When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” And so, after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised.
People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument.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. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. (New International Version)
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Humanity needs hope. We all require a confident expectation that things will be different or better. Hope is what our ancestors in faith had in abundance.
How did Abraham receive what was promised by God?
Abraham received what was promised because of hope. He believed God’s promise of having a place to belong. His faith caused him to make a major move from the city where he had always lived. What’s more, Abraham understood that the promises of God don’t end in this life. He looked forward to being a permanent resident in the eternal city.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out without knowing where he was going. By faith he lived in the land he had been promised as a stranger. He lived in tents along with Isaac and Jacob, who were coheirs of the same promise. He was looking forward to a city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8-10, CEB)
Why did God swear an oath to Abraham?
The Lord wanted to reinforce Abraham’s faith and encourage him. God desired to convincingly show that divine promises are sure.
The Lord spoke to Abram in a vision and said to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.” But Abram replied, “O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son?…. You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.”
Then the Lord said to him, “No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.” Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith. (Genesis 15:1-6, NLT)
What are the “two unchangeable things?”
The promise and the oath. God promised to Abraham:
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”(Genesis 12:2-3, NIV)
God confirmed the promise with an oath:
“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 your 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 earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:16-18, NIV)
Is there a way to be motivated and encouraged in the Christian life?
Yes. Hope in God’s promises and the confidence that our efforts to live for Christ are being seen and they are not in vain. We need one another. So, it is important to maintain significant relationships with other believers so that we will not lose our spiritual vitality and become discouraged. The author of Hebrews also stated:
We should keep on encouraging each other to be thoughtful and to do helpful things. Some people have gotten out of the habit of meeting for worship, but we must not do that. We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer. (Hebrews 10:24-25, CEV)
Faith and patience, fueled by an unshakable hope, has always been the way believers have lived their lives. For the Christian, we have a promised inheritance, focused on the person and work of Christ. All of God’s good promises are fulfilled in Jesus.
God of hope, in these times of change, unite us and encourage us with your promise and oath. Help us overcome our fears and enable us to build a future in which all may prosper and share, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Therefore, let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.
Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (New International Version)
Whenever things get tough and really hard, it is inevitable that there will be people who drop out. It happens in every arena of life, including the Christian life. Sometimes life becomes so overwhelming that we feel like we’re just not making a dent in any of our issues or responsibilities. It is tempting to simply give up and leave it all behind.
Today’s New Testament lesson addresses a group of people who were considering leaving the Christian faith. Some folks had already left, causing confusion with the people still around about how to think about this and what to do going forward.
Who is the author talking about?
He’s talking about those who made a profession of Christ. Are they actual Christians? This gets at the heart of what makes a Christian a Christian. And the answer is that a Christian exhibits both faith and obedience, both trust and perseverance. Real Christians profess the name of Christ with their mouths and demonstrate faith with their actions by obeying the words and ways of Jesus.
What are they in danger of?
Apostasy is a deliberate and intentional renouncing of faith with no intention of ever going back to Christ. An apostate is a person who once professed faith, then rescinded it. This is the author’s point for crafting his message to the struggling Christians. In their hardship, they were seriously toying with the notion of leaving Christianity altogether.
Why would they ever renounce their faith?
Because of hard circumstances, spiritual overwhelm, and grinding tiredness. Adverse situations never leave us the same. They either make us bitter or better, depending upon our response to them. If Christians believe that the Christian life should be an unending journey of victory and glory in this life, disappointment will settle in rather quickly. Missed expectations are typically the manure which fertilizes the field of apostasy.
How can they be restored?
The author of Hebrews makes it clear that they cannot – not because God never gives second chances to people but because the hardness of heart in the apostate is such that they have no intention or desire to live for Jesus. In fact, they now have a hatred of Christ and show contempt for him. We are not talking about flaky or fickle people. We are talking about folks who, with their full faculties intact, put as much energy into resisting, rejecting, and renouncing Christ as they can. This isn’t a momentary lapse in judgment. Rather, it is a calculated decision to hate all that is Christian, after having once loved it.
Where does this happen?
