by Chris Ritter
Who are your encouragers? There is a guy named Dale in our church that never lets me pass by without an encouraging word. I can think of a long line of saints over the years that have enriched my life, urged me onward, and built me up. Encouragement is a spiritual gift, but it is not to be left to the gifted. Our universal call to encourage is a big theme in Hebrews 10.
We turn a big corner at Hebrews 10:19 from theology to application. This book, so rich in theology, in no way leaves us at the level of the philosophical or the metaphysical. It is very interested in the practical matters of life. This final section that we will cover over the next three weeks are, for my money, the best the book has to offer.
My wife, Becky, and I were watching Tom Hanks’ latest film, The Greyhound. If you have an opportunity to watch it, look for the references to the Book of Hebrews. If you keep your eyes peeled, you will find one of my favorite quotes from Hebrews. Let’s jump in:
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.Hebrews 10:19-25
I am no Greek scholar, but I take advice from those who are. They tell me that the passage above, Hebrews 10:19-25, is all one big sentence in the original Greek. My high school English teacher would have called that a run-on sentence. I believe it is placed intentionally as a hinge for the entire book. It looks back on the main points of the letter thus far and prepares us for their application in our lives. Notice the two “since” statements:
“Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus…”
How did you get into the Holy of Holies under the Old Covenant? You didn’t… not unless you happened to be the high priest and it happened to be the Day of Atonement. Over the years I have heard preachers say that the high priest entered the sanctus sanctorum with a rope tied around his leg so that his body could be dragged out if he happened to die in God’s presence. That anecdote seems to be a medieval myth, but it carries a sense of the fearfulness of entering God’s presence in the Old Testament. Access to God was very limited and very timid. We, however, are granted bold and free access through the blood of Jesus. The author of Hebrews may be counting on his readers here to remember that, as the death of Jesus, the heavy veil of the temple tore from the top down.
I have a friend that is a Pentecostal preacher. He tells a story of his mother’s famed banana pudding with a crown of meringue. Growing up, it was his favorite. One day he came home from school to find a big, beautiful banana pudding in the refrigerator. But, alas, he knew instantly it was forbidden fruit. It was obviously made for the women’s Bible study group that she was hosting that night. But he had to try. He went to the cupboard and found the tiniest bowl that he could. He then went to the silverware drawer and found the tiniest spoon. He went to the doorway of the room where his mom was working and made his sheepish appeal: “Mom, do you think it would be alright if I had just a taste of that banana pudding.”
When your mom uses your full name, you know you are about to get an earful. But to my friend’s surprise, his name was followed by “… you are my son. I love you. Whatever is in that refrigerator you are welcome to without asking.”
Well, my friend said that he put away his little bowl. He got out a big bowl, the one dad ate cereal from. And he put away his little spoon and got out a great big spoon. He had been granted bold access. So have we.
“Since we have a great high priest over the house of God.”
Our Lord Jesus has “passed through the heavens.” He has completed his saving work on our behalf by offering his blood in the eternal sanctuary in the heavenlies. His virtuous life, vicarious death, and victorious resurrection have won the victory for us. He is sympathetic with our weaknesses because he was harassed by the devil just like us, yet without sin.
A Bed of Let Us
A call this next section a Bed of “Let Us.” Three challenges flow from the access gained to us through the ministry of our High Priest:
“Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings”
Our hearts, Hebrews says, have been sprinkled clean from a guilty conscience, just like the furnishings of the Old Testament tabernacle were cleansed by sprinkling. (See Leviticus 1, 3 and elsewhere). Therefore we may do our part to come into God’s presence. The door is open, but we must come in. This recalls the invitation in Hebrews 3 to come boldly before the throne of grace to find help in our time of need.
I am told there was a boy wandering around our nation’s capitol during the years of the Civil War. He happened across a distraught Union soldier, sitting on a bench in tears. The boy sat down beside him and asked him what was wrong. He solider told the story of an emergency at home that required his presence and a commanding officer that would not grant him leave. In desperation, he came into the city to see if someone could grant him a special dispensation of some kind, but all doors were closed.
The boy said, “Follow me.” He took the soldier by the hand. Much to his surprise, he was led up the front lawn of the White House. The pair walked right past the guards without a word. They climbed the stairs to what we would call the Lincoln Bedroom… but then the executive office. Without knocking, the boy opened the door and brought the soldier to the President. Interrupting the meeting the progress, the boy said, “Dad, this soldier needs to talk to you.” The boy’s name was Tad Lincoln. And he shared his free access to his Father with this man in need. Jesus, the Son, has done the same for us. We only need to follow him.
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”
The Christian profession is “Jesus Christ is Lord.” There was a temptation among the first readers of Hebrews to blend back in with the Jewish community from which they were called. They, and us, are admonished toward faithfulness. And the basis of this call is the faithfulness of God. Because God keeps his promises and made a new and living way for us, there is no need for us to swerve, pivot, or make back-up plans. Peter tells us to always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). Our hope is based on God’s covenant faithfulness.
“Let us consider how to spur one another on to love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together…”
Who came to mind when I asked you to name your encouragers? Don’t you love that one player in the huddle, when the team is down, that rallies everyone to give their best? Don’t you love that song leader that inspires you to sing louder than you really felt like singing? Don’t you love that person who seems to have a gift for knowing when you needed a written note of encouragement? Don’t give up meeting together. Instead, study encouragement. Give thought to it. Get better at it. Make it a part of everything you do.
