Tag: Hebrews

Beyond Sinai to Zion (Hebrews 12)

by on Dec.07, 2013, under Sermon

With a physique like mine, it will come as no surprise to you when I tell you that I am not a distance runner. In my school years, however, I was required to run in a cross-country event each year. The first time I did it, I set off with good intentions and boundless optimism, sure I was going to be the first across the line. The second year, I commenced the race with the modest ambition of being somewhere in the middle, and surviving to tell the tale. By my high school years, if I couldn’t find some excuse to avoid cross-country day, my goal was to walk the first lap as slowly as I could in hopes of being lapped by enough of the front-runners that I could follow them across the line and avoid doing a second lap! My optimism from the first year had wilted in the face of weariness. Frankly, I didn’t really care about the result, so there was no point in running. I had no goal, no commitment.

As we’ve read through this letter to the Hebrews, it is clear that the apostle is writing to a people not unlike myself. They had started out with good intentions. But, little by little, that enthusiasm had been chipped away. In chapter 3 and 4 in particular, the writer compares them to the Israelites in the desert, tired and hot and hungry, wishing they were back in Egypt. Suffering and persecution had taken their toll, and they now thought fond thoughts of their life before Christ, a life of relative comfort and ease. Their memory of why they set out on this journey had faded, leaving them with a whole lot of pain and no clear idea of its purpose.

Above all, they felt weary. As Tim told us some weeks ago, this letter is written to people who are weary. People like you and me. So, as he brings this epistle to a close, our writer once again marshals his arguments and encouragements, begging the people to keep going, keep running – or walking, or crawling! – the path set before them. Our job this morning is to grasp his solutions to spiritual weariness.

The first solution to spiritual weariness is faith, which we covered in detail last week. It is foundational to all the other solutions. At the end of chapter 10 we read:

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” (Heb 10:36–38)

Here are two clearly distinct alternatives. The righteous, we are told, will live by faith. This is pleasing to God. On the other hand, those who shrink back displease God, and will not receive what he has promised. He then expands on this in chapter 11, listing some of the many Old Testament saints who lived lives of faith, trusting in the promises of God and not shrinking back. Even though they did not receive the things promised, by faith ‘they saw them and welcomed them from a distance’ (Heb 11:13). These saints stand as a ‘cloud of witnesses’ – witnesses in the sense that they give evidence of God’s faithfulness to them. We need to hear their testimony, and take it onboard as encouragement to us to trust God as they did.

In light of this testimony, we ought to embrace the second cure for spiritual weariness, which is to ‘throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles’. This is common sense, right? When you run a race, you do not carry any unnecessary weight and you make sure your shoelaces are done up tight so that you don’t trip and fall. For Christians, there are two categories of things to be considered here. The obvious one is sin. Sin is like running a race with your shoelaces tied together; you are bound to fall and be hurt at some point. If you are not a Christian, this is your situation. The first step for you is to turn to Jesus, for he is the only one able to deal with sin.

If you are a Christian, but you are struggling in your day-to-day walk with Jesus, perhaps you need to sit down and review your life: are you entangled in sin? Ask God to reveal to you that sin, and to give you the strength to throw it off (Heb 12:1).

Less obvious are the things in our life that are not sinful but are hindrances nevertheless. Runners in ancient times used to run naked and barefoot in order to eliminate all weights that would slow them down or tire them out. This is can be an issue for Christians as well. For example, a friend of mine recently gave up coffee because he felt it was an impediment to his relationship with God. Coffee is not sinful. But for my friend, it needed to go because it was ‘slowing him down’. These things will vary from person to person, and you need to consider your own life and circumstances. Combat boots would be strange running shoes for a marathon runner, but essential for a soldier.

So I ask you this morning: what are the weights and hindrances in your life? What is it that stands between you and loving, trusting and believing God? Are there things that you could and should eliminate from your life for the sake of spending more time with God? If you ask him, God will show you what these things are. Abraham had to let go of his son; Jacob had to leave the land he was promised and go down into Egypt; Moses left his privileged position as a prince of Egypt. None of these things was inherently sinful, but all had to be left behind to follow the path set by God.

These are just some of the lessons we can learn from the Old Testament saints. But, inspiring as these giants of faith are, in the end they cannot help us.1 They cannot strengthen us, they cannot equip us, they cannot correct our bad habits, they cannot pick us up when we fall. They have run their portion of the race and handed on the baton to us. Watching athletes run an Olympic marathon may be inspiring, but it will not help you run any better.

But what if you could have one of those athletes to coach you? To run with you, correcting your technique, encouraging you along the way. This is exactly the situation for Christians. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, but it is Jesus who we must look to. He is the ‘author’ – that is, the object and source – of our faith. But he is also the ‘perfecter’ of that same faith – the one who brings us safely to the completion of faith’s goal. Unlike Moses and Joshua, Jesus is capable of bringing his people to journey’s end.2

The apostle outlines how Jesus’ example can help us to understand our own situation, and this is his third solution for spiritual weariness. There are many things that cause us to feel weary: suffering, persecution, disappointment. Jesus has faced all of these and more.3 Jesus has faced the same suffering, temptation and all-around weariness that we face. Indeed he suffered even more than we ever can or will. Jesus was so weary he could sleep in a small fishing boat in the middle of a great storm.4 He was ‘tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin’ (Heb 4:15). He ‘endured the cross’ yet completed the race and ‘sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Heb 12:2).

We are told to, ‘Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men…’. Why? ‘… so that [we] will not grow weary and lose heart.’ (Heb 12:3).

