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Standing on the Promises (Hebrews 6:13-20)

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9 But in your case, dear friends, even though we speak like this, we are convinced of better things relating to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name, in having served and continuing to serve the saints. 11 But we passionately want each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of your hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises. 13 Now when God made his promise to Abraham, since he could swear by no one greater, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you greatly and multiply your descendants abundantly.” 15 And so by persevering, Abraham inherited the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and the oath serves as a confirmation to end all dispute. 17 In the same way God wanted to demonstrate more clearly to the heirs of the promise that his purpose was unchangeable, and so he intervened with an oath, 18 so that we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us through two unchangeable things, since it is impossible for God to lie. 19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, sure and steadfast, which reaches inside behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus our forerunner entered on our behalf, since he became a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:9-20).1

Introduction

It seems as though I have heard a lot of promises lately. Oh, yes, it is an election year isn’t it? I hope that all of us have figured out that almost all of the promises we hear from political candidates (whatever their political party) are empty words. In many instances the candidates promise different things to different people, knowing that they cannot deliver. In a few instances, the candidates may actually think that they can deliver, but chances are they will not.

This message is about the kind of promises you can count on, promises you can “take to the bank,” so to speak. The particular promises we are dealing with here in this lesson are those which God has sworn to uphold as unchanging.

Our Text in Context

Hebrews 6:13-20 serves as the conclusion to a digression which began in chapter 5 at verse 11. The author has presented a powerful demonstration of the sufficiency of God the Son in chapters 1 and 2, and then drew our attention to the deficiency of men in chapters 3 and 4. He did so by means of the example of the first generation of Israelites to leave Egypt, and by the lessons the author of Psalm 95 drew from their failures. He then proceeds to show how the Son is the solution to our dilemma by means of becoming our Great High Priest, a priest after the order of Melchizedek.

A digression is required by the condition of the original recipients of this epistle. They were not accustomed to teaching beyond a very elementary level, and thus teaching about Melchizedek was going to be a real stretch for all of them. And so the author’s analysis of the situation is recorded in 5:11-14: the readers of Hebrews are used to “Dairy Queen” teaching, rather than “Steak and Ale” teaching. Because of this, the author lays out his approach, which is to leave behind the elementary teachings and to press on to teach those things which lead to maturity (6:1-3).

Hebrews 6:4-8 is the “thorny” portion of this digression, with various interpretations, as we have previously noted. I’m inclined (at this moment) to see this paragraph as referring to those who have come close to faith and have even enjoyed some of the benefits of association with the gospel and the Christian community, but who have never truly come to faith. And in the end, these are the folks who more actively reject and oppose the gospel. Thus at some point (known only to God), their fate is to be forever condemned, without a further opportunity for repentance.2 I would differ slightly with those (Calvinists) who hold to this view in that I see these condemned folks as the source of false teaching in the church which sought to turn others back to Judaism, and thus to join them in “falling away” from the faith.

Having issued a solemn warning to those outside the faith, the author is quick in 6:9-12 to reassure his readers that he is assured of better things concerning their salvation. In particular, their lives have demonstrated service to the saints, manifesting the love which should characterize those who are followers of Jesus:

“Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples – if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

This manifestation of love has continued to the present, and the author hopes that it will continue. Thus he urges them to persevere in the faith with all diligence, so that they may realize the full assurance of their hope, up to the very end (6:11). This will remedy the problem of sluggishness and will be evident as they imitate others (such as Abraham) in patiently enduring to the end, and thus inheriting God’s promises (6:12).

Hebrews 6:13-20 is the conclusion of the author’s digression. It presents God’s promises (particularly those sealed with an oath) as the basis for our hope and perseverance. I believe it also presents a greater assurance of hope as the result of faithful endurance in the tests and trials of life. As the author comes to the end of this section, he very neatly returns to the subject of Melchizedek, his point of departure in 5:11.

