Hebrews: Exhortations for Christian Living

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on June 20, 2014

Hebrews 13:1-14

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I would invite you to turn with me in your Bible to Hebrews 13. We are coming to the end of our study of Hebrews. The final chapter of that book is now open before us and I want to remind you that throughout our study of Hebrews we have stressed that the author is clearly focused on calling professing believers in this Hebrew congregation, most of them who are Jewish Christians, not to forsake Christ and Christianity for their old religious system. Many of them were tempted to go back to what they knew and to forsake Christ. And so the warning against which he is sounding a constant call is apostasy or a falling away from the profession that we have made of Christ.

His consistent exhortation and argument could be summarized in one phrase. I borrowed this phrase from William Hendrickson. He says, “The story of Hebrews is that Jesus is worthy of your faith. Have faith in Him and do not fall away. Jesus is worthy of your faith. Have faith in Him, therefore, and do not fall away.”  That message is just as applicable today to us as it was to them when it was first written. There are all manner of pressures in our lives that pull us away from our absolute allegiance to Christ and to the gospel of truth. And this book’s warning, hence, is for us. Do not forsake Christ, persevere in your faith. Jesus is worthy of your faith. Have faith in Him and do not fall away.

Now as we have looked at Hebrews 12, we have seen the author focus on our motivation for living the Christian life, having talked about the proper motivation for living the Christian life, he now turns in Hebrews 13 to a very practical exhortation for our Christian living. And I would like to look at those exhortations with you tonight. We will just look at the first 14 verses of Hebrews 13. Let’s hear God’s word in Hebrews 13 beginning in verse 1. 

Hebrews 13:1-14 

“Now Father, we do thank You for the word; and we ask now as we consider these exhortations that we would realize that these are Your words. They may have been penned by a human author inspired by the Holy Spirit. These words hence, O Lord, reflect that human personality, but ultimately these words are Your words and so they are not meant for a particular situation in a particular place and time, they are meant for us. Because we are Your people and this is Your book, but it is the book that You wrote for Your people. So as we come to study it, we pray that we would bear that in mind and that by the Holy Spirit you would open our hearts to see this truth for us tonight. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.” 

In this great passage tonight God exhorts us to five strategic Christian duties and He also issues a final appeal, to renounce the vain ritual of a superseded order and to share in Christ’s reproach by joining Him outside the camp of Judaism. Each of these five strategic duties is crucial, not only to our witness as Christians, but to the spiritual welfare of the church. And I would like to look at those exhortations with you.  They are an emphatic call for us to live out what we believe. The author has been talking about our motivation for Christian loiving and now he is going to exhort us to live out, to demonstrate in our conduct, to demonstrate in our actions what we profess to believe as Christians. Let’s look at these things then together.  

I. Love your Christian brothers and sisters above all.

If you will look at verses 1, 2, and 3, you will note that they constitute a unity in terms of the message that they convey. Those speak about our love for the brethren. There are separate exhortations found in those verses, but they are all related to that issue of love for the brethren. And there we are called to love our brothers and sisters in Christ above all. This first exhortation in Hebrews 13 is a classic Christian exhortation. You could find it in numerous passages in the New Testament. It is in John 13:34, and Romans 13:8, and I Corinthians 13, and in  I Thessalonians 4:9. Over and over in the New Testament this exhortation to love one another, to love the brethren, is made. It is clearly very important. But in this passage, that general exhortation, “Love of the brethren,” is joined in verses 2 and 3 to two practical expressions of that love. He doesn’t just make the exhortation and then leave you to figure out what it means to love. He says, as it were, let me give you two concrete examples of how you can love one another. And those concrete examples are as follows: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers and remember the prisoners. In other words, he says this love that I am asking you to participate in and reflect is a practical love which is borne out by your obedience accompanying exhortation. And he gives these two examples.

