saying, in effect, “How dare you even raise the question that God is unfair! He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. And you have no right to answer back to God!”

In Isaiah 46:9-11, God says,

For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure”; calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of My purpose from a far country. Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.

In the context, God is talking about raising up the pagan king, Cyrus, to accomplish God’s purpose. God is not bound by the will of proud man to do what He purposes to do. He has purposed to give an elect people to His Son (John 6:37-40), and He will accomplish His purpose! Denying God’s sovereign election makes assurance of salvation shaky. If it’s up to man’s will, “lots of luck!” But if our hope of salvation is based on God’s purpose to the heirs of His promise, then your hope is certain and secure!

C. Our hope of future salvation is certain because God’s person is incapable of lying.

The author states the obvious, “it is impossible for God to lie” (6:18). If He lied, He would deny His very nature as the God of truth, whose very word is truth (Isa. 65:16; John 14:6; 17:17). If God has said that Jesus has made purification for our sins (Heb. 1:4), and that He has entered within the veil as our forerunner as a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (6:20), then it is true and we dare not question Him!

We’re all prone to bend the truth when it suits our purposes. We don’t want to look bad, and so we tell “little white lies.” We “overlook” reporting things on our income tax forms that would cost us more in taxes. We withhold the truth when it is to our advantage to keep things under cover. But in spite of our propensity toward compromising the truth, we get offended if anyone challenges the truthfulness of our word, and we would be outraged if they directly called us liars!

But here is the God for whom it is impossible to lie. He has never lied in all of eternity. When we doubt His promises, and especially His promise of salvation to the one who believes in Jesus Christ, we are in effect calling Him a liar! 1 John 5:10 says, “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son.” Do you believe God’s promise concerning His Son, or are you calling God a liar? Our hope of future salvation is certain because God’s person is incapable of lying.

So the author has hit three hammer blows to show that the hope of our future salvation is certain: God’s promises have never failed; His purpose is unchangeable; and His person is incapable of lying. As if that were not enough, he adds a fourth:

D. Our hope of future salvation is certain because God’s pledge backs up His promise.

God’s bare word should be sufficient, since His word is always true. But when God says it with an oath or pledge, He wants us to know that it is a done deal! To show the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, God “interposed with an oath” (6:17). Because of the weakness of our flesh, God condescends to add the oath to His word to give us double assurance.

In 6:15, the author uses a human illustration. When men are having a dispute, and they swear under penalty of perjury to do something, that ends the matter. They must do what they have sworn to do, or they will pay a stiff penalty. But when the God who cannot lie interposes with an oath or pledge, how much more certain is His word! You’ve got two unchangeable things: God’s promise and His oath. These two things make our hope of future salvation both “sure and steadfast” (6:19).

Why is this so important? What difference does it make in our day to day lives?

2. The hope of our future salvation is an anchor to steady our souls in present trials.

There is a three-fold progression of thought here:

A. Future salvation is secure for all that have taken refuge in Christ.

The author identifies those to whom he is writing, along with himself, as “we who have taken refuge” (6:18). He does not specify what they have taken refuge from, but his Hebrew readers would have immediately thought of the cities of refuge in the Old Testament, where the man guilty of manslaughter could flee from the avenger of blood (Num. 35:11-12). These cities were a spiritual picture of the refuge that God has provided for sinners to flee for protection from the wrath to come.

In verse 20 of our text, the author mentions Jesus as our high priest, within the veil, where God’s holy presence meant instant death to any sinner who dared to go there. Although people’s eyes are blinded so that they do not see their sin and God’s holiness, every sinner needs a refuge from God’s coming judgment. Jesus Christ is the refuge that God has provided. The question is, have you fled to that refuge? Have you trusted in Christ alone to save you from your sins? If your hope is in your good works, you are not saved. Your hope of salvation must be in Christ alone.

B. Having taken refuge in Christ, we now must take hold of the hope of our future salvation.

Our salvation is secure because it rests on the promise and unchangeable purpose of God. It is not our feeble grasp of Him, but His firm hold on us, that secures our hope of heaven. But you may wonder, “Why then does the writer encourage us to take hold of the hope set before us? If it depends totally on God and His unchangeable purpose, why do we have to hope in Him?”

John Piper (http://www.soundofgrace.com/piper96/11-17-96.htm) answers this way:

What Christ bought for us when he died was not the freedom from having to hold fast but the enabling power to hold fast. What he bought was not the nullification of our wills as though we didn’t have to hold fast, but the empowering of our wills because we want to hold fast. What he bought was not the canceling of the commandment to hold fast but the fulfillment of the commandment to hold fast.

He goes on to cite Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:12, “I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” Christ Jesus had laid hold of Paul by His sovereign grace. As a result, Paul pressed on to lay hold of the hope of all that his salvation promised.

This means that we must battle discouragement by taking hold by faith of God’s promise to save all who take refuge in Christ. God’s promise and His oath are two strong motivating forces to encourage us to grab onto the hope set before us and don’t let go. Then that hope becomes an anchor for our souls.

C. The hope of our future salvation anchors us to wait on God in present storms.

The main reason you need an anchor is to keep from drifting into things that would destroy you, especially during storms. Abraham had his storms as he waited on God. In two different moments of weakness, he thought that powerful men would take his wife from him, which would have nullified God’s promise of a son through her. And so he lied that she was his sister. At another moment of despair, he went in to Sarah’s maid, Hagar, and conceived Ishmael. But in spite of these failures, “in hope against hope, he believed” (Rom. 4:18), until God fulfilled the promise.

We face numerous types of storms that threaten to rob us of hope in Christ. There are storms of false doctrine that can blow us off course (Eph. 4:14). We must weather them by holding firmly to the promise of salvation in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone.

There will be storms of doubt, when we question the Christian faith, or perhaps even the existence of God. We can weather them by coming back to the truth of the resurrection of Jesus, which is the bedrock of the entire faith (1 Cor. 15:1-19). If He is not risen, our faith is in vain. But if He is risen, then our future salvation is certain and our hope can rest confidently in Him.

There will be storms of difficult trials, where we wonder why God is allowing them and question whether He loves us. We weather them by remembering that God, who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, has promised to bring us through every conceivable difficulty to ultimate glorification (Rom. 8:28-39).

There may be storms of defeat, where we fall into sin and dishonor our Lord and Savior. We can weather even these storms if we realize that our High Priest is praying for us, that our faith may not fail, and that by His grace, we can be restored (Luke 22:32).

Conclusion

I read of a Christian man who made a trip to Russia in 1993. He felt conspicuous walking down the streets of Moscow and could not figure out why. He wanted to blend in, but it was obvious that people knew he was not Russian. He asked the group of Russian educators with whom he was working whether it was his American clothes: jeans and a Chicago Bulls shirt. “No, it’s not your clothes,” they replied.

“What is it, then?” he asked.

They huddled together and talked for several minutes. Then one, speaking for the group, answered politely, “It is your face.”

“My face!” he laughed. “How does my face look different?”

They talked again and then one of the teachers quietly said, “You have hope.” (World Magazine [3/6/99], p. 37.)

As Christians living in a world that Paul describes as “having no hope and without God” (Eph. 2:12), we should stand out as people of hope. The certain hope of our future salvation is the anchor that God has given to us to steady our souls, even in times of storm.

A cheerful older Christian was asked the secret of his triumphant attitude. He said, “I’ve read the last book of the Bible, so I know how the story ends. I’m on the winning side!” We have a high priest within the veil. He has promised to save all who take refuge in Him. Let’s take hold of our certain hope in Jesus!

Discussion Question

  1. How can a believer keep trusting in God when He delays answers to prayers for years? Why does God make us wait?
  2. Why is the doctrine of election essential for having proper assurance of salvation?
  3. How do we balance the tension between “examine yourself to see if you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5) and “take hold of the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:18)?
  4. How should we “process” discouragement? What steps should we take to recover our hope in God? (See Psalms 42 & 43.)

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 20: Why You Need to Know About Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-10)

Most of you would probably admit that you’re not highly motivated to learn about Melchizedek. You’ve got marriage problems, problems with your kids, financial problems, personal problems, and other practical needs. Why in the world would you be interested in learning about some obscure figure from many centuries ago named Melchizedek? “For crying out loud, Steve, it’s Mother’s Day! Give us a message that relates to mothers!” I believe that learning about Melchizedek will help you to be a better mother, father, child, or whatever role you are in. My aim is to convince you that you do need to know about this man.

To understand this, we need to put the chapter in its context. The Jewish Christians to whom this letter was addressed were tempted to abandon their Christian faith and return to Judaism under the threat of persecution. Some of them had lost their property and had suffered public reproach on account of their faith (10:32-34). They were thinking, “Hey, we didn’t have it so bad as Jews! The Jewish religion was a good system. It spelled out how we should live. The rituals were familiar and satisfying. It was the faith of our forefathers for many centuries. Maybe we should just go back to the way things were.”

To understand the pull of the past, we need to realize that religious traditions die hard! For over 20 years, Marla and I have read and prayed along with The Global Prayer Digest (published by the U.S. Center for World Mission). One thing that has repeatedly struck me as I’ve read it is how strongly entrenched religious traditions are. It will mention a people group where, many centuries ago, Islam took root and the culture is totally Islamic. For hundreds of years, generations have lived and died without questioning the religious traditions. These false religious views dominate their whole way of life. When missionaries try to penetrate these cultures with the gospel, they meet with strong resistance, because to accept the gospel would mean abandoning centuries of religious tradition.

The author of Hebrews was trying to convince people that a religious system of sacrifices, rituals, and rules that had been in place for over 1,400 years had now been replaced by a better way. He focuses on the supremacy of Jesus Christ, who is the fulfillment of all that was written by Moses and the Jewish prophets. He introduces a theme that is only treated in the Book of Hebrews, that Jesus Christ is our high priest.

We will only appreciate our need for a high priest to the degree that we realize how holy and unapproachable God is and how sinful and defiled we are. When Isaiah saw the Lord, sitting on His throne, lofty and exalted, surrounded by the seraphim who called out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts,” the prophet was undone (Isa. 6:1-5). It devastated him because immediately he became aware of how utterly sinful he was, in contrast to God in His awesome holiness.

Israel in the wilderness had seen Moses go up on the mountain into the cloud, with lightning and thunder and a loud trumpet sound, and they were terrified. If the people got too close to the mountain, God warned that He would break forth upon them with a deadly plague (Exod. 19:10-25). The Jews knew that they could not saunter into the Holy of Holies to chat with God! Only the high priest could enter there, and only once a year, with blood. The Jewish people knew how desperately they needed a high priest if they were to approach God.

The author of Hebrews is making the point that Jesus is our high priest. But He is not just the fulfillment of the Levitical priesthood. He is something more, a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. To view Him on a par with the Levitical priests would be to make a spiritually fatal mistake. That entire old system was designed to point ahead to Jesus Christ, who superceded and fulfilled it. To go back to the old way would be to abandon God’s only way of entrance into His holy presence. It would be to turn from the only One who can save us from our sins and go back to an inferior system. So the author here is saying,

You need to know about Melchizedek because he is a type of the Lord Jesus Christ, and you desperately need to know about Christ.

The author is picking up where he left off in 5:10, before his exhortation from 5:11-6:20. He wanted to discuss the significance of Melchizedek, but he could not do so because these people had become dull of hearing. He wants them to understand Melchizedek so that they can gain a deeper understanding of Jesus Christ. But Christ does not reveal Himself to those who are spiritually lazy or apathetic. Have you ever considered why Jesus did not do the Transfiguration in front of the multitudes? In fact, He didn’t even do it in front of the Twelve. He only took with Him Peter, James, and John to witness this astounding scene!

But to the multitudes, Jesus concealed His glory and spoke in parables, because they were spiritually dull (see Matt. 13:12-15). He only reveals His glory to those with whom He is intimate, and He is only intimate with those whose hearts are humbled before Him. And so as we approach these truths about Melchizedek as a type of Christ, we must make sure that our hearts are right before God.

Also, we must give some effort and attention to the matter of seeking to know Him. The only command in our text is, “observe how great this man [Melchizedek] was” (7:4). The Greek word means to gaze at or discern through careful observation. We get the word “theater” from it. We are to observe Melchizedek because he is a type of Jesus Christ, and we desire to see the beauty and glory of Jesus, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). To see Him as He is, is a transforming experience (1 John 3:2). The solution to every problem that you face is to know Jesus Christ more accurately and intimately.

The flow of thought runs like this: In 7:1-3, the author identifies Melchizedek as both king and priest, without genealogy or end of days. In these ways, he is “made like the Son of God,” and remains a priest perpetually. The Son of God is not made like him, but he is made like the Son of God, presented in Scripture in such a way that he points to the truth about the Son of God.

Then, in 7:4-7, the author shows that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham, the father of the Jews and of all believers, in that Abraham paid tithes to Melchizedek and he blessed Abraham. In 7:8-10, the author shows that Melchizedek was also greater than the Levitical priests (and the system they represented), in two ways: First, the Levitical priests were mortal, but Melchizedek “lives on” (7:8). Second, Levi, who received tithes, actually paid tithes to Melchizedek through Abraham, his forefather, when he paid tithes to Melchizedek (7:9-10). We can sum up these points under four headings that show how Melchizedek was a type of Jesus Christ:

1. Melchizedek is a type of Christ in the dignity of his person.

Everything we know about Melchizedek comes from Genesis 14:18-20, Psalm 110:4, and Hebrews 7. The first text is historical, the second is prophetic, and the third is theological. Melchizedek was the king of Salem (probably Jerusalem [Ps. 76:2]) and priest of the Most High God. Abraham had gone after four kings that had taken his nephew Lot and his family captive when they raided Sodom, where Lot was living. Abraham defeated these kings, recovered all of the goods, and brought back Lot and his family. As Abraham returned from this battle, Melchizedek came out to meet him. He blessed Abraham and Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of his spoils.

Out of what that short account says and does not say, the author of Hebrews draws some amazing parallels between Melchizedek and Christ. It is interesting that he omits what seems to be an obvious parallel, that Melchizedek met Abraham with bread and wine! You would think, “That’s clearly a type of Christ giving bread and wine to the disciples!” In the original story, Melchizedek was bringing refreshment to Abraham and his weary men. But for some reason, the author of Hebrews passes over the easy parallel and focuses on some things that most of us would have missed.

The first thing to note is that Melchizedek was both a king and a priest in the same person (7:1), which was not allowed in Israel. You may be a king or you may be a priest, but you could not be both at once. John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Hebrews, p. 155) points out that it is remarkable that Melchizedek lived with Sodom on one side and the Canaanites on the other, and yet he was a righteous king and priest. This shows that God can raise up a godly witness for Himself when and where He pleases. Like Melchizedek, Jesus is both king and priest in one person.

The author makes the point (7:2) that Melchizedek “was first of all, by the translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then also king of Salem, which is king of peace.” In Hebrew, Melchi means “my king,” and zedek means “righteousness.” Salem is related to shalom, which means peace. The order is significant: righteousness comes before peace. A king cannot have true peace in his kingdom unless both he and his kingdom are righteous. Sin brings discord and strife. Righteousness is the foundation for peace.

Jesus is called “Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). He not only imputes and imparts righteousness to others; He is righteous in His very being. He never sinned, nor could any guilt be found in Him. He is the Lamb of God, unblemished and spotless (1 Pet. 1:19). He is “holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners” (Heb. 7:26). He did “no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth” (Isa. 53:9).

When He comes again to reign, “in righteousness” He will wage war against the wicked (Rev. 19:11). “With righteousness He will judge the poor…. And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about His waist” (Isa. 11:4-5). “There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore” (Isa. 9:7).

Jesus is also the king of peace (Eph. 2:14-18). He brings peace between sinners and God, and peace among all that live under His lordship. Paul wrote, “Therefore, having been justified [“declared righteous”] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). God did not lay aside His righteousness to make peace with sinners. Rather, He laid our penalty on His righteous substitute, “so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).

If you know Jesus Christ as your King of righteousness and peace, you will be growing in righteous behavior and you will be pursuing peace with others (Rom. 14:17, 19). I am not talking about perfection, but rather, direction. You will be growing in conformity to your King.

2. Melchizedek is a type of Christ in the derivation and duration of his priesthood.

Being a priest in Israel was totally dependent on your family lineage. All priests came from the tribe of Levi. No one else need apply. If you could not establish your family heritage, you were excluded from the priesthood (Neh. 7:61-64). But Melchizedek was “without father, without mother, without genealogy” (Heb. 7:3). Yet he was “priest of the Most High God” (7:1).

A few have interpreted Melchizedek’s lack of genealogy and the next phrase, that he had “neither beginning of days nor end of life,” to mean that he was superhuman, either an angel or a preincarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. But the vast majority of commentators reject that interpretation and agree that Melchizedek was simply a great man who lived at the same time as Abraham.

The author of Hebrews is building an argument from the strange silence of Genesis. That book emphasizes genealogies and the number of years that the patriarchs lived. In the midst of this emphasis, seemingly out of nowhere, comes this man Melchizedek. His family lineage is never mentioned, nor does Genesis say anything about the length of his life or his death. The author is saying that the Holy Spirit deliberately omitted these facts from a book that emphasizes such, in order to make Melchizedek an appropriate type of Jesus Christ. That’s why he says that Melchizedek was “made like the Son of God” (7:3), rather than “Jesus was made like Melchizedek.” It is not that Melchizedek never died, but rather in what Genesis omits, that he “remains a priest perpetually.”

Jesus’ human lineage is given in Scripture, but He did not come from the priestly tribe of Levi, but from Judah (7:14). To be our high priest forever, Jesus had to be of a different priestly order, namely, that of Melchizedek. As the Son of God (that title is used deliberately in 7:3 to focus on Jesus’ deity; see also, 1:8), Jesus has no human lineage, and thus fulfills the type of Melchizedek as reported in Genesis. Also, the Levitical priests died and had to be replaced, but Jesus lives on in His high priesthood (7:23-24). So both in the derivation and in the duration of his priesthood, Melchizedek is a type of Jesus Christ.

3. Melchizedek is a type of Christ in the dimension of his priesthood.

Melchizedek was greater than both Abraham and Levi, since he received tithes from both of these great men. Abraham spontaneously recognized that this man represented God Most High, and so he gave him a tenth of his choicest spoils as an act of worship and gratitude toward God for granting him victory over the four kings. Levi, who was Abraham’s great-grandson, gave tithes to Melchizedek through Abraham’s tithes, in that he was still in Abraham’s loins when this took place. In Hebrew thought, an ancestor contained in him all of his descendants. Thus Paul argues that when Adam sinned, the entire human race sinned (Rom. 5:12). So here, the author says, “so to speak, through Abraham even Levi, who received tithes, paid tithes.”

Some (e.g., A. W. Pink) use this to argue that the principle of the tithe, giving God ten percent, transcends the Law of Moses. But Abraham only did this on one recorded occasion (as did Jacob, Gen. 28:22). The New Testament epistles never command believers to tithe, even when addressed to Gentile congregations that would have needed such instruction. Rather, the New Testament principle is that God owns everything that we are and have, and that we are to give as He has prospered us (1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 8 & 9). We are stewards of His resources, and we will give an account of how we have used them to further His kingdom (Matt. 6:19-33; 25:14-30; Luke 16:1-13; 1 Tim. 6:17-19).

But the point of the typology between Melchizedek and the Son of God is that since Melchizedek, in receiving tithes from Abraham and Levi, was greater than these great men, Jesus is greater still. As our High Priest, He is worthy not just of a tithe, but of all that we are and have, because He bought us with His blood. No gifts that we give can compare with His matchless worth!

Thus Melchizedek is a type of Christ in the dignity of his person; in the derivation and duration of his priesthood; and, in the dimension of his priesthood. Finally,

4. Melchizedek is a type of Christ in the dispensing of his priesthood.

Even though Abraham was God’s chosen man and God promised to bless the nations through him, Melchizedek “blessed the one who had the promises. But without any dispute the lesser is blessed by the greater” (7:6-7). Scripture uses the term “blessing” in different ways. In one sense, we bless God (Ps. 103:1), which does not imply that we are greater than He! We bless others by praying for them or rendering kind words or service (Luke 6:28; 1 Pet. 3:9), which is mutual. But here the sense is that of the priestly (Num. 6:22-27) or fatherly (Gen. 27:27; 48:15) blessing, which was not mutual. The one imparting the blessing is conveying God’s blessing through His authority onto the one being blessed. Since Melchizedek pronounced God’s blessing on Abraham, he is greater than this great man who had God’s promises!

But Melchizedek is only a type of the one who is greater still, the Lord Jesus Christ. Herveus (a 12th century writer, cited by Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 251) applies the truth here to Christ by saying,

If Melchizedek, who was a sign and shadow, is preferred to Abraham and to all the levitical priests, how much more Christ, who is the truth and the substance! … If a type of Christ is greater than he who has the promises, how much more so is Christ himself!

If Melchizedek could bless Abraham, how much more is the Son of God ready and able to bless those who draw near to God through Him! If we want God’s blessings, we should seek them in Christ, because “as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes” (2 Cor. 1:20). What do you need from God? Eternal life? Yes! Forgiveness of sins? Yes! Inner peace? Yes! Hope? Yes! Joy in the midst of trials? Yes! Grace to endure? Yes! Victory over sin? Yes! Healing from past wounds? Yes! Jesus is the perfect high priest who dispenses God’s blessings to those who have His promises. Draw near to Him!

Conclusion

Two concluding applications: First, what you believe about Jesus Christ makes a huge difference! The Hebrews were in danger of falling away from the faith because they did not grasp how great Melchizedek is and therefore they did not grasp how much greater the One whom Melchizedek prefigured is.

As I have pointed out many times, the most important question in the world is Jesus’ question to the Twelve, “Who do you say that I am?” (See my sermons, “The Most Important Question in the World,” from Mark 8:27-33; and, “The Crucial Question,” from Luke 9:18-22.) That question has an objectively true answer. Your eternal destiny hinges on your response to that question. If you correctly say from your heart by faith, “Jesus Christ is the Son of God who gave Himself on the cross as the only sacrifice for my sins,” you have eternal life! If you diminish Jesus to a lesser role, such as, “He is a great moral example or teacher,” then you do not have the high priest that you need when you stand before God for judgment. Any teaching that diminishes the supremacy of Jesus Christ is false teaching!

Second, seek God continually and fervently in His Word to give you a greater knowledge of the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ. Paul’s lifelong quest as a believer was to “count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). Samuel Ridout wrote,

As we see the glories of Christ contrasted with the shadows of the law and everything that was connected with an earthly priesthood, well might we say that if faith had apprehended the reality of what Christ was, they would gladly take not only the spoiling of their goods, but also the spoiling of all their earthly hopes, things that they had clung to as so dear before. Once let Christ be apprehended, once let the beauty of His character as our Priest and the blessedness of the place into which He had introduced us be laid hold of by the soul, and the things of earth which would hold us fast, a carnal religion and all else, will lose their hold, even as the leaves drop off the trees in autumn.

So why do you need to know about Melchizedek? Because he is one gateway that God has provided to tell you about Christ. If you want to endure hardship and even persecution, if you want God’s blessing on your family and in your personal life, if you want to resist temptation and live a righteous life, seek God for a clearer vision of the glory of Christ. When we are enthralled with Him, “the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace” (Helen Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”).

Discussion Questions

  1. “The solution to every problem that you face is to know Jesus Christ more accurately and intimately.” Is this overly simplistic? (Be honest!) Why/why not?
  2. Why did Jesus conceal Himself from the multitudes and reveal Himself only to a limited group (see Matt. 13:10-17)?
  3. Are there things that we can do to know Christ more deeply, or is this “predetermined”? If we can do something, what?
  4. How can we know if something in the O.T. is a type? Can we take this too far? What principles of interpretation apply?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 21: A Better Hope: Drawing Near to God (Hebrews 7:11-19)

In 1903, someone noticed a Russian sentry standing guard at a post with no apparent reason for his being there. When asked why he was standing guard there, he answered, “I’m just following orders.” The question was asked of the captain of the guard, but he didn’t know why that sentry was posted there. The inquiry eventually went up the chain of command to the czar, but he didn’t know either! He asked that someone track down the answer. Finally, it was discovered that in 1776, Catherine the Great had planted a rose bush there, and posted a sentry to guard it. The bush had been dead for over 80 years, but the sentry was still standing guard! Traditions are hard to change!

Religious traditions are especially hard to change, because people insist that God ordained them. The Jews rightly believed that God had ordained the traditions and practices of the Mosaic Law almost 15 centuries before the time of Christ. The Law was the very center of the Jewish culture. They ordered their lives around the Sabbath worship and the yearly feasts. The priests and Levites oversaw and regulated the worship at the temple. The sacrifices and rules for ceremonial cleansing were all spelled out in the Law. These laws and traditions were deeply entrenched!

To challenge the validity of these practices was to risk your life! The opponents of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, charged, “This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us” (Acts 6:13-14). Paul’s opponents shouted, “This is the man who preaches to all men everywhere against our people and the Law and this place” (Acts 21:28). Even many Jews who had professed faith in Christ were still “zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:20).

So the author of Hebrews had a formidable task in trying to convince his Jewish Christian readers that the Law and the Levitical priesthood that was inextricably linked to the Law were now obsolete and set aside because of the far better New Covenant and priesthood of Jesus. He makes some radical statements about the Law: it was weak and useless; it made nothing perfect (7:18, 19). Because of these problems, it has been changed and set aside (7:12, 18). He is drawing a distinct dividing line between Judaism and Christianity. You cannot blend the two into a homogenous hybrid. He doesn’t want his readers to go back to the old Jewish way, as if it were good enough. Even if they suffer persecution for their faith, they must persevere, because Jesus has provided “a better hope, through which we draw near to God” (7:19).

That statement was radical, too. As I said last week, every Jew knew that you couldn’t just stroll into the Holy of Holies to have a little chat with God! The Levitical system was designed to keep the worshipers at a distance from God, lest He destroy them. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. So for the author to emphasize that we are to draw near to God through Jesus (4:14-16; 6:19-20; 7:19; 10:19-22) was a staggering concept for those from a Jewish background. In our text he is arguing that…

The New Covenant and priesthood of Jesus are superior to the Law and Levitical priesthood because they provide the way for us to draw near to God.

Since the author presents a tight argument here, we will follow the text closely. It falls into two sections: in 7:11-14, he argues for the inferiority of the Law and Levitical priesthood, which could not make anyone perfect. In 7:15-19, he argues for the superiority of the New Covenant and the priesthood of Jesus according to the order of Melchizedek, which enable us to draw near to God.

1. The Law and the Levitical priesthood were inferior because they could not make anyone perfect (7:11-14).

The author emphasizes throughout Hebrews the concept of perfection or being made perfect. It does not mean being without any flaw or defect, but rather it refers to “the condition in which men are acceptable to God” (Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:66). It means “to put someone in the position in which he can come, or stand, before God” (Gerhard Delling, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Friedrich, translated by Geoffrey Bromiley [Eerdmans], 8:82). The author repeatedly states that the Law was unable to accomplish this (7:11, 19; 9:9; 10:1). But what the Law could not do, Christ did: “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (10:14). His argument about the inferiority of the Law and the Levitical priesthood has three points:

A. If the Levitical priesthood had been perfect, God would not have predicted a new order of priesthood according to Melchizedek (7:11).

Keep in mind that the Jews regarded the Law of Moses and the system of sacrifices that it prescribed as sacred and virtually untouchable. The priesthood was the basis of the Law, in that the sacrificial system, which was the heart of the Law, could not function apart from the priests. A critic could have said to our author, “The Law of Moses and the Levitical priesthood came 500 years after Melchizedek met Abraham. It has functioned for centuries, not just one time, as Melchizedek’s priesthood with Abraham did. How then can you say that the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than the Levitical priesthood?”

To answer this objection, the author cites Psalm 110, which David wrote at the height of the Levitical priesthood. In that Psalm, which is clearly Messianic, David predicts that one who will sit at God’s right hand as king will also be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. So the author’s argument is, if the Levitical priesthood and the Law were good enough, why did God predict this new priest according to the order of Melchizedek?

Philip Hughes (A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], pp. 255-256) points out that the first century Jewish Dead Sea Sect “looked for the appearance of two messianic figures, one priestly, ‘the messiah of Aaron,’ and the other lay and kingly, ‘the messiah of Israel’….” The priestly messiah would be the head of the nation, with the kingly messiah, from the line of David, subordinate to him. Hughes suggests that if the original readers of Hebrews had been influenced by this or similar teaching, then the author’s point that Jesus fulfills both roles in the same person, according to the superior order of Melchizedek, is quite relevant.

B. The Law and the priesthood are linked, so that when the priesthood changed, the Law had to change (7:12).

In this verse, the author shows the radical implication of a change in the priesthood: it necessarily also demands a change in the Law. Again, to understand this we must keep in mind that for a conscientious Jew, this was unthinkable! The Law of Moses was the bedrock of the Jewish religion and culture. How could you even talk about changing the Law? But the author is arguing that the Law and the Levitical priesthood were so closely linked that you could not change the priesthood without changing the Law.

This plunges us into one of the thorniest theological matters in all of Scripture, the question of how are we, as New Covenant believers, to relate to the Old Covenant Law? Do we have to obey the commandments in the Old Testament? I read a book, Five Views on Law and Gospel, by Greg Bahnsen, Walter Kaiser Jr., Douglas Moo, Wayne Strickland, and Willem VanGemeren [Zondervan]. Each author argues for his view, followed by the other four authors critiquing it. They represent a spectrum, from the theonomist view (Bahnsen), that the Law very much applies to believers today, to the dispensational view (Strickland) and the modified Lutheran view (Moo), that New Testament believers are not under the Old Testament Law in any sense. I finished the book thinking that each view had some valid points, but they all had some weaknesses. I couldn’t declare a definite winner!

Reformed theologians, for the most part, have divided the Law of Moses into the civil law (for Israel as a theocratic nation), the ceremonial law, and the moral law. They say that we are not under the first two aspects of the law, but that God’s moral law stems from His holy nature, and thus is always in effect. They view the Ten Commandments as a summary of the moral Law, spelling out the ramifications of the two Great Commandments: “Love God” (commandments 1-4); and, “Love your neighbor” (commandments 5-10).

Those in the Reformed camp debate how to apply the fourth commandment (“keep the Sabbath holy”). Some view Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, with strict requirements as to what we can or cannot do. Others view the fourth commandment as being spiritually fulfilled in Christ (Hebrews 4). They point out that the other nine commandments are repeated in the New Testament epistles, but the Sabbath command is omitted, and seemingly disparaged (Rom. 14:5-6; Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16-17). Thus while there are principles from the Sabbath commandment that apply today, we are not under the Old Testament Sabbath laws. (This essentially is my view; see my sermon, “God’s Day of Rest,” on Genesis 2:1-3, on the church web site.)

However, others point out that the distinctions between the civil, ceremonial, and moral aspects of the Law are not biblical distinctions (F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 145). The Jews viewed the Law as a unity. You can’t separate it into various categories, because these categories are all mixed together, often in the same context. Thus we must say that either we are still under the entire Law (contrary to Paul and the author of Hebrews), or we are not under the Law at all, because it has been fulfilled and superceded in Christ. Dispensationalists and those who hold to New Covenant Theology advocate this view.

Without resolving that debate (which I am not quite sure how to resolve!), we can say that in our text, the author at least views the laws of the priesthood and sacrifice as changed by Jesus Christ. He is not in the line of Levitical priests. That whole system of approach to God through priests and sacrifices has been abolished.

Thus his argument so far is that if the Levitical priesthood had been perfect, God would not have predicted a new order of priesthood according to Melchizedek. Further, the Law and the priesthood are linked, so that when the priesthood changed, the Law changed, too.

C. Melchizedek and Jesus are clearly not of the tribe of Levi, and thus represent a new order of priesthood (7:13-14).

The author states what everyone knew, that Jesus was not from the tribe of Levi, but rather from the tribe of Judah. He calls Jesus “our Lord,” a title that he uses only in 13:20 (in 2:3, “the Lord”). He wants us to recognize that Jesus isn’t just another human priest, but that He is “our Lord,” God in human flesh. The word translated “was descended” is literally, “has arisen from,” and is a messianic reference (see Luke 1:78, “sunrise from on high”; Mal. 4:2, “sun of righteousness”; 2 Pet. 1:19, “the morning star arises”). Verses 11 and 15 speak of another priest arising, and the Greek word means “another of a different kind.” Jesus is the only priest who represents the order of Melchizedek.

Again, as Hughes points out (p. 260), if the author is countering the false teaching of a Dead Sea Sect, that there would be two messiahs, one from the priestly tribe of Levi, and another from the kingly tribe of Judah, then his point here corrects that error. In one person, Jesus is both our king and our priest according to the order of Melchizedek. The old Levitical order has been set aside.

So his overall point in 7:11-14 is that the Law and the Levitical priesthood were inferior because they could not make anyone perfect. His readers must not go back to Judaism! He goes on to show,

2. The New Covenant and the priesthood of Jesus are superior because they provide the way for us to draw near to God (7:15-19).

Again, his argument proceeds in three steps:

A. The priesthood of Jesus is superior because it is based on the power of an indestructible life (7:15-17).

The qualifications for being a Levitical priest were all external. They were chosen strictly by their physical lineage, along with being free from a number of physical defects (Lev. 21:16-23). The ceremony for ordaining them was also external, involving clothing them with the priestly garments, purifying them with water and with offerings, etc. (see Exod. 29).

But Jesus has become a priest, like Melchizedek, based on something internal, namely, “the power of an indestructible life” (7:16). The mysterious silence of the Genesis record seemed to indicate that Melchizedek had “neither beginning of days nor end of life” (7:3). But he only foreshadowed Jesus, who truly is eternal. John 1:4 says, “In Him was life.” Although He died for our sins, the grave could not hold Him. He is risen and lives as our priest forever! Nothing can remove Him from that office. As long as He is there in heaven for us (which is forever), we have access to God through Him!

B. The old covenant and the Levitical priesthood are now set aside because they were weak and useless (7:18-19a).

“Setting aside” is a legal term that means to annul. The weakness and uselessness of the Law was not inherent in the Law itself. As Paul explains (Rom. 7:12), “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Rather, the problem was in the weakness of sinful flesh that could not keep the Law (Rom. 7:13-14; 8:3). One reason that God instituted the Law was to show us the utter sinfulness of our hearts (Rom. 5:20; 7:13). As such, it was never designed to bring sinners near to God. This is what the author means by, “for the Law made nothing perfect” (7:19a). Sinners were prevented from entering the Holy of Holies. And, the sacrifices prescribed by the Law could never completely cleanse the sinner’s conscience or take away his sins (10:1-4).

You may wonder, then, how David could extol the blessings of the one “whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Ps. 32:1)? How could the psalmist say, “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good” (Ps. 73:28)? As F. F. Bruce explains (p. 149), these blessings have always been available to the man of faith. “But these experiences had nothing to do with the Levitical ritual or the Aaronic priesthood. The whole apparatus of worship associated with that ritual and priesthood was calculated rather to keep men at a distance from God than to bring them near.” This leads to the third step of the author’s argument:

C. The New Covenant and the priesthood of Jesus provide a better hope through which we draw near to God (7:19b).

The “better hope” refers to Jesus, “the guarantee of a better covenant” (7:22), namely, the New Covenant (8:6-13). He will explain the theme of drawing near in more detail in 10:19-22, where he says, “since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near….”

The author of Hebrews likes the word “better.” He uses it 12 times in the original Greek (out of 18 total uses in the N.T.). Jesus is better than the angels (1:4). The author is convinced of better things concerning the Hebrew Christians (6:9). The New Covenant is a better covenant with better promises (7:22; 8:6). Jesus is the better sacrifice, whose blood speaks better than the blood of Abel (9:23; 12:24). Christians have a better possession in heaven (10:34). Thus men of faith sought a better country, that is, a heavenly one (11:16). We receive a better resurrection (11:35). God has provided something better for us than for the Old Testament saints (11:40). And, here (7:19), we have a better hope through which we draw near to God.

The author’s point is, if you’ve got something better, why go back to something worse? Maybe they were nostalgically thinking of “the good old days,” but they were losing sight of the fact that what they presently had in Christ was far better than anything that they had under Judaism. What the Old Testament saints looked forward to, we have received! We have full forgiveness of sins through Christ’s better sacrifice. We don’t have to stand out in the courtyard while a priest represents us in the Holy of Holies. We have a high priest within the veil, and He invites us to draw near to the very throne of God, which is a throne of grace, to receive grace to help in our times of need!

Conclusion

You may be thinking, “This is great stuff for the Jews who were tempted to go back to Judaism. But I’ve never dreamed of doing such a thing. How does this relate to me?”

First, make sure that you understand and revel in the fact that you have been made acceptable to God totally through what Jesus has done and not at all through anything you have done. Every religion in the world, except biblical Christianity, teaches that you must do something to gain acceptance with God. Even the Roman Catholic Church teaches that you cannot be justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Rather, you must add your good works to your faith in Christ in order to gain merit towards heaven (see The Canons and Decrees of Trent, Session 6, Canons 9, 12, 24).

But Paul is abundantly clear that we are saved by God’s grace (unmerited favor) totally apart from any works that we do: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5). If you properly understand what Paul is saying, your initial reaction will be, “Well, then, should we continue in sin that grace may increase?” Paul anticipated that reaction (Rom. 6:1) and refuted it. But that thought should at least pop into your mind if you understand the radical nature of salvation by God’s grace alone. If you are seeking to draw near to God through anything that you do to qualify, you do not understand the gospel.

Second, make sure that you are utilizing and enjoying the great privilege of drawing near to God through the blood of Jesus Christ. If you are right with God for time and eternity because of what Jesus has done for you, then you have “a better hope.” You should abound in hope in God (Rom. 15:13). Whatever daily problems you face, whether trivial or major, you have access to the presence of God through the blood of Jesus. Draw near!

When Donald Grey Barnhouse was a student in France, he pastored a small Evangelical Reformed Church in the French Alps. Each week as he went to a neighboring village, he would pass the local priest, going in the opposite direction. They would often stop and chat, so that they became friends.

On one occasion, the priest asked Barnhouse why Protestants do not pray to the saints. “Why should we?” asked Barnhouse. The priest launched into an illustration of how one might get an interview with the French President. One could go through one of the cabinet members, who might succeed in opening the door to the President’s office so that Barnhouse might get in to see him. The priest’s triumphant smile implied that the simplicity and clarity of the argument were such as to preclude any rebuttal.

But Barnhouse said to his friend, “Suppose that I were the son of the President. I am living in the palace with him. I get up from the breakfast table, kiss him goodbye as he goes to his office. Then I go down to the Ministry of the Interior and ask the fourth secretary of the second assistant if it is possible for me to see the Minister of the Interior. If I succeed in reaching his office, my request is for an interview with my papa.”

The friend was thunderstruck as Barnhouse added that he was a child of God, heir of God and joint-heir with Christ. As such, he had immediate access to the Father (Donald Grey Barnhouse, Let Me Illustrate [Revell], pp. 15-16). That is our great privilege through Jesus, our priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does it mean that we are not under the Law (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 5:1-4)? Do we still have to obey the Ten Commandments?
  2. Why did God institute the Law if it was imperfect, weak, and useless?
  3. Are there any Christian traditions that we need to re-examine and perhaps discard? If so, what are they?
  4. Discuss: If the thought does not pop into your mind, “let’s sin that grace may abound,” you do not understand the gospel.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 22: Salvation Guaranteed! (Hebrews 7:20-28)

Money-back guarantees are a great thing! You buy a product, but it fails within the time of the guarantee. You take it back to the store and they either give you your money back, or replace the product with one that works. Such a deal!

Sometimes the guarantee is worthless. Perhaps you were guaranteed a seat on a flight, but you got to the airport at the last minute and discovered that the airline had overbooked the flight and your seat was gone. The more important the situation, the more important it is that you have a sure guarantee.

The most important matter where you need a certain guarantee is your eternal destiny. This life is brief and uncertain, but eternity is forever! You don’t want to show up at the pearly gates and hear, “We don’t have a reservation under your name. When did you book it?” If there is anything that you want to be certain about, it should be your salvation. The author of Hebrews wants us to know that because Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek, He is the guarantee of a better covenant that ensures our salvation.

The author is continuing his argument that as a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek, Jesus is far superior to the Levitical priests. In our text, he shows that Jesus is superior as our priest because of: (1) God’s oath (7:20-22); (2) Jesus’ permanence and perpetual petition on our behalf (7:23-25); (3) Jesus’ perfect purity and His sacrifice of Himself (7:26-28). His message is that…

The superiority of Jesus our high priest guarantees salvation for all who draw near to God through Him.

The heart of the text is 7:25, “Therefore He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, …” To understand that sentence, we need to be clear on the meaning of “save.” As I have said often, salvation is a radical term. You don’t need to save someone who is doing pretty well, but could just use something extra to round out an otherwise happy life. You don’t need to save someone who is fairly competent and together. To save someone is not to offer advice or tips about a better way to live. Someone who needs salvation is lost, incapacitated, and in immediate danger of perishing. He cannot save himself. Without outside help, he will not survive.

Last week, they tried to rescue a fallen climber off of Mount Rainier, but they failed. He died before the helicopter could get him off the mountain. His injury prevented him from hiking down the mountain by himself. He was helpless and desperate. He needed to be saved, but the attempt to save him failed.

Spiritually, every person needs to be saved. What do we need to be saved from? The biblical answer is, “We need to be saved from God’s wrath and eternal judgment.” John 3:36 puts it, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” Or, as Paul wrote (1 Thess. 1:10), it is Jesus “who rescues us from the wrath to come.” In Romans 5:9 he wrote, “having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” Or, again (1 Thess. 5:9), “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Either we are saved by the blood of Jesus Christ, or we will face God’s wrath because of our sins.

God never compromises His perfect righteousness and justice in order to save sinners. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), which means eternal separation from God. To satisfy His justice, God demands that the penalty of our sin must be paid. In His love, God sent His own Son to be the perfect high priest, offering the sacrifice that we need to escape His wrath. But amazingly, rather than offering an animal sacrifice, He offered Himself! John Piper (http://www.soundofgrace.com/piper96/12-01-96.htm) puts it, “All this is the love of God rescuing us from the wrath of God, in such a way that the justice of God is vindicated and the glory of God is exalted.”

The author wants us to see the superiority of Jesus as our high priest. He didn’t want his readers to return to Judaism under the threat of persecution, so he is showing how Jesus is superior to the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system. Although we may not be tempted to give up Christianity for Judaism, we are easily tempted to turn away from Christ when trials or disappointments hit. We face problems for which knowing Christ more deeply is the answer, but we turn to worldly psychology that offers techniques for coping, or insights into our pasts. Or, we salve our pain by pursuing material comforts or worldly pleasures. But what we really need is to see the supremacy of Jesus Christ as our high priest, who is able to save to the uttermost all who draw near to God through Him.

1. Jesus is superior as our high priest because of God’s oath (7:20-22).

The author is contrasting the Levitical priests with the priesthood of Jesus according to the order of Melchizedek. With the Levitical priests, God did not make an oath that the priest would serve forever. But when it came to the priesthood of His Son, “The Lord has sworn and will not change His mind, ‘You are a priest forever’” (7:21, citing Ps. 110:4). We saw a similar thing in 6:13-18 regarding God’s promise to Abraham, that He swore by Himself to make the promise that much more secure. God’s bare word is enough to make His promise certain. But when He adds His oath, it is like underlining the promise, highlighting it, and putting it in brackets with multiple exclamation points after it! And then He adds, “and will not change His mind”! You get the impression that God wants us to take note—Jesus is a priest forever!

As such, he adds (7:22), “so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.” In Greek, the name Jesus is placed last in the sentence for emphasis. Jesus is the human name of our Savior, which means, “Yahweh saves.” As the angel told Joseph, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). This is the only time that the word “guarantee” is used in the New Testament. Jesus, who offered Himself on the cross for our sins, is our surety or guarantee of this better covenant, the New Covenant, which the author only mentions here, but will expand on in 8:7-13.

Philip Hughes (A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 267) observes, “It is a matter of exceptional significance that the covenant with Abraham and the declaration concerning the priestly order of Melchizedek were both confirmed by God with an oath, for under these two heads all the gracious promises and prophecies which precede the coming of Christ are gathered, and with the coming of Christ both the evangelical covenant and the evangelical priesthood burst into fulfilment.” In other words, God’s oaths stand behind the two crucial prophecies and promises about Christ. It’s like a double warranty from the God of truth Himself backing our salvation! John MacArthur puts it, “All of God’s promises in the New Covenant are guaranteed to us by Jesus Himself. He guarantees to pay all the debts that our sins have incurred, or ever will incur, against us” (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Hebrews [Moody Press], p. 198).

2. Jesus is superior as our high priest because of His permanence and His perpetual petition (7:23-25).

A. Jesus is superior as our high priest because of His permanence (7:23-24).

The author continues his contrast between the Levitical priests and Jesus, our priest according to the order of Melchizedek. The Levitical priests existed in greater numbers because they died and had to be replaced. The Jewish historian Josephus says that there were 83 high priests from Aaron to the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The Talmud says that there were 18 during the first temple and more than 300 during the second (Leon Morris, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:71). However many there were, the point is that they were not perpetual. They all died and were replaced. But Jesus, “because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently” (7:24).

To put this in modern terms, human pastors come and go, but Jesus is always in heaven for you. Of course, a pastor is not like an Old Testament priest, in that I do not represent you before God. You can go directly to God through Christ. My role is to proclaim and explain God’s truth to you, but in that role there is always the danger that you might depend too much on me. It was 12 years ago next Sunday, by God’s grace, that I began my ministry at this church. But the fact is, I could be in heaven by next week, because I am mortal. While I pray that God will use my ministry as long as He keeps me here to equip and encourage you in your walk with God, don’t look to me or become dependent on me. Look to Christ! He “holds His priesthood permanently.”

B. Jesus is superior as our high priest because of His perpetual petition (7:25).

Jesus “is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” What a wonderful verse! John MacArthur says (p. 199), “Like John 3:16, it contains the whole essence of the gospel.” It has several important parts.

*“Jesus is able to save.” As the angel promised Joseph, “He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). There are many Christians who would modify that verse to read, “He will do everything He can to save His people from their sins, but it’s up to them to exercise their free will. If they don’t do that, He can’t save them.” They make God out as pining away in heaven, wishing that He could save people. He desperately wants to save them. But, alas, His hands are tied, because He limited His ability to save when He granted free will to people! When a soul gets saved, according to this view, it is a joint project between God and man. God has done His part; now man must do his part, which is to exercise his free will and believe in Jesus.

Theologians call that view “synergism.” It is the view of salvation that the Roman Catholic Church teaches, but it is not the view of the Reformers. They correctly taught that because of the fall of the human race into sin, there are none who understand or seek for God (Rom. 3:10). We are born dead in our transgressions and sins (Eph. 2:1). To use a different analogy, we are in spiritual darkness, blinded by the god of this world so that we may not see the light of the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). We cannot cooperate with God in the matter of our salvation any more than a dead man can will his own resurrection, or a blind man can decide to see. In this fallen condition, we don’t even desire to be saved, because as Jesus taught, “men loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19; see also John 8:44).

To appreciate the biblical doctrine of salvation, you have to recognize how hopelessly, helplessly lost sinners really are. Apart from Christ, sinners are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness” (Eph. 4:18-19). It’s not a pretty picture, but that is the biblical description of our condition before salvation (even if you were raised in a Christian home!).

How then can anyone be saved? “Jesus is able to save”! As Paul follows up his comment about us being dead in our sins, and being by nature children of wrath, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Eph. 2:4-5). Salvation isn’t a matter of throwing a rope to a drowning man who has the ability to grab the rope. It’s a matter of breathing new life into a man who has already drowned! What man cannot do, Jesus is able to do! He is able to save!

*”Jesus is able to save forever,” or “to the uttermost.” The Greek word means “completely.” In the context, the thought may be on His ability to save us forever because He abides as our priest forever. But also it probably has the further nuance of saving us completely or to the uttermost. The infinitive, “to save,” is present tense in Greek, pointing to the ongoing process of salvation. We are saved totally the instant that we trust in Christ, but there are also present and future tenses to salvation. Presently we are being saved and one day we shall be saved in the total and final sense.

This is the great doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. What God begins at the moment of salvation, He promises to bring to completion. As Jesus said, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39). The Father has given an elect people to His Son. Of those, how many will Jesus lose? None! They will go through doubts, like Thomas. They may go through denials, like Peter. But Jesus is able to save them completely. He will lose none! But, how does He do it?

*“Since He always lives to make intercession for them.” The word “intercession” is used in the papyri of a petition to a superior (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 99). As the eternal Son of God, Jesus sits enthroned at the right hand of the Father. He is equal to the Father in His deity, but as the Son, He submits to the Father’s will. He is able to save His people because He always lives to make intercession for them. His high priestly prayer in John 17 is our greatest look into how He prays for His own. Also, when Jesus predicted Peter’s denials, He said, “But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:32).

