THE MARKS OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE (Hebrews 13:1-6)
13:1-6 Let brotherly love be always with you.
Do not forget the duty of hospitality for, in remembering this duty, there are some who have entertained angels without knowing that they were doing so.
Remember those who are in prison for you yourselves know what it is like to be a prisoner; remember those who are suffering ill-treatment for the same thing can happen to you so long as you are in the body.
Let marriage be held in honour among you all and never let the marriage bed be defiled. God judges those who are adulterers and immoral in their conduct.
Let your way of life be free from the love of money. Be content with what you have for he has said: "I will never fail you and I will never forsake you"; so that we can say with confidence: "The Lord is my helper: I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?"
As he comes to the close of the letter, the writer to the Hebrews turns to practical things. Here he outlines five essential qualities of the Christian life.
(i) There is brotherly love. The very circumstances of the early Church sometimes threatened brotherly love. The very fact that they took their religion as seriously as they did was in one sense a danger. In a Church which is threatened from the outside and desperately in earnest in the inside, there are always two dangers. First, there is the danger of heresy-hunting. The very desire to keep the faith pure tends to make men eager to track down and eliminate the heretic and the man whose faith has gone astray. Second, there is the danger of stern and unsympathetic treatment of the man whose nerve and faith have failed. The very necessity of unswerving loyalty in the midst of a heathen and a hostile world tends to add rigorousness to the treatment of the man who in some crisis had not the courage to stand for his faith. It is a great thing to keep the faith clean; but when the desire to do so makes us censorious, harsh and unsympathetic, brotherly love is destroyed and we are left with a situation which may be worse than the one we tried to avoid. Somehow or other we have to combine two things--an earnestness in the faith and a kindness to the man who has strayed from it.
(ii) There is hospitality. The ancient world loved and honoured hospitality. The Jews had a saying: "There are six things the fruit of which a man eats in this world and by which his horn is raised in the world to come." And the list begins: "Hospitality to the stranger and visiting the sick." The Greeks gave Zeus, as one of his favourite titles, the title Zeus Xenios, which means Zeus, the god of strangers. The wayfaring man and the stranger were under the protection of the king of the gods. Hospitality, as Moffatt says, was an article of ancient religion.
Inns were filthy, ruinously expensive, and of low repute. The Greek had always a shrinking from hospitality given for money; inn-keeping seemed to him an unnatural affair. In The Frogs of Aristophanes, Dionysus asks Heracles, when they are discussing finding a lodging, if he knows where there are fewest fleas. Plato in The Laws speaks of the inn-keeper holding travellers to ransom. It is not without significance that Josephus says that Rahab, the harlot who harboured Joshua's scouts in Jericho, kept an inn. When Theophrastus wrote his character sketch of the reckless man, he said that he was fit to keep an inn or run a brothel; he put both occupations on the same level.
In the ancient world there was a rather wonderful system of what were called "guest friendships." Throughout the years families, even when they had lost active touch with each other, had an arrangement that at any time needful they would make accommodation available for each other. This hospitality was even more necessary in the circle of the Christians. Slaves had no home of their own to which to go. Wandering preachers and prophets were always on the roads. On the ordinary business of life, Christians had journeys to make. Both their price and their moral atmosphere made the public inns impossible. There must in those days have been many isolated Christians fighting a lonely battle. Christianity was, and still should be, the religion of the open door. The writer to the Hebrews says that those who have given hospitality to strangers have sometimes, all unaware, entertained the angels of God. He is thinking of the time when the angel came to Abraham and Sarah to tell them of the coming of a son (Genesis 18:1 ff.) and of the day when the angel came to Manoah to tell him that he would have a son ( 13:3 ff.).
(iii) There is sympathy for those in trouble. It is here we see the early Christian Church at its loveliest. It often happened that the Christian landed in prison and worse. It might be for his faith; it might be for debt, for the Christians were poor; it might be that they were captured by pirates or brigands. It was then that the Church went into action.