First, the care for Christian strangers who come to visit Christians in this local congregation, wherever they are. Let’s assume they are in Palestine and Christians from another region come to visit. We do know that in the time when this book was written, to stay in an inn placed you in a rather compromising situation, because inns in those days were generally known as places of immorality. So there was a necessity to this.  As a Christian you would not want to expect a Christian who was traveling in your region to stay in a place which might compromise him in terms of his moral purity, so it is a very practical expression of hospitality so that you are not putting a Christian in that circumstance. You are looking out for their well-being. The illustration in this passage which says, “For some, by entertaining strangers, have entertained angels without knowing it,” apparently goes back to Genesis and the story of Abraham in Genesis 18 and 19. The rabbis not only held Abraham to be the supreme example of faith, they held him to be the supreme example of hospitality, because he entertained angels in his tent.

So holding up that example to these Jewish Christians, he says, you do the same. You show hospitality to Christian strangers and travelers in you midst. You take care of them.

Secondly, he tells them to minister to those in prison. And, again, these are not simply those who have been tried and convicted for various crimes and have been imprisoned. He is specifically speaking about taking care of those who are in imprisoned and who have been ill-treated because of their profession of faith in Christ. In other words, he is talking about ministering to Christians who are being persecuted for their faith, ministry to those who are imprisoned or ill-treated because of their profession of faith. And he gives a reason behind this. Why should you do it? Look at what he says at the end of verse 3: “Since you yourselves are also in the body.” Now the commentators argue over what that means. Calvin and other great commentators say, “That means because you are part of the body of Christ, you ought to minister to those parts of the body of Christ which are being persecuted, imprisoned, and ill-treated.” Other commentators say, “No, what he is saying is that because you are flesh and blood, you need to minister to the flesh-and-blood needs of those who are being ill-treated because of their faith. Both of them are true.” I won’t solve it for you tonight.

We ought to minister to one another because we are part of the body of Christ and we ought to minister to one another practically in our love because we are flesh and blood. We do have human needs. What he is saying is put some shoes on this love. Make sure that this love is practical.

Now these, I would argue if we had the author of Hebrews here today, he would say these are not the only ways I want you to love. These are two important and practical ways in which you could express your love for one another. But you and I can fill in the blanks. There are other way in which we can express this kind of practical love for one another because what is being asked for her is we show a comprehensive and practical love for one another as Christians.

Let me suggest two ways in light of what he has suggested. First, the beauty of Christian hospitality is something that I think this passage points us to. We need to think seriously about how we minister to one another in the calling of hospitality. That is something we are famous for in this part of the United States. But it is something we need to think about, not just from a Southern perspective or a cultural perspective, but from a distinctively Christian perspective. And there ought to be in all of our homes and it may be a different expression in every one of them I want to say but in all of our homes there ought to be an agenda to show Christian hospitality to other Christians, especially those who are in particular need but also for the encouragement of the brethren. That may look different in every single home in the congregation how you do it. But you know, we ought to be talking about what our agenda for Christian hospitality is going to be. Is it going to be that we have a ministry of inviting students who are visiting our congregation to our homes for Sunday lunches? They are far from their parents. They are here at Jackson. They are studying at RTS and Belhaven. They are studying at Millsaps, Mississippi College, various other institutions around town. And we have decided that we are going to extend the ministry of hospitality because they are a long way from Mom and Dad, they are a long way from their friends, and we want to enfold them into the family of Christ here at First Presbyterian Church. Or it may be you are going to minister to your brothers and sisters in the congregation. “I know that from time to time, every wife likes to have a break from cooking and so I am going to invite so-and-so’s family this week and that is going to give her a break from preparing that Sunday lunch. I am going to invite them into the home and we are going to show hospitality.”  We could think of a thousand ways that we could do this. All of us ought to have an agenda for Christian to show to one another.