Though we may stumble badly, as Peter did, our salvation is guaranteed because our high priest is at the right hand of the Father, making intercession for us! His very presence there, having accomplished our redemption through His blood, means that when we sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:2). The guarantee of our salvation is not voided if we fail to follow the “owner’s manual” perfectly, although we should always seek to obey God’s Word. It depends on the perpetual prayers of our great high priest!

Thus Jesus is superior as our high priest because of God’s oath and because of His permanence and perpetual petition for us in that office. These things guarantee our salvation.

3. Jesus is superior as our high priest because of His perfect purity and His supreme sacrifice of Himself (7:26-28).

“It was fitting for us” points to Christ’s suitability for His saving work (Morris, p. 72). It means that He “answered exactly to the requirements of the predicament” that we were in as sinners (Hughes, p. 271). The author piles up five terms that emphasize the perfect purity of Jesus.

First, He is “holy,” which points to His character as set apart unto God, without any sin. It has a specifically messianic connotation, since it is used in Psalm 16:10 (LXX) of Jesus as God’s Holy One who would not see corruption (Hughes, p. 272).

“Innocent” means that He is “entirely free from all that is evil and harmful, both in action and in motivation” (ibid.). “Undefiled” means to be “free from any moral or spiritual blemish” (MacArthur, p. 202). It may point to Jesus’ moral purity, in contrast to the outward ritual purity of the Levitical priests. Though they may be pure outwardly, inwardly they were defiled as sinners. But Jesus was completely pure throughout (Hughes, p. 273).

“Separated from sinners” does not mean that Jesus removed Himself from contact with sinners, in a monastic sense. Rather, although He was the friend of sinners, He kept Himself separate and undefiled. Unlike the Levitical priests, who had to keep themselves away from anyone who would defile them ritually, Jesus could mix with sinful people and yet their defilement did not affect Him. He could touch lepers (Mark 1:41), the ritually unclean, and even the dead (Luke 8:40-56) without contracting their defilement. Instead, His purity and life-giving power were imparted to them!

“Exalted above the heavens” “embraces the truth of Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and glorification, and it portrays the supreme perfection of our ever living High Priest in the sanctuary above” (Hughes, p. 275). It means, “The power of his all-sufficient atoning work is available without diminishment to us today as it was to the believers of the first century, and it is so because he who died for us is alive from the dead and enthroned on high” (ibid.).

The author adds (7:27) that Jesus “does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.” Those priests were weak (7:28) sinners, standing before God with their own sacrifices before they could represent other sinners. But Jesus didn’t need a sacrifice because He was without sin. Rather, He offered Himself as the sacrifice, and that, once for all! Verse 28 summarizes, “For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.” The superiority of Jesus, the Son of God, as our high priest guarantees our salvation. But, whom does He save?

4. Jesus saves forever those who draw near to God through Him (7:25).

Those who teach the synergistic view of salvation accuse us who say that salvation is totally from God of teaching that God saves us apart from faith. That is not true. We teach that God saves us through faith. We are responsible to believe in Jesus Christ. But we are unable to believe the gospel unless God grants faith to us as His gracious gift. As Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44; see also 6:65). Hebrews 13:21 says that God works “in us that which is pleasing in His sight.” Since drawing near to God through Jesus is pleasing in His sight, He must work this in us if we are to come to Him in faith.

“Draw near” is a present continuous tense, describing those who are being saved. They continually draw near to God through Jesus. They do not just draw near to God to get a few benefits. They know their desperate condition as sinners, and so they draw near through Christ’s blood for salvation, and they continue to draw near for sustaining grace. They draw near through Jesus, because He is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). They draw near to God Himself, not to church or religious duties. It is impossible to draw near to the holy God and at the same time cling to your sins. So in drawing near, we turn from our sins and pursue holiness (12:14), not just outwardly, but also on the heart level, since God looks on the heart.

Conclusion

Have you ever gotten a promotional letter that said in fine print, “Actual results may vary”? Or, “Amounts used in this letter are for illustration purposes only; actual earnings may be less”? Those statements greatly limit the promises of the offer!

But God promises that because Jesus is our superior high priest, salvation is guaranteed for all who draw near to God through Him. There is no fine print stating, “Sinner must clean up his life first.” It does not say, “Offer does not apply to really bad sinners.” Jesus promises, “The one who comes to Me, I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). He guarantees salvation for all eternity if you will come to Him!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it important to affirm that salvation is totally of God, and not a cooperative project between Him and man?
  2. How can salvation be all of God if the sinner must believe?
  3. If God is able to save (Heb. 7:25) and if He desires all to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), then why isn’t everyone saved?
  4. If sinners are unable to come to Christ on their own, then is it a sham to invite them to come? See John 6:37, 44; Matt. 11:25-28.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 23: A Better Priest for a Better Covenant (Hebrews 8:1-13)

One of Satan’s aims is to diminish the supremacy and all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ. You can evaluate a teaching or practice by this: if it diminishes the glory of Christ, it is not of God. Satan has used legalism to divert Christians to the superficial and external, as opposed to the substance, which is Christ (see Col. 2:16-23). If he can get our focus onto rules and outward observances, we are fooled into thinking that we are “good” Christians. But if the person and work of Jesus Christ is not our focus and joy, we can do all sorts of outward things, but miss the vital thing, which is to glory in Christ and to know Him (see Phil. 3:1-11).

Sometimes the enemy uses trials to get our focus off of Christ. Rather than allowing the trial to drive us to Christ for sustenance and comfort, we turn to worldly counsel that anyone could use, whether he knows Christ or not. The counsel may even “work,” in the sense of providing relief from our pain. But if it is relief without Christ, it is deceptive relief.

Sometimes the enemy uses the temptation of the world and its pleasures to lure us from Christ. As with the seed sown on the thorny ground, “worries and riches and pleasures of this life” (Luke 8:14) choke out the Word that directs us to Christ. We become satisfied with all that the world offers, forgetting that its pleasures are fleeting at best. Only Christ satisfies for time and eternity.

The first readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews were tempted to abandon Christ and return to Judaism under threat of persecution. Judaism had been the practice of their forefathers for centuries. God had revealed Himself through the Hebrew Scriptures and the religious practices spelled out there were comfortable and satisfying. Why endure persecution for their faith in Christ? Why not just go back to the old ways that had been followed for centuries?

To counter this danger, the author sets forth the supremacy of Jesus Christ over the old ways. He has shown that Jesus is the one of whom the entire Old Testament was written (1:1-2). He is the fulfillment of all that it pointed toward. As God’s priest according to the order of Melchizedek, Jesus is far superior to the Levitical priests. In chapter 8, he shows that…

Jesus is the better priest who mediates a better covenant.

In 8:1-6a, he shows that Jesus is the better priest who ministers “in the true tabernacle.” In 8:6b-13, he shows that Jesus mediates a better covenant, the new covenant that had been predicted by the prophet Jeremiah.

This chapter raises a number of difficult exegetical and theological issues, which I cannot delve into here. As I mentioned several weeks ago, the question of how the Old Testament law relates to believers under the new covenant is one of the thorniest issues in all of Scripture. These verses are at the center of that debate. I confess that I am not completely clear on all of these matters. If I leave you with unresolved questions, I invite you to dig deeper.

The author is working through an argument here, and so I will explain his line of thought first, and then offer some applications.

1. Jesus is the better priest who ministers in the true tabernacle (8:1-6a).

There are three points:

A. Our high priest is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens (8:1).

The author states the main point of what he has been arguing: “We have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens” (8:1). This is in contrast to the Levitical priests who were weak and imperfect (7:28). They served in the earthly tabernacle on behalf of the worshipers. But Jesus, our priest according to the order of Melchizedek, has ascended into heaven and taken His seat at the right hand of God (Psalm 110:1). The author reverently refers to God as “the Majesty in the heavens.” It connotes God’s sovereignty as the King of kings, and His splendor as both Isaiah (6:1-7) and Ezekiel (1, 10) saw in their visions. It was one of Calvin’s favorite ways to refer to God. As a title for God, it is used only here and in 1:3 (see also, Jude 25).

The Levitical priests always stood when they were in the tabernacle or temple, indicating that their work was never done. But Jesus has taken His seat at the right hand of God’s throne, having accomplished His work of purification of sins (1:3). He has done all that can be done to accomplish our redemption. As He cried out from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). To add any human works or merit to what Jesus accomplished on the cross is an affront to His death as our perfect sacrifice.

The right hand of the throne is a place of honor, power, and exaltation. “In the heavens” refers to the dwelling place of God. Rather than an imperfect human priest who can only enter the Holy of Holies once a year, and never stay there for long (much less sit there permanently!), we have a high priest seated at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens! The point is, “Why would you even consider going back to the old system when you have such a high priest permanently seated in such an exalted position?”

B. Jesus ministers in the true, heavenly sanctuary (8:2-5).

There have been a number of interpretations proposed for these verses, but without wading through all of them, I think that his main point is that the earthly tabernacle was only a shadow. The true tabernacle is the very presence of God in heaven. “Sanctuary” refers to the Holy of Holies within the tabernacle. Although Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, He is not inactive. He is ministering as a priest.

The author’s point in both 8:2 and in 8:5 is that this sanctuary and tabernacle in heaven is the real thing. The earthly tabernacle was only a copy and shadow of heavenly things. To support this, he cites Exodus 25:40, where the Lord told Moses to make all things according to the pattern that he had been shown on the mountain. Some think that God actually revealed a model of the tabernacle to Moses. We cannot know this for certain, but the point is that Moses was not free to design the tabernacle according to his own ideas. The design of the tabernacle revealed some specific truths about the person and work of Jesus Christ. It was a limited, earthly picture of heavenly, spiritual truths. As such, the priests who served in the earthly tabernacle were inferior to our high priest, who serves in the true, heavenly dwelling place of God.

In 8:3-4, the author repeats what he had said in 5:1, that the high priests offered both gifts and sacrifices. Thus it was necessary for this high priest (Jesus) to have something to offer. He is referring back to 7:27, that Jesus offered Himself once for all. He will deal with this again (9:12-14, 25-28; 10:10-14). But here he only refers to it in passing. In 8:4 he points out that if Jesus were a priest on earth, He would not be qualified, since He was not from the tribe of Levi. Thus it follows that Jesus’ priesthood must be exercised in heaven, not on earth. His statement (8:4), “there are those that offer the gifts according to the Law,” indicates that the temple was still standing in Jerusalem, which dates the writing of Hebrews prior to 70 A.D., when the temple was destroyed (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 292).

Thus far the author has argued that our high priest has taken His seat at the right hand of the Majesty in the heavens. So, rather than ministering in an earthly tabernacle that is only a shadow, Jesus ministers in the true, heavenly tabernacle. Verse 6 serves as both a conclusion to what he has said and an introduction to the next section. The conclusion is:

C. Since Jesus ministers in heaven rather than on earth, He has obtained a more excellent ministry (8:6a).

It must have been an impressive sight to see the high priest in the splendor of his priestly garments going through the elaborate rituals at the tabernacle. The worshipers would have had a few minutes of suspense every year when the priest disappeared behind the veil. Their imaginations must have run wild as they wondered, “What is it like in there? What is he seeing? What is he doing? Will he come out alive?” Then he appeared and they all breathed easier.

The author is saying, “That was nothing compared to where Jesus is at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens! Their yearly ritual was nothing compared to our high priest offering Himself once for all on the cross, and now serving in heaven on our behalf! His heavenly ministry is much more excellent than their earthly ministry ever was!” The implied appeal is, “Don’t even consider returning to the old, earthly system that was a mere shadow. Stay focused on Jesus, who is the reality and fulfillment of all that the old system pointed toward.”

Two applications before we consider the second section of our text: (1) Jesus serves in heaven on our behalf—let Him serve you! Our tendency is to focus on how we should serve Jesus, and there is certainly a place for that (1 Cor. 15:58). But there is also a place for pausing from our busy activities and allowing Jesus to serve us. Do you recall Peter’s horrified response when Jesus took the towel and basin and washed the disciples’ feet? He said, “Never shall You wash my feet!” But Jesus countered with, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:8-9). We have to allow the Lord, through the water of His Word, to wash off the dirt that we pick up from walking in this world. As our high priest, He ministers on our behalf before the throne of the Majesty. Take the time before Him to allow His ministry to cleanse your soul.

(2) The heavenly and spiritual is more real than the earthly and visible—keep seeking the things above! The author is making the point that the earthly tabernacle was not the real thing. The real tabernacle is in heaven, where Jesus now is seated on our behalf. We are prone to think that the earthly is real, but the heavenly is less real than what we can experience with our senses. But Paul tells us, “keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1, 2).

At the very least this means that we should meditate so often on the things of God that they become more real to us than the things on earth. We can only apprehend the things of God by faith in the truths of His Word. Meanwhile, we’re surrounded and bombarded by all of the things that we see on earth. Unless we deliberately and consistently cultivate this heavenly vision, our priorities will get out of kilter. We will get caught up pursuing the transitory and missing the eternal. Like the rich man Jesus spoke of, we will build more storage units to hold all of our earthly goods, but we will be poor in relation to God (Luke 12:15-21). So remember, the earthly is the shadow; the heavenly is the real.

2. Jesus mediates a better covenant (8:6b-13).

Since Jesus is the better priest who ministers in the true tabernacle (8:1-6a), He also is “the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises” (8:6b). The better promises of this better covenant are those of the new covenant that Jeremiah prophesied of (8:8-12 cites Jer. 31:31-34 from the LXX). Again, many books (and entire theological systems) have been based on the interpretation and application of these verses, so I can only skim the surface here. Note three things:

A. The better covenant would not have been needed if the first covenant had been faultless (8:7).

As I mentioned in our study of 7:11-19, the idea of the Law of Moses being defective in any way would have been unthinkable for the Jews! The Law was the foundation of their entire way of life. It was the basis of their religious worship, which was the very warp and woof of being a Jew. In chapter 7, the author argued that the change of the priesthood required a change of the law also, since the two were inextricably bound together. He used Psalm 110:4 to show that David had predicted the change of the priesthood. Here, he cites Jeremiah 31 to show that the Old Testament itself also predicted a new covenant that would replace the old, Mosaic covenant. The reason for replacing the old covenant was that it was defective.

He is quick to add that the problem was not with the Law itself, but with the people who failed to keep it: “For finding fault with them” (8:8). Paul said the same thing: “The Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). But he goes on to say, “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). As sinners, we are unable to keep God’s holy Law. It did not supply the change of heart or the enabling ministry of the Holy Spirit that we need to obey it. As Paul explains in Galatians, the purpose of the Law was not to impart spiritual life, but rather to reveal our sin so that we would be driven to faith in Christ as our only remedy (Gal. 3:19-24).

B. Since God found fault with the people, He promised a new covenant (8:8-12).

This covenant would be made “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.” Some argue that the church is the new Israel, and since Jesus said that the communion cup is the new covenant in His blood (Luke 22:20), the church has replaced Israel as the recipient of this new covenant. But Romans 11:17-21 says that the branches of unbelieving Israel were broken off so that we (Gentiles) might be grafted in. Thus we who believe share in God’s new covenant promises to Israel, but as Paul goes on to say, after the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, all Israel will be saved. Then he refers to Jeremiah 31, “This is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins” (Rom. 11:27).

It is also important to recognize that while these new covenant blessings have been inaugurated by Jesus, their complete fulfillment awaits His second coming (see Craig Blaising & Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism [Baker], pp. 200-211). Craig Blaising writes (p. 208),

While the New Testament is clear on the fact that the new covenant has now been inaugurated, that is that blessings belonging to the new covenant are now being dispensed to all those who believe in Jesus (whether Jew or Gentile), it is equally clear that new covenant promises are not yet fully realized. The promises in Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel describe a people who have the law written in their hearts, who walk in the way of the Lord, fully under the control of the Holy Spirit. These same promises look to a people who are raised from the dead, enjoying the blessings of an eternal inheritance with God dwelling with them and in them forever.

After further discussion, he adds (p. 209), “Only in the future will those blessings be granted in full, and the complete transformation promised by the new covenant will be realized. That future will arrive when Jesus returns to earth.”

I can only skim the features of the new covenant here (we will look at them in more depth next week). Note five things:

1). The new covenant will be distinctly different than the old covenant that Israel did not keep (8:8-9).

The emphasis here is on discontinuity, not on continuity. God says, “Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers….” This is a major problem, in my estimation, for Covenant Theology, which views the old and new covenants as two different administrations of the same covenant of grace. The emphasis in that view is on the unity and continuity of the covenant throughout history (The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter Elwell [Baker], p. 280), whereas the emphasis here is clearly on discontinuity.

2). The new covenant will involve God putting His laws into the minds and hearts of His people (8:10).

In Deuteronomy 29:4, just prior to his death, Moses told the Israelites, “Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.” They had the Law written in tablets of stone, but they lacked the heart to obey. But in Ezekiel 36:26-27, which parallels the new covenant promises in Jeremiah, God promises, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” In Romans 6:17, Paul rejoices “that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed.” The new covenant blessing changes our hard hearts!

3). The new covenant will involve a close relationship between God and His people (8:10b).

“I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” This is really nothing new, in that God promised this to Israel at the exodus (Exod. 6:7). But, as Leon Morris explains (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:78), “The God who saves people in Christ is the God of his redeemed in a new and definitive way. And when people have been saved at the awful cost of Calvary, they are the people of God in a way never before known.”

4). The new covenant will mean that every person will know the Lord (8:11).

The point is not that there will be no place for teachers (Eph. 4:11), but rather “that the knowledge of God will not be confined to a privileged few. All those in the new covenant will have their own intimate and personal knowledge of their God” (ibid., p. 79).

5). The new covenant will bring complete forgiveness of sins (8:12).

The sacrifices of the old covenant could not completely remove sins (10:1-4). They were the shadow of the good things that were to come in Christ, who by the one sacrifice of Himself, completely paid the debt of our sins (9:14; 10:10, 14)!

Thus the better covenant would not have been needed if the first covenant had been faultless. Since God found fault with the people, He promised a new covenant.

C. From the time that God promised a new covenant, the old became obsolete and was about to disappear (8:13).

Jeremiah’s prophecy (about 600 B.C.) started the countdown to the time when the old covenant would disappear. In A.D. 70, when Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, Israel ceased to exist as a nation and the sacrifices, which were the heart of the old covenant system ceased to be offered. In light of the argument of Hebrews (especially verses like 8:13), I cannot accept the view that literal sacrifices will again be offered in the Millennium. The argument here is, the perfect has come in Christ; why go back to the old and obsolete?

Conclusion

We will look at these blessings in more detail next week. For now, ask yourself, “Is Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high, the mediator of the new covenant, the consuming focus of my Christian life? Do I daily seek to know Him, to love Him, and to glorify Him because He gave Himself on the cross for me?” While Christianity requires obedience, it is not the external obedience of rules and rituals, but obedience from the heart out of love for God. “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).

Discussion Questions

  1. What does it mean (practically) to “seek the things above”?
  2. With all of the worldly things that bombard us, how can we cultivate keeping our focus on Christ?
  3. Since there are commands to obey in Christianity, how does it differ from being under the Law?
  4. What does it mean to have God’s laws written on our hearts?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 24: The Better Covenant (Hebrews 8:7-12)

If you have health insurance, it is helpful to be familiar with the benefits of your policy. If you do not know those benefits, you won’t take advantage of them, and you may end up paying for something that the policy covers. About the only thing more tedious for me to read than an insurance policy is the IRS instructions, but I force myself to read them, because I want to know what my benefits are.

Many Christians are ignorant of the great benefits that they enjoy in Jesus Christ and, as a result, the enemy takes advantage of them. They end up “paying” for things that are “covered in the policy”! They are plagued by guilt, when the policy says, “I will remember their sins no more.” They feel alienated from God and His people, whereas the contract stipulates, “I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” They put themselves under many manmade rules, whereas God says, “I will put My laws into their minds, and I will write them on their hearts.” So instead of knowing the glorious privileges of being children of the free woman, they live in slavery as children of the bondwoman (Gal. 4:30-31).

If the Hebrew Christians left the glories of the new covenant and went back to Judaism, they would put themselves under the bondage of the old covenant. So the author is showing them the contrast between the two covenants and the superiority of the new covenant that Christ enacted through His blood. He’s arguing that,

The new covenant is better than the old covenant because it is enacted on better promises.

As I mentioned last week, whole theological systems part company over the interpretation of these verses. Covenant theologians argue that the old and new covenants are two different administrations of the one covenant of grace. But since the Bible never uses the title, “covenant of grace,” and since there is obviously a great distinction between the old and new covenants (8:7-9), I am not inclined to that system. On the other hand, dispensational theologians point out that the new covenant is to be made “with the house of Israel and … Judah” (8:8), and so many of them insist that the new covenant that Jesus inaugurated at the Last Supper was different than this new covenant. But, plainly, the church today partakes of the one new covenant that Jeremiah predicted. The author of Hebrews (and Paul in 2 Cor. 3) obviously views the new covenant of Jeremiah as in effect now.

One problem with the traditional dispensational approach is their view that the church is a parenthesis or intercalation in God’s plan for the ages. But as Paul explains in Romans 11:17-32, the disobedient branches (unbelieving Israel) were broken off from the olive tree (believing Israel), and the Gentiles have been grafted in. That doesn’t sound like a parenthesis! But we do not replace the entire tree, as some teach, because Paul shows that God will work in the future to graft the Jews back in.

As I understand it, Jesus inaugurated the new covenant with believing Jews at the Last Supper. The Jews that rejected Christ were broken off so that we Gentiles could be grafted in. By God’s grace, we now partake of the benefits of the new covenant that were promised to the Jews. Thus Paul could say (in 2 Cor. 3:6, written to the mostly Gentile Corinthians) that we are servants of the new covenant. This is not to say that the new covenant is completely fulfilled. In the future, God will bring a widespread revival among the Jews, who will look on Him whom they pierced and mourn (Zech. 12:10). The partial hardening of the Jews that now exists will be lifted, “and so all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:25-26). But the total fulfillment and the full experience of these promises await the second coming of Christ.

I touched on these five points last week, but let’s examine them in more depth:

1. The new covenant is radically different from the old covenant that Israel did not keep (8:7-9).

Clearly, the emphasis here is on discontinuity, not on continuity. God is drawing a sharp distinction between the failure of the old covenant and the certain success of the new covenant. John Owen (Hebrews: Epistle of Warning [Kregel], pp. 143-145) outlines 17 distinctions between these two covenants, but I’m going to give 12:

(1). The Law did not provide a way of justification by faith, but the new covenant does (Gal. 3:10-12; Heb. 7:19).

The Law did not bring acquittal, but condemnation, because no one was able to keep it perfectly. Paul states plainly, “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ However, the Law is not of faith” (Gal. 3:11-12a). If you want to be justified by the Law, all you have to do is to keep it perfectly, from birth until death, not just outwardly, but in your heart! The problem is, you are defeated before you begin, because we all have broken God’s commandments before we even begin to attempt keeping them! It’s like stepping up to bat with three strikes against you! Why bother?

(2). The Law could not impart spiritual life, but the new covenant does (Gal. 3:21; 2 Cor. 3:6).

That was not the purpose of the Law. Without new life from God in our souls, we cannot begin to please God. It would be like trying to prop up a corpse and get it to do certain things! The corpse needs life, and doing things will not give it life. You may ask, “Then why did God give the Law?”

(3). The purpose of the Law was to define and magnify our sinfulness, so that we would be driven to faith in Christ (Gal. 3:19-24; Rom. 5:20).

The notion of our basic goodness is planted deep within our rebellious hearts. We compare ourselves with others who are worse than we are, and conclude, “I’m not such a bad person after all!” We hear of an atrocious crime and we think, “How can people do things like that? I’m glad that I’m not like that evil person!” We all are prone to justify ourselves before God in this way.

Years ago, someone asked me to visit an acquaintance in the hospital who had suffered a major heart attack. I went to visit him and found out that he was a bartender at one of the most notoriously wicked bars in town. He had no church background and no religious inclinations. I asked about his family and found out that he had been through several divorces. He didn’t even know where his children were living or how to contact them. But when I shared the gospel with him, he told me that he would get into heaven because he was a basically good person!

The Bible teaches that a main reason that God introduced the Law was that sin might increase (Rom. 5:20). The Law “shut up everyone under sin” (Gal. 3:22). The Law reveals God’s holy standards, so that we see our guilt. In spite of this, we dodge it and congratulate ourselves in keeping it, while condemning others. The Pharisees did this. They prided themselves in never committing murder. Jesus said that if they had ever been angry with their brother, they were guilty of murder in God’s sight (Matt. 5:21-22). They boasted in never committing adultery. Jesus showed them that to lust after a woman in their hearts made them guilty of adultery in God’s sight (Matt. 5:27-30). The Law defines and magnifies our sinfulness, so that we will be driven to faith in Christ as our only hope of right standing before God.

(4). The Law led to bondage, not to freedom (Gal. 4:21-5:1; Acts

The Law could never free us from sin. Peter calls it “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). Paul compares being under the Law to being born of Hagar, the bondwoman. “She is in slavery with her children.” But those who are children of promise are free. He concludes, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 4:25; 5:1).

It is not that those under the new covenant are lawless. As it says, God writes His laws on our hearts. This changes our motivation, so that we desire to obey God out of love. Thus John wrote (1 John 5:3), “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.”

(5). The Law was external, not internal, and thus did not supply the power to meet its demands (Deut. 5:29; 29:4; Ezek. 36:26-27; Rom. 8:3-4).

In Deuteronomy 5:29, God exclaims, “Oh, that they [Israel] had such a heart in them, that they would fear Me and keep all My commandments always…!” In Deuteronomy 29:4, Moses tells the people, “Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.” But in the new covenant promises of Ezekiel 36:26-27, God declares, “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” Paul applies this to believers in Christ: “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4).

(6). The Law was a conditional covenant with frightening penalties for disobedience, whereas the new covenant is based on God’s promises and initiative (Deut. 28:15-68; Heb. 8:8-12).

The Law spelled out the blessings for obedience and the terrible consequences for disobedience (Deut. 28:1-68). If people had the ability to obey God’s holy Law, a chapter like this should have motivated them! The blessings for obedience to them and to their children were wonderful (28:1-14). The curses for disobedience were horrific (28:15-68). Their failure to keep the Law in light of these rewards and punishments only shows the stubborn sinfulness of the human heart apart from regeneration! Even though God had taken them gently by the hand to lead them out of bondage in Egypt, they did not continue in His covenant, and so He did not care for them (Heb. 8:9). (Hebrews quotes the LXX; the Hebrew reads, “although I was a husband to them.” The difference may be due to a typographical error of one letter. See Appendix E2, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 385-386.)

Notice the contrasting emphases in Hebrews 8:8-12 between Israel’s disobedience under the old covenant, versus God’s initiative under the new covenant. The old covenant failed because God found fault with them. They did not continue in His covenant, in spite of His kindness. But the new covenant will be marked by success because it does not depend on our weak, sinful flesh, but rather on the sure purpose of God. He repeatedly says, “I will, I will, I will,” (8:10-12) to emphasize that the new covenant is superior to the old, because it is based on the promises of God, not on the promises of sinful men to try to keep it.

(7). The Law could not provide full and complete forgiveness of sins, but the new covenant does (Heb. 9:9; 10:1-4, 10).

The gifts and sacrifices of the old covenant could not make a worshiper perfect in conscience. “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 9:9; 10:4). Because of this, they had to keep offering them year by year, as a yearly reminder of sins (10:1-3). But Jesus Christ, by the one offering of Himself, cleanses our conscience and puts away our sins once for all (9:14; 10:10, 14)! Hallelujah!

(8). The Law was based on an inferior priesthood, but the new covenant is based on the superior priesthood of Jesus (Heb. 7:11-8:6).

We saw this in previous messages, and so only mention it here. The Law was connected to the Levitical priests, who were mortal sinners. The new covenant is based on our priest according to the order of Melchizedek, made perfect forever.

(9). The Law did not bring everyone under it to know the Lord personally, but the new covenant does (Heb. 8:11).

All of the Jews were under the old covenant made at Sinai. But most of them were unbelievers who did not know God. By contrast, under the new covenant, “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). That is clearly a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:34, “For all will know Me, from the least to the greatest.”

(10). The Law was limited largely to one physical nation, whereas the new covenant extends to all people (Deut. 5:3-4; 7:7-11; Acts 2:17-18; Rom. 15:8-12).

The old covenant was restricted to the physical descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The descendents of Abraham through Ishmael and Esau were excluded. The descendants of Lot (the Moabites and the Ammonites), plus the Canaanites, were cut off from the promises, with the rare exception of a few proselytes, such as Rahab, Ruth, and a few others. Paul describes the Gentiles before Christ as “excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). But now, under the new covenant, God is calling the nations to salvation. We have been grafted in to the olive tree “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25; see 15:8-12).

(11). The Law kept worshipers at a distance from God because of His holiness and their sinfulness, whereas the new covenant invites us to draw near (Exod. 19:12-13, 21-24; Heb. 4:16; 7:19; 10:22).

When God instituted the Law at Sinai, He instructed Moses to draw boundaries around the mountain, so that no one would come near and die. When Moses went up on the mountain to meet with God, He told him to go back down and warn the people again, so that no one would break through to gaze on the Lord and perish. As we’ve seen, none but the high priest on the Day of Atonement could enter the Holy of Holies, where the shekinah glory of God was displayed. The Law kept sinners at a distance. But the new covenant invites sinners to draw near to the very throne of God through the blood of Christ, to receive grace and mercy!

(12). The Law served a temporary function, whereas the new covenant is eternal (Gal. 3:19-25; Heb. 9:9-12; 13:20).

Paul says that the Law was like a tutor, needed until we grew to adulthood. But now that the promise has come in Christ, the tutor is no longer needed. But the new covenant obtained eternal redemption for us, so that it is called the eternal covenant (13:20).

So there are radical differences between the old and new covenants. You can’t blend Judaism with Christianity. Jesus abolished the old covenant that was the hallmark of the Jewish religion (Eph. 2:15). The author is showing that the Jewish Scriptures themselves predicted this when they spoke of a new covenant. Let’s look briefly at the other features of the new covenant that are listed here. Alas, I’m going to have to skim these points again!

2. The new covenant involves God putting His laws into the minds and hearts of His people (8:10).

Rather than writing His laws on tablets of stone, God now writes them on human hearts (2 Cor. 3:3). It is important to keep in mind that while this represents a fundamental change from the old covenant, it is not perfected until Christ returns. In 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul contrasts the new covenant ministry with the old covenant ministry of Moses, he makes it clear that it is a process. As we behold “as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Although we are new creations in Christ, and God has shone into our hearts with the knowledge of His glory in Christ, yet we have this treasure in earthen vessels (2 Cor. 5:17; 4:6-7). While we have the gift of the Spirit, who is a part of our new covenant blessings (2 Cor. 3:3, 6), He is only the pledge of our future full new covenant blessings (2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14). While the new covenant promise is to remove our heart of stone and give us a compliant heart of flesh, yet in the present, the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh (Gal. 5:17). So we must walk by the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:16, 25; Rom. 8:13-14).

Much more could be said, but at the very least, God’s writing His law on our hearts means that our affections towards God’s Word are changed. Before, the Bible was a burden or we were indifferent towards it. Now, it is a delight because of our love for God. But even this is a process that requires discipline. As Craig Blaising explains, “This [process] is the condition of living under inaugurated new covenant blessings. Only in the future will those blessings be granted in full, and the complete transformation promised by the new covenant will be realized” (Progressive Dispensationalism, with Darrell Bock [Baker], p. 209; italics his; the previous paragraph was developed from his treatment).

3. The new covenant involves a close, intimate relationship between God and His people (8:10b).

God is ours personally. As His people, we can go to Him as children go to their father, to receive from Him the things that we need. We are His in a special sense. He bought us with the blood of His dear Son, so that we are not our own. We belong to Him.

4. The new covenant means that every person, from the least to the greatest, knows God personally (8:11).

As I explained last week, this verse does not imply that there is no need for teachers to explain the Word of God (Eph. 4:11). Rather, the emphasis is that there will be no second class citizens under the new covenant. There is no priestly hierarchy, where you have to approach God through them. In Christ, you are a believer priest, and you may go directly to God through Jesus Christ.

5. The new covenant effects complete forgiveness of sins (8:12).

Forgiveness is the fundamental need of every human being, because we all have sinned against a holy God. It is the basis for all of the other new covenant promises, because until our sins are forgiven, we do not know the Lord and we are not His people. We cannot draw near to Him, and we will not be able to understand His Word, until our sins are forgiven. The basis for God’s forgiveness is His mercy as shown at the cross. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, paid the penalty that we deserved. If you know the great cost that He paid so that He could be merciful to your sins, you will not go on happily in your sins! You will hate sin and strive against it, out of love for the Savior who gave Himself for you on the cross.

Conclusion

I hope that this message has been far more interesting to you than reading through the benefits of an insurance policy! I have been describing the great benefits of the new covenant so that you can leave the yoke of the Law behind and move on in the glorious freedom as an heir of the new covenant. While the benefits are not all automatic and finalized, the foretaste of them should motivate you to strive against sin and to follow the Lord with a glad heart.

If you have not asked God to forgive your sins, if you do not know God personally through Christ, and if His laws are not written in your heart, you are outside of His new covenant. To die in such a condition would mean that you would face God’s righteous judgment and condemnation. But if you will turn from your sins and trust in Christ’s death as payment for your sins, you will begin to enjoy the blessings and benefits of the new covenant.

Discussion Questions

  1. If new covenant believers are not under the Law, how can we know which Old Testament commands apply to us today?
  2. Why did God put a system (the Mosaic Law) in place for 1,500 years that was imperfect?
  3. Why did God think it necessary to increase and magnify sin through the Law (Rom. 5:-21; Gal. 3:19-24)? Isn’t increased sin contrary to His purposes?
  4. Why is it crucial for believers not to put themselves under the Law? (See Gal. 3-5.)

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 25: God’s Remedy for Guilt (Hebrews 9:1-14)

Our society has thrown out guilt as a bad carryover from our Puritan past. Movie stars and celebrities not only cast off their guilt, but also go on TV to boast about their shameful deeds. Even Christians who have fallen into sin explain how they have come to feel good about themselves in spite of their failures. They complain about self-righteous, judgmental Christians who won’t accept their “shortcomings.”

And yet, in spite of our widespread efforts to suppress or deny guilt, we can’t quite shake it. Years ago, psychologist Eric Fromm observed, “It is indeed amazing that in as fundamentally irreligious a culture as ours, the sense of guilt should be so widespread and deep-rooted as it is” (The Sane Society, [publisher unknown], p. 181). A cartoon hit the nail on the head. It showed a psychologist saying to his patient, “Mr. Figby, I think I can explain your feelings of guilt. You’re guilty!”

The Bible declares that all of us are guilty before the bench of God’s holy justice. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The Bible teaches that guilt is more than just a bad feeling. It is true moral culpability that alienates us from God and brings us under His decreed penalty, eternal punishment in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11-15). But, thankfully, the Bible also declares that God has provided a remedy for our guilt. It is vital that we understand and apply this remedy personally.

The Hebrew Christians were tempted to leave the Christian faith and return to Judaism. The author is showing them why that would be spiritually fatal. The old covenant under Moses was inferior to the new covenant that Jesus initiated. The Levitical priests under the old covenant were sinful, mortal men, as contrasted with Jesus, our sinless priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. In our text, he shows that the old covenant sacrificial system was temporary and imperfect. It could not provide a clean conscience for the worshipers. God designed that old system to point ahead to the superior, final sacrifice of our high priest, Christ, who offered His own blood to obtain for us eternal redemption and a clean conscience. Thus his point is that…

God’s remedy for guilt is the blood of Christ.

We will examine the text under three points: the imperfection of the old sacrificial system (9:1-10); what Christ’s sacrifice of Himself accomplished (9:11-14); and, the practical result, that we now can serve the living God (9:14).

1. God designed the old sacrificial system as a temporary, imperfect way of pointing ahead to Christ (9:1-10).

These verses fall into two sections:

A. God designed the earthly tabernacle as a picture of Christ (9:1-5).

John MacArthur (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Hebrews [Moody Press], p. 221) points out that the Bible only devotes two chapters to the story of creation, but it gives about 50 chapters to the tabernacle. It was the center of Jewish worship under the old covenant. The author mentions the tabernacle rather than the temple because the tabernacle was introduced immediately after the old covenant was instituted (Exod. 24-25). Also, the tabernacle was obviously more temporary than the temple, which fits the author’s point here.  As we saw in 8:5, the design of the tabernacle and its worship was not left up to human ideas, but God revealed everything in great detail to Moses on the mountain. The whole thing was an Old Testament portrait of Jesus Christ.

The author omits any reference to the courtyard, which contained the bronze altar for sacrifices and the bronze laver or basin. His purpose centers on the tabernacle itself, because he wants to compare and contrast it with the true tabernacle in heaven, where Jesus entered into the very presence of God.

The tabernacle was divided into two sections. The outer section, called the holy place, was about 30 long, 15 feet wide, and 15 feet high. The inner section, the Holy of Holies, was a 15-foot cube. On the left in the holy place, as the priest entered, was a solid gold lampstand with seven branches filled with pure olive oil.  Since there were no windows, this provided the only source of light. On the right was the table that held the 12 loaves of sacred bread. Farther in, and to the center just outside the veil that divided the holy place from the Holy of Holies, was the altar of incense.

Scholars debate why the author of Hebrews seems to place the altar of incense inside the Holy of Holies, rather than just outside in the holy place. Some say that he was mistaken, but this is absurd. Every Jew knew the arrangement of these basic pieces of furniture. Some say that the reference is not to the altar itself, but to the censers that the priests used to carry incense into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, which the author obviously has in mind. The Greek word is used in this sense in the LXX. But then the author would have omitted mentioning a major piece of furniture in the holy place.

Probably the best solution is that the author is connecting the liturgical function of the altar of incense with its close association with the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (see Exod. 30:6; 40:5; 1 Kings 6:22). The same close connection is portrayed in Revelation 8:3, where the golden altar of incense, representing the prayers of the saints, is “before the throne.”

Inside the Holy of Holies was the ark of the covenant, measuring about 45 inches long, 27 inches wide and 27 inches high, which contained (in earliest times) a golden jar of manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The covering of the ark was called the mercy seat, or (in Greek), the place of propitiation. It was overshadowed by two cherubim of glory, so called because it was there that the glory of God’s presence was manifested (Exod. 25:22). The high priest sprinkled the blood from the sacrifices on this mercy seat.

The author does not explain the symbolic meaning of any of these things, but hurries on to his point, that these things were temporary and looked ahead to Christ. But let me comment briefly. The lampstand pictures Christ, not here as the light of the world (because the world was not allowed into the holy place), but as the one who illumines the things of God through the Holy Spirit (the oil) to those who draw near. The table of sacred bread pictures Christ as the sustenance of His chosen people and their communion with Him. The altar of incense shows Christ interceding for His people in God’s presence.

The ark pictured the very presence of God. The golden jar of manna shows Christ as the daily bread of His people. Aaron’s rod that budded shows Christ, the branch, chosen above others because He alone is life-giving. The tables of the covenant reveal God’s holy standards. Neither the pot of manna nor Aaron’s rod existed in Solomon’s time, but the two stone tables were still there (1 Kings 8:9). The ark itself apparently disappeared when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in 586 B.C. The later temple only contained a stone slab in the Holy of Holies.

The author moves on to describe the familiar tabernacle ritual:

B. God designed the ministry of the priests in the tabernacle as a picture of the work of Christ (9:6-10).

He summarizes the common activities of the priests in 9:6. They went into the outer tabernacle to trim the lamps and to put fresh incense on the altar. Once a week they would replace the sacred loaves of bread.

But 9:7 focuses on the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could go in there, once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). He would first offer a bull for his own sins. He would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of the bull on the mercy seat and in front of it. Then he would go back out and slaughter one of two goats as a sin offering for the people and take this blood into the mercy seat. He would go back out and lay his hands on the living goat, confessing over it the sins of the people. They would lead this goat out into the wilderness and let it go.

The author calls attention to the fact that old system provided a way for forgiveness for “the sins of the people committed in ignorance” (9:7). The Law stipulated that there was no sacrifice for sins of defiance (Num. 15:30-31). There is a sense, of course, in which virtually all of our sins stem from defiance toward God, but the reference in Numbers seems to refer to outrageous, blasphemous behavior that represented revolt or treason against God (Ronald Allen, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 2:830). In this sense, there is a parallel in Hebrews 10:26-31, where the author strongly warns his readers against apostasy, for which there is no sacrifice.

The annual Day of Atonement ritual would have underscored to Israel a number of vital spiritual truths. It portrayed the absolute holiness of God and how our sin separates us from entering His presence. It showed the sin and defilement of all of the people, including the high priest. It showed that no one dared to enter God’s holy presence without the blood of an acceptable sacrifice. It showed that the people must approach God through the proper mediator, the high priest. It showed that if the proper sacrifice was offered, God would be propitiated or satisfied, so that He would not judge their sins. But, as glorious as all of this ritual was, it was inadequate, for two main reasons:

1). The old system provided limited access to God.

None of the people and not even all of the priests could enter the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could go there, and that only once a year, with blood. It was not a cozy place where he put his feet up on the hearth and had a warm conversation with God! He had to make sure that he had the ritual down perfectly, or it would be his last trip into that sacred sanctuary!

The author attributes the Old Testament account to the Holy Spirit (9:8), who was signifying “that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed, while the first tabernacle is still standing.” Some understand “first tabernacle” to refer to the entire tabernacle, but since the same phrase is used in 9:2 & 6 to refer to the holy place, others take it to refer to the outer or first room of the tabernacle. The meaning then would be that the holy place “was blocking the way into the sanctuary of God’s presence for the mass of the people, for whom entry even into the holy place was prohibited…. So long, then, as the holy place continued standing they had no hope of immediate access to God” (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 322, 323).

2). The old system provided limited efficacy of the sacrifices.

The author’s bottom line is that these gifts and sacrifices could not “make the worshiper perfect in conscience” (9:9). He does not explain exactly what that means, except that it was “a symbol” (parable) “for the present time.” The “present time” (9:9) may mean “the time then present,” that is, “in the Old Testament days the way to God was not yet revealed.” Or, it may mean “the time now present,” indicating that “the real meaning of the tabernacle can only now be understood, in the light of the work of Christ” (Leon Morris, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], ed. by Frank Gaebelein, 12:84).

The inability of the sacrifices to make the worshiper perfect in conscience “did not mean … that no Old Testament saint ever had a clear conscience, but he did not obtain it by the sacrifices as such” (ibid.). The author offers two reasons for this statement (9:10). First, they were external regulations for the body, but (the implication is) they could not deal adequately with the conscience. Second, they were temporary, “imposed until a time of reformation,” which refers to the time of Christ. The fact that the sacrifices had to be repeated annually showed the incomplete nature of the forgiveness. It put off guilt for each year, but it had to be done again and again.

Up to this point, the author is arguing that the Old Testament sacrificial system was not God’s complete and final provision for the guilt of our sins. It all pointed ahead to Christ.

2. The blood of Christ obtained eternal redemption and a clean conscience for us (9:11-14).

Whereas the old system provided only limited access and limited efficacy, Christ provides complete access and efficacy:

A. Christ’s blood provides complete access into the heavenly Holy of Holies (9:11-12).

There is a textual variant in 9:11. Probably the best reading is, “the good things that have come.” The “greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands,” refers to the “true tabernacle” in heaven (8:2), which is God’s very presence. The point is, Christ didn’t just go into an earthly Holy of Holies. He went into heaven itself, of which the earthly tabernacle was only a picture.

Furthermore, Christ didn’t take the blood of goats and calves to sprinkle on the altar. Rather, He went there “through His own blood.” Some have erroneously taught that Jesus had to carry His blood into heaven to secure our redemption. But He didn’t go there with His blood, but through His blood. He secured our redemption on the cross. In contrast to going back every year, Christ “entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” The author is showing the complete supremacy and finality of the blood of Christ over the old system. Through His death, our guilt is atoned for once and for all, for all eternity! The penalty has been paid. There is nothing that we can add to what Christ did. Through Him we have direct access to God!

B. Christ’s blood provides complete efficacy that cleanses our consciences (9:13-14).

The blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer “sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh.” In addition to the Day of Atonement ritual, the author adds the red heifer ritual (Num. 19:1-13). This was a ritual for purification, especially if someone had been defiled by touching a dead body. The author argues from the lesser to the greater. If these rituals could cleanse the flesh, “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Jesus Christ is the only one who could atone for man’s sin, because He alone was a man without blemish in all that He did. Thus His blood can act as the substitute for the penalty that we deserve.

Scholars debate whether “eternal Spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit or to Jesus’ eternal divine spirit (there were no capital letters in the original Greek). We cannot be dogmatic on this. If it refers to the Holy Spirit, then it means that Jesus relied on the Holy Spirit when He went to the cross, which is certainly true. If it refers to Jesus’ eternal divine nature, the emphasis would be on the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice was uniquely efficacious to redeem His people, because He is not only a man, but also is eternal God (7:3, 16). The point is, “the difference between the levitical offerings and Christ’s self-offering was infinite rather than relative” (P. Hughes, p. 360). This infinitely efficacious sacrifice satisfied God in a way that the blood of bulls and goats never could. Through Christ’s blood, we can have a clean conscience.

The Bible teaches that the conscience alone is not an infallible guide. Through repeated sin, the conscience can be defiled (Titus 1:15) and seared (1 Tim. 4:2). For example, I read that Cambodian dictator Pol Pot murdered between two and seven million of his fellow people. He ordered the murder of everyone who wore eyeglasses, among many other senseless killings. Historians say that his evil deeds were even greater than those of Hitler and Stalin, if possible. Yet just before he died in 1998, he told a reporter that he had a clear conscience! It wasn’t clear; it was seared!

So our consciences need to be informed and trained through Scripture. As we learn who God is and what His holy standards are, our consciences accuse us of how sinful we are. God’s commandments, applied as Jesus did to the heart level, convict and condemn us all! None of us come close to loving God with our entire being, or to loving our fellow human beings as we love ourselves. Part of God’s work in regeneration is to bring His holy Law to bear on our hearts, so that we despair of any way of trying to justify ourselves. We stand truly guilty

So how can our guilt be removed and our consciences be cleansed? Only through the sacrifice of an acceptable substitute. As 1 Peter 3: 18 puts it, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God….” Or, as Paul put it (Rom. 3:24-25), “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.” Our guilt is not removed by doing penance or good works. Our guilt is totally removed by God’s free gift through the blood of Christ. We receive this gift through faith.

“But,” you may wonder, “if it is totally by God’s grace apart from anything that we do, won’t people take advantage of His grace by living in sin?” Paul deals extensively with this objection in Romans 6. But here our author counters it with a single phrase at the end of verse 14:

3. Christ redeems and cleanses us from dead works to serve the living God (9:14).

Some Christians serve God in an attempt to pacify a guilty conscience. They erroneously think, “If I do enough for Him, maybe He will forgive me.” That is a wrong motive! Others mistakenly think that God forgives them so that they can feel good. Their focus is on themselves, not on God and others. Again, that is a wrong focus. The proper order is, “God has forgiven me by His grace through the precious blood of His Son. Now I am free to serve Him!”

There are three senses in which the works of those who have not trusted in the blood of Christ are dead works (from P. Hughes, pp. 360-361): First, they are dead works because the one doing them is dead in his sins, separated from the life of God. Second, they are dead works because they “are essentially sterile and unproductive.” They cannot communicate spiritual life to others because they stem from a person who is spiritually dead. Third, they are dead works because they end in spiritual death. A person does them thinking that they will earn him eternal life. But if eternal life could come through our good works, then Christ died needlessly! No amount of good works can qualify a person for heaven.

But once we are born again by God’s grace, we offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2), so that whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we do it to God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31). Our daily lives become an act of worship and praise to the living God out of gratitude (Heb. 13:15-16).

Conclusion

Charles Simeon was a godly Anglican pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge. He described his own conversion in 1813 (F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 194, citing H. C. G. Moule, Charles Simeon):

As I was reading Bishop Wilson on the Lord’s Supper, I met with an expression to this effect—“That the Jews knew what they did, when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering.” The thought came into my mind, “What, may I transfer all my guilt to another? Has God provided an Offering for me, that I may lay my sins on His head? Then, God willing, I will not bear them on my own soul one moment longer.” Accordingly I sought to lay my sins upon the sacred head of Jesus.

Have you done that? If you have not, you are truly guilty before God and stand in jeopardy of His judgment. If you have, you have applied God’s remedy for your guilt, the blood of Christ. With a clean conscience, you now can serve the living God.