It happens in the heart. When Jesus told his parable of the soils, he was not talking about four different kinds of Christians. The point of Christ’s parable is that there is only one kind of Christian – the other three simply demonstrated they were not the genuine article to begin with. All four professed faith but only one proved it through growth, maturity, and harvest. (Matthew 13:1–23; Mark 4:1–20; Luke 8:4–15)
According to Jesus, there is either no response, a superficial response, a temporary response, or a genuine response. The person who does God’s will is the real deal.
Some people make a dichotomy between faith and obedience, as if they are separate things. Yet, in truth, they are a package deal and cannot be separated. The following all belong together and are not to have any division between them. It is a matter of “and,” not “or.”
Faith and works.
Past and future.
Grace and merit.
Event and process.
People fall away from their faith commitments when they are unable or unwilling to hold the “and’s” together. Whenever the rocks and thorns of life hit them and stick them in ways they don’t like, it is crucial to respond in a way which doesn’t compromise staying on a path of spiritual maturity.
So, where are you on the journey of faith? How do you handle missed expectations and grave disappointments? Are you okay? What do you need? Are there ways others can help?
There are other options besides giving up. Go ahead and explore them.
Grant, O God, that I may never lose the way through self-will, and so end up in the far countries of the soul; that I may never abandon the struggle, but endure to the end; that I may never drop out of the race, but ever press forward to the goal of my calling; that I may never choose cheap and passing things, and embrace the eternal; that I may never take the easy way, and so leave the right way; that I may never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown.
So, keep your people and strengthen us by your grace that no disobedience and no weakness and no failure may stop us from entering into the blessedness which awaits those who are faithful in all the changes and chances of life down even to the gates of death, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was.
In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him,
“You are my Son; today I have become your Father.”
And he says in another place,
“You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. (New International Version)
The New Testament letter of Hebrews is perhaps the most Christ-centered book in all the Bible. If you like Jesus, or are at all intrigued by him, this is the best place to go, outside the four Gospels.
Hebrews deliberately points out and exalts the supremacy of Jesus Christ over the Old Testament prophets, the angelic realm, and even Moses and the Law. And, as today’s New Testament lesson insists, Jesus is superior to the old Levitical priesthood because Christ is our salvation. His priesthood is from a different and better order.
With all this talk in Hebrews about Christ’s superiority over everything, some might expect a focus on his deity. Yet, it is the humanity of Jesus which gets the most attention. The actual lived experience of Jesus on this earth is the highest qualification there is to intercede between God and us.
Jesus, as a true bona fide human person, had to learn obedience just like the rest of us. He went through all the hardships and sufferings of life, too. Jesus was dependent on prayer, just as we are. And he was heard by God the Father because of his reverent submission.
One of the great deceptions which can befall Christians is that Christianity is all about strength, victory, and glory. That, however, is only part of the story. If Jesus needed to learn and grow by means of suffering, then how much more do we need to be spiritually formed through the adversities, challenges, and heartaches of life?
Jesus Christ proved himself through his obedience to God. Even though he himself was God, he submitted himself to being human with all of it’s limitations, weaknesses, and pains. Through it all, Christ maintained perfect submission and obedience to the will of God.
All of this means that Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, is eminently qualified to be our great high priest. Jesus can relate to us. Jesus knows us. Jesus understands what it’s like for us. And Jesus has dealt with the endemic issue of guilt and shame once for all through the cross.
So, what does this mean for you and me? Without a realization of who Jesus is, what he did for us, and continues to do for us, we easily take Christ for granted and slip into spiritual lethargy – and perhaps even spiritual self-loathing – and needlessly suffer in loneliness and despair.
The truth is: Jesus Christ loves us. He has become our high priest, the one who is able to intercede for us – constantly taking our prayers and advocating for us to God the Father.
Let Christians everywhere be reminded that we serve a Trinitarian God – Father, Son, and Spirit – who conspires to do what is best for us, at all times. There is a divine community of three persons, the Holy Trinity, who work seamlessly and with perfect unity to provide deliverance from sin, death, and hell. The God whom we serve is both willing and capable to meet our most pressing needs.