Why do we find opposition and suffering so wearisome? It is because we see it as meaningless. When I was doing my best to avoid the trials of high school cross-country, it was because I couldn’t see the point: I didn’t enjoy it, there was no way I was going to win (short of some extraordinarily brazen cheating!), so why bother? Similarly, Christians sometimes think, “I’m saved now; why can’t God just take me to heaven now? Why do I need to endure the death of my loved one, the persecution of my workmates, the gradual (or sudden) deterioration of my health, financial crisis, relationship breakdown, the loss of my house and possessions? What’s the point?”

Do you sometimes feel like that?

These thoughts reflect a worldview that believes there can be no purpose in suffering. But this is not the biblical worldview. The writer to the Hebrews says that we have,

forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses [us] as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Heb 12:5-6).

There are two parallel ideas here: discipline and punishment. ‘Discipline’ is about training a child in the right way to live. Parents are expected to model and teach many things, things such as love of God, loving and serving others, respect for authority and so on. They offer encouragement and, where necessary, correction along the way.
God brings many things into our lives as a means of helping us to mature as his children; many of them are unpleasant at the time, but in hindsight these can be some of the greatest growth experiences. Unlike earthly parents, God is always in control of the circumstances, always aware of how much we can handle, always providing the right things at the right time. Further, he always provides us with the resources to deal with these challenges.

‘Punishment’, at least as it appears in this passage, is also directed towards discipline and training. It is not referring here to God’s judicial punishment of sin, because for believers that has already been met in Jesus Christ. Rather, it is talking about punishment of disobedience within the father-child relationship. Disobedience is the greatest impediment to discipline, for it betrays an attitude at odds with teachability.

Suffering and hardship come to all; it is part of life. For the Christian, however, suffering and hardship have meaning because they show God’s commitment to disciplining his sons and daughters.

Jesus knew this. It was ‘for the joy set before him’ that Jesus ‘endured the cross’. We must keep our eyes on Jesus, for God disciplines us to make us like Jesus. By faith, we know that ‘God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness’ (Heb 12:10). By faith, we perceive (though we may not see) the Father’s love and wisdom in our circumstances. His interest is in our holiness rather than our happiness, and this requires discipline at the hands of our loving Father.5 Be encouraged that you have a Father who loves you enough to do this, and your weariness will abate. If you’re keeping score, remembering this is the fourth solution for weariness.

The next section focuses on community issues, as community is weariness solution number five. These are issues that can both cause and result from weariness. ‘Make every effort to live in peace with all men’ (Heb 12:14). There is nothing like being in conflict with people that you see regularly for making you feel weary. And it gets worse the closer you are to the person you are in conflict with – colleagues, friends, fellow believers, family. This is, perhaps, why Jesus commands,

‘if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.’ (Matt 5:23).

Peace within the family, the church, the workplace and the community is important, and should be sought and highly prized.

But it is not peace at all costs, for the second half of the sentence is ‘… and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord’ (Heb 12:14). Where it comes to issues of holiness, of gospel, we cannot compromise, even if it may prove more ‘peaceful’. We cannot compromise on issues of holiness, particularly within the community. We have a responsibility toward one another, as well as to ourselves.

See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. (Heb 12:15-16).

Conflict in community can lead to bitterness and, like the root of a plant, will grow over time into something that causes trouble and undermines holiness. Similarly, sexual immorality can tear families and churches apart, as people take sides.

The writer ends his list of community maladies with the example of the godless Esau. The story comes from Genesis 25:

“Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!”…

Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”

“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?””

 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob…
So Esau despised his birthright. (Gen 25:29–34)

Esau gave so little value to the promises of God to his family that he sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of food. Esau is the antithesis of those saints of chapter 11. By faith, they saw the value of the promises of God and held on to them, but Esau despised future promises for present comfort. Why? Because he was weary.

Brothers and sisters, let us ensure that our weariness does not lead us to treat lightly the promises and blessings of God. God has placed you in a church family; do not allow conflict, bitterness, sexual immorality or godlessness to defile that family. If you believe in Jesus, God has given you the right to be called sons and daughters of God (John 1:12); do not run away from his discipline. The community of the people of God is a tremendous remedy for weariness.

But community is not foolproof, for even whole communities can become weary. Perhaps the most tragic example of this is the people of Israel during the Exodus. God brought them up out of Egypt, in one of the most dramatic stories ever told. He had acted on the behalf to make Pharaoh let them go, and he had rescued them from Pharaoh’s wrath by making a way through the Red Sea. Seven times God’s said to Pharaoh: ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me’ (7:16; cf. Ex 5:1; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13, 10:3). And if that weren’t convincing enough, they had been led to a mountain ‘burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast’ and ‘a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded’ (Heb 12:18-20). The sight was so terrifying, we are told, that even Moses, God’s appointed leader and spokesman, trembled in fear.

In light of these events, you would think the Israelites would be eager to go and do just as God required of them. But they didn’t. They grew weary:

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”” (Ex 32:1)

All the acts of power they had witnessed first hand, all the terror that the meeting with God in the desert inspired, these things were not enough to compel obedience. We read this and think, ‘How could they?’ But are we any better? All of us tire of obeying the law, following the rules, doing the right thing; the Israelites just tired of it quicker than most. All of us have sinned,6 all of us have done what we ought not, and failed to do what we ought.

Fortunately was not the final destination for the Israelites. They had a mediator, Moses, who spoke up on their behalf, pleading with God to forgive them. As a result, Sinai was only a stopping place along the way to the promised land. Though weariness had led them to worship false gods, God had a solution for their weariness, and that was to meet with and worship him at another mountain, a mountain in the midst of the promised land of rest, Mount Zion.