The Importance of our Text

Our text is important for several reasons. First, our text puts the whole issue of perseverance into its proper perspective. Overall, the purpose of the author is to undergird the Hebrew Christians’ assurance and confidence in their confession of faith in Christ. Hebrews 5:11—6:20 is a bit of a digression, and much of this section emphasizes the believers’ responsibility to “be diligent to enter rest” (5:11), to “hold fast their confession” (5:14), and to “draw near to Jesus . . . to receive mercy and grace in their time of need” (5:16). And let us not overlook the author’s strong warning regarding falling away in 6:4-8.

One might wrongly conclude that the author is telling the reader that the believer’s endurance is totally their own doing. This would be turning from grace to works, the very thing the author strongly opposes. The concluding verses of this section – our text – give us the proper perspective: our security and our endurance are rooted in God’s changeless promises (covenants). These promises are fulfilled by the person and work of Jesus as our Great High Priest. It is God’s faithfulness that prompts the believer to cling to Him. Our trust is in God, not in our efforts.

Second, our text is the “on ramp”3 back to the subject of Melchizedek, and the superior high priestly ministry of our Lord. It was the author’s teaching concerning the relationship of our Lord to Melchizedek that necessitated the digression of 5:11—6:20. But the author is determined to deal with this meaty topic (6:1-3), and these concluding verses of his digression take us right back to where he left off in 5:10. With this transition, we will come to the major emphasis of the Book of Hebrews – the high priestly ministry of Jesus Christ.

Questions to Answer

I believe there are several questions that must be answered in order to understand our text. Let me set them out here to be answered as we proceed in our study.

1. Wh y does God’s oath come so late in Abraham’s life (Genesis 22)?

    2. Why does God need to swear at all, when He cannot lie (Numbers 23:19), and we are commanded not to (Matthew 5:33-37; James 5:12)?

3. What are the two unchangeable things in which God cannot lie?

4. What is our hope, and why is it an anchor for our soul?

The Key to our Text
Hebrews 6:11-12

11 But we passionately want each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of your hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises.

The author desires for his readers to continue to manifest the same eagerness and diligence they have demonstrated in the pursuit of their hope to the very end (see 6:10). In so doing, they will be imitators of those, like Abraham (coming up in verses 13ff.) and others who will be named in chapter 11. The ones who have demonstrated faith and patient endurance are those who inherit4 the promises. In this sense, hope is not only the basis for perseverance; it is also the result of perseverance. I believe we can find this sequence elsewhere in Scripture. For example, consider these words in Romans 5:

1 Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory. 3 Not only this, but we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance, character, and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. 6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:1-8).

Christians rejoice in the hope of seeing God’s glory (see Romans 8:18-25), and they do so in the midst of trials and tribulations. How can this be? Paul tells us that God uses suffering to enhance our hope and our endurance. When we endure suffering by faith, we experience God’s sustaining strength. We discover that suffering actually strengthens our faith because God is faithful to sustain us. Successful suffering gives us greater confidence in God, and thus it produces hope by assuring us that, with God’s enablement, we will endure to the end and thus experience the full revelation of God’s glory in the future.

What the author of Hebrews is going to do in the verses which follow (6:13-20) is to show how God’s covenant promises undergird and strengthen our hope, which then becomes the basis for perseverance and endurance in the midst of adversity. He will show that as we persevere God provides further confidence in His promises, which enhances our hope. All of this is God’s way of showing us that His promises are the basis for our perseverance. Thus, it really is all about God, and not about our performance.

The Example of Abraham
Genesis 22:15-18
Hebrews 6:13-18

15 The Lord’s angel called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “‘I solemnly swear by my own name,’ decrees the Lord, ‘that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be as countless as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the strongholds of their enemies. 18 Because you have obeyed me, all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants’” (Genesis 22:15-18, emphasis mine).

13 Now when God made his promise to Abraham, since he could swear by no one greater, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “Surely I will bless you greatly and multiply your descendants abundantly.” 15 And so by persevering, Abraham inherited the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and the oath serves as a confirmation to end all dispute. 17 In the same way God wanted to demonstrate more clearly to the heirs of the promise that his purpose was unchangeable, and so he intervened with an oath, 18 so that we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us through two unchangeable things, since it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:13-18).

