The next posting won’t be until a week from today due to an upcoming trip to Wichita, Kansas for a teaching weekend.
A Call to Persevere in Faith
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another —and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
I while back I had the somewhat amusing experience of talking to a wonderfully godly young man who was a little confused. He had been dating a fantastic Christian young woman for awhile but he was starting to have doubts. They were getting to a point in their relationship where he had to make a choice and he knew it. He was firmly committed to wanting to follow God’s will in his life as best as he could understand it and this was challenging for him. He was particularly torn as to whether he should ask the young lady to marry him or just make a change in their relationship. It had nothing to do, really, with how he felt about her but he was concerned and didn’t feel that he was sure that their relationship was going to glorify God and bring him closer to God or whether it would distract him and keep him from doing the big things for God that he was hoping to be able to accomplish in his life. Although I appreciated his concerns I felt that he was missing a few things in his thinking process. He was looking at the potential problems that could arise and was forgetting to look at the wonderful things about this young lady and the relationship that they had and could continue to build with God together. I didn’t tell him much other than to think about how he really felt about this young lady and whether she was worth giving the rest of his life to, creating a partnership where they would seek to bring glory to God with their life together. Once he took some time to think through how incredible this young lady really is, his decision became pretty clear. He wanted to draw near to her for the rest of his life. He woke up and quickly asked this young lady to be his wife.
Of course the details are very different but the sentiment behind this section of Hebrews is much the same. The author of Hebrews was addressing a group of people who had become unsure about their relationship with Jesus as members of his family. Many had left, life was hard, and many more had started to wonder if they really wanted to be part of this family for the rest of their lives. Should they remain faithful or would it be best to just break things off? In wake of that, Hebrews has carefully called its readers to take a step back and think through just who Jesus is and what he has done for all of us. It calls the reader to squarely look at the superiority of Jesus Christ from many different angles and realize that one would be foolish to walk away from that. The author is confident that once we take some time to think it all through, the decision will become clear. When we truly understand who Jesus is we will want to draw near to God without ceasing. That is the clear purpose of this section as the author draws together many strands of his grand tapestry that he has been weaving together and finally takes a step back and allows us to see it in all its glory. He doesn’t give us much time to stand there and admire what he has shown us though, as he quickly calls the reader to make the right decision and take the right action based on who Jesus is and what he has done.
The words “therefore” and “since” in verse 19 are incredibly important markers. They tell us that the author is finally ready to draw together and sum up all of his arguments up to this point and is about to start drawing some firm and clear conclusions based on his findings about Jesus. “Therefore” is a signal word that tells us that what he is about to say is the directly related conclusion and outcome of what has gone before, points that he will begin to lay out clearly in verse 22. But the word “since” tells us that he is about to sum up in a very concise manner what the “therefore” points to. In other words, verses 19-21 are a brief and powerful summary of what “therefore” is built upon.
The God-became-human Jesus Christ has, through the sacrifice of his body, opened a new way that ran directly through a curtain. That might sound a little puzzling to us but it would have been a stunning claim to a first-century reader. The curtain to which this makes reference is the one that protected and kept people out of the holy of holies. It was a massively thick and heavy curtain that had little in common with the curtain that might cover your window. This no doubt alludes to the fact that this mighty curtain tore in two at the very moment that Christ died upon the Cross, which was a clear signal from God that the death of Cross had done something that was never possible before. What was that? It gave human beings the possibility of access into the Most Holy Place. In fact, it gave us confidence to enter into the presence of God, not just a fearful hope that we wouldn’t be struck down for such a petulant act. But how does one gain access into this Most Holy Place? Through the body, or in other words, the life of Christ.
But Jesus didn’t just blaze this incredible trail as a result of his superior life and sacrifice and then leave us to it on our own. He continues to serve over the family of God, the house of God, as our high priest. That is a significant point both because it means that Jesus continues to mediate on our behalf and lead us spiritually, but also because it stresses that Christ made the way for us into God’s family not a religion. We must avoid the language of the “high priest” to put the idea of a classic religion in our minds and realize the point that is actually being made. Christ acted as our priest for the purpose of bringing us into the household of God.