The comparisons between the two earthly mountains are striking. Sinai is in the middle of a great desert, but Zion is in the heart of the promised land. Jerusalem was built around Zion, with the Temple built upon the mountain itself. God himself dwelt in the temple, where he had only visited Sinai for a time. Zion was also closely associated with God’s anointed king, for it was David who had first wrested the mighty fortress built there out of the hands of God’s enemies and made it a stronghold of the people of God (2 Sam 5:7, 9).7

In the apostle’s eyes, these two mountains represent two different ways of relating to and worshiping God. The first, Sinai, represents worship of God on the basis of the law. It is a place of failure, terror and judgment, where people are revealed for the sinful creatures that they are. It is a place where no one can truly enter into God’s presence except the mediator – for anyone else to touch this mountain results in death. All of us, Christian and non-Christian, must travel via this mountain at some point, whether it be in this life or at our death. We must all come face to face with our failures, our sinfulness, and acknowledge them before God.

If you are not a Christian, Sinai is the only place where you will meet with God. Like it or not, you are camped at the base of this mountain, with only desolate wilderness surrounding you, and hostile enslavement behind you.

The good news is that this need not be your final destination. For Jesus has entered into God’s presence on Sinai, on the basis of his obedience to the law. Like Moses, he has pleaded with God for our forgiveness. He now calls us to follow him into the promised land, ‘to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God’ (Heb 12:22). Jesus is the Son of David who has wrested control of Zion from his enemies and freely invites his people to enter into rest, safety, and joyful assembly in that mighty fortress. He says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary… and I will give you rest’ (Matt 11:28).

He calls you to follow him.

One way or the other, you must respond. Ignoring the voice of God is a risky business. The Israelites ignored the voice of God – whose first command was to have no other gods – and as a result brought judgment upon themselves. Later, they ignored the voice of God inviting them to enter the promised land and, as a result, the entire generation missed out. So the writer urges you to respond in the affirmative: ‘See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks’ (Heb 12:25).

God has now spoken his final word, not by angels or prophets but by his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Though his blood ought, like Abel’s, to cry out for vengeance, instead it speaks a better word: ‘Father, forgive them’ (Lk 23:34).
And that word has shaken heavens and earth.

But it is a word spoken only ‘once more’. Do not, like Esau, treat lightly the invitation of God by putting off until tomorrow what you should do today; we know that he later regretted his decision bitterly (Heb 12:17). Do not, like the Israelites, look back longingly to Egypt, for God has prepared a place for you. Do not, like the Israelites, let weariness and fear halt you on the verge of the promised land, for God is able to overcome. Do not, like the first recipients of this letter, set up camp at Sinai, trying to live by law instead of grace, for God does not dwell there.

Instead, follow the Son into the promised land, to Mount Zion, to ‘a kingdom that cannot be shaken’. As the apostle puts it,

[L]et us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:28-29)

Amen.

Bibliography

Brown, Raymond. The Message of Hebrews : Christ above All, The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester, England ; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Ellingworth, Paul, and Eugene A. Nida. A Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews, Ubs Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 1994.

Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn. Spiritual Depression : Its Causes and Cure. London: MarshallPickering, 1998.

Pink, Arthur Walkington. An Exposition of Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 2003.


Endnotes

  1. Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews : Christ above All, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England ; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 227.
  2. Heb 4:8. cf. Paul Ellingworth and Eugene A. Nida, A Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews, Ubs Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1994).
  3. Here, as elsewhere in Hebrews, the writer uses ‘Jesus’ rather than ‘Christ’ to emphasise his humanness. Brown, The Message of Hebrews : Christ above All, 228.
  4. Luke 8:22-25.
  5. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression : Its Causes and Cure (London: MarshallPickering, 1998), 235.
  6. Rom 3:23.
  7. Arthur Walkington Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 2003), 1043.
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Jesus, the greater high priest (Hebrews 5)

by on Sep.29, 2013, under Sermon

One of the great challenges of preaching a series of sermons on a book like Hebrews is trying to find the right places to divide up the text into manageable segments for preaching. It is a challenge because each thought, each step in the argument, is so closely related to both what goes before and what follows that there is little chance to take a breath, let alone slot in an entire week of life! It is like the seamless garments worn by priests – specially woven so that no joins are visible.

Take, for example, the last three verses of Hebrews 4:

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Heb 4:14–16)

Tim Kirkegard shared with us last week how this is a fitting conclusion to chapters 3 and 4. We who are weak and weary, who are travelling through a wilderness as the Israelites did, are exhorted to ‘approach the throne of grace with confidence’ because that is where we ‘may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’

But if I were forced to choose, I would have to say that this passage aligns more closely with what follows, for it brings to the fore the idea of the Jesus the great high priest. This is a topic which will occupy the writer right through until chapter 10. Somehow this tremendous invitation is dependent upon the ministry of this great high priest. Similarly at the end of chapter 10 we read:

Therefore, brothers, … since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God. (Heb 10:19, 21-22)

Once again, the invitation is there, and once again it is based upon the priestly ministry of Jesus Christ. So, our task as we read these chapters in between is to keep our eyes, ears and hearts open to hear and to understand this invitation.

Priests in the Old Testament

What do you think of when you hear the word priest? An elderly man, with long robes and a funny hat? Tribal witch doctors, presiding over human sacrifices? Men dressed all in black who go around casting out demons? Today’s society has little place for the idea of priesthood, consigning it to the realm of movie cliché. Yet to properly get at the ideas presented in Hebrews 5, we must set aside these images and return to the Old Testament context.