Let’s begin with the account in Genesis. The promise which God affirmed by His oath is found in Genesis 22. It comes immediately after Abraham’s greatest test of faith – his willingness, if necessary, to sacrifice his son Isaac in obedience to God’s command. This was now Abraham’s only heir, the one through whom God’s covenant blessings would be fulfilled. And now God commands Abraham to offer this son up as a sacrifice. We know from Hebrews 11:19 that Abraham did so in faith, believing that if he did so God would raise Isaac from the dead.

The promise that God made in Genesis 22 was not something new. It had been made at various times and occasions during those years before and after Isaac’s birth. It was initially given in Genesis 12:1-3, as the basis for leaving both home and family and seeking the Promised Land. It was repeated in chapter 13 after Abram and Lot separated (13:14-17). In chapter 15, God assured Abram that the promised seed would not be the child of one of his servants, but his own offspring. We are then told that Abram believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (15:6). In response to Abram’s faith, God sealed this promise by making it a covenant with him (15:7-21). In chapter 17, God affirmed his covenant with Abram and gave him the sign of circumcision. He also clarified that the promised son would not only come through Abram, but that the mother of that descendant would be Sarai. God even gave Abram the name of that child – Isaac. In chapter 18, the Lord specified that Isaac would be born at the same time the following year.

Over time and by repetition, God became more and specific about His covenant with Abraham, and further assurances were also given. Moses makes it clear that the assurance is based upon God’s character and His covenant, and not upon Abraham’s perfect performance. Several lapses in Abraham’s faith are recorded in the period between the initial promise and the offering of Isaac. In Genesis 12, shortly after the first recording of the Abrahamic Covenant (12:1-3), Abram leaves the Promised Land and sojourns in Egypt because of a famine. To protect himself, Abram passes off Sarai as his sister, resulting in her being added, for a time, to the Pharaoh’s harem. It was only God’s divine intervention that spared Abram’s life and Sarai’s virtue (12:10-20).

There were further failures as well. One was when Abram, at his wife’s suggestion, took Hagar (Sarai’s handmaid) as his concubine and produced an offspring (Ishmael) through her (Genesis 16). And then in Genesis 20, we find Abraham repeating his same deception of passing off Sarah as his sister – resulting in her being temporarily added to Abimelech’s harem. And lest we think that he only did this on these two occasions, Abraham’s confession to Abimelech seems to indicate that this kind of deception was their usual practice:

11 Abraham replied, “Because I thought, ‘Surely no one fears God in this place. They will kill me because of my wife.’ 12 What’s more, she is indeed my sister, my father’s daughter, but not my mother’s daughter. She became my wife. 13 When God made me wander from my father’s house, I told her, ‘This is what you can do to show your loyalty to me: Every place we go, say about me, He is my brother”’” (Genesis 20:11-13, emphasis mine).

My point in emphasizing Abraham’s failures is to show that God was faithful to fulfill His promises to Abraham, even though this man’s faith was not without its failures. The birth of Isaac was God’s doing, for which Abraham can receive little credit. Abraham’s faith sometimes failed, but God’s promises to Abraham were certain.

Why Did God Swear to Abraham Later, Rather than Sooner?

So we return to the question I raised earlier: “Why does God now affirm his covenant with Abraham by swearing an oath after the greatest test of his faith?” Shouldn’t God have given an oath before this test, rather than after it? Let’s consider some important factors in the answer to this question.

First, hope is the basis for endurance.Hope inspires and encourages endurance. We’ve seen this already in verses 11 and 12, as well as from Romans 5:1-8. We see this also in Romans 8:

24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance (Romans 8:24-25).

