In last week’s passage the writer was really summing up what he’s been saying all along about the benefits of the new covenant and how it is so much better than the old covenant. Under the old covenant — under the old covenant religion of the Old Testament — the people came to the earthly Mount Sinai in the wilderness. And everything about their experience at that mountain told them that they had to stay away from God. They could not come near. They could not approach him. They could not even bear to hear his voice. But now that Christ has established the new covenant by his death on the cross for sinners, we who believe in him are sprinkled by his blood and cleansed from the stain of our sin, so that we can approach God, who dwells on the heavenly Mount Zion where the angels and the saints in glory worship him.
And do you remember what the writer said about coming to the heavenly Mount Zion and about coming to God? He didn’t say that we will come to the heavenly Mount Zion some time in the future, but that we have already come to it. He didn’t say that we will come to God some time in the future, but that we have already come to God. Just as the Apostle Paul said that believers have already been raised with Christ to the heavenly realms and that we are already citizens of heaven above, so the writer to the Hebrews says we have already come to God in heaven above. By faith we have come to God through Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, who died to bring us to God.
And since we live our lives here on earth before the presence of God, we’re to serve God acceptably with reverence and awe. Do you remember? Though the NIV says in verse 28 of chapter 12 that we’re to ‘worship’ God acceptably, the word translated ‘worship’ can also be translated ‘serve’. So yes, we’re to worship God with reverence and awe, but we’re also meant to serve God with reverence and awe in our daily lives. And that brings us to the final chapter of this book, where the writer gives us some last instructions to show us how to serve the Lord in our daily lives. This is what God wants us to do. This is his will for his people. This is how we are to serve him day by day. And it begins in verse 1 with love.
Verses 1 to 6
Keep on loving each other as brothers. In other words, and as other English translations put it: let brotherly love continue. Throughout the book, the writer has been exhorting his readers to keep believing and to keep hoping. So, keep believing in Christ, who is our great High Priest who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to take away our sins and to bring us to God. And keep looking forward in hope to eternal life in the presence of God in that new and better world to come. So, persevere in faith and persevere in hope. And now he adds that we’re to persevere in love. Keep on loving each other. Let brotherly love continue.
And when he refers to brotherly love, or when he refers to loving one another as brothers, he’s referring to how believers have been adopted into God’s family through faith in Jesus Christ so that God has become our heavenly Father and we have become his children. And since all who believe have become God’s children then that means we are all brothers and sisters in the faith. And so, we’re to love one another as brothers and sisters. And in the Bible, love is always much more than a feeling, because it involves action. It involves activity. Love in the Bible is practical. So, it means helping one another and caring for each other. We’ve started to study 1 John on Sunday mornings and in 1 John 3 he tells us not to love with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth. True love involves action. And in John’s gospel, the Lord Jesus said:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.
How did Christ love us? Not just with words, but with action, because he laid down his life for us. And then he went on to say:
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
This is to be what we’re known for. We’re to be known for our love for each other and how we love one another with actions and not with words only.
And it’s possible that verses 2 to 6 expand on what he means by loving one another as brothers. So, we’re to entertain strangers. And he’s probably referring to fellow believers, who are on our journey and they’ve come to town and are looking for a place to stay. The commentators explain that inns in those days were often dangerous places and unsuitable for Christians. And so, it was necessary for believers to open their homes to fellow believers who were looking for a place to stay. However, the commentators also explain that Christian hospitality was also open to abuse by fraudsters who pretended to be Christian teachers. And so, an early Christian manual says that visiting preachers should only stay one night or two if absolutely necessary. And if the visiting preacher asks for money, that’s a sign that he’s not genuine. Of course, there are still charlatans today who try to take advantage of the generosity of believers. And so, we must be wise. Nevertheless, we must also be hospitable and generous and kind and offer assistance when a believer needs our help.
And the writer refers to those who ended up entertaining angels without knowing it. He’s probably thinking of Abraham and Sarah, who welcomed three strangers to their home one day. And it turned out that one of the strangers was the Angel of the Lord and the other two were ordinary angels. And those two ordinary angels went down to visit Sodom, where Lot took them in and gave them refuge for the night. While God may not send us angels, nevertheless when he does send someone into our midst, we should be ready to welcome them and to help them.
And the writer also tells his readers to remember those in prison. He’s presumably referring to Christians who were imprisoned for their faith. And when he says we’re to remember them, he means we’re to remember to care for them and we’re to care for others who are ill-treated because of their faith. Remember them as if you yourselves were suffering. In other words, imagine what it would be like if you were in their shoes; and offer them the help you’d like to receive. One of the commentators quotes a pagan writer who described the way Christians cared for someone in prison. He says they left no stone unturned in their effort to have him released. And they brought him food and they stayed with him, even through the night. That’s how believers cared for one another in the past.
Now, we might not know any believers who are in prison. However, on Wednesday evenings we always pray for the persecuted church and for our fellow believers who are suffering for the faith. And we can help believers in prison by supporting Christian organisations who help them.