The Old Testament presents the priesthood as a gift from God, intended to keep his people in relationship with himself. The Israelites were unable to directly approach the presence of God lest they be destroyed because of their sinfulness, but God provided mediators for them in the form of the priests, the sons of Aaron, who would present their gifts and sacrifices to God on their behalf. Such sacrifices could only be offered by the appointed priests, and for anyone else to do so – even the King of Israel!1 – resulted in condemnation.2

God also appointed one priest, the high priest, whose most important job was to offer sacrifice for the sins of the people once a year. Our God is a god of holiness, and when people act in ways contrary to his will they come under his judgment and condemnation. By rights, they – we! – deserve to be destroyed for their sinfulness. But, in his love, God provides a way that that judgment can be satisfied without destruction of the ones who have sinned, a way that forgiveness may be obtained. But this forgiveness is costly, requiring sacrifice and death. This is where the high priest comes in.

Once a year, on the day known as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter in to the most holy place of the temple and offer a sacrifice on behalf of the people. According to the instructions in Leviticus 16, he was to take three animals with him. The first was a ram, to offer as a sacrifice for his own sinfulness. Having been cleansed of his own sin, he was then able to offer sacrifices for the people, by sacrificing one of the goats and letting the other (the proverbial ‘scapegoat’) go free, symbolically carrying away the sins of the people. By obedience to these commandments, the Israelites demonstrated their reliance upon God for forgiveness. Only the sacrifice commanded by God, offered by the high priest chosen by God, was effective in satisfying the holiness of God. God provided the way, the person and the sacrifice.

Human Priests (Heb 5:1-4)

Fast forward 1600 years or so to the time of the letter to the Hebrews. The original recipients of this letter clearly had a great fascination with the history and the traditions of the Jewish people. The writer has now spent four chapters developing the idea that Jesus is the fulfilment of and far superior to all of the trappings of Judaism. Jesus is far superior to prophets (1:1-2), angels (1:4-2:18), Moses and Joshua (3-4).

But, as we have seen, God’s provision of priests to minister on behalf of his people was one of the most important and most distinctive aspects of Jewish religion. How could this ‘new’ religion, Christianity, possibly survive without enjoying the benefits of this priestly ministry? Surprise, surprise: the author responds by showing how Jesus is better than any human high priest.

He does not say that the priesthood is bad, merely that it is insufficient, imperfect. Priests were chosen from among men because they were then representatives, able to understand the people whom they represent because they were one of them. The priest is able to be sympathetic, to ‘deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness’ (5:2). He knows what it is to be human, to be imperfect, confused, rebellious. Can you imagine what it would be like to have, say, a cow or an alien as our priest, our mediator, our representative? That would be like having a man appointed as the Minister for Women’s Affairs!

Yet this strength, this sympathy with those who are ‘ignorant and going astray’ is also a weakness, a flaw in the system. Being himself subject to weakness, the priest must first offer sacrifice for his own sins (5:3). What’s more, he must offer the same sacrifices year after year, a point the writer returns to in chapter 7. In fact, even the apparent strength of having a human representative is shown to be flawed when we realise that, in the period in which this letter was written there had been few high priests in Israel who manifested the personal qualities expected of them.3 Priests died, and a good and faithful high priest could be followed immediately by a faithless and corrupt one. One need only think of the high priest Caiaphas and his father-in-law (and also high priest) Annas, who presided over the sham trial of Jesus to see how far the priesthood had fallen.

Jesus, the Great high priest (Heb 5:5-10)

A greater calling (Heb 5:5-6)

This system of human priests, though God-given, good and beneficial, was not perfect. As with so many things in Hebrews, it serves as a pointer to something greater, the shadow of a perfect reality. The writer make the connection of shadow to reality by observing that just as Aaron was chosen by God to serve in this ministry, now God has chosen Christ.

Did you know that ‘Christ’ is not actually Jesus’ surname? Christ, or the Hebrew equivalent Messiah, both have the meaning ‘anointed one’, describing someone set apart for God through having oil poured on their head. This was symbolic of God choosing them for himself. We rightly associate this idea with kingship, for the very first King of Israel, Saul, was anointed by Samuel to be King.4 King David was anointed not once but three times!5 But we must remember that Aaron and successive priests were also anointed with oil in order to be consecrated as priests.6 So when we speak of Jesus as Christ we are proclaiming both his kingship and his priesthood.

Where Aaron’s call was to serve in God’s ‘house’, Jesus is called the Son of God (5:5), the son who rules over God’s house.7 In certain cultures, if you seek a favour from the king you approach a member of the king’s household, depending on who was accessible to you. If you know a servant, you approach that servant who then becomes your representative, as when Joseph asked the cupbearer to bring his case before Pharaoh. But Joseph found out that servants don’t make great representatives, for he waited two years for the cupbearer to bring his case to Pharaoh’s notice!8 So if you know a member of the king’s council or, better still, the king’s family you approach them. When Mordecai learned of a plot against the king, he approached Queen Esther and his words were heard because of the favour in which the king held Esther. The ultimate, then, is to have the king’s favoured son as your representative – and that is exactly the case here! God says to Jesus, ‘You are my beloved son,’ and it is this Jesus who serves as our mediator, our representative. We can have confidence approaching the throne of grace, because we do so in the name of the favoured son, Jesus.

And this son is appointed a priest forever (5:6). Aaron was called to be high priest, but Aaron died; Jesus is called to be our eternal high priest. Never again will the high priest die, to be succeeded by an inferior, faithless high priest until we are eventually left with the likes of Annas and Caiaphas. No, this high priest, Jesus Christ, is our priest forever.

