I'm truly sorry for it having been so long between devotionals. Between trips to Africa, moving, and taking on new responsibilities, and projects I just had to lay something down for a little while. We will now pick up and complete Hebrews. Thanks to those that kept bugging me about getting this done.
32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. 37 For,
“In just a little while,
he who is coming will come
and will not delay.”[f]
“But my righteous[g] one will live by faith.
And I take no pleasure
in the one who shrinks back.”[h]
39 But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.
One of the most striking moments in history, at least in my opinion, is a little known event that took place on a slave trading ship just off of the coast of Cuba in the early 19th century. A man who would come to be known as Joseph Cinque was chained up on that ship. He had been taken by force from his home in Western Africa and had suffered through the unspeakably inhumane treatment and conditions of a Trans-Atlantic slave ship. Cinque had been taken to a slave fortress on the coast of Africa and then interred on the slave ship where he had seen horrendous things, including over a hundred slaves simply thrown into the ocean in order to lighten the load on the ship. A mind-boggling number of slaves died on those Trans-Atlantic trips and they were so ghastly that some have reported that to this day sharks follow along the patterns of the slave ships because they had come to be trained to do so over a hundred years ago by the constant availability of bodies that were thrown overboard. After surviving the long voyage to Cuba, Cinque was sold at auction with a group of other slaves and put on a Cuban slave trading ship known as “La Amistad.” While on that ship, Cinque escaped and led the other slaves to overthrow their captors and take possession of the boat. Eventually they were captured and brought to New York, being put on trial for insurrection.
Much of this is chronicled in the movie “The Amistad,” (the historical accuracy of that film is pretty good but a bit shaky at certain points). In the movie there is a scene between Cinque and his lawyer where Cinque tries to explain that he is not any kind of hero. The other Africans were calling Cinque their leader and he was known as a great man because he had killed a lion back in his home village and saved the other villagers. Cinque says that he was no hero, rather he got lucky in killing the lion. The lawyer, with a sly grin of admiration on his face, says that he would agree with Cinque if it hadn’t been for the other lion. Cinque looks puzzled, but then the lawyer explains that “La Amistad” was the second “lion” that he had slain. Cinque’s greatness was proven by his previous and repeated behaviors. If there was a question about his character and what he would do in the future, the lawyer felt that was answered by the pattern of his previous behavior. He had shown himself to be a leader and the lawyer was confident that he was up to the task in the future.
Perhaps questions had arisen in the mind of some as to whether or not the church being written to here was up to the challenges facing them. They were being persecuted and were likely looking down the barrel at more to come. Some had walked away, and life was just getting harder for the Christians that remained faithful. Were they up to the task? Would they remain faithful to Christ and his family? Would they be among those who would shrink back from their faith? Obviously the writer of Hebrews hoped that that would not be the case, but his feelings went beyond just blind hope. He had a certain amount of confidence because of their past behavior. They had already faced the lion and come out with their faith intact, and they needed to realize that this was evidence that they would remain faithful and able to face whatever was yet to come their way.
Often times when people are struggling or growing weary, reminding them of previous strength can be encouraging. It is not that the author wanted them to live off of their deeds of the past, rather he wanted them to be reminded of who they were in Christ and what they had already endured. He wanted them to see that they could stand up to the challenges of the future because of what they had already endured in the past.
They had embraced the life of Christ, dying to themselves and leaving behind the way of the world. They had entered into Christ, knowing that his life was indeed the only way to the Father. They boldly declared to the world at their baptism that they were repenting of their sin and giving their fully loyalty to the family of Jesus. They did this knowing that it would likely cost them dearly. It would cost them their physical families in many cases, their inheritances, their position in society, their jobs, and much more.