Tertullian in The Apology writes: "If there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in prisons for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God's Church, they become the nurslings of their confession." Aristides the heathen orator said of the Christians: "If they hear that any one of their number is imprisoned or in distress for the sake of their Christ's name, they all render aid in his necessity and, if he can be redeemed, they set him free." When Origen was young it was said of him: "Not only was he at the side of the holy martyrs in their imprisonment and until their final condemnation but, when they were led to death, he boldly accompanied them into danger."
Sometimes Christians were condemned to the mines which was almost like being sent to Siberia. The Apostolic Constitutions lay it down: "If any Christian is condemned for Christ's sake to the mines by the ungodly, do not overlook him but from the proceeds of your toil and sweat send him something to support himself and to reward the soldier of Christ." The Christians sought out their fellow Christians even in the wilds. There was actually a little Christian Church in the mines at Phaeno.
Sometimes Christians had to be ransomed from robbers and brigands. The Apostolic Constitutions lay it down: "All monies accruing from honest labour do ye appoint and apportion to the redeeming of the saints ransoming thereby slaves and captives and prisoners, people who are sore abused or condemned by tyrants." When the Numidian robbers carried off their Christian friends, the Church at Carthage raised the equivalent of L1,000 to ransom them and promised more. There were actually cases where Christians sold themselves as slaves to find money to ransom their friends.
They were even prepared to bribe their way into gaol. The Christians became so notorious for their help to those in gaol that at the beginning of the fourth century the Emperor Licinius passed new legislation that "no one was to show kindness to sufferers in prison by supplying them with food and that no one was to show mercy to those starving in prison." It was added that those who were discovered so doing would be compelled to suffer the same fate as those they tried to help.
These instances are taken from Harnack's Expansion of Christianity and many others could be added. In the early days no Christian in trouble for his faith was ever neglected or forgotten by his fellow Christians.
(iv) There is purity. First, the marriage bond is to be universally respected. This may mean either of two almost opposite things. (a) There were ascetics who despised marriage. Some even went the length of castrating themselves to secure what they thought was purity. Origen, for instance, took that course. Even a heathen like Galen, the physician, noted of the Christians that "they include men and women who refrain from cohabiting all their lives." The writer to the Hebrews insists against these ascetics that the marriage bond is to be honoured and not despised. (b) There were those who were ever liable to relapse into immorality. The writer to the Hebrews uses two words. The one denotes adulterous living; the other denotes all kinds of impurity, such as unnatural vice. Into the world the Christians brought a new ideal of purity. Even the heathen admitted that. Galen, in the passage we have already quoted, goes on: "And they also number individuals who, in ruling and controlling themselves and in their keen pursuit of virtue, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of real philosophers." When Pliny, the governor of Bithynia, examined the Christians and reported back to Trajan, the Emperor, he had to admit, even although he was looking for a charge on which to condemn them, that at their Lord's Day meeting: "They bound themselves by an oath not for any criminal end but to avoid theft or robbery or adultery, never to break their word nor repudiate a deposit when called upon to refund it." In the early days the Christians presented such a purity to the world that not even their critics and their enemies could find a fault in it.
(v) There is contentment. The Christians must be free from the love of money. He must be content with what he has, and why should he not be for he possesses the continual presence of God? Hebrews quotes two great Old Testament passages--Joshua 1:5 and Psalms 118:6 --to show that the man of God needs nothing more because he has with him always the presence and the help of God. Nothing that man can give him can improve on that.
THE LEADERS AND THE LEADER (Hebrews 13:7-8)
13:7-8 Remember your leaders, the men who spoke the word of God to you. Look back on how they made their exit from this life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.
Implicit in this passage is a description of the real leader of men.
(i) The real leader of the Church preaches Christ and thereby brings men to him. Leslie Weatherhead somewhere tells of a public schoolboy who decided to enter the ministry. He was asked when he had come to that decision and said it was after hearing a certain sermon in his school chapel. He was asked the name of the preacher and his answer was that he had no memory of the preacher's name. All he knew was that he had shown him Jesus. The duty of the real preacher is to obliterate himself and show men nothing but Christ.