The second area I think that hits home to us is the importance of caring about and ministering to those who are undergoing persecution and ill-treatment for their faith. Now you say this is a little strange to be saying in Jackson, Mississippi, and I understand that you think that strange. There are not that many folks that we could name right here who are undergoing ill-treatment and persecution for their faith. But there are some. There are some right under our nose, right here in Jackson, doing the Lord’s work and enduring tremendous pressure for doing that. Let me just say very frankly, some of our evangelical brethren, some of the brethren that we have had the privilege of meeting who have taken courses at RTS and who are ministering in the African American community here, let me tell you, some of the things that they say for the sake of the gospel don’t go down well in their own community. And there is a way we can encourage them in the midst of their faithfulness to the gospel.

But you know, we have Christians around the world who are being persecuted and ill-treated for their faith. And that ought to be something that more and more becomes a standing burden of our hearts and we may even begin to think how can we begin to tangibly relieve that. There are hundreds and thousands of our Christian brothers and sisters suffering in the Sudan right now, in Pakistan. And we could name countries all around the world. And there are ways that we can tangibly minister, even though they are far away. I know the author is thinking here primarily of those who are right in our path. These aren’t people we have to go out looking for. He is thinking about people we cross paths with every day. I think by extension our hearts for all Christians under persecution and ill-treatment should be enlarged by a passage like this. 

II. Honor marriage by rejecting asceticism and immorality in attitude and practice.

Then secondly, if you will look at verse 4, he comes very directly to an area of controversy in our own society today, the issue of marriage. And he wants us to stop for a moment about the respect for marriage that we as Christians ought to have. He says, “Marriage is to be held in honor among all and the marriage is to be undefiled.” Basically he calls us to do two things simultaneously. First, he calls us to honor marriage by rejecting any idea that belittles Christians. I use the word asceticism, that may not be a word that you use in normal conversation with your neighbor, but you might want throw it in just to spice things up from time to time.  Asceticism, of course, in this case simply refers to a view that says, “Spiritual is spiritual, but things that have to do with the body, those are lowly, they are unspiritual.” In fact, many of those who are ascetics teach that things that have to do with the body are actually sinful and the way that you are more spiritual is that you forget things that have to do with the body. In the time when the Book of Hebrews was being written, we know that there was a tendency in the culture to view spirituality as being anti-body and anti-sexual and, therefore, anti-marriage. The idea was the more spiritual you are, the less a sexual being you are and the ultimate expression of that is utter celibacy. And, therefore, those who are single and who are committed to a spiritual path are much more spiritual than one could ever be if one was married.

And the author of Hebrews wants us to stop right there and say that is not Jesus’ view of marriage, that is not Moses’ view of marriage, and that is not God’s view of marriage. God’s view of marriage is that it is a high and holy estate. It ought to be honored. Now we know that today there aren’t so many people running around telling us that marriage is a bad thing, and there certainly are not a lot of people running around telling us that sexual relations are bad things. In fact, there is sort of a free-for-all attitude when it comes to sexual relations.

Nevertheless, in our own society today, there are many people who are working overtime to undercut the significance of marriage. And they are doing it in many ways. But one which comes immediately to mind is the way in which people are attempting to redefine marriage. Marriage is no longer between a man and a woman, one flesh. Oh, it could be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. That redefinition of marriage according to the Bible dishonors marriage. And so the application for us in this passage is that we ought to be those who stand out like a sore thumb in our society saying, “Oh, no, we appreciate where you are coming from, but the Christian view of marriage is that it is between one man and one woman, and that is the only way to honor the institution of marriage, is to recognize what marriage is.”

Another application of this is for sexual purity within the marital relationship, and, of course, sexual purity outside the marital relationship. In the time of Hebrews, as now, sexual immorality and marital infidelity were rampant. And the author of Hebrews says we are to make sure as Christians that we give the clearest witness to sexual purity in our relationships. That means if you are a man and wife, that your maritally faithful to one another. And that if you are unmarried, that you abstain from marital relations until such time as you are married so that you are different from society.

In both these ways, the author of Hebrews is asking us as Christians to think counter-culturally, not to go along with the flow of our culture around us, but to think distinctively from a Christian standpoint about marriage because he knows that marriage is a direct reflection on our Christian witness. It is one of the easiest ways that people can see a difference in us. You know, it is not surprising that many of the early intellectual defenders of Christianity say that the thing that convinced them the most about the truth of the Christian faith was not so much the intellectual arguments put forward for Christianity, but seeing people who had lived lives of moral dissipation, transformed morally by the power of the gospel.