But what does it mean that he is a priest ‘in the order of Melchizedek’? We will return to this topic when we look at chapter 7 in a couple of weeks’ time, but for now I just want to point out that it took both Aaron and Melchizedek to help us understand the priesthood of Christ. Jesus represents his people as Aaron did, but he also receives the honour of the people as Melchizedek did. Aaron was high priest, but Melchizedek was both priest and king. Both Aaron and Melchizedek had high callings from God, but Jesus Christ has the highest calling of all, that of a Son over God’s house with a ministry that is eternal.

A greater response to weakness (Heb 5:7-10)

Both Aaron and Jesus were subject to weakness (5:2), yet their responses to it were vastly different. Whilst Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving, amongst other things, the instructions on how Aaron was to be consecrated, Aaron was demonstrating the weakness of his character by leading the people into idolatry.9 He succumbed to the pressure from the people to turn aside from the very God who had delivered them from Egypt. Instead of pointing them back to Yahweh, the one who had saved them and provided for them, he foolishly agreed to fashion a golden calf as an idol to ‘go before [them]’ in the way that only the LORD himself could.10 Even when confronted with his sin, Aaron sought to deny responsibility.11

Jesus’ response to weakness and suffering was very different. Though he, too, was pressured to turn aside from God on many occasions, he nevertheless ‘offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death’ (5:7). There is only one God, and Jesus kept his eyes firmly fixed on him. Only his Father could deliver him, only his Father was worthy of prayers and petitions, only his Father should receive his praise and honour.

Yet this is not to say that Jesus endured these hardships without emotion. In fact, we are told his prayers were offered ‘with loud cries and tears’ (5:7). Jesus felt the burden of temptation, being tempted in every way, but never gave in to it.12 Aaron and his line were able to sympathise with sinful people for they had walked the same path to the same destination; but, though he starts at the same place, our great high priest leads his people along the right path to the right destination. Hear the invitation of the one who said, ‘Come, follow me’.13

And he suffered. Oh, how he suffered! His sufferings, great and small, give us confidence to know that we can trust him, that he knows our needs and that he has the answer. When he invites, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,’14 we know that he himself endured weariness to the point of exhaustion.15 When he promised ‘living water’ so that we will never thirst again, he knew exactly what it meant to be hungry and thirsty.16 And we know that the same Jesus who commands us to deny ourself and take up our cross17 did exactly that: he prayed in a garden with loud cries and tears – to the point of sweating blood! – to the one who could save him from death, denying his own desire for self-preservation, self-determination and self-will, instead submitting reverently to the will of his father;18 he carried a Roman crucifix through the streets of Jerusalem until he could physically carry it no longer; he was nailed to that cross, suffered 6 hours of agony and died, all in obedience and submission.

Make no mistake, Jesus was no hapless victim of circumstance; he chose to endure these sufferings. At his arrest he said to his sword-wielding companion, ‘Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?’19 Although he is the son over God’s house, though by rights he is entitled to every privilege of sonship, nevertheless he chose to endure these sufferings in order that he might learn first-hand the cost of obedience (5:8).

And when this path of obedience had been walked to the end (that is, ‘made perfect’), ‘he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him’ (5:9). The exact connection between Christ’s obedience and salvation for those who obey him is not spelled out by the author here, but there are at least two valid options. The first, and most obvious, is that by his obedience Jesus was executing the Father’s plan of redemption. Our sins, our weaknesses and failings, were all placed on Christ. He suffered death on a Roman cross as the righteous punishment for those sins. Christians call this transfer of our sins on to Christ ‘justification’, and this is sometimes explained by saying that in making sacrifice for our sin Jesus has made it ‘just as if I never sinned’.

If that were the sole message of the gospel we should cry out in grateful joy, ‘Thank you Jesus!’ But, in the extravagant grace of God, there is more. For in place of the judgment we deserve, we are granted favoured status as obedient sons and daughters of God! Rather than a one-way transfer – our sins onto him – it is a two-way exchange – his obedience onto us. Justification makes us not only ‘just as if I never sinned’ but also ‘just as if I always obeyed’. We don’t just approach the throne of grace in the name of the favoured son but as favoured sons and daughters!

Friends, you are invited to draw near to God. And you may do so confidently… but only on the basis of this exchange. If you are not a Christian, if you have not confessed your sins and sought and received his forgiveness then for you the throne of God will not be one of grace but of judgement. Now is the time to draw near to him, to seek his mercy and grace, to partake of this wonderful two-way exchange. Don’t be like the Israelites who, having followed God through the desert and met with him at Sinai, baulked at entering into the land he had promised them. The next day, they repented of their faithlessness and tried to enter the land, but they had missed their chance. God was not with them. What a difference a day can make! Friends, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’!20

We have a priest, who sympathises with us and can represent us to God because he is one of us. We have a high priest, who is called by God to offer the sacrifice for sin that no one else can offer. We have a great high priest who, although a son, did not claim the privileges of a son in a bid to spare himself, but obeyed his father all the way unto death, and in so doing obtained eternal salvation for those who obey him. We have a greater high priest than any who went before, who has a greater calling than Aaron and his progeny. He offered a greater response to suffering and a greater obedience in the face of it, obtaining a greater – an eternal – salvation for his people.

Therefore, since we have [such] a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God… Let us… approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Heb 4:14, 16).

A rebuke for spiritual infants (5:11-14)

I would really like to end this message right there. After all, getting to tell people about the work of Jesus in saving his people, calling people into God’s presence… well, that’s like catnip for preachers! But the writer to the Hebrews ends this chapter on a sombre note and that is where we must finish also.

Doubtless the first recipients of this letter had heard at least some of these things before. By this time they ought to have been teaching, not having to re-learn them (5:12). But sadly that was not the case. Instead, they are accused of being ‘slow to learn’ (5:11). They are compared to children, who continue on a diet consisting solely of milk long after they ought to be progressing to solid food as well.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with a baby drinking milk. Within the next couple of weeks, God-willing, Katrie and I will welcome a new child into our family. That child will, for a period of time, rely entirely upon milk for nutrition. He or she will not have developed to the point that they are able to process other foods. But what if we celebrate a first birthday without solid food? A second? More?? Obviously we would be worried at this point, because we know that milk is not enough to sustain a growing child indefinitely. The milk is supposed to be an enabler for development, but if that development is not taking place then something is wrong. The same is true of spiritual development. We start with one thing that sustains us, but we are expected to grow and mature as a result, to a point where we can also take advantage of other sustenance as well.

We’re not just talking about knowledge and learning here. These are important, but must be coupled with actions – turning away from sin, trusting in God. Together, these are the ‘milk’, the foundational diet of the Christian. If you are not a Christian, or you are a new Christian, it is these that must be your focus. Don’t worry about the doctrine of predestination, or deciding whether you are a pre-millenialist or an amillenialist. These will follow if and when the time is right. Repentance and faith – these are what will sustain you as you grow. Ask God for these things, and trust him to provide them, just as any parent would provide for their child.

You will never outgrow this ‘milk’ – it will always have an important place in your diet – but as you grow you will come to draw on other things for nourishment as well. For as you mature, you will gradually be introduced to situations where you must ‘distinguish good from evil’ (5:14). You will encounter challenges, temptations and sufferings. These will come at the right time, as decided by your Father; for food that may cause great harm to an infant can bring great nutritional benefit to a child. When you encounter these things, you may need new teaching; but, more importantly, you will need to apply the teaching that you already have. It is by ‘constant use’ and ‘training’ (5:14) that Christians become mature, words that imply discipline and focus.

And so I close with an appeal to you who are Christians: are you mature and maturing? Is the solid food of Christian teaching making a difference in your life, or does it just go in one end and out the other? Are you making time to study God’s word? Are you constantly making use of the teachings you have received, training yourself in how to apply them? Do the situations in your life – the challenges, the temptations, the sufferings etc. – do they make you stronger? Or are you hiding behind the privileges of sonship to try and escape them? Are you ‘teachers’ of the gospel, teaching the gospel by the life you live (and using words when necessary)? Or are you slow to learn, needing someone to teach you the fundamentals again and again?

Take some time this week – today! – to honestly consider your life. If the findings are not good, go back to the spiritual milk of repentance and faith. Swallow your pride, and confess your shortcomings to God and trust in him to provide just the food you need when you need it. The wrong food at the wrong time will bring great harm; but the right food at the right time will bring growth and maturity.

Bibliography

Adam, Peter. The Majestic Son: Reading Hebrews Today. Edited by Paul Barnett, Reading the Bible Today. Sydney: Aquila Press, 1992.

Bruce, F. F. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Rev. ed, The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990.


Endnotes

  1. 1 Sam 13:11-14.
  2. Peter Adam, The Majestic Son: Reading Hebrews Today, ed. Paul Barnett, Reading the Bible Today (Sydney: Aquila Press, 1992), 47-8.
  3. F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1990), 119.
  4. 1 Sam 10:1.
  5. 1 Sam 16:3; 2 Sam 2:4; 5:3.
  6. Exod 28:41; cf. Exod 29:21, 29; 30:30; 40:13; Lev 6:20; 8:2, 12, 30; Num 3:3.
  7. Heb 3:6.
  8. Gen 40:23-41:1.
  9. Exod 32.
  10. Exod 32:1.
  11. Exod 32:22-4.
  12. Heb 4:15.
  13. Matt 4:19; Mark 1:17.
  14. Matt 11:28.
  15. Luke 8:23.
  16. John 4:14.
  17. Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23.
  18. Luke 22:42.
  19. Matt 26:53.
  20. Heb 4:7; cf. Ps 95:7-8.
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Jesus: Faith Makes Perfect (Hebrews 11)

by on Nov.17, 2008, under Sermon

(The following message was preached at St. John’s on the 12/10/08.)

Hebrews 11 is one of the best-loved and most-hated portions of Scripture. Best-loved because we are presented with a catalogue of the heroes of the faith, men and women who have gone before us and lived a life commendable and commended for its faithfulness. Most-hated because, by comparison, we cannot help but feel a little shabby. Speaking for myself, I know that my life does not always reflect my faith. I say I believe in Jesus, but what does that faith amount to? How would my life be different without it? Today we shall attempt to address these questions and more.

One of the great dangers of studying such a well-known passage is that we risk losing sight of its context. Consider, for example, how we read 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s magnificent hymn about love. I have yet to attend a wedding where this text was placed in its proper context – a rebuke to a church intent on showing off their own gifts, rather than using them for each other’s benefit. It is when we understand the larger picture that we feel the sting of the Apostle’s words: ‘If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal’ (1 Cor. 13:1). Similarly, sometimes, at a low point in my relationship with God, I have turned to Hebrews chapter 11 looking for inspiration. Only rarely have I stopped to wonder why the author turns to the subject of faith at this point in his epistle. So that is where we shall start today, with context.

This discussion of faith does not just spring out of nowhere, although our English translations do their level best to conceal this from us. For the Greek word translated here as ‘faith’ has been used both positively and negatively throughout the letter to this point. Positively, the author has written of trust,1 faithfulness,2 faith,3 belief,4 confidence;5 and negatively of unbelief6 and disobedience7 – all of which derive from the same Greek word. No wonder he feels the need to clarify exactly what he means by it!

Most recently, at the end of chapter 10, he has quoted from the prophet Habakkuk, saying:

“He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” (10:37-8; cf. Hab. 2:3, 4)

This in itself is quoted in support of his strong call for perseverance: ‘Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful’ (10:23). So the flow of thought for the entire letter to this point is something like this: Jesus is in every way superior to the teachers and trappings of the Old Covenant,8 for he is the mediator and High Priest9 of the New Covenant10 which has superseded the Old; you have accepted him as your prophet, high priest and sacrifice so hold on to him rather than attempting to return to that which is obsolete;11 indeed there is now no sacrifice for sin other than Jesus,12 and to reject him is to face judgment;13 so you need to persevere with Jesus in order to receive that which he has promised.14 For, he says,

“He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” (10:37-8)

Hebrews 11 follows directly from this and is, in fact, the author’s exposition and interpretation of that passage from Habakkuk: he shows us what it means to ‘live by faith'; and he warns us against shrinking back. This will be our roadmap as we navigate Hebrews 11.

Live by faith!

As already mentioned, the Apostle has used the word ‘faith’ many times in his letter, and done so in many different contexts. Yet even now, he is not terribly concerned with giving us a definition of what faith is; his interest is in showing us what faith does. Thus we get the briefest of definitions – ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ – before moving on into examples of what it means to live by (or according to) faith.

There are 9 individuals in this chapter who are specifically commended for their faith. Each of them deserves a sermon of their own; you will be pleased to hear, however, that it is not my intention to offer you 9 mini-sermons today! Instead I shall do my best to draw out some of the things the author is teaching us about what living by faith looks like.

1) Faith trusts God’s word… and obeys his commands!

Faith is our response to what God says. Sometimes this means proclaiming God’s truths even when they are unpopular, unacceptable or incomprehensible to our society: ‘By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible’ (11:3). It prompts us to obey God’s instruction: ‘Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going’ (11:8). In Noah’s case, both of these were true, for he was surely ridiculed for his actions yet by faith he obeyed God anyway.

We are told that Abraham left his home ‘even though he did not know where he was going’ (11:8). Sometimes God’s word is a lantern that lights only one or two steps in front of us; trusting God’s word means stepping out along the path you can see and relying on God for the rest. Abel did not have as full a picture of God as Abraham did, yet Abel recognised God as worthy of honour and worship and acted accordingly. Similarly Abraham did not have the law as it was given to Moses, but he did trust in what he had received from God.

There is a gentle rebuke here for the recipients of this epistle. They were possessed of a much greater revelation of God than Abel, Abraham or Moses. Yet whilst they had started out strong15 they were now drifting back in to the rituals and practices of Judaism. What should have encouraged them to go on was instead causing them to drift away. They had heard but not yet ingested the ‘elementary truths of God’s word’ (5:12) – they were refusing milk let alone dining on solid food.16 Perhaps they were disillusioned because they could not see how God could possibly be in control when they were enduring ‘great suffering’ (10:32), ‘insult and persecution’ (10:33) ‘prison’ and confiscation of property (10:34). ‘Faith,’ the Apostle says in response, ‘is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ (11:1).

This rebuke is also for us. Does God’s word lead to a response in your life? Are you worried because you do not understand God’s entire plan for your life? Don’t be, for in this you are like Abraham. Mark Twain once said, ‘It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.’ We must act in obedience to the parts of God’s word that we do understand, then trust in him to make the rest clear when the time is right.

2) Faith trusts more in God than in God’s gifts

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. (11:17-19)

Abraham had been promised that he would become the father of many nations17 and that it would be through Isaac that this would come about.18 Yet when God asked him to give up his son, he obeyed. We are told that this is because he ‘reasoned that God could raise the dead’. This is a strong contrast to the story told in Genesis 17, where he had tried to convince God to bless Ishmael as it was clear to him that his wife Sarah would never conceive. Evidently he had learned his lesson about trying to control the way God fulfilled his promises.

Perhaps you, too, have some vision of the way your life is ‘supposed’ to pan out. Maybe God has given you a child or a spouse, a job, a house or something else in response to prayer. What would you do if he called you to give that person or possession up for his sake, in the cause of the gospel? Could you do it? Would you? This requires great faith, but be assured that the one who asks it of you is forever faithful.

3) Faith looks forward, not back

Hope is an intrinsic part of faith, and hope by its very nature looks forward rather than backward. We are told that, whilst these heroes of faith ‘did not receive the things promised’ nevertheless ‘they saw them and welcomed them from a distance’ (11:13). For them, the fact that God had said it was sufficient for them to believe it. Furthermore they were not content to settle for less than what God promised; that is where their eyes were focused. ‘If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country — a heavenly one’ (11:15-16).

Are your eyes fixed on the promises of God? Are you ‘longing for a better country’ or are you enamoured of the country you are in… or even the one you have been called out of? It’s true, isn’t it, that we sometimes become comfortable in our routine to the point where change seems too much like hard work, and so we potentially miss out on God’s blessings. Worse still is when we deliberately turn our back on God and return to the situation we were in before he called us. Please don’t settle for either of these – you can’t afford it, and we as a church can’t afford it. You need to press on and ‘persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised’ (10:36).