Discussion Questions

  1. Are guilt feelings valid for a Christian who has sinned? How would you counsel such a person?
  2. How can a believer distinguish between true and false guilt? How should each be dealt with?
  3. How should we witness to a person who has no sense of guilt before God?
  4. If we are totally forgiven through faith in Christ, why do we need to ask forgiveness when we sin?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 26: Forgiveness Through Christ’s Blood (Hebrews 9:15-22)

Since the time of Christ, people have stumbled over the doctrine that Christ had to shed His blood to atone for our sins. When Jesus announced to the twelve that He had to go to Jerusalem where He would suffer and die, the apostle Peter rebuked Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This should never happen to You!” (Matt. 16:21-22). The apostle Paul wrote, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing….” He went on to say, “but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:18, 23-24).

Liberal theologians hate the idea of Christ’s blood paying for our sins. They have called such views “slaughterhouse religion.” They ridicule Christians who believe in a God who would be petty enough to be angry over our sins, and pagan enough to be appeased by blood. The playwright, George Bernard Shaw, bitterly attacked the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, saying, “It is saturated with the ancient—and to me quite infernal—superstition of atonement by blood sacrifice, which I believe Christianity must completely get rid of, if it is to survive among thoughtful people” (cited in “Our Daily Bread,” 8/79).

But from the start of human history, God has made it plain that forgiveness of sins is only possible through the shed blood of an acceptable substitute. When Adam and Eve sinned, they became aware of their own nakedness and sewed fig leaves together to try to cover their guilt and shame. But God did not accept their approach. Instead, He clothed the guilty couple with the skin of a slaughtered animal (Gen. 3:21). In so doing, God demonstrated in a graphic way the horrific penalty of sin, but also His great mercy in providing an acceptable substitute.

God no doubt explained to Adam and Eve and their children the type of sacrifices that He would accept. Abel obeyed God by bringing a sacrifice from his flock, but Cain presented to God an offering from the fruit of the ground. God had regard for Abel’s offering, but He had no regard for Cain’s offering (Gen. 4:3-5). In anger, Cain murdered his brother. And in his pride and rebellion, Cain became the father of those who hate God’s ordained way of forgiveness through the shedding of blood.

Pagan religions have always practiced appeasing the gods or spirits through blood sacrifices. Sometimes they have even gone so far as to offer human sacrifices, including their own children. But we would be mistaken to think that the Jews adopted their sacrificial system by copying the pagans. Rather, as John Calvin pointed out, “all the heathen sacrifices were corruptions, which had derived their origin from the institutions of God” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint], on Heb. 9:16, p. 209).

Perhaps some in the Hebrew church had unbelieving Jewish friends who ridiculed them because they believed in a crucified Messiah. But the author is pointing out that the entire Jewish system of worship was based on blood sacrifices, and that God instituted that system to point ahead to the one all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ. To go back to the old system would be to return to a system that never could cleanse their consciences and to abandon the eternal redemption that God provided in Christ (9:12-14). In our text, he hammers home the point that…

Forgiveness of sins comes only through the blood of Christ.

In 9:15 he shows that because Christ offered His own blood as the sacrifice for our sins, He is the mediator of a new covenant (see 8:6). He focuses on God’s promise of forgiveness of sins under the new covenant (8:12). He shows that Christ’s death covered all of the sins of those who were called under the old covenant, so that they “may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.”

The mention of “inheritance” raises the idea of a will. There is some confusion in these verses because the same Greek word can be translated either “covenant” or “will” (or “testament”). In 9:15, 18, and 20, it should be translated “covenant.” But in 9:16 and 17, it has reference to a will or last testament, stemming from the mention of inheritance (the NIV translates it this way). A will is only in effect after the death of the one who made the will. In a similar manner, Moses inaugurated the old covenant with blood in accordance with God’s command. But Jesus inaugurated the new covenant with His own blood. Thus our salvation (our inheritance) rests securely on the new covenant in Christ’s blood, which is far better than the blood of animals. Consider three things:

1. Everyone needs forgiveness of sins because our sins have alienated us from God.

As I said last week, you can deny guilt and become hardened to the point that your conscience no longer bothers you, but if God is holy and if you have violated His holy standards, you stand legally guilty in His courtroom. So the main issue with guilt is not just guilty feelings, but actual forensic liability. If God condemns you in the day of judgment, your guilt becomes eternal. God’s decreed final penalty for sin is eternal separation from Him in the lake of fire (called “the second death,” Rev. 20:14).

Sinners usually deny their need for God’s forgiveness by diminishing the holiness and justice of God and by magnifying their own goodness or merits. They wrongly think, “Surely God is love, and a loving God wouldn’t send a good person like me to hell.” But the Bible is clear that God is absolutely holy and just. He will punish all sin. His love does not mean that He sets aside His holiness or His justice. The Bible is also clear that we are far more sinful in God’s presence than we ever imagined. We are born alienated from God because Adam’s guilt was imputed to us. We quickly added our own sins to Adam’s guilt! We incurred guilt by violating God’s holy standards, both by our deeds and thoughts.

Being alienated from God, we need a mediator to reconcile us to Him. Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). “He is the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 9:15). If you have ever been involved in a legal dispute, a mediator may help the two sides come to a satisfactory agreement. He listens to the terms of both sides and tries to work out a solution. Christ knew God’s absolute holiness. He also knew man’s enormous debt of sin. He took on human flesh, lived in complete conformity to God’s holy standards, and then offered Himself as the price of redemption that God’s justice demands. In so doing, He brought both sides together (see 2 Cor. 5:18-21).

Sometimes people wonder how those who lived before Christ were saved. The answer is, they were saved in the same way that we are saved, through faith in the shed blood of Christ. The sacrifices that they offered symbolized or pictured the sacrifice of Christ who would offer Himself as their substitute. Isaiah (53:5-6, 11) wrote,

But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him…. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities.

Thus the Old Testament sacrifices postponed the penalty for sins until Christ paid for them at the cross. The salvation of the saints before Christ was, so to speak, on credit, until Christ paid the bill. Paul says the same thing in Romans 3:23-26,

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

The fact that everyone is a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness means that you can offer the gospel to every person knowing that it is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes. You may feel intimidated because the person you’re talking to is highly educated and intelligent. He may launch off into philosophy or science to try to prove that there is no God. Don’t be threatened. Just keep in mind that this guy is a sinner who is going to die and stand before a holy God. He needs a mediator to reconcile him to God before that day. Jesus Christ is the only such mediator. His shed blood is the price of redemption for sinners who trust in Him.

2. God’s uniform method for the forgiveness of sins has been the shedding of blood.

God decreed that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). In Leviticus 17:11, God explains why blood must be shed: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.” God’s justice demands the payment of the penalty, which is death. In His mercy, He will accept the death of an acceptable substitute in place of the death of the sinner. The system of animal sacrifices under the old covenant pictured and pointed ahead to Christ, the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29). Note three things:

A. Sin leads to physical and spiritual death.

God told Adam and Eve that in the day that they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die (Gen. 2:17). But they ate of the fruit and did not drop dead that day. Why not? At the moment that they ate of the fruit, they died spiritually. Previously, they had enjoyed intimate fellowship with God, with no barriers between them. But instantly they were alienated from Him and tried to hide themselves from His holy presence.

On that same day, the process of physical death set in. Although in God’s providence and purpose, those early humans lived for hundreds of years, they all died. Their bodies became subject to aging and disease. Sin resulted in death through murder and war. All of the ugly horrors of the world, whether the ravages of disease, the atrocities of crime, terrorism, and war, or the environmental devastation of the world’s resources, are the result of sin.

When I have read stories about missionaries going into savage tribes with the gospel, I have marveled that these tribes had not annihilated themselves centuries before. Their histories are one long account of one tribe wronging the other tribe, and then that tribe taking revenge in brutal ways. Then the other tribe retaliates and the cycle goes on and on. The same thing is true, however, in more “civilized” parts of the world. The entire history of the world is a history of battles over territory or resources. Proud men lord it over other proud men, until they are overthrown. Sin is at the root of all of the physical death in the world. And sin results in every person being spiritually dead, alienated from the life of God.

B. Blood graphically pictures the costliness of sin.

The word “blood” occurs six times in verses 18-22, plus “death” or “dead” three times in verses 15-17. Have you ever thought about how gory and messy the Jewish religion was? Everything was sprinkled with blood. The priests slaughtered dozens and sometimes hundreds or thousands of animals at the altar. They took bowls full of blood and sprinkled it on the altar. The carcasses were burned on the altar, so that the smell would have been constant and overwhelming. I’ve never seen the slaughter of a bull or sheep or goat. I buy my meat pre-cut and shrink-wrapped in cellophane at the grocery store. To be transported back in time and witness the sacrifices at the tabernacle would be a shocking experience for most of us. The blood graphically pictured the cost of sin.

C. The old covenant was inaugurated with blood, because death is God’s decreed penalty for sin.

The author mentions details in 9:19 that are not included in the account in Exodus 24.There is no mention there of goats, water, scarlet wool, hyssop, or the sprinkling of the book. Other texts mention some of these things in other rituals (Lev. 1:10; 14:4-6; Num. 19:6, 18). Either the author is collectively gathering up all of these rituals into one, since he is dealing with the general subject of all things in the Old Testament being cleansed by blood (so Calvin and John Owen). Or, he may be relying on oral tradition, with which all of the Jews were familiar. But, his point is, “according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood” (9:22). The exception was that a poor man could offer a grain offering instead of an animal sacrifice (Lev. 5:11-13). But the exception did not negate the rule, that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” God was making the point that death is His decreed penalty for our sins.

Thus every person needs forgiveness of sins. God’s uniform method for the forgiveness of sins has been the shedding of blood.

3. The death of Jesus inaugurated the new covenant with blood.

Jesus’ blood, of course, is a figure of speech referring to His death. While Jesus’ physical sufferings were bloody and awful, it was what He went through spiritually that redeemed us from the curse of the Law. As Paul put it, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ’s worst agony on the cross was to be separated from the Father as He bore our punishment.

In 9:16-17, the author uses the analogy of a last will and testament to show that forgiveness comes to us as heirs of Christ and that forgiveness comes to us through His blood.

A. Forgiveness comes to us as heirs of Christ.

To receive an inheritance, you have to be included in the will, and the person making the will must die. Those whom God calls (9:15) are the heirs. The emphasis here is not on men calling upon God, but on God’s calling of men. In other words, He is the owner of the estate, and He makes up the will, choosing the heirs. He has a specific list, not a sign-up sheet. But once the will has been drawn up, it is not put into effect until the death of the testator.

We all know this principle. Ray Stedman (What More Can God Say? [G/L Regal], p. 139) tells how he was at a meeting with a group of people where the director of a Christian conference center was explaining the procedures for securing additional properties to expand the ministry. He described an arrangement that the center had with a widow, where they paid her an annuity until her death, and on her death her property would be deeded over to the conference center. One man immediately raised his hand and facetiously asked, “How healthy is she?” The question was in bad taste, but it illustrates the truth that wills are of no value to the beneficiaries until the death of the testator.

So the question you need to answer is, “Have you heard God’s call in the gospel and responded with faith in Jesus’ death?” He died to inaugurate the benefits of the will for the heirs. If you are an heir of Christ through faith in His blood, you have the benefit of forgiveness that His death secured.

B. Forgiveness comes only through the blood of Christ.

If there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood, then the opposite is also true: with the shedding of blood, there is forgiveness! As we saw from 9:9, these Old Testament sacrifices could not make the worshiper perfect in conscience. They sanctified for the cleansing of the flesh, but “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (9:13-14)!

We would not associate sprinkling blood on things as cleansing them (9:13, 22), but rather, as staining them. If you’ve ever gotten blood on a nice shirt, you know that you need to rinse it out quickly or it will permanently stain your shirt. To think of taking blood and sprinkling the book, the people, the tabernacle, and all the sacred vessels seems like it would dirty them, not cleanse them.

But modern medicine (of which the ancient Hebrews had no clue) has revealed how accurate it is to speak of the cleansing property of blood. Dr. Paul Brand, who specialized in the treatment of leprosy, wrote (with Philip Yancey, Christianity Today [2/18/83], p. 13) about how the blood is designed to cleanse the body of toxins and wastes that are built up in the tissues:

No cell lies more than a hair’s breadth from a blood capillary, lest poisonous by-products pile up…. Through a basic chemical process of gas diffusion and transfer, individual red blood cells, traveling slowly inside narrow capillaries, simultaneously release their cargoes of fresh oxygen and absorb waste products (carbon dioxide, urea, and uric acid). The red cells deliver these potentially hazardous chemicals to organs that can dump them outside the body.

He goes on to tell how the lungs and kidneys, plus the liver and spleen, work to cleanse the blood of these poisons to keep our system cleansed and healthy. Each red blood cell can only sustain the sequence of loading and unloading these chemicals for about a quarter million circuits. Then they are broken down and recycled by the liver, while the bone marrow releases new red cells to continue the process (about four million cells per second!).

God designed this as a beautiful picture to show that just as blood cleanses our bodies from poisons, so the blood of Christ, applied to our hearts by faith, cleanses our souls from the poison of sin. Regarding the spiritual cleansing that we need, someone wrote, “The blood of animals cannot cleanse from sin because it is non-moral. The blood of sinning man cannot cleanse because it is immoral. The blood of Christ itself alone can cleanse because it is moral” (cited by W. H. Griffith Thomas, Hebrews: A Devotional Commentary [Eerdmans] pp. 117-118). The blood of Christ was shed to provide the cleansing from sin and forgiveness that we all need. Have you applied it to your soul? It is God’s only way for forgiveness of sins.

Conclusion

A legend says that during a serious illness, the devil came into Martin Luther’s sick room, looked at him with a triumphant smile, and unrolled a big scroll, which unwound by itself. Luther read from the scroll the long, fearful record of his own sins, one by one. At first, he reeled in despair.

But then, suddenly, Luther cried out, “One thing you have forgotten. The rest is all true, but one thing you left out: ‘The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin’” As Luther said this, the accuser of the brethren and his long scroll disappeared (Paul Tan, Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations [Assurance Publishers], # 480).

Luther also said (cited by R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel [Augsburg Publishing House], p. 130),

Sin has but two places where it may be; either it may be with you, so that it lies upon your neck, or upon Christ, the Lamb of God. If now it lies upon your neck, you are lost; if, however, it lies upon Christ, you are free and will be saved. Take now whichever you prefer.

Forgiveness of your sins comes only through the blood of Jesus Christ. Make sure that you have applied His blood to your heart by faith!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the substitutionary atonement of Christ an essential doctrine of the Christian faith?
  2. Why is there no cleansing from sin apart from Christ’s blood?
  3. How would you counsel a person who says that he has trusted in Christ, but he still feels guilty over his past sins?
  4. Someone asks, “Why can’t God just say, ‘I forgive you’? Why the need for blood?” Your response?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 27: Judgment or Salvation? (Hebrews 9:23-28)

Before I bailed out of engineering as a major in college, I had a physics professor who often repeated his teaching method to us. He would say, “Class, I’m going to tell you what I’m going to tell you. Then I will tell you. Then I’ll tell you what I told you. Then I’ll review.” He knew that repetition is a major key to learning.

The author of Hebrews follows the same pattern. He was writing to people who were tempted to turn away from Christ to their former Jewish religion. He is hammering home the vital truth of the superiority, supremacy, and all-sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ and His sacrificial death for our sins. To turn to anything other than Christ for salvation is spiritually fatal! Christ alone fulfilled everything that the Old Testament pointed to in type. The priesthood, the sacrifices, and all of the religious rituals found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In a nutshell, if our trust is in Christ alone for salvation, we will escape God’s judgment. But if our trust is in anything or anyone else—our own adherence to some religious system, our own good works or righteousness, our religious heritage, or whatever—we will die and come under judgment.

So the issues at stake here are of eternal significance. If the repetition seems tedious, bear with it. If God uses it to open the eyes of one soul to the impossibility of salvation by human works or worth, and to the cross of Christ as God’s only provision, it is well worth repeating again. So, the author reviews. Verse 24 reviews what he has stated in 9:11, as well as in 8:1-5. Verses 25-26 review 9:12. Verses 27 & 28 draw both a comparison and a contrast that present the only options in the future: judgment or salvation. He wants us to understand that…

Because of Christ’s once for all sacrifice for our sins, we can look forward to salvation when He returns, not to judgment.

These verses fall into two sections. In the first, the point is:

1. Christ’s once for all sacrifice of Himself for our sins far exceeds the Old Testament sacrifices (9:23-26).

“Therefore” (9:23) goes back to the previous section, which made the point that forgiveness of sins is possible only through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. The blood sacrifices of the Old Testament all foreshadowed the supreme sacrifice of the Son of God. “The copies of the things in the heavens” (9:23) refers to the tabernacle and its furnishings. These things had to be cleansed by the blood of sacrificial animals. But these things were only earthly types of heavenly realities. The heavenly things themselves had to be cleansed with better sacrifices than these, namely, the blood of Christ. He uses the plural to refer to the one sacrifice of Christ, which gathered up into one all of the Old Testament sacrifices. Christ’s sacrifice “is so many-sided that it required a whole range of sacrifices to serve as adequate copies” (Donald Guthrie, Hebrews: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 196).

But verse 23 raises a question: What are the heavenly things and why do they need cleansing? A number of views have been put forth (Leon Morris summarizes these in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:91). We need to understand that the author is speaking spiritually. There is no literal altar or golden lampstand or table of sacred bread in heaven. But why would the spiritual counterparts in heaven (whatever they are) require cleansing? Some say that it is a dedicatory consecration, similar to the dedication of the tabernacle. Some relate it to the fact that Satan and the fallen angels have defiled heaven and that in His atonement, Christ disarmed them and triumphed over them, thus cleansing heaven.

But in light of 9:24, which states that Christ entered the true holy place in heaven to appear in the presence of God for us, the author is likely referring to the fact that we, God’s people, are now His spiritual dwelling place (3:6). How can we be pure and free from defilement, so that God may dwell in us, not just individually, but corporately as His holy temple (Eph. 2:21-22; 1 Pet. 2:5)? The answer is that Christ’s blood alone can cleanse our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (9:14).

In 9:24-26, the author further explains this “better sacrifice.” We, who are not used to the physical rituals and sacrifices of the Jewish temple, may not struggle with the spirituality of Christian worship. But the first readers of this epistle were having a hard time letting go of the physicality of the temple and the sacrifices. So the author emphasizes again (8:1-5; 9:11) that “Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (9:24). Under the Jewish system, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies once a year to represent the people before God, but Jesus is in the true holy place permanently on our behalf!

Furthermore, the high priest had to keep returning year after year with the blood of the sacrificial animals. But Jesus once for all offered His own blood. He didn’t have to suffer and die over and over again from the foundation of the world. His one sacrifice at the consummation of the ages put away our sin. “The consummation of the ages” is similar to Paul’s phrase in Galatians 4:4, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son….” It implies the preexistence of Christ before His birth. It also means that the cross represents the apex or consummation of God’s purpose of the ages, to glorify Himself.

At the cross, God’s perfect justice was displayed. If He had simply forgiven our sins without the payment of the penalty, He would not have been just. The death of the infinite, holy Son of God satisfied God’s wrath by paying the penalty we deserved. The cross also magnified God’s amazing love and grace. Any system of salvation that magnifies human merit or minimizes the cross is not from God.

At the cross, Christ “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (9:26). The Greek word for “put away” is used only in 7:18, where it refers to the “setting aside” of the Law that established the Levitical priesthood in deference to the greater Melchizedek priesthood of Jesus. “Put away” “is used in a technical, juristic sense,” “meaning ‘to annul’ or ‘cancel’” (Morris, p. 93). Philip Hughes (A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 385) states, “This nullification, moreover, is comprehensive: it covers sin in its totality, without qualification, in every form and degree and also in every age of human history, retrospectively as well as prospectively.” This means that when Christ died, He paid the penalty for the sins of all of His elect both before and after the cross.

While it is controversial and difficult to work through, I think that a careful understanding of the atonement requires that we see it as particular, not general. If Christ actually paid for all the sins of all people, then all would be saved, which Scripture plainly denies. If He only died for some sins of all men (unbelief being excluded), then how is the sin of unbelief atoned for? No one can pay for his own sin of unbelief. Thus it is more biblically correct to say that Christ died for all the sins of some people, namely, for His elect. (John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ [Banner of Truth] is the most thorough treatment of this issue. The above reasoning is on pp. 61-62.)

Christ did not come to die and then leave salvation up to the fallen sinner’s choice. Rather He came to “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). He came to lay down His life for His sheep (John 10:11, 14, 15). “Christ … loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). He was “offered once to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 9:28, reflecting Isa. 53:12). He will not fail in His purpose to save all that the Father gave Him (John 6:37-40). His sacrifice on the cross put away all of our sin once and for all.

You may wonder, “How can I know that Christ offered Himself for my sins?” That is a vitally important question! First, are you aware of your need for cleansing from your sin? Christ didn’t come to put away sin from those who think that they are righteous in themselves (Luke 5:31-32). Second, are you aware that you can do nothing to pay for your sin? You cannot put away your own sin through penance, personal determination, or self-denial. Years of good deeds cannot pay your debt of sin. Even the Old Testament sacrificial system could not put away sin (10:4)! Only Christ, by His death on the cross, could put away sin. If your trust is in Him and in Him alone, then you can be assured that He has put away your sins.

In a sermon on this verse, Spurgeon puts it like this (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 14:211-212): He says that if any are conscious of the burden of their guilt and the impending judgment of God on their sins, the news of one who can put away sin should be of great joy. If your house were on fire, you would rejoice to hear that the fire engines were coming down the street. You would be absolutely certain that they were coming for you, because your house was in a blaze if no one else’s might be. Thus the news of Christ’s coming into the world to put away sin will sound like a trumpet blast of joy “to those who know themselves to be full of sin, who desire to have it put away, who are conscious that they cannot remove it themselves, and are alarmed at the fate which awaits them if the sin be not by some means blotted out.”

If our trust is in Christ alone to pay for our sins, then …

2. When Christ comes again, we can look forward to salvation, not to judgment (9:27-28).

In the first half of 9:27 & 28, the author draws a comparison between the deaths of all people and the death of Christ. “It is appointed to men to die once….” Even so, it was God’s purpose for Christ to be offered once to bear the sins of many. But the second half of both verses contains an unexpected contrast. Men die once and then comes judgment. You would expect verse 28 to be parallel: “Christ died once and He’s coming back for judgment” (which is true). But instead, he says that Christ died once, but He “will appear a second time,” not for judgment, but “for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly wait for Him.”

There are four important, practical truths here:

A. God has appointed death for all people.

Enoch, Elijah, and those living when Christ returns are the exceptions. But apart from them, all must die by God’s appointment. In other words, death is not a “natural” process. Death is a reality because man sinned and God ordained that the penalty for sin is death. I once attended a funeral at a liberal church where the minister tried to soothe everyone by saying that death is just part of the natural cycle of all things. It is not! Death is God’s curse on our sin. For the believer, the sting of death is removed by the cross (1 Cor. 15:54-57), but even so, death is a reminder of our sin and of God’s holy justice.

Also, the Bible teaches that God sovereignly appoints both our birthday and our death day. David proclaimed (Ps. 139:16), “in Your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” Death may seem accidental to us, but it is never accidental to God. No one lives a day less or a day longer than God ordains. That should give us great comfort when we lose a loved one, especially if it is a younger person. God has reasons and purposes that we do not know, but we can trust Him. As Job said when his ten children were killed in a sudden windstorm, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

This truth that God has ordained the day of death should also give us peace as we think about our own death. While we should not take reckless chances with our lives by doing foolish things, and while we should be sensible with regard to diet, exercise, and proper medical care, the fact is, our lives are in God’s hands. We will die at His appointed time.

At age 54, Jonathan Edwards, the godly revivalist preacher, received a vaccination for smallpox when that treatment was in its earliest practice. No doubt he thought that it was a wise precaution that could extend his life. Instead, the doctor gave him too much vaccine, and he contracted the deadly disease. On his deathbed, he spoke to his younger daughter, who was there with him. He did not question the sovereign will of God. He said (Iain Murray, Jonathan Edwards, a New Biography [Banner of Truth], p. 441),

Dear Lucy, it seems to me to be the will of God, that I must shortly leave you; therefore, give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and therefore will continue for ever. And I hope she will be supported under so great a trial and submit cheerfully to the will of God.

He went on to commend his children “to seek a Father who will never fail you.” “Then, when those at his bedside believed he was unconscious and expressed grief at what his absence would mean… they were surprised when he suddenly uttered a final sentence, ‘Trust in God, and you need not fear.’”

For her part, when the news reached Edwards’ wife Sarah, she was suffering so much from rheumatism in her neck that she could scarcely hold a pen. But she wrote to her daughter Esther, who had lost her husband, Aaron Burr, just months before:

What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod, and lay our hands on our mouths! The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness, that we had him [Jonathan] so long. But my God lives; and he has my heart. O what a legacy my husband, and your father, has left us! We are all given to God; and there I am, and love to be (ibid., p. 442).

B. Apart from Christ, people die and face judgment.

Men “die once and after this comes judgment” (9:27). This verse clearly refutes reincarnation. People do not die and come back in another life as someone or something else. I once heard a radio interview with a woman in Southeast Asia who was dying of AIDS, which she contracted from her husband, who got it from prostitutes. The interviewer asked her if she was angry at her husband. She answered that she was not angry, because she knew that she would come back in the next life in a better situation because of her unjust suffering in this life. I thought, “What a lie of Satan!” Reincarnation is totally at odds with the truth of the Bible. We die once, and then comes judgment.

This verse also refutes the idea that people get a second chance to receive Christ after they die. Death is final. Philip Hughes writes (p. 388), “To refuse the cross as the instrument of salvation is to choose it as the instrument of judgment (cf. John 12:48).” This is why the Bible urgently warns us, “now is ‘the day of salvation’” (2 Cor. 6:2). Delay in trusting Christ could be eternally fatal!

Believers in Christ, however, do not come into judgment, but have passed out of death into life (John 5:24; see also, Rom. 8:1). Believers will appear before the judgment seat of Christ to be recompensed for the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10). Our faithless, evil deeds will be burned up as wood, hay, and stubble, whereas the gold, silver, and precious stones will be the basis for reward. But, “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

C. Christ died once to bear our sins, but is coming again to finalize our salvation.

Christ was offered once to bear our sins (9:28). This clearly refutes the Roman Catholic practice of the mass, where Christ is offered as a sacrifice repeatedly in the communion elements, which they believe become the actual body and blood of Christ. Catholic theologians claim that the priests are making present the eternal and timeless sacrifice of Christ (P. H. Davids, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter Elwell [Baker], p. 697). But the average Catholic worshiper scarcely understands such fine distinctions! They do not understand that the instant they trust in Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice, God forgives all their sins and imputes the righteousness of Christ to them.

Christ’s second coming will not be with reference to sin, since that issue was completely resolved at His first coming. Rather, He will appear for salvation for those who eagerly await Him. There are three tenses to our salvation. We were saved in the past at the moment we trusted in Christ. Presently, we are being saved as God works His holiness into our daily lives. And, in the future when Christ comes, we shall be saved completely and finally. “When He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Because of this great promise,

D. Those whom Christ has saved eagerly await His coming.

The picture behind the last phrase of 9:28 is of Jewish believers on the Day of Atonement. Their high priest took the blood and went out of their sight, behind the veil, to make atonement for their sins. The minutes that he was there seemed like hours, as they anxiously awaited his reappearance. Finally, he came out again, and the people rejoiced because they knew that God had accepted their offering and their sins were covered (see F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], pp. 223-224). Even so, our High Priest has gone into the true Holy of Holies in heaven, out of our sight. He took His own blood with Him. We eagerly wait to see Him come again, because then all of God’s promises of salvation will be fully realized!

Do you eagerly await the coming of our Lord? As Paul faced martyrdom, he wrote, “In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.” Then he added, “and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). If, because Jesus Christ is your Savior you love His appearing, then He will not mete out judgment, but as the righteous Judge, He will award you the crown of righteousness.

Conclusion

Years ago, in a frontier town, a horse bolted and ran away with a wagon that had a little child in it. A young man risked his life to catch the horse, stop it, and rescue the child. Sadly, the rescued child grew up to become a lawless man. One day he stood before a judge to be sentenced for a serious crime. The prisoner recognized the judge as the same man who, years before, had saved his life. He pled for mercy on the basis of that experience. But the words from the bench silenced all his pleas: “Young man, then I was your savior; today I am your judge, and I must sentence you to be hanged” (“Our Daily Bread,” 8/84).

Today, Jesus Christ offers salvation to all who will trust in Him. But if we refuse to turn to Him in faith, one day we will stand before Him as our righteous Judge. Will you die and face judgment? Or, will you trust in Christ’s supreme sacrifice of Himself for your sins and receive His salvation?

Discussion Questions

  1. If Christ’s sacrifice covers all our sins, why do we still need to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness?
  2. How do you square John 5:24 (believers do not enter into judgment) with Matt. 16:27, 2 Cor. 5:10 & Rev. 20:11-15?
  3. Why is it important to view the Lord’s Supper as a remembrance of His death, not as a sacrifice of His body and blood? How important is this doctrinally? Why?
  4. How would you witness to someone who believes in reincarnation and rejects the Bible as God’s Word?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 28: Total Forgiveness (Hebrews 10:1-18)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes detective novels, was a practical joker. One time he sent a telegram to twelve famous people in London whom he knew. It read: “Flee at once. All is discovered.” Although all twelve were upright citizens, they all quickly left the country.

That story may be fictitious, but it illustrates the fact that a guilty conscience is a common thing. Even in the church many are uncertain about their standing before God because of past sins. These ghosts from the past stay out of sight for a while, but then they come out of nowhere to haunt them. They wonder if anyone else knows what they have done. They’re fearful that the truth may leak out. But even more seriously, they wonder if God has truly forgiven them. They’re not sure how it will go when they stand before Him someday. Will God punish them in this life or in eternity for the terrible things that they have done? Such people need the assurance that our text hammers home:

Through Christ’s obedience to God’s will at the cross, new covenant believers receive what those under the Law could not receive: Total forgiveness.

As I said last week, the author of Hebrews uses repetition to drive his point home. He has already told us the bulk of what he tells us here again. This section concludes the main argument of the Book of Hebrews. It “expresses the very heart” of the book (Donald Hagner, Encountering the Book of Hebrews [Baker], p. 128).

If the original readers were to go back to Judaism, with its sacrificial system, they would forfeit the tremendous benefits that Jesus Christ secured for them. His death on the cross fulfilled all that the old system pointed toward. What it could not do completely, He did, namely, provide total forgiveness for those who draw near to God through Him. The old system, by its very design, barred the average worshiper from drawing near to God’s presence. Only the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies, and that only once a year. But in Christ, every believer has free access to God’s presence because Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice of Himself provides perfect standing with God.

The author piles up a number of synonymous phrases which show either negatively what the Law with its sacrifices could not do, or positively what Christ’s sacrifice did accomplish. Note:

10:1: The sacrifices of the Law could never “make perfect those who draw near.”

10:2: Those sacrifices could not completely cleanse the worshipers and take away their consciousness of sins.

10:3: Those sacrifices provided a yearly reminder of sins.

10:4: Those sacrifices could not take away sins.

10:10: By God’s will through the cross, “we have been sanctified” once for all.

10:12: Christ “offered one sacrifice for sins for all time.”

10:14: “By one offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

10:17: God promises to remember their sins and lawless deeds no more.

10:18: “Where there is forgiveness…” “there is no longer any offering for sin.”

All of these phrases add up to news that sounds too good to be true, and yet is true: In Christ we receive a complete, final, once for all pardon for all of our sins, past, present, and future! We’re prone to say, “What’s the catch?” There’s no such thing as an absolutely free lunch, but there is such a thing as God’s absolutely free pardon from all of our sins. It is totally free to us, because Christ bore the awful penalty that we deserved to pay.

Before we work through the text, let me clarify that we are talking here about our standing or position before God in Christ. In our daily walk, when we sin we need to confess our sins in order to receive what we may call “God’s family forgiveness.” But even our worst sins do not eradicate our positional forgiveness as children of God.

For example, my children enter my family through natural birth, and nothing that they do changes their standing as family members. But if they sin against me, they need to confess that sin and ask forgiveness so that our relationship is not hindered. Even so, like Peter we may fail the Lord badly, but our failures do not remove us from God’s family. We possess our standing in the family through the new birth, which provides total forgiveness. We maintain daily fellowship as God’s children by confessing our sins and asking forgiveness of the Father.

Our text falls into four sections. In 10:1-4, the author shows how the sacrifices of the Law could not completely remove the guilt of sin. In 10:5-10, he shows that Christ’s obedience to God’s will at the cross set aside the Old Testament sacrifices and provided for us perfect standing before God. As I understand it, 10:11-18 consists of an illustration and a quotation that both drive home the same point. In 10:11-14, the author illustrates the totality of our forgiveness by contrasting the unfinished, repetitive ministry of the Old Testament priests with the finished, all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ. Then in 10:15-18, he cites again the Old Testament prophecy of the new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34) to show that the total forgiveness that it promises means that the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ is sufficient and final.

1. The sacrifices prescribed by the Law could not completely remove guilt and sin (10:1-4).

First (10:1, 2), the author argues that the Law was only the shadow of good things to come, and not the very form of things. For this reason, the repeated sacrifices could not make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, they would have ceased to be offered, because the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had a consciousness of sins. “To make perfect” refers to our standing in God’s sight. It includes total cleansing from sin, so that we have a clean conscience. If our consciences are aware of sins that have not been confessed and forgiven, we will hesitate to draw near to God.

This was illustrated with Adam and Eve. As soon as they sinned, they tried to hide from God’s presence. They didn’t want to face Him because of what they had done. Every parent has had the same experience. You come home and your child avoids you. When you track him down, he won’t look you in the eye. He doesn’t want to draw near to you because he has a guilty conscience. Even dogs have this sense of guilt, where they avoid you if they’ve done something that they know is wrong!

In 10:3 the author goes on to argue that the annual sacrifices (on the Day of Atonement) only provided a yearly reminder of sins. The fact that every year the people had to go through this ritual sacrifice again and again only showed that it had not completely removed their guilt. It put it off for another year, but just like our April 15th tax deadline, that day of reckoning kept coming around. Then (10:4) the author states plainly, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Animal blood has no permanent efficacy for human sins. God designed that system of animal sacrifice to point ahead to His provision of the sacrifice of His own Son. As eternal God, His sacrifice has infinite value. As man, His sacrifice atones for human sin in a way that the blood of animals never could.

It’s interesting that the word “reminder” (10:3) is the same Greek word used in the institution of the Lord’s Supper, where Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). While we are instructed to examine ourselves and confess our sins before partaking of the elements, the gospel transforms our remembrance from one of guilt to one of grace (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 394). The Lord’s Supper reminds us that the penalty we deserve for our sins was put completely on Jesus Christ. His death accomplished what the blood of animal sacrifices never could accomplish, namely, it took away all of our sin and guilt!

2. Christ’s obedience to God’s will at the cross set aside the Old Testament sacrifices and provided perfect standing for us before God (10:5-10).

In 10:5-7, the author puts a quote from Psalm 40:6-8 (LXX) in the mouth of Jesus as He comes into this world. This assumes the preexistence of Jesus Christ as eternal God. There is a difficulty in that the Hebrew of this psalm reads, “My ears You have opened,” whereas the LXX translated it, “A body You have prepared for Me.” Apparently the Greek translators rendered an interpretive paraphrase of the Hebrew text, using a part and expanding it into the whole (F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 232). “To dig out an ear” (the literal Hebrew) is a part of God’s fashioning a whole body out of clay. It does not refer to the master boring the servant’s ear with an awl (Exod. 21:6; Deut. 15:17). Rather, the picture is that of God’s opening the ear of His servant so that He would be obedient to the cross (Isa. 50:5ff.). The LXX rendering puts the emphasis on God’s preparing a body for Jesus that He would offer as the suitable sacrifice for our sins, thus supplanting the Old Testament sacrifices. These verses (10:5-10) make three points:

A. The cross was the direct will of God.

The cross was not an accident or an unforeseen tragedy that took Jesus by surprise. It was not a temporary setback that God figured out how to turn for good. Rather, the cross was God’s predetermined plan, before the beginning of time, to deal with our sin. The Son of God would come into this world as a man, would fulfill through His obedience the complete Law of God, and then would die as the sacrifice that the justice of God demands as the payment for sins.

There is a great mystery here that we must submit to: even though God ordained the cross, down to minute details (e.g. casting lots for Jesus’ clothing), He is not in any way responsible for the sin of those who crucified Jesus. As Acts 4:27, 28 puts it: “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”

By coming into this world specifically to go to the cross, Jesus not only provided the sacrifice for sins that we need. He also provided a supreme example of resolute obedience to the complete will of God. The author twice repeats Jesus’ words from this psalm, “I have come to do Your will, O God.” As Luke 9:51 puts it, “He set His face to go to Jerusalem” (NASB, margin). As Jesus prayed in the garden, “not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). We cannot imagine how difficult it was for the sinless Son of God to be made sin for us. But His determined obedience to God’s will, no matter how difficult, teaches us to commit ourselves to obey His will, whatever the cost. You don’t decide to obey God at the moment of temptation. It has to be a rational commitment that you make before you find yourself facing temptation.

B. Christ’s obedience to God’s will at the cross set aside the Old Testament sacrifices once and for all.

“He takes away the first [O.T. sacrifices] to establish the second [the will of God at the cross]” (10:9). When the psalm states that God did not desire or take pleasure in sacrifices (10:5-6), it reflects a frequent theme in the Old Testament, that God did not desire sacrifices for their own sake. Rather, the sacrifices should reflect a repentant heart (1 Sam. 15:22; Ps. 51:16, 17; Isa. 1:11-13; 66:3-4; Jer. 7:21-23; Hos. 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8). God is displeased when people go through the outward motions of worship, but their hearts harbor sin that they are unwilling to forsake. In modern terms, you can go to church and partake of communion, but if you are living in disobedience to God or if you are covering some sin in your heart, God is not pleased with your worship.

But the author’s main point to his original readers is that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross permanently replaced the Old Testament sacrificial system. For this reason, I cannot accept the view that animal sacrifices will again be offered in the millennium. It is explained that they are “memorials” of the cross, but I cannot reconcile that with Hebrews. The cross supremely fulfilled and replaced that old system. There is no reason to go back to it, even as a memorial, when we can gaze at the Lamb on the throne!

C. By Christ’s obedience to God’s will at the cross, we receive perfect standing before God once and for all.

That is the point of 10:10. The author of Hebrews uses “sanctified” to refer to “inward cleansing from sin” and “being made fit for the presence of God, so that …[we] can offer Him acceptable worship” (Bruce, p. 236). “Have been sanctified” is the Greek perfect tense, signifying a past action that has ongoing results. By way of contrast with the often-repeated Old Testament sacrifices, the one offering of Christ on the cross conveys to believers perfect standing before God for all time. As I explained, this refers to our position before God, not to our daily relationship. As we will see (in 10:14), even though we are perfect in our standing, we are progressing in our growth in holiness.

The author has shown that the Old Testament sacrifices could not completely remove guilt and sin (10:1-4), and that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross removed the sacrificial system and provides for our perfect standing before God (10:5-10). He goes on to illustrate his main point in 10:11-14.

3. The totality of our forgiveness is illustrated by the contrast between the unfinished, repetitive ministry of the Old Testament priests and the finished, sufficient sacrifice of Christ (10:11-14).

Verse 11 portrays the priest, who stood daily “offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” You can feel a sense of futility in these words! But verse 12 contrasts the “one sacrifice for sins for all time” that Jesus offered, after which He “sat down at the right hand of God.” The standing of the priests indicates unfinished work that is never done (there were no chairs in the sanctuary). The sitting of Jesus indicates that His work of sacrifice is finished, and that He has been exalted to the place of supreme honor.

The author could have ended the quote (from Ps. 110:1) after the reference to Jesus’ sitting at God’s right hand, but he adds (10:13), “waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet.” He may have done this for two reasons. First, he didn’t want his readers to grow discouraged because of the cross, as if it represented a defeat for God. Perhaps their unbelieving Jewish friends were taunting them for their belief in a crucified Messiah. If Jesus is really Lord, then why do His people suffer persecution and martyrdom? The author says, “Just wait! The day is coming when Jesus’ enemies will all become His footstool, just as Psalm 110 predicts.”

Second, the author may be giving a subtle warning to his readers. If they abandoned the faith and went back to Judaism, they would be placing themselves on the losing side in history. They would be making themselves enemies of Jesus, and that’s not where you want to be, because Jesus’ enemies are headed for certain defeat and judgment.

In 10:14, the author again repeats the effect of Jesus’ one offering: “He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (literal translation). This verse brings together two vital truths. First, the position of believers before God is that they are perfect. God has forgiven all of their sins through Christ’s sacrifice, and He has imputed Christ’s perfect righteousness to them. These great facts are the basis of our standing before God. Second, the practice of believers is that they are being sanctified. They are growing in holiness in thought, word, and deed. The position is granted instantly at the moment of saving faith. The practice is worked out over a lifetime of growth in obedience. If there is no growth in holiness, there is reason to question whether the person has been perfected in his position through faith in Christ.

The author wraps up this section with a supporting quote:

4. The Old Testament prophecy of the new covenant supports the totality of our forgiveness (10:15-18).

Note that the author attributes Jeremiah’s prophecy to the Holy Spirit, who inspires all Scripture (10:15). He paraphrases (perhaps from memory) what he had earlier cited (8:11-12) from Jeremiah 31:33-34, because this quote gives God’s own testimony to what the author has been arguing. God promises to put His laws upon His peoples’ hearts and to write them on their minds (10:16). The author may have cited this part of the new covenant promise to preempt any criticism from a Jewish reader to the effect that the setting aside of the Law (10:9) would lead to lawless living. “Not so! God’s people are marked by obedience from the heart.”

Then he adds the part of the new covenant that is directly to his point, “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” God’s not remembering our sins does not mean that He is forgetful, but rather that He will not bring up our sins against us for judgment. They are totally forgiven because of God’s covenant decree. And so the conclusion is, “Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin” (10:18). The Old Testament sacrifices are now rendered worthless and obsolete. What they pointed to, Jesus has completely fulfilled. Through the cross, believers under the new covenant receive God’s total forgiveness! If you have total forgiveness in Christ, why go back to a system that could never provide that?

Conclusion

If the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches would accept the message of our text, they would do away with the doctrine of purgatory, which is not in the Bible anyway. Purgatory is supposed to be a place where, after death, our remaining sins are purged away. Supposedly, the friends and loved ones of the deceased person can pay to have masses or prayers said on their behalf to shorten the time in purgatory. What a blatant denial of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ! If His death places us in perfect standing with God, purgatory is a lie!

Our text also eliminates the practice of penance. Not to be confused with penitence (a synonym for repentance), penance is the Catholic teaching that certain good deeds prescribed by the church will make satisfaction for sins and thus lessen time in purgatory. Sometimes this is coupled with indulgences, which supposedly remove the guilt or punishment of temporal sins.

All of these unbiblical practices detract from the total merit of Christ’s sacrificial death for us. His death obtained total forgiveness for believers. His death perfected us for all time. His death sanctified us once for all. His death completely takes away the guilt of our sins. To believe in purgatory and to practice penance and indulgences is like going back to the Jewish sacrificial system!

Imagine a young man who falls in love, but he and his lover are separated by distance. He has a beautiful photograph of her that he gazes at every day. Finally, the two get married. The photo is still there, but now he has her.

But then one day, he starts behaving rather strangely. He stands before his wife, clutching the photo to his chest. He tells her, “I’ve really missed your photo, so I’m going back to it. He passionately kisses the picture and goes out the door mumbling, “Oh, how I love you, dear photo! You’re everything to me.” (Adapted from Kent Hughes, Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul [Crossway], 2:19). We would rightly conclude that this guy’s dipstick reads a quart low!

But that guy’s weird behavior illustrates what people do when they abandon Christ for the shadow. Christ and His sufficient sacrifice on the cross provide total forgiveness of all of our sins. Any religious system that devises human works to atone for sins is a mere shadow. Trust in Christ alone and God bestows on you by grace alone His total forgiveness!

Discussion Questions

  1. If the Old Testament sacrifices could not provide total forgiveness, why did God institute that system for 1,500 years?
  2. Why is it important to distinguish between our position in Christ and our daily practice with regard to God’s forgiveness?
  3. How do the Catholic teachings on purgatory and penance completely undermine the gospel of God’s grace in Christ?
  4. How would you answer the charge that total forgiveness by grace alone will lead to licentious living?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 29: Putting Your Position into Practice (Hebrews 10:19-25)

The modern American evangelical church has largely relegated theology as being irrelevant to life, boring, and even divisive. I once told a former elder, who no longer attends here, that another pastor and I were reading through Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology and discussing it. He responded, “Be careful! That stuff is dangerous!” He was serious! I was so startled that I didn’t reply! But I have often recalled it. Imagine, reading theology is dangerous!

The emphasis in the modern American church is on pragmatics: “How can I improve my marriage? How can I rear my kids? How can I maximize my potential on the job? Don’t give me any doctrine. I just want to know what works!”

But the New Testament never divorces doctrine from deeds. What we believe impacts how we behave. Paul spends the first three chapters of Ephesians laying out many glorious theological truths before he applies it in chapters 4-6. He does the same thing in Romans 1-11, before the practical instruction in chapter 12. It is vitally important that we understand who God is, who we are, and what God has done for us in Christ as the foundation for how we live as Christians. Understanding our position in Christ is the basis for our practice in daily life.

The author of Hebrews follows the same pattern. Although a few times he has interrupted his doctrinal themes to apply it, most of the book to this point has been doctrinal. In the first four chapters, he demonstrated how Jesus Christ is superior to all in His person. From chapter 5 through 10:18, he shows how Christ is superior to all in His priesthood. But beginning at 10:19 and running to the end of the book, based on the truths that he has presented, he shows how Christ’s superiority should spur us on to enduring faith, even in the face of trials. He shows us here how to put our new position in Christ into practice.

Because of our new position in Christ, we should draw near to God in faith, hold fast the confession of our hope, and consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds.

In 10:19-21, he briefly summarizes our position in Christ with two vital truths. Then (10:22-25) he shows how this position should affect our daily practice. Although he was concerned that there may be some in the church in danger of apostasy, he addresses them as “brethren” and includes himself in the need to apply these truths, using the first person plural: “Let us draw near… Let us hold fast… Let us consider….”

1. Our Position: We have a new relationship with God through Jesus Christ (10:19-21).

He presents two vital truths, both introduced with “since”:

A. We have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus (10:19-20).

He presented the same truth in 4:16, “Therefore, let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace….” But here, instead of the throne of grace, he says that we have confidence to enter the holy place—the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter there, and only once a year. It was blocked off from all worshipers and even from the other priests by a thick veil. The author uses it here as a metaphor for the presence of God. It was a radical concept for a Jew to think about going into the very presence of God, much less, doing it with confidence!

The basis of our confidence has nothing to do with anything in us. Rather, it is “by the blood of Jesus.” As we saw in chapter 9, the author emphasizes the importance of Christ’s blood to provide for our forgiveness (9:22). His shed blood satisfied the just penalty that God imposed on our sin. Thus we do not approach God with any good works or any merit of our own, but only through the merit of Jesus’ blood. The name Jesus emphasizes His humanity and the fact that His blood atoned for human sins in a way that animal sacrifices could not (10:4).

In 10:20, the author elaborates on this way of approach to God. He calls it “a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh.” The word “new” comes from a Greek word that originally meant “freshly slain.” (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 388). But this Sacrifice was not only freshly slain, He is also “living,” risen from the dead! This new way is not only living because Jesus lives, but also because He imparts spiritual life to us. The beginning of salvation is regeneration, which means that by God’s power, we move from spiritual death to spiritual life (John 1:13; 5:24). “Way” reminds us of Jesus’ claim, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).

The author asserts that Jesus inaugurated this new and living way for us “through the veil, that is, His flesh.” A few Greek scholars (notably, B. F. Westcott) have difficulty with the concept of Jesus’ flesh being equated with the veil. How could Jesus’ humanity block us from God’s presence prior to the cross? So they argue that “His flesh” is in apposition to the “living way.” But the emphasis of the writer is not so much on the veil as a means of separating men from God. Rather, it is on the fact that when Christ died on the cross, the veil was torn in two from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51), thus opening the way into the Holy of Holies. The point of the analogy is that Jesus’ flesh had to be torn apart in order for us to have access to God.

But there is a sense in which Jesus blocks sinners from the presence of God. In Luke 10:22, He stated, “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” After speaking to the multitudes in parables, Jesus explained to the twelve, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted…. Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matt. 13:11, 13). Many of the Jews stumbled over Jesus’ common humanity, that He was a carpenter (Mark 6:3). So in that sense, His humanity was like the veil in the temple, blocking sinners from God. But the cross opens the way for us to enter the holy place with confidence.