Second, hope is also a reward for perseverance and trusting in God’s promises. A more certain hope is the fruit of (or reward for) endurance. God’s promises were the reason why Abraham left his homeland and family and set out for a new country. God’s promises assured Abraham in those years that he and Sarah were growing older and thus even less able to bear children. God’s promises inspired Abraham’s faith and thus his endurance. But the reward for having endured for more than 25 years was an even greater promise, a promise confirmed by an oath, a promise that assured Abraham of God’s commitment to bring His previous promises to fulfillment. This time the promise of God was confirmed with an oath, an even greater guarantee than that which he had received earlier. And thus, Abraham had an even greater hope set before him.

Third, God’s oath was His confirmation of His promises. In our text, we are told that men swear in order to confirm their statements and to remove any doubt about them. In order to give confirmation of their words, men must swear by something greater than themselves (verse 16). Thus, when men swear to tell the truth in a court of law, they swear with their hand on the Bible. Since God is greater than anyone or anything else, He can only swear by Himself (verse 13). God swears to remove any doubt as to the certainty of His promises being fulfilled.

Fourth, God’s oath assured Abraham because he had not yet seen the complete fulfillment of God’s covenant promises, nor would he before his death.

13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. . . . 39 And these all were commended for their faith, yet they did not receive what was promised. 40 For God had provided something better for us, so that they would be made perfect together with us (Hebrews 11:13-15, 39-40).

Abraham was promised the land of Canaan, but he had to purchase a portion of that land for a burial place. Abraham was promised descendants that were as numerous as the sand of the sea, or as the stars in the heavens, and yet at this point in time he had but one son, Isaac. Abraham was promised that his seed would become a source of blessing for all nations, but this promise was not fulfilled as yet either. As the time of his death drew ever more near, God knew that Abraham would benefit greatly from a further confirmation of His covenant promises. This further confirmation came after the offering of Isaac, by means of God’s promise being confirmed by an oath.

Fifth, the confirmation of God’s promises to Abraham was not just for Abraham’s benefit, but for his descendants as well. His oath gives strong encouragement to the heirs of promise:

17 In the same way God wanted to demonstrate more clearly to the heirs of the promise that his purpose was unchangeable, and so he intervened with an oath, 18 so that we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us through two unchangeable things, since it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:17-18, emphasis mine).

His descendants would include Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David, but they would also include those Gentiles like us who share Abraham’s faith in God:

13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified. 15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either. 16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants – not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (Romans 4:13-16, emphasis mine).

Sixth, the confirmation of God’s promise to Abraham made it clear that this covenant was unconditional, and thus unchangeable.

17 In the same way God wanted to demonstrate more clearly to the heirs of the promise that his purpose was unchangeable, and so he intervened with an oath, 18 so that we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us through two unchangeable things, since it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:17-18, emphasis mine).

It is important to recognize that not all of God’s promises are unconditional (or unchangeable). Consider, for example this text in Jeremiah:

7 There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or kingdom. 8 But if that nation I threatened stops doing wrong, I will cancel the destruction I intended to do to it. 9 And there are times when I promise to build up and establish a nation or kingdom. 10 But if that nation does what displeases me and does not obey me, then I will cancel the good I promised to do to it (Jeremiah 18:7-10, emphasis mine)

Some prophecies, for example, are warnings that can be avoided by repentance. For example, there was the warning that Jonah proclaimed to the Ninevites:

When Jonah began to enter the city one day’s walk, he announced, “At the end of forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4)

The king of Nineveh called for repentance in case God might be merciful:

7 He issued a proclamation and said, “In Nineveh, by the decree of the king and his nobles: No human or animal, cattle or sheep, is to taste anything; they must not eat and they must not drink water. 8 Every person and animal must put on sackcloth and must cry earnestly to God, and everyone must turn from their evil way of living and from the violence that they do. 9 Who knows? Perhaps God might be willing to change his mind and relent and turn from his fierce anger so that we might not die” (Jonah 3:7-9, emphasis mine).

