9 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. 10 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. 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.
We moved away from Milwaukee some years ago now but we are still able to get back to our old hometown every now and again. Recently, though, we went through town and went into an area that we used to drive through frequently but haven’t really been through since we moved. The area lies a short distance from where we used to live in our first five years in Milwaukee, and is very near Miller Park where the Milwaukee Brewers play. During those years it was really quite an eyesore. The area was full of old granaries and buildings that had been allowed to decay into near ruin. Everywhere you looked was a mass of rusting metal structures that soared several stories into the sky, unkempt fields, and overgrown parking lots and the such. It really was an ugly few blocks to drive through until you got closer to the stadium. During our last five years in Milwaukee, however, we moved to the other side of town and didn’t go through that area nearly as much, although we’d still drive through every so often. During that period I noticed a slow and steady plan seemed to be afoot to knock down, blow up, and get rid of much of the blight of that area. There wasn’t a whole lot of rebuilding of anything going on but, I thought to myself, “at least they’re knocking down the ugly stuff.” As I found myself driving through that area the other day for the first time in about five years, though, I could not believe my eyes. All of the old eyesores were gone and the area was completely built up. It was teeming with shiny new businesses, pristine strip malls, and beautiful landscaping everywhere you looked. It truly looked like a completely different place. It became clear that there was a greater purpose to busting up the old neighborhood. It was so that they could build it up to its full potential.
On a small scale, that is something of what the author of Hebrews is up to in chapters 5 and 6. He has just completed one of the harshest rebukes found in the New Testament, chiding them for allowing themselves to be potential prey to spiritual laziness and dullness. Yet at no point do we get that sense that he was being cruel or blasting them just for the sake of letting off a little steam or cutting them down to size. There was a purpose to the deconstruction that he was doing in the previous passages, which now becomes clear in this section as the tone takes a dramatic turn. Now that the dangers have been addressed directly and head-on, he can get to the business of encouraging and building. They had potential to be so much more than those who would turn back and abandon the Messiah and his people. No, his true belief was that wasn’t who they were at all. They had stood next to him and stared at the blight that they could become if they weren’t careful, but now it was time to build themselves into the beautiful structure that God intended for them to be.
The tough things had to be said to warn them and let them know of the dangerous road down which they could head if they weren’t careful, but the author was convinced that they would heed his warnings and not fall into the trap that some had already fallen prey to. They were his “dear friends” or “beloved” (which is the only time that phrase is used in the book of Hebrews) and he is confident that they will do better. Surely the writer of Hebrews did want to be frank and straightforward with those that he loved but he also wasn’t trying to needlessly beat up a group of people that were facing difficult circumstances. It’s time for a little rebuilding and so he turns to affirmation and encouragement. These are elements that are incredibly vital to the Christian community. In fact, some psychologists believe that appreciation is one of, if not the strongest, human need. We need to be affirmed and appreciated by others and that’s exactly what Hebrews does in this section.
It is the very needs for affirmation and appreciation that led the author of the Proverbs to write: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act” (Prov. 3:27). That concept is certainly as true of kind and encouraging words as any other kind of tangible help that others might need. Encouraging others, a consistent theme throughout Hebrews, is beneficial both to the receiver and the giver, which is why Proverbs 11:27 says: “One person gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” The writer of Hebrews had certainly embraced the loving approach of Proverbs 27:17 which declares that friends should sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron and that of Proverbs 27:6 which reminds us that wounds from a friend can be trusted, but it is the enemy that multiplies kisses. But it was time now to move on to encouragement and positive reinforcement.
Hebrews wasn’t just holding out blind, wishful thinking to speak positively of the future that lays ahead of the audience. He has great reason for his great confidence in their steadfastness. The basis for his confidence lies in God’s justice. God will remember and continue to bless their work and the love that they had constantly shown to one another. If this letter was indeed written to the church in Rome, as we have supposed, then that would fit quite nicely with the reputation that the church in Rome continued to maintain throughout the first century where Ignatius described the Roman church as “having the presidency of love,” and into the second century, where Dionysius, the church leader in Corinth, said that the church in Rome had always led the way “in doing good for one another, sending contributions to churches in need, relieving the poverty of the needy, and ministering to those in difficult situations.” In fact, the picture painted in verse 10 is what the Christian family is supposed to look like. It is a community devoted to God and engaging in the hard work of demonstrating that devotion through loving others. This is what God wants from and for his people and we should not miss the point that the love shown to one another is, in God’s eyes, done to and for him.
God will continue to bless the community in their labor, which is why the writer ties in their loving work to the justice of God. Here he has struck that perfect, and sometimes difficult to understand, balance between God’s grace and faithfulness and our own hard work. Certainly God will provide for his people and given them the means to remain faithful but that faithfulness will always be seen in our actions. That is why it is necessary for God’s people to both be active in sharing our love and doing good works but in also constantly recognizing that the strength and grace to do so comes from God. God’s people certainly are created for good works which he has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10). It is this balance that led Paul declare in 1 Corinthians 15:10 that he had worked harder than anyone to advance the gospel, but reminds his readers that it was not through his own effort but by the grace of God.
So what is the proper balance between resting in God’s grace and faithfulness to see us through to the end and the constant biblical call to good works and laboring in the Lord? I think the proper balance is beautifully on display in Philippians 3:16: “Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” If we over-stress the “live up to” part we will be full of guilt and constantly pushing ourselves according to our own strength to do more and get better results. On the other hand, if we over-emphasize the “already attained” portion then we endanger ourselves in becoming lazy and undisciplined and actually failing to show appreciation to God for what he has done. Yes, God has declared us as his people, and yes we do need to show evidence of that in our lives as we love others and work for the advancement of God’s rule and his kingdom.
There is, of course, the looming danger that he has already covered: that we can so spurn God’s grace and become so unappreciative and dull that we take our eyes completely off of Christ and willingly wander away. That is why Hebrews urges his readers to stay diligent in living up to the status that they have been given as God’s people until the very end. Rather than becoming lazy and letting go as some apparently already had among the family of believers, he wanted them to look at some of the great examples of those who remained faithful to God and would partake in the inheritance (the positive examples are something he will mention briefly in the next section and then draw out more fully in chapter 11).
What they needed to understand and what we cannot miss is that feelings are unreliable. If a runner only ran and trained when they felt like it there would be no great runners. If we wait until we feel like it to work hard and be consistent in loving others or giving of our time and energy to God’s people, or serving in a ministry then it will never happen. Our feelings don’t matter when it comes to this. What does matter is God’s call to stand firm to the end in loving him and loving others.
What encouragement do you find today from the author of Hebrews words of affirmation to his audience? Why is it important to balance the affirmation that God will not forget us with the need to be diligent?