The Certainty of God’s Promise
13 When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.”[d] 15 And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised.
16 People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. 17 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. 18 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. 19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, 20 where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
When I was a younger man and in college I regularly had to take a nearly twelve hour trip back and forth between my college campus and my hometown. I nearly always took that journey alone and was quite proud of the fact that I could make that trip as efficiently as possible. I had a stop that was almost half-way on the route and it had a gas station and fast food restaurant right off the road. I didn’t have to really get off of anyway highway, I just pulled into one driveway and could refuel, grab some food, and run into the restroom all in one stop and then get right back onto the road quite easily. In minutes I would be back on my merry way without having lost anytime at all. That was then. Now when I take trips it’s a bit more complicated because I have children. It seems that no matter how much I plan out trips to our various destinations they never go according to plan in a nice, neat little package like they used to back then. Invariably, just as we are really starting to make some good time, one of my children, although usually the youngest these days, will declare that they need to go to the bathroom, and quickly. My first instinct is to tell them to hold it because I don’t want to change my route and there’s just no convenient spot to pull over. But then I can feel that look from the other side of the car from my wife indicating her subtle but rather intense desire that I should find somewhere to pull over and allow our little cherub to relieve himself. Doing so at unplanned times is usually a bit of a pain, which is why I don’t like to, but I will dutifully pull off the highway onto an off-ramp, search for a gas station or some other such place, make our necessary stop, and then get back on the on-ramp. All of that just to get back to where left off a while before that.
It’s not that the author of Hebrews had to use the bathroom and it hasn’t even been inconvenient or unnecessary, but he did take us on a bit of detour beginning back in chapter 5 just as he was in the middle of discussing Jesus being our superior and ultimate high priest and explaining the importance of him being of the order of Melchizedek rather than Aaron. This detour included a fairly harsh rebuke and call for the community of believers to wake up and begin to strive for maturity in their Christian faith rather than struggling with basic infantile type questions like were they going to follow Christ at all. He had urged them to not become dull and lazy and to cling to the promises that God has made to those in Christ, namely the resurrection life and the ability to stay faithful to it based on God’s power and justice. He’s got a few more things to say to encourage them about those promises but we are now on the on-ramp and getting back towards where we started. In fact, by the end of this passage we will be at the very same point that we left off when we began our detour and will be ready to move forward in the point about the Messiah becoming a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
In the previous section Hebrews exhorted the readers to keep moving towards the promises that God had given to his people. In fact, those promises were something of an issue in the first century between Christians and Jews. The Jews claimed that they were really God’s people because they were the keepers of the promises of God and if God wasn’t faithful to his promises to Israel then he was not really God. The Christians, on the other hand, argued that only in the Messiah could the promises of God be fulfilled (2 Cor. 2:10). They declared that the Messiah was the representative of God’s people, Israel, and that he was now the gate to God’s people and his promises as the true Israel, and that Jews and Gentiles alike would have to enter through that gate in order to claim possession of God’s promises.
So if they were going to be the people of promise then it was important that they held firmly to those promises and remained faithful to them. For first century Christians, then, especially a group that included a lot of Jewish Christians, it makes a great deal of sense for the author to turn to Abraham as the classic example of someone remaining faithful to God’s promises despite difficult circumstances.
God had promised Abraham that he would have one mighty family that would consists of all nations and that would be blessed by God. If that were to happen, however, he would need descendants. After exhibiting and learning a great deal of faith in seeing his son of that promise finally born, Abraham must have been rocked in his faith when God told him to take Isaac and sacrifice him. Child sacrifice was not uncommon among the pagan religions of Abraham’s day, and in essence, God was saying, “do you trust me as much as the pagans trust their lifeless gods?” Abraham acted on that faith and received the fulfillment of his blessings; not during his lifetime, as chapter 11 will make clear, but he received them nonetheless. His actions in taking Isaac to the brink of sacrifice before being stopped by God demonstrates the fact that faith was not some vague act of mental agreement but was defined by living and acting as though God’s promises were true and he would fulfill them despite how unlikely it seemed based on circumstances. That is what faith is.
It was common practice of the day to verify an oath by swearing by someone greater than yourself. God wanted to make it as clear as possible in Abraham’s world of understanding, so he swore an oath while making his promises to Abraham. There was just one problem. Jews would often swear by the name of God to verify their oaths, but in God’s case he is the ultimate authority and standard of truth so there was no one greater by which to swear. God then swore by his own name (Gen. 22:16) in promising that he would indeed bring about the family of blessing from Abraham’s descendants. He didn’t do this because he needed to but so that Abraham could be doubly sure that God truly would fulfill his promises to him.
God’s promise to Abraham was doubly secure, then. Not only could Abraham rely on the promise just because the nature of God is unchanging and completely trustworthy, but God went above and beyond the call. Just relying on his nature alone would have been enough, for God cannot lie and has absolutely no need to. But to help Abraham out, he also made an oath, and repeated that oath to his descendants that he would indeed fulfill his promises. Just as surely as we can rely on God’s nature, we can also rely on God’s oaths and promises, so now there were two things that cannot be changed, shaken, or disqualified that were confirming that having hope in God’s promises was reliable.
The author here implies two things that would have been a little more obvious to the first audience than it probably is to us. The first is that those promises made to Abraham were now in their possession. Just as Isaac was the child of promise and Ishmael was not, and just as Jacob was the child of promise and Esau was not, so Jesus had become the one and only child of promise and Israel, the firstborn (Ex. 4:22) had not (Paul discusses all of this in Romans 9). But all of God’s promises to Israel were faithfully and justly administered in the Messiah, and that meant that those faithful to him were receiving the promises. The second thing is that the promises of God to bring about a blessed family of all nations had taken shape in the Messiah and now their great hope in those promises had moved passed waiting for the coming of the promises and on to the ultimate and final fulfillment of them all. That was the time when God would dwell finally and fully with his people forever in the resurrection age of eternal life. This is what the Christians were waiting for and hoping in.
And they had an even greater visible marker of the guarantee of those promises than Abraham did. Abraham had God’s word and his character, enough to be sure, but those in Christ have a further confirmation. We need not grow weary or lazy in living out our faith that we really reign with God as his people in the age to come, despite all appearances to the contrary in the present age, because we have an anchor that is firmly planted in the throne room, the inner sanctuary of the real heavenly Temple and not just in some earthly representation of it. Jesus is our forerunner or the firstfruits. He has gone ahead into the resurrection where humans dwell in God’s presence and is holding our spot. He is acting as our mediator and high priest, ensuring that those who remain faithful to him will indeed join him in that resurrection age when he returns to make all things new. He is, in fact, our high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. And with that, we have now arrived at the same spot where we turned off, and are now ready to continue on our journey.
When the audience of this letter was struggling spiritually the author called upon them to really focus on the person and character of Jesus Christ and his superiority. When they did that, he knew that they would remain faithful. When you are going through hard times spiritually, what do you focus on? Do you focus on the situation, your feelings, your emotions, how to relieve the situation, or do you meditate on the person and character of Jesus Christ and hold steady?