Here are 17 ways we can live into being mature Christian believers who are spiritually growing in the grace of God:
Realize God has called you to be holy and righteous and has given you everything you need to do so. (2 Peter 1:3-4)
Be an integral part of a Christian faith community so that you can be encouraged and encourage others. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Listen to the counsel of others and discern what is good and what is not. (Philippians 1:9-11)
Stick to a consistent regimen of Bible reading and Scripture study. (Hebrews 4:12-13)
Find good books to read and go through them carefully. (2 Timothy 2:15)
Seek to obey Holy Scripture with all your heart. (Psalm 119:89-96)
Persevere and keep growing spiritually. (Hebrews 10:35-36)
Pray continually, realizing your utter dependence on Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
Always look for ways to praise God and serve Christ. (2 Corinthians 1:1-7)
Consider the consequences of your words and actions before you say and do them. (Galatians 6:7-10)
Enjoy God and God’s people. (Philippians 4:4-9)
Understand that the Christian life is not always easy. (Philippians 1:27-30)
Be patient: Spiritual growth and maturity take time. (Hebrews 6:1-3)
Use the spiritual gifts given to you for the benefit of others. (Romans 12:3-8)
Make plans with other like-minded persons to become spiritually self-disciplined. (Proverbs 27:17)
Pursue genuine and intimate spiritual friendships. (2 Corinthians 7:1-4)
Engage in spiritual conversation and prayer around the Bible’s contents and message. (Colossians 4:2-6)
Gracious Father, we pray for Christ’s Church. Fill it with all truth and peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior. Amen.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, 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 empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (New International Version)
Church Persecution and Christian Suffering
The book of Hebrews was originally a sermon preached to a group of believers who had come to Christ out of Judaism. From the book of Acts, we know there were thousands of Jewish Christians who were dispersed from Jerusalem when Stephen was martyred. A great persecution broke out, and many believers fled west to places like Galatia, Ephesus, Greece and Rome.
The Jewish believers were immigrants in a foreign land, looking to practice their faith without harm. Yet, their experience was anything but ideal. These followers of Christ found fellow ethnic Jews in the places where they went, yet those Jews had no use for these people that they believed were in some sort of aberrant cult.
What is more, the surrounding Gentile culture did not understand Christianity, at all, and many of those who held to pagan religions bought into rumors, such as, that Christians were cannibals who ate at what’s called the Lord’s Table.
So, here we have a situation where these displaced Christians had no respect from both Jews and Gentiles. As a result, they had a difficult time carrying out business because no one trusted them. They were essentially alone in the world.
Losing Their Grip
Initially, they embraced their identity as Christians and held up quite well under the stress. However, over time, their resolve began to slowly erode. The followers of Jesus began to question their adverse situation.
They began listening to their fellow Jews throw doubts on their faith. The hard life was not improving, maybe even becoming worse. Eventually, the church came to a point where they began re-considering their whole way of life as Christians, and their faith commitment started slipping. The Christians actually considered leaving the Church and Christianity and going back to their old life in Judaism.
The Message of Hebrews
It was at this point that a vigorous believer in Jesus came to town, saw the situation of the church, and preached a spirited message to them. The preacher called them to hold tight to their commitment – to see Jesus afresh and anew as superior over all the Old Testament, as the fulfillment of all the promises of God.
So, then, throughout the book of Hebrews we have this wonderful explanation and exposition of how to make sense of Jesus and the Old Testament, and of what Jesus really means to the church. Throughout his sermon, the preacher occasionally paused his teaching and gave the people a stiff warning about falling away from Christ. He called the church to be bold and confident in Christ, to stand up to the suffering, and to confront their temptations so that they would persevere in their commitment to Jesus Christ for the rest of their lives.
God’s Word and Work
We pick up the teaching and the exhortation in chapter four. Hebrews 4:12-16 is composed of two distinct sections that are paired together for a reason. Verses 12-13 give us a graphic visual of the penetrating work of God’s Word, of the reality that God can get deep inside us. The next section, verses 14-16, lays out God’s response to our being under divine scrutiny – that there is grace and mercy available because of Jesus, our great high priest who is superior to every priest of the Old Testament to the point of being the last and permanent priest forever!
These verses are bound together because we all need to struggle with the tension between God’s Word to us, and our words to God; between God’s judgment that opens our souls on a spiritual operating table, and God’s grace which jumpstarts our broken hearts. Our most fundamental need is for God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.
The Christian Life
It is important that our outer lives and our inner lives match each other. Whenever the two are out of sync, we come under the judgment of God’s Word. These early Hebrew Christians had slowly drifted from the truth so that their inner and outer lives did not line up well.