And we display love for one another by honouring marriage. So, marriage should be honoured by all and the marriage bed should be kept pure. God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Sexual immorality is a general term which refers to all kinds of sexual sins, whereas adultery is specifically when someone who is married is unfaithful to his or her spouse. And God will judge such people. That is to say, he will bring temporal judgments on them in this life unless they turn from their sin and confess it before him. And so, the marriage bed should be kept pure. Notice, of course, that he does not encourage celibacy. The marriage bed is not kept pure by remaining celibate, but by refusing to commit adultery or sexual immorality.
And having mentioned sex, he goes on to refer to money. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have. The love of money, we know, is a root of all kinds of evil, because the person who loves money might steal or cheat to get it and he might be stingy with what he has and unwilling to be generous. And the person who covets his neighbour’s property resents his neighbour for what he has. But we’re to love one another and not money. And so, we’re to be content with what we have, which has come to us from God our Father who loves us and knows what is best for us. And God has promised never to leave us or to forsake us. And so, he is with us to help us and to provide us with all that we need. And so, we don’t need to be afraid. Fear is often behind the love of money, because we’re afraid we may not have enough. So, if someone is afraid because of the current cost of living crisis, that person may be tempted to do what he can to get more money or to hold on to what money he already has. But we’re not to be afraid, because God is with us to help us.
And so, let brotherly love continue. Just as you’re to persevere in faith and hope, so you’re to persevere in love. And, among other things, that means: show hospitality; help those who are suffering for the faith; honour marriage; and keep yourself from the love of money. Instead of loving money, love one another.
Our writer next goes on to tell his readers to remember your leaders. He’s probably referring to leaders in the church who have died. And so, he wants his readers to remember them and to consider their way of life and to imitate their faith. So, when he says we’re to remember them, he means we’re to remember the example they set us and how they persevered in the faith and remained faithful to the end. Remember their example and follow it.
And notice, of course, that he describes their leaders as those who spoke the word of God to you. The leaders in the church are the elders. Every elder must be able to teach. That was one of the qualifications for the eldership in 1 Timothy 3. They’re able to teach believers in private, answering their questions and reminding them of God’s will. And then there’s the teaching elder who teaches believers publicly. In both cases, what they’re to teach is the word of God.
And so, remember those leaders who died. And then, out of the blue almost, the writer says that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever. He’s the same, yesterday, today and forever, because he’s God and God does not change and he’s always the same and he promises to love his people with an everlasting, unchangeable love.
So, Christ does not change, because God does not change. However, it’s not clear why the writer says this here, but perhaps it relates to what he’s said about remembering those leaders who died. Perhaps we loved those leaders. We admired them. We appreciated their ministry. But then they died and we wondered how we could manage without them. Who will help us now? Who will guide us? Who will direct us? Well, the good news is that we can still rely on Jesus Christ our Saviour, who remains the same and who does not change. He loved us in the past, when he gave up his life for us; and his love for us remains the same and will never change. And he’s now interceding for us at God’s right hand; and he will continue to do so into the future and until he comes again to bring us to our eternal home. Earthly leaders comes and goes, but Christ our King does not change. And whatever happens to us in this life, and whatever changes take place in our lives and in our circumstances, we know we can always rely on him.
Queen Elizabeth has died after reigning for seventy years. Most of us have never known another monarch but her. So, what does the future hold for us? And what will King Charles be like? Will he match his mother? Who knows, but in one sense it does not matter, because the King of kings remains the same and in him we trust.
Verses 9 to 16
And now we turn to verses 9 to 16 which we can take together under the heading of true Christian sacrifices. First there’s a warning not to be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. I mentioned recently that the Devil has two main weapons to attack the church. One is persecution; and the other is false doctrine. Most of Hebrews has been about the threat of persecution and how the believers were being tempted to give up their faith, because of what they were suffering. But now he warns his readers about strange teachings. Don’t be carried away by it. Don’t be led astray.
And then he goes on in verses 9 and 10 to refer to food and to eating. You see, the old covenant priests who offered up animal sacrifices to God in the tabernacle and temple were allowed to keep some of the meat of the sacrifice and to eat it. It was to be their food. And while the meat from those sacrifices may have been good for food, and while that meat sustained their bodies, that food did nothing for their hearts. That is to say, that food did nothing for them spiritually.
And, you see, in order to persevere in the faith and in order to grow in the faith, we need to rely, not on food, but on God’s gracious help. We’re to look to him for the help we need to grow in our faith and to persevere in the faith right to the end of our lives. Food keeps us going physically, but we need God’s gracious help to keep us going spiritually. And, of course, that’s one of the benefits we receive from coming to church each week, because God works graciously in our hearts through the reading and preaching of his word and through the sacraments and when we pray together. God works through these things in order to convince and convert sinners to faith and in order to build up believers in holiness and comfort. He works graciously in our lives to help us.
And then the writer mentions how the old covenant priests used to carry the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but he took the bodies of the animals outside the camp to be burned. He’s now referring to the Day of Atonement, which was held once a year, when the High Priest took the blood of a bull and a goat into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled the blood before the Lord. And the remainder of the animals where taken out of the camp and burned.