      Justin Martyr tells of a woman that he knew who was morally corrupt and then she was brought to Christ and her life changed. She stopped living in an immoral way. Justin Martyr had no argument against that. There has to be some moral realities behind that change he said. And this was instructive and instrumental in his own growth in grace and coming to Christ.     

III. Don't fall in love with money.

The third thing in this passage is in verses 5 and 6. This is another standing issue that we face today. He is asking us to stop and reflect about the right attitude towards earthly wealth and possessions. And he says this: Don’t fall in love with money, but be content. Make sure that your character is free from the love of money. Think of it, even in a time of persecution and even in a time when Christians often came from the underclass, they still had to be warned against the love of money. That’s really striking, isn’t it? Presumably, most of this congregation was not “rolling in the dough.” But they still had to be warned not to love money, not to love possessions, not to love things. How much more ought we, in the most materially blessed society in the history of the world, how much more ought we to be careful that the love of money does not grow in our own hearts. This is a standing issue in the Christian church and it is one of the great spiritual challenges of the Christian life. And the author of Hebrews basically offers two arguments for us against materialism, against love of money, why we ought not to be captive to the love of money.

First he quotes this: “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.” In that Scripture reference, he says that God is near to His people and He cares for them. “I will not desert you; I will not forsake you.” He is thinking about the presence and the providence of God. Look, God is near to His people and provides for His people. For that reason, don’t love money. He is near to you ­— He knows what you need. He provides for you — He will give you what you need.

And then he gives another argument, another quote: “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid, what will man do to me?” The second argument that he puts forth is the character and the sovereignty of God. Now we have heard this phrase so many times that we lose its force, that it loses its force to us. “The Lord is my helper.” Now think of that for a moment. You know, we get a little offended when we see “God is my co-pilot” on bumper stickers. You know, we think, “What happened to the pilot?” But the thrust of the passage, though it does not demean God’s exalted position, stresses that God is the One who comes to our aid in the time that we need it. He is our helper. He comes to our aid, to our assistance. And the author wants us to stop and reflect what that says about the character of God. He is a God who cares for us. He is a God who comes to our aid. That is who He is. And furthermore, he goes on to say, “What will man do to me?” I mean, if God is the one who is my helper, sovereign God, what can man do to me? So for those reasons, for the presence and the providence of God, for the character and the sovereignty of God, we don’t love money.

Donald Guthrie says this: “Contentment means more than passive acceptance of the inevitable.” “Oh, well, this is the house that You gave me to live in, Lord. I’d much rather live in one with six columns in front, but it is the house that You gave me to live in.” Guthrie goes on: “Contentment means more than passive acceptance of the inevitable. It involves a positive recognition that money is relative.” It’s relative. Have we gotten there?  Have we heeded this warning?  Don’t fall in love with money, he says. 

IV. Remember and imitate those who first taught you God’s truth.

Fourthly, in verse 7 he says to remember those who led you, who spoke the Word of God to you,  and considering the result of their conduct imitate their faith. He is asking us here to have regard for our teachers, those who have instructed us in the faith. This doesn’t mean professional teachers, although they may be included. And it doesn’t even just mean ministers. In this context, it may well have referred to apostles who first taught the truth of the gospel to them. But I think it is legitimate to extend the application broader.

I was reading a book the other day in which the author dedicated it to his parents and he called them his first and best teachers of the doctrine of Christ. What a tribute that of all the great teachers that he could study under, the people that he honored most who were teaching him about Christ were his parents. I could relate to that. Maybe you can too.