If some were still hesitant to enter with confidence, the author reminds them of a second vital truth:

B. We have a great priest over the house of God (10:21).

As I have said, the Book of Hebrews is the only book in the Bible to develop the truth of the priesthood of Jesus. By offering Himself as the sacrifice for our sins, He fulfilled everything connected with the Levitical priesthood. Beyond that, Jesus is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5 & 7). In that role, He surpasses the Levitical priests. He abides forever at the right hand of God to intercede for His people (7:25).

The author refers to believers as “the house of God” (see 3:6). God does not dwell in tabernacles or temples made by human hands, but in the hearts of His people. Individually, but in a greater sense, corporately, we are the temple of the living God (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16). Paul uses this great truth to drive home our need for holiness.

Thus to recap our new position in Christ, the author emphasizes these two vital truths: We now have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus. We have a great priest over the house of God. He proceeds to apply our position to our practice:

2. Our Practice: We should draw near to God in faith, hold fast the confession of our hope, and consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds (10:22-25).

As we saw in 6:9-12, the author brought together the three Christian virtues, faith, hope, and love. He does that again here.

A. We should draw near to God in faith (10:22).

The exhortation is, “Let us draw near” (“to God” is implied). Under that command are four things that describe the regenerate person: (1) a sincere heart; (2) in full assurance of faith; (3) having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience; and, (4) [having] our bodies washed with pure water.

“A sincere heart” is literally, “a true heart.” It refers to a heart without divided loyalties. A true heart means “true in God’s sight.” There is no hypocrisy, putting on a good front for others, but hiding sin in our hearts. Christians live to please God, who examines our hearts (1 Thess. 2:4). Every thought and motive must be taken captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

This does not mean that believers are beyond temptation or sin, but rather that although we were formerly enslaved to sin, now we have become “obedient [to God] from the heart” (Rom. 6:17). This does not mean sinless perfection, but rather that the tenor of our lives should be growth in godliness, not a life of bondage to sin (1 John 3:7-10). Christianity is not just a matter of outward conformity to certain moral standards, but also a matter of loving God from a heart that has been transformed by His grace. This requires that we judge and confess our sin on the heart (or thought) level. It is easy to fake out others about how spiritual we are, but if our hearts are not sincere before God, we’re only deceiving ourselves. As John Owen points out, “Without this sincerity of heart there can be neither boldness nor confidence in our access to God” (Hebrews: The Epistle of Warning [Kregel], p. 199).

We are to draw near to God “in full assurance of faith.” The author will devote chapter 11 to this theme. He says there, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (11:6). Faith is both God’s gift and our responsibility. Faith rests on the promises of God. We are saved through faith (Eph. 2:8) and we are to walk by faith (Col. 2:6). Our faith is not a mindless, blind leap in the dark. Faith rests upon the person and work of Jesus Christ, which the author has been expounding on from the start. The better we know Him as revealed in His Word, the more we will trust Him. The more we trust Him in the difficult matters of our lives, the more we prove His faithfulness and can trust Him the next time.

Also, we are to have “our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.” For this and the following expression, the author is drawing on the picture of the Old Testament priests, who were consecrated for their office by being washed with water and sprinkled with blood (Exod. 29:4, 21). Also, the author is probably referring to the ritual of the red heifer (Num. 19; Heb. 9:13-14), where the ritual sprinkling cleansed the outward man so that he was not ceremonially defiled. But the blood of Christ cleanses the inner man, the conscience, from dead works so that we may serve the living God.

The fourth description of the regenerate person is having “our bodies washed with pure water.” Although not all agree, this seems to refer to baptism. Both the sprinkling clean and the washing are perfect participles in Greek, which point to a past action with ongoing results. In other words, both of these cleansings took place at salvation, but have ongoing effects. Baptism, which in the New Testament is closely associated with salvation, pictures outwardly what God did to us inwardly, namely, He cleansed our hearts by faith (Acts 15:9; 1 Pet. 3:21). Taken together, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water, point to inward purity that manifests itself in outward behavior. Both stem from our salvation. If we do not have a clean conscience or if we are aware of sins in our conduct, we will not draw near to the holy God. So we must confess and forsake our sins, so that we can draw near.

Before we move on, let’s apply the author’s point: Do you frequently draw near to God through His Word and prayer? I am often amazed to discover professing Christians who do not spend consistent time in God’s Word and in prayer! Their only intake of the Word is when they go to church. The only time they pray is when they’re in a crisis. Drawing near is really the same thing as “seeking” the Lord. The Hebrew word translated “seek” means literally, “to trample under foot.” The idea was that if you frequently sought your neighbor, you would trample under foot a path to his house. There ought to be a well-worn path between you and God because you go to Him so often. What a great privilege this invitation is, to draw near to the living God! But it won’t happen if you don’t make it a priority to spend time alone with Him.

B. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering (10:23).

“Hope” refers to the future hope of our salvation. “Confession” is coupled with and follows baptism. At baptism, we publicly confess our faith in Jesus Christ. That public confession should serve as a strong motivation to hold fast to Him in faith and obedience when we are tempted to sin or to compromise with the world. It is comparable to my wedding, where before witnesses, I pledged my faithfulness to my wife. As a symbol of that pledge, I put on my wedding ring. If I am traveling in a city where no one knows me and an attractive woman tries to seduce me, my ring should remind me of my pledge, so that I flee from the temptation. In the same way, I should remember my confession of faith at my baptism and be faithful to Jesus, my Bridegroom, when I am tempted to sin.

“Hold fast” implies that there is some danger or difficulty that is trying to pry me loose from my confession of hope in Christ. The Hebrew Christians were under the threat of persecution. We may yet face persecution in America, and we should be ready for it. We all face the pressure of conformity to the world. It’s easier to blend in at work or school, instead of standing for Christ. It’s easier not to say anything by way of witness. You don’t want people to think you’re a religious fanatic. But the author enjoins us to hold fast the confession of our hope.

“Hope” points to the certain, but not yet realized, promises of God. We know that they are certain, because “He who promised is faithful.” Peter warns us that in the last days, mockers will taunt us, “Where is the promise of His coming?” But they fail to notice that with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The day of the Lord will come like a thief, bringing with it His inescapable judgment. Peter concludes that in light of these certainties, we ought to be people of holy conduct and godliness (2 Pet. 3:3-13). Even if we face martyrdom, we have hope in the promises of our faithful God.

Because of our new position in Christ, “Let us draw near in faith.” “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope.”

C. Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds (10:24-25).

Verse 25 is not a fourth exhortation (as the NIV translates), but rather a participial phrase that explains how to carry out the exhortation of verse 24. Note that the command here is not to love one another and perform good deeds, although many other Scriptures tell us to do those things. Rather, the command is to consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. It is the only use of “one another” in Hebrews. “Consider” means that you have to give some thought to this or it won’t happen. To give thought to it means that you have to take your focus off of yourself and think about others. “What does this other person need to help him [or her] grow in love and good deeds?”

“Stimulate” is an unusual word to use here. It normally has a negative connotation, meaning to provoke (Acts 15:39; 17:16). Here, the author may be using it ironically to grab attention: “Rather than provoking one another to anger, think about how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” This also implies that Christian love needs to be worked at. It isn’t automatic. It requires thought and effort.

The context where this provoking to love and good deeds takes place is when we assemble together. Some had dropped out of the church. Perhaps they had their feelings hurt by other believers, and now they claimed that they could worship God better alone. Almost invariably, when people drop out of church, their focus is on themselves, not on God and others. Instead of thinking, “How can I be used of God to spur others on in love?” they think, “My needs aren’t being met. That church is unfriendly and unloving!” You can practice faith and hope when you’re alone, but you can’t encourage others to love and good deeds when you’re alone! You have to gather with the saints to do it!

The author adds that this ministry involves “encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” The word “encouraging” can also mean, “exhorting.” The noun is used of one who comes alongside to give aid, such as an advocate who pleads your case in a court of law. If you’re in doubt as to whether to encourage or exhort, you should encourage! Save the exhortations for those you know well, and only then when you have prayed and sense the Lord is so leading. “The day” refers to the coming day of judgment, when we all will give account to Christ.

This third command has several important implications. First, you are your brother’s keeper! It is impossible for the pastoral staff and elders of this church to shepherd everyone who comes here. For the body to be healthy, every member needs to take responsibility to encourage their fellow members. If you sense that someone may be dropping out or drifting from the Lord, consider how you can encourage them to deal with the problems that are keeping them away. If they’re having a conflict with another believer, encourage them and coach them (if need be) to work through it. If they isolate themselves from the body, it is only a matter of time that the wolves will pick them off.

Second, this ministry implies knowing one another on more than a superficial level. Again, it is impossible to know everyone in this church well, but each of us can and should know some fairly well. This means meeting together outside of Sunday mornings. Our Sunday gatherings are crucial for worship and instruction in God’s Word, but it is also of vital importance that you meet with other believers on other occasions so that you can encourage one another in your Christian walks.

Finally, this takes some deliberate focus and effort. You must take your eyes off of yourself and think about others. If you see someone at church who seems lonely or depressed or ill at ease, take the initiative to introduce yourself and take an interest in him or her. Perhaps you need to set up a time to meet them later in the week. It’s really just an application of the “golden rule”: Treat others as you would want them to treat you.

Conclusion

I would ask you to think prayerfully through each of these three exhortations. Which one do you need most to apply? Do you need more consistency in drawing near to God in faith? This discipline is really the foundation for the other two. If it is lacking, the others will not be strong, either. Perhaps your need is to be bold in holding fast to the confession of our hope without wavering. Probably all of us can improve in considering how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds. Think through some specific ways that you can grow in the area that God prompts you to consider. Ask Him how you can put your glorious position in Christ into daily practice.

Discussion Questions

  1. Which of the three exhortations do you need most to apply? Jot down some specific ways that you can grow in this area.
  2. A young believer tells you, “I feel so unworthy to draw near to the holy God.” How would you counsel him [her]?
  3. Where is the balance between boldness and sensitivity in our witness? See Eph. 6:19-20; Col. 4:3-6.
  4. If you know of a believer who is drifting from the Lord, how can you know whether you should get involved? How would you go about encouraging him [her] in love?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 30: The Only Options: Christ or Judgment? (Hebrews 10:26-31)

Charles Spurgeon tells about a church that was asked to accept as their minister a man who did not believe in hell. They said, “You have come to tell us that there is no hell. If your doctrine is true, we certainly do not need you. And if it’s not true, we don’t want you. So either way, we can do without you” (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 10:149; slightly edited).

To speak about God’s terrifying future judgment is not pleasant, but it is necessary, since the Bible clearly teaches that it will happen. Although some prominent evangelical leaders deny the doctrine of hell, we need to remember that Jesus spoke more about the terrors of hell than anyone else in the Bible. We cannot claim to follow Christ and at the same time reject the doctrine of eternal punishment.

It is a doctrine with great practical ramifications. Spurgeon also said (ibid., p. 146), “Think lightly of hell, and you will think lightly of the cross. Think little of the suffering of lost souls, and you will soon think little of the Savior who delivers you from them.” Although Jonathan Edwards based his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” on a verse from Deuteronomy, he got the title from verse 31 of our text. God used that powerful sermon to convert many to Christ. I have read it many times, but I recently listened to an actor delivering the sermon as Edwards may have given it. He hammers home with frightening force the terrors of impending judgment, but also the refuge of the cross. Those are the only options, as our text shows:

If we reject Christ as God’s sacrifice for our sins, we will face His certain, terrifying judgment.

This is the second difficult warning passage in Hebrews (6:4-8 was the other). It is difficult not only because of the subject, but also because some of it is difficult to interpret. Before we work through the text, I will give you the major options, beginning with the least likely, as I understand things.

The least likely view is the Arminian view, that our text describes true believers who sin and lose their salvation. The problem with this view is that they have to explain away the many passages that clearly teach that salvation is God’s free gift, not based on anything in us, but only on the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Even this very chapter (10:1-18) strongly makes the point that Christ’s sacrifice once for all perfected us and took away all of our guilt.

Some early church fathers, however, mistakenly inferred from this and other passages in Hebrews that there was no forgiveness for sins committed after baptism. This judgment was usually reserved for “big” sins, such as denial of the faith under persecution, murder, idolatry, and sexual sins. But, the problem was, baptized Christians did sometimes commit such sins and later repent. Could they not be forgiven?

Some, following The Shepherd of Hermas (ca., A.D. 140), argued that forgiveness could be obtained once after baptism, but no more. Tertullian, who was more strict, condemned Hermas for this concession, which he saw as the thin edge of a dangerous wedge. Others who were more tolerant extended Hermas’ concession indefinitely, but demanded penance. F. F. Bruce, who discusses this (Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], pp. 260-262), points out the irony, that this strong warning in Hebrews could give rise to a system that was quite similar to the Jewish sacrificial system that Hebrews dismisses as forever superceded! Any system that teaches the loss of salvation or penance to restore it is contrary to God’s free grace in Christ.

A second view is that the author is talking about genuine believers who renounce the faith, but the punishment he describes is not hell, but some awful temporal judgment (Zane Hodges, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John Walvoord & Roy Zuck [Victor Books], 2:805). This view is in line with Mr. Hodges’ non-lordship salvation view, that a person can believe in Christ, subsequently deny and strongly oppose the faith, and yet he will be saved, although he will lose his rewards (1 Cor. 3:15). Apart from the many problems with non-lordship salvation, in our text the judgment is described as “the fury of a fire that will consume the adversaries” (10:27). Limiting this to temporal judgment, no matter how severe, does not do justice to the severity of the warnings.

A third view is that the author is warning true believers, who cannot possibly lose their salvation, about what would happen to them if they did apostatize (which true believers cannot do). So, it is a hypothetical warning used to frighten believers away from leaving the faith (Homer Kent, The Epistle to the Hebrews [Baker], pp. 206-207). But, as I argued when we studied Hebrews 6, a hypothetical warning is really pointless. If these people were truly regenerate, how could God hypothetically cast them into hell if they hypothetically apostatized, none of which is possible? This entire line of thinking makes no sense to me.

The correct explanation, as I understand it, is that the passage is warning those who have made a profession of faith and have associated themselves with the church, of the danger of God’s eternal judgment if they turn back to Judaism. These people outwardly seem to be regenerate, but they are not truly so. To abandon Christ’s sacrifice and to return to Judaism would show that they had never truly trusted Christ in the first place.

The main difficulty for this view is the phrase “by which he was sanctified” (10:29). There are several ways that those who take this view explain the phrase. John Owen (An Exposition of Hebrews [The National Foundation for Christian Education], 4:545) argues that it does not refer to the apostate, but to Christ Himself, “who was sanctified and dedicated unto God to be an eternal high priest, by the blood of the covenant which he offered unto God….” This is possible grammatically, although it seems to force into the context something that is specifically taught in John 17:19, but only alluded to in Hebrews (2:10; 5:7, 9; 9:11, 12).

A second way to understand “sanctified” is that it refers to outward sanctification in the sense of being identified with God’s people, but not to the person’s true heart condition before God. This outward sanctification may have been through baptism or communion. The person is “set apart” from the world in the sense that he has joined with the church and its ordinances. He sits under the preaching of the Word and even agrees with it intellectually (10:26, he has received “the knowledge of the truth”). But his heart has not been transformed by God’s saving grace. When pressure comes to turn away from Christ due to persecution or temptation to sin, he shows his true colors by repudiating his faith in Christ. This terrible sin (further described in 10:29) puts the apostate on the path toward certain, terrifying judgment.

This view is in line with the interpretation that I took of 6:4-8. The difficulty of the view, I admit, is that you must take the word “sanctified” in an outward sense (contrary to its use in 10:10 & 14, but in line with 9:13). But in spite of this difficulty, I think that it best fits the context of Hebrews. It also lines up with 10:39, which contrasts those who shrink back to destruction with those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.

With that as an overview, let’s work through the text, which falls into three sections.

1. To reject Christ willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth is to reject God’s only sacrifice for sins and to fall under His certain, terrifying judgment (10:26-27).

When the author says, “if we go on sinning willfully,” he is not talking about the “normal” sins that every believer commits. If he were, then who could be saved, because no one has ever lived without sin after salvation! While we do sometimes sin inadvertently, most of our sins are willful! We sin because we choose to sin! But the Bible is clear that if we sin, God graciously forgives and cleanses us when we confess our sins (1 John 1:7-9).

“Sinning willfully” refers to what Numbers 15:30 calls sins of defiance, for which there was no sacrifice available. Commentators compare such sins to the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, representing an unpardonable sin of “high treason and revolt against God” (Walter Kaiser, Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 132, cited by Ronald Allen, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 2:830). To go on sinning willfully means deliberately and knowingly to renounce the faith by repudiating Christ’s sacrifice for sins. It is a total defection from the faith in Christ as Savior.

The only ones who can commit this sin are those who have received “the knowledge of the truth.” These people had come into the church and had heard teaching on the meaning and significance of the death of Christ, such as the author has just given (10:1-18). These apostates knew that Christ is God’s only, once-for-all sacrifice, who fulfilled and thus abolished the Old Testament sacrificial system. They knew the truth about the person of Christ and His exalted role as High Priest.

Yet even so, some were forsaking the assembly of the church and returning to Judaism (10:25). The author is saying that to make such a choice is to trample on the Son of God and to treat His shed blood as worthless. It is to turn from the only way of salvation to an obsolete system that never could remove the guilt of sins (10:4). It is to place oneself on the side of God’s adversaries. All that awaits them is not salvation, but a “terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire that will consume the adversaries.” The word “terrifying” is emphatic in the Greek. He repeats it in 10:31 (the only other NT occurrence is in 12:21). He wants to hit us with the frightening consequences of turning away from Christ!

2. If the Law of Moses had stiff penalties for disregarding it, the penalty will be much greater for spurning the Son of God who fulfilled the Law (10:28-29).

In verse 28, the author states what every Jew knew well: If a person brazenly defied the Law of Moses, he or she was to be stoned to death on the evidence of two or three witnesses (Deut. 17:2-6). There was no place for mercy or a second chance (Deut. 13:8). The Law was to be applied to all (see Lev. 24:10-23; Num. 15:32-36). The author has just shown how that Jesus is greater than Moses (Heb. 3:1-6). He is a superior priest to the Levitical priests (5:1-10; 7:1-28). He inaugurated the new covenant, which is better than the old (8:6-13). He is the better sacrifice (9:23). So the author is saying, in effect, “In light of the superiority of Jesus to Moses, and in light of the severity of punishment under Moses, go figure what will happen to the person who deliberately rejects Christ!”

He describes such apostates by three phrases. First, he “has trampled under foot the Son of God.” To trample something under foot is to treat it as completely worthless. The use of the title, “Son of God,” seems “to indicate that the form of apostasy in view involves a scornful denial of the deity of Christ” (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 422). It means repudiating all that the author has argued for ten chapters on the supremacy and superiority of Jesus Christ, who is God’s final word to us. He is the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of His nature, and He upholds all things by the word of His power (1:1-3). To treat this exalted Son of God like a bug under one’s foot is an indescribably horrific sin!

Second, such an apostate “has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified.” The first charge trashed the person of Christ. This one despises His work on the cross. I have already explained that the best way to understand “sanctified” is in an outward sense, of being set apart with God’s people through public worship and outward confession of Christ. “To regard as unclean” means, literally, “to treat as common.” It may refer to partaking of communion even though his faith was not genuine, and so profaning the cup representing the blood of the covenant (Hughes, p. 423). Or, it could mean viewing the death of Jesus as a common death. The apostates shrugged off any vicarious, substitutionary significance to Christ’s death. Maybe they viewed His death as a noble tragedy, but nothing more. By so doing, they treated the blood of the new covenant as commonplace.

The third charge was that the apostates had “insulted the Spirit of grace.” (This is the only time this phrase is applied to the Holy Spirit; but see Zech. 12:10.) He imparts God’s undeserved favor to us through the sacrifice of God’s own Son. The phrase shows that the author viewed the Holy Spirit as a person, not as just an influence, since He could be insulted. “Insulted” has a nuance of arrogance or insolence (“hubris” comes from the Greek word). This is similar to the unpardonable blasphemy against the Spirit of which Jesus spoke. (Matt. 12:31-32). For a guilty sinner to spit in God’s face when His Spirit offers a free pardon made possible through the death of God’s Son is simply outrageous.

Picture a man lying in the gutter in rags, covered with sores, hungry and homeless. He is there because of his own sinful choices. A kind, generous man offers to take this man to the hospital, pay all of his bills, and then to bequeath on him all that he would ever need in life. He would have a comfortable home, all the food he could eat, and every comfort he could dream of. But the ungrateful wretch in the gutter spits in the man’s face, curses at him, and then tells others that the man’s offer was worthless. That would not be as bad as insulting the Spirit of grace by turning your back on the free pardon that He offers through the blood of Jesus Christ! The person who spurns God’s grace in Christ deserves far greater punishment than physical death by stoning. He will suffer justly throughout eternity.

3. We know that God’s judgment is as certain as His Word, and it will be terrifying (10:30-31).

Even though he has been issuing this strong warning, the author has all along included himself with his readers by using the first person plural (“Let us,” 10:22, 23, 24; “we,” 10:26, 30). Here he says, “For we know Him who said,” and then he cites two references from the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:35, 36). As we have seen before (3:7; 8:8; 10:15), for this author what Scripture says, God says. The first quote establishes God’s sole right to take vengeance, but here the emphasis is on the fact that those who wrong such a Being as God have no chance of escape. You may wrong another person and somehow manage to escape his vengeance. But God will repay!

The second quote in its original context has the nuance of God vindicating His people by judging their enemies. Although the apostates had formerly been associated with God’s people, their rebellion has put them on the side of God’s adversaries (10:27). They will not escape. Leaving the fellowship and repudiating the sacrifice of Christ does not remove them from judgment, but rather, places them squarely in line for judgment! As Hughes says (p. 426), “So far from escaping from God, the apostate falls into the hands of the living God: he abandons God as his Savior only to meet him as his Judge.” So the author concludes, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” He is trying, quite literally, to scare the hell out of them!

The Apostle John (Rev. 6:12-17) describes the terror of God’s judgment as it overtakes kings and commanders, the rich and the poor. After a great earthquake, the sun turns black and the moon turns blood red. The stars fall to earth and the sky splits apart. Mountains and islands move out of their places. Hiding themselves in caves and among the rocks of the mountains, everyone cries out to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”

Conclusion

Sometimes people will say, “I don’t believe in a God of judgment. My God is a God of love.” If you subscribe to that view, then your “god” is not the living God who reveals Himself through His Word! In one of the earliest records of God’s revelation of Himself, He said to Moses, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.” [So far, we all cheer, “Yeah! That’s my kind of God!”] But keep going: “yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exod. 34:6-7).

You may protest, “But that’s the God of the Old Testament. I believe in Jesus, who was always gentle and kind.” Really? I again remind you that Jesus spoke more often about the terrors of hell than anyone else in the Bible. He called it a place “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48, citing Isa. 66:24). He said that the punishment for one who causes one of His little ones to stumble would be far worse than if he had a millstone hung around his neck and was cast into the sea (Mark 9:42). He described hell as a place of outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 24:51). He said that it’s better to pluck out your eye or cut off your hand than for your whole body to go to hell (Matt. 5:29, 30). He described the rich man in hell as being in agony in the flames (Luke 16:24). He further described those flames as “eternal fire,” which is the same word used for “eternal life” (Matt. 25:41, 46).

Also, our text is in the New Testament, and its very argument is that judgment will be more severe for rejecting the Son of God than it was for the one in the Old Testament who disregarded the Law. The God of both Testaments is the same God, who is rich in mercy and love towards all who repent of their sins and trust in Christ. But He is terrifying in His judgment against those who reject His Son, who is the only sacrifice for sin.

Note carefully who is most in danger of committing this terrible sin of turning away from Christ: it is those who knew the truth and who had associated with God’s people! It is not those who are notorious sinners. It is those who think, “I’m a child of Abraham! I’m not a sinner like the Gentiles! I keep the Law. I offer my sacrifices. That’s good enough! I don’t need a crucified Savior and His blood to atone for my sins!” In other words, it’s the church-going religious person who does not see his need for the blood of Christ!

I once conducted a funeral where I got to the service and read the little bulletin that the mortuary prints up. It quoted John 3:16 as follows: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall have eternal life.” It omitted “shall not perish”! I don’t know whether the mortuary or the family of the deceased man was responsible, but I didn’t let them get away with it! I called attention to this glaring omission and made the point: If you do not put your trust in Christ, you will perish!

The only options are: Christ or judgment? If you reject Christ after hearing the gospel and being associated with God’s people, you will fall into the hands of the living God, and it will be an eternally terrifying ordeal! You don’t want to go there! But if you entrust yourself into the hands of Christ, which were pierced for you, you will find God’s abundant mercy and grace to cover all your sins!

Discussion Questions

  1. Some evangelicals have denied the doctrine of hell as being “morally repugnant” and not worthy of God. How would you answer this charge?
  2. Why should it send off warning signals when someone pits the “Old Testament God” against the “New Testament God”?
  3. Is it biblically correct to tell sinners, “God loves you” or should we (with Edwards) say, “God is angry with you”?
  4. List as many practical benefits as you can from the doctrine of hell.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 31: Enduring Faith (Hebrews 10:32-39)

Our text exhorts us to have enduring faith in times of persecution. It is a difficult topic to speak about because probably none of us have ever experienced what could legitimately be called “persecution” for our faith. Sure, most of us have faced instances of reproach or rejection when people discovered that we believe in Christ. I’ve had people say false things about me and slander me. Occasionally, people have tried to get me removed from my position as pastor.

But I’ve never been beaten, tortured, or thrown in prison because of my faith. I’ve never had my property confiscated or my family torn away from me because I confess Christ as Lord. That probably is true of most of you, too. A pastor who had suffered real persecution could deliver a more credible message than I can.

Another reason that it’s difficult to speak on this text is that American Christians for many years have bought into a false view of the Christian life that emphasizes the benefits of the faith in this life. We’re told, “God offers an abundant plan for your life. Trust in Jesus and He will help you overcome all of your problems and enjoy life to the fullest!” Jesus is marketed as the solution to everything from weight loss to success in business to having a happy marriage. The sales pitch is that receiving Christ will bring you the greatest happiness in this life.

Somehow, getting persecuted and losing your material possessions and maybe your life don’t harmonize with that message! Most of us signed up for the prosperity plan, not for the persecution plan! If we encounter difficult trials, we get angry at God and maybe even decide, “If that’s the way He’s going to treat me, I’m not going to follow Him! Hardship, persecution, and suffering aren’t in the deal that I signed up for!”

How could we have strayed so far from the biblical picture of the Christian life? It is often referred to as a fight or war (Eph. 6:10-20; 2 Tim. 2:3; 4:7), neither of which are pleasant. Many passages tell us to expect trials and hardship (John 16:33; 2 Tim. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:12). The abundant life that Jesus promised has nothing to do with a trouble-free life, but rather with having His joy in the midst of tribulation. He stated plainly the requirements for following Him: Deny yourself and take up your cross daily (Luke 9:23). A cross was not a slightly irritating circumstance; it was an instrument of slow, tortuous death!

Our text comes on the heels of the strong warning against apostasy (10:26-31). Following the same pattern as in the strong warning of 6:4-8, the author assumes the best about his readers. He encourages them by saying that he knows they are not going to turn away from Christ, but rather that they will endure in faith, in spite of whatever hardships they may suffer. The author shows how to have a faith that endures any kind of trial, but especially, persecution. If you’re going to make it as a Christian, you must learn to apply what he says here about enduring faith:

To have faith that endures trials, remember how God worked in the past, focus on doing His will in the present, and look to His promises in the future.

Before we work through the text, one other word of introduction may be helpful. Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-23; Mark 4:3-20; Luke 8:5-15) serves as a useful backdrop to our text. Jesus described the seed of the Word as sown on four types of soil. Some fell beside the road, where the birds ate it, so that it never took root and sprouted. This represents unbelievers who hear the gospel, but do not understand or believe it. Other seed fell on the rocky ground, where there was no depth of soil. It quickly sprang up, but it had no roots, and so it withered. This represents those who hear the Word and immediately receive it with joy. But when affliction or persecution arises, they quickly fall away.

The third soil is infested with thorns. The seed sprouts, but the thorns, representing worries, riches, and pleasures of this life (Luke 8:14), choke out the word so that it does not bring forth any fruit. The fourth type is good soil, representing those who hear, understand, and accept the Word, and bear fruit with perseverance (Luke 8:15).

In my understanding, only the fourth type of soil represents true believers who “have faith to the preserving of the soul” (Heb. 10:39). The rocky soil and the thorny soil both make a profession of faith for a while but eventually, they “shrink back to destruction.” In other words, genuine saving faith endures trials and bears fruit. The amount of fruit will vary (“some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty,” Matt. 13:23), but there will be observable evidence of a transformed heart. True believers may fail under pressure, as Peter did when he denied Jesus. Every believer struggles daily against sin, not always victoriously. But if God has changed the heart and if His saving life is “in the vine,” the person will repent, endure in faith, and bear fruit unto eternal life.

1. To have enduring faith in trials, remember how God worked in the past (10:32-34).

“The former days” refers to the time just after these Hebrew Christians had been saved. The author draws their minds back to how God had worked in their lives during that time, in spite of some very difficult circumstances. His point is, “You did well then, so you can hang in there now and in the future if persecution hits.” He reminds them of three things that were true of them as new converts, which also are true of all believers:

A. Remember how God enlightened you with a new, godly understanding of life.

Unbelievers are described in Scripture as being spiritually blind, unable to “see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” Only God can command the light to shine out of darkness. He “shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4, 6). Before God opened our eyes, we did not even see our need for the Savior. We mistakenly thought that we were good enough to get into heaven by our own righteousness. We had no idea of how terrible our sins were or of how holy God is. We did not appreciate the fact that the Son of God gave Himself on the cross to pay our debt of sin. But then, while we were yet in such darkness, God graciously opened our eyes. With the converted slave trader, John Newton, we could sing, “I once was blind, but now I see!”

I remind you, however, that the apostates had experienced some degree of enlightenment, and yet they were not truly saved (6:4). It is possible to have a fair amount of theological understanding, and yet be lost! Some men have devoted their lives to studying the Bible and writing scholarly books. But these scholars have never repented of their sins and put their trust in Christ as Savior. They are “enlightened,” but headed for eternal destruction.

B. Remember your newfound joy in the faith, no matter what your circumstances.

Coming to Christ is like falling in love. The Lord rebukes the church at Ephesus for losing their first love. He tells them to remember from where they had fallen and repent (Rev. 2:4, 5). These Hebrew Christians had known the same exuberance when they had first come to faith in Christ.

Not long into the process, they encountered some difficult trials. The author calls it “a great conflict of sufferings.” Our word “athletic” comes from the Greek word translated “conflict.” It was like a hard-fought athletic contest, with Satan vying for their souls. Some of them were “made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations.” We get our word “theater” from the Greek word for “public spectacle.” As you know, when someone from a strong Jewish family embraces Jesus as the Messiah, he often is made a spectacle—ridiculed and rejected by all of his friends and family.

Some of these Hebrew Christians had been imprisoned. Those who remained free showed sympathy to the prisoners and publicly identified themselves in solidarity with them. They probably visited them and brought them food and clothing, since the jails in that time did not supply such things. Some of them lost their property, either by corrupt officials taking it or by mobs stealing everything of value and then destroying their houses.

But the significant word in verse 34 is joyfully! They didn’t just grimly endure the loss of their property; they accepted it joyfully! Many modern Christians would rage at such unfair treatment and file a lawsuit to recover what they lost, plus damages for emotional suffering! But these new believers had such profound joy in knowing Christ that they sang the doxology as the mob hauled off their belongings and leveled their houses. They were not rocky-ground or thorny-ground believers!

C. Remember how your values and focus in life radically shifted.

These verses reveal four ways that these new believers had experienced a radical shift in their values and focus. If you think back to your conversion, you should be able to identify with them.

1). There was a change in your priorities and values from the temporal to the eternal.

The only way that they could joyfully accept the seizure of their property was, they knew that they had “a better possession and a lasting one.” They had “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Matt. 6:20). They knew that Jesus had gone to prepare a place for them to dwell with Him forever and that He was coming again to take them to be with Him there (John 14:2-3). So while, no doubt, it was hard to lose their earthly possessions, their focus had shifted from the temporal to the eternal.

In 1986, I was preaching through 1 Corinthians and came to 15:19, where Paul caps his argument for the resurrection with these startling words: “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” That verse jarred me. I asked myself, “Can I really say that?” Being a Christian provides me with a good life. I have a wonderful wife and children. I get paid to study and teach God’s Word. I have brothers and sisters worldwide. I know that my sins are forgiven. And, heaven is thrown in as a bonus after this life is over! Such a deal!”

But Paul says, “If there is no heaven, if this life is all there is, being a Christian is ludicrous!” Why suffer ridicule? Why give your money away? Why spend this short life serving the Lord? Why deny yourself the pleasures of sin? Why bother living for anyone other than yourself? Better to eat and drink today, for tomorrow you may die. But, a Christian knows that this life is not all there is. Christians have shifted their priorities and values from the temporal to the eternal.

2). There was a change from valuing what others think of you to valuing more what God thinks of you.

These new believers suffered “by being made a public spectacle through reproaches.” Why put up with that? Why not just blend in with the crowd? Why not laugh at the same dirty jokes? Why not be one of the guys? Because their new focus was not on pleasing people, but God, who examines the heart (1 Thess. 2:4; Heb. 10:38, “no pleasure”). Worldly people live for the acclaim of others. They want people to like them, and so their focus is on making a good impression. But those who have been rescued from sin by the crucified and risen Savior live to please Him.

3). There was a change from putting self first to putting God and others ahead of self.

Every unbeliever lives for himself or herself. We are innately self-centered. If helping someone will get us some advantage, we’ll do it. But our overall aim in life is to be happy and get ahead, even if it means stepping on others at times.

But a Christian focuses on loving God and others (the two great commandments). Christians take their focus off of self and consider the needs of others (the Golden Rule). So these Hebrew believers had showed sympathy for the prisoners. They were willing to share in the sufferings of those who were mistreated.

4). There was a change from demanding that God be “fair” to submitting to His sovereign will.

Unbelievers want God to treat them “fairly,” as they think they deserve to be treated. They don’t understand that if God gave them what they deserve, they would go straight to hell! When a tragedy strikes them, they rail against God and complain, “This isn’t fair! I don’t deserve to be treated in this way!”

Notice that some of the new Hebrew believers were thrown in prison, but some were not. God has different purposes for His people with regard to persecution and suffering. We have no right to question His wisdom or justice if He chooses to send trials our way, while other believers escape such trials. If we are the ones who are not in the hospital or in prison for our faith, then we ought to visit those who are there and show them compassion (13:3). If trials come our way, we should submit to God’s dealings, trusting Him to work all things together for our good.

So the first way to have enduring faith in times of trial is, remember how God worked in your life in the past. Remember how He saved you and opened your eyes to the truth. Remember your new joy in knowing Christ. Remember how faithful He was to bring you through trials. Remember how He turned your life around. Remembering these things will help you endure by faith in the present time of trials.

2. To have enduring faith in trials, focus on confidently doing God’s will in the present (10:35-36).

The author gives two aspects of this:

A. To do God’s will in the present, don’t throw away your confidence in Christ (10:35).

He is not talking about confidence in yourself, but confidence in Christ. I have heard many Christians say, “You’ve got to believe in yourself!” That is a worldly idea, but not a biblical one! Our confidence is in God (2 Cor. 3:5). This is the fourth (and last) time that the author uses this word. In 3:6, he exhorted us to “hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.” In 4:16, he encouraged us to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace.” In 10:19, he reminds us again that “we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus.” Clearly, our confidence is in Jesus Christ and His shed blood, not in anything in us. It refers to maintaining and testifying to a settled assurance of the truth of the gospel in the face of persecution or trials.

Such confidence is at the core of saving faith, and thus it has a great reward, namely, heaven and eternal glory with Christ. The “great reward” of 10:35 is synonymous with “the promise” of 10:36. Both refer to God’s promise of eternal life.

B. To do God’s will in the present, persevere in obedience, especially when you are tempted to compromise under pressure (10:36).

The author further explains, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise.” God’s will refers to His moral commandments and priorities as revealed in His Word. Under the pressure of trials, it is easy to justify moral compromise. In 10:7-9, the author cited Psalm 40 to show that Jesus came to do the Father’s will, namely, the cross. It was not easy! Satan tempted Jesus to dodge it: “Just worship me and I’ll give you all the kingdoms of this world” (Matt. 4:8-9; see also 16:21-23). “No need to suffer and die as the sin-bearer!” But Jesus resisted all compromise and steadfastly obeyed God’s will, even when it meant a horrible death. We should also endure in obeying God, even if it means suffering or persecution. After you have suffered, you will receive God’s promise of salvation. This last phrase of verse 36 points toward the future:

3. To have enduring faith in trials, look to God’s promises for the future (10:37-39).

The author combines a quote from Isaiah 26:20-21 with another from the LXX of Habakkuk 2:4, inverting the order of the Habakkuk quote to suit his purpose here. The Hebrew of this verse is translated, “Behold, as for the proud one, his soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith.” The difference between the Hebrew and the Greek may be due to a now unknown Hebrew variant, or the Greek translators may have rendered an interpretive paraphrase. Philip Hughes explains, “The discrepancy between ‘he shrinks back’ here and ‘he is puffed up’ in the Hebrew of Habakkuk 2:4 is not fundamental, for the man who shrinks back is precisely the man who is puffed up with self-sufficiency and is therefore blind to the need of trustful and patient endurance” (A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 436).

The author is repeating here for emphasis the same concepts that he has already stated or implied.

A. Get God’s perspective on time and eternity (10:37).

“For yet in a very little while, He who is coming will come, and will not delay.” The “very little while” is from God’s perspective of time, not from our perspective! The original quote in Isaiah was written to the people of Judah who were being threatened by hostile enemies. God is encouraging them to hold on for a little while, until He delivers them and judges their enemy. The point is, this present life is “a very little while” in comparison with the eternal joys of heaven. That is why Paul could call his many trials “momentary, light affliction” which was producing “an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). To have enduring faith in trials now, get God’s eternal perspective.

B. Live by faith every day (10:38).

The Christian life is not a 100-yard dash; it’s a marathon. God’s righteous ones (the ones He declares righteous through faith in Christ; Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11) live by faith. Saving faith is not a one-time action, but an ongoing, daily matter of trusting in God’s promise of salvation in Christ. Peter reminded suffering Christians of their inheritance, “reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:4, 5, italics added).

I meet many Christians who live by their feelings, not by faith in Christ. We are to walk with Christ just as we received Him, by grace through faith (Col. 1:6; Eph. 2:8-9). Our aim should be to please Him, as the author will go on to say: “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (11:6). Not to trust God is to call Him a liar and to question His integrity. Genuine faith perseveres through difficult trials. False believers shrink back to destruction.

C. Let eternal reality govern your present way of life (10:39).

The author expresses his confidence that his readers, with him, “are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving [lit., obtaining] of the soul.” He is saying, “Let God’s threat of eternal damnation and your faith in His promise of eternal life govern the way you live.” We should live in such a manner that if God’s promises about heaven are not true, we are fools to live as we do. Paul said, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, pity us! But if there is a heaven and a hell, living by faith in God’s promises is the only way to go.

Conclusion

Spend your time, your money, and your very life as if God’s promises in the gospel are true. Remember how God worked in your life in the past, when you first came to faith in Christ. Live in that same way now, because you know that in Christ you have a better and lasting possession than you ever had on earth. Focus on doing God’s will in the present, especially when trials tempt you to compromise. Look to God’s promises for the future. Live with enduring faith in God and He will sustain you through every trial.

Discussion Questions

  1. Some Christians did not have a dramatic conversion experience. How can they apply the first point?
  2. Has the American church put too much emphasis on the present benefits of the gospel and not enough on the eternal benefits? How does this affect our view of suffering?
  3. Some counselors advise Christians to express their anger at God when they think He has treated them unfairly. Is this wise counsel? Why/why not?
  4. How would your life be different if you lived with an eternal focus? What needs to be changed in light of the reality of heaven?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 32: By Faith (Hebrews 11:1-3)

It is essential for every believer to understand the nature of enduring faith. As we saw last week, there is a type of faith that does not endure trials and temptations. The seed sown on the rocky ground sprang up quickly, but it also quickly withered and died when trials hit. The seed on the thorny ground may have lasted a bit longer, but eventually it was strangled by the temptations of worries, riches, and the pleasures of this life. Neither type of faith brought forth fruit to maturity. Only the seed on the good ground bore fruit with perseverance (Luke 8:11-15).

That parable serves as a useful backdrop to our text last week (10:32-29), where the author urges his readers on to enduring faith. He cites Habakkuk 2:4, “But My righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, My soul has no pleasure in him.” Then he expresses his confidence in his readers (10:39), “But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.” His subject is “enduring faith.” Some of his readers were in danger of shrinking back to destruction. With the threat of persecution looming over them, the Hebrew believers needed to be steeled to endure the coming trials by faith. He wants them to become “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:12).

To that end, he devotes chapter 11 to an explanation and illustration of genuine faith that endures. He is not focusing on the aspect of justification by faith, as Paul does in Romans 3. Rather, his emphasis is more on the operation and outworking of justifying faith in the face of trials (John Owen, An Exposition of Hebrews [The National Foundation for Christian Education], VII:5, 7). This faith lays hold of God’s promises and the reality of the unseen world, obediently applying those realities to present trials. In

Faith is the means of realizing spiritual reality, of gaining God’s approval, and of understanding the origin of all that is.

Before we look at these three aspects of faith, it may be helpful to explain something about the nature of faith with reference to relationships. What I am about to say will probably sound obvious (“Duh!”). But I often see people violate this principle in their personal relationships, causing much damage. The principle is this: Trust is essential for close personal relationships. If you do not trust someone, you will not allow yourself to get close to that person. You will not share personal information because you are afraid that the person will use it in a way that damages you. You will not believe the personal information that the person shares with you, because you think, “I don’t trust this guy!”

Here is a second principle for close relationships: Truth is the basis for trust. If someone lies to you or deceives you, you will not trust what he says or does. You will always be on guard. If you sense that the person is a hypocrite, conveying that he is something that he really is not, you will keep your distance. A lack of truth erodes trust and causes distance in relationships.

There is a third principle for close relationships: Truth must be expressed in love. By love, I mean, “seeking the highest good of the other person.” The highest good for every person is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. This motive of love must undergird all verbal expressions of truth (Eph. 4:15). To blast a person may be truthful, but it is not loving. You may say, “That’s just the way I feel,” and that’s true. But you have not said it to build the other person in Christ, and so it is not loving. On the other hand, to deceive someone under the guise of love is to deny truth. Ultimately, this will undermine the relationship, because it erodes trust.

How does all of this relate to Hebrews 11? These elements of relationships also apply to our relationship with God. Faith or trust in God is at the foundation of a relationship with Him. “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (11:6). You are calling God a liar if you do not trust Him, and you cannot be close to a liar. Truth is the basis for trust. If you doubt the truth of God’s Word, including His promises for the future, you cannot trust Him and thus will be distant from Him.

Some of the things that God says are not easy to accept. For example, God confronts our unbelief and sin. But He always relates to us in love. When He sends difficult trials into our lives, whether persecution, the loss of our health, or the loss of a loved one, we have to trust Him, believing that He is acting in love to form Christ in us. If the enemy can get us to doubt God’s love in a time of trials, we will draw away from God and disobey His Word of truth. To draw near to God, we “must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (11:6).

Understanding these principles—trust is essential for close personal relationships; truth is the basis for trust; and, truth must be expressed in love, which means, “seeking the highest good of the other person”—shows why faith (trust) is at the heart of a relationship with God.

1. Faith is the means of realizing spiritual reality (11:1).

Hebrews 11:1 has always been a difficult verse for me to get a handle on. I will seek to clarify the meaning of the verse as I understand it, but I admit that my understanding may be limited. The difficulty of the verse lies in the meaning of the words translated (NASB) as “assurance” (“being certain of,” NIV) and (NASB) “conviction” (“certain,” NIV). The KJV and NKJV translate these words as “substance” and “evidence.” The NASB and NIV understand the words as subjective, whereas the KJV and NKJV take them as objective.

The subjective understanding is, “faith means being confident of what we hope for, convinced of what we do not see.” An objective understanding is, faith means “the reality of the goods hoped for,” (Helmut Koster, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Friedrich [Eerdmans], VIII:586), “the proof of things unseen.” The Bauer, Arndt, & Gingrich Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament [University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed.] takes both words in an objective sense. It renders the first phrase (p. 847), “in faith things hoped for become realized” (or, “reality”). The second is (p. 249), “a proving of (or conviction about) unseen things.”

All of the patristic and medieval scholars understood the words in the objective sense, but Melanchthon advised Luther to render it, “sure confidence.” Luther’s interpretation has influenced most scholarship since the Reformation (Koster, ibid.). The Greek word, hypostasis, occurs twice in Paul in the sense of “confidence” (2 Cor. 9:4; 11:17), and three times in Hebrews (1:3; 3:14; and here). All scholars agree that the word is used objectively in 1:3, which states that Christ is the exact representation of God’s nature (essence, or reality).

Most scholars take the second instance (Heb. 3:14) as subjective, “hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.” But the respected Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (ibid., VII:587) argues that it does not refer there to subjective assurance, which rests within us, but to the objective reality of the faith. In this sense, the phrase is parallel to “our confession” (ctive sense in 11:1: “faith is the reality of the goods hoped for.” “Faith is the reality of what is hoped for in exactly the sense in which Jesus is called the [exact representation] of the reality of the transcendent God in 1:3” (ibid.).

Since the two halves of 11:1 seem to be parallel, “conviction” (Greek, elenchos) would need to be taken in an objective sense, also, as “proof of things one cannot see” (ibid., VII:586). Donald Hagner puts it this way (Encountering the Book of Hebrews [Baker], p. 142):

From the examples of faith lifted up in this chapter it seems clear that what is not primarily in view is what we feel or possess—assurance, confidence—but rather, how faith substantiates, or gives substance to, what is promised, how it provides evidence of what is believed about unseen and hoped-for realities. Faith, indeed, has a way of making the future present and the unseen visible.

There is, of course, overlap between the objective and subjective senses of these words. Our faith substantiates what we hope for, thus giving us assurance that they are true. Faith proves or gives evidence for the things that we cannot see, thus giving us a conviction that these unseen things are true. I suggest this expanded paraphrase of 11:1, “Faith makes real in our experience the promises that God has given about the future. Faith proves to us the fact that the things we presently cannot see—God, angels, demons, heaven, hell—are very much true and real.” In other words, faith applies the reality of God’s promises and the unseen world to life in the present, visible world.

A. W. Pink (An Exposition of Hebrews [Ephesians 4 Group], p. 652) uses the analogy of two men standing on the deck of a ship, looking in the same direction. One sees nothing, but the other man sees a distant steamer. The difference is, the first man is looking with his unaided eye, whereas the second man is looking through a telescope. Faith is the telescope that brings the future promises of God into present focus. Faith enables us to see the unseen world that the natural man cannot see.

Before we leave verse 1, let’s apply it by illustrating how faith worked in the lives of three Hebrew young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego (Daniel 3). The author refers to them, although not by name, in 11:34 (“quenched the power of fire”). They refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, which caused the offended king to threaten to throw them into the blazing furnace. Their response shows that by faith, they were making real in their present crisis the future promises of God regarding eternal life. By faith they saw the unseen God as more real than the enraged king standing in front of them, threatening to roast them alive. Their answer  (Dan. 3:16-18) oozes with faith in the unseen God:

“O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

You may think, “That’s a great story, but what if God hadn’t delivered them? What if they had been burned to death?” The answer is, they would have died in faith and God would reward them abundantly throughout eternity in heaven. Many martyrs have died at the stake because of their faith. The Roman Catholic Church promised Jan Hus, the brave Czech martyr, safe passage to a hearing. After he arrived, they said, “We promised you safe passage here, but not a safe return.” They threw him in prison and condemned him to death because he condemned many of their corrupt practices, which were contrary to Scripture. As they burned him at the stake, he died singing! How could he do that? His faith made real in the present the future promises of God. His faith proved the reality of the unseen God as greater than the reality of the flames that burned him to death.