(ii) The real leader of the Church lives in the faith and thereby brings Christ to men. A saint has been defined as "a man in whom Christ lives again." The duty of the real preacher is not so much to talk to men about Christ as to show them Christ in his own life. Men listen not so much to what he is saying as to what he is.
(iii) The real leader, if need be, dies in loyalty. He shows men how to live and is prepared to show them how to die. Jesus, having loved his own, loved them to the end; and the real leader, having loved Jesus, loves him to the end. His loyalty never stops halfway.
(iv) Thereby the real leader leaves to those who come after two things--an example and an inspiration. Quintilian, the Roman master of oratory, said: "It is a good thing to know, and always to keep turning over in the mind, the things which were illustriously done of old." Epicurus advised his disciples continuously to remember those of old time who lived with virtue.
If there is one thing more than another that the world and the Church need in every generation, it is leadership like that.
Then the writer to the Hebrews moves on to another great thought. It is in the nature of things that all earthly leaders must come and go. They have their part in the drama of life and then the curtain comes down. But Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. His pre-eminence is permanent; his leadership is for ever. Therein lies the secret of earthly leadership; the real leader is the man who is himself led by Jesus Christ. He who walked the ways of Galilee is as powerful as ever to smite evil and to love the sinner; and, as then he chose twelve to be with him and sent them out to do his work, so now he is still seeking those who will bring men to him and him to men.
THE WRONG AND THE RIGHT SACRIFICE (Hebrews 13:9-16)
13:9-16 Do not let yourselves be carried away by subtle and strange teachings, for it is a fine thing to have your heart made strong by grace not by the eating of different kinds of food, for they never did any good to those who took that line of conduct. We have an altar from which those who serve in the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of the animals, whose blood is taken by the High Priest into the Holy Place as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. That was why Jesus suffered outside the gate, so that he might make men fit for the presence of God by his own blood. So then let us go to him outside the camp, bearing the same reproach as he did, for here we have no abiding city but arc searching for the city which is to come. Through him, therefore, let us continually bring to God a sacrifice of praise, I mean, the fruit of lips which continually acknowledge their faith in his name. Do not forget to do good and to share everything, for God is well pleased with a sacrifice like that.
It may be that no one will ever discover the precise meaning behind this passage. Clearly there was some false teaching going on in the Church to which this letter was written. The writer to the Hebrews did not need to describe it; his readers knew all about it, because some of them had succumbed to it and all were in danger of it. As to what it was, we can only guess.
We may start with one basic fact. The writer to the Hebrews is convinced that real strength comes to a man's heart only from the grace of God and that what people eat and drink has nothing to do with their spiritual strength. So then in the Church to which he was writing there were some who placed too much importance on laws about food. There are certain possibilities.
(i) The Jews had rigid food laws, laid down at length in Leviticus 11:1-47 . They believed they could serve and please God by eating and by not eating certain foods. Possibly there were some in this Church who were ready to abandon their Christian liberty and once again put themselves under the yoke of Jewish rules and regulations about food, thinking that by so doing they were going to add strength to their spiritual life.
(ii) Certain Greeks had very definite ideas about food. Long ago Pythagoras had been like that. He believed in reincarnation, that a man's soul passed from body to body until finally it merited release. That release could be hastened by prayer and meditation and discipline and asceticism; and so the Pythagoreans were vegetarians. There were people called Gnostics who were much the same. They believed that matter was altogether bad and that a man must concentrate on spirit which is altogether good. They therefore believed that the body was altogether bad and that a man ought to discipline it and treat it with the greatest austerity. They cut down food to the bare minimum and they, too, abstained from meat. There were any number of Greeks who thought that by what they ate or refused to eat they were strengthening their spiritual life and releasing their soul.
(iii) Neither of these things seems quite to fit. This eating and drinking has something to do with the body of Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews goes back to the regulations for the Day of Atonement. According to these regulations, the body of the bullock which was an offering for the sins of the High Priest and the body of the goat which was an offering for the sins of the people must be totally consumed with fire in a place outside the camp (Leviticus 16:27). They were sin offerings and the point is that even if the worshippers had wished to eat their flesh they could not do so. The writer to the Hebrews sees Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. The parallel for him is complete because Jesus, too, was sacrificed "outside the gate" that is, outside the city wall of Jerusalem. Crucifixions were always carried out outside a town. Jesus, then, was a sin-offering for men; and it follows that, just as none could eat of the flesh of the sin-offering on the Day of Atonement, no one can eat of his flesh.