Giving up is easy. 2020 has made gathering more difficult. All our old routines are interrupted. We have to wear masks or watch online. It takes more intentionality to be a Christian these days. But that’s okay. We are closer to the Day of Lord than ever before. May we be found faithful and inspire faithfulness in others.
A Warning Against Apostasy
Verses 26 through 31 of Hebrews 10 is a stark warning against leaving the faith. Rejecting God’s grace by going our own way is a fearful risk. When called by Jesus we must stick with Jesus, even if there is a great cost. I overheard someone comment that being a serious Christian in America in 2020 is a “status lowering status.’ It won’t help you win elections, it will cost you elections. This was the case for early church and the first reader of Hebrews. The temptation is is to shed our Christian distinctives.
Some Christians don’t mean to exit the faith… they just want to go on leave. Many a college freshman has prayed the prayer, “Jesus, I love you. And I will be back. But I am going to go live a little for next few years.” If you are tempted to pray that prayer, read Hebrews 10 first. We should not presume upon the grace of God by assuming we can waltz in and out as we please. Sin has its own gravitational force. When God convicts and calls us, it is a precious, blood-bought opportunity to be his. We should not take that for granted or assume we can conjure that up when we are done living for ourselves.
Here is how this challenging chapter ends:
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.”
38 And, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”
39 But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.Hebrews 10:32-39
I want to return briefly to a question we touched upon in Week #1 of this series: To whom was Hebrews written? It obviously is written to Christians who were of Jewish upbringing. But it seems not to have originated from the vicinity of Jerusalem. (We can see this in the way it speaks of the temple, etc.). From Chapter 10 we see these Christians had experienced a level of persecution… imprisonment, financial penalties, and the confiscation of property. But Hebrews 12 says they have not yet resisted to the shedding of blood (martyrdom). The Church of Jerusalem had shed blood for the faith (the stoning the Stephen, and beheading of James, and others).
And then we have mention in Chapter 13 of Italy. It seems likely that Hebrews was written to formerly Jewish Christians in Rome. We believe it was written before AD 70 because the temple (destroyed in that year) seems to still be standing at the time Hebrews was written. If the letter was written to Christians in Rome, it must have been penned around AD 64 or thereabouts. Because something big happened in Rome that year. Almost the whole city burned to the ground.
The Emperor was Nero, who history remembers as bat guano crazy. When fire broke out in Rome in AD 64, rumors circulated immediately that the Nero ordered the fires set so that he could rebuild the capitol after his own design. For his part, Nero through the blame on the Christians. They were a despised minority that met in secret. Rumor had it that they ate flesh and drank blood. They were an easy target.
The program of systematic persecution carried out by Nero is recorded in the Annals of Tacitus. No friend of Christians, Tacitus believed Christianity to a dangerous superstition. He lived in Rome as a boy and later recorded what happened. Christians were rounded up in an attempt to get them to confess to setting the fire. When that didn’t work, they were charged with the more general charge of “hatred of mankind.” Some were wrapped in the skins of animals and thrown to the wild dogs. Others were crucified. Nero made this spectacle into a proper Roman circus. When the sun went down, he lit his bloody party with Christians burned at the stake. Even those who despised Christians were forced to sympathy and admit that the spectacle was not about the administration of justice but the grotesque exercise of power in the hands of a madman.
If we have the correct location and timeline for Hebrews, these historical facts color the way we read this book. These are instructions on the eve of their apocalypse. Their world is about to implode.
What would you do if you knew you only had a week to live? One answer is “Live it up:” Give your boss the middle finger, drain your bank account, and throw caution to the wind. Jesus gave other answers to that question. He said be like a wise virgins who kept their lamps filled and trimmed as they awaited the bridegroom. He said to be like a prudent steward who faithfully managed his master’s possessions. He said to stay awake, prayerful, and alert. Jesus was a realist. He never promised his followers a smooth journey. He only promised us a safe landing.
I am humbled when I read Hebrews 10. I feel like I am overhearing a commander’s instructions to his troops before they charge Omaha Beach. Be faithful. Do your job. Hold fast. Don’t waver. No retreat.
Back in 2012 I had the opportunity to lead a group from our church to Liberia and Guinea to spend some time with our friends there. We had the opportunity to accompany the district superintendent to a “charge conference” of the fifteen or so congregation in Guinea. When we arrived, the people had been there two days awaiting the arrival of the D.S. In our context we would have given the professorial twenty-minutes grace. But Africans are extremely patient people, I have found. They spent the time worshipping, praying, and studying their Bibles.
When we arrived they escorted us to the place on honor in the chancel of the church structure. They then started their business. One item was the discipline of a pastor. The pastor in question was stood before the group while laity explained that he had abandoned his assignment. He left his church to travel back to Liberia where he and his family had farm ground. His salary of $10/month was not adequate to support them.
The D.S. reminded the pastor of the words of Jesus. You must not love your family more than him. Once you set your hand to the plough, you are not to look back. No salary was promised to him. He had to trust God for his support and the support of his family.
I squirmed in my seat. I have never been so inwardly uncomfortable in my life. Here was a pastor being dressed down for not doing something I had no idea if I could or would do. But somehow that experience brought my back to my calling. It is easy for me to lean on the comforts provided instead of remember that Jesus has given me a call that I must fulfill even to my own poverty.
I have the same inward comfort when I read Hebrews. I am reading the mail of another generation of Christians that was called to faithfulness unto death. But it challenges me to rededicate myself to faithfulness in my situation.
Let us draw near to God, let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, and let us consider how to encourage one another on this journey of faith.