George Muller was another man who made God’s promises real by faith, and proved in a visible way the reality of the invisible God. He literally gave away all of his money and possessions and, by faith, founded an orphanage in Bristol, England. Eventually that orphanage grew to 2,000 children who needed food, clothing, and shelter every day. Muller had no savings accounts and he refused to make the needs of the ministry known, even to potential donors. He wanted to prove to the world that there is reality in dealing with the living God. He saw thousands of specific answers to prayer, which he carefully recorded and later published. Concerning faith, he wrote (George Muller of Bristol, A. T. Pierson [Revell], p. 437, italics his):

It is the very time for faith to work, when sight ceases. The greater the difficulties, the easier for faith. As long as there remain certain natural prospects, faith does not get on even as easily (if I may say so), as when all natural prospects fail.

So in developing the theme of enduring faith, our author’s first point is that faith is the means of realizing spiritual reality.

2. Faith is the means of gaining God’s approval (11:2).

“For by it the men of old gained approval.” The clear implication is that the approval comes from God, as the rest of the chapter shows (11:4, 5, 6, 39). The world often ridicules or despises the person who lives by faith.

The author mentions Moses (11:24-26), who “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God.” He considered “the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; ….” Imagine what those in the Egyptian court must have said about Moses: “He walked away from the wealth and prestige of being the son of Pharaoh’s daughter to lead a ragtag bunch of common slaves out into the Judean wilderness! Why? Because he believes that God has called him to do it! Ha! Ha! What a loony tune!”

Why did Moses do what he did? Because “he was looking to the reward” (11:26). “By faith …he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen” (11:27). By faith Moses gained God’s approval, even though he received the world’s scorn. And it is God’s approval that counts, since He is the judge of the living and the dead!

We need to recognize that faith is not a meritorious work that we do to gain rewards from God. That would conflict with the entire teaching of the New Testament, that faith is simply the channel through which God’s blessings flow. Two seemingly paradoxical things are true of faith: On the one hand, it is our responsibility to believe the gospel, because God commands us to believe (Mark 1:15). On the other hand, sinners are unable to believe because of spiritual blindness (2 Cor. 4:4). Saving faith comes as God’s gift, not as a human effort (Eph. 2:8-9). Jesus is both the author and perfecter of faith (Heb. 12:2). Good works flow from saving faith as their source and give proof of genuine faith (Eph. 2:10; James 2:14-26). Both faith and works come from God.

Let me apply verse 2 in two ways. First, have you gained God’s approval by putting your trust in Christ alone as your only hope of heaven? As we saw in chapter 10, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the only basis for forgiveness of sins. Don’t hope in your good works, because all the good works in the world can never erase the debt of sin that you owe. Don’t hope in your faith, because faith in your faith can’t save you. Put your faith in Jesus Christ! He will save all that come to Him in faith.

Second, if you have trusted in Christ as Savior, live each day to seek His approval. “Without faith it is impossible to please Him” (11:6). While we should never be needlessly offensive toward people, our focus should not be on pleasing people, but on pleasing God, who examines our hearts (1 Thess. 2:4). Although I am not an example of great faith, I can share a personal example. Just after I became pastor here, I had to take a stand on a matter that resulted in a lot of conflict. I did what I did because I believed it to be biblical and thus pleasing to God, but it resulted in a number of people trying to get me fired. At one point before we knew how things would turn out, I said to Marla, “I am at peace that even if I get fired, God will take care of us, because I did the right thing.” Live to please God and you will know His peace, even if people angrily oppose you.

So faith is the means of realizing spiritual reality and of gaining God’s approval. Finally,

3. Faith is the means of understanding the origin of all that is (11:3).

“By faith we understand that the ages [lit.] were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.” This is the first of 19 uses of “by faith” in this chapter. All of the others relate to a parade of characters from the Old Testament who trusted in God. But this first one goes back to Genesis 1, to the biblical account of creation. “The word of God” here does not refer to His written word, but to His spoken word. It refers to the repeated phrase, “then God said” (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26). As Psalm 33:6, 9 affirms, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host…. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.”

“Ages” (“worlds”) is a Hebrew way of referring to the creation from the standpoint of its successive duration. While the term is roughly equivalent to “world,” it allows for what modern science has established, that time is related to matter. The author says that faith gives us understanding of how the material universe (and time) came into being, namely, by God’s spoken word. Matter is not eternal. God, who is Spirit, is eternal. The eternal God brought physical matter and time into being by His powerful word alone!

You can only understand that by faith, because no one was there to observe it. The prevailing current worldview, that matter always existed and that the current universe, including man, happened by sheer chance over billions of years, is based on blind faith, because there is no evidence to support it. The biblical view, that the eternal God spoke it into existence, is based on faith, but not on blind faith. There is abundant evidence that an incredibly intelligent Designer created everything, especially human life. You would think that a discovery such as human DNA, which shows amazing design, would cause all scientists to fall down in worship before God. But as Paul explains (Rom. 1:18-22), sinful men suppress the truth in unrighteousness. They become futile in their speculations, their foolish hearts are darkened, and professing to be wise, they become fools.

The fact that the author puts verse 3 at the start of his list of “by faith” examples, shows that faith in God as Creator is foundational to knowing God. The first verse of the Bible hits us squarely with a vital fact: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” You cannot begin to understand yourself, other people, world history, or God if you reject the early chapters of Genesis. The first verse of Genesis presents you with a crucial choice: If God created everything that is, then He is the sovereign of the universe. If you do not come to Him in faith as your Savior, you will stand before Him in terror as your Judge! But when you believe in His Word about salvation, you gain understanding about the origins of the ages that makes everything in history fall into place.

Conclusion

The author does not want us to have a temporary, flimsy faith that shrinks back to destruction. He wants us to have a faith that endures trials to the preserving of the soul (10:39). Such faith takes the future promises of God and makes them real in the present. It proves the reality of the unseen world. It gains God’s approval. It understands the origins of all that is.

Such faith, as we will see in the numerous examples of Hebrews 11, is down to earth and practical. It has sustained the people of God through thousands of years in every sort of difficulty. It will sustain you in the trials that you face right now! As Jonathan Edwards said as his final words, “Trust in God and you need not fear” (Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, Iain Murray [Banner of Truth], p. 441).

Discussion Questions

  1. How does a person who struggles with doubts get faith and grow strong in faith?
  2. Since God’s promises are given in specific contexts, how can we know which of them apply to us now?
  3. Why is it important to affirm that faith is not a work that gains God’s merit? How do rewards fit in with faith?
  4. Why is the doctrine of creation by God’s word crucial for knowing Him and for the Christian life?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 33: A Dead Man Speaks (Hebrews 11:4)

Since the first couple in human history fell into sin, the most important question for every person to answer is, “How can I, as a sinner, be right before the holy God?” God appointed physical and spiritual death as the penalty for our sin. Hebrews 9:27 plainly states, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” Since none will miss that appointment, it is vitally important to answer the question, “How can I be right before God, who is absolutely holy?”

Proverbs 14:12 states, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Those words apply to this matter of spiritual life and death. Since the earliest times, there has been a way that has seemed spiritually right. In various forms, it is the way of all of the world’s major religions. It is even the way of two of the major branches of Christendom. It is the way of self-righteousness and good works. In one form or another, it believes that if a person is sincere and does his best, God will overlook his faults, accept his good works, and let him into heaven. The Bible calls this “the way of Cain” (Jude 11). The Bible is clear: “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). Salvation by human goodness or works is impossible (Eph. 2:8, 9).

In contrast to the way of Cain is the way that his brother, Abel, approached God. Hebrews 11:4 explains, “By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts.” Although Abel was the first man in human history to die, “though he is dead, he still speaks” to us today. We do not have any of his recorded words, but his story plainly tells us…

By faith in God’s revelation, we obtain His witness that we are righteous, so that our lives count for eternity.

Why did the author of Hebrews begin his list of heroes of the faith with Abel? His concern was that some of his readers might not have a faith that would endure the looming persecution. He was hoping the best, that “we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul” (10:39). But he knew that there could be some in the Hebrew church that would turn away from faith in Jesus Christ and go back to the Jewish faith.

Rightly understood, that Jewish faith pointed to and was fulfilled completely in Christ, as the author argues in the first ten chapters. But to abandon Christ now that He has come and go back to the religion that pointed to Him would be to abandon God’s only way of salvation. The story of Cain and Abel clearly contrasts man’s way of salvation with God’s way, which is by faith alone in Christ alone. Abel’s faith teaches us five vital lessons related to the question of how we can be right with the holy God.

1. Faith is always an obedient response to God’s revelation.

“By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain….” Scholars have suggested a number of reasons why Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s: “it was living, whereas Cain’s was lifeless; it was stronger, Cain’s weaker; it grew spontaneously, Cain’s by human ingenuity; it involved blood, Cain’s did not” (Leon Morris, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 12:115, summarizing F. F. Bruce). The Genesis account simply says, “the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard” (Gen. 4:4-5). The only hint of a reason is when the Lord tells Cain, “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?” (Gen. 4:7).

That question indicates that God had previously made clear to these brothers the type of sacrifice that would please Him. Faith is always an obedient response to God’s revelation. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Biblical faith never rests on manmade ideas, or on vague speculations. It rests on the revealed word of God. Abel, by faith, had obeyed God’s command. Cain refused to submit to it. Abel’s faith pleased God; Cain’s disobedience displeased God. When the Lord told Cain to “do well,” He meant, “Bring the kind of sacrifice that you know that I commanded.”

We are not reading too much into the story to infer that God had made this plain to Adam and Eve after they sinned. Their sin caused them to be ashamed of their nakedness, and so they sewed together fig leaves to try to cover that shame. But God did not accept their fig leaves. Instead, He clothed them with garments made of animal skin (Gen. 3:7, 21). Undoubtedly, at that time He explained to them four things. First, to stand before the holy God, they needed a proper covering. Second, humanly manufactured coverings were not adequate. Third, God would provide the necessary covering apart from their efforts. Fourth, the only acceptable covering for their sin required the death, or shedding of blood, of an acceptable sacrifice (adapted from A. W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews [Ephesians 4 Group, CD], p. 658).

Surely, Adam had communicated these facts to his sons. They did not think up on their own the idea of bringing sacrifices to God! No, God had clearly revealed to Adam and Eve the necessary and proper way to approach Him through a blood sacrifice. They had made this way plain to their sons. But Cain disobeyed, while Abel, by faith, obeyed. John MacArthur explains,

In Abel’s sacrifice, the way of the cross was first prefigured. The first sacrifice was Abel’s lamb—one lamb for one person. Later came the Passover—with one lamb for one family. Then came the Day of Atonement—with one lamb for one nation. Finally came Good Friday—one Lamb for the whole world (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Hebrews [Moody Press], p. 301).

So Abel’s sacrifice was better than Cain’s because he offered it in obedient faith to what God had clearly revealed. God rejected Cain’s sacrifice because he did not offer it by faith, and “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6).

2. Faith in God’s ordained sacrifice is the only way for sinners to approach Him.

We would be greatly mistaken to assume that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice because he was inherently a better man than his brother. Abel brought an animal from the firstlings of his flock because he knew that he was a sinner deserving God’s judgment, but he also knew that God had revealed that He would graciously accept the death of a substitute. Cain proudly ignored God’s revealed requirement and brought an offering of his own devising. At the heart of Abel’s sacrifice was the acknowledgement that he deserved to die for his sin, and that God’s requirement for the shedding of blood was just. At the heart of Cain’s sacrifice was the pride of saying, “I don’t need shed blood to approach God. My way is just as good. In fact, my way is better! This lovely basket of fruit looks nicer than that bloody, dead animal!” Cain’s theme song was, “I did it my way.”

Paul said, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” A few verses later, he said, “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:18, 22-24).

People who think that they’re basically good do not need a Savior to die in their place. They may appreciate a good example to follow, but the idea of Jesus shedding His blood for their sin offends them. But those whom God has convicted of their sin and whose eyes He has opened to see His absolute holiness and justice, recognize their need for a sacrifice to pay for their sins. They gladly bow at the foot of the cross, acknowledging Jesus to be the Lamb of God who bore their sins.

Thus, faith is always an obedient response to God’s revelation. God has revealed that Jesus is His ordained sacrifice, the only way for sinners to approach Him.

3. Faith in God’s ordained sacrifice obtains His testimony that the sinner is righteous.

The text says, “through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts.” Some say that the antecedent of through which is Abel’s faith, whereas others say that it was his sacrifice. But since he offered his sacrifice by faith, it doesn’t matter. We do not know how God testified that Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable, whereas Cain’s was not. Many reputable scholars down through the ages have believed that God sent fire from heaven to consume Abel’s sacrifice, as He did on subsequent occasions (Lev. 9:23, 24; Judges 6:21; 13:19, 20; 1 Kings 18:30-39; 2 Chron. 7:1; the list is in Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], pp. 455-456). But all that Genesis states is that God had regard for Abel’s offering, but not for Cain’s. Also, Jesus referred to Abel as, “righteous Abel” (Matt. 23:35).

We know (from 1 John 3:12) that Abel lived righteously, whereas Cain’s life was marked by evil deeds. But it would be a huge mistake to conclude that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice on the basis of his righteous life, or that He rejected Cain’s sacrifice because of his evil life. For one thing, our text indicates that Abel offered his sacrifice by faith, not on the basis of his righteous life.

Also, Scripture teaches that God justifies (= “declares righteous”) sinners by their faith, not by their works. As early as Genesis 15:6, Scripture states of Abraham, “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Paul cites that text to prove that Abraham was not justified by works, and then explains, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5).

This is a judicial action, whereby God acquits the guilty sinner on the basis of Christ’s death, which satisfied the penalty that the sinner deserves. He imputes the penalty of our sin to Christ and the righteousness of Christ to us at the instant we believe in Christ. As Paul declares (2 Cor. 5:21), “He [God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (See my sermon, “Justification by Faith Alone,” on Gen. 15:6, [8/11/96] for a much more detailed explanation of this crucial doctrine.)

Once the sinner has trusted in Jesus Christ as God’s ordained sacrifice for his sins, his life will become progressively righteous in behavior as a result. But such a godly life begins at the point when the sinner trusts in Christ. To reverse this order and say that God declares us righteous on the basis of our good works is to deny the gospel (Gal. 1:6-9).

Many Christians naïvely think that if they ever incur persecution, it will come from wicked atheists who despise religion. While that sometimes happens, it is much more common for persecution and opposition to come from the religious crowd.

4. Faith in God’s ordained sacrifice incurs the opposition of the self-righteous.

To understand the story of Cain and Abel, we have to remember that Cain was not an atheist. He was a religious man who believed in God. He brought a sacrifice in order to worship God, although in his own way. An irreligious atheist never would have brought a sacrifice at all. Such a person probably would have shrugged off his brother’s sacrifice as a silly, meaningless superstition. But it wouldn’t have offended him. What offended Cain was that he self-righteously thought that his sacrifice was good enough, even though it was not what God had commanded. When God rejected his sacrifice, Cain became angry and depressed. He refused to listen to God’s corrective rebuke, and his anger spilled out on his brother, who had obeyed God by faith.

By bringing his own sacrifice as the way to approach God, Cain became the father of all false religion. False religions reject the cross. It offends them because it confronts their self-righteousness. Those in false religions take pride in their own goodness and their own works. They reject the idea that they are sinners in need of a Savior who shed His blood. Or, if they accept the cross (as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches do), they still want to add their good works to it as a partial means of salvation. But to add human works detracts from the total sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross and gives sinners grounds for boasting in their works.

It was the religious Pharisees who crucified Jesus. It was the self-righteous Judaizers who went after Paul because he proclaimed that the pagan Gentiles could be justified by faith alone. The cross wipes out any room for boasting in your good works. Those who take pride in the flesh persecute those who boast only in the cross (Gal. 4:29; 6:12-14).

But, the story of Cain and Abel shows that it is far better to gain God’s approval through faith in His ordained sacrifice and lose your life, than to have God reject you and lose your soul. By faith in God’s revelation about Christ, we not only gain His testimony that we are righteous. Also,

5. Faith in God’s ordained sacrifice results in a life that counts for eternity.

When you contrast the first three examples of those who lived by faith, you see that a life of faith results in very different circumstances, depending on God’s sovereign purpose. The first man on the list became the first murder victim! If you are following Jesus for all the benefits that He will give you in this life, you may be in for a rude awakening! Abel isn’t exactly an example of a long, happy life. And yet the second man on the list was one of only two men in all history who never died! Enoch was taken directly into heaven. The third man, Noah, lived for 950 years, and was delivered from the flood. Most of us would sign up for the Enoch or Noah track, but we’re not interested in the Abel track!

But the author of Hebrews wants us to realize that the rewards of faith are not necessarily in this life. He will shortly mention those who “died in faith, without receiving the promises” (11:13). He gives a long list of those who won impressive victories by faith (11:33-35a). But right in the middle of verse 35, without skipping a beat, he lists those who were tortured, mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, put to death by the sword, who went about destitute, ill-treated, and homeless because of their faith! If we’re banking on a good life here and now, faith in God may not be the way to go. But, if we have God’s eternal perspective, it’s the only way to live.

The author says that though Abel “is dead, he still speaks.” How does he still speak? In several ways:

First, Abel still speaks to us about the ultimate vindication of God’s elect and the judgment of the wicked. In Genesis 4:10, God says to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.” God did not let that cry go unheeded! We see a similar thing in Luke 18:7, 8, where Jesus says, “Now will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly.”

In Revelation 6:9ff., John sees a vision of the saints in heaven who have been slain because of their testimony. They are crying out to the Lord, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” The Lord gives them each a white robe and tells them to rest a while longer, until the number of martyrs yet to be killed is completed. Then He will bring judgment. Abel’s blood speaks to us about the fact that although we may be mistreated in this world, God is the righteous judge who will right all wrongs and bring justice on behalf of His elect.

Second, Abel still speaks to us by his life, apart from any words. We have no recorded words that Abel spoke, and yet thousands of years after his death, he still speaks. This shows us the power of a godly life, not only in his lifetime, but also on successive generations. While we should not discount the importance of godly speech, neither should we disregard the power of a godly example, especially in the home. If the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—are evident in your life, then your words will connect with power. But if your life does not demonstrate these qualities, your words will be in vain.

Finally, Abel still speaks to us about the fact that the measure of a life is not necessarily its impact during the person’s lifetime, but over history. Viewed from his lifetime, Abel’s life was wasted. He died young, without accomplishing anything. But countless generations have looked at his faith and learned that even if we suffer and die for the cause of righteousness, it is not in vain. Cain apparently lived a long and relatively prosperous life on earth. He built cities and fathered many children who were successful in worldly terms. But Cain’s life was the wasted one. Abel was the true success. Luther observed that when Abel was alive, he “could not teach even his only brother by his faith and example,” but “now that he is dead [he] teaches the whole world.” He concluded, “He is more alive than ever! So great a thing is faith! It is life in God” (in Hughes, p. 457).

Conclusion

I can still remember the morning in January, 1956, when I went into the kitchen and my mother was intently listening to the shocking news on the radio. My parents’ friend, Nate Saint, and four other young missionaries, including Jim Elliot, had been brutally murdered by the Auca Indians in the jungle in Ecuador. Nate had taken my parents for a ride in his plane. I had passed up that opportunity so that I could spend the night at my grandmother’s house. (I knew she would buy me a present!)

Although they all died in their twenties and thirties, those five men still speak powerfully. In her account of the martyrdom of her husband and those other men, Elisabeth Elliot wrote (Through Gates of Splendor [Spire Books], pp. 201-202),

Off the coast of Italy, an American naval officer was involved in an accident at sea. As he floated alone on a raft, he recalled Jim Elliot’s words (which he had read in a news report): “When it comes time to die, make sure that all you have to do is die.” He prayed that he might be saved, knowing that he had more to do than die. He was not ready. God answered his prayer, and he was rescued. In Des Moines, Iowa, an eighteen-year-old boy prayed for a week in his room, then announced to his parents: “I’m turning my life over completely to the Lord. I want to try to take the place of one of those five.”

She wrote that the prayers of the widows themselves were for the Aucas. “We look forward to the day when these savages will join us in Christian praise” (ibid.). In March, 2003, I had the privilege of hearing one of the men who murdered Nate Saint speak through the translation of Nate’s son, Steve, whom this murderer-turned-worshiper by God’s grace had baptized. I heard him sing a praise song in his native tongue. By faith, those five missionaries obtained God’s testimony that they are righteous, and by faith, their lives still speak, counting for eternity. By faith in God’s sacrifice, you may join their company.

Discussion Questions

  1. It has been said that justification by faith alone is the doctrine by which the church and the individual stands or falls. Why is this so? Why must we defend it at all costs?
  2. Some say that we are saved by faith plus good works. How is this different than saying that saving faith results in good works?
  3. Why is it important to affirm that justification is God’s declaring the sinner righteous, not His making the sinner righteous?
  4. Why is it essential to bring in eternity when we present the gospel? (See Heb. 11:35b-39; 1 Cor. 15:19.)

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 34: Pleasing God (Hebrews 11:5-6, Genesis 5:21-24)

Unrelated to the upcoming election, I was searching my files for an illustration of trying to please everyone. I came across this story about Senator John Kerry, from 1991, during the first Gulf War. A man named Walter Carter wrote to Mr. Kerry urging him to support the ejection of Iraq from Kuwait. He received two separate replies. The first letter agreed, stating the Senator’s strong support for [then] President Bush’s response to the crisis. The second letter, mailed by mistake, thanked Mr. Carter for opposing the war and pointed out that Senator Kerry had voted against the war resolution! (“Traditional Values Report,” June/July, 1991.)

Newsweek (5/19/94) opened with an article recounting President Bill Clinton’s legendary ability to lead people “to believe that he agrees with them entirely… without ever quite committing himself to their position… a gift given only to the best politicians.” To be fair, many examples could be found of Republican politicians being people-pleasers!

But unfortunately, many pastors try to ride the fence in an attempt to please everyone. There is a proper sense, of course, in which we should seek to please people, not being needlessly offensive (1 Cor. 10:32-33). We should be gracious, kind, and not quarrelsome, even when we must correct those in error (2 Tim. 2:24-26). We should seek to please others in order to build them up in Christ (Rom. 15:2). But having said all of that, there is a much more important aim than pleasing people, namely, to please God, who examines our hearts (1 Thess. 2:4). Sometimes pleasing God inevitably means displeasing people that are opposed to God.

If we please everyone else, but God is ultimately displeased with our lives, woe to us! On the other hand, if we offend others, but God is finally pleased, we will enter into His eternal joy. The author of Hebrews directs us to the life of Enoch, a man who pleased God. He lived in the seventh generation from Adam. It was an evil time on earth, just before the judgment of the flood. Jude 14-15 reports that Enoch prophesied to his evil generation, “Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him.” That could not have been a popular message! And yet Enoch pleased God so much that God took him straight to heaven so that he did not see death. His story teaches a vital lesson, that…

A life of faith pleases God.

We should learn three things from these verses:

1. Our number one aim in life should be to please God.

If you love someone, you aim to please him or her. The foremost commandment is that we should love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). It is impossible to obey that commandment without seeking to please God. Note two things in this regard:

A. Pleasing God begins on the heart (or thought) level.

We can fake out people by being nice on the surface, while in our hearts we don’t care about them. But God knows our every thought, and so we can’t fake Him out! Even if we fulfill a list of religious duties or live outwardly moral lives, God judges the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Heb. 4:12-13). So if you want to please God, you must judge all sin on the thought level and take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (Mark 7:20-23; 2 Cor. 10:5). God condemns those who honor Him with their lips, while their hearts are far from Him (Mark 7:6). This is essential: Aim to please God with your thought life and your emotional life!

B. Pleasing God requires consistently drawing near to Him and seeking Him.

Verse 6 mentions the one “who comes to God.” Comes to translates the same word that is translated draw near in 4:16, where we are exhorted to “draw near to the throne of grace.” In 7:25, the author says that Jesus “is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him.” In  10:1, he states that the Old Testament sacrifices could never “make perfect those who draw near.” In 10:22, he exhorts us to “draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.” So in 11:6, it should be translated, “he who draws near to God.” It means drawing near to God in worship and prayer.

Verse 6 also mentions “those who seek Him.” The KJV translates it, “diligently seek,” but scholars are divided about whether it has this intensive sense. It is parallel here to drawing near to God. The Hebrew word that is often translated seek originally meant to beat a path under foot. The idea was that if you sought your neighbor often, you would beat a path through the grass to his door. We should seek God so often that we beat a path to Him!

Drawing near to God and seeking Him are deliberate, intentional activities. You do not accidentally draw near to the Holy One. No one ever seeks God apart from God’s first choosing and calling that person (Rom. 3:11; 1 Cor. 1:26-31). But once God has called you to salvation and you have responded in faith to His call, you must exert deliberate effort and intention to seek the Lord. Make it your priority and aim in life!

Note also that we are to seek God Himself, not just the rewards that He can give us. Knowing the living God is our reward. The Lord promised Abraham, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your very great reward” (Gen. 15:1, NASB, margin). In the context of explaining that the priests would not have any inheritance in the land, God promised Aaron, “I am your portion and your inheritance among the sons of Israel” (Num. 18:20). The psalmist proclaimed (Ps. 73:25-26), “Whom have I in heaven, but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

F. B. Meyer wrote, “To have God is to have all, though bereft of everything. To be destitute of God is to be bereft of everything, though having all” (Abraham [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 63). Donald Barnhouse observed, “God’s method of supplying our need is to give us fresh knowledge of Himself, for every need can be met by seeing Him” (Genesis [Zondervan], 1:105).

So our number one aim in life should be to please God from the heart. To do so, we must consistently draw near to Him and seek Him. But our text mentions an essential for pleasing God:

2. Faith is essential to please God.

Two words underscore this in verse 6: impossible and must. Faith is not just something nice, if you care to practice it. It is impossible to please God without faith. You must believe that God is and the He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

We know this on a human level. If someone does not believe you or questions your integrity, you are not pleased with that person. In effect, they’re calling you a liar. If you have spoken the truth, to have someone call you a liar is not pleasing.

How much more does it displease the God of truth, who cannot lie, when we call Him a liar by doubting His word! What could be more insulting? What could be more arrogant than to imply that we know more than God does? When we do not trust Him, we are in effect saying, “God, You’re wrong and I’m right!” How impudent! So, if we want to please God, we must learn what faith means, and live by faith on a daily basis. The author mentions two aspects of God-pleasing faith:

A. Faith must believe that God is.

Why does the author start with believing in God’s existence with Jews, who obviously believed that? In fact, even the pagan poet, Cicero, observed, “There is… no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God” (cited by John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 1:44). So why does the author start with this basic matter?

For one thing, his readers were under the imminent threat of persecution. When you have done what is right and get persecuted for it, the devil comes to you with doubts about God. He whispers in your ear, “You repented of your sins and trusted in God, but look what has happened to you now! If there were a God in heaven, would He let you be treated in this way?”

Although Jesus did not yield to the temptation, Satan threw this at Him while He hung upon the cross. The chief priests, scribes, and elders mocked Him, saying, “He trusts in God; let God rescue Him now, if He delights in Him” (Matt. 27:43). The enemy was trying to get Jesus to doubt God’s love, His power, or even His very existence, because a God who is unloving and weak is not really God at all!

When the author says that we must believe that “God is,” he means, “We must believe that God is exactly who His Word reveals Him to be.” Sinful people cannot know the living and true God apart from His revealing Himself to them. To believe in God “as you conceive Him to be” is to believe in an idol, a god of your own making and imagination. We must believe in the God who is not only the God of love, but also of judgment, because that is how He has revealed Himself. He is not only a God of mercy and kindness, but also of holiness and wrath. So when the author says that we must believe that God is, he is saying, “Believe in the God who reveals Himself in His Word.”

Why would he say that? Because when we are under persecution or severe trials, it is easy to invent a friendlier “god” who treats us more nicely! It is not so easy to bow before the God of the Bible, who is sovereign over every trial. When God permits your ten children to be killed in a common accident and strips you of your wealth and health, it is not easy to join Job in proclaiming, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Yet at just such times, we must believe, God is!

Perhaps you’re wondering, “How do you hang on to faith in God at such difficult times?” I always ask, “What’s the alternative?” In John 6, Jesus taught some difficult doctrines that caused many of His disciples to turn away from following Him. Rather than softening the teaching, He turned to the twelve and asked, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Peter gave a classic answer, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-68). You may not like the trials or the teaching, but where else are you going to go? The world certainly offers no satisfying answers! If you turn your back on God in times of trials, you have just robbed yourself of the only source of hope and comfort! Faith holds on, believing that God is!

B. Faith must believe that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

This has to do with God’s goodness or justice, as well as His power. In times of trial, if Satan can’t get you to doubt God’s existence, he will try to get you to doubt God’s goodness, His fairness, or His power. “If God loves you and cares about you, why is this terrible trial happening to you? Maybe God cares, but He can’t do anything about it.” Faith takes a stand against this temptation, believing, “God will reward me because I have sought Him. God does love me and care for me, even though I’m suffering. God is able to deliver me, if that is His purpose.”

How do we do this? Do we just say it over and over until we convince ourselves, against all of our circumstances, that it is true? Rehearsing it in your mind may help. But, there is more to be said:

(1). Make sure that you’re trusting in Christ for salvation.

Saving faith is not just mentally assenting to the promise that if you believe in Jesus Christ, you have eternal life. You must agree with God’s promise, but faith is more than agreeing. It is also relying personally on Christ as your only hope of heaven. You turn from relying on your own good works as the basis of your standing with God. You do not trust in any religious rituals, ceremonies, vows, or disciplines to gain acceptance with God. You do not believe that God will grade on the curve, and since you’re better than average, you will pass the course. You trust solely on the shed blood of Christ as the only satisfaction for your sins. You believe God’s promise that the one who trusts in Jesus will have eternal life. If you do not have this foundation, you will not be able to believe God in times of severe trials.

(2). Understand that faith is not in any way meritorious; rather, it is God’s ordained means of obtaining His blessings.

In other words, your faith does not earn or merit eternal life or any other blessing. That would be to turn faith into a work that makes God your debtor! Rather, Christ Himself merits our salvation and all spiritual blessings. We deserve nothing from God but judgment, but in His grace, He offers mercy and full pardon to the one who trusts in the merits of Christ. John Owen explains, “Faith alone is the gracious power which takes us off from all confidence in ourselves, and directs us to look for all in another; that is, in God himself” (An Exposition of Hebrews [The National Foundation for Christian Education], 7:41).

Salvation and everything that we have is from God as a gift by His grace. The Reformer, Martin Bucer, explains, “when God rewards our good works he is rewarding his works and gifts in us, rather than our own works.” Since God works in us, “both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13), Bucer says, “all the good that God does to us and the eternal life that he gives us still remain the results of his grace alone, so that no one should boast of himself, but only of the Lord” (cited by Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 461).

So, make sure that you’re trusting in Christ alone for salvation. Understand that you do not in any way merit salvation by your faith, but that faith is simply the channel through which God’s blessings flow.

(3). Remember that the rewards of faith are in eternity, not necessarily in this life.

We saw this last week with Abel, who didn’t live a long and happy life on earth. But his life was blessed and Cain’s life was cursed, even though Cain lived many years and had many earthly successes. The same thing is true of Moses. He chose to give up his comfortable situation as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and to endure ill-treatment with God’s people, “for he was looking to the reward” (11:24-26).

This is also illustrated in the case of Enoch (11:5). Even though he lived 365 years, which is very long by today’s standards, in the context of Genesis 5, he has by far the shortest life of all of the pre-flood patriarchs. His father, Jared, lived 962 years. His son, Methuselah, set the record at 969 years. Yet Enoch, who is noted for his godliness, only lived about a third as long as they did! This shows us that faith’s reward is not necessarily a long life on earth, but eternal life with God in heaven.

Enoch’s translation into heaven is also an illustration of what God will do for those who are alive when Jesus returns. We will be caught up in the clouds “to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). Even for believers who die physically, there is a sense in which they will not see death. As Jesus told Martha at Lazarus’ tomb, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” Then He pointedly asked her, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). Faith looks to God for the reward of eternal life in heaven, not for the good life here and now.

We’ve seen that our number one aim in life should be to please God, and that faith is essential to please Him. Finally,

3. Faith is a daily walk that extends over a lifetime.

Enoch’s life also illustrates this point. Genesis 5 does not mention faith in connection with Enoch, but it does say twice that he walked with God. The LXX translators, seeking to make the language less anthropomorphic (F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 287), render that phrase, “Enoch was well-pleasing to God.” Since it is impossible to please God without faith, it follows that Enoch walked by faith. His 300-year walk of faith obtained God’s testimony that he was pleasing to Him. We must walk by faith with God on earth if we expect to dwell with Him forever in heaven.

Let’s briefly explore the word picture of a walk with God. First, consider that a walk is not spectacular or impressive. If we were writing the biography of a man who was taken up into heaven bodily without dying, I’m sure that we would not title it, “The Man Who Walked With God.” We’d call it, “The Man Who Flew With God.” We’re attracted to the sensational, but God calls our attention to a man who walked with Him. To fly with God sounds impossible, but to walk with God is doable. Walking is not the flashiest or quickest way to get someplace, but it’s a frequent description of the Christian life. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is a wonderful expanded description of the Christian walk.

To walk with God means that our lives are in step with God, yielded in obedience to Him, headed in the direction He chooses. Walking also implies intimacy and fellowship. Walking with a friend is a time to talk, to get to know one another, and to share the things that are happening in your lives. Walking with God is a daily process of growing more intimate with Him as you share everything in your life with Him and learn more of His ways.

Of course, you have to do your own walking. Someone else can’t do it for you. Just as a physical exercise program requires discipline, so spiritual walking requires discipline (1 Tim. 4:7). You have to take the initiative, the time, and the effort that is required to walk with God. If you don’t make frequent appointments to get alone with Him, it won’t happen. If you don’t make an effort to read His Word and apply it to your life, you’re not walking with Him. If you are not memorizing His promises and applying them to the various situations you face, you’re not walking by faith. If you have trusted in Christ as Savior, but you have grown lazy and aren’t walking with Him, then get up and get back on the path. Faith is a daily dependence on God, step by step, that continues over a lifetime.

Conclusion

There is a familiar story about a little girl who went to Sunday School and heard the story of Enoch. She went home and told her mother, “You know, Mother, he used to go for walks with God.” The mother replied, “That’s wonderful, dear. How did it end?” “Well, Mother, one day they walked on and on, and got so far that God said to Enoch, ‘You’re a long ways from home. You had better come in and stay with Me!’”

If you walk with God by faith, your life is pleasing to Him. Even if you go through horrible trials, you can trust that He is with you. One day, He will say to you, “You’re a long ways from home. You had better come in and stay with Me!”

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it essential to recognize that pleasing God begins on the heart (or, thought) level? What errors does this avoid?
  2. How would you deal with a person who is struggling to believe in the existence of God? Are “proofs” of His existence useful or should we take a different approach?
  3. Why is it crucial to affirm that faith is not meritorious? What are some errors that the meritorious view of faith leads to?
  4. Should the believer be motivated by rewards in heaven? Why/ why not? Is God Himself the totality of our reward?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 35: Faith That Escapes the Coming Judgment (Hebrews 11:7; Genesis 6:5-14, 22)

Earlier this week, hundreds of thousands of people that live along the Gulf Coast abandoned their homes and fled for their lives from Hurricane Ivan as it headed toward the U.S. mainland. I heard on the news Wednesday morning that the State of Alabama had turned all four lanes of Interstate 65 into one-way northbound, to accommodate the thousands that were escaping.

It would be wonderful if people responded to God’s warnings about future judgment with that same fervor! The Bible isn’t fuzzy about the threat. The apostle Paul told the Athenians, God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). The entire last book of the Bible is largely devoted to the theme of future judgment. Millions have read with fascination the “Left Behind” series that portrays the coming judgment. But how many are fleeing from the wrath to come?

Anybody that knows even a little bit about the Bible knows about Noah and the flood. It’s part of our popular culture. This summer, Marla and I went into a store in Estes Park, Colorado, called The Estes Ark, that is built to look like Noah’s Ark. It contains just about every kind of stuffed animal that you could imagine. Probably thousands of people have visited that store and thought, “How cute!” But how many that know about Noah and the flood take its warning to heart? Our text brings up Noah’s faith as an example, teaching us that…

To be saved, we must by faith obediently respond to God’s warnings of future judgment.

Our text reveals the basis, the effects, and the consequences of Noah’s faith. The author wants us to be imitators of this man, who through faith and patience inherited the promises (6:13). Of all the examples in Hebrews 11, this is the only one in which the unseen future involves judgment, rather than rewards. It shows us that faith regards both God’s warnings and His promises. God only brings judgment after multiple warnings, but many will be surprised when judgment comes, because they ignored the warnings. But, people of faith heed the warnings.

1. The basis of Noah’s faith: He believed God’s word regarding the coming judgment.

You can see a hurricane warning on TV. The radar picture shows a huge mass of swirling clouds heading toward where you live. They report the wind speed. It’s all quite visible. But,

A. God’s word of warning concerns things not yet seen.

God warned Noah “about things not yet seen,” and His warning would have seemed incredible. Before Noah’s day, there had never been a flood and probably it had never even rained. A vapor canopy may have covered the earth, and a mist used to rise from the earth and water the ground (Gen. 2:5-6). And so the warning about a flood that would kill all life on earth was unprecedented and unseen.

This ties in with 11:1, that faith is “the proof of things not seen.” Faith hears the word of the unseen God regarding events that are not yet seen and brings them into present experience. Alexander Maclaren put it, “The far-off flood was more real to him than the shows of life around him. Therefore he could stand all the gibes, and gave himself to a course of life which was sheer folly unless that future was real” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], on Gen. 6:9-22, p. 54).

Could you say that the course of your life is sheer folly unless God’s promise of heaven and His warnings about hell are real? Faith in God believes that He is able to guard the deposit that we have entrusted to Him until that day (2 Tim. 1:12). Faith lays up treasures in heaven, where they are eternally secure (Matt. 6:19-21; 1 Tim. 6:19). If the resurrection of our bodies and eternity with God in heaven are myths, then we should be of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:19). The world should be able to look at our lives—how we spend our time and money—and say, as they no doubt said about Noah, “This guy is nuts! He lives as if there really is a coming judgment!”

B. God’s word of warning concerned judgment that was delayed, but absolutely certain.

Enoch named his son Methuselah, which means, “when he is dead, it will come.” What will come? If you do the math in the genealogies of Genesis, you discover that Methuselah died in the year of the flood! When Methuselah was dead, God’s judgment came! Do you know why Methuselah lived the longest of any recorded human life? It is to show God’s great patience before He brought judgment on this wicked earth.

In Genesis 6:3, God said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” This probably means that there would be 120 years until the judgment of the flood. The earth was so wicked that, without apology, God could have judged it on the spot (Gen. 6:5). But in His grace and patience, He delayed judgment for over a century, while Noah built the ark (see 1 Pet. 3:20).

Peter tells us that in the end times, mockers will say, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” But, as Peter goes on to explain, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:4, 9).

So the delay of God’s judgment is because of His great patience and grace. But don’t mistake the delay for uncertainty! Noah could have thought, “One hundred and twenty years is a long ways off,” and procrastinated on building the ark. But he didn’t do that. As soon as he heard God’s warning about the coming judgment, he went to work building the ark. It took him over a century to complete, but he kept at it. It seemed crazy to the world, but it all suddenly made sense when the sky began to pour rain and the fountains of the deep opened up. But then it was too late!

Jesus said, “For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matt. 24:37-39). The people of Noah’s day went on with the normal activities of life, oblivious to the repeated warnings of judgment, until it was too late. The Book of Revelation shows that this evil world will be going on full steam ahead, doing business, pursuing pleasure, and scoffing at the idea of a coming judgment. But in one hour, judgment will fall. It will be thorough and completely devastating (Rev. 18:8, 10, 17).

The basis of Noah’s faith was God’s word of warning about things not yet seen. These things were delayed, but certain.

C. God’s word of warning required faith in the face of the world’s condemnation.

The bottom line for Noah was either to believe the evil people around him, who seemed to be having a great time sinning, or to believe what God said about the coming judgment. As far as Scripture records, he had no others to stand with him, except for his immediate family. Although Scripture does not record it, there can be no doubt that the world would have ridiculed a man who spent a fortune over a century building a huge ship on dry ground, miles from any ocean! It must have been the best entertainment for miles around, to go over and watch old Noah work on his ship! There are some pretty crazy men in this world, but Noah had to be near the top of the list!

But in spite of having no friends to support him in his labors, and in spite of over a century of being thought of as the world’s greatest nut case, Noah believed the word of God. That is the kind of faith that escapes the judgment that is yet coming on this evil world. You must stand alone, if need be, against the mockery of the world, and believe that God’s Word is true! The basis for Noah’s faith and for ours is the word of God. Count it as true!

2. The effects of Noah’s faith: Out of reverential fear, he steadfastly obeyed God’s directive about salvation.

Verse 7 continues, “in reverence [Noah] prepared an ark.” Noah’s faith changed his affections; and, it changed his actions.

A. Noah’s faith changed his affections (emotions).

Noah’s faith in God’s warning moved him to reverential fear of God. Noah did not just fear the impending judgment; he also feared the God who threatened such judgment, knowing that He is fully capable of bringing it about. The God who spoke the universe into existence out of nothing (11:3) is quite capable of commanding a flood to destroy all human life on earth. He is able to bring the terrible judgments described in the Book of Revelation. Faith in this omnipotent God should move our hearts to reverential fear.

Jonathan Edwards, in his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, develops the thesis, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:236). He means that genuine religion is not just a matter of the head, but also of the heart. If we have genuine faith in God, we will not only be moved by love in response to His great love; we also will be moved by reverential fear in response to His holiness and His warnings of the judgment to come.

Sometimes we who are not Pentecostals are uncomfortable with any show of emotion in spiritual things. We’ve encountered people who gush with emotion, but their understanding of biblical truth is shallow, at best. But, it is a mistake to swing to the other extreme of denying the validity of emotions in response to the truth. God’s truth should not only fill our heads; it should grip our hearts. Alexander Maclaren said, “Do not be afraid of feeling which is the child of faith. Be very much more afraid of a religion that leaves your heart beating just exactly at the same rate that it did before you took the truth into it” (ibid., on Heb. 11:7, p. 117). But, Noah didn’t stop with his affections.

B. Noah’s faith changed his actions (behavior).

“In reverence [he] prepared an ark for the salvation of his household.” There is a whole lot of obedience packed into that short phrase, “he prepared an ark”! Sometimes you hear about a guy who builds a fishing boat in his back yard, but Noah built an ocean liner! It was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high! Can you imagine what Mrs. Noah must have thought when her husband told her what he planned to do? This wasn’t a weekend hobby; it was all-consuming for 120 years!

Think of the excuses that Noah (not to mention Mrs. Noah) could have used to argue with God: “It will cost too much!” “It’s not feasible!” “It will take too long!” “How will I support my family while I’m building this thing?” “A boat that size will never float.” But Noah set aside all excuses and persevered in obedience until it was done. Twice Genesis reports that Noah did according to all that the Lord had commanded him (Gen. 6:22; 7:5).

Some may think of faith as an ethereal, impractical sort of thing. But Noah’s faith took up axe, hammer, and saw and built a ship in his back yard! His faith cost him a lot of time, money, and ridicule for over a century. Peter tells us that Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:5). Perhaps he stopped his work at times to preach to the mockers who gathered to watch this incredible sight. But he didn’t allow the jeers to stop him. His faith caused him to do all that God had commanded him.

There are those who argue that you can believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior, but that it is not necessary for salvation to receive Him as your Lord. They are sincerely trying to hold to the biblical teaching that salvation is through faith alone, apart from any works.

But they are badly mistaken about the nature of saving faith. We are saved by faith alone, but genuine saving faith by its very nature always results in a radical change of heart and habits. Faith that does not result in good works is dead (James 2:14-26). Many Christians have memorized Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” But we should also learn Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, so that we would walk in them.”

Noah could have said, “I believe that God is going to judge the whole world with a terrible flood.” But if he had not built the ark and climbed on board, he would have perished in the flood. To save himself and his household from the flood, Noah had to translate his faith into what Eugene Peterson called, “a long obedience in the same direction” (the phrase comes from Nietzsche; see, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction [IVP], p. 13). In the same way, a faith that saves us from the wrath to come, out of reverential fear, persists in obedience to Jesus Christ.

The basis of Noah’s faith was that he believed God’s word about the coming judgment. The effects of his faith were a change in his affections and in his actions.

3. The consequences of Noah’s faith: He saved his family, he condemned the world, and he became an heir of the righteousness according to faith.

A. By faith, Noah saved his family.

The story in Genesis does not mention the spiritual salvation of Noah’s family, but only about the fact that they were saved from drowning in the flood. But at the very least, his wife and sons and their wives, must have believed enough in what Noah told them to join him in the ark. His sons were all born after he began to build the ark (compare Gen. 5:32; 6:3; 7:6). But as they grew up, it would have been easy for them to become embarrassed about their weird father and be swayed by the taunts of the world. They could have moved to a different locale, distanced themselves from their father, and they would have perished in the flood. They believed enough to stay with him and get on board when God gave the command. Noah’s faith in God had a powerful effect on his family.

Scripture gives no absolute guarantees that all of our children will be saved. Proverbs 22:6 says that if we train them in the way they should go, when they are old they will not depart from it. But like all of the proverbs, that is not a guaranteed promise. It’s a general rule. But while we have no guarantees, the Bible is clear that a godly father has a powerful influence on his children (see also, Deut. 7:9; Psalms 112, 127 & 128). The Bible declares that Noah was a righteous man of integrity (“blameless”), who walked with God (Gen. 6:9). Dads, if you will be such a man, it will be a powerful influence toward saving your children from this evil generation.

B. By faith, Noah’s life and words condemned the world.

Noah condemned the world in the sense that his righteous life of faith exposed their unrighteous lives of unbelief, thus aggravating their guilt (see Matt. 12:41-42). Noah didn’t have a judgmental, holier-than-thou spirit. He knew that he was a sinner saved by God’s grace. But his life of obedient faith was like a bright light taken into a dark cave. It exposed all of the bats hanging in there! If it hadn’t been for Noah, perhaps someone from that godless generation could have argued, “But I never knew how to live in a godly manner. I never heard about God’s impending judgment.” But Noah robbed them of all their excuses.

As Christians, we should never display a judgmental spirit towards this sinful world. Except for God’s grace, we would still be in our sins. But, as light in the Lord, it is inevitable that we will expose the evil deeds around us. In Ephesians 5:3-12, Paul instructs us that no immorality, impurity, or greed should even be mentioned among us, as is fitting among saints, and no filthiness or coarse jesting. He explains, “Because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” He goes on to tell us to walk as children of Light, not participating in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead to expose them.

At the very least, his words mean that believers should be distinct from this evil world. We should not watch the same movies and TV shows that the world watches. We should not fill our minds with scenes of sensuality and violence. Someone may object, “If I don’t stay up on where the world is at, how can I interact intelligently with worldly people?” My answer: you can learn all you need by reading the reviews. When worldly people ask, “Did you see the latest [R-rated] movie?” you should reply, “I don’t go to R-rated movies.” Watch their jaws drop open, and be ready to tell them about God’s holiness and the coming judgment. If you’re thinking, “How out of it can you get?” the answer is, “Out of it enough that you’d build an ark in the desert to avoid God’s judgment if you had to!”

C. By faith, Noah became an heir of the righteousness according to faith.

The word righteous is used in two ways in the Bible. It is used of the righteousness of faith, or imputed righteousness (Rom. 3:21-4:25). When a person trusts in Christ as his sin-bearer, God credits the righteousness of Jesus Christ to his account. This is a judicial action, where God not only declares us “not guilty,” but also “positively righteous,” because we receive an alien righteousness, that of Jesus Christ. We saw this with regard to Abel (Heb. 11:4). That is how the word is used of Noah in our text.

The word righteous is also used of the right conduct that stems from being declared righteous by faith. When Genesis 6:9 says that Noah was righteous and blameless, it is referring to his godly life that flowed out of his being justified by faith. He did not find favor with God (Gen. 6:8) because of his righteous life (Gen. 6:9). Rather, because he found favor (grace) with God, he lived a righteous life.

Noah was an heir of the righteousness according to faith in the sense that he possessed the title to it, but he didn’t receive the reward of the inheritance until he died. As believers in Christ, we are heirs with Him (Rom. 8:17), but we don’t actually get the inheritance until we are with Him in heaven.

Conclusion

Just as the ark was the only means of salvation from God’s judgment for Noah and his family, so the Lord Jesus Christ is the only way that God has provided for salvation from His coming judgment on the whole world. Everyone on board the ark was saved. Everyone not on the ark was lost. Everyone who has trusted in Christ’s shed blood will be saved. Everyone who has trusted in anything else will be lost. In Noah’s day, it wasn’t a matter of being an excellent swimmer! As Bill Cosby used to tell the story, God asks Noah, “How long can you tread water?” You can’t be good enough to merit salvation. The crucial question is, “By faith have you obediently responded to God’s warning by ‘getting on board’ Jesus Christ?”