As the king of Nineveh hoped, and as Jonah assumed, God was merciful and compassionate, and thus in response to Nineveh’s repentance, He suspended the judgment5 Jonah proclaimed was coming in forty days. This greatly angered Jonah, who did not share God’s compassion toward sinners:

1 This displeased Jonah terribly and he became very angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “Oh, Lord, this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. This is what I tried to prevent by attempting to escape to Tarshish! – because I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment. 3 So now, Lord, kill me instead, because I would rather die than live!” (Jonah 4:1-3, emphasis mine)

As Jeremiah indicated, the impending judgment that God threatened was stayed, because He had indicated that repentance may forestall divine judgment. Daniel understood this as well, and this is why he appealed to Nebuchadnezzar to repent, in order to avoid (or at least forestall) God’s judgment:

24 This is the interpretation, O king! It is the decision of the Most High that this has happened to my lord the king. 25 You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and you will become damp with the dew of the sky. Seven periods of time will pass by for you, before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes. 26 They said to leave the taproot of the tree, for your kingdom will be restored to you when you come to understand that heaven rules. 27 Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you. Break away from your sins by doing what is right, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor. Perhaps your prosperity will be prolonged” (Daniel 4:24-27, emphasis mine).

When God confirmed His covenant with Abraham with an oath, He was indicating to him that this was a covenant that was unconditional. This was done so that Abraham (and his descendants) would be assured that His promises to him would most certainly be fulfilled. Nothing would prevent His covenant promises from being fulfilled.

Let me illustrate how this works. In Genesis 15, God entered into His covenant with Abraham, making some very specific commitments regarding the exodus, which He sealed by a formal covenant-making process:

9 The Lord said to him, “Take for me a heifer, a goat, and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” 10 So Abram took all these for him and then cut them in two and placed each half opposite the other, but he did not cut the birds in half. 11 When birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 When the sun went down, Abram fell sound asleep, and great terror overwhelmed him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign country. They will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. 14 But I will execute judgment on the nation that they will serve. Afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 But as for you, you will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will return here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit.” 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking firepot with a flaming torch passed between the animal parts. 18 That day the Lord made a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River – 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites” (Genesis 15:9-21).

When the Israelites sinned in worshipping the golden calf, God threatened to wipe out the nation and to start a new nation through Moses. But look at the basis on which Moses intercedes for the Israelites:

10 So now, leave me alone so that my anger can burn against them and I can destroy them, and I will make from you a great nation.” 11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your anger burn against your people, whom you have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘For evil he led them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger, and relent of this evil against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel your servants, to whom you swore by yourself and told them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken about I will give to your descendants, and they will inherit it forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented over the evil that he had said he would do to his people (Exodus 32:10-14, emphasis mine).

Moses did not promise God that the Israelites would try harder and do better. In truth, they persisted in their unbelief and rebellion, so that this generation would die in the wilderness, and the second generation would possess the Promised Land under Joshua. Moses interceded with God on the basis of His (Abrahamic) covenant promises, His character, and His glory. The unchangeableness of this covenant gave Moses the courage to boldly intercede for the Israelites.

The author tells us, his readers, that God gave us strong encouragement by two specific matters in which He could not lie:

17 In the same way God wanted to demonstrate more clearly to the heirs of the promise that his purpose was unchangeable, and so he intervened with an oath, 18 so that we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us through two unchangeable things, since it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:17-18, emphasis mine).

So just what are these “two unchangeable things”? Scholars do not all agree on this matter, so I will just tell you my opinion as to what these “two unchangeable things” are. I believe these two things are matters in which God has confirmed His promise with an oath, matters which are found nearby in Hebrews. And these would be the two promises which were confirmed by an oath:

Now when God made his promise to Abraham, since he could swear by no one greater, he swore by himself . . . (Hebrews 6:13)

20 And since this was not done without a sworn affirmation – for the others have become priests without a sworn affirmation, 21 but Jesus did so with a sworn affirmation by the one who said to him, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,You are a priest forever’” – 22 accordingly Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant (Hebrews 7:20-22).