We then turn to the ramifications of what Christ did. We don’t just want to look at Christ’s life and get a warm gooey feeling about how awesome it is. It calls us to some specific realizations. The author calls us to two specific actions and then gives us two practical ways that we can actually take those actions.
The first practical action is to draw near to God. That should be the response of the wise person who has considered the ramifications of Jesus and the New Covenant. But this is no vague, do-it-yourself-however-you-want sort of drawing near to God. It involves doing so with a sincere heart to obey God and his word. It involves doing so in assurance knowing that taking faith in the life of Christ will bring us into relationship with God. It Involves having our hearts sprinkled, or in other words, cleansed, with the sacrificial blood of Christ in an act that cleanses us from a guilty conscience. That internal cleansing and transformation is the very thing that the Old Covenant and no other religion can ever bring. Only Christ alone can do that. And finally, it involves having our bodies washed with pure water, a clear reference to the water baptism that allows us to enter into the life of Christ (Gal. 3:26-29; Rom. 6:1-4), have our sin forgiven (Acts 2:38), and be saved (1 Peter 3:20; Titus 3:4-7).
The second practical action flows from the first and is a bit of an exhortation as well as a warning. If we are going to draw near to God then it only makes sense to hold to him unswervingly. After all, God is faithful and so should we be as people who professed Jesus as Lord and embraced the hope of the resurrection life as both a reality to be lived now and something that will come fully in the future. The encouragement and warning here are the same: Stay faithful because God is faithful. God will hold up his end of things, but at our baptism we pledged to God to be loyal to him and obedient to his word. It is nothing short of sad when people pledge fidelity to God and then abandon that pledge when things get difficult whether it be persecution for being a Christian, a rough marriage, or the temptation of being successful in the eyes of the world. It never ceases to amaze me how many people profess the hope of being the people of God’s age to come who then flippantly throw that off and act selfishly just because the going grew rough. Let us, says the author, hold unswervingly and draw near to God. That is in our control. But how do we do that practically? That is where the next two admonishments come into play.
Virtually every Christian that bothers with actually being a Christian wouldn’t argue with the fact that they would like to draw near to God and hold unswervingly to our commitment in Christ, but how? Is there a way that we can move forward with beginning to do that on a practical level? The answer from Hebrews is “yes” in two different ways. The first is to consider constantly how we might continue to spur one another toward love and good deeds. In other words, let us strive to motivate one another towards living the reality of Christian life in action and not just in theory. The mark of so many modern church groups is to consider their spiritual life a personal things that is “none of my business” but the biblical call here is quite different from that. The life of Christ is a team sport. The writer of Hebrews envisions a community that looks out for one another and calls each other to the high standard of living in response to superiority of Christ and the incredible opportunity of living that he has offered to those who would trust in his life.
The second element flows from the first. A community under pressure and persecution would find great temptation in drifting from one another and not gathering together. It would have helped them stay under the radar and just been much easier. But it would have belied their true devotion to God. The Scriptures know nothing of a people that claim to be loyal to God but show none to one another. Most Christians today don’t have to deal with this type of situation, rather we find excuse to give up meeting together due to personal issues, professional ambitions, anxiety about providing for the necessities in life, personal ease, comfort, and lack of discipline. That is not to say that simply encouraging one another in the life of Christ and remaining loyal to one another above all else is the sum total of the Christian life or even that those things alone will keep us faithful, but they are indispensable elements of a faithful life in Christ.
The author has stated his case clearly to this point. Jesus is superior to anything else that we can follow in life. He has torn the veil that separates fallen humanity from our God. We would do well to stop and understand all of that but to go beyond that as well and consider the ramifications of all of that. Jesus really is our high priest and king of the world and that should provoke us to draw near to God and not let go. But, like the original recipients of this letter, we must learn that the clearest measure of our devotion to God and Christ is our devotion to our fellow brother and sister in Christ.
1 John 4:19-21 gives us the clear principle that how we treat other Christians is the clearest indicator of how we truly feel about God. If someone were to judge you love for God, your loyalty to God, your devotion to God, etc., by your love, loyalty, and devotion to God’s family how would that turn out? What do those areas of your life with other believers say about your true devotion to God?