It may be that here we have the clue. There may have been a little group in this Church who, either at the sacrament or at some common meal where they consecrated their food to Jesus, claimed that they were in fact eating the body of Christ. They may have persuaded themselves that because they had consecrated their food to Christ, his body had entered into it. That was indeed what the religious Greeks believed about their gods. When a Greek sacrificed he was given back part of the meat. Often he made a feast for himself and his friends within the temple where the sacrifice had been made; and he believed that when he ate the meat of the sacrifice, the god to whom that meat had been sacrificed was in it and entered into him. It may well be that certain Greeks had brought their own ideas into Christianity with them; and talked about eating the body of Christ.
The writer to the Hebrews believed with all the intensity of his being that no food can bring Christ into a man and that Christ can enter into him only by grace. It is quite likely that we have here a reaction against an overstressing of the sacraments. It is a notable fact that the writer to the Hebrews never mentions the sacraments; they do not seem to come into his scheme at all. It is likely that, even thus early, there were those who took a mechanical view of the sacraments, forgetting that no sacrament in the world avails anything by itself and that its only use is that in it the grace of God meets the faith of man. It is not the meat but the faith and the grace which matter.
This queer argument has set the writer to the Hebrews thinking. Christ was crucified outside the gate. He was exiled from men and numbered with the transgressors. Therein the writer to the Hebrews sees a picture. We, too, have to sever ourselves from the life of the world and be willing to bear the same reproach as Christ bore. The isolation and the humiliation may come to the Christian as they came to his Saviour.
Hebrews goes further. If the Christian cannot again offer the sacrifice of Christ, what can he offer? The writer says he can offer certain things.
(i) He can offer his continual praise and thanks to God. The ancient peoples sometimes argued that a thank-offering was more acceptable to God than a sin-offering, for when a man offered a sin-offering he was trying to get something for himself, while a thank-offering was the unconditional offering of the grateful heart. The sacrifice of gratitude is one that all may and should bring.
(ii) He can offer his public and glad confession of his faith in the name of Christ. That is the offering of loyalty. The Christian can always offer to God a life that is never ashamed to show whose it is and whom it serves.
(iii) The Christian can offer deeds of kindness to his fellow men. In fact that was something which a Jew knew well. After A.D. 70 the sacrifices of the Temple came to an end when the Temple was destroyed. The Rabbis taught that with the Temple ritual gone, theology, prayer, penitence, the study of the law and charity were sacrifices equivalent to the ancient ritual. Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai comforted himself in those sorrowful days by believing that "in the practice of charity he still possessed a valid sacrifice for sin." An ancient Christian writer says: "I expected that thy heart would bear fruit and that thou wouldst worship God, the Creator of all, and unto him continually offer thy prayers by means of compassion; for compassion shown to men by men is a bloodless sacrifice and holy unto God." After all, Jesus himself said: "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). The best of all sacrifices to bring to God is the gift of help to one of his children in need.
OBEDIENCE AND PRAYER (Hebrews 13:17-20)
13:17-20 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they sleeplessly watch over your souls, conscious that they will have to give account of their trust. This do that they may carry out this task with joy and not with grief, for, if you grieve them, there would be no profit to you either in that. Keep on praying for us, for we believe that we have a clear conscience, for we wish in all things to live in such a way that our conduct will be fair. I urge you to do this all the more that I may the more quickly be enabled to return to you.
The writer to the Hebrews lays down the duty of the congregation to its present leaders and its absent leader.
