Hebrews 06(13–20)


Right at the end of the book of Hebrews the writer refers to what he’s written as a ‘word of exhortation’. In other words, he’s written this letter to exhort his readers, or to encourage them strongly or to appeal to them. He’s written to warn them about something and he’s exhorting them to do something about it.

And we’ve seen that this is the case. Although there’s been a lot of theology — and a lot of doctrine about the Son of God who is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, but who came to earth as one of us to be our great high priest in the order of Melchizedek — the writer has punctuated what he has said with exhortations and warnings. We must pay more careful attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? Fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest we confess. We are his house — his people — if we hold on to our confidence in God’s promises and the hope of which we boast. See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of us has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. Encourage one another daily so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. Since the promise of entering God’s rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter God’s rest, so that no-one will fall. Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. Let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity.

In many ways this letter is like a sermon. It’s as if the writer has prepared a sermon, but instead of preaching it in person, he’s had to write it all down and post it to the people for them to read. And in the course of this written sermon, he keeps making the same point over and over and over again: You need to stand firm. You need to persevere. You need to keep believing. Don’t drift away. Don’t have a sinful, unbelieving heart. Don’t let go. Pay attention to what you have heard. Fix your thoughts on Jesus. Keep believing God’s promises. Keeping believing in the Saviour. Keep learning about the Saviour. And don’t turn back.

As I’ve said before, most of the commentators believe the book of Hebrews was written for Jewish Christians — so it was written for Jewish people who had come to believe in Christ — but who were now being tempted to abandon their faith in Christ and to return to the old covenant religion of the Old Testament. So, back to the religion of the prophets and angels and of Moses and Joshua and of earthly priests serving in an earthly temple. But why go back to them when Jesus Christ is so much better? He’s better than the prophets and angels, because he’s the Eternal Son of God. He’s better than Moses, because Moses was a servant in God’s house, where Jesus is the Son over God’s house. And he’s better than Joshua, because Joshua led the people into the land of Canaan, whereas the Lord Jesus leads us into God’s eternal rest. And he’s better than the Levitical priests, because while they served in the temple in Jerusalem, which was only an earthly copy of the real heavenly temple, the Lord Jesus has gone into heaven itself to represent us before the Father. So, don’t turn back, because what you’re turning back to is inferior to what we have in Christ.

And do you remember last week? He issued them a very severe warning that it’s impossible for those who fall away from Christ to be brought back to repentance. So, if they reject Christ as the only Saviour of the world, then how can they be brought back again? And, as I said last week, this is one of those warnings we need from time to time to shake us up out of our lethargy and to stir up our devotion to the Lord. It’s as if they’ve standing near the edge of a cliff and the writer is worried that they’re moving too close to the edge. And so, he’s waving his warns at them to warn them; and he’s shouting with all his might to appeal to them to come away from the edge, because they’re in danger of falling; and to come back closer to Christ, who is standing on safer ground.

And this book was not only written for them, for those believers who lived long ago when this letter was first written. It’s for believers in every generation. And it’s for you. It’s for you, because there are always times in our life when we’re discouraged or when we’re downcast or when we’re upset or when we’re disappointed or when we’re confused or when we’re anxious or when we’re angry or when we’re sick or weak and the Devil likes to take advantage of those times to try to lead us away from Christ. He likes to tempt us to think that we’d be better off without Christ. And so, we need these warnings to shake us up so that we’ll walk away from the cliff face and back to a deeper devotion to Christ.

Last week’s passage ended with the writer telling his readers that we’re not to become lazy, but we’re to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. God has promised his people eternal life in his eternal rest. And we inherit what he has promised, or we receive what he has promised, through faith and patience. It’s through faith, because we must put our faith in Christ who is the only Saviour of the world. But, we also need patience, don’t we? We need patience because we do not enter God’s eternal rest immediately. We’re not immediately transported into the new heavens and earth the moment we believe. No, we must go on living in this world, where we face troubles and trials and where our faith is often put under pressure and where we’re tempted to give up the faith in order to have an easier life.

And so, while we wait to enter God’s rest, we need the kind of patience that helps us to persevere and to put up with troubles and to keep going. I remember visiting an elderly woman once and the whole time I was with her, she was massaging her leg, back and forth and back and forth. And she was massaging her leg becase it was so sore. Whatever pain killers she had weren’t giving her enough relief and so we had to bear this pain patiently. She had to put up with it. And that’s the patience believers need. We need to bear patiently with all the troubles and trials of life and to put up with them all while we wait to enter God’s eternal rest.

And having mentioned faith and patience and God’s promises, the writer goes on in today’s passage to say more about these things.

Verses 13 to 15

And he refers in verse 13 to Abraham who is the spiritual father of all who believe. And what does he tell us about Abraham? He tells us that when God made his promise to Abraham, he swore by himself, saying, ‘I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.’ He’s quoting from Genesis 22:17. That’s the chapter in Genesis which recounts the time when the Lord told Abraham to take his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loved, and sacrifice him to God as a burnt offering. And do you remember the story? After God told Abraham what he was to do, Abraham got up the next morning and saddled his donkey and set off with his son and two of his servants. And when they came near to Mount Moriah, Abraham left the servants and went on with his son. And when they arrived at the right spot, Abraham made an altar and arranged the wood and he bound his son and placed him on the altar and he raised his knife to slay his son, when the Lord finally, finally spoke from heaven and stopped him. And it turns out that the Lord wanted to see whether Abraham truly feared him and whether he was prepared to offer up to God the most precious thing he had in all the world to make up for his sins. And afterwards, after the Lord provided a ram as a substitute for his son, the Lord spoke to Abraham and said:

I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make our descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies and, through your offspring, all nations on the earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

And God’s promise to Abraham that day was really a confirmation of the promise which he made to Abraham back in chapter 12 to make Abraham into a great nation and to give him and his descendants a land of their own own to live on. In other words, he would give Abraham a people and a place where they would enjoy the presence of God in their midst. We’ve thought about those three Ps before: people, place and the presence of God.

So, that was God’s promise to Abraham. And our writer picks up the little detail from Genesis 22 that the Lord swore by himself. And by swearing by himself in that way the Lord was guaranteeing his promise. He was underlining his commitment to his promise. It was as if he was signing his name to what he had said; and adding a seal to confirm that he will surely do for Abraham all that he has promised. Isn’t that what we do with legal documents? When I was Clerk of Presbytery in the Dublin and Munster Presbytery, we had a big seal which we used when selling property to stamp the deeds of transfer to confirm that we, the presbytery, agreed to this transfer. And so, when God swore by himself, he was saying: This is my guarantee and I will surely do it.

And look now at verse 15: ‘And so, after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised.’ What did he receive? He received a son, didn’t he? When God first made his promise to Abraham, Abraham was 75 years old. And he had to wait 25 years before Isaac was born. And those 25 years were difficult, weren’t they? In fact, there was that time when their patience seemed to run out and Abraham and Sarah thought they could give God a helping hand, because Abraham could have a son with Hagar, who was Sarah’s servant. But the Lord made clear that Hagar’s son was not the promised son and that Sarah would have a son even in her old age. And do you remember how Sarah laughed? She laughed at the idea that she would have a son when she was well past the age for having children. But the Lord was faithful to his promise; and eventually, 25 years after first making the promise, Isaac was born.

Of course, he was only one son. And God had promised to make Abraham into a mighty nation. But Isaac was the first of many who would be descended from Abraham. And so, Abraham received in part what God had promised to give to him.

And what about the promise of a place? By the time Abraham died, he owned a portion of the Promised Land. He owned the field where his wife was buried. But that one field was also the first portion of the whole; and Abraham believed that one day his descendants would possess all of the Promised Land.

And the point is, while Abraham received what God promised, he had to wait patiently for it. He didn’t receive what God has promised immediately. He had to wait for it. He waited 25 years for a son to be born. He waited longer to own part of the land. He had to wait to receive what God promised. When God makes a promise, we don’t receive what he promises immediately, but we must wait for it with faith and patience, because it’s through faith and patience that we inherit the promises.

Verses 16 to 18

But waiting patiently is never easy, is it? It’s never easy. And so, to reassure us, and to help us to believe and to wait patiently, God added an oath to his promise. That’s what verses 16 to 18 are about.

So, the writer begins with a principle about oaths in general. He says that men swear by someone greater than themselves and the oath they swear confirms what is said and puts an end to all arguments.

When someone is called to be a witness in a court case, they must first swear an oath to reassure everyone that the evidence they give is true. They promise on oath to tell the truth. And, of course, if they don’t tell the truth, then they become liable to punishment for perjury. And, in the ancient world, people would swear an oath when making a promise or bearing witness to something. For instance, the Romans would swear by the name of a god, or by the name of the emperor. ‘I swear by the name of Mars.’ ‘I swear by the name of Augustus Caesar.’ And by taking an oath like this, they were saying: ‘May Mars punish me’ or ‘May the emperor punish me’ if what I say is untrue. And among the Jews, the people would swear by the name of the Lord: ‘As surely as the Lord lives’. And, of course, as the writer says, men would swear by someone greater than themselves. That is, they would swear by the name of someone with the authority to hold them accountable for telling lies. They would swear by the name of someone with the power and authority to punish them if need be. And by means of these oaths, they confirmed what was said and they put an end to all arguments. What I’m saying is true. I swear it.

And so, we can imagine a man in difficulties, who was counting on a neighbour for help. ‘My neighbour promised he would help me.’ And the man’s wife asks, ‘But how can you be sure he will help you?’ ‘I’m sure because, he not only promised, but he swore an oath that he would help me.’ And so, even though that man might have to wait a long time for the promised help, he’s willing to hang on and wait patiently, because — after all — ‘my neighbour swore he would help me’.

And in a similar way, because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. So, God wanted to reassure the heirs of his promise. Though they might have to wait a long time to receive what he promises, he wanted to reassure them and to give them confidence so that they wouldn’t give up hoping, but would continue to believe and to wait patiently. And the way he confirmed his promise was by swearing to it.

Of course, he had to swear by himself, because there’s no-one greater than God himself. He’s not accountable to anyone. He doesn’t have to answer to anyone. No one is able to punish God if he fails to keep his promise. And so, since there’s no one greater than God, he swore by himself. But that’s okay, because as our writer tells us it is impossible for God to lie. God is infinitely, eternally and unchangeable true. He is always true; and he cannot lie.

And the writer refers to two unchangeable things. And when he refers to two unchangeable things, he’s referring to God’s promise and to God’s oath. He will never go back on what he has promised; and he will never go back on what he has sworn. That’s what we do. We make a promise and then we try to get out of it. We swear an oath, and then say we didn’t mean it and we had our fingers crossed. That’s the kind of thing we do, because we’re sinners. But God is infinitely and eternally and unchangeably true. He cannot lie. He cannot go back on his word. He cannot go back on what he has sworn. Our God is immutable. He is unchangeable. He cannot change. We change all the time. But God does not change. Numbers 23:19 says: ‘God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfil?’ No, God always does what he says he will do; and he always fulfils what he has promised. So, we’re able to rely on those two unchangeable things: we can rely on God’s promise which is unchangeable; and we can rely on God’s oath which is unchangeable. He won’t change his mind and he won’t try to wriggle out of his promise and oath. He will do what he has promised.

And what has he promised? The writer has been talking about God’s promise to Abraham to give him a people and to give his people a place where they would enjoy the presence of God. And, of course, if you remember our studies in Genesis, you’ll remember that God’s promise of a people and a place refer not just to the people of Israel in the land of Canaan, but they refer ultimately to the church of Jesus Christ in the new heavens and earth where all of God’s people will one day live and where we’ll enjoy the presence of God forever. God’s promise to Abraham was the promise of eternal life.

And then, in verse 17, the writer refers to the heirs of that promise. And do you know who the heirs of that promise are? He’s referring to us. He’s referring to everyone who shares Abraham’s faith. God has promised to give everyone who believes a place in his presence in the new heavens and earth where we will live with God forever.