Thus, I believe that the two unchangeable things which the author of Hebrews has in mind are the Abrahamic Covenant (chapter 6), and His oath by which He appointed the Lord Jesus a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek (chapter 7). These two covenant promises are the basis for our salvation, sanctification, and eternal security. How much more secure could our salvation be?

It is fascinating to me how our author describes the security of those who put their trust in Christ for salvation:

So that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us (Hebrews 6:18, NASB95; emphasis mine).

Why does the author use these words to describe our trust in Christ (confession of faith) for salvation? I believe that this man is so saturated with the Old Testament that he virtually drips with Old Testament words and imagery. No wonder scholars can’t agree among themselves as to how often the author refers (or alludes) to the Old Testament (though they all agree it is very often).

These words reminded me of several Old Testament texts:

12 “Whoever strikes someone so that he dies must surely be put to death. 13 But if he does not do it with premeditation, but it happens by accident, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. 14 But if a man willfully attacks his neighbor to kill him cunningly, you will take him even from my altar that he may die” (Exodus 21:12-14, emphasis mine).

6 Now from these towns that you will give to the Levites you must select six towns of refuge to which a person who has killed someone may flee. And you must give them forty-two other towns. 7 “So the total of the towns you will give the Levites is forty-eight. You must give these together with their grazing lands. 8 The towns you will give must be from the possession of the Israelites. From the larger tribes you must give more; and from the smaller tribes fewer. Each must contribute some of its own towns to the Levites in proportion to the inheritance allocated to each. 9 Then the Lord spoke to Moses: 10 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan River into the land of Canaan, 11 you must then designate some towns as towns of refuge for you, to which a person who has killed someone unintentionally may flee. 12 And they must stand as your towns of refuge from the avenger in order that the killer may not die until he has stood trial before the community. 13 These towns that you must give shall be your six towns for refuge. 14 “You must give three towns on this side of the Jordan, and you must give three towns in the land of Canaan; they must be towns of refuge. 15 These six towns will be places of refuge for the Israelites, and for the foreigner, and for the settler among them, so that anyone who kills any person accidentally may flee there. 16 “But if he hits someone with an iron tool so that he dies, he is a murderer. The murderer must surely be put to death (Numbers 35:6-16, emphasis mine).

49 All of Adonijah’s guests panicked; they jumped up and rushed off their separate ways. 50 Adonijah feared Solomon, so he got up and went and grabbed hold of the horns of the altar. 51 Solomon was told, “Look, Adonijah fears you; see, he has taken hold of the horns of the altar, saying, ‘May King Solomon solemnly promise me today that he will not kill his servant with the sword’” (1 Kings 1:49-51, emphasis mine).

We know that God established cities of refuge where a man who unintentionally killed another could flee to avoid being killed by an avenger. If a man were found to be guilty of murder, he would not be protected and would be killed by the avenger. But if he was found innocent, he could flee to one of the six Levite cities of refuge. In order to be protected, the man must stay in the city of refuge and not go outside it, or the avenger could kill him. He must stay in the city until the death of the current high priest,6 then he could go outside the city. It appears from Exodus 21 that there was a custom whereby a guilty man would flee to the altar and grasp its horns as a plea for protection. If the one who did so was found not guilty of murder, then he could flee to one of the cities of refuge.

I believe the author of Hebrews is using this Old Testament imagery to portray the safety and security Christ alone offers as the Great High Priest. It is to Him that the Christian can flee for safety. The believer grasps Him by faith, just as the manslayer grabbed the horns of the altar. In Christ, the believer finds safety, as the manslayer found safety in the city of refuge. What a picture of the safety and security of the saint. And, incidentally, since our High Priest lives forever, we find refuge and safety in Him forever.

Jesus: An Anchor for the Soul
Hebrews 6:19-20

19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, sure and steadfast, which reaches inside behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus our forerunner entered on our behalf, since he became a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 6:19-20).