To the present leaders the duty of the congregation is obedience. A Church is a democracy but not a democracy run mad; it must give obedience to those whom it has chosen as its guides. That obedience is not to be given in order to gratify the leaders' sense of power or to increase their prestige. It is to be given so that at the end of the day the leaders may be seen to have lost none of the souls committed to their care. The greatest joy of the leader of any Christian fellowship is to see those whom he leads established in the Christian way. As John wrote: "No greater joy can I have than this, to hear that my children follow the truth" (3 John 1:4 ). The greatest sorrow of the leader of any Christian fellowship is to see those whom he leads growing further away from God.
To the absent leader the duty of the congregation is that of prayer. It is a Christian duty always to bear our absent loved ones to the throne of God's grace and daily to remember there all who bear the responsibility of leadership and authority. When Stanley Baldwin became Prime Minister of Great Britain, his friends thronged round to congratulate him. He said: "It is not your congratulations I need; it is your prayers."
We must give our respect and our obedience to those set in authority over us in the Church when they are present with us, and when they are absent we must remember them in our prayers.
A PRAYER, A GREETING AND A BLESSING (Hebrews 13:20-24)
13:20-24 May the God of peace, who brought up from among the dead the great shepherd of the sheep with the blood of the eternal covenant, it is our Lord Jesus I mean, equip you with every good thing that you may do his will and may he create in you through Jesus Christ that which is well-pleasing in his sight. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Brothers, I appeal to you to bear with this appeal of mine, for indeed it is but a short letter that I have sent to you.
I would have you know that our brother Timothy is at liberty again. If he comes soon I will see you along with him.
Greet all your leaders and all God's dedicated people. The folk from Italy send you their greetings. Grace be with you all. Amen.
The great prayer of Hebrews 13:20-21 draws a perfect picture of God and of Jesus.
(i) God is the God of peace. Even in the most troublous and distressing situation, he can bring peace to men's souls. In any fellowship where there is division, it is because men have forgotten God and only the remembrance of his presence can bring back the lost peace. When a man's mind and heart are distracted and he is torn in two between the two sides of his own nature, it is only by giving his life into the control of God that he can know peace. It is only the God of peace who can make us at peace with ourselves, at peace with each other and at peace with himself.
(ii) God is the God of life. It was God who brought Jesus again from the dead. His love and power are the only things which can bring a man peace in life and triumph in death. It was to obey the will of God that Jesus died and that same will brought him again from the dead. For the man who obeys the will of God there is no such thing as final disaster; even death itself is conquered.
(iii) God is the God who both shows us his will and equips us to do it. He never gives us a task without also giving us the power to accomplish it. When God sends us out, he sends us equipped with everything we need.
The picture of Jesus is also threefold.
(i) Jesus is the great shepherd of his sheep. The picture of Jesus as the good shepherd is very precious to us but, strangely enough, it is one that Paul never uses and that the writer to the Hebrews uses only here. There is a lovely legend of Moses which tells of a thing he did when he had fled from Egypt and was keeping the flocks of Jethro in the desert. A sheep of the flock wandered far away. Moses patiently followed it and found it drinking at a mountain stream. He came up to it and put it upon his shoulder. "So it was because you were thirsty that you wandered away," said Moses gently and, without any anger at the toil the sheep had caused him, he carried it home. When God saw it, he said: "If Moses is so compassionate to a straying sheep, he is the very man I want to be the leader of my people." A shepherd is one who is ready to give his life for his sheep; he bears with their foolishness and never stops loving them. That is what Jesus does for us.
(ii) Jesus is the one who established the new covenant and made possible the new relationship between God and man. It was he who took away the terror and showed us the love of God.
(iii) Jesus is the one who died. To show men what God was like and to open the way to him, cost the life of Jesus. Our new relationship to God cost his blood.
The letter finishes with some personal greetings. The writer to the Hebrews half apologises for its length. If he had dealt with these vast topics the letter would never have ended at all. It is short--Moffatt points out that you can read it aloud in less than an hour--in comparison with the greatness of the eternal truths with which it deals.
What the reference to Timothy means no one knows, but it sounds as if he, too, had been in prison for the sake of Jesus Christ.
And so the letter closes with a blessing. All through it has been telling of the grace of Christ which opens the way to God and it comes to an end with a prayer that that wondrous grace may rest upon its readers.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on Hebrews 13". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany