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By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
Chapter 11 My Righteous Ones Shall Live By Faith.
The writer now takes up and expands on the word, ‘But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrink back, my soul has no pleasure in him,’ by outlining from Scripture the lives of those who have proved their righteousness by their faith. They were justified in God’s eyes by faith (Genesis 15.6) and they were then justified in men’s eyes by their works. They are intended to be a spur and encouragement to his readers as they consider the faith of those who have gone before, and see how it resulted in godly living.
He begins by analysing what the result of faith is, and the chapter then divides up into sections in general chronological order, giving examples of faith. These begin with creation, belief in which is foundational, and proceeds through two examples which illustrate both types of Christian, those who because of their faith will be martyred, and those who will not die but will be taken up to God (1 Thessalonians 4.17; 1 Corinthians 15.52). It then continues section by section, with each section having a different emphasis, although it must be stressed that each section glides into the next, and all emphasise faith in the promises of God. The division is partly made on the basis of the summaries that end sections 2 & 3, indicating a break, and partly on content and emphasis.
We may divide it as follows;
True Faith Is Faith In God’s Promises (11.1-2).
11. 1-2 ‘Now faith is assurance (hupostasis - ‘the substance’ or ‘the underpinning’ and therefore the ‘assurance’, the ‘guarantee within the heart’) of things hoped for, a proof (or ‘conviction’) of things not seen, for therein the elders had witness borne to them.’
Faith is to see as substantial fact what is hoped for on the basis of taking God’s promises seriously. It is to be assured of it, and to be convinced that what God has declared will be, seeing it as proved because He said it, even when it has not yet come about and is invisible. Thus it is to accept it as proved, on the basis of His word. Faith underpins hope in respect to what God has promised. Hope looks at what is to come with confidence, faith is satisfied that it will be so. The one who believes is satisfied that God has some better thing for him which is at present unseeable.
This was what believers of ancients times did and that is why we have a record of their lives. Faith is to hear God’s word spoken by His Spirit and to respond to it. These people did not act on a whim or a conjured up belief, but on the solid basis of revelations received from God, and of the word of God, sometimes spoken, sometimes written, as it was communicated through the prophets, Abraham, Moses, and the like (see 1.1). They believed God and responded accordingly.
‘The elders, the ancients.’ These are those who lived in ancient times who had witness borne to them by God of things hoped for and things not seen, which they accepted as sure through their faith, and which they passed on down to us (1.1). Our faith is in part thus based on the valid religious experience of men as it has been established through history (1.1), religious experience which testifies to itself in our hearts. But additionally, in these last days, as the writer has been emphasising, it is faith in the Son Who has come and revealed Himself through His life and teaching, and through His death and resurrection (1.2-3; 2.5-18).
Throughout his letter he has laid great emphasis on our hope (3.6; 6.11; 6.18-19; 7.19), and now he confirms that having faith is living in response to that hope, because we see that it is a certain hope. It is having confidence in God’s promises. It is also having certainty about what God is, again as revealed through His word as spoken by the Holy Spirit (that the writer sees the Scriptures as the words of the Holy Spirit he has constantly reminded us, specifically in 3.7; 9.8 and more generally in every one of his many Biblical quotations).
The Foundations of Faith In The Antedeluvian World (11.3-6).
Faith is seen as giving us an understanding of the world as it is, and why it is as it is. Faith says it is like it is because God created it and is its invisible basis, and because God has revealed it to be so through His prophet. It also enables us to recognise that whether men die through persecution (Abel), or are translated without dying (Enoch), they share the same hope. Here the writer establishes the foundations.
11.3 ‘ By faith we understand (know in our minds) that the worlds (the ages) have been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen has not been made out of things which appear.’
So it is by faith that we accept that the world which endures through the ages was created by God; that it was His word that framed things as we know them; and that matter, and things as they are, were not made up of things which can be seen, but were His creation out of what was invisible, and were His handywork.
It is through His revelation in the Scriptures that we know that God lies behind all, that there is an invisible creative power behind all things, God’s powerful creative word, on which all must continue to rely. And that all that we see, and touch, and feel was made by Him. For we have this declared in God’s revelation of Himself in Genesis 1. And it is by this that we know that the world has meaning and must also therefore come to a satisfactory conclusion.
And now having laid the foundation of faith in God, as the Creator and Sustainer and Goal of the Universe (see 1.2-3), he will go on to describe how chosen men and women of God have responded to their Creator’s word throughout history. He does it by selecting positive acts of faith from the past as revealed in the Scriptures and in tradition. But before he does so he first selects two examples which demonstrate from the very beginning that for those who had faith, even in the beginning, their future is in God’s hands, and that life and death are also in His hands. Whether those who have faith die, or whether they are transformed while yet alive, their future is secure with God.
11.4 ‘By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he had witness borne to him that he was righteous, God bearing witness in respect of his gifts. And through it he being dead yet speaks.’
The first to reveal his faith was Abel. He was a ‘righteous one’ (Matthew 23.35) who ‘lived by faith’, and because he was righteous he offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain who did not ‘do well’ (Genesis 4.7). Abel offered the firstlings and the fat. He made his many offerings as soon as he received blessing, and he offered much and of the best. His heart was right towards God. Cain’s life on the other hand was not satisfactory to God, and we are probably to see his offering as grudging in the same way as his attitude towards God was seen to be. He was a schemer who brought what he offered to God with a view to how it would benefit him, but he did not ‘do well’. His life was not pleasing to God. And when he did not receive what he thought he ought to have done, he turned sour.
It was not the content of Abel’s sacrifices that was more excellent. Meal offerings were as welcome as blood offerings, and a meal offering could also in fact be a sin offering (Leviticus 5.11). Furthermore the word used of Abel’s offering is that usually applied, not to sacrifices, but to the meal offering. But it was the spirit of loving faith and gratitude in which they were offered, thus testifying to his righteousness. God bore witness in respect of his gifts by prospering Abel. And the point made is that because of his faith, even though he died at the hands of a persecutor, his offering and his faithful life speak on because God has borne witness to him. He lived on as a witness, and he is a witness even today in many pulpits, as his life is used as an illustration of a true and righteous man, one who was acceptable to God through his faith, and through his offerings offered in faith, with that faith an inspiration to all.
It should be noted that both offered an ‘offering’ (minchah - gift). This is the regular word used for the meal offering and rarely for burnt offerings and sacrifices. Abel’s was thus a primitive offering under this name. An official cult did not commence until Genesis 4.26. ‘Minchah’ can be used of a gift or token of friendship (Isaiah 39.1), or as an act of homage (1 Samuel 10.27; 1 Kings 10.25), or as payment of tribute (Judges 3.15, 17 ff), or as appeasement to a friend wronged (Genesis 32.13, 18), or for procuring favour or assistance (Genesis 43.11 ff; Hosea 10.6), any or all of which ideas might be seen as included in Abel’s offering. But there is never any suggestion anywhere that Abel’s ‘gift’ was more acceptable because it included the shedding of blood. One might feel that to anyone who accepts the nuances of Scripture it could not have been made more clear that Abel’s offering was not to be seen as similar to later blood offerings such as burnt offerings or sin offerings. It was a freewill love offering.
‘And through it he being dead yet speaks.’ But Abel’s life was abruptly cut short by a persecutor, representing the unbelieving world. He should because of his righteousness have lived long and prospered. But he did not. For we are to see that even from the beginning the unrighteous persecuted the righteous.
However, for him death was not the end. His life continued to speak on. Persecutors cannot destroy those who are God’s. And so his life speaks on now to those who are being similarly dealt with. He is the first of many who witness to God’s people (12.1). His death says, ‘Do not be afraid of what the world can do to you. For you are God’s and your usefulness will live on. Death is not the end. God is in control’
So death did not prove that he was displeasing to God. Rather it proved, because it was at the hand of a persecutor, that God was with him. Thus can all who face persecution look to Abel, who was faithful unto death.
‘He being dead yet speaks.’ There may be a hint here that to the writer he lives on in fact, for he is seen as having a message for the present generation.
The bearing of witness may also refer to the shedding of his blood, seen as acting as a witness to the fact that all martyrdoms will finally bring down God’s vengeance on their perpetrators, for we are told that his blood cried from the ground for justice, and it is elsewhere seen as acting as a witness to the necessity for justice (Genesis 4.10; Matthew 23.35; Luke 11.51; Hebrews 12.24). But that is not the stress here. The thought is rather that his faith speaks out to all. So Abel was from the beginning a witness to true righteousness, a righteousness which springs from faith (Genesis 15.6), and to true justice, and now speaks through the ages.
11.5 ‘By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God translated him: for he has had witness borne to him that before his translation he had been well-pleasing to God.’
Enoch too was a ‘righteous one’. He too was well-pleasing to God. He walked with God (Genesis 5.22). In Genesis 5.21; 8.9 LXX translates ‘walked with God’ as ‘was well pleasing to God’, so the ideas were seen as similar. He was thus not of those who draw back in whom God has no pleasure (10.38).
But unlike Abel he did not die. Rather he just ‘disappeared’. It is not said of him that he died. He was rather ‘translated’ (repeated three times) and God took him (compare Colossians 1.13). But all testified to his righteous life as being pleasing to God. And this all occurred because of his faith. So whether through death for His sake (verse 4) or through life for His sake (verse 5), those who trust God are blessed and their future is secure.
There is surely intended here the contrast between those who were martyred and await the resurrection, and those who will be taken up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). This was a contrast much more emphasised in the early days of the church, when death was looked on as an unfortunate happening for those Christians to whom it happened prior to His anticipated coming. It is declaring that whether through death, or anticipated rapture, men of faith will go to God.
11.6 ‘And without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing to him; for he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek after him.’
The introduction to the chapter and these examples bring out that without such faith we cannot please God. The one who comes to God must believe that He exists and is interested in those who are His, and must believe that He responds graciously to those who seek Him, because He has revealed it to be so. They must believe in God’s interest and goodness towards them, and in His final reward. They must look to Him personally. It is these things that will keep them firm. Thus those who would please him do so by responsive faith, and those who draw back, in whom He has no pleasure, do but reveal that their faith is not genuine.
Faith Revealed In Positive Present Action By Those Who Believed The Promises Of God’s Future Reward For His Own In The Light Of The Future Hope (11.7-16).
The essential of this next section is that faith resulted in positive action in the very circumstances of these people’s lives as they looked forward to the future hope promised by God. They believed God and therefore they acted according to His word in the most unusual ways, the first in order to proclaim judgment while himself escaping it along with his family, in order to build up a new people for the future, and the second in order to begin the process which would lead to the final receiving of an inheritance and to the establishment of the city of God. One revealed the negative side of God’s purposes, the passing away of the old, although there was also the positive; the other the positive side, the coming in of the new. But the faith of both revealed their acceptability to God.
11.7 ‘By faith Noah, being warned of God concerning things not seen as yet, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house, through which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith’.
Noah was another who believed God. He was a righteous man in his generation (Genesis 6.9). And he believed that God watched over his future, and that in spite of threatened judgment he had a future. For when God warned him of things not yet seen, but soon coming, a great flood that would destroy the world, he was moved with godly fear and prepared the ark which resulted in the saving of ‘his house’, not only his family but ‘the house’ that would result (compare for this ‘the house of Israel’). He took God at His word and obeyed Him in all He commanded. He revealed the fullness of his faith. And through his act he condemned the world. For the very building of the ark was its own declaration of the judgment that was coming on their sin, and we cannot doubt that to it were added his words as men came to question what he was doing. He could not help but become a ‘preacher of righteousness’ (2 Peter 2.5).
The ark took a long time in building, and we are left to speculate on the jeering, and the anger and the ridicule that was heaped on him, and the many opportunities that he had for preaching. But he persevered because he believed God.
Every piece of material added to the ark added also to his future blessing, for it was evidence of his faith. And thus he too was set to inherit the righteousness which comes through faith, looking forward in figure by a sacrifice (the first known ‘burnt offering’ - Genesis 8.20-21), to the cross by which righteousness was to be bestowed (Romans 3.25). He was thus accepted by God through his faith. Abel had witness borne to him that he was righteous, that he was acceptable to God, because his offerings (his gifts and tribute) were accepted. They revealed a faith that enabled him to be accounted righteous (Genesis 15.6). Noah entered into the inheritance of the future righteousness that would be made available through the cross to every man of faith. He too is revealed as acceptable to God through faith. He too was declared a ‘righteous one’ (Genesis 6.9) who lived by faith.
‘Heir of the righteousness which is according to faith’. Compare ‘heirs of salvation’ (1.14), those who will experience the fullness of salvation. So Noah would experience the fullness of the righteousness which resulted from faith.
11.8 ‘By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance, and he went out, not knowing where he went.’
Noah’s faith pointed to judgment on the world, and preserved alive a remnant to go into the future. But now arose one who would offer hope to the whole world (Genesis 12.3). Abraham also believed God, and believed that He would reward his faith. And his faith was counted for righteousness (Genesis 15.6). For when he was called by God to go to a strange and unknown country, simply on the basis that he was promised that he would receive it as an inheritance, he went, not knowing where he was going. Because he believed God, he trusted Him implicitly and was fully obedient. He too was a man of faith in God.
It is quite probable that his faith had been built up by studying the tablets which were in his father’s house, which contained information about his family’s past, much as we find them today in the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. For someone kept them faithfully in order that they might be used by Moses in his great work at the birth of the nation of Israel. But it also resulted from his direct encounters with God, some of which are described for us in Genesis.
11.9-10 ‘By faith he became a sojourner in the land of promise, as in a land not his own, dwelling in tents, with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise, for he looked for the city which has the foundations, whose builder and maker is God.’
Furthermore he continued to exercise that faith in that land, for he lived there as an alien without a home, even though it was the land of promise, and he established no city but dwelt in tents all his life, as did Isaac and Jacob his sons after him, for they too awaited the fulfilment of the promise. Only tiny portions of the land became theirs (Genesis 23.3-20; 33.19-20) but they trusted God totally that one day the promise would become a reality. They were happy to play their part in God’s purposes even though their fulfilment awaited the future. For they knew on the basis of God’s promise that that future was certain, and that one day the land would belong to their descendants, and they were willing patiently and trustfully to wait.
‘For he looked for the city which has the foundations, whose builder and maker is God.’ And this was all because he looked for what God would finally provide. He was confident that one day the land would belong to his seed and that God would build a great city with everlasting, God-established, permanent foundations, which would establish them as God’s people for ever, a permanent home with sound foundations, of which God would be the architect and builder.
This was something greater than the literal Jerusalem, which already existed (Genesis 14), and that is never suggested in Scripture to be that visualised by Abraham. Although such a city as visualised by Abraham may be traced in the spiritual expectations of the prophets, an everlasting city with an everlasting sanctuary, which itself was as symbolised by Jerusalem (Psalm 48.2-3, 8; Isaiah 2.2-4; 4.3-6; 11.9; 24.23; 26.1-4; 51.11; 66.20-23; Joel 3.20; Ezekiel 37.24-28; 48.30-35).
It was to be something designed and built by God, which to some extent might be compared with the staircase seen by Jacob in his dream. This dream showed that the patriarchs did recognise contact between Heaven and the promised land. That Abraham had some such vision is certain even if not articulated for he knew that kings were to arise from his seed, and he would therefore expect there finally to be a city, but he saw it as no ordinary city because it would be from God, and would connect up to God. Meanwhile he did not try to forestall God. It knew by faith that it would come in God’s time. He did not attempt to forestall God. One of the elements of faith is being willing to wait on God’s timing.
It is vain to look further into the mind of Abraham, for we must not read our conceptions into him, but the writer certainly has in mind more than that, for he knew what Abraham probably did not know, that that city would finally be founded not on earth but in Heaven, and would finally have its part in the new earth (12.22; Revelation 21-22). Thus must his readers by faith also have confidence in their part in that city and like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, persevere and not miss out on it as a future potential.
Note the emphasis on Abraham’s first call and obedience, followed by the emphasis on his continuing perseverance to the end, something the writer is stressing to his readers.
11.11-12 ‘By faith even Sarah herself received power for the laying down of seed when she was past age, since she counted him faithful who had promised, for which reason also there sprang of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of heaven in multitude, and as the sand, which is by the seashore, innumerable.’
And we must remember that the women also had their full part. From now on the writer introduces women deliberately into each section. Here it is Sarah. Sarah finally believed God on the basis of His promise, and the result was the coming to life again of her womb so that she could bear a child, she ‘received power’. And as a result, by Abraham ‘laying down his seed’, from the laying down of the seed from one who appeared almost dead because of his great age (compare Romans 4.19), sprang through Isaac a great multitude of descendants, as many as the stars of heaven and the sand by the seashore. Out of apparent death God produced abundance of life because they believed perseveringly.
There is here a slight problem with the Greek. Having ‘power for the laying down of seed’ usually refers to the action of the male. Yet on the basis of comparison with ‘by faith’ as used elsewhere in the chapter we expect ‘Sarah herself’ (which immediately follows ‘by faith’) to be the subject of the sentence. Furthermore in most texts ‘Sarah herself’ is separated from ‘she was past age’ in such a way as to make it unlikely that the whole is a paranthetical clause.
Thus the thought may simply be that because her womb ‘received power’, being transformed by God’s power, it put her in a position where Abraham could lay down his seed. Or alternatively that she received from Abraham his activity in using his ‘power for the laying down of seed’, that is, Abraham used his power to lay down his seed, which Sarah received. The reference to his appearing almost dead because of his great age may be seen as supporting the alternative. This at least takes the majority Greek text as it stands, even though we have no exactly comparable example elsewhere, and can be seen as arising because of the desire for putting the whole activity modestly. Others, however, translate that ‘Sarah received the power to establish (lay down) a seed (a posterity)’.
It should be noted here, as will become clear later, that while the sequence in the chapter is generally chronological it is not rigidly so, for having moved forward to Isaac and Jacob we have now moved back to Sarah and the birth of Isaac.
11.13 ‘These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and sojourners on the earth.’
‘These all died in (literally ‘according to’) faith.’ They walked in the path of faith in the promises of God. ‘These’ may refer to those from verse 7 onwards, for the chapter may be seen as divided into sections by the small summary that follows each section. But more probably it refers to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah, for it is they of whom it is said that they wandered as strangers and sojourners in the earth. The point is that, although they had not received the promises, they did not turn back, but believed to the end. They walked the way of faith.
‘Not having received (the fulfilment of) the promises.’ This confirms that all along it is faith in God’s word that is in question. They did not believe in a vacuum. They believed because of God’s revelation, even though they did not receive the final consequences of those promises (although the point is later made that they would eventually - verse 40).
‘But having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and sojourners on the earth’ (see Genesis 23.4). They saw ahead the substance of that on which they had set their hope, on the basis of their belief in God’s revelation. And by faith they welcomed it. They did not attempt to participate in the lives of those around them. They did not try to build a city. They were willing to accept that they had no settled place on earth because they looked ahead to what God was going to do. And they testified to the fact that they were God’s people awaiting what He had promised to give them.
This continued emphasis demonstrates that the writer saw Christians as being similar. They too walk as strangers and sojourners on the earth, having no real home, awaiting the fulfilment of God’s purposes (1 Peter 2.11). Though Christ’s coming may delay, they wait with patient endurance and with confidence. They do not turn back to the things of earth. They do not look at the things that are seen, but at the things which are not seen (2 Corinthians 3.17-18). They have their minds firmly set in Heaven (Colossians 3.1; Philippians 3.20; John 14.1-3; Ephesians 2.6). ‘For yet a very little while, He who comes will come, and will not tarry’ (10.37).
11.14 ‘For they that say such things make it manifest that they are seeking after a country of their own.’
For they who declare such things, that they are ‘strangers’ and ‘sojourners’ (as those who live in a foreign land and with no permanent possession or right of citizenship), are looking forward in faith and certain hope to the great blessings that God has in store for them, and reveal quite clearly that they are seeking a country of their own. A place where they can worship God fully and obey Him. A place where they will enjoy His continual blessing and presence. A place where the world will affect them no longer. A place of peace, love and security. A place which is God’s inheritance. A place which they have not yet entered. This is true of all who say such things, whether then or now.
11.15-16 ‘And if indeed they had been mindful of that from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly, for which reason God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God. For he has prepared for them a city.’
Indeed had they been so minded they had every opportunity to return to whence they came. Had they desired to do so, they could have done so. They could have turned back from their hope. Their family was still there and they could have joined them. (Abraham in fact specifically had to forbid his servant to take Isaac back to the old land (Genesis 24.6), while Jacob’s troubles began when he did for a time settle in the old land, only for God to put pressure on him to return again to the land of promise (Genesis 31.3)). But their desire was for something better, for something heavenly. Jacob’s dream of a stairway between heaven and earth confirms that they had some idea of the heavenly as connecting with earth. They believed in contact between earth and Heaven. Possibly they saw God’s land as where earth and heaven would meet (as Jacob’s dream might well have been seen as suggesting). And their faith was set on that.
And the same was true for his readers. They too must not be ‘mindful’ of returning to the old ways. Their eyes must be fixed on the something better that He has revealed to them, on that which is heavenly. And if they do so fix their eyes, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah, God will not be ashamed of them. He will remember them and will continue to fulfil His promises towards them. For let them recognise this, God has already prepared for them a city. What their hope is set on is already a certainty. It awaits them in heaven (12.22). Let them not then return to the old ways.
Note On The City And Country That They Sought.
There was in Abraham’s day no concept of Heaven in the way we know of it today through New Testament revelation. Their ideas were closely tied to this world, although with heavenly connections, as Jacob’s dream makes clear. Thus the city and country they looked for would have been conceived of, in so far as it was conceived of at all, as being on this earth, although of an unusual nature and resulting from the activity of God. Abraham would have felt at one with Isaiah’s picture of a city whose sanctuary reached up into the heavens (Isaiah 2.2-4). But it is doubtful if the concept would in fact have been thought out in any detailed way. They just knew that it would be something wonderful, which would be enjoyed by their descendants, something directly from God. It would be God’s city in God’s country. The writer, however, as a result of later revelation, recognises quite clearly that it would be a heavenly country, and says so. He makes no suggestion that it will be on earth at all. He links it with the New Testament view of the future in the ‘heavenly’ realm (see also 12.22-23).
These views of the patriarchs tie in with the many prophetic promises in the Old Testament which appear to suggest a city and a country on earth, with heavenly connections. Again there was no conception in those days of a life in Heaven. That awaited future revelation. Thus they portrayed their dreams in earthly terms. But they certainly looked to the future kingdom as being everlasting. Not for them the idea of a restricted Millennium.
Thus we need to recognise in our interpretation of the Old Testament prophecies that they were visions of the future put in the terms that men and women could understand and appreciate. Even Isaiah’s description of the resurrection assumes a resurrection to a seeming life on earth (Isaiah 25.6-8; 26.19). Just as the primitive eskimo would, if it was to have any meaning to him, have needed to be taught about the eternal future in terms of igloos and seals, so did the people of the Old Testament have to be taught that eternal future in terms of an earthly country and an earthly city (although with close heavenly connections). They had no other way of conceiving of them. The representations were symbolic representations of a greater reality. For we should note that there is no suggestion in any New Testament letters of a Millennium. (Revelation 20 should be interpreted in the light of that fact. In fact a careful exegesis of it demonstrates that the thousand years was a symbolic representation of the current age, as it was in 2 Peter 3.8).
The New Testament writers believed that the end was ‘imminent’. It surely therefore requires us to have a strange idea of them if we think that they ignored something so important as a Millennium which they believed was almost on them. Can anyone imagine modern Bible teachers who believe in the Millennium writing about the Lord’s coming and never once mentioning the Millennium? They seem unable to get away from it.
Careful thought will reveal that what we are saying must be so. Literal interpretation results in the need for a reoccurrence of the Old Testament sacrifices in a propitiatory sense. Any suggestion of so-called ‘memorial sacrifices’ is purely a modern invention. That is not the impression given by Scripture. (Thus the view of such interpreters is that when interpreting literally we do not have to interpret too literally). Memorial sacrifices are nowhere suggested in the Old Testament, and the coming future ritual is always depicted as being exactly the same as the ritual at the time, although in greater measure. But the levitical priests with their sacrifices were copies and shadows which were past their time. And this is precisely what the writer to the Hebrews has declared has been done away. He would never have countenanced the revival of the levitical priesthood. It was to be done away. Nor would such ‘memorial sacrifices’ fit into a world where there was no more killing of animals (Isaiah 11.6-9). If that were so only man would be shedding blood in an otherwise perfect world!
End of note.
Faith Revealed By Those Whose Eyes Were On the Certainty of the Future Fulfilment of the Promises of God With Their Eyes On Things To Come (11.17-22).
11.17-19 ‘By faith Abraham, being tested, offered up Isaac. Yes, he who had gladly taken on himself the promises was offering up his only begotten son, even he to whom it was said, In Isaac shall your seed be called, accounting that God is able to raise up, even from the dead. From whence he did also in a figure receive him back.’
But an even greater example of faith was when Abraham was called on to offer up his ‘only son’, that is the only son borne of his true wife, in whom all the promises were centred (see Genesis 22). Here was a test indeed. Isaac was a ‘miracle baby’, born when all hope had been given up, and through him God had promised the fulfilment of all His promises. And now he who had taken on himself the promises was being called on to offer up the one who was the future hope as a burnt offering, as a sacrifice. But his faith in God was such that he did not question it. He went obediently about the dreadful task set for him and was about to offer him, even having the sacrificial knife in his hand ready to slay him, when God stayed his hand, and he then offered up a ram in his place. In this way was Isaac was ‘offered up’. The firm intention was read as the fact.
And there is only one explanation for this in Abraham’s mind. On the one hand God called him to slay his son. On the other God had promised that through this son his future descendants would be born (Genesis 21.12). Thus clearly God would raise him up again. ‘He accounted that God was able to raise him even from the dead.’ And indeed that was, in all but fact, what God did. It was as though Abraham received his son back from the dead. He did what he did because he had faith in a resurrecting God and in His promises.
‘From whence he did also in a figure receive him back.’ The meaning would seem to be that the way in which he received Isaac back (‘from the dead’) was a figure, a picture, pointing to resurrection and the future hope, and to what God could and would do in the future.
So however great the trials of his readers might be, those trials could not even begin to approach that of Abraham in this example, and his success was on the basis of fully believing the promises.
11.20 ‘By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even concerning things to come.’
Similarly by faith Isaac proclaimed the future hopes of his sons in his blessings. His confidence in God and what He had revealed was such that he pronounced their futures hopes because God had promised them (Genesis 27.27-29, 39-40), even to the point of finally recognising that God’s greater blessing would come through the younger. It was irrelevant that he did not know that Jacob was not Esau. He was not fortune-telling, he was declaring what God had promised to his seed.
11.21 ‘By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshipped on the top of his staff.’
In the same way did Jacob in his old age, when he was no longer able to physically support himself, bless the two sons of Joseph and proclaimed their futures as revealed by God, putting Ephraim in the place of the firstborn (Genesis 48.1-20). This was something he insisted on because of the revelation he had received from God. He was confident in the promises of God and therefore in their futures. The stress is on God’s providence. It is He Who determines ‘future history’ for us all.
‘On the top of his staff.’ Compare ‘Israel (Jacob) bowed himself on the bed’s head’ (Genesis 47.31), which appears to connect with the making of an oath to Joseph, for the Hebrew consonants for ‘the bed’s head (rosh-ha-mittah), can in fact also (by repointing) be translated as ‘the top of his staff’ (rosh-ha-matteh) as in LXX, which the writer then probably connects with ‘dwelling on the bed (mittah; or matteh - staff)’ in 48.2. If this be so it demonstrates that he sometimes used the (unpointed) Hebrew text. The staff represented a man’s authority. Thus Jacob is seen as passing on something of his own God-given authority in his act of blessing and worship. The sons born in Egypt of an Egyptian mother were brought into the chosen line.
(Note. The Old Testament Hebrew text at the time of Jesus was ‘unpointed’. That is, it was mainly made up of consonants and had limited vowels. The vowels, which showed how the words were pronounced, were added centuries after the time of the New Testament. They were not thus seen as part of the inspired Scripture. So either of the above translations of the Hebrew consonants is correct).
11.22 ‘By faith Joseph, when his end was near, mentioned the departure of the children of Israel, and gave commandment concerning his bones.’
Many examples from the life of Joseph could have been chosen as examples of faith but he centred on Joseph’s confidence about the future of God’s people, his faith in the promises of God in connection with the promised land. This was because it not only demonstrated his trust in God but also that he believed the promises about the future and looked for ‘the country’ that his fathers had also sought (verse 14). In all the examples in this section the stress has been on God’s fulfilment of His promises, what He would accomplish in the far future, in which they firmly believed. Each held firmly to the future hope. They were in fact men looking forward to the Messianic hope.
The incident is described in Genesis 50.24-25, and its carrying out in Exodus 13.19 and Joshua 24.32.
Faith As Revealed In Connection With The Life of Moses (11.23-28).
But then after a gap in time arose the one who would begin to solidify the promises. He would establish the nation of Israel and return them to their promised land. His name was Moses, and the life of Moses revealed his steadfast faith in a variety of ways.
11.23 ‘By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw he was a goodly child, and they were not afraid of the king's commandment.’
First was revealed the faith of his parents (the Hebrew text in Exodus 2.2 stresses the mother’s part, but LXX refers to both parents). He came of believing stock. They saw in him someone for whom God had a purpose, ‘a goodly child’, one whose very appearance promised great things in the future, and so they hid him for three months before finally leaving him prayerfully by the river to be found by the Egyptian princess. In all this they defied the kings’ commandment, being unafraid because of their faith. There was great danger for them but their faith overcame their fears because they believed that God was in it. In their faith they looked forward to the future hope.
11.24-26 ‘By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to share ill treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, accounting the reproach of the anointed one (Christ) greater riches than the treasures of Egypt: for he looked to the recompense of reward.’
The same faith was found in Moses. Once he had grown up he had to choose between the privilege and glory of being Pharaoh’s daughter’s son, with all the glorious future that held for him together with all the pleasures that came with it, the pleasures resulting from sin (the sin being that of disloyalty to God), or being faithful to God and to His people, God’s anointed ones (Psalm 105.15). He had to choose between what offered temporary temporal benefit, or what offered eternal reward. In a smaller way this choice faces all men and women.
‘Refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to share ill treatment with the people of God, (resulting in everlasting reward), than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season.’ He made his choice by faith in the promises of God. He refused his high position and chose to identify himself with his oppressed people. Rather than being disloyal to God and enjoying the pleasures of Egypt, he chose to share his people’s mistreatment.
This would certainly seem to have in mind the time when he first visited his people and killed the Egyptian, thus rejecting his position of loyalty to Pharaoh, but that was not really a positive choice of suffering ill-treatment with the people of God. At that time nothing was probably further from his mind. That was thus not really such an act of faith. The act of faith came when as a result he fled and later chose (rather unwillingly, but in obedience to God which revealed his faith) to return to Egypt to live among his people and share their ill-treatment.
‘Accounting the reproach of Christ (or ‘of the anointed one’) greater riches than the treasures of Egypt.’ This may be interpreted in a number of ways.
This would indicate that it was Moses’ faith in the promises concerning God’s people, and his faith in God’s promise of a future Great King (Genesis 49.10), (what we and the writer would call Messianic promises), that made him opt to choose leadership of the people of God rather than princely authority in Egypt. He did it because his faith was in the living God of Israel and His promises. So, like the Messiah would after him, he chose to bear reproach for God’s people as being God’s ‘anointed one’ (as David would be later), prefiguring what Messiah Himself too would suffer. He looked for and believed for the fulfilment of the promises through his suffering, and to the reward that would be his when his people were safely established in God’s inheritance, which would be a recompense for all that he had given up. For if God’s people ceased so would the ‘Messianic’ promise of Genesis 49.10. That is why he could be said to bear the reproach of the Messiah (compare 1 Peter 1.10-11).
In the same way are the readers of this letter, having seen the actual fulfilment of the Messianic hope, to welcome the reproach of Christ rather than the commendation of the world, for it leads to a full recompense of reward (10.35).
Whichever way we see it, the final purpose of the writer in this is to encourage those to whom he is writing also to bear the reproach of Christ because they believe God’s promises.
‘For he looked to the recompense of reward.’ What Moses had in mind was the future hope compared with the temporary pleasures of Egypt. From Moses’ point of view the recompense of the reward was the promise of God’s inheritance in Canaan. That was what motivated him. He looked to see the people of God established in God’s wondrous land flowing with milk and honey, under God’s rule for ever. But the writer sees further ahead to the Kingly Rule of God in Heaven, which Moses would enjoy, as would all who are faithful to Christ.
So the emphasis here is on what, because of his faith, he was willing to put aside and sacrifice, and what he was willing to endure, as he looked to the great recompense that would come from trusting and following God. This is now followed by emphasis on his boldness in facing up to the greatest power on earth.
11.27 ‘By faith he left behind/set to one side Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king, for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.’
Whereas previously the emphasis has been on the choice he had to make, the emphasis here is on the outstanding courage which resulted from his faith.
‘He left behind/set to one side Egypt.’ This may refer to the Exodus, with verse 28 then being seen as the first stage in this final forsaking of Egypt. (In looking at the issue we might perhaps note here that chronological exactness must not be seen as ruling the passage, as we have seen with the mention of Sarah, for the judges are later listed in an order which was deliberately not chronological. Chronology is maintained overall but not in the detail). This would then make it the next stage after refusing to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and therefore rejecting his princedom and his loyalty to Pharaoh, followed by his receiving ill-treatment with the people of God.
But it may rather have in mind his whole behaviour and attitude towards Egypt. He had the courage (by faith) to turn his back on Egypt’s jurisdiction, setting it to one side, and to choose God’s way, and thus face up to Pharaoh, the great and mighty king of Egypt in God’s name. In the course of it he rejected the privilege of Egyptian princedom, despite the anger that that would entail and the future conflict it would necessarily incur, so as to follow the invisible God. It is the natural follow up to refusing to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter.
We may therefore see the writer as including in the idea his interest in his fellow-countrymen, his decisive action in slaying the Egyptian taskmaster resulting in his fleeing the land, his return, and his follow-up actions against Pharaoh in the bringing of the Plagues when with the backing of the invisible God he continually outfaced him, all seen as the result of his ‘setting Egypt to one side’ and trusting the One Who is invisible. This also adds greatly to the significance of the fact that ‘he endured’. We might put it, ‘he turned his back on all that Egypt was with its might and power and set it to one side, entering into continual conflict with it, and enduring through it all because of his faith in the invisible God’.