And the reason he mentions this now is because he sees a parallel between the burning of the sacrifice outside the camp and the death of Christ outside Jerusalem. So, the Lord was tried in Jerusalem and then he was led out of the city to be crucified. He therefore suffered outside the city. And by his suffering and death, he was able to make his people holy through his own blood. So, because of Christ’s sacrifice of himself, we are cleansed from the guilt of our sin. We are purified. We are made clean. We are made acceptable to God.
And the writer not only sees a parallel between the burning of the sacrifice outside the camp and the death of Christ outside Jerusalem, but he also sees a parallel between Christ’s suffering outside Jerusalem and the suffering of believers. Let’s go to him, he tells us, outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. So, Christ was rejected by those who did not believe and sent out of the city to die a shameful death. And we who believe in him can also expect to be despised and rejected as well. An unbelieving world will treat us as outsiders and misfits and social outcasts. They will reject us, just as they rejected our Saviour. But when an unbelieving world is against us, we can console ourselves with the knowledge that we are looking for a city that is to come. So, we may be hated in Belfast because we love the Saviour, but what does it matter, because we’re waiting for the day when we will enter the city to come, the new Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem, and we shall be with the Lord forever?
And in the meantime, while we wait for the day when we will enter the city to come, what should we do? What is God’s will for us? His will for us is to offer to God a sacrifice of praise. So, we’re not to offer him a sacrifice for sins, because Christ offered himself as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins. But we’re to offer him a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that confess his name. So, we’re to praise God continually. Under the old covenant, sacrifices were offered every day. And we’re to praise God every day. So, not just on Sundays, but every day. And when the world hates us, we may be tempted to hide our faith. But no, we’re not to be afraid to confess our faith and we’re not to be ashamed of Christ our Saviour, but we’re to acknowledge him.
In the early days of the church, to acknowledge Christ as Lord meant death for many believers. Some of you may have heard of or even read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563 which gives an account of the lives of believers who were killed for the faith, starting with Stephen in the book of Acts. And it includes the account of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, who was brought before the Roman proconsul who urged him to renounce his faith in Christ in order to save his life. But Polycarp refused, saying that he had served Christ for 86 years and Christ had never wronged him. And so, how can I blaspheme my King who has saved me? And because he refused to deny his Saviour, Polycarp was burned at the stake. But, of course, for believers like Polycarp, death is not the end, but the doorway into God’s presence. So, what can men and women do to us when Christ promises us eternal life? And so, instead of being afraid, we’re to acknowledge Christ and praise God continually.
And while we go on living and waiting, God’s will for his people is that we do not forget to do good and to share with others, because with such sacrifices God is pleased. God’s will for his people is for us to give up some of what we have for the sake of others. So, instead of clinging to our money and to what we own, we’re to give away some of what we have to help our fellow believers. And this pleases God our Father who gave up his Son for us; and it pleases Christ our Saviour who gave up his life for us.
We come to the final verse today, which is verse 17. Back in verse 7, the writer told us to remember our leaders who had died. Now he tells us to obey our leaders who are alive and to submit to their authority.
In the beginning, after God created all things, Adam and Eve disobeyed their Creator and they refused to submit to his authority whenever they disregarded his word of command and ate the forbidden fruit. And ever since then we have been naturally inclined to disobey God and every other ruler who is over us.
We’ve seen this recently in those people who have been protesting about King Charles, saying that he is not their king and asking who elected Charles to be king. Such people do not realise that Charles became king by means of a historical process which was controlled by God, so that Charles ascended to the throne because of God who determines all things, including who will rule over us. And, as Paul tells us in Romans 13, there is no authority except that which God has established; and the authorities that exist have been established by God. This is true for the king and for the prime minister and for every government around the world. It’s also true for other authorities over us, including the police men and women in our streets; and the teachers who have authority over pupils in school; and the person who supervises us at work; and parents who have authority over their children at home. They have been appointed by God and are accountable to him for what they have done.
And it’s also true of the elders in church. God has given his people elders to rule over them for their good. There are teaching-elders — also known as ministers — who teach the people and conduct public worship; and there are ruling-elders who have been appointed to watch over the people the way a shepherd watches over his sheep. And so, they’re appointed to guard the Lord’s people from danger and from error and to set them an example of godliness. And just as sheep will only benefit from the care of a shepherd when the sheep follow the shepherd, so the people will only benefit from the care of the elders when the people follow the elders and pay attention to them. And when the elders lead as they should, and when the people follow as they should, then the work of the elder will be a joy to the elders and a blessing to the people. And so, God commands his people to obey their leaders in the church and to submit to their authority, which has been given to them by God.
At the end of chapter 12, the writer called on us to be thankful and to serve God acceptably with reverence and awe. How do we serve him? By continuing in brotherly love. By remembering our leaders, who taught us and who set us an example of persevering faith. By offering God a sacrifice of praise and doing good to one another. And by following the leaders whom God has appointed over us for our good. This is God’s will for us. But let us also remember that we can only serve God acceptably because of Christ our Saviour, who suffered outside the city gate to cleanse us from our guilt and shame through his blood, shed on the cross. And to him be all praise and glory both now and forever.