The author changes to different imagery to describe the safety and security of the Christian. Because our hope is secure in Christ, due to God’s oath and His character, we need only to cling to Him as our Great High Priest, whose substitutionary death on the cross of Calvary paid the penalty for our sins, and whose mediatory high priestly ministry at the Father’s right hand gives us access to draw near for help in our time of need.

The imagery of an anchor should come as no surprise to the reader of this epistle. It no doubt is used because of what we have already read in chapter 2:

Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away (Hebrews 2:1, emphasis mine).

It is not difficult to see how an anchor prevents drifting. A certain hope in God’s covenant promises made to Abraham and his descendants, guaranteed by God’s oath, is the anchor for our souls. As it is unchangeable, so it is immovable. We shall not drift if we cling to Christ. And these unchangeable promises are found in the Scriptures, Old Testament and New. Thus, we dare not neglect God’s final Word, revealed in the person of His Son (2:1-4).

Incidentally, these promises which are the basis of our hope and of our endurance, are a prominent theme in the Book of Hebrews. Some form of the word “promise” occurs 17 times in Hebrews, more frequently than in any other book of the Bible.7

Switching imagery once again, the author now moves to the holy of holies and the veil separating it from the holy place. I am convinced that the author intends for us to see much more than what lies on the surface, but I’m inclined to think that he is whetting our appetite for what he is going to say in chapters 9 and 10. For now, I believe that he is indicating to the reader that Jesus, the object of our hope, has entered into the holy of holies as our forerunner. There He made atonement for our sins once for all as our Great High Priest, a Priest after the order of Melchizedek who lives forever. As Guthrie indicates,8 this serves as an “on ramp” to chapter 7.

Conclusion

Our text has been about God’s promises, so let’s conclude by focusing on some of the truths we have seen and what impact these have on us.

First, we find that God’s promises are the basis for our faith.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).

Those things that we hope for, yet do not see, are things regarding which God has given His promise. And these things not seen are the things which are spoken in God’s Word. No wonder the author of Hebrews places so much emphasis on the Word of God, and on the attention we must pay to what it says.

Second, God’s promises are the basis of our hope, and thus the assurance which encourages us to persevere in times of adversity.

17 In the same way God wanted to demonstrate more clearly to the heirs of the promise that his purpose was unchangeable, and so he intervened with an oath, 18 so that we who have found refuge in him may find strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us through two unchangeable things, since it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:17-18).

By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was too old, he received the ability to procreate, because he regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy (Hebrews 11:11).

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He had received the promises, yet he was ready to offer up his only son. 18 God had told him, “Through Isaac descendants will carry on your name” (Hebrews 11:17-18).

24 By faith, when he grew up, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to be ill-treated with the people of God than to enjoy sin’s fleeting pleasure. 26 He regarded abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for his eyes were fixed on the reward (Hebrews 11:24-16).

1 From Paul, a slave of God and apostle of Jesus Christ, to further the faith of God’s chosen ones and the knowledge of the truth that is in keeping with godliness, 2 in hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the ages began (Titus 1:1-2).

Third, promises are given when their fulfillment will come after a period of delay.Promises are given to those who must wait, those who do not expect or demand that God give them freedom from tests and trials, or provide them with prosperity now. A promise implies a delay; otherwise, a promise is not necessary.

But, according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness truly resides (2 Peter 3:13).

Fourth, God’s covenant promises (specifically the Abrahamic Covenant and the covenant regarding a priest after the order of Melchizedek) are fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ.

15 Brothers and sisters, I offer an example from everyday life: When a covenant has been ratified, even though it is only a human contract, no one can set it aside or add anything to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ. 17 What I am saying is this: The law that came four hundred thirty years later does not cancel a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to invalidate the promise. 18 For if the inheritance is based on the law, it is no longer based on the promise, but God graciously gave it to Abraham through the promise. 19 Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions, until the arrival of the descendant to whom the promise had been made. It was administered through angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary is not for one party alone, but God is one. 21 Is the law therefore opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But the scripture imprisoned everything and everyone under sin so that the promise could be given – because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ – to those who believe (Galatians 3:15-22, emphasis mine).