God has issued a clear warning: A “Category 5” storm of judgment is heading toward everyone who dwells on earth! The door of His ark is still open. Flee to Christ and you will be saved. Scoff at the warning and you will be lost forever. Imitate Noah’s faith and obedience. Join him as an heir of the righteousness according to faith.

Discussion Questions

  1. Faith believes and obeys God’s word. But, how can we know God’s word on decisional matters?
  2. Where is the balance between accepting God’s love and yet fearing Him?
  3. Advocates of non-lordship salvation argue that lordship salvation confuses faith and works. How would you refute this?
  4. How separate from the world should we be? What constitutes “worldliness”? Where do we cross the line?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 36: The Nitty-gritty of Faith (Hebrews 11:8-12)

Webster defines nitty-gritty as “what is essential and basic: specific practical details” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary [Merriam Webster], p. 800). If it is impossible to please God without faith (11:6), then we need to be clear on the essentials or basics regarding faith. Our text reveals some of the nitty-gritty of faith.

To learn about faith, it makes sense to go to Abraham. He is extolled in Scripture as “the father of all who believe” (Rom. 4:11). Genesis 12-25 chronicles his story. The apostle Paul uses Abraham as his prime example of justification by faith alone, apart from works (Romans 4; Gal. 3:6-18). He makes the startling assertion that it is not Jews by physical birth that are Abraham’s descendants. Rather, those who believe are the true children of Abraham. He says, “Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham…. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:7, 29).

It is not surprising that in the great faith chapter, Hebrews 11, Abraham receives more verses than any other person. His life illustrates verse 1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen.” Our text reveals three essentials of faith:

Faith obeys God’s call, lives as an alien in this world, and overcomes insurmountable problems by God’s power.

1. Faith obeys God’s call (11:8).

“By faith, Abraham, when he was called, obeyed….” In Genesis 12:1-3, God called Abram to leave his country, his relatives, and his father’s house, and to go to the land that God would show him. Genesis 12:4 records Abram’s response: “So Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him.” God called; Abraham obeyed.

A. God’s call initiates our obedience.

Before God called Abram, he lived in Ur of the Chaldees, in what today is Iraq. He was a pagan in a pagan city, descended from a line of idolaters (Josh. 24:2). He was about 70 when God called him. While people lived longer then than they do today, he was not a young man. We are not sure exactly how God called Abraham, but Stephen (Acts 7:2) states, “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran.” Apparently, Abraham obeyed God by leaving Ur, but he settled in Haran for a few years until his father died. Then God issued the call of Genesis 12, and Abraham again obeyed by moving on to Canaan.

But the point is, Abraham did not concoct on his own the idea of moving to Canaan. He was not following his own dream. He was following God’s call. God’s call was primary; Abraham’s obedience was a response. This teaches us that we should not act on our own, apart from God’s word. Faith must rest on His revelation in Scripture. Christianity is not a faith based on the religious speculations or philosophies of men, but rather on God’s revelation, recorded in Scripture (2 Pet. 1:20-21).

The word call or calling is used often in Scripture with regard to salvation, in two different ways. Sometimes it refers to God’s general call to everyone to repent and believe the gospel. In this sense, Jesus said, “For many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14).

But also it is used in a more specific sense to refer to what theologians label, “effectual calling.” Paul uses it this way in Romans 8:30, “and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” In a similar manner, he wrote that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Tim. 1:9; see also, Gal. 1:15; 2 Thess. 2:13-14; Heb. 9:15; 1 Pet. 2:9; 2 Pet. 1:3). When God calls His elect effectually, He works through His Spirit to draw them to faith in Christ (John 6:44).

It was in this effectual sense that God called Abraham to follow Him. He did not issue the call to the entire city of Ur, and not even to Abraham’s father or brother. He called Abraham specifically, and responding to this effectual call, Abraham obeyed.

B. Obedience is the response of faith.

“By faith Abraham … obeyed.” Genuine faith always obeys God. We are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is never alone. By its very nature, it results in obedience. If someone professes, “I believe,” but does not obey, his faith is superficial and worthless. For example, if you say, “I believe that seat belts save lives,” but do not buckle up and you’re involved in a crash, your “belief” was worthless. If you really believe that seat belts save lives, you will buckle up. Buckling up demonstrates the reality of your faith.

Genuine saving faith is obedient faith. Paul refers to it as “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26; see John 3:36, NASB). Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matt. 7:21). He told the Jews who claimed Abraham as their father, but sought to kill Him, “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham” (John 8:39). Obedience proves that faith is genuine.

Abraham’s obedient faith caused him to go “out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). God didn’t tell him until later that the destination was Canaan. He didn’t send color brochures picturing the bountiful harvest of the land or describing the pleasant climate. There was no home awaiting him when he arrived from the long journey. He had to leave his culture, his familiar way of life in Ur and later in Haran, his friends, his family, and his earthly inheritance. It was a long and dangerous trip, made without U-Haul or Interstate highways. But Abraham obeyed, risking everything on God’s word of promise.

Obedient faith abandons all to follow Jesus Christ. When Jesus called Levi, the tax collector, to follow Him, Levi “left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him” (Luke 5:28). The call to follow Jesus is identical with the call to salvation: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). In the context, Jesus is talking about gaining or losing one’s soul for eternity.

Sometimes a person must make a break with family, as painful as that is. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). He did not mean that we should despise or needlessly alienate our families. The Bible commands us to honor our parents and to love our families. New Christians especially need to be sensitive and show respect to family members who oppose the faith. But Jesus did mean that if our closest loved ones stand between us and Him, our choice is clear: We must follow Him.

Sometimes, even those from Christian homes face subtle or even direct pressure not to follow Christ fully. Sometimes parents want their children to get high-paying jobs (which excludes most Christian service). Some parents don’t want their children to go to the mission field, because they want them and the grandchildren nearby. But the Lord makes it clear: If it comes to love for Him versus love for family, we must follow Him.

God’s call often entails other difficulties. Remember, by God’s call, I’m not referring to some special call for service that comes only to some. I’m referring to God’s call to salvation. It may result in rejection or persecution. It will involve bringing all your possessions and money under His lordship (Luke 14:33). It requires obeying God’s Word when it’s inconvenient and difficult. It means seeking God’s will rather than your will in every decision.

Have you done that? You may be thinking, “That’s risky!” But actually it’s riskier to run your own life than it is to obey God’s call by faith. God knows everything about you. He is committed to work all things together for good for those who love Him and are “called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28; note, called). If you’re calling the shots, you don’t know what is best in every situation, and you have no ability to control the outcome of things. But God always knows what is best and He has the power to work it out for your ultimate good. Imitate Abraham, who by faith obeyed God’s call.

2. Faith lives as an alien in this world (11:9-10).

A. The life of faith is a pilgrim life (11:9).

“By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise.” This is the only verse in the Bible that refers to Canaan as the promised land. The irony is, Abraham, the heir to the promised land, never owned a foot of ground in it (Acts 7:5), except for the Cave of Machpelah, which he had to buy at full cost to bury his wife.

Kent Hughes pictures it as if God promised you and your descendants the land of Guatemala. In obedience, you traveled there, but then you had to live the rest of your life in your camper! Not only you, but also your sons’ families lived in their campers, moving from place to place (Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul [Crossway], 2:97). John Calvin asks, “Where was the inheritance which he had expected? It might have indeed occurred instantly to his mind, that he had been deceived by God” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Hebrews, p. 279). He goes on to point out that just after Abraham arrived in the land of promise, there was a famine that drove him from the land. But he returned and lived in the land by faith alone.

The application is that as people of faith, we often must live in this world with conditions that seemingly contradict God’s promises (see 11:35b-39). The “health and wealth gospel” does not square with Scripture. Sometimes God’s people face tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and even death (Rom. 8:35; see also 2 Cor. 6:4-5; 11:23-28). Paul described himself “as having nothing, yet possessing all things” (2 Cor. 6:10).

Abraham, the alien in a foreign land, dwelling in tents, stands in contrast with his nephew Lot, who moved to Sodom and lived in a house. Although Lot was a believer, he became tainted by the godless values of Sodom. Abraham, the alien, was involved with his neighbors in Canaan, but he always remained distinct.

As pilgrims, we need to adopt the mindset of pilgrims. When you travel in a foreign country, you stand out as different. They can spot you! They know that you are not one of them. You may temporarily adopt some of their local customs, so as not to be offensive, but on most things you think and live differently, according to the customs of your homeland.

As God’s people, our homeland is heaven. We’re just passing through this earth. Our mindset toward success, possessions, and purpose in life should be radically different than the mindset of the natives. The natives’ hopes center in this life only, and so they try to accumulate all of the things and engage in all of the activities that they think will bring them happiness in this life. But pilgrims’ hopes center in Jesus Christ and their eternal inheritance in Him. So they hold the things of this life loosely. They enjoy all that God provides, but their real treasures are in heaven (1 Tim. 6:17-19).

B. The life of faith focuses on eternity (11:10).

Abraham “was looking for the city which has the foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (The Greek has the definite article before “foundations.”) The city with the foundations stands in contrast with life in a tent, which has no foundation. Since God is both the architect and builder of this city, the foundations are solid and secure. It refers to the city above, the heavenly Jerusalem (12:22), the eternal dwelling place of all of God’s saints (Rev. 21).

The author of Hebrews is saying that when Abraham went out from his father’s country to Canaan, he was not just counting on God’s promise for that piece of real estate. He was looking beyond it to the promise of heaven. God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants (Gen. 17:8) and He later gave them that land (Josh. 23:13-14). But the land was never the final or full realization of the promise. It was only an earthly picture of the full promise, which is the eternal city that God has prepared for His people (11:16). Abraham viewed himself as a stranger and sojourner in the land of Canaan (Gen. 23:4). His focus was on heaven, and so should ours be.

Abraham’s life shows us that faith obeys God’s call; faith lives as an alien in this world. Finally,

3. Faith overcomes insurmountable problems by God’s power (11:11-12).

Abraham and Sarah were unable to conceive children. God promised them not only a son, but also nations of descendants. To underscore the promise, God changed his name from Abram (“exalted father”) to Abraham (“father of a multitude”). Then God promised, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings will come forth from you” (Gen. 17:5-6). But the problem was, not only were Abraham and Sarah unable to conceive children; also, they were both past the time in life when anyone normally could conceive.

There is a difficult interpretive issue in our text, reflected in the difference between the NASB, which makes Sarah the subject of the sentence, and the NIV, which makes Abraham the subject. The problem with making Sarah the subject is that the phrase “received the ability to conceive” is literally “power for the laying down of seed” (NASB, margin), an exclusively male function. Without getting too technical, probably the sense of the NIV is correct, even though Abraham is not named in the verse (in Greek). There is a textual variant that describes Sarah as “barren.” If it is original, the sense would be, “By faith, even though Sarah was barren, he [Abraham] received power to beget …” (A Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament, Bruce Metzger [United Bible Societies], 4th ed., p. 602). The final phrase would read, “since he considered Him faithful who had promised.”

This view also alleviates another problem, namely, that in the account in Genesis 18, Sarah is rebuked for her unbelief rather than commended for her faith. When the Lord confronts her, she denies, rather than confesses, her unbelief. Probably, in spite of her initial doubt, she eventually came to believe God’s promise as Abraham did. But if Abraham is the subject of 11:11, then the emphasis is on his faith, not on Sarah’s faith. There are two lessons in these two verses:

A. Rather than focusing on human impotence, faith focuses on God’s power and faithfulness (11:11).

In Genesis 18:14, the Lord rebukes Sarah’s unbelief with the rhetorical question, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” He goes on to restate the promise, that at the appointed time the next year, Sarah would have a son. She and Abraham rested on God’s faithful character. Since He promised, He would do it.

We need to be careful in applying this. It is easy to misapply promises in the Bible out of their context, and then become disappointed when God doesn’t do what we think He promised. The problem does not lie with God, of course, but with our misunderstanding of how to apply His promises.

For example, many Christians claim that if we have faith in God, He has promised to heal us from all our diseases. I have heard of these mistaken saints going to the bedside of a terminally ill Christian and accusing him of not having enough faith to be healed! That is cruel! God has not promised healing from every disease to those who believe. If He had, people of faith would live forever. I’ve never known of a faith healer that lived past 100! In fact, several prominent ones died relatively young!

At the same time, we would be wrong not to trust God to do far beyond our human abilities. Nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37). He is “able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). Our faith is not in ourselves or in our faith, but in God who is faithful.

B. Rather than focusing on answers in this life, faith trusts God to keep His word in His time (11:12).

What did Abraham get in this life for his life of faith? He was uprooted from family and friends, never to see them again. If he had a house in Ur or Haran, it was his last. He lived the rest of his life in tents, moving from place to place. He lived to see Isaac, the son of the promise, born. He lived 15 years after the birth of Jacob, but he didn’t see any of Jacob’s sons. He did not live long enough to get even a hint of the fulfillment of God’s promise to multiply his descendants as the stars or the sand. The only piece of Canaan that he owned was a burial plot. As 11:13 states, he “died in faith, without receiving the promises.”  As we’ve already seen, Abraham’s faith was focused on eternity, not on this life only.

One of the most important lessons in the school of faith is to learn that God’s time is not our time. From Abraham’s time frame, even though he lived for 175 years, God’s promises failed. He died with one son and two grandsons, hardly an innumerable nation! But from God’s time frame, the true children of Abraham, those who believe in Abraham’s seed (Christ) number in the billions! From our limited time frame, certain events don’t fit with God’s promises. But from His time frame, He who promised is faithful.

Conclusion

George Muller of Bristol exemplified the nitty-gritty of a life of faith. After being a wild youth, he was converted in his early twenties. He obeyed God’s call by living a life of faith and obedience. He lived in a manner that the world could not fathom. He and his wife sold all of their earthly possessions, founded an orphanage, and lived by faith alone, making their needs and those of the orphans known only to God in prayer. They often faced insurmountable problems that were overcome by faith in God’s power.

In 1877, Muller was on board a ship that was stalled off the coast of Newfoundland in dense fog. The captain had been on the bridge for 24 hours when Muller came to see him. Muller told him that he had to be in Quebec by Saturday afternoon. The captain replied, “It is impossible.”

“Very well,” said Muller, “if your ship cannot take me, God will find some other way—I have never broken an engagement for 52 years. Let’s go down to the chart room and pray.” The captain wondered what lunatic asylum Muller had escaped from.

“Mr. Muller,” he said, “do you know how dense this fog is?”

“No, my eye is not on the density of the fog, but on the living God, Who controls every circumstance of my life.”

Muller knelt down and prayed simply. When he had finished, the captain was about to pray, but Muller put his hand on his shoulder, and told him not to: “First, you do not believe He will; and second, I believe He has, and there is no need whatever for you to pray about it.” The captain looked at Muller in amazement.

“Captain,” he continued, “I have known my Lord for 52 years, and there has never been a single day that I have failed to get an audience with the King. Get up, captain, and open the door, and you will find the fog is gone.” The captain walked across to the door and opened it. The fog had lifted. (From, Roger Steer, George Muller: Delighted in God [Harold Shaw Publishers], p. 243.)

I wish I could tell you stories like that from my own experience, but I cannot. But George Muller and Abraham should challenge us to grow in the life of faith in the God who is faithful. Obey God’s call to salvation by faith. Live as an alien in this world by faith. Ask God by His power to overcome the insurmountable problems you face by faith.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is the call to discipleship (following Christ) different than the call to salvation? What difference does it make?
  2. Why is saving faith necessarily obedient faith? How would you answer the charge that this confuses faith and works?
  3. What are some practical implications of living as a pilgrim?
  4. How can we know if specific promises in the Bible apply directly to us today?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 37: Desiring a Better Country (Hebrews 11:13-16)

A pastor encountered three young boys and asked them, “Do you want to go to heaven?”

“Not me,” one said. The pastor was shocked. “You don’t want to go to heaven when you die?”

“Oh, when I die? Yeah, sure!” the boy replied. “I thought you were getting up a group to go right now!”

Most of us probably share that boy’s feelings about heaven. Someday, it would be nice to go there, but at the moment, we’re not interested. It’s just too nice here on earth. Besides, if we were honest, we’d probably admit that heaven seems a bit boring. Gary Larson pictured this in a Far Side cartoon. A guy with wings, white robe, and a halo is sitting alone on a cloud, thinking, “… wish I’d brought a magazine.”

But the author of Hebrews counters these disinterested views of heaven by showing that rather than settling in and feeling comfortable on earth, believers feel out of place here. They confess that they are “strangers and exiles on the earth” (11:13). And rather than viewing heaven as a nice extra thrown in after we enjoy the good life here below, he shows that believers long for heaven. “They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16). Our text teaches us that…

We who live and die according to faith are exiles on earth, desiring a better country in heaven.

The hymn writer, Henry Francis Lyte put it like this (in F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 306):

It is not for me to be seeking my bliss
And building my hopes in a region like this;
I look for a city which hands have not piled,
I pant for a country by sin undefiled.

In our day, our emphasis is far too much on the good life here and now, and not enough on the promised joys of heaven. Thus many that profess Christ as Savior live with their minds on the things on earth, rather than setting their minds on the things above (Col. 3:1-4). They are motivated more by collecting treasures on earth than by storing up treasures in heaven. Our focus is on what Christ can do for us here and now. Heaven is a nice extra, but it does not govern how we live day to day. But, it should!

As we’ve seen, the first readers of this epistle were tempted, under the threat of persecution, to go back to their Jewish religion. The implication of our text in its context is that to go back to Judaism would be like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob going back to settle permanently in Mesopotamia. God had promised them a new country, the land of Canaan. But, being men of faith, they looked beyond that piece of real estate to the heavenly country that God had prepared for them.

They all died according to faith (the literal rendering of 11:13). Faith was the dominant characteristic of their lives, right up to the point of death. None of them realized the promise of the land of Canaan, or the promise of innumerable descendants. They viewed themselves as strangers and exiles on earth. If they had doubted God’s promise, they could have gone back to their homeland. “But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16). And so they died well, “according to faith” in the yet unfulfilled, unseen promises of God. As such, they are examples of how to live and die according to faith as exiles on earth, while we pant after a better country in heaven. Our text makes two main points:

1. We who live and die according to faith are strangers and exiles on this earth (11:13-15).

These men of faith “confessed that they were strangers and exiles on earth.” This refers to Abraham’s telling the sons of Heth, when he sought to buy a burial plot for Sarah, “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you” (Gen. 23:4). When Jacob, near the end of his life, met Pharaoh, he twice referred to his life as a sojourn (Gen. 47:9). Our text brings out three aspects of this pilgrim life:

A. Strangers and exiles on earth have seen and welcomed God’s promises from a distance.

There are four implications in that sentence:

(1). We must see God’s promises.

Before we can believe in God’s promises, we must see them. Before we can see them, God must open our spiritually blind eyes (Matt. 13:11-15). As Paul explains, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” In order for us to see spiritual truth, the God who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” has to shine in our hearts “to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4, 6).

Faith, which is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9), enables us to prove the things not seen (Heb. 11:1) by bringing them into our present experience. In this way, Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ day. “He saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). A personal relationship with God begins when He opens your eyes to see His promise in Jesus Christ, that whoever believes in Him has eternal life (John 3:16). If you have never seen this, read the Gospel of John with the prayer, “Lord, open my eyes to see the glory of Jesus Christ.”

(2). We must welcome God’s promises.

Having seen God’s promises, the patriarchs welcomed them. (The KJV and New KJV add that they were persuaded or assured of the promises, but there is virtually no manuscript evidence for this reading.) They greeted God’s promises with open arms. They brought God’s promises into their lives as gladly as they welcomed guests into their tents.

Have you done that? Have you welcomed Jesus Christ into your life as Savior and Lord? Have you embraced Him as you would a long lost friend? If God has opened your eyes to your true condition as a guilty sinner before Him and to the glory of the Savior who bore the penalty you deserved, then you rush to welcome Him warmly into your life!

(3). We can only see and welcome the promises from a distance.

What does this mean? It amplifies the opening phrase of the verse, that these men “died in faith, without receiving the promises.” But, Hebrews 6:15 states, “having patiently waited, [Abraham] obtained the promise.” Hebrews 11:17 says that Abraham “had received the promises.” So, in what sense did he not receive the promises, or, receive them at a distance?

The author means that the patriarchs did not receive the total fulfillment of God’s promises in this life. They only received a taste of them. Abraham and Sarah finally received the promise of a son in Isaac. But Abraham died with only two heirs according to the promise, Isaac and Jacob, hardly an innumerable nation! Isaac owned a few wells, plus some grazing land for his flocks. But he still lived in a tent and was not in any significant way the heir of the land. Jacob died with about 70 descendants, including his sons, who became patriarchs of the 12 tribes. But they were forced to move out of the land into Egypt, because of the famine. So the patriarchs had a taste of the fulfillment of the promises, but they only welcomed them from a distance.

The same is true of all believers. God has promised us eternal life, and yet, like the patriarchs, we all die (unless we’re alive when the Lord returns). The world scoffs at an epitaph like Hebrews 11:13: “All these died in faith”! What a joke! That’s “pie in the sky when you die”! The world says (with Reverend Ike), “I want cash in the stash here and now, not pie in the sky when I die!” But, as C. S. Lewis observed (The Problem of Pain [Macmillan], pp. 132-133):

Scripture … habitually put the joys of heaven into the scale against the sufferings of earth, and no solution of the problem of pain which does not do so can be called a Christian one. We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning heaven. We are afraid of the jeer about “pie in the sky,”…. But either there is “pie in the sky” or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric.

So, we must see and welcome God’s promises, although we can only do so in this life from a distance.

(4). Seeing and welcoming God’s promises alienates us from this world.

The reason that Abraham left his homeland and migrated to Canaan was that he had seen and welcomed God’s promises. If he had ignored God’s promises, he would have continued to live in his native land, where he blended in with everyone else. But because he believed God and obeyed His call, he went out from his family and friends and “lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise” (11:9).

Seeing and welcoming God’s promises disrupted the rest of Abraham’s life on this earth. Instead of blending in, he was different now. People stood and stared at them when they journeyed past the villages of Canaan, or when they pitched their tents outside of town. “Who are they? Where did they come from? Why do they look different? Why are they here? What do they want from us? Be careful around them! They might be dangerous!”

Have you ever felt like an outsider? Marla and I have felt it when we’ve traveled in Eastern Europe. You can try to blend in, but you still stand out as different. You don’t speak their language. You can’t read the signs or the newspapers. They use different money. You stand out by your appearance. You don’t share or understand many of their customs. While the native believers are very friendly and hospitable, and do everything they can to make you feel welcome, you’re still a stranger.

As Christians, we’re supposed to feel that way about living in this evil world. We shouldn’t fit in! The world pursues different goals and pleasures than we do. The world laughs at jokes and scenes in movies that we find repugnant. The world lives for this life only, but we live in light of eternity. The world lives as if there is no God, but we live to please the God who knows our every thought and motive. The world should not be able to understand us, because we think, act, and live so differently than they do.

A week ago, on our way to California to visit my family, Marla and I spent a night in Nevada at a hotel that was part of a casino (the room was really cheap!). It was Wednesday and the huge parking lot was jammed with cars and RV’s. Inside, hundreds of mostly senior citizens sat mesmerized in front of the clanging gambling machines. Marla wouldn’t even come in with me to get the room, so I was in there all alone, feeling completely alienated from these people. Why? Because, by God’s grace, I have received and welcomed His promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ.

B. Strangers and exiles on this earth have the opportunity to tell others about our homeland.

The patriarchs “confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own” (11:13b-14). Confess refers to speech; make it clear comes from a word meaning to exhibit, and may have the nuance of lifestyle or behavior. Country means fatherland or homeland. As Paul explained (Phil. 3:19-20), we are not like those “whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things.” Rather, “our citizenship is in heaven”! Since we come from a different country, we talk and act differently than the natives of this world do. When they observe that we are different, we should be ready to tell them why (1 Pet. 3:15). Tell them about God’s promise of heaven for all that believe in Christ, so that they can join us as pilgrims journeying toward our new country in heaven.

C. Strangers and aliens on this earth cannot move back to their former country.

The author is writing to people who were encountering hardships in their new life as Christians. They were tempted to go back to their old religion. So he points out that the patriarchs could have returned to Mesopotamia if they had been looking for an earthly inheritance. The living conditions in their former homeland were probably far more developed than in the land of Canaan. If they had returned, their family and friends would have welcomed them with open arms, whereas in Canaan, they were kept at a distance. But they endured the hardships and didn’t go back because they were seeking a better country, namely, a heavenly one.

True, Abraham sent his servant back to the old country to get a bride for Isaac. But he sternly warned him not to take Isaac back there (Gen. 24:6, 8). Jacob fled to the old country for 20 years to escape from Esau’s murderous intentions. But it was never his true homeland. He told Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own place and to my own country” (Gen. 30:25).

The application is that as believers, we must make a break from our old life and from the world. We live in the world, but we cannot be of the world (John 17:14-18). Often, like Ur of the Chaldees, the world is sophisticated and modern. The church seems old fashioned and out of touch with the latest trends. Especially when we face hardships because of our faith, we may be tempted to go back to the world. But to do so would be to turn away from God’s promises in Christ. We cannot go back! Why not?

2. We who live and die according to faith seek and desire a better country in heaven, prepared by God for us (11:16).

There are four aspects of verse 16 that I can only touch on briefly: the better country; the prepared city; the desire that seeks; and, our God who is not ashamed.

A. The better country is heaven.

We cannot answer many of our questions about heaven, but we can know for certain that it will be far better than the best existence that we can imagine on this earth. Every problem that we face on this earth is the result of the fall of the human race into sin. In heaven, there will be no curse, no death, no sorrow, and no pain (Rev. 21:4). Think of all of the businesses and jobs that will not be needed in heaven! No doctors or nurses, no police or armed forces, no locksmiths or keys, no need for anti-virus for your computer!

Heaven will be beautiful beyond our imagination. Golden streets, walls and gates made out of precious stones, and the clear river of the water of life flowing through it are mere earthly pictures to give us a dim idea of how magnificent it will be. But the best part of heaven is that God Himself will dwell among us as His people (Rev. 21:3)! There will be no need of sun or moon, because the glory of God will illumine it all the time.

B. The prepared city is for us.

The better country and the prepared city are the same thing, viewed from different perspectives. This is the heavenly city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (11:10; 12:22), “made ready as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). Many Christians envision heaven as a beautiful country estate, secluded in privacy from all neighbors. But the Bible pictures heaven as a city! We think of cities as dirty, polluted, crowded, run-down places, with graffiti defacing everything. But the heavenly city will be pristine and indescribably beautiful. Earthly cities are dangerous, because of the high crime rate. But the heavenly city will be without sin. In earthly cities, you have to put up with difficult neighbors and rude strangers. But the heavenly city will be a place of close, sweet fellowship with those filled with the love of Christ. Since it will be an eternal city, we will never be pressed for time! Since God prepared it for us (the same word, prepared, is in John 14:2-3), it will be perfectly suited to all of our needs.

C. The desire that seeks heaven stems from faith.

Verse 14 says that these pilgrims “are seeking a country of their own.” Verse 16 says, “they desire a better country.” When you fall in love, you seek to be with your beloved because you desire her company. These are strong motivational words. I have seen young men in college, carrying a heavy academic load and working many hours to pay their bills. They don’t have a minute of spare time. Then, they fall in love. It’s simply amazing how suddenly they have hours every day to spend with this gorgeous creature! They seek her because of desire.

We are to seek heaven because we desire to be with Jesus, the lover of our souls. If you are not rearranging your busy schedule so that you can seek the things above, where Christ is (Col. 3:1), you need to examine your heart. You may have left your first love for the Savior, who gave Himself to secure you as His bride.

D. The God who is not ashamed of us is our God.

Because these patriarchs desired the heavenly country, “Therefore, God is not ashamed of them [lit.], to be called their God.” The idea of God being ashamed is startling! It is a figure of speech, using the negative to mean the positive, that God is pleased to be called their God. But even this is startling! When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, He said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:6; see Matt. 22:32). Even though these men were far from perfect, God was pleased to be identified with them. In fact, God is most often called the God of Jacob, who was the least exemplary of the three (Bruce, p. 307).

John writes (1 John 3:1-3), “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” Then he applies these glorious truths: “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”

Conclusion

Jonathan Edwards has a wonderful sermon titled, “The Christian Pilgrim” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 2:243-246). I put this quote under the glass on my desk, so that I can think on it often (p. 244):

God is the highest good of the reasonable creature; and the enjoyment of him is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied.-- To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean.-- Therefore it becomes us to spend this life only as a journey towards heaven, as it becomes us to make the seeking of our highest end and proper good, the whole work of our lives; to which we should subordinate all other concerns of life. Why should we labor for, or set our hearts on, any thing else, but that which is our proper end, and true happiness?

Ask God to open your eyes to the beauty of the better country, which is heaven. Ask Him to fill your vision with the beauty of Jesus, so that with the psalmist (Ps. 73:25-26), you can testify, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Discussion Questions

  1. What is worldliness? How can we avoid it?
  2. Where is the balance between being distinct from the world, and yet relating to the world enough to be a witness?
  3. How can we develop a deeper desire for heaven?
  4. What does it mean (practically) to “seek the things above” (Col. 3:1-4)?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 38: The Summit of Faith (Hebrews 11:17-19; Genesis 22:1-18)

Marla and I enjoy climbing Colorado’s 14er’s, the peaks that tower at least 14,000 feet above sea level. The views from the top are breathtaking! You get a perspective on the land below that you cannot get when you’re down there. I especially enjoy it when we are the only ones on the summit, just to sit and drink it in.

Today we are going to look up at the Mount Everest of faith. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, is the highest point—the summit—of faith in all history, except for Jesus’ going to the cross. I have never climbed anywhere near this high. I can only stand below and look up, aware of how my own faith falls far short. But from below, we can learn some important lessons, which will help us to go higher. His story teaches us that…

The summit of faith is, when God tests us, to surrender to Him that which is most precious to us, counting on Him to keep His promises.

The author’s purpose in this chapter is to show these believers facing trials that faith overcomes all obstacles, even when circumstances seem contrary to God’s promises. Faith obtains the blessing—if not in this life, in eternity—by looking to God, not to circumstances. But faith is like a muscle: it grows stronger by frequent use. Thus,

1. God will test our faith.

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac….” As Peter wrote (1 Pet. 1:6-7) to believers facing persecution, “In this [your salvation] you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Testing through fire sounds scary, but keep in mind:

A. God will test our faith, but never beyond what we can bear.

Paul promises (1 Cor. 10:13), “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” Tempted comes from the same Greek verb translated tested in Heb. 11:17. James 1:13-14 explains, “Let no one say when he is tempted [same verb], ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.”

God tests us and every testing is potentially a temptation if we yield to our lusts. But temptation does not come from God but from our sinful lusts. If we sin under testing, we cannot blame God, because He provides the way of escape for us in every testing. He knows how much we can handle.

If we fail the test, rather than blaming God, we need to examine why we failed and learn from it. Proverbs 19:3 observes, “The foolishness of man ruins his way, and his heart rages against the Lord.” Our own moral stupidity gets us in trouble, but then we’re prone to blame God. But rather than rage against the Lord, we need to accept responsibility for our failures. God tests our faith, but never beyond what we can bear. Why does He test us?

B. God’s purpose in testing our faith is not to make it fail, but to reveal the quality of our faith and to help us to grow.

His purpose in the testing is to prove to us and to others the genuine quality of our faith. Without testing, we don’t know if our faith is real. The test shows how strong the faith is. If we submit to God in the test by trusting Him, our faith will grow stronger.

When I was in college I took a course in First Aid. But in the 35 years since then, I’ve never once had to use what I learned in that course to save someone’s life. If you had a heart attack right now and stopped breathing, would you rather that I gave you CPR, or an EMT, who has done it often? I might be able to do it, but my skill has never been tested. You’d have a far better chance of survival if someone who has tested his skill at CPR many times came to your aid.

It is encouraging to realize that this test of sacrificing Isaac was not the first one that God laid on Abraham, and to know that Abraham had failed some of the earlier tests. (Maybe there is hope even for me!) God was patient and faithful to keep working with Abraham, growing his faith through repeated tests.

When God first called Abram to leave his family and his native country, he only partially obeyed. He went as far as Haran, but his father went with him. Only after his father’s death and a subsequent call of God, did Abram fully obey (Acts 7:2-4, compared with Gen. 11:31-12:4). When he finally got to Canaan, there was a famine. Without seeking God, Abram went down to Egypt, and there he failed by passing off Sarah as his sister (Gen. 12:10-20). Years later, when God delayed fulfilling the promise of a son, Abram failed by having relations with Hagar, resulting in the birth of Ishmael (Gen. 16). Later, he failed the test again by lying about Sarah as his sister (Gen. 20).

So it wasn’t as if Abraham started out strong in faith and never faltered. He had his ups and downs, just as we do. It was through the many times that his faith was tested, with some victories, but also with some failures, that Abraham grew in faith. So if you are going through a time of severe trial, take to heart Peter’s words to suffering saints (1 Pet. 4:12-13): “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.”

Abraham’s response to this extreme test of faith instructs us about how we should respond when we are tested:

2. We should respond to the testing of our faith with prompt obedience and total surrender of that which is most precious to us.

That’s easily said, but not so easily done! Note Abraham’s response to this supreme test:

A. Abraham obeyed God promptly without argument, even though God’s command seemed to contradict His promise.

Abraham, being human, must have wrestled emotionally with this horrific command. During the three-day journey to the place that God had designated, Abraham must have been tempted with thoughts, such as, “Are you sure that it was God who spoke to you? Surely a good and loving God would not ask a father to slaughter his own son! It must have been Satan telling you to do this terrible deed! After all, if Isaac is the promised heir through whom Messiah will come, it would defeat God’s purpose to kill Isaac!”

But the Bible does not describe any such struggle. Genesis simply records that God commanded him to offer his son whom he loved, and that he arose early the next morning and proceeded to obey. In Hebrews 11:17, the tense of offered indicates that in purpose and intent, he offered Isaac. He would have done so if God had not stopped him at the last possible moment (F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 308).

Let me emphasize that God has never given such a command, either before or after Abraham’s time. This was unique in all of history. Also, Abraham did not have any portion of the Bible to guide him. I presume that God spoke to Abraham in an audible voice that he clearly recognized. Today, we have God’s complete revelation in His Word. He rarely, if ever, speaks to us audibly. He never commands us to do anything contrary to His written Word. When a demented person says that a voice told him or her to kill someone, it is not God, but Satan, who is speaking! God’s commandments do not contradict His Word.

So we must apply Abraham’s example carefully, but we must apply it. The application is this: When God’s Word commands us to do something difficult or distasteful, we must obey promptly, without disputing with God. It may be the command to stay in a difficult marriage, even though you would find great relief in leaving. It may be the command to love a difficult person, or to forgive someone who has greatly wronged you. There are many such difficult commands in the Bible. We will not grow in faith if we dodge them. We must submit to God with prompt obedience if we want to go higher in faith.

Also, there are some difficult truths in God’s Word that require submission, not debate, if we want to grow in faith. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty in choosing some, but not all, for salvation causes many to stumble. They think that it contradicts God’s will that none should perish and that it violates human freedom. Because they can’t reconcile these things, they deny what Scripture plainly and repeatedly teaches, that God “has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires” (Rom. 9:18). I believe that such difficult truths are not understood primarily through logic or arguments, but through submission.

So, even though God’s command to sacrifice Isaac seemed contradictory to God’s promises and to His love, Abraham submitted himself in prompt obedience.

B. Abraham surrendered to God that which was most precious to him.

It would have been easier for Abraham if God had said, “I’m going to take your life.” And, while Abraham dearly loved Sarah, I’m sure that it would have been easier to let her go than to sacrifice Isaac. Our text uses three phrases to hammer home how difficult it was for Abraham to offer up Isaac.

First, it refers to Abraham as “he who had received the promises.” God had repeatedly promised to make of Abraham a great nation. Abraham and Sarah had waited 25 years, from when he was 75 till he was 100, for God to give them Isaac, the son of the promise. After waiting so long, with no hope of any other fulfillment, God finally gave them this special son. But now, He tells Abraham to kill and incinerate this precious son!

Second, the text says that Abraham “was offering up his only begotten son.” Abraham had fathered Ishmael, and he would have other sons through Keturah (Gen. 25:1-2, 5-6). So the term does not mean his only son, but rather, his unique son, the son of the promise. It is the same term that John uses of Jesus (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9), who is God’s unique Son in a way that no one else is or could be.

We all have hopes for our children, not only that they would be protected from danger and outlive us, but also that they might do well in life. But imagine how much greater were Abraham’s hopes for Isaac, the unique son of God’s promise, who had been miraculously conceived after all human hope was gone!

To further emphasize the difficulty, verse 18 recites the promise, “In Isaac your descendants shall be called.” How confusing this must have been to Abraham! Before Isaac’s birth, Abraham had asked God to let Ishmael be the son of the promise. God refused, saying, “No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him” (Gen. 17:19). So now that Abraham has Isaac, and the boy has grown probably into his teens, God says, “Offer him as a burnt offering!” Nothing was more precious to Abraham than Isaac, and now God asks Abraham to kill him! With the exception of Jesus going to the cross, God has never given a more difficult command to anyone!

It’s not easy to apply what I’m about to say, but we all need to work at it: God should be more valuable to me than even the most precious gifts that He has given to me. That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). In comparison with our love for Him, our love for those who are closest to us should seem like hatred.

It is so easy to shift your focus from the Giver to the gifts. You pray for a husband or wife, and after years of loneliness, God provides. There is the danger of loving that mate more than you love God! You’re childless, and pray for a child. God answers and gives you a beautiful baby. What if the Lord, in His wisdom and providence, takes that child in death? I admit that losing a child is still my greatest fear, even though my children are all adults now. But we need to face the question: If God took one or all of my children, would I bitterly rage at God? Or would I submit and say with Job, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21)?

We can even love a ministry more than we love God. It’s easy to get so caught up with advancing His kingdom that in all of our busyness, God takes a back seat to the work! I once heard the late Alan Redpath, an exemplary man of God, speak. He shared how God had struck him down with a stroke. It was at a time when the ministry was thriving and there were many opportunities. He lay in the hospital and asked God, “Why?” The Lord impressed on him, “Alan, you’ve gotten the work ahead of your worship!”

God wants the absolute first place in our hearts, even if it means offering up Isaac! It is a severe test of our faith when He takes something precious from us. Will we, like Abraham, obey with total surrender, or do we find fault with God? But, how did Abraham do this? In two words, “by faith.” Verse 19 explains how his faith reasoned:

3. Faith counts on God to keep His promises, even if it requires the humanly impossible.

Abraham “considered that God is able to raise people even from the dead, from which he also received him back as a type.” Abraham’s faith in God was so great that he thought, “If God wants me to kill Isaac, then to keep His promise, God will have to raise him from the dead!” This is amazing, in that there had been no resurrections from the dead in world history!

The Greek word translated considered comes from a word whose root meaning is numerical calculation. It came to be used metaphorically without reference to numbers to mean, a reckoning of characteristics or reasons (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Charles Scribner’s Sons], p. 270). It means to take into account in light of the facts.

Abraham did not blindly take a leap of faith. Rather, he considered God’s attributes and character. He is loving, just, and mighty. He never deceives us. He is faithful to keep His covenant promises. He had promised that in Isaac, Abraham’s descendants would be numbered. Isaac did not yet have any children, and yet God now had asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Therefore, God must be planning to raise Isaac from the dead! What logic!

Abraham’s thought process shows us how to work through any trial of faith that we encounter. Satan will invariably try to get us to doubt or deny some aspect of God’s character or attributes. He got Eve to doubt God’s goodness by implying that God was keeping back something good in forbidding her to eat the fruit. He sometimes tempts us in times of trial to doubt God’s love. That is why Paul affirms that no trial can separate us from God’s love in Christ (Rom. 8:35-39). Sometimes he tries to get us to doubt God’s sovereignty: “A good and loving God wouldn’t permit the kind of trial that you’re going through.” But, if you fall into that trap, you are giving Satan more power than he has, because he can only go as far in afflicting us as God directly permits him to go (Job 1-2).

As we’ve seen, faith is bringing into present reality the things hoped for (God’s promises). It proves things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Faith believes that God “is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (11:6). With Abraham, faith says, “Even though my current situation seems to go against God’s love and goodness, based on His covenant promises to me, I trust that He will work it all together for good for me.” Or, as Joseph said after all of the rotten things that his brothers had done to him, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

The last phrase of the verse, that he “received him back as a type,” means, “So dramatic was the sequence of events that it was as though Isaac really had died and had been raised up to life again” (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 484). This points us to the real reason that God commanded Abraham to kill his own son: It was a type of what God Himself would do with His Son on the cross.

Instead of being against God’s love, His difficult command to Abraham actually demonstrates God’s love in an unforgettable way that every parent can identify with. I never really knew how much my own father loved me until I became a dad. Then it hit me: My dad loved me as much as I love my child! And, God loves me even more than that! As Paul wrote (Rom. 8:32), “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?”

Conclusion

The September, 1930 Moody Monthly described the progress of Arthur and Ethel Tylee’s pioneering a work with the Nhambiquara Indians in Brazil. They had made some good progress in “overcoming prejudice, cultivating confidence, acquiring a smattering of their language, and giving the first demonstrations of Christian love.”

However, the December, 1930 issue reported the tragic deaths of Arthur Tylee, Mildred Kratz (a nurse who had joined the work), and the Tylees’ baby at the hands of the very Indians they loved and served. While the Tylees had made some progress gaining their confidence, conflict developed between the Indians and government workers who were attempting to erect a telegraph line through the area. Evidently the tribe’s animosity towards outsiders confused them and led them to attack the missionaries, who were easy targets as they opened their home to the Indians. Mrs. Tylee was seriously wounded, but survived. She wrote a letter on January 4, 1931, from the very place where she lost her husband, baby, and friend (in Moody Monthly [6/31]).

She began by thanking those who had faithfully prayed, assuring them that they were not at fault for the attack. Then she wrote, “We must believe that all happened according to the plan of an all-wise and loving Heavenly Father, even to the smallest detail. I do not say we must understand, but only believe.” She went on to describe the details of the attack, which left her unconscious after witnessing her husband’s murder.

Then she said, “As I came back from the darkness of unconsciousness to find myself not only without my own family but to find my entire household gone, it was to know a Father’s care so tender, so gentle, that even the intense loneliness of the first day’s separation were made sacred and hallowed. The ‘Kindly Light’ that never fails made even those days luminous with His presence. So I ask you to believe with me that no accident has happened but only the working out of our Father’s will. To you who knew and loved Arthur I beg you not to mourn him as dead, but to rejoice with me that he has been called to higher service.”

That is the summit of faith: When God tests us, to surrender to Him that which is most precious to us, counting that He will keep His promises. May we all climb higher in faith!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it important to distinguish between testing and temptation? Why is it sin to rage against God in our trials?
  2. How can we know if God is telling us to do something, or whether it is coming from some other source?
  3. Does faith mean putting our brains in neutral? How can we know when to stop trying to understand and just to trust?
  4. How can we overcome the fear that God may take that which is most precious from us? How do we process this mentally?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 39: Dying Faith (Hebrews 11:20-22)

The Puritans used to emphasize the importance of dying well. With the apostle Paul (Phil. 1:20), they desired that “Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” Matthew Henry wrote,

Though the grace of faith is of universal use throughout our whole lives, yet it is especially so when we come to die. Faith has its greatest work to do at last, to help believers to finish well, to die to the Lord, so as to honor him, by patience, hope, and joy—so as to leave a witness behind them of the truth of God’s word and the excellency of his ways … (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell], 6:946).

When he was on his own deathbed at age 52, Henry said to a friend “You have been used to take notice of the sayings of dying men—this is mine: that a life spent in the service of God and communion with Him, is the most pleasant life that anyone can live in this world.”

Facing death is the acid test of our faith. Will it sustain us at that time? As the author of Hebrews gives multiple examples of those who lived and died in faith, he briefly mentions Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. He calls attention to incidents from each man’s life just before he died. In Isaac’s case, he does not state specifically that he was near death, but this incident happened when he was very old, feeble, and blind. In the case of the other two men, the author states specifically that they were dying. In each case, as they faced death, none of God’s promises was near fulfillment. Circumstances seemed contrary to their fulfillment. These men had lived all of their lives hearing about and believing in God’s promises, but God had not yet delivered. Even so, they all died with their faith and focus on things to come, believing that God would keep His word. They teach us that…

Faith faces death trusting God to fulfill His future promises, even when circumstances seem to contradict those promises.

While there are some different lessons to be learned from each man, the author uses each example to drive home the same basic point. Each one died with faith in God’s promises, even though circumstances seemed to contradict those promises. In the cases of Isaac and Jacob, they both had many failures in the life of faith, and yet, by God’s grace, they crossed the finish line with a strong flourish of faith. They illustrate what Paul wrote (Phil. 1:6), “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” If, by God’s grace, you and I have begun the life of faith, by that same grace we will die strong in faith, testifying to others that God’s promises are true, in spite of our circumstances.

1. Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau shows faith in God’s promises, even when circumstances seem to contradict those promises (11:20).

“By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come.” The story comes from Genesis 27. Isaac was old and blind. He called his favorite son, Esau, and requested that he bring back some fresh game and cook it up his favorite way. Then he would bless Esau.

The father’s blessing involved conferring a double portion of the family inheritance on the firstborn son, coupled with prophetic words about his future. At the birth of the twins, God had directly told Rebekah (Gen. 25:23), “Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples will be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.” Jacob, the father of the nation Israel, was the younger. Esau, the father of the nation Edom, was the older. Isaac, however, had a natural liking toward Esau, whereas Jacob was a mama’s boy.

When mama overheard that dad was about to confer the family blessing on the older son, she went into action with a plan to secure the blessing on her favorite son. Whether she thought that she was rescuing God’s prophetic word from oblivion or whether she just was running interference for her favorite son, we do not know, but the emphasis was probably on favorite son. Isaac probably was not deliberately going against God’s revealed word. Rather, he probably didn’t understand the significance of that word and was just following custom with his favorite son. But he had not exerted much effort to inquire of God as to the meaning of the prophecy or how he should apply it. He seems far more interested in tasting his favorite meat than in following God’s ways.

I assume that you know the story, how Jacob dressed up in his brother’s garments and took mama’s stew to his aged father to con him and his brother out of the blessing. Being deceived, Isaac inadvertently fulfilled God’s earlier prophecy to Rebekah by conferring the blessing on Jacob.

You may wonder, “How did Isaac act by faith when he was deceived? He didn’t even know what he was doing!” But the author doesn’t go into such details or to the difference between the blessings on Jacob and Esau. His emphasis is rather that by blessing his sons, Isaac was acting in the faith that God would fulfill the prophetic aspects of the blessing in the future. To his credit, when Isaac discovered that he had been deceived, he did not revoke the blessing in anger. Rather, he seemed to realize that God’s word to Rebekah at the birth of the twins would truly come to pass. So he told Esau that he had blessed his brother and then affirmed, “Yes, and he shall be blessed” (Gen. 27:33).

Just before Jacob fled to Haran, Isaac charged him not to take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Then he said to Jacob, “May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May He also give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you, that you may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham” (Gen. 28:3-4). Jacob didn’t even have a wife, let alone a company of peoples descended from him! Neither Isaac nor Jacob owned a square foot of the promised land, except for a burial cave! But by pronouncing the blessing, Isaac demonstrated faith that God’s promises would not fail, even though there was no indication at that time that they ever would be fulfilled.

The story behind Hebrews 11:20 is not flattering to any of the participants, except for Isaac’s faith regarding things to come. Isaac seemed to be more interested in a tasty meal than in God’s prophetic word. Esau was a profane man, who had despised his spiritual heritage for a bowl of stew. Rebekah deliberately deceived her husband and encouraged her son to lie. Jacob agreed to go along with the lies, taking advantage of his blind father.

But God used the whole soap opera, with each character acting selfishly without regard for God, to fulfill His sovereign purpose. God had chosen Jacob and rejected Esau. His purpose according to His choice will stand (Rom. 9:11-13). It does not depend on people fully understanding His purpose. Isaac obviously did not understand it at first. It doesn’t depend on people obeying Him, although they should obey. But He used Rebekah’s and Jacob’s deception to fulfill His purpose. Paul relates this story and then says that God’s purpose “does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16).

The story of Isaac blessing his sons is in the Bible so that we will learn to trust God, even when circumstances seem to contradict His promises. We may look at the sinfulness around us, even of those who claim to be His children, and think, “There is no way that the Great Commission will ever be fulfilled or that the church will bring glory to God’s name.”