And though God has promised us eternal life in his presence, we’re not there yet, but we must wait for it. We must wait for it with faith and with patience. We must wait for it with faith, because the promise is for those who believe. And we must wait for it with patience, because there are many troubles and trials for us to endure in this life before we enter the life to come.

In verse 18 the writer describes believers as those ‘who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us’. And so, he describes us as refugees. We’ve been hearing about people fleeing from Ukraine for safety. And believers are refugees. We’re fleeing from this fallen world, which is destined to perish. And everyone who remains part of this fallen world is destined to perish as well, because Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead and to punish all those who did not believe in him. They will be punished for all that they did wrong.

And believers are fleeing from this fallen world, which is destined to perish. And we’re fleeing because we have believed God’s promises of a new and better world to come. And so, God offers us hope. He offers us the hope of everlasting life in that new and better world to come. He offers it to us; he holds it out to us; and we take hold of it by faith: by trusting in God’s promise of salvation through Jesus Christ who gave up his life to pay for our sins and who shed his blood to cleanse us. He died to bring us to God. And God holds out the hope of eternal life to us and we take hold of it by believing in Christ.

And because we have to wait for eternal life in God’s presence, and because waiting is hard, because life in this troubled world is hard, God has given us his promise and he’s sworn an oath to confirm his promise. And by means of his promise and oath, he encourages us to keep believing and to keep going. Don’t give up, he says. Don’t drift away. Don’t turn back. Don’t fall away. I know you’ve been waiting a long time. And I know it’s hard. I know the troubles you’ve had. I know the disappointments. I know the sadness. But don’t give up. Keep going. Keep hold of the hope I’ve given you of a new and better world to come when all sorrow will be gone and you’ll have perfect peace and rest in my presence forever. Hold on and keep going, because I promise you, I swear to you, it will all be worth it in the end. You cannot see it now. But I promise you, I swear to you, it will be all that I said it will be.

Verses 19 and 20

And then he describes this hope which we have received as an anchor for the soul which is firm and secure. It’s firm and secure because it’s based on God’s promise and oath which are unchangeable and immoveable. So, the hope of eternal life in God’s presence is firm and secure. And so, we must hold on to that hope and not let go of it. An anchor is no use to a ship, if the ship is not attached to the anchor. And the hope of eternal life is no use to us, unless we continue to hold on to it. And the way we hold on to it is by faith. So long as we hold on to it by faith, we are firm and secure as well.

And then the writer tells us that this hope has entered the inner sanctuary behind the curtain. He’s drawing on the image of the Most Holy Place in the temple which was regarded as God’s throne room on earth. But he’s not referring to the earthly copy; he’s referring to the heavenly reality. Our hope has entered into heaven. And so, it reaches beyond us and beyond this world and beyond all the troubles of this world and into the presence of God, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. The words ‘who went before us’ are a paraphrase of just one word in the original Greek which can be translated ‘forerunner’ or ‘pioneer’. Jesus is our forerunner. He’s our pioneer. It’s not that he has gone somewhere without us, but he’s gone there before us and we will one day join him there. He’s gone to prepare a place for us. And he’s there, in the presence of God, on our behalf, as our great high priest in the order of Melchizedek to represent us before the Father and to intercede for us always.


And so, God offers us the hope of eternal life in the presence of God where Christ our Saviour has already gone. God offers us this hope; and we take hold of it and it becomes ours by faith in Jesus Christ who gave up his life for our salvation. And this hope is firm and secure because it’s grounded in the promise and oath of God who has sworn by his own unchangeable nature to give eternal life to all who believe in his Son.

But we must wait for it. We’re not there yet, but we must wait to enter God’s eternal rest. We must wait for it. But while you wait for it, you must keep believing, And while you wait for it, you must endure all things patiently. And in the end, those who waited with faith and patience will enter the inner sanctuary behind the curtain to appear in the presence of God where Christ our Saviour is already seated and where he is waiting for us. He’s waiting for us; and we’re waiting for him. But no matter how long we have to wait, we can count on God to do everything he has promised.