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of God’s truth to confirm the promises made to the fathers (Romans 15:8).

Fifth, if God’s covenant promises are fulfilled in Christ, and these are the basis for our faith, hope, and endurance, then to reject Christ is to reject faith, hope, and endurance. Once we come to realize that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament, and our only basis for the hope of salvation, then to reject Him is a most serious and most deadly sin.

Sixth, our confidence and assurance are grounded (anchored) in the promises of God and His faithfulness to fulfill them, not in our performance. It is not all about us; it is all about Jesus. He has accomplished the cleansing of our sins, once for all. He is the Great High Priest to whom we must draw near for help in time of need. The author of Hebrews is not seeking to get us to work harder, but to draw near to the Savior and cling to Him, looking to Him for help in our weakness.

Seventh, we can count on God’s promises because He can be trusted. His promises are our certain ground for faith and endurance.

19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the one who was proclaimed among you by us – by me and Silvanus and Timothy – was not “Yes” and “No,” but it has always been “Yes” in him. 20 For every one of God’s promises are “Yes” in him; therefore also through him the “Amen” is spoken, to the glory we give to God (2 Corinthians 1:19-20).

Eighth, God’s promises are the basis and the incentive for cleansing ourselves from sin and its defilement:

Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness out of reverence for God (2 Corinthians 7:1).

Through these things he has bestowed on us his precious and most magnificent promises, so that by means of what was promised you may become partakers of the divine nature, after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire (2 Peter 1:4).

Ninth, the promises of God and the hope they produce are an opportunity for us to proclaim the gospel.

Now this is the promise that he himself made to us: eternal life (1 John 2:25).

But set Christ apart as Lord in your hearts and always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess (1 Peter 3:15).

Tenth, Gentiles believers become full heirs of the promises of God.

13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified. 15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either. 16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants – not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 17 (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed – the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do. 18 Against hope Abraham believed in hope with the result that he became thefather of many nations according to the pronouncement, “so will your descendants be.” 19 Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do (Romans 4:13-21).

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:29).

5 Now this secret was not disclosed to people in former generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit, 6 namely, that through the gospel the Gentiles are fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:5-6).

Eleventh, it is the promises of God which are certain, and it is these promises which will sustain us in the difficult days ahead.In the past few weeks, we have seen our country enter into a kind of financial meltdown. We may have falsely sought security in the very things which are now being removed or reduced. God’s promises are the one thing we can count on, because His promises are sure, and He is a God who always keeps His promises.

My friend, if you have never trusted in Jesus Christ, I urge you to do so today. In fulfillment of His Old Testament promise to Abraham, God sent Jesus to take on humanity (without surrendering any of His deity) and to serve as our Great High Priest by suffering the punishment for our sins. He now sits at the Father’s right hand in heaven to mediate on our behalf and to help us in our time of need. There is no other solution for our sin, and its eternal punishment (hell). There is no other anchor for the soul than Jesus Christ. Trust in Him.


1 Copyright © 2008 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 15 in the series, Near to the Heart of God – A Study of the Book of Hebrews, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on October 19, 2008. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: net.bible.org.

2 See Mark 3:28-30.

3 See George H. Guthrie, Hebrews – The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), p. 240.

4 We know from Hebrews 11:13-15, 39-40 that these Old Testament saints died without receiving all that God had promised. They believed, by faith, in what they could not see, but in what God had promised. Thus, they still await the full inheritance of the promised blessings.

5 Incidentally, this is a very important point to bear in mind when speaking with those who say that God “changes his mind.” It may appear that way, but Jonah knew better. He knew that warnings of coming judgment may be given in order to prompt men and women to repent, thus avoiding that judgment, just as God said in Jeremiah 18.

6 Numbers 35:25, 28.

7 It occurs 11 times in Acts and Romans and 10 times in Deuteronomy and Galatians.

8 Guthrie, p. 240. See fn. 3 above.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)