But God has said that there will be some from every tongue and people and nation, purchased with Jesus’ blood, gathered around His throne (Rev. 5:9). He has said that the church will be a pure and spotless bride, made ready for her husband (Eph. 5:27; Rev. 21:3). In spite of all of our shortcomings and failures, His purpose will be fulfilled. That should not cause us to shrug our shoulders in apathy or to sin that grace may abound. It ought to encourage us to be faithful in spite of disappointments with sinful people or ominous world events. It should cause us to be steadfast and immovable in the Lord’s work, knowing that our work is never in vain in the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58).

2. Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons and his worship show faith in God’s promises, even when circumstances seem to contradict those promises (11:21).

There are two incidents here, in reverse chronological order.

A. Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons shows faith in God’s promises, even when circumstances seem to contradict those promises.

This event is recorded in Genesis 48. Jacob and all of his sons and their families had migrated to Egypt to endure the famine. Joseph heard that his father was ill and took his two sons to visit his aged father. Jacob recalled God’s appearance to him, when the Lord reaffirmed the Abrahamic covenant. Then he claimed Joseph’s two sons for himself as heirs. In effect, this meant designating Joseph as the firstborn, who received a double portion of the inheritance. Reuben, the natural firstborn, had forfeited his position by having relations with his father’s concubine, Bilhah (Gen. 35:22; 49:4). So now Joseph’s two sons each receive a full portion of the inheritance.

But, when Jacob went to lay hands on the young men for the blessing, he deliberately crossed his hands, laying his right hand on Ephraim, the younger, and his left hand on Manasseh, the older. This troubled Joseph, who tried to correct his father. But Jacob replied that he knew exactly what he was doing. Jacob predicted that while both sons would be great, the younger son’s descendants would be the greater of the two (Gen. 48:19). So he put Ephraim before Manasseh.

There are three applications of this story.

(1). God’s ways are not man’s ways; God’s ways according to His sovereign choice, will triumph over man’s ways.

The natural order would have been for Manasseh, the firstborn, to have preeminence over his younger brother. But Jacob himself demonstrated the same point, that God’s choice of the younger over the elder would thwart man’s ways. In spite of human ignorance and sin to do things man’s way, God’s way and His choice always triumph.

This applies to the way of salvation. Man’s way is according to human choice and human merit. Good people who make the right choices are in; bad people who make the wrong choices are out. But God’s way of salvation is according to His choice and purpose, not according to man’s choice (Luke 10:22; John 1:13; 6:65, 70; Rom. 9:11, 15-18). As James 1:18 puts it, “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.” Salvation rests on God’s will and God’s power.

(2). As parents and grandparents, we should seek spiritual blessings for our children above worldly success.

Ephraim and Manasseh were the sons of the second most powerful man in Egypt. They had been raised in the most luxurious conditions in the world. No doubt they were personal friends with Pharaoh’s children. Servants attended to their every need. They had received the best education available at that time. They were heirs to a huge financial estate. They easily could have succeeded in whatever careers they chose in Egypt. In these circumstances, it would have been natural for a grandfather to bless his grandsons by saying, “May you prosper in Egypt even as your father has prospered. May you amass great fortunes and enjoy the best that the world has to offer!”

But instead, Jacob, the lowly shepherd, who is a pilgrim in Egypt to avoid starvation in the famine-stricken Canaan, adopts these two princes as his own and confers on them the blessing of Abraham. A worldly-minded parent could have thought, “Whoop-de-do! You’re giving them a double portion of the famine-stricken land of Canaan, but you don’t own a square foot of it, except for your burial cave! Here in Egypt, they’ve got everything that anyone could dream of having, and you’re giving them a piece of dry ground that you don’t even own to give away!”

But what was Jacob really giving his grandsons? By faith in God’s yet unfulfilled promises, he was giving the boys the spiritual blessings of Abraham, which were far better than the worldly blessings of Egypt. Even though there was not a shred of tangible evidence that God would give the land to Jacob’s descendants, Jacob believed God’s promises and handed this off to his grandsons.

It is a tragedy that many Christian parents today hope more that their children and grandchildren will succeed materially than that they will succeed spiritually! They would be thrilled to hear that one of their kids got accepted into medical school or landed a fat contract with a professional sports team. But if they heard that the kids were headed for the mission field in a poor country, they would try to “talk some sense into them.” They wouldn’t want them to “throw their lives away” with nothing (materially) to show for it. Besides, they’d rather have the grandkids nearby. That is a thoroughly worldly attitude! First and foremost, we should want our children to walk with God, wherever that may lead them in terms of a career or a geographic location.

(3). God is sovereign in assigning different gifts and places to His children, both materially and spiritually.

The story of Jacob and Esau shows that God is free to distinguish between individuals in the matter of salvation, according to His sovereign purpose (Rom. 9:10-18). But the story of Jacob blessing Ephraim and Manasseh shows that God is free to give different material and spiritual blessings to those who are His children, according to His purpose. Some are wealthy, some are not. Some have powerful spiritual gifts, but others have lesser gifts (1 Cor. 12:4-7). Each of us is responsible to use what the Lord has given us to advance His kingdom, and not to compare ourselves with others or be envious that we had what they have been given.

B. Jacob’s worship shows faith in God’s promises, even when circumstances seem to contradict those promises.

Jacob’s worshiping on the top of his staff happened before he blessed Joseph’s sons (Gen. 47:29-31). Joseph had heard that his father was near death, and he visited him privately. Jacob asked Joseph to swear that he would not bury him in Egypt, but rather in the Cave of Machpelah with his ancestors. When Joseph swore that he would do so, Jacob bowed in worship.

There is a discrepancy in that the Massoretic text, which lies behind our Old Testament, says that he worshiped at the head of his bed, whereas the LXX says that he worshiped on the top of his staff. The Hebrew language was written with consonants only until the sixth to eighth centuries, A.D., when Hebrew scholars added the vowel points. The noun in question reads bed if pointed in one way, but staff if pointed another way. Since the LXX was translated about nine centuries before the Massoretic pointing was added, it probably best reflects the original text, staff (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], pp. 4488-489).

Either way, the point is to show an old man whose body is weak, but whose faith is strong in God’s promises. Although all of his descendants are now living comfortably in Egypt, he doesn’t want to signal that that is okay. When Joseph agrees to bury him in Canaan, he worships God because he sees in Joseph’s promise a glimmer of hope that God will fulfill His promises. The staff may be symbolic for the pilgrim life that Jacob had lived as an heir of the promise to Abraham. His hope was not in this life, but in God’s promises for a better country, namely, a heavenly one (11:16). So even though he was dying as a poor man in a foreign land, he died in faith in God’s promise.

3. Joseph’s mention of the exodus and his order about his bones show faith in God’s promises, even when circumstances seem to contradict those promises (11:22).

Both things refer to the same incident (Gen. 50:24-25). As he was dying, Joseph told his brothers (fellow Jews) that God would bring them back to the land which He promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then he made them swear that they would carry his bones with them when they returned to Canaan.

Joseph demonstrated many instances of strong faith in God throughout his lifetime. He had resisted the seductive attempts of Potiphar’s wife. He remained true to God while imprisoned unjustly. His faith enabled him to interpret dreams on more than one occasion. He dealt in a godly manner with his brothers who had wronged him. He administered the food relief program fairly, without greed. But the author of Hebrews skips all of these examples of faith and picks out the one about Joseph’s bones! Why?

The main reason is that it shows us a man facing death at a time when God’s promises seemed unlikely ever to be fulfilled. God had given the promises to Abraham more than 200 years before, but here were his descendants living in Egypt, not in Canaan. They were doing quite well in Egypt at this point, thanks to Joseph. Their enslavement followed his death. It would still be over 200 years before Moses led them out of Egypt and 40 years after that before they entered Canaan. Yet Joseph made mention of the exodus, and ordered that they take his bones when they left Egypt.

By so doing, he was disassociating himself from all of his success in Egypt and associating himself with God’s people and God’s promises. He didn’t want a grand tomb in Egypt, where future generations of Egyptians could pay homage to the man who had saved their country from ruin. Instead, he wanted his final resting place to be in the land of God’s promise. His burial instructions were a strong exhortation to his people not to be satisfied with the blessings of Egypt. They should only be satisfied with God’s promises for the future.

The temptations of success and comfort are often much greater than the temptations faced by those in poverty. The poor man more readily sees his need to trust in the Lord, but the rich man can easily trust in his riches and forget the Lord. The story of Joseph’s bones should remind us not to put our hopes in material success, but to realize how empty riches are when we’re on our deathbed. But how rich we truly are if our hope is in God’s promises about eternity! What does it profit to gain the whole world and yet to lose your soul (see Luke 9:25; 12:15-21)?

Conclusion

Many years ago, a ship known as “The Empress of Ireland” went down with 130 Salvation Army officers on board, along with many other passengers. Only 21 of the Salvation Army people survived. Of the 109 that drowned, not one had a life preserver. Many of the survivors told how these brave people, seeing that there were not enough life preservers, took off their own and gave them to others, saying, “I know Jesus, so I can die better than you can!” (In “Our Daily Bread,” Fall, 1980.)

A young woman was about to be operated on for throat cancer. Her chances of survival were slim. At best, she might lose the ability to speak for the rest of her life.

“We’re going to begin now,” the surgeon told her, “so if you have anything you’d like to say….”

For a moment or two the young woman remained silent, though her mouth moved several times as if to speak. Finally, she said in a calm, clear voice, “Blessed be the name of Jesus.” I don’t know the outcome of her surgery. I do know that she trusted God’s promises, even though circumstances seemed contradictory.

Faith faces death by trusting God to fulfill His future promises, even when circumstances seem to contradict those promises. By so doing, we join Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, who all “died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance” (Heb. 11:13).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is belief in God’s sovereign election essential for solid assurance of salvation?
  2. How would you answer the charge that if God’s purpose in salvation will be accomplished, then we don’t need to witness?
  3. Should Christian parents leave a large inheritance to worldly children? Why/why not?
  4. Why must a believer’s hope be in God’s promises for heaven, not on health and wealth in this life?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 40: Faith’s Choice (Hebrews 11:23-26)

We all have to make choices in life, and often those choices result in significant consequences. In 1920, the management of the Boston Red Sox made the bad choice to sell Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. After joining the Yankees, in 10 out of the next 12 seasons Ruth hit more home runs than the entire Red Sox team! Boston had not won a World Series since 1918, when Ruth was on the team, until this week!

In 1938, Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel sold all their rights for a comic book character that they had invented for $130. The character’s name? Superman! In 1955, Sam Phillips sold to RCA Victor Records his exclusive contract with a young singer named Elvis Presley, thus forfeiting royalties on more than a billion records (Reader’s Digest [7/85], p. 173). Bad choices!

Our text tells us about two good choices that greatly affected world history. The first choice was relatively routine at the time. Two slaves in ancient Egypt chose to defy the king’s edict to kill all male Hebrew babies by hiding their son. That son turned out to be Moses, the great deliverer of his people. The second choice was that of Moses himself, and it was more difficult. He chose to give up his position of influence and wealth in the Egyptian court in order to side with the enslaved people of God. Both choices were motivated by faith and their lessons have eternal consequences for us. Both choices teach that…

The choice to obey God by faith will result in short-term suffering, but also in eternal blessings.

1. The choice of Moses’ parents to obey God by faith resulted in short-term suffering, but also in eternal blessing (11:23).

Moses’ parents are not named in Hebrews or in the original story in Exodus 2. Exodus 6:20 names Amram as the father and Jochebed as the mother of Moses and Aaron, his older brother by three years. But since the Jews often called ancestors from many generations back, “father” or “mother,” we can’t be certain that these were the immediate parents (Walter Kaiser, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 2:308). The oldest child in the family was a sister, Miriam.

The Jews had gone from the privileged position they enjoyed in Egypt under Joseph to the despised position as hard labor slaves. Because of his fear that the Jews were multiplying too rapidly, Pharaoh had issued the command to throw all newborn Jewish boys into the Nile River.

In such dire circumstances, this Jewish couple had a “beautiful” son (Heb. 11:23 is based on Exod. 2:2, LXX). Since most parents would think that every child they have is “beautiful,” there must have been something exceptional about Moses. Stephen (Acts 7:20) calls him “beautiful to God” (literal translation). John Calvin points out that since Scripture forbids us from making judgments based on external appearance, Moses’ parents must have seen something in this baby boy to make them hope that he would be the promised deliverer of his people (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Heb. 11:23, p. 292). Because they thought that God had destined him for such a great role, they defied the king’s edict and hid him for three months. That choice, based on faith, entailed short-term suffering, but eternal blessings.

A. The choice of Moses’ parents to obey God by faith resulted in short-term suffering.

Verse 23 says, “they were not afraid of the king’s edict.” So why did they hide their son if they were not afraid? Why not just take him out in public view, if they were trusting in God? Faith is not opposed to using prudence. Trusting God does not mean taking reckless chances. While they did not fear the king’s edict in the sense that they defied it, they no doubt did fear not only for the life of their baby boy, but for all their lives. If Pharaoh’s guards had caught them, they would have executed the entire family for insubordination to the king. So their “by faith” choice to hide their son exposed the entire family to the risk of death.

Imagine how carefully they had to live! If the baby cried at any time of the day or night, they had to muffle him while they tried to calm him down. They couldn’t risk having their children play with other children in the neighborhood, for fear that they would let something slip about their baby brother. If Pharaoh’s police roamed the neighborhood looking for newborn baby boys, the family sat in silent terror.

The choice to obey God by faith always involves a certain amount of up-front risk. Remember, this couple did not know the end of the story when they made their decision! They all could have been slaughtered because of what they did. Although it would have been agonizing to throw their baby boy into the river, they could have rationalized it by saying, “What else could we have done? We probably would have been caught and our whole family would have died. He would have lived a miserable life as a slave, like the rest of us. We just have to submit to the government authorities!”

But instead, they chose to obey God and risk the consequences. They feared the unseen God, who is the author of life, more than they feared the king’s edict of death. If someday our government mandates, as the Chinese government does, that we must abort all babies beyond one per family, as God’s people, we would have to risk obeying God by defying the government. It could result in imprisonment, loss of income, or other hardships, as many Chinese Christians can testify. The choice to obey God by faith often results in short-term suffering.

B. The choice of Moses’ parents to obey God by faith resulted in eternal blessings.

Their son grew up to be the greatest leader in Jewish history. He delivered the Jews from slavery. Under divine inspiration, he wrote the first five books of the Bible. The seemingly small choice to save this one little life had huge consequences for world history! We may never know what eternal blessings will flow from our choice to obey God by faith. But His blessings flow through such choices.

C. The choice of Moses’ parents was to obey God by faith.

The author states that faith was at the heart of this important decision. God often works through the faith of unknown parents or grandparents to raise up an unusually gifted leader to accomplish great things for God. Except for their well-known son, this couple would have lived in obscurity as lowly slaves. But God used their courageous faith in a mighty way. Zecharias and his wife, Elizabeth, were childless, elderly, but faithful people. God used them to bear John the Baptist and to rear him to be bold in faith. Mary was an obscure Jewish girl who was willing to believe God’s word, even though it meant ridicule for her to conceive a son without a husband. God used her to bring forth the Savior.

Years ago, I was reading the autobiography of the great British preacher, Charles Spurgeon. As I was jogging in the woods one day, I prayed a “go-for-broke” prayer: I asked God to bless my ministry as He had blessed Spurgeon’s ministry. Spurgeon was the most phenomenal pastor of the 19th century. Thousands packed his church each week. They measured attendance by how many were turned away! Thousands came to faith in Christ under his preaching. Hundreds of pastors were trained at his pastor’s college. Orphans were cared for at his orphanages. He has more books in print by volume than any other author in history, and God still uses them greatly. So my prayer was no small prayer!

But right after I prayed, the question popped into my mind, “What about John Spurgeon?” He was Charles’ father. He was a faithful pastor in a small English town. If he had not been the father of a famous son, John Spurgeon would be unknown in history. There have been thousands of godly, faithful pastors like him, but only a few like his son. The Lord was saying, “Be as faithful as John Spurgeon in shepherding My flock and in leading your family. I’ll determine whether to use you as I used Charles Spurgeon.”

As parents, we should live by faith and ask God to make our children “beautiful for Him.” At first, like Moses’ parents, we have to protect them from this evil world. We teach them His ways and pray for their salvation. Eventually, we have to launch them, trusting God to take care of them. Even after Pharaoh’s daughter rescued Moses from the river, his parents must have prayed for many years, “Lord, keep him from the many spiritual dangers in Pharaoh’s court and teach him to follow You!” Obey God by faith and entrust your children to His care. He may use them mightily for His kingdom!

2. Moses’ choice to obey God by faith resulted in short-term suffering, but also in eternal blessing (11:24-26).

There’s a lot of history packed into these three verses! I can only touch on some of the lessons.

A. Moses’ choice to obey God by faith resulted in short-term suffering.

When Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter and chose to be identified with God’s people, he chose to suffer in at least four ways.

(1). Moses chose to suffer the pain of alienation and misunderstanding from his adoptive family.

Pharaoh’s daughter had rescued Moses from death, adopted him as her own son, and raised him in the splendor of the palace. If he had even survived in his natural family, he would have been doomed to a difficult life as a slave. Instead, he grew up enjoying the most luxurious living conditions imaginable. Acts 7:22 says that he “was educated in all the learning of the Egyptians, and he was a man of power in words and deeds.”

Imagine the hurt feelings and misunderstanding that must have swept over Pharaoh’s daughter when Moses chose to walk away from everything that she had provided and identify himself with these slave laborers! Pharaoh must have been outraged when he heard about it: “The ungrateful wretch! After all that we’ve done for him!” When you choose to follow Jesus Christ, which may involve walking away from the education and comfortable lifestyle that your family has provided for you, you will suffer the pain of alienation and being misunderstood.

(2). Moses chose to suffer the loss of the world’s honors, pleasures, and wealth.

As the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses enjoyed a position of honor higher than almost anyone else in Egypt. When he identified himself with the Jewish slaves, he became the object of contempt and scorn. As a family member in Pharaoh’s court, Moses enjoyed whatever pleasures anyone could seek. He lived in luxury (picture the splendor of King Tut’s tomb!). He ate the best food available. He wore the nicest, newest clothes. If he had wanted, he could have enjoyed the pleasures of the most beautiful women in Egypt. He had wealth to buy anything he wanted or to live without working for the rest of his life. But when Moses chose to obey God by faith, he instantly lost it all!

It’s not necessarily sin to enjoy a position of honor and the comfortable life that wealth provides. Joseph enjoyed both while following God. But when God called Moses to give it up and lead Israel out of bondage, at that point it would have been sin for him to continue living as he was. Also, the Bible does not deny that sin brings passing pleasure. If it didn’t, we would not be tempted by it! But finally, it brings eternal misery. Don’t be deceived!

(3). Moses chose to suffer being identified with a despised bunch of slaves.

As the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses ran in the top circles of Egyptian society. He knew everybody who was anybody. He frequently ate at the king’s table. People sought out Moses as an influential man. But he chose to give up all that status and live among these wretched slave-laborers!

(4). Moses chose to suffer the world’s reproach.

Imagine the gossip in Egyptian high society! “He did what? Unbelievable! What an idiot!” Ridicule is a powerful thing. People go to great lengths to cover up embarrassing mistakes that would cause them shame (e.g. Watergate, or Bill Clinton’s lies about his private life). But Moses chose a course that he knew would bring him the world’s reproach!

Why would a man knowingly choose such suffering? Was he a masochist? Was he insane? No, actually he was quite shrewd. Like the man who sold everything he had to buy the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46), Moses gained something better:

B. Moses’ choice to obey God by faith resulted in eternal blessing.

Note briefly three blessings that Moses’ choice gained:

(1). Moses’ choice gained the blessing of the company of God’s people.

He chose “to endure ill-treatment with the people of God.” They weren’t much to look at—a sweaty bunch of raggedly dressed slaves. They would later give him a lot of trouble, grumbling about the conditions that he led them into. Some would challenge his leadership. Eventually their grumbling frustrated Moses so much that he sinned by striking the rock in anger, so that the Lord kept him from entering the promised land. But in spite of all the problems he experienced with them, they were the people of God. It was a far greater blessing to endure ill-treatment with them than to live in the worldly, superficial society of Pharaoh’s court. Even though the church has some difficult people in it, it’s far better to journey toward heaven with God’s people than to live among the self-seeking people of the world!

(2). Moses’ choice gained the blessing of the greater riches of Christ.

He considered “the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.” The reproach of Christ is a startling phrase! It probably means, “reproach similar to what Christ endured when He was despised and rejected by the world.” How much Moses knew about the promised Anointed One, we cannot know for sure. But Abraham rejoiced to see Jesus’ day (John 8:56). Moses knew that God promised to raise up a prophet like him, who would speak His word (Deut. 18:15). He knew of God’s promise to Eve, that one from her seed would bruise the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). He also no doubt knew that the sacrificial system pointed ahead to a Redeemer. And so Moses considered that any reproach that he endured for identifying himself with God’s Messiah was far more valuable than the worldly treasures he could amass in Egypt.

The major way to combat the temptations of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life” (1 John 2:16) is to see the infinite value of possessing Jesus Christ. When you see what a treasure Christ is, everything else fades away.

(3). Moses’ choice gained the blessing of the eternal reward in heaven.

Moses “was looking to the reward” (11:26). If this refers to some earthly reward, Moses was badly mistaken. His earthly “reward” after he gave up the treasures of Egypt was to wander in the barren wilderness for 40 years with a bunch of complaining people. The reward that he looked for was, “the better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16). When Moses appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration with Elijah and Jesus, it was his first time to set foot in the promised land. But I have a hunch that he was thinking, “Okay, nice place. Now, can we get back to heaven?” The rewards of being with Jesus in heaven are far greater than any earthly rewards. What enabled Moses to let go of all the glitter of Egypt and to endure ill-treatment with the people of God was that he was looking to the reward of heaven. Are you?

How did Moses do what he did? What is the essential thing?

C. Moses’ choice was to obey God by faith.

Faith was the only thing that enabled Moses to choose God and heaven above the treasures of Egypt. He believed God and His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But, we would be mistaken if we thought that he just closed his eyes, shut off his brain, and took a giant leap of faith.

(1). Moses’ choice of faith was carefully considered.

He made this choice after “he had grown up” (11:24; Exod. 2:11). Stephen tells us that he was 40 (Acts 7:23). Perhaps he had lived in Pharaoh’s court long enough to become thoroughly nauseated with the superficiality that he saw every day. The word considering (11:26) refers to “belief resting on external proof,” especially, “careful judgment” (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Charles Scribners’ Sons], p. 119). Moses carefully weighed in the balance what the world had to offer on one side and what God had to offer on the other side. The world’s side was momentarily attractive, but lightweight. God’s side was momentarily difficult, but satisfying in the long haul. Moses chose to believe God and reject the world. So must everyone who wants to go to heaven (1 John 2:15).

(2). Moses’ choice of faith was a critical choice with far-reaching consequences.

The crisis that pushed Moses over the line to renounce Egypt and choose ill-treatment with God’s people was when he saw the Egyptian beating one of the Hebrew slaves (Exod. 2:11). Moses’ response was not an impulsive reaction that he later regretted. He had been considering, weighing, the greater riches of Christ against the lightweight treasures of Egypt. So when the moment came, he acted decisively by killing the Egyptian and taking his stand with God and His people. That critical choice affected not only Moses, but many generations of Jews after him.

In Common Sense Christian Living ([Thomas Nelson], p. 161), Edith Schaeffer tells how her husband, Fran, came from an unbelieving home. His parents did not want him to go to college or to become a pastor. But at age 19, he tearfully chose what he believed God was leading him to do, in opposition to his parents. Years later, his parents became Christians. Fran felt that they never would have believed if his choice had been the opposite one. And, his choice led to his children becoming Christians, not to mention the thousands of people that have benefited from his many books. Your choice to trust Jesus Christ affects your eternal destiny, but it also has far-reaching consequences for your children and their children, as well as for many with whom you will have contact.

(3). Moses’ choice of faith required weighing the short-term against the long-term.

“He was looking to the reward.” Faith banks on eternity. In the short-term, Moses had to endure ill-treatment with a bunch of refugee slaves in the wilderness. But in light of eternity, as Paul put it (Rom. 8:18), “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” He also wrote (2 Cor. 4:17), “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” If you want to believe the gospel, you must weigh the passing, momentary pleasures of sin against eternal punishment in hell. Weigh momentary affliction against eternal joy in heaven. Then choose!

Conclusion

In an excellent sermon on this text (“Faith’s Choice,” in Home Truths [Triangle Press], 2:169-192), 19th century Anglican pastor J. C. Ryle lamented that there were so many worldly and ungodly persons in the church. They go through the rituals and they say that they believe, but in practice, they daily prefer the world to God. He asks why they live as they do. His answer (p. 189, his italics) is, “They do not believe…. They have no faith.” He explains further (ibid.),

In short they do not put implicit confidence in the words that God has written and spoken, and so do not act upon them. They do not thoroughly believe in hell, and so do not flee from it; nor heaven, and so do not seek it; nor the guilt of sin, and so do not turn from it; nor the holiness of God, and so do not fear Him; nor their need of Christ, and so do not trust in Him, nor love Him. They do not feel confidence in God, and so venture nothing for Him.

What about you? Have you made faith’s choice? Do you believe what God has said about sin and about the Savior? Have you weighed in the balance the treasures of Egypt against the greater riches of Christ, and chosen to renounce the world and trust Christ?

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you answer someone who said, “I want to enjoy the things of this world for a while; then I’ll trust in Christ”?
  2. How can we keep the greater riches of Christ in view when the world’s treasures parade by us daily?
  3. When is it right to defy governmental or parental authority?
  4. Could Moses have had more influence by remaining in Pharaoh’s court? When is it time to separate from worldly friends?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 41: Overcoming Faith (Hebrews 11:27-29)

Peter Cameron Scott was a gifted young singer whose dream was to be an opera star. He was on the steps of an opera house, about to answer an ad for chorus singers, when he faced the crucial decision of his life. As Ruth Tucker tells it, (From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya [Zondervan], p. 300; the following story is gleaned from pp. 300-304, and from Global Prayer Digest, 10/84):

Would he seek a life of self-glory and applause under the spotlight of the entertainment world, or would he dedicate his life to God’s service, no matter how humble and obscure the circumstances? It was a moment of crisis in the young man’s life, but the decision was final. He chose to serve God.

Scott enrolled at the New York Missionary Training College. After graduation, he sailed for Africa in 1890. His brother soon joined him, but quickly died from the harsh conditions. Peter built his brother’s coffin and dug the grave himself. Soon his own health was broken and he went to England. There his hope was renewed as he read the inscription on David Livingstone’s grave in Westminster Abbey: “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold.”

Scott went to America and recruited others to join him in the cause of reaching Africa with the gospel. With seven others, including his sister, he returned to Africa in October, 1895. In his first year’s report, four stations had been opened, educational and medical programs had been set up, and the missionaries were making progress in learning the languages.

But shortly after this optimistic report, Scott, age 29, fell ill and died in December, 1896, just 14 months after returning to Africa. Soon after, several other workers died. Others had to give up for health reasons. By the summer of 1899, only one missionary remained on the field. The area became known as “the white man’s graveyard.” More missionaries died than people became Christians during those first years. But other missionaries came, packing their belongings in coffins. The Africans were amazed by their determination. They said, “Surely only a message of great importance would inspire such actions!” In 1971, the Africa Inland Mission became the Africa Inland Church, numbering about one and a half million, under African leadership.

If time allowed, I could tell other stories of overcoming faith on the part of courageous missionaries. Our text tells of the faith of Moses and the people of Israel when they came out of slavery in Egypt. The lesson is that…

Faith overcomes enormous obstacles, enduring by seeing the unseen God.

There are three obstacles here that faith had to overcome.

The first obstacle: Powerful opposition:

1. Faith overcomes powerful opposition by seeing the unseen God (11:27).

Moses left Egypt twice: first, after he killed the Egyptian slave driver; and, again in the exodus. To which departure does this verse refer? The chronological order, along with the singular reference (“he left”) favor the first departure. But Exodus 2:14-15 says that Moses was afraid when he learned that the news of his killing the Egyptian was known, and that he fled from Pharaoh’s attempt to kill him. So the phrase, “not fearing the wrath of the king,” favors the second departure.

Those who argue for the first departure explain that Moses fled, not out of personal fear of Pharaoh, but because he was aware of his destiny as the deliverer of the covenant people (Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], pp. 497-499). I find that unconvincing. The author has already inverted the chronological order twice in this chapter (compare 11:17-21 with 11:13; also, in 11:21). A singular reference is used in verse 28 describing the Passover, even though the entire Jewish nation did it. So I understand 11:27 to refer to the exodus, when Moses courageously stood up to Pharaoh. Verses 28 & 29 refer to two events that took place during the exodus. There are three lessons in 11:27:

A. Faith often puts us into opposition with powerful forces.

From somewhere—I’m not sure where—many Christians have the naïve notion that when you yield your life to God and begin to follow His purpose, all of your problems evaporate! Maybe it’s from the “sales pitch,” “Would you like an abundant life? Follow Jesus!” People think, “Sure, I could handle an abundant life!” So they sign up for the program, only to encounter abundant trials. Life before they trusted Christ was relatively calm compared to what they experience afterwards!

The verb, “left,” may be translated “forsook” (New KJV). It refers to what we saw in 11:24-26, that when Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he forfeited the treasures of Egypt. When Moses forsook Egypt, he didn’t step into something better. Instead, he embraced a difficult situation that had no chance of success, apart from God’s power. To stand against Pharaoh was suicidal, unless God protected Moses. To lead two million people into the desert without food or water was genocidal, unless God protected them. Pharaoh was a powerful despot with an army of trained warriors at his disposal. Moses was leading a disorganized bunch of untrained, defenseless slaves. Humanly speaking, it was not even a contest.

When you believe the gospel and submit to Jesus Christ, you declare yourself to be the enemy of the prince of the power of the air, who commands an army of evil spirits intent on your destruction. That’s why the Christian life is often portrayed as warfare. Don’t be surprised by opposition; expect it!

B. Faith enables us to obey God without fear.

Moses encountered the wrath of the king. Whenever you attempt to follow God’s path for your life, someone will get angry at you. In Moses’ case, it was Pharaoh. In your case, it may be a family member, an employer, a professor at the university, or a friend. The more powerful that person is, the more difficult it is to fear God more than you fear that person. Proverbs 19:12 observes, “The king’s wrath is like the roaring of a lion.” If there were no cage separating you from the lion’s roar, it would be rather frightening! But Moses stood before Pharaoh and boldly said, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Let My people go…” (Exod. 5:1).

A. W. Pink observes, “Faith and fear are opposites, and yet, strange to say, they are often found dwelling within the same breast; but where one is dominant the other is dormant” (Exposition of Hebrews [Ephesians Four Group, CD, p. 804). Moses probably had some butterflies in his stomach as he prepared to go before Pharaoh. Martin Luther fought off anxiety at the Diet of Worms as he appealed to Scripture and said, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” Faith in God enabled these men to obey Him and overcome any fear.

Fear can come in various forms. It is not always as dramatic as Moses’ showdown with Pharaoh. As I was preparing the outline and about to start writing this message, I received a call from a doctor who informed me that my recent PSA test indicates that there is a one-in-five chance that I have prostate cancer. He recommended that I schedule a biopsy. I once wrote an article about the danger of preaching. I called it, “The Gospel Boomerang,” because you think that you’re aiming your sermon at others, but God brings it back to hit you first! He has this unnerving habit of making me practice what I preach!

How do we get the faith to overcome the fear of powerful opposition, in whatever form it appears?

C. Faith overcomes powerful opposition by seeing the unseen God.

Moses did not fear the wrath of the king, “for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen.” There is intended irony in that phrase. “No one has seen God at any time” (1 John 4:12). Moses had seen a manifestation of God at the burning bush. He spoke with God “face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod. 33:11). He would later ask to see God, and God allowed him to see His “back” (Exod. 33:22-23). Jesus told the twelve, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Thus when we are fearful, we need to draw near to the Lord Jesus by faith. “Seeing Him who is unseen” takes us back to Hebrews 11:1, that faith is “the conviction [or, proof] of things not seen.” Faith is like a telescope that brings a distant object into visible focus. If fear is looming larger than your faith, take time to draw near to God in His Word and prayer. As Paul instructs us (Phil. 4:6-7), “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Don’t leave out the thanksgiving! That’s how you express faith and submission to God in your prayers. Faith overcomes powerful opposition by seeing the unseen God.

The second obstacle: God’s impending judgment

2. Faith trusts in God’s sacrifice for deliverance from His judgment (11:28).

Moses has just endured the wrath of the king; now he has to be saved from the wrath of God. “By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of the blood, so that he who destroyed the firstborn would not touch them.” At the culmination of the plagues, God gave Moses instructions for how Israel was to observe the Passover (Exod. 12). At the heart of that celebration was the sacrifice of an unblemished male lamb. Its blood was to be smeared on the doorposts and lintel of each house. God warned that He would go through the land on that night and kill every firstborn male in homes that did not have the blood on the doorposts.

The New Testament is clear that Christ is our Passover Lamb who was slain (1 Cor. 5:7). If you have seen the Jews for Jesus presentation, “Christ in the Passover,” you know that not just the lamb, but just about every detail in that ceremony, speaks about Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross. It was at the Passover that Jesus took the bread and the wine and instituted the Lord’s Supper as a remembrance of His death. Note three applications of Hebrews 11:28:

A. All people face the threat of God’s impending judgment.

It was not only the Egyptians, but also the Jews, who faced God’s impending judgment of the death of their firstborn if they did not apply the blood of the lamb to their doorposts. Being a Jew by birth would not have spared anyone. Being a decent, hardworking person who had never committed a crime would not have gained an exception. While Moses’ faith is mentioned in 11:28, his faith did not cover all of the Jewish homes. Each home had to apply the blood as God had commanded or they would suffer the consequences.

Romans 3:23 states, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Every person is born alienated from God. Both pagan Gentiles and religious Jews are “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). Whether we recognize it or not, we all are born hostile toward God (Rom. 8:7-8). In that condition, we are a heartbeat away from incurring His eternal judgment.

Many professing Christians do not like this truth. They stumble over the idea that “a God of love would judge people who have never heard.” Moses warned Israel about the death of their firstborn, but the Egyptians had no such warning. Some would say that while it was okay for God to judge Pharaoh, since he had hardened his heart, God was not fair to strike down the sons of all Egyptians. But God struck down the firstborn in every Egyptian home, in order to make a distinction between Egypt and Israel (Exod. 11:7; 12:29, 30).

The accusation that God is not fair to judge sinners minimizes the holiness of God and the sinfulness of every person on earth. God would be perfectly fair to send every sinner straight to hell. He does not owe salvation to anyone, because none deserve it. God’s sovereign election does not keep anyone out of heaven that wants to go there, because if God left people to themselves, none would seek Him (Rom. 3:10-12). If He had not chosen us, we would have continued in rebellion against Him until the day we died. Election results in millions going to heaven who otherwise would never have gone there (see Eph. 1:4-5; Eph. 2:5; Rev. 5:9).

B. God has appointed a way of deliverance from His judgment through the blood of a substitute.

The elaborate instructions for how to carry out the Passover may have seemed like a hassle to some. For one thing, it was not cheap. Every family had to sacrifice a lamb, or if the family was too small, they could join another family (Exod. 12:4). The blood had to be applied to the doorposts and lintel. God specifically warned them (Exod. 12:13), “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”

The blood of the Passover lamb was a type, of course, of the blood of Jesus Christ. When Jesus died on the cross, He died as a substitute for sinners. As John wrote (1 John 2:2), “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” In other words, the offer is extended to every sinner, Jew or Gentile: It obviously does not mean that Christ actually paid for all the sins of all people, or else all would be saved, which Scripture plainly denies. Rather, it means that Christ’s sacrifice “extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel” (John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on 1 John 2:2, p. 173). Thus…

C. God’s way of deliverance must be applied by faith in order to be effective.

To be delivered through the Passover blood, Moses and the Israelites had to trust God’s word and do what He told them to do. If anyone disputed it by saying, “It’s not logical that sprinkling blood on your doorposts would protect your oldest son from death,” his son would have died. It would not have been enough to say mentally, “I believe,” but not apply the blood. To be saved from the destroyer, the person had to believe God’s warning by applying the blood.

The same is true with the blood of Christ. You can argue that God is a God of love, not judgment, and that you don’t need the blood of Christ to be saved. You will someday learn too late that He is a God who judges sinners. Perhaps you grew up in a Christian home and you believe in a general sense, but you have not personally fled to the cross. James (2:19) warns us that the demons also believe in that manner, but they will not be saved. Unlike the Passover, it is not enough for your father to believe on your behalf.

To be saved, you must acknowledge that as a sinner you deserve God’s judgment. You must abandon all trust in yourself or your good works as a means of salvation. And you must trust in Christ’s blood as God’s payment for your sins. Every sinner must apply the blood of Christ to his or her heart by faith to be saved from God’s judgment. Finally, there is…

The third obstacle: Overwhelming problems:

3. Faith trusts God for deliverance from overwhelming problems (11:29).

This verse shifts from Moses’ faith to the faith of Israel. I do not know why the shift did not take place in verse 28, since all Israel had to believe in the Passover sacrifice. Either way, there is a difficulty, in that as the author of Hebrews has already told us, the generation that came out of Egypt was evil and unbelieving (3:8-12). The apostle Paul explained that although all Israel was baptized into Moses, so to speak, when they passed through the sea, “with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness” (1 Cor. 10:2, 5). But here the author indicates that they passed through the Red Sea by faith.

Probably the solution is that the faith of the believing remnant is generalized to cover the entire nation (John Owen, An Exposition of Hebrews [The National Foundation for Christian Education], 7:170; Calvin, p. 299 adopts a similar solution). There is a similar situation in the New Testament when everyone on the ship with Paul was saved because of Paul’s faith, even though they did not believe God. In both cases, it was temporal deliverance only for the unbelievers. But the exodus pictures spiritually how genuine faith delivers us from overwhelming problems, beginning with the salvation of our souls. Briefly, note two things:

A. Faith does not exempt us from overwhelming problems, but rather it often leads us into such problems.

If Israel had stayed in Egypt, they wouldn’t be in the mess they were in at the Red Sea. Some of the unbelievers sarcastically said to Moses (Exod. 14:11), “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” But the fact is, Moses had not led them to the dire situation that they were in; God had led them there and He had hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would chase after them (Exod. 14:1-9)!

So by God’s direct actions, this defenseless bunch of slaves had the Red Sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s army charging at them from behind. They were doomed unless God intervened, which He planned to do. But they had to learn that salvation is completely from Him. There was no place for human ingenuity or some scheme to escape. God led them into this desperate situation to teach them to trust Him as their only option.

That’s how God grows our faith. We know in our heads that we must trust Him totally, but we don’t believe it in practice until He throws us into situations where there is no way out if He does not act. We need to learn in experience that “salvation belongs to the Lord” (Ps. 3:8).

B. God delights to turn our overwhelming problems into exhibitions of His mighty power when we trust Him.

The situation that the enemy thought would bring them an easy victory led to their defeat. God miraculously piled the water up as a wall on both sides for Israel to walk through on dry ground (Exod. 14:21-22). He moved the pillar of cloud behind them until they all passed through. Then He let the Egyptians pursue them in blind fury. They should have looked to both sides and seen the trap. But as John Owen observes (pp. 173-174), “There is no such blinding, hardening lust in the minds or hearts of men, as hatred of the people of God and desire for their ruin.” The Egyptians abandoned reason and common sense and rushed into the sea to their own destruction. And so a helpless, defenseless, unorganized band of two million slaves were delivered from a powerful, well-equipped army. Nothing is too difficult for the Lord (Jer. 32:17)!

Conclusion

So faith overcomes enormous obstacles, enduring by seeing the unseen God. “But,” you may be wondering, “what about Peter Cameron Scott and all of his fellow missionaries that died young while trying to take the gospel into Africa? Their faith did not deliver them!”

John G. Paton (1824-1907), who left his native Scotland to take the gospel to the cannibals of the New Hebrides Islands, answers that question well. As he was getting ready to leave, an elderly friend repeatedly sought to deter him. His crowning argument was always, “The Cannibals! You will be eaten by Cannibals!”

Paton finally replied, “Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is to be soon laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms. I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or worms. And in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer” (John G. Paton Autobiography [Banner of Truth], p. 56). Let’s join Paton and Moses as people of overcoming faith, who endure by seeing the unseen God!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it important for Christians to expect opposition and hardship? Why do many naively think that the Christian life will be trouble-free?
  2. Is all fear sin? Can fear and faith abide together? How can we overcome our fears?
  3. Why was God fair to judge the Egyptians without letting them know in advance? Why is He free to choose Israel (or us) as His people?
  4. Someone says, “Many Christians have trusted God and have been killed, not delivered. Why should I trust in such a God?” How would you answer?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 42: Faith to Conquer and Convert (Hebrews 11:30-31; Joshua 2:8-14; 6:2-5, 22-25)

John Gardner wrote [source unknown], “We are faced with a series of great opportunities—brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.” What disguised opportunities do you face today?

Some have trusted Christ as Savior, but have the disguised opportunity of some besetting sin that keeps bringing them down. They promise God that they won’t do it again, only to repeatedly fail. Some are engulfed by problems in their marriages, or with their kids. They don’t see any viable solutions. Some struggle daily with serious health problems or personal problems. Some face problems at work. Others wish they had work to have problems with! They struggle to make ends meet. Some have drifted into worldliness and spiritual apathy, but they don’t even realize that they have a problem. Churches have problems, too, which are a conglomerate of all of the problems of their members.

As a leader in Israel after Moses’ death, Joshua had a pile of disguised opportunities. He had to lead this fledgling nation of refugee slaves out of 40 years in the wilderness, across the Jordan River, and into the promised land that happened to be filled with evil, violent giants. The first disguised opportunity was to conquer the fortified city of Jericho. God gave Joshua the plan for victory. By faith, the walls of that fortress crumbled.

Meanwhile, inside the city, a prostitute had a huge disguised opportunity. She had heard of how God had miraculously delivered this people from Egypt 40 years before. She heard how they had defeated two powerful kings across the river. She knew that her city was next and that she and all of her family would perish, unless somehow the God of the Jews—the God of heaven and earth—intervened on their behalf. Then the impossible happened—two spies from that feared people came to lodge with her. She hid them from the authorities and they promised to spare her family and her, if she followed their directions. By faith, she and her family did not perish when her city was destroyed. These two stories that took place during the conquest of Jericho illustrate how…

God conquers our powerful enemies by faith and converts hopeless sinners by faith.

1. God conquers our powerful enemies by faith (11:30).

Faith is not some magical force. Rather, faith links us with the unseen God, who spoke the universe into existence. Faith is the channel through which God’s blessings flow to us.

Jericho was the first obstacle of many that Joshua and the army of Israel faced in conquering Canaan, which God had promised to their forefather, Abraham. As he was pondering how to take this walled city, the Lord appeared to Joshua in human form as the captain of the Lord’s army and revealed to him the plan for victory (Josh. 5:13-6:5). The Israelites were to march silently around the city once a day for six days with the tabernacle, while seven priests blew on rams’ horns. On the seventh day, they were to circle the city seven times. When Joshua gave the signal, the priests were to blow the rams’ horns and the people were to shout. The walls of the city would crumble and the Israeli soldiers would march straight into the city and take it.

There are many lessons in that story, but I focus on five:

A. Salvation brings us into conflict with powerful enemies.

We saw this with Israel and Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. But it bears repeating. Salvation does not insulate you from huge problems. Rather, it often brings you into conflict with problems that didn’t even bother you before you were saved. Before you were saved, selfishness, pride, greed, lust, and many other sins didn’t trouble you. You may even have thought that some of them were virtues! But then you get saved and realize that there are many fortified cities that must be conquered, and many of them are entrenched in your heart!

Not only do you face these enemies within, but now you face enemies from without that previously caused you no problems. Family members don’t like your newfound faith, because it threatens their favorite sins. Bosses don’t like the fact that you won’t help them cheat to make a profit. Former friends malign you because you won’t join them at their corrupt parties (1 Pet. 4:3-4).

B. God’s way of victory over these enemies accentuates His power and our weakness.

Marching your army around a walled city for seven days while blowing trumpets is not a sensible plan for victory! It must have seemed silly to many in Israel and to everyone inside Jericho. If Joshua had held meetings with his top commanders, none of them would have suggested this plan. One might have argued for a direct assault, with siege ramps and battering rams to overpower the city. Another may have suggested waiting it out until the city was starved into submission. But no one would have suggested doing what God commanded Joshua to do.

Why did God choose this strange approach? I think that He wanted to teach Israel a major lesson at the outset of their conquest of Canaan: Victory over powerful enemies comes when we do not trust in ourselves, but trust totally in the Lord. The repeated trips around Jericho served to drive home the lesson, “You cannot conquer this city in your strength. You must trust in My power.”

Often our problem is not that we are too weak, but that we think that we are strong in ourselves. Because we’re so prone to pride, if God granted us victory, we would take at least some of the credit for ourselves. So God’s plan for victory humbles our pride by accentuating His power and our weakness.

You see this in the story of Gideon and his army trying to conquer the hordes of Midianites (Judges 6-7). He rallied an army of 32,000 men against 135,000 enemy troops, but God told Gideon that he had too many soldiers, not too few. If they won, they would boast in their victory (Judges 7:2). So, Gideon sent home 22,000 warriors who were afraid. But God said, “You’ve still got too many.” So Gideon weeded them out until he was left with 300 soldiers. Finally, being weak enough, God could grant them victory and they would give Him the glory!

Paul entreated the Lord to take away his thorn in the flesh, but the Lord told him that His power is perfected in weakness. Paul testified, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Hudson Taylor said that when God wanted to open inland China to the gospel, He looked around for a man weak enough for the task.

So God’s means for victory always involves faith, because faith acknowledges our inability and God’s total ability (see 2 Chron. 20:1-12). Faith humbles our pride and exalts God’s glory.

C. Faith must obey God implicitly.

Faith and obedience are inseparable, just as unbelief and disobedience go together. Genuine faith always obeys God. Israel could have said, “That’s an interesting plan, Joshua, and we believe that God could do it that way. But we’re going to try a more sensible approach.” That would have been faithless and disobedient.

To obey God, they had to march silently around the city once a day for six days. The seventh day, when Joshua told them to march around it seven times, there may have been some groans. Each time around the city took between 30 minutes to an hour (depending on whom you read), so the seven times took at least three and a half hours. By the seventh day, some could have been grumbling under their breath, “This is dumb. Nothing has happened yet.” But if any said that, it is not recorded. They obeyed what God had commanded. When they shouted, the walls miraculously came crashing down.

There are two factors involved in such obedience:

(1). To obey God, we must know what His Word says about our situation.

God had appeared visibly and spoken audibly to Joshua. While I often wish that He would do that today (I’d settle for the audible voice!), such direct communication from God is very rare. How does God speak to us? He “has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:2), and the sum of His word to us is recorded in the Bible. While sometimes it is difficult to know how the Bible applies to our specific problem, it is obvious that we cannot obey His Word unless we know what it says and how it applies. Yet I’ve often seen Christians who are disobeying the clear commands of God’s Word, but they wonder why God isn’t blessing their lives!

(2). Knowledge of God’s Word must be followed by obedience, no matter how much it goes against conventional wisdom.

God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor are our ways His ways (Isa. 55:8). Moses’ leading two million refugee slaves down to the Red Sea, with no way of escape from Pharaoh’s army, was not in line with conventional wisdom. But he did it in direct obedience to God. Taking the same group out into the barren wilderness seemed like a sure formula for major disaster, but God had commanded him, and Moses obeyed.

Conventional wisdom says, “You can’t get ahead in your business unless you cheat your customers and lie to the IRS.” Faith obeys God, even if it leads to financial loss. Conventional wisdom says, “Everyone sleeps together before marriage. How else will you know if you’re compatible? Besides, God will forgive.” Faith says, “I’m going to obey God. I won’t compromise, even if other Christians are doing it.” Faith obeys God.

D. Faith must wait upon God.

Why didn’t God say, “March around Jericho once, blow the trumpet and shout! The walls will fall down”? Every night they marched back to camp thinking, “We didn’t accomplish anything today!” Each day tested their faith, and each day that victory was delayed, the test increased in intensity. Perhaps they heard jeers from those on the wall who were watching this futile daily parade. The jeers tempted them to take action to silence these scoffers. But they had to wait for God’s timing. Finally,

E. Faith must wait on God expectantly.

They believed that God was going to act when they obeyed. There is no record that Joshua told them in advance what was going to happen. They just knew that he knew what God had commanded, and they obeyed. But when he told them to shout, they shouted expectantly, and God caused these impenetrable walls to crumble. Even though faith waits, faith waits expectantly, knowing that God will act in His power in His time.

