13 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. 3 Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”[a]
6 So we say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?”
The ancient Jews had a brilliant system, associated with their marriage ceremonies, known as the Ketubah. We can’t be certain that the Ketubah was practiced in biblical times but a form of it very likely may have been. A Ketubah is a contract of sorts that describes in detail what life will be like for a married couple during their marriage and as they develop into a family. They are quite different in modern times than they were in ancient times but back in ancient times they would basically describe the various important elements that a husband would perform and maintain as part of the family that he was creating through this marriage. It would highlight the things that would characterize their family and marriage, describe his duties and obligations, and give general protections for the rights of the bride-to-be. It is a clever idea and one that I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful in more marriages today.
I am certainly not claiming that this section of Hebrews is a modified Ketubah contract or even based on one. But it does carry something of that flavor to it. The writer has gone to great lengths to show us just exactly who Jesus is. He is the promised Messiah and the superior mediator between God and man. He is far superior to the Law, to Moses, to angels, and to anything else we could ever put in that place. He is our great high priest who will serve unflinchingly in that role forever. He is the one who deserves and demands unshakeable loyalty, and when we give that, we will find that he will enable us to stay faithful to him despite the difficult circumstances. He has, as the author mentions in chapter 12, made us part of God’s family. When we understand all that Christ is, what he has done for us through his blood, and the fact that he has called us into the family of God, then we should realize that this should have some major implications. That’s what this last chapter is all about. It might seem a bit disjointed or that it randomly jumps about, and in some senses it does. But it has the feel of a description of the important things that we need to know as we enter or choose to remain faithful to God’s family. It’s almost like a reading of a Ketubah contract where we are being reminded of the most important aspects of our life in the family of God. Above all, though, we must keep in mind the understanding of who Jesus is that this lesson from the book of Hebrews has given us. For if we keep our eyes fixed on him, all of the rest will fall into place quite naturally.
The first verse in this section flows quite comfortably from the discussion of chapter 12 concerning being part of God’s family and one of his children. The challenging times that the recipients of this letter were going through should not cause them to think that they were outside of God’s will. On the contrary, they should realize that God was disciplining and training them as his children. God was lovingly teaching them to be his family and to grow into the image of the supreme son, Jesus the Messiah.
As God’s children, then, we are no mere collection of religious adherents. We are to be a family and bind ourselves together as such. We are to be, above all else, a loving family. And although that would include feeling and showing affection for one another as our brothers and sisters in Christ, that is not the main thrust of the idea behind the biblical word “love” when it comes to the family of Christ. The primary idea is to act loyally towards and care for one another. In fact, scholar NT Wright suggests that verse 1 be translated “Let the family continue to care for one another.” The sentiment is dead on, but I would shy away from a translation of this verse that fails to include the word “love.” If we really understand who God is and that he has called us not to be members of a religion but members of his family, then it only makes sense that we are to love one another and take care of one another. Religions don’t need to do that, families do.
One of the clearest indicators of biblical love for one another was caring for and showing hospitality to one another (you can see that if you do a New Testament study and see how often discussions of loving brothers and sisters is followed by an example to provide for one another and give hospitality to one another). Hospitality was an important part of the ancient world and it should be continued and taken even a step higher in the family of God. If the gospel was to spread around the world then disciples would have to go and travel. They should be cared for and shown hospitality when they do. But that family hospitality should be a way of life that would extend to anyone in need. The author then brings to mind the ultimate biblical and cultural example of hospitality, that of Abraham who showed hospitality to three strangers, not knowing that they were angels. The author’s point here is likely not that if believers generously bring people into our home, care for their needs, and show them hospitality that we just might be inviting in some angels without knowing it. His point was that Abraham showed indiscriminate hospitality and was blessed by having angels as his guests. In the same way, when we show lavish and generous hospitality and care for others, we will very likely receive unforeseen benefits from doing so. There is not only the inherent benefit of being generous but when we constantly show love, generosity, and hospitality as a way of life, our household and all those in it will benefit beyond our wildest imagination.
Another important aspect of life in God’s family is the need to remember those in prison. With all due respect to those that engage in ministries that go into prisons and reach out to the prisoners (I certainly believe that this is a noble ministry in which to engage), this is not what Hebrews is referring to. The Christian community frequently experienced persecution, expulsions, and imprisonment. Paul urged his readers not to be ashamed of his chains (2 Tim. 2:16) and praised Onesiphorus for coming to refresh him in prison. In addition, the early Christians were well known for caring for one another in prison, interring themselves so that prisoners did not have to be the only Christians locked up, and even taking the place of less physically capable brothers or sisters that were prisoners. In short, Hebrews was urging them to continue that behavior and to truly be a community that shared identity and honor with one another, realizing that when one part suffers, we all suffer (1 Cor. 12:25-26).
The common thread in all of these reminders, of course, is selflessness. When we understand who the Messiah truly is and what he is calling us to be as his people, then we will embrace a lifestyle of self-sacrifice, self-control, and putting the interests of others ahead of our own. Loving one another demands that, as do hospitality and remembering those in prison. But so does keeping the marriage bed pure. There were two extremes in the pagan world that were assaulting the marriage bed and both appealed to selfishness in different ways. The first was the call to indulgence and self-pleasure. It was the encouragement of having extra relationships outside of marriage, including the Temple cults witch often engaged in ritual prostitution and orgies. On the other extreme was the ascetic view that encouraged people to truly be happy by avoiding any physical pleasure, including marital sex. In doing so, some types of people found personal happiness by training themselves to not have needs or desires. Both were self-focused and Hebrews calls for God’s people to avoid both extremes. The adulterers and immoral were obviously sinful and God would deal with that. The marriage bed should be kept pure but it should also be attended and “kept” (“the marriage bed” was a figure of speech denoting marital sex). Selfishly depriving one’s spouse because of some newly cherished philosophy was not the way of self-sacrifice for God’s people either.
Another area that will display the family ethic of self-sacrifice is that of money and possessions. Christians should constantly be on guard against the greed and materialism that so characterize the world. The guard against this greed and love for money and possessions, however, is not to adopt a lifestyle of pointless and abject poverty but, once again has to do with understanding the nature of Jesus. Money is not evil, but the love of money is. We should not seek money but we should not seek poverty either. What we should seek is the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. When we do that, money and wealth will take their proper roles in our lives.
All of this self-less living hinges on our understanding of Jesus and God. The writer demonstrates this with two quotes from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 31:6 in verse 5 and Psalm 118:6-7 in verse 6. When we understand that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, and that God is our relentless helper, we need not be afraid of what the world can do to us or be attracted by it. It is our understanding of God that informs us as to what type of people we ought to be and then sustains as we seek to live lives that look radically different from the world around us.
When those outside of the Christian community of which you are a part look at your life, what do they see? Do they notice that your life is radically different? Do they see you living as a selfless member of a group of people that understand that they are family through Christ? Which of the areas mentioned in this passage today is a struggle for you in which you really need to grow? What are you going to do about it?