But the author of Hebrews is saying here to remember those who introduced you to the gospel, who modeled Christ, and then looking at the result of their conduct, you imitate their faith. He is asking us to remember and imitate those who first taught us the truth. This is so important because some of these people are beginning to fall away from the truth which they first heard and so he is asking them to go back to those associations, those early days when they learned the truth of the gospel and to reflect for a moment on the glory of that truth which was shown to them, not only in the teaching but in the lives of those who taught them the gospel.

I want you to notice here that it is assumed that Christian leaders reflect their faith in their conduct. You see the importance of the connection between faith and behavior, between professing the Lord Jesus Christ and living the Christian life. In fact, the connection here between faith and conduct is striking. Listen to how he says it. “Considering the results of their conduct, imitate their faith.” Let me even break that down a little bit more. Consider their conduct and so imitate their faith. Now, for one thing, does that not show us how important it is that our conduct is coordinate with our profession of faith? But it is also important because he is saying go back and look at the lives of these people. Look at how they lived, look at how they taught, look at how they died. Look at how they died in the hope of the resurrection. Look at how they lived in the hope of the resurrection. And you imitate their faith. He doesn’t say look at their conduct and imitate their conduct. He says look at their conduct and imitate their faith. It’s a glorious connection between faith and the way we live. These teachers taught the true faith, they lived the true faith, they died in that faith, and the author says you look back them and you be like them in your faith. 

V. Follow Christ no matter what else is taught or what it costs.

Then finally in verses 8-14, he points us to Christ and asks us to think about Christ’s unchangeability.  If we want to use the technical term — Christ’s immutability. He is unchangeable. And he says follow Christ, no matter what else is taught to you and no matter what the cost. He first points us to the unchanging person and faithfulness and truth of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. And he says basically this in verse 9, in light of that reality, in light of that fact that Jesus is the same, don’t you stray after false teachings. If Jesus is the same, then the faith is the same and if the faith is the same, then the teaching is the same; you don’t need to go after some new-fangeled teaching, nor do you need to go back to some old-fangeled teaching, you need to stay with the same teaching that you heard when you first trusted in Christ.

He goes on to say in verse 9, “for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods.” Now again, we are a taste of the idea that some of the things these people were struggling with were ceremonial food laws left over from Judaism. And he says, “Look, the agent of sanctification is grace, not obedience to ceremonial laws.” In other words, he is saying the way to become holy is not from obeying ceremonial food laws and not eating certain foods.  The way you become holy is through the grace of the Holy Spirit working in your hearts and making you more like Christ, strengthening the faith which you first had in Him.

And so his point is that the agent of sanctification is grace, not food, even if it is obeying the outmoded food laws that were given by God in the time of Moses. So he points us to our utter dependence on Christ and in a very moving passage he says this, if you would look down at verse 12: “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate.  So let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach.”

He says something very powerful in this passage. He says look, Christ suffered outside the gate. For him this means something very deep. But at the very basic level it means this. He was rejected by His own people. He was cast out of the City of David, of the city of Jerusalem, and He was crucified on a hill. That symbolizes for the author of Hebrews the rejection of the Messiah by His people. He says, “Now look, if Jesus was rejected like that, the only place where you can go in order to be with Him is where He had to go.” “That will mean,” he is saying, “being willing even to turn your back on your Judaism. Even to turn your back on all those connections that you have through blood lines and heritage, because Jesus is outside the gate. If you are going to be with Jesus, you are going to have to go out where He is.”

So he exhorts them to follow Jesus and be with Him outside the gate, outside the camp, where He died for us. Now, we may not be struggling ourselves with a break with Judaism. Our chances tonight you are not struggling with a break from Judaism. But there are all manner of things that may indeed be grappling for your hearts. And the author of Hebrews is saying follow Christ, no matter what it costs, no matter anybody tells you, you follow Christ. You leave behind whatever it is that is getting between your soul and Him and you cling to Christ.

I couldn’t imagine five more practical exhortations for us today. May God bless His word. Let’s pray. 

“Heavenly Father, we do thank You for the truth of Your word and we ask that by the Spirit You would work it into our hearts. For Jesus’ sake, we ask it. Amen.”

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