Some of them still performed the outward duties of being a Christian yet were inwardly despising their hard situation. A growing vacuum developed on their insides as they slowly started letting go of Jesus as their object of devotion. Their hearts began to harden because of their hard lives.
On the other hand, there were other Hebrew Christians who began drifting in a different way. Inwardly, they tried to maintain their devotion and commitment to Christ. Yet these believers began compromising their outward life to match the culture around them. In both cases of hardening inwardly, and of compromising outwardly, they each shared the situation of drifting away from their original commitment to Christ.
Even today, it is a real temptation to try and avoid suffering, to grow weary of our present circumstances and look for a way to get out from under the pain and find a quick fix. Whenever we find ourselves in such a situation, the remedy is to be reminded that we must continue to hold firmly to the faith we profess because of who Jesus is.
Jesus As Permanent High Priest
Jesus is our great high priest. In the Old Testament, among the twelve tribes of the ancient Israelites, the tribe of Levi made up the class of priests. One of those Levites, always a descendent of the original Levite priest, Aaron, had the task of once a year entering a place called the Holy of Holies, which was at the center of the Temple, to offer a bloody sacrifice on behalf of the people, to atone for their sins from the previous year.
Jesus is our great and ultimate high priest. He did not enter the temporary sacrificial system to deal with sins for only a year. Jesus not only took on the role of high priest, but became the sacrifice, as well. As a result, we now have a thorough and permanent forgiveness of sins through Christ. So, the Hebrew Christian who considered going back to an old outdated system needed to be brought back to his senses and embrace again the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus.
As they considered Jesus, the believers needed to remember that Christ was not so far removed from them that the church could not relate to Jesus. Rather, Jesus is able to sympathize with each and every trouble, trial, and temptation we face because he faced the very same kind of sufferings.
The only difference between Christ and his followers is that Jesus did not succumb to the trouble, but persevered and secured for us deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Jesus is the One who deserves every bit of our commitment, allegiance, and devotion. Christ is the One whom we are to worship inside and out.
Approaching God with Boldness
Let us then approach Jesus with confidence, with boldness, knowing that with him there is mercy and grace. Jesus not only suffered for us in the past; he also suffers with us now, in the present. We, as believers, are in union with Jesus. Christ is our great high priest, the One intimately involved in every nook and cranny of our lives. He knows what you and I are going through and is ready to give grace to help right now.
Approaching Jesus has nothing to do with being good enough to do so. Coming to Jesus is about grace. Whenever we drift from Jesus and are confronted with God’s Word cutting us to the heart, the end result is not wrath or judgment; the result is mercy and grace.
Like the early Hebrew Christians, we all face situations out of our control that wear us down and cause us to become weary. In our tired state, we can be tempted to let our commitment to Christ slide in some small way. Over time, the small compromises of faith can snowball into a big slide away from God.
Yet, Jesus is not sitting in heaven frustrated or confounded. God is not looking for a reason to punish people. It is just the opposite. Jesus, the Son of God, our great high priest, is looking for a reason to give grace and help us in our time of need. Christ is waiting for us to approach the throne of grace with confidence. Right now, Jesus is alive. He is scanning the world and the church, looking to extend mercy to those who need it.
Asking for Help
We must avoid a spiritual hardening of heart which estranges us from approaching Jesus. Every one of us needs help. We are not God. We have weaknesses. We have confusion. We have limitations of all kinds. We need help. And every one of us has something else: guilt and shame. At the bottom of our hearts, we feel undeserving, and so, avoid coming to Jesus. Yet, we need with family, loneliness, work, health, finances.
So, what to do? I can try to deny it all and be a superman who doesn’t need any help. I can try to drown it all with alcohol. I can be obsessive and compulsive about controlling events and/or people. I can simply succumb to discouragement. Here is what God declares: Jesus Christ became a High Priest to shatter despair with hope, to rescue that drowning person and that anxious individual.
God planned for a High Priest, a Savior, a Redeemer, and a gracious Helper. You and I are not trapped. We have Jesus.
The book of Hebrews is all about a call to commitment – an invitation to come to Jesus. And it is the most important invitation you will ever receive. Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence….
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: That if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him. Spirit of God, lead us into your will. Help us in all things. Fill our hearts and lives to overflowing with divine mercy and grace so that what comes out of our mouths and the actions we do are compassionate, kind, and good, through our great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Amen.