In fact, the description of the early days of their faith fit quite well with the circumstances faced by the Christians in Rome, and provides further evidence that this letter was indeed originally written to the church in Rome. They had “endured a great conflict full of suffering.” They had been exposed to public ridicule, insults, and repeated persecutions. At other times, when some individuals weren’t experiencing persecution themselves, they took the bold step of standing by those who were being targeted, ignoring the instinct to “keep your nose out of trouble” when the trouble is not aimed directly at you.
They had been thrown in prison and suffered with those who had. This likely refers to the early Christian practice of joining other Christians who had been put into prison so that they would not have to suffer alone. There are, in fact, reports from the second century of some Christians taking the place of older or less healthy Christians in prison (an acceptable practice at the time), and many accounts of brothers and sisters willingly turning themselves into prison to be taken as prisoners so as to strengthen those who were already imprisoned. This is the kind of people that this letter was addressed to.
Life had not been easy. They had even been through the confiscation of their property, presumably referring to the events of 49 AD when the Emperor Claudius had Jews and Jewish Christians expelled from Rome and the property of many of the Christians who left and those who remained had been taken from them. Not only did they endure that, they did it with joy. They knew that they were suffering for the sake of Christ and that was worth it to them. Times were tough, to say the least, but they had remained faithful through it all because they knew the inheritance of the resurrection age was far better than anything the world could offer or take away from them.
They had survived the first lion and now it seemed to be coming around again. But they needed to remember those days and what motivated them to endure that. That would be their beacon of light so that they did not grow weary and throw away their confidence in God’s promises. God has promised the inheritance of the age to come to those who remain faithful to Christ. He has, however, called us to begin to live by the values of that age right now which will put us at direct odds with the world and bring persecution down upon a people who are dedicated to live such a radical life. They would need to persevere in doing God’s will so that they would receive those promises. God would deliver on his promises without a doubt if they would just continue to live as though those promises were true.
To further their encouragement, Hebrews turns to Habakkuk 2:3,4 in verses 37 and 38. Habakkuk was written to remind people to wait for God’s promises faithfully. He would respond to his promises and his true people would respond by living by faith no matter what the circumstances seemed to be around them. God would indeed intervene on behalf of those who trusted in him and waited. The point of Habakkuk is that when everything seems to be lost and God nowhere to be found, that his true people will be the ones holding firm to his promises, continuing to live by faith. With the coming of the Messiah, God had finally and faithfully delivered on every promise (1 Cor. 1:20).
Two responses to God have been clearly laid out. There are those who shrink back and those who have faith. The outcomes of those two paths is very different. Those who shrink back will be judged and destroyed while those who would walk in faith would be saved. The fulfillment of these ongoing paths would be demonstrated in a very tangible way in 70 AD during the destruction of Jerusalem. Those who trusted in their own wisdom and path, thinking that war with Rome would bring them freedom and cause God to act on behalf of Israel, were destroyed during the devastating destruction of the Temple and the surrounding city. History records, however, that the Christians in Jerusalem heeded the warnings of Jesus concerning this event (Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) and fled Jerusalem, and as a result, none of them died in the resulting violence. That was a very real picture of those who would trust in Judaism or some other path and those who would trust in the way of Christ alone. The difference in those choices would result in either destruction or salvation.
Having laid out the clear distinction between a life of responding to the external circumstances and a life of faith, the author is confident that they will respond in continued faith. They had shown that kind of faith before during trying times and Hebrews is sure that they would again. The author doesn’t directly mention it, but would surely agree with the modern saying that “the best predictor of future behavior is past performance.” Our author believed that to be true in this case as he confidently states that Christians do “not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, “ but in fact we are part of “those who have faith and are saved.” Like a radio station that is tuned into the proper channel and begins to ring loud and clear, when Christians turn from the world’s channel and tune into the life of Christ what comes out is a crystal clear life of faith and loyalty.
Are you struggling through any difficulties and trials in your walk of faith right now? Have you made it faithfully through such situations in the past by relying on God? Spend some time recalling those past situations and what you did to make it through. Then pray that God will give you the same strength and demonstration of faith to meet your current challenge.