Don’t shrink back!

The Apostle is desperate to impress upon us this need to persevere. This is evident from the fact that he bookends this chapter with encouragement to press on and not to hold back: he starts by saying, ‘we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved’ (10:39); and he concludes, ‘therefore… let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (12:1).

As we have heard many times in this series, this letter was probably written to Jewish Christians. As persecution arose and intensified against them, however, the prospect of simply merging back into mainstream Judaism (which was protected by Roman law) rather than holding on to their Christian faith (which, increasingly, was not) would have become increasingly attractive. The author’s method of persuasion throughout the letter to the Hebrews has been to show how much superior Jesus is to anything offered by Old Covenant Judaism: he is superior to prophets19 (including the greatly revered prophet Moses20 ) and angels;21 he represents a greater salvation,22 for he is a greater high priest23 who serves in a greater tabernacle24 as mediator of a New and better Covenant,25 offering a greater sacrifice for sins.26 His consistent argument has been that the old ‘is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves’ (10:1) and that ‘what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear’ (8:13).

True to form, the Apostle continues this theme. He has presented the heroes of the Jewish faith. ‘These were all commended for their faith,’ he writes, ‘yet none of them received what had been promised’ (11:39). This is not to say that they did not receive any part of what was promised, for this would clearly be untrue. For Abraham had a son according to promise and he entered the land that was promised (11:11); similarly Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Joshua all receive in part according to God’s promises. But they all died before seeing God’s promises completely fulfilled. Their faith was in this sense imperfect. The reason for this is that ‘God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect’ (11:40).

Faith made perfect

Before we go any further we need to understand this word ‘perfect’. The idea is of completion and wholeness, a goal or objective achieved. (It may please you to know that this sermon is nearly ‘perfect’ – i.e. I am nearly done!) Thus Jesus shared in our humanity in order to be made perfect through suffering (2:10) and ‘once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him’ (5:9); the sacrifices made under the old covenant were not able to ‘make perfect those who draw near to worship’ (10:1) but Jesus is able ‘because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’ (10:14).

Perfection is when the shadow becomes the reality, the dream takes on flesh, and the unseen heavenly reality becomes the seen earthly reality. It comes as no surprise then that the author is not shy about relating the ‘something better’ that God had planned (11:40):

‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’ (12:1-3)

The only faith that is perfect is the one that rests in Jesus, ‘the author and perfecter of our faith’ (12:2). And for more on that, you will need to join us again in 3 weeks time when we pick up with Hebrews 12…


Endnotes

  1. 2:13
  2. 2:17; 3:2, 5; 10:23
  3. 4:2; 6:1, 12; 10:22, 38
  4. 4:3; 10:39
  5. 6:9
  6. 3:12, 19
  7. 4:6; 4:11
  8. Chapters 1-4
  9. 4:14ff.
  10. Chapter 8
  11. 8:13
  12. 10:26b
  13. 10:27
  14. 10:36
  15. 10:32-4
  16. 5:12-13
  17. Gen. 17:4
  18. Gen. 21:12
  19. 1:1-2
  20. 3:3
  21. 1:4
  22. 2:3
  23. 8:1-2
  24. 9:11
  25. 8:13
  26. 9:14
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Hebrews 11 – Faith makes perfect (study)

by on Oct.12, 2008, under Bible Study

Warm Up

  1. How do you respond to ‘heroes’? Are you inspired? Or are there some that you love to hate?
  2. How would you describe ‘faith’?

Bible Study

Read Hebrews 11. There are 9 people specifically commended for their faith by name:

  • Abel (see Gen. 4:1-15);
  • Enoch (Gen. 5:21);
  • Noah (Gen. 6:9 – 7:24);
  • Abraham (Gen. 12:1-5; 15:1-6; 22:1-18);
  • Isaac (Gen. 27:27-29);
  • Jacob (Gen. 48:1:, 8-22);
  • Joseph (Gen 50:24-25);
  • Moses (Ex. 1:16, 22; 2:1-15; Ex. 12:21-23); and
  • Rahab (Josh. 2; 6:22-25).

Take a couple of minutes to look up any you are not familiar with. Pick two or three of these and answer the following questions:

  1. How did faith play a part in their life?
  2. Who or what did they trust in? How did this affect the way they acted? How does this compare to any other people mentioned in their story?
  3. Pick one of the events described in their life. How might it have turned out differently without faith?

The author of Hebrews makes a point of the fact that ‘all these people were still living by faith when they died’ (v. 13; see also vv. 39-40).

  1. Why is this important? (see especially v. 40)
  2. What is the ‘something better’ of v. 40? In what way is it better?

The word translated ‘perfect’ in verse 40 means something like ‘complete’ or ‘fulfilled according to its purpose’. You may wish to check this out in other places where it is used in Hebrews e.g. 2:10; 5:9; 7:19, 28; 9:9 (translated as ‘clear’ in the NIV, but it is the same Greek word); 10:1, 14; and 12:23.

  1. How then was the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, etc. imperfect?
  2. How does Christ make them – and us – perfect?

Discussion

  1. In what ways can you identify with the people mentioned in Hebrews 11? How are you different?
  2. What does ‘faith’ mean for you personally? How does faith in Jesus change the way you think, speak, act and live? How should it?
  3. How is God calling you to trust him today? Take some time to pray, either by yourself or as a group, about these things. Pray as specifically as you can – so instead of praying that you will trust God in your studies or in your relationships, pray for his help in next week’s exam or for the healing of relationship with your boss etc.

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