But while Israel was marching around Jericho that week, another drama was taking place inside one house in the city. A prostitute named Rahab was crowded into her house with her extended family, waiting anxiously to see what would happen. Her story, condensed into one verse, shows us that…

2. God converts hopeless sinners by faith (11:31).

Rahab’s story is a wonderful exhibit of God’s grace! It contains seven lessons that I can only touch on briefly:

A. Rahab was an unlikely candidate for salvation.

From a Jewish perspective, Rahab had three strikes against her: she was a woman; she was a Canaanite; and, she was a prostitute. Except for Abraham’s wife, Sarah, Rahab is the only woman mentioned by name in Hebrews 11. Jewish men would sanctimoniously pray, “Lord, I thank You that You didn’t make me a Gentile or a woman!” But God saw fit to save this Gentile woman.

But not only was Rahab a Gentile woman, she was also a prostitute. From early times, many commentators have tried to dodge this, saying that she was only an innkeeper. But the Hebrew and Greek words are clear: she was a prostitute. (There is a different Hebrew word for temple prostitutes.) I’ve wondered why these spies would go to a prostitute’s house. Thomas Aquinas (cited by Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 503) explained that they did not go there to sin, but because it was a good hiding place. Such houses are open, especially at night, when the men arrived (Josh. 2:2). Harlots receive their guests without discrimination or asking many questions. The king of Jericho seemed to accept as normal that these men would visit her in the night and leave almost as quickly as they had come.

But behind all of the spies’ reasons for going to Rahab’s house was God’s providence. Even though Rahab was an unlikely candidate for salvation, God’s grace had reached down to her. The fact that she is called “Rahab, the harlot,” even after her conversion, underscores God’s abundant grace toward sinners. The spies did not know when they went there that God had a mission for them besides spying, but He did. Sometimes we go somewhere on some errand, but God has another purpose, to use us to lead to salvation someone whom we would call an unlikely candidate.

I once met a man who had been a full-blown hippie, living with his girl friend and doing drugs. One morning he was driving in a remote canyon in Southern California when his muffler fell off his car. It happened in front of the house of a pastor, who had prayed with his wife that morning, “Lord, give us an opportunity to share the gospel with some lost soul today.” That unlikely candidate for salvation met Christ that day because God caused his muffler to fall off right at that place in the road!

B. Rahab’s faith saved her from perishing.

God commanded Israel to kill everyone in Jericho. Modern critics, who must be wiser than God, think that God was cruel (or Joshua was mistaken) to order the extermination of everyone in Canaan. But God had given the Canaanites 400 years to fill up the measure of their sin (Gen. 15:13-16). For 40 years, they had heard how God delivered Israel from Egypt through the Red Sea. For several years, they had heard how God had defeated the Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, on the other side of the Jordan. For seven days, they had watched Israel march around their city. But did they repent of their sins? Only Rahab did, and perhaps her family.

Rahab could have complained that God was unfair to judge her city. She no doubt lost many friends in the conquest. But instead, she knew that she deserved death for her evil lifestyle. She knew that the Lord, God of Israel, is “God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). Although the entire city trembled with fear of the impending attack (Josh. 2:11), their fear did not lead to repentance and faith. Rahab’s fear led her to turn from her sin and to believe in God. By faith, she “did not perish along with those who were disobedient” (Heb. 11:31).

Many think, probably correctly, that Rahab had come to faith in God before the spies arrived at her house. When God providentially brought the spies to her house, she saw it as the means of deliverance for herself and for her family. Although she did not understand much theology, she had enough faith in the one true God to save her. Her past life of sin did not disqualify her from salvation. God delights to save notorious sinners for His glory!

C. Rahab’s faith separated her from her disobedient contemporaries.

Those who perished are called disobedient (Heb. 11:31). They were not “basically good people.” They had heard of God’s power, but they refused to submit to Him. They erroneously thought that their walled city would protect them. To be saved, Rahab had to break away from her people, her culture, and her source of income. Although that is never easy and she must have wrestled with her decision, by faith she made the break.

We are not told whether she warned her fellow citizens of the coming judgment, or whether they mocked her for holing up in her house while Israel’s armies strangely marched around the town. But it is still true today: saving faith means making a distinct break from this evil world, so that we often stand out as weird in their eyes.

D. Rahab’s faith was an obedient faith.

James 2:25 lists Rahab next to Abraham as one who was justified by works. James is not denying justification by faith alone, but rather is making the point that genuine faith always results in good works. Her faith led her to hide the spies and send them away secretly, even though it put her life at great risk. She had to obey the explicit instructions that the spies gave her, to put the scarlet rope in her window and to have all of her family inside the house with her, in order for them to be saved. It may have seemed silly to them to watch Israel marching silently around the city for 13 times. They may have been tempted to join others on the wall shouting insults to the troops below. But they obeyed and they were saved.

Granted, Rahab’s faith was not perfect in obedience. She was a pagan woman from a pagan culture, and it was a difficult situation when the king’s messengers came to her house looking for the two spies, so she lied. Lying is sin, even when it is for a good cause. But God was gracious to take Rahab’s obedient faith as seen in her welcoming the spies, and overlook her lie. If you will come to Christ in faith, just as you are, He saves you and then begins to work His holiness into your life.

E. Rahab’s faith resulted in the salvation of her pagan family.

We do not know for certain that her family was saved spiritually, although I think it is probable. But we do know that they were saved physically from destruction at Jericho, and they became a part of the people of God. Presumably they not only learned about the true God of Israel, but also came to believe in Him personally. God can use the salvation of an unlikely person, like Rahab, to reach an entire family through her faith.

F. Rahab’s faith brought her into covenant with God and His people.

James Boice (Joshua: We Will Serve the Lord [Revell], p. 45) points out that Rahab actually became more Jewish than many of the Jews by birth, in that she believed God, whereas they did not. Matthew Henry (Matthew Henry’s Commentary [Revell] VI:950) comments, “A true believer is desirous, not only to be in covenant with God, but in communion with the people of God, and is willing to cast in his lot with them, and to fare as they fare.” Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:5-6) includes the surprising fact that Rahab married a Jewish man, Salmon, and they had a son, Boaz, who married Ruth. Their son, Obed, was the father of Jesse, the father of David. So Rahab, the harlot, became an ancestor of Jesus Christ! What a great testimony of God’s abundant grace!

G. Rahab’s faith changed her life from futility to fruitfulness.

Prostitution is never glamorous. It is ugly. Men pay to use a woman’s body, with no regard for her as a person. Prostitutes are never respected for what they do. When their bodies become too old to be attractive, they are out of work, lonely, and unloved.

But God reclaims the lives of the worst of sinners who turn to Him in repentance and faith. Rahab married and became a mother and grandmother. She became a partaker of all of Israel’s spiritual privileges, and even became linked to Christ Himself! Any life outside of Christ is futile and headed for eternal destruction. Any life that God saves by His grace through faith becomes fruitful and headed for eternal glory.

Conclusion

Jericho is a picture of this evil world, opposed to God. Either you are by faith on God’s side, with some “Jericho’s” in your life that you need to conquer. Or, you are comfortably living in Jericho, thinking that you are safe. But you’re headed for destruction, whether you know it or not.

Whichever describes your situation, the key to victory is faith. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His death on the cross in your place will deliver you from the coming destruction. If you’re in God’s camp, faith in His mighty power will give you victory over the intimidating enemies that threaten to destroy you. What great opportunities, disguised as insoluble problems, do you face? God has whatever resources you need to overcome them. Trust Him!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why doesn’t God grant instant deliverance from our problems? Why do some problems linger on for years?
  2. How can we know God’s will in specific problem situations?
  3. How can we get faith when we lack faith? Where is the heart of the problem of unbelief?
  4. Must sinners clean up their lives before they can be saved? Where does repentance fit into the process?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 43: Faith’s Reward (Hebrews 11:32-40)

In 1987, Marla and I went to the Far East, where I spoke to some people who were teaching English in China. We took a side trip to Macao, which had not yet gone back under Chinese rule, to visit some missionary friends. Through an interpreter, we chatted with two brave young Chinese women, who each week risked imprisonment or worse by traveling into China for ministry purposes.

I asked them if they had ever heard of a false teaching that has plagued American churches, called “the health and wealth” gospel. It is the teaching that it is God’s will for His children to be healed of every disease and to be rich. If you lack these things, it is because of your lack of faith. One of the women laughed softly when she heard this, shook her head and said, “No, I don’t think that Chinese Christians would believe that!” Chinese Christians know that following Jesus Christ is more likely the path to hardship and persecution than to health and wealth.

The current The Voice of the Martyrs magazine (Nov., 2004) has an article on a 34-year-old Chinese woman who was arrested in June for distributing Bibles and gospel tracts. The authorities kicked her, tore out some of her hair, and beat her to death. They reported that she died of a “sudden disease.” She joined the company of many of those chronicled in our text.

The author of Hebrews sounds like a preacher with his eye on the clock. He could say far more, if time allowed. But instead, he simply lists a few names without comment and then describes the experiences of others, without naming them. Some won great victories by faith. Others suffered horrible torture and death by faith. While all of them gained approval (or, testimony; our word martyr comes from the Greek word) by their faith, they did not receive the promise that we have received. The author is trying to steel his readers to be faithful to Christ in the face of looming persecution. His message is much needed because of the human tendency to use faith in Christ as the means to personal comfort and happiness. But when trials come, faith is abandoned. His message is that…

Faith trusts God in spite of results, looking to the final reward.

The text falls into three sections. In 11:32-35a, he shows how sometimes God blesses those who trust Him with spectacular results. But without even catching his breath, in the middle of verse 35 he shifts direction to show (11:35b-38) that sometimes God blesses those who trust Him with the grace to endure horrible persecution without wavering. He concludes (11:39-40) by showing that God will bless all who trust Him with eternal rewards.

1. Sometimes God blesses those who trust Him with spectacular results (11:32-35a).

Time would fail me if I went into detail on every person listed here, so I will summarize this section under two points:

A. Faith enables flawed people to accomplish great things for God.

The author (11:32 tells us that he was a man, since “me” is qualified by a masculine participle in Greek) lists four men from the period of the Judges, followed by David, Samuel, and the prophets. He does not list them in chronological order, in that Gideon followed Barak, Samson followed Jephthah, and David followed Samuel. No one knows why he chose this order; perhaps he was just rattling off the names spontaneously.

The interesting thing is that the first five men all had some serious shortcomings, but in spite of these flaws, God honored their faith. Gideon at first was cowardly and had to be coaxed to do what God called him to do. After his amazing victory with 300 men over the Midianite army of 135,000, he made an ephod that lured Israel into idolatry (Judges 8:24-27). Yet in spite of his failures, the author names him as a hero of faith.

Barak won a great victory for Israel over an army that had 900 chariots, but he only did it at the prodding of a woman, Deborah. Samson routed the Philistines on numerous occasions, yet he was tripped up by his lust for foreign women. Jephthah, the son of a harlot, was at first driven away by his half-brothers. But later, the elders of his home town pled with him to return and lead them in battle against the enemy. He won a victory, but then made a rash vow to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house when he returned from battle. His only daughter came out to greet him, and he foolishly kept his stupid vow.

David was a man after God’s heart, who had great faith even as a teenager, when he defeated Goliath. But he later committed adultery and then murder to cover his tracks. Even Samuel, although a godly man himself, failed to raise his sons to follow the Lord (1 Sam. 8:1-3). Samuel was regarded as the first of the prophets, and so the term covers everyone from his day down to Malachi. As a whole, they boldly spoke God’s truth, and often suffered for it. But overall, put the men of verse 32 into a scale and it tips towards those who had glaring flaws. But in spite of these flaws, God used them because they trusted Him in some challenging situations.

We would apply this improperly if we shrugged off our sins and shortcomings as no big deal. We should be confronting our sins, growing in holiness and maturity. But this list should encourage us with the fact that God uses imperfect people who trust in Him. While we should never justify our sins, we don’t have to wait until we are sinlessly perfect (which is never!) to serve the Lord.

This is one of the benefits of reading Christian biographies. If a biography is written well, it does not portray the person as if he or she walked on water. It lets you see the imperfections, immaturity, and blind spots of people who did great things for God because they trusted in Him.

William Carey, “the father of modern missions,” had an illiterate wife who defiantly refused to go to India with him. He was going to go without her, but his departure was delayed by some problems. He and his traveling companion returned to his house, where his companion laid a guilt trip on Carey’s wife. He warned her that if she didn’t accompany them, her family “would be dispersed and divided forever—she would repent it as long as she lived” (Mary Drewery, William Carey [Zondervan], p. 52). She fearfully went with them, only to be bitterly unhappy and finally to go insane in India. Carey himself was an overly indulgent father who did not correct his children (Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya [Zondervan], p. 119). After seven years of labor in India, he could not claim a single Indian convert (ibid., p. 117). Yet God used William Carey in an extraordinary way in spite of his faults.

B. Faith enables us to accomplish things that are explainable only by God’s power.

By faith, the men listed and others who go unnamed, “conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection;…” (11:33-35a). The only “routine” things on the list are “performed acts of righteousness” (NIV = “administered justice”) and “obtained promises” (depending on what those promises are). The rest of the list includes things that are quite impressive, if not totally miraculous.

But one thing on the list is common to everything accomplished by faith: “from weakness were made strong.” Faith requires recognizing our weakness, but at the same time, laying hold of God’s strength. As Jesus said (John 15:5), “… apart from Me you can do nothing.” The apostle Paul, who on the surface seems to be a competent, powerful man, confessed (2 Cor. 3:5), “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.” He further explained (2 Cor. 4:7), “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” That is why he taught that the Christian must walk by the Spirit, who produces His fruit in our lives (Gal. 5:16, 22-23).

Every Christian who has accomplished great things for God has known this truth as the very foundation of what they did. Robert Morrison, a pioneer missionary to China (we saw his grave in Macao), was asked, “Do you really expect to make an impact on that great land?” He replied, “No sir, but I expect God to” (source unknown). George Muller’s biographer wrote of him, “Nothing is more marked in George Muller, to the very day of his death, than this, that he so looked to God and leaned on God that he felt himself to be nothing, and God everything” (A. T. Pierson, George Muller of Bristol [Revell], p. 112). Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to inland China, said, “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on God being with them” (source unknown).

William Carey was a cobbler by trade. Most churchmen in his day believed that the Great Commission had been given only to the apostles, and thus they had no vision for “converting the heathen.” But Carey came to the revolutionary idea that foreign missions were the central responsibility of the church. He wrote a book promoting that thesis, and he spoke to a group of ministers, challenging them to the task of missions. In that talk, he made the now-famous statement, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God” (Tucker, p. 115).

The mission he established in India was plagued by huge problems, not the least of which was an associate who mismanaged mission funds and made many enemies because of unpaid debts. As mentioned, Carey had major family problems. Yet during his years in India, he translated the Bible into three languages, supervised and edited translations into 36 languages, produced a massive Bengali-English dictionary, pioneered social reform, planted churches, engaged in medical relief, founded the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India, founded a college and other schools, and served as professor of Sanskrit, Bengali, and Marathi (J. D. Douglas, ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church [Zondervan], p. 192)! He was a weak cobbler made strong through faith in a mighty God.

What are you trusting God for right now that is beyond your comfort zone or human ability? Are you praying for God to do anything that, if He did it, there could be no human explanation for it? Faith always involves the risk of putting yourself into a situation where, if God does not come through, you will fail miserably. This is not to imply that we should be sloppy about preparation or planning. There is nothing spiritual about spontaneity. But it is to say that after all of our plans and preparation, we should be praying, “God, if You don’t work, this whole thing is going to be a colossal failure!” Like Peter stepping out of the boat onto the water, we should be very much aware that if He doesn’t hold us up, we’re going to drown! Pray with me that God would accomplish things through this church that can only be explained because He did it.

Before you launch out on something grandiose, like reaching the Arab world for Christ, start on the personal level. These heroes conquered kingdoms by faith—have you conquered your anger or lust by God’s power? These heroes “performed acts of righteousness,” or “administered justice” by faith. Have you applied your faith to your daily job or routine, so that you reflect God’s righteousness by your integrity and honesty? These heroes “obtained promises” by faith. Do you claim God’s promises for the problems that you face in your personal and family life?

So the first part of the list teaches us that sometimes God blesses those who trust Him with spectacular results. Even though they are flawed people, God uses those who trust Him to accomplish things that are explainable only by His power. That part of our text is exciting. But we must keep reading:

2. Sometimes God blesses those who trust Him with the grace to endure horrible trials without wavering (11:35b-38).

“Women receiving back their dead by resurrection” is the apex of the spectacular. It doesn’t get any more impressive than that! Yet without skipping a beat, the author continues (11:35b-38), “and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted [this has weak manuscript support and may not be original], they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.”

After reading the first part of the list, you want to say, “These guys on the second half of the list must not have had faith, right?” But the author continues (11:39), “And all these, having gained approval through their faith,…” Those on the second half of the list were just as much people of faith as those on the first half! In fact, you could argue that they had greater faith, because it’s not as easy to trust God when you’re being scourged, stoned, or sawn in two as it is when you’re seeing foreign armies put to flight and the dead raised to life. While all of us, if we could, would sign up to be in the first group, we need to recognize that sometimes God is pleased to withhold spectacular results and bless us instead with His grace as our sufficiency in overwhelming trials (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

With one exception, many names could fit into the various categories on this list of persecutions. That exception is “sawn in two,” which is not in the Bible. Tradition says that the wicked King Manasseh killed the prophet Isaiah by sawing him in two. A Jewish work, The Martyrdom of Isaiah, recounts this terrible ordeal, saying, “Isaiah neither cried aloud nor wept, but his lips spoke with the Holy Spirit until he was sawn in two” (in Philip Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 514).

The description of some being tortured, not accepting their release, may refer to two incidents during the reign of terror of the wicked Antiochus Epiphanes (reported in the apocryphal 2 Maccabees 6 & 7). In the first, an old teacher of the law, Eleazar, was forced to open his mouth to eat pork. But, “preferring an honourable death to an unclean life, he spat it out” (2 Macc. 6:19, New English Bible). They then stretched him on a rack and flogged him.

At one point, they offered that he could eat clean meat, but pretend that it was the pork that the king had ordered. He replied, “Send me quickly to my grave. If I went through with this pretence at my time of life, many of the young might believe that at the age of ninety Eleazar had turned apostate. If I practised deceit for the sake of a brief moment of life, I should lead them astray and bring stain and pollution on my old age. I might for the present avoid man’s punishment, but, alive or dead, I shall never escape from the hand of the Almighty” (6:24-27). In the other incident, seven sons of one woman were tortured and killed in front of her for refusing to eat pork.

Our text refutes the health and wealth heresy, to say the least! It shows us the fierce opposition that Satan has towards the faithful people of God. It reveals the irrational evil that consumes wicked people to inflict such atrocities on the godly. And, it should encourage us to endure rejection, ill-treatment, injustice, and even torture and death, if need be, for the sake of the gospel. Although, like the Hebrews (12:4), we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in our striving against sin,” it may come to that. If we do suffer for the sake of Christ, we will join a great company of God’s people down through history “of whom the world was not worthy” (11:38).

The last two verses of the chapter show us that…

3. God will bless all who trust Him with eternal rewards (11:39-40).

“All these” refers to both groups. They all gained approval (or “a testimony”) through their faith, yet none received “the promise” (literal translation). Abraham received the promise of Isaac (11:17). Others “obtained promises” by faith (11:33). But none received the promise, which refers to Christ. They saw Him from afar in types and shadows, but we see Him clearly revealed in the New Testament. Most of them were under the old covenant, but God “provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.” That something better is the new covenant in Christ’s blood. The old covenant with its sacrifices could not make the worshipers perfect (10:1). But the new covenant has sanctified us “through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10). The Old Testament saints were saved, but their salvation was not complete until the cross. Ours is complete because Jesus is the perfect sacrifice.

The author’s point is that if the Old Testament saints were faithful through all of these trials, even though they didn’t receive the promise of Christ in the flesh, how much more should we be faithful, since we have Christ! John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 308) put it, “A small spark of light led them to heaven; when the sun of righteousness shines over us, with what pretence can we excuse ourselves if we still cleave to the earth?”

Any yet, although we have the promise of Christ, we do not yet have the full experience of the glory that is to be revealed with Him in heaven. And so we must, like the Old Testament saints, live by faith in God’s promise as we await the final consummation when Jesus returns. We must endure whatever trials come, even persecution, by fixing our eyes on Jesus (12:1-3).

Conclusion

Let me sum up this section with four applications. I cannot expand on these, but I encourage you to think about how they apply more extensively to your life:

(1) Faith is ready to sacrifice present comfort for future reward with Christ. Faith recognizes that this life is very short in comparison with eternity. With Paul, faith recognizes that “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). In Paul’s case, this “light affliction” included beatings, imprisonments, being stoned, shipwrecked, and often being in danger of death (2 Cor. 11:23-27)! When you experience “light affliction,” do you grumble or do you joyfully trust God?

(2) Faith lives with a God-ward focus, not with a focus on people or things. The saints mentioned in our text could endure mockings, scourgings, imprisonments, and death because their focus was on God, not on other people or things. They were looking to eternity, not to this vapor of life here. Calvin put it this way, “we ought to live only so as to live to God: as soon as we are not permitted to live to God, we ought willingly and not reluctantly to meet death” (ibid., p. 306).

(3) Faith trusts and obeys God, leaving the results to His sovereignty. Some trust and obey God and He grants spectacular results. Others trust and obey the same mighty God and He enables them to endure horrific trials in His strength. The difference is not in the people or in their faith, but in God’s sovereign purpose in each situation. We know the same God that these Old Testament saints knew, and we have even more, in that we know Christ personally. So we should trust Him as they did, whether He chooses to put us to death, as He did with the apostle James, or to deliver us from death for a while, as He did with Peter.

(4) Faithfulness to Jesus Christ counts more than anything else, even than life itself. As Martin Luther put it (“A Mighty Fortress”), “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still; His kingdom is forever.” Trust God in whatever difficult situations you face. One day soon you will hear, “Well done, good and faithful slave…. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 24:21)

Discussion Questions

  1. Where is the balance between accepting our shortcomings and yet striving by faith to overcome them?
  2. Why is faith not opposed to preparation, planning, and hard work? How can we know whether the power is from God or from our planning and effort?
  3. Why is it wrong to judge whether we have God’s blessing by the visible results? How can we know if we have His blessing?
  4. What are some reasons that God does not always deliver those who trust in Him?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Lesson 44: Faith to Run the Christian Marathon (Hebrews 12:1-3)

For many years I’ve jogged for exercise, but I’ve never run a marathon. My knees have never been strong enough to endure that long of a race. I have run a couple of 10K races. But if you have run in at least a 5K race, you should be able to identify with our text. If the thought of running in such a race makes you want to go take a nap, I only point out that I derived the metaphor of running a Christian long-distance race from the text itself. I didn’t make it up! If you’re a couch potato type, maybe you’ve seen a race on TV that will help you to relate to this message.

In Hebrews 10:36, the author exhorted his readers, “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised” [lit., “the promise”]. Then he devotes chapter 11 to many examples of Old Testament saints who endured by faith, although they did not receive the promise (Christ), which we have received. In our text, he returns to the theme of endurance, saying, “We have both this great cloud of witnesses from the Old Testament and Jesus Himself, who is the supreme example of one who endured horrible suffering by faith. He endured the cross and now is at the Father’s right hand.” So,

To run the Christian marathon with endurance, faith focuses on Jesus, who endured the cross and received the reward.

1. The Christian life is a difficult marathon that we must run.

Many years ago, a young woman who was a drug addict found my name in the phone book and began calling me frequently. She was married with two small children, but she was hooked on drugs. She had no concept that normal people sleep at night, and so she would call at 2 a.m. from some phone booth where she was stoned out of her mind.

She professed to believe in Christ, and said that she wanted to follow Him, but she had no idea of what that meant. On one occasion when she was relatively sober, I described in detail what a daily walk with Christ looks like. I explained what a daily time in the Word and prayer was like, what obedience to the Bible means, how to think like a Christian, etc.

When I was done, I asked, “Have you ever done anything close to what I’ve just described?” She said, “Yeah, I did that once for two weeks, but it didn’t work.” She thought that she had given it a fair try in two weeks! I explained to her that the Christian faith isn’t a two-week sprint. It’s a lifelong marathon.

The Christian life is a lifelong, grueling race that entails some long hills to climb and some swampy marshes to plod through. To make it to the end, you need self-discipline to get into good shape, you will need to maintain your motivation, and you will need sustained effort. No one enters a marathon with the thought of dropping out after a mile. Finishing well is everything. In this race, you are not competing with other believers. We’re all on the same team. We’re competing against the enemy of our souls, who opposes God’s kingdom and wants us to drop out.

2. To run the Christian marathon, we must get into shape and stay in shape.

The primary thing, as I said, is self-discipline motivated by the goal of finishing well. But it specifically involves two things:

A. We must lay aside every encumbrance.

The word means weight. It can refer to physical weight (obesity), or to unnecessary baggage. Ancient Greek runners would actually run naked so as not to be encumbered. Olympic athletes in our day wear some pretty skimpy outfits. They don’t want anything to slow them down or drain their energy.

Picture the start of the Boston Marathon. The lean, muscular Kenyan runners are at the front of the pack, waiting for the starting gun. A couple of skinny American runners are there, too. But next to them is a fat, flabby guy wearing a parka, all-weather pants, hiking boots, with a 50-pound pack. You ask curiously, “What’s in your pack?” He says, “I’ve got all the sodas and Twinkies that I’ll need to finish this race.” You’re thinking, “Right!” That guy wouldn’t stand a chance of finishing, let alone winning, because he has not laid aside every encumbrance.

Encumbrances are distinguished here from sins. They include things that are not intrinsically wrong, but they’re wrong because they keep you from running as you should. If you got rid of those heavy hiking boots and put on some jogging shoes, you’d run better. If you dropped the pack and dressed in shorts and a tank top, you might finish the race.

At the risk of stepping on some toes, but to help you apply this, let me get more specific. Let’s say that in the morning, you don’t have time to read your Bible and the newspaper before you head out the door to work or school. Which do you choose? You protest, “But I need to keep abreast of what’s happening in the world!” Really? Where does the Bible say that? It does say that you need to drink in “the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2). Maybe you don’t have time to read anything because you don’t set your alarm early enough to spend just 10 minutes with the Lord. You need to shed the encumbrance of loving sleep or the paper more than God.

Too much recreation can be another encumbrance in the race. We all need some free time free to be renewed, but the question is, “How much time do you need?” Many Christians fill every evening watching TV or playing computer games, but they don’t have time to study the Bible or read good books. They view the entire weekend as a time for recreation, even if it means missing church. To run the race, you’ve got to lay aside these encumbrances.

Some Christians ask the wrong question here. They ask, “What’s wrong with this movie, or listening to this music, or participating in this activity?” The right question is, “Does this help me to grow in godliness?” If not, cast it off as dead weight.

B. We must lay aside every sin that so easily entangles us.

In biblical times people wore long robes. You can’t run with a long robe entangling your legs. You must either pull it up and tuck it in your belt or cast it totally aside. In the case of sin, you must totally get rid of it if you want to run the Christian race.

This doesn’t refer only to certain besetting sins, but to all sins. Sin always begins in the mind, and so we must judge all sin at the thought level. Pride, lust, envy, greed, anger, grumbling, selfishness—all of these things originate in our thought life. If you cut it off there, it goes no farther. If you entertain these things, they incubate and develop into sinful words and actions (James 1:14-15). But the author’s point is, you can’t run the Christian race if you keep tripping over your sins.

3. To run the Christian marathon, we must run with endurance the course set before us.

Note two things:

A. God sets the course.

If you’re running a marathon, you can’t make up your own course. If you stray from the course, you’ll be disqualified. The race is “set before us,” just as Jesus had “the joy set before Him.” God is the Sovereign One who sets the course for each of us, just as He set the course of the cross for Jesus.

To finish the Christian marathon, it’s important to keep in mind at all times that the Sovereign God sets the course. You may not like parts of the course. You may be prone to grumble, “Why did the course have to go over this hill, or through this swamp?” The answer is, “Because the Sovereign God planned it this way.” You won’t be able to run by faith unless you submit your will to His will.

B. We must run with endurance.

Running with endurance requires adopting a certain mindset. If you have in mind that you’re running a 400-meter race, you’re not going to do well when the pack keeps going after 400 meters. When you learn that the race has barely begun, you’re going to quit with a bad attitude.

This is what Jesus meant when He talked about counting the cost of following Him (Luke 14:28-33). Before you make a glib commitment to be a Christian, think it through. Are you willing to put out the effort, the sweat, the endurance, and the pain of going the distance? If not, don’t start the race, because you’re going to look pretty silly when you drop out after 400 meters!

Obviously, one key to running the whole distance is motivation. But where do you get the motivation to run the Christian marathon? Our author suggests two sources, both valuable, but the second is incomparably greater than the first.

4. The encouragement to keep running comes from those who have run before us, but primarily from Jesus Himself.

A. The great cloud of witnesses encourages us to keep running.

The opening phrase of 12:1 refers back to chapter 11. All of the Old Testament saints, who endured all sorts of trials by faith, should encourage us to keep running when we feel like quitting. The word cloud was a classical Greek metaphor for a large multitude (editor’s footnote in Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p.311).

There is a question about whether these witnesses are watching us from heaven as we run the race; or, more in line with the meaning of the word witness, do we look to their testimony as an example of how to run the race? There is no indication in the Bible (unless it is here) that those in heaven are watching us on earth.

Probably, with the race metaphor, the picture here is that as we run the race, along the route we encounter the Old Testament saints (and, by extension, other heroes of the faith in the New Testament, plus those who lived after biblical times). They are calling out to us by their examples of faith, “Keep going, I made it and you can, too! I know it’s hard, but the reward is worth it! Don’t quit! The finish line is not too far ahead!”

I would encourage you to study both the many interesting characters in the Bible and the great men and women who have run the race of faith over the course of church history. You’ll learn how they failed, so that you don’t have to make the same mistakes. And you’ll learn how they ran well, so that you can imitate their faith (13:7). Many of the battles they fought, whether on a personal level or in their ministries, you will have to fight, too.

Knowing that a godly pastor like Jonathan Edwards got voted out of his church, and understanding the reasons why, can be a great source of encouragement to a pastor who is battling in a difficult church ministry. Realizing all of the problems that Hudson Taylor’s China Inland Mission went through can help you to hang in there when problems multiply. I sometimes think about the disappointments, suffering, and persecution that Adoniram Judson endured in Burma and think, “I can endure a few hardships in the ministry.” But the best help in the race of faith does not come from this cloud of witnesses.

B. Jesus Himself is the main motivation to keep running.

The main way to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” is, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (12:2-3).

The pronoun “our” is not in the original before faith (as in the NIV & KJV). The Greek text has the definite article, “the faith,” meaning, the faith that is needed to endure. Jesus is the author or Captain of that kind of faith, and He brings it to perfection or completion. He is the A to Z, the complete encyclopedia of faith.

The name “Jesus” deliberately focuses on His humanity. As a man, Jesus showed us exactly how to live by faith in God in this world. He trusted God at the beginning of His ministry when Satan tempted Him. He relied on God to such a degree that He could claim, “the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). He claimed to speak the very words that He heard from the Father (John 8:38). He trusted the Father in the Garden and He went to the cross entrusting His soul to the Father. His final words included, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). So from start to finish, but especially on the cross, Jesus showed us how to walk by faith. The text reveals five things about Jesus:

(1). Jesus is the author or captain of faith.

We encountered this word in Hebrews 2:10, which stated that God perfected the author (or, captain) of our salvation through sufferings. It is also used in Acts 3:15 (you “put to death the Prince of life”) and Acts 5:31 (“whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and Savior”). It can mean author or originator, in the sense that Jesus is the source of life, salvation, and faith. It also refers to the leader or captain, the one who goes before the troops, showing them the way.

All of these senses of the word apply to Jesus with regard to our faith. No sinner is capable of believing in Christ for salvation unless He grants it (Acts 5:31; 11:18; Eph. 2:8, 9; Phil. 1:29). But, also, He blazes the trail of faith for all who follow Him. He goes before us, showing us how to live by faith in God alone.

(2). Jesus is the perfecter of faith.

This means that He finished the course of faith perfectly, showing us how to finish well. But also, He brings our faith to completion, as Paul states (Phil. 1:6), “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

(3). Jesus shows us the motivation to endure by faith.

“Who for the joy set before Him endured the cross.” The reason that Jesus could endure the horrible prospect of bearing our sin was that He focused on the joy set before Him. This joy included the joy of “bringing many sons to glory” (2:10; see also, Isa. 53:10-11). But also, the greatest joy was that of glorifying the Father by completing the work that the Father gave Him to do (John 17). When Jesus returned to heaven, triumphant over Satan, sin, death, and hell, the angels rejoiced. The marriage supper of the Lamb will be a time for us to “rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him” (Rev. 19:7). Keeping that glorious joy in view enabled Jesus to endure the agony of the cross.

(4). Jesus shows us the greatest example of endurance by faith through the most difficult trial ever.

“He endured the cross, despising the shame.” He “endured such hostility by sinners against Himself.” No one has ever endured a greater trial than the cross. Others have been crucified and others have been tortured in indescribably horrible ways. But only Jesus knew the glory and joy of perfect fellowship with the Father in heaven before coming to this earth. Only Jesus knew the perfect holiness of His divine nature. To leave heaven and take on the form of a servant and be obedient to His death on the cross as the substitute for our sins, is unmatched in human history.

(5). Jesus shows us the final reward of faith.

He “has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” He is in the most exalted place in the universe, the place of all rule and authority. The holy angels bow before Him in adoration and reverence. While Jesus is unique, His exaltation to the right hand of the throne of God shows us a glimpse of His glory that we will share throughout eternity, if by faith we run with endurance.

5. We run with endurance by fixing our eyes on Jesus.

Note four things:

A. Fixing our eyes on Jesus requires taking our eyes off of ourselves.

“Fixing our eyes” is literally “looking off to.” The idea is taking your eyes off of other things and focusing on Jesus alone. The Bible tells us to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). We must examine ourselves before partaking of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:28). But, we should not live with our focus constantly on ourselves, but rather, on the Lord. In your daily quiet time, it’s good to pause and examine your heart. Is there any sin you need to confess? Is there a bad attitude or a lack of faithfulness? But then turn your eyes toward Jesus and all that you are in Him.

B. Fixing our eyes on Jesus requires trusting all that He is for us.

Paul often refers to our being “in Christ.” Baptism pictures the fact that we are totally identified with Him in His death, burial and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5). When Satan tempts us with guilt over past sins, we take refuge in Christ’s shed blood (Eph. 1:7). All of God’s promises are yes in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). We are even seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:20)! Focus on these truths by faith!

C. Fixing our eyes on Jesus means trusting Him when sinners wrong us.

The author tells us to “consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself.” Consider (used only here in the N.T.) means to calculate. Just as Jesus balanced the joy set before Him against the cross, so we must consider the fact that the more committed we are to Jesus, the more those who oppose Him will oppose us, no matter how nice we try to be (John 15:20). But we calculate that the joy of knowing and obeying Jesus is greater than all of the rejection, anger, ridicule, or anything worse that we might have to bear for His sake.

D. Fixing our eyes on Jesus is the key to not grow weary and lose heart.

The literal rendering is, “that you not fail through weariness, fainting in your souls.” Spiritual failure happens gradually from continuous weakening (B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews [Eerdmans], p. 398). Just as a runner who is not in excellent condition gradually slows down and finally collapses, so the believer who does not keep looking with faith to Jesus will eventually collapse. We call it “burn out” today, and it seems that there are many who are weary in their souls in the Christian marathon. The remedy is to fix our eyes on Jesus.

Conclusion

If you’re weary in the race, maybe you need to cast off some encumbrances or entangling sins. Someone has pointed out that gold is just as heavy a weight as lead. If you’re trying to carry the world’s treasures while you run the race of faith, you’re going to get tired. Throw off whatever hinders your growth in godliness.

Perhaps you’re grumbling about the course that God has set for you. You look at others who are putting foreign armies to flight and receiving back their dead by resurrection, but you’re wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground (11:34-35, 38). You think, “It’s not fair!” You need to submit to the sovereign hand of God, who sets different courses for His children according to His purpose.

Perhaps you need to refocus on Jesus and the joy of receiving the crown of righteousness that He has promised to all who finish the course (2 Tim. 4:7, 8).

You can’t run the race if you’ve never entered it. If you’ve never put your faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, you aren’t even in the race. If you don’t enter the race and run with endurance, you won’t get the prize.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do we find the balance between our effort to run the race and God’s power working through us (see Phil. 2:12-13).
  2. What are some spiritual encumbrances in your life that are not necessarily sin, but they keep you from running well?
  3. Is burn out sin? How can it be avoided?
  4. Where is the balance between self-evaluation and looking to Jesus? How can we know if we’re out of balance here?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

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Passage: 

Lesson 45: God’s Loving Discipline (Hebrews 12:4-6)

We’ve all seen it happen: a new believer, filled with joy, joins the church. At first, all is well and everyone rejoices in this person’s salvation. But then a trial hits. It may be an illness, the loss of a job, or a relational problem, often with someone in the church. The person starts missing church and dodging those who try to contact him. Soon, he goes back to the world, bitter against Christians and against God.

What happened? There may be many factors involved, but a major cause of his spiritual failure was that he did not understand or respond properly to God’s discipline. If he never repents and submits to God, he may be one of those represented by the seed sown on the rocky soil (Luke 8:13). At first they “receive the word with joy.” But, they “have no firm root; they believe for a while, and in time of temptation fall away.”

The subject of God’s loving discipline of His children is one of the most practical truths in the Bible for you to understand and apply. If you do not understand it, you will not persevere when trials hit, as they certainly will. As we’ve seen, the author of Hebrews is trying to prepare his readers to endure by faith what seems to be a looming persecution. They have already “endured a great conflict of sufferings,” which included public reproach, imprisonment, and the unlawful seizure of their property (10:32-34).

But, they still had need of endurance (10:36). After exhorting them to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (12:1), by fixing their eyes on Jesus and His suffering, he now explains the process of God’s loving discipline of His children. The section runs through 12:11, but for sake of time we must only deal with 12:4-6.

To endure the Christian struggle against evil, we must understand what Scripture teaches about God’s loving discipline.

1. The Christian life is an intense life or death struggle against the forces of evil (12:4).

The author shifts his metaphor from the marathon (12:1-3) to the wrestling or boxing match in the arena. We get our English word antagonist from the Greek word translated striving against. In ancient times, they did not have padded boxing gloves, such as boxers use today. Even with such gloves, boxers often inflict serious blows that result in profuse bleeding, and sometimes in the death of their opponent. You would not want to get in the ring unless you were prepared to fight against a powerful enemy that was determined to bring you down.

When the author says that the Hebrews had not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood, he meant that none of them had as yet become martyrs. He says this against the backdrop of Jesus, who shed His blood on the cross. The implication is that they may be facing that ultimate test shortly. But whether they literally died for their faith or not, the imagery is clear: the Christian life is an intense life or death struggle against powerful forces of evil that could result in martyrdom. The author personifies sin as our opponent. It opposes us in two ways:

A. Sometimes the enemy is the evil in the world, opposed to the people of God.

The author has just chronicled some of the terrible things that happened to God’s Old Testament saints: mockings, scourgings, chains, imprisonment, being stoned, sawn in two, and put to death with the sword (11:35-37). All of these things happened because evil men hated those who lived and proclaimed God’s righteousness. As John (3:20) explained, “For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light, for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” If you live in obedience to God, your life reflects the light of Christ onto others’ sinful lives. You will not be Mr. or Ms. Popular! Jesus plainly warned (John 15:19), “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.”

B. Sometimes the enemy is the evil in me, opposed to the holiness of God.

Paul explained (Gal. 5:17), “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” Peter exhorts us, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11). Even though we become a new creation through faith in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), the powerful sinful desires of the flesh are not eradicated. The Hebrews were especially in danger of the sin of turning away from faith in Christ in the face of persecution. We all face that temptation, along with other sinful desires. But the point is, the Christian life is not a Sunday School picnic! It is an intense conflict with the forces of evil, both without and within.

C. My responsibility is to resist and strive against any source of evil, even if it means shedding my blood.

Jesus plainly stated that the call to salvation is a call to lose your life: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Remember, taking up your cross did not mean wearing a piece of jewelry. The man who took up his cross was on the way to execution. So Jesus was warning us up front that the call to follow Him was a call to engage in combat that at the very least meant putting to death our sinful flesh. It could also entail suffering even unto a martyr’s death.

The idea of resisting and striving against sin to the point of shedding blood clearly refutes the teaching that “if you’re striving, you’re not trusting.” This teaching says that any effort on your part is your flesh. Life in the Spirit is a matter of passively letting go and letting God. Obviously we must trust God and do battle in His strength, but at the same time it is we who must resist and strive (Titus 2:12). There is no room for laziness or passivity in the conflict. Israel had to trust God, but also they had to go into battle and fight against the enemy. So we must trust God but also resist and strive against sin. You can’t strive passively!

D. To endure the struggle against evil, put your trial in perspective.

The author is saying, “In light of those who were stoned, sawn in two, and put to death with the sword, along with the Lord Jesus, who was crucified, your situation could be much worse than it is! It may come to shedding your blood, but at this point, you’re not there. If you abandon faith in Christ under your present trials, what will you do when the blood starts flowing?”

There is a practical lesson for us in this. Unless you are being horribly tortured and are facing execution for your faith, you can always find those who have it much more difficult than you do. If they endured in worse circumstances, then you can endure in your circumstances.

E. The motivation for striving to the point of shedding blood is to consider the Savior who died for me.

The author has just said, “Consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (12:3). Jesus did not deserve any suffering, much less death, in that He had no sin. By way of contrast, all of us deserve far more suffering than we actually receive, were God to repay us for every sin that we commit. So rather than complaining or shaking your fist at God for what you’re suffering, consider Jesus, who suffered innocently on your behalf. Consider what you deserve, if God were to give you perfect justice. Endure by faith what God has allowed you to suffer, looking to Jesus.

Where do we gain the understanding that we need to endure God’s loving discipline? The author goes on to show us that…

2. The Scriptures are given to us as God’s children to enable us to endure the hardships of the struggle (12:5a).

The author continues, “and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons.” Then he cites Proverbs 3:11-12, from the LXX. The text differs from the Hebrew, which translates the last phrase, “even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.” As I have explained before, the original Hebrew text did not have vowel points. Depending on which way you point the consonants, the verse can read “even as a father” or, “to cause sorrow to.” The Greek translators of the Old Testament took it in the second way and used the word scourging (Georg Bertram, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Kittel [Eerdmans], V:609). But the point here is that the author cites this Scripture and says that it is addressed directly to his readers as God’s sons. Note:

A. We cannot apply and live by Scripture unless we are God’s children through the new birth.

The text is addressed to God’s “sons” (or, “children”; the male gender is used because inheritance was passed on through sons; see 12:8). The Bible teaches that none are God’s children by natural birth, but only by spiritual birth through faith in Christ (John 3:1-16). Paul wrote, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26). If you are not a child of God through faith in Christ, then you are not under God’s loving discipline; you are under His wrath and judgment. So you must begin by believing in Christ as your Savior from God’s judgment.

B. We cannot apply and live by Scripture that we do not know or that we have forgotten.

Some versions translate the phrase as a rhetorical question, “Have you forgotten…?” But whether you have forgotten what Scripture teaches or never learned it in the first place, the result is the same: you will not apply it to your daily life. When trials hit, you will respond in accord with your background or personality, but you won’t respond as the Bible tells you to respond.

C. Scripture is God speaking to us as His children for our encouragement and correction.

He calls the verses from Proverbs an “exhortation.” Sometimes, depending on the context, this same word is translated “encouragement.” As Paul tells Timothy (2 Tim. 3:16-17), “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” “Reproof” is the noun form of the verb used in Hebrews 12:5. It means to convince of wrongdoing. Our author pulls this verse out of Proverbs 3 and says, “God addresses it to you as His sons.” What Scripture says, God says personally to us! As you read the Bible, ask God to apply it to you personally in areas where you need reproof and correction, so that you will become adequate, equipped for every good work. Let’s look at what these verses teach about God’s discipline:

3. Scripture teaches that out of love, God disciplines all of His children (12:5b-6).

Note four things about God’s discipline:

A. To apply God’s discipline properly, we must understand how it differs from His punishment.

God’s punishment stems from His wrath against sin, whereas His discipline stems from His love for His children. Punishment is God acting as Judge; discipline is God acting as Father. The Greek word for discipline means child-training. Under punishment, the sinner pays for his sins. Under discipline, Christ paid for our sins. Punishment is God’s demand for justice. Its aim is not to restore. Under discipline, justice is not in view, since Christ paid it. Rather, God intends to correct our faults and sins and to develop holiness in us.

Sometimes, God’s discipline is directly related to a specific sin in His children. But at other times, it is not the consequence of a specific sin, but rather is to develop growth and maturity. While discipline does not necessarily remove the consequences of our sin—we still reap what we sow—God often tempers it with grace if we repent. If we do not repent, His discipline can be very severe (“scourging”), even to the point of physical death (1 Cor. 11:29-31). The sinning child of God may lose rewards, but he will not lose his salvation (1 Cor. 3:14-15).

B. To apply God’s discipline properly, we must not regard it lightly.

To regard God’s discipline lightly means to shrug it off as fate or bad luck. It is to fail to see God’s personal, providential care in all that happens to us, from the trivial to the significant. Nothing happens to us by chance. God controls every detail of our lives, down to the very hairs of our head being numbered. If a believer encounters a trial and responds with stoic fatalism, he is regarding God’s discipline lightly. If he grits his teeth and endures it without seeing God’s loving hand in it, he is regarding it lightly. If he does not take the trial to heart by prayerful self-examination, asking God to help him grow through it, he is regarding it lightly.

When the Sabeans and later the Chaldeans attacked Job’s servants and murdered them and stole his flocks, Job didn’t say, “Those wicked Sabeans and Chaldeans! I’ll get them!” Lightning struck another group of his servants and flocks, killing all but one man. Job didn’t say, “What bad luck!” When a tornado struck the house where Job’s ten children were, killing them all, Job didn’t say, “That’s the way it goes sometimes!” Rather, Job viewed the sinful actions of evil men and the impersonal forces of nature as coming from God Himself. Satan was the immediate cause, but Job said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21; see also, 2:10).

I’ve found that when major trials hit, it’s easier to see God’s hand behind the events than when minor frustrations occur. So I’m more prone to regard lightly God’s discipline in these many minor hassles that occur. For example, I’m late for an appointment and the traffic is worse than usual. Rather than seeing this as God lovingly giving me an opportunity to develop patience, I fume at the traffic jam. Or, I’ve got more to do than time to do it in, and I come down with a cold. Rather than seeing God’s hand in this, I’m thinking, “Great! How am I going to get everything done?” It may be whiny kids or an insensitive comment from your mate. It may be car trouble or an irritating encounter with a pushy sales clerk. To grow in godliness, you must see every trial as God’s loving discipline, specifically tailored to you as an opportunity to trust Him. Don’t regard these trials lightly!

C. To apply God’s discipline properly, we must not faint when He reproves us.

To faint under God’s discipline is to grow weary of it and lose heart. To faint is to become depressed and hopeless, as if God has abandoned us. As the author goes on to show, our trials are actually evidence that God loves us and that we are His children. But the person who faints has lost sight of this. He is self-focused, absorbed with his trials to the extent that he can’t see God’s purpose and perspective. All that he can see is, in Jacob’s words, “all these things are against me” (Gen. 42:36). But actually, God was working all these things for Jacob. Joseph’s perspective when his brothers hated him and sold him into slavery was the godly view: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50:20). Finally,

D. To apply God’s discipline properly, we must remember that He always treats with love, even when He must deal severely with us.

“For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines.” You may ask, “Doesn’t God love everyone?” The biblical answer is, “Not in the same way.” To use an analogy, I love kids. I think that kids are wonderful. But the plain fact is, I love my kids more than I love other kids. God loves His children in a special way. One way that He manifests that love is to discipline us.

When my kids were younger, if we were at the mall and I saw someone else’s kids misbehaving, I didn’t discipline those kids. But if my kids misbehaved (which they did on rare occasions!), I disciplined them because I love them and I wanted them to learn to submit to proper authority. Sometimes I blew it because I disciplined my kids out of my irritation or anger. But God never makes a mistake as our heavenly Father. He always disciplines us in love, “for our good, so that we may share His holiness” (12:9).

Some of you had abusive fathers. You will have to work harder at trusting God’s love when He disciplines you. Sometimes, as the word scourging indicates, His discipline can be very severe. But notice whom He scourges: “every son whom He receives.” The Greek word for receives means to welcome or receive favorably. He does not scourge some sons, but every son whom He receives. This incl