There is a strong claim for this latter view in that nothing was more an evidence of his faith than his prolonged battle against Pharaoh for the release of God’s people in which he persevered and constantly outfaced Pharaoh because he knew that he was backed by the invisible God.
Some have referred it solely to his fleeing from Egypt to Midian, but that seems less likely unless seen as being a decisive moment as part of the whole. Firstly because that might be seen as already covered in his refusal to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, being the first result of his doing so, secondly because the fleeing in itself was not a supreme act of faith but one of necessary discretion, it was in truth an ignominious flight and it certainly revealed fear of the king, (although the act of faith might be seen as having sided with his countrymen and having slain the Egyptian taskmaster), and thirdly because it seems unlikely that that would be seen as an outstanding act of faith, when compared with the whole of his brave return and his courageous battle with Pharaoh through the Plagues.
It might, however, be accepted if it is seen as symbolic of Moses’ whole rejection of Egypt, that ‘by faith he forsook Egypt with all that followed’. The point is surely that by faith he became so courageous that he chose to turn his back on his upbringing and privileged position, an act of open rebellion against Pharaoh and Egypt, and chose rather from that moment on to follow the invisible God.
Whichever way we see it the point is that Moses had to choose between God and Pharaoh, between the very visible lord of Egypt with all his visible splendour and glory, and the invisible God of Israel, and was unafraid. And the reason that he was not afraid of the wrath of the king of Egypt, the most powerful man in his world, was because his eyes were fixed on the invisible God, and on all that He had promised, and through faith he therefore rather feared Him, and endured for His sake. So should all who truly believe be ready to endure for what they know to be true through His word.
Note how this fulfils the fact that faith is to ‘believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek after Him’ (verse 6).
The thought of ‘seeing Him Who is invisible’ was of especial importance in as far as the people to whom he was writing were concerned, for they were in danger of turning from the One Who is now in Heaven, far superior but invisible, to the very visible things on earth, the temple, the priesthood and the sacrifices, all soon to disappear, although they did not know it.
11.28 ‘By faith he kept the passover, and the sprinkling of the blood, that the destroyer of the firstborn should not touch them.’
By faith he obeyed God and ‘kept the Passover’, calling on the people in the face of the promises of God to observe the Passover in their houses, clothed ready to leave for the land of promise, and by faith he ordered them to sprinkle the blood on their doorposts and lintels, an open testimony to their faith in what God would do. For he knew that the Destroying angel was coming to slay all the firstborn, and this was so that ‘the Destroyer of the firstborn’ might not touch them (compare 1 Corinthians 10.10). He had faith to believe that they would be spared from the Destroying angel through the shed blood. See Exodus 12.1-30.
So should his readers also reveal their faith in God’s Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5.7), the Messiah, and in His shed blood (9.14), and in its sprinkling (12.24), and the security that it offered in the face of all opposition.
‘He kept the Passover.’ Literally ‘he did (made) the Passover’, a phrase used in LXX when speaking of the observation of the Passover (Exodus 12.48; Numbers 9.2; 2 Kings 23.21). The perfect tense indicates that it was kept and continued to be kept. Some see the phrase as meaning that he ‘established’ the Passover, although there is no example of this usage in LXX. It should be noted that the keeping of this Passover contained within it the fact that that day (the morning after the evening which to Israel began the day) they would leave Egypt.
Faith That Received Miraculous Deliverances in the Course of the Fulfilment of God’s Promises (11.29-31).
11.29 ‘By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land, which the Egyptians attempting to do were swallowed up.’
Note the change from ‘he’ to ‘they’, made more emphatic by the fact that he could have previously said ‘they kept the Passover’ rather than ‘he kept the Passover’, for the Passover revealed their faith as well as his. This thus represents a specific and deliberate change in emphasis. Here all the people are seen as being drawn in and involved. Moses’ part was done. Attention is now drawn to the faith of the people as a people. This ‘faith of the people’ did not mean that all truly believed. It is the faith of the whole seen as one. ‘Israel’ as a whole had faith, even though some within Israel did not.
Concentration is now on the faith of the many and it is contrasted with the Egyptians. Israel believed. Egypt (the representative of the world in its opposition to God) did not. Through the faith of Moses the Red Sea opened up before Israel, and through their combined faith they passed through it on dry land, while the Egyptians who lacked true faith were all swallowed up and drowned (see Exodus 14.15-31). We are to see here the faith of Moses absorbed into the resulting faith of the people in what God was doing. On being tested they did not finally return to Egypt, even though many did waver, because they held their trust in the promises of God. Their resultant increased faith is stressed in Exodus 14.31.
For not all who perished in the wilderness were unbelievers. Many were true believers, even though they were yet weak and disobedient. Indeed this is confirmed by the fact that neither Aaron nor Moses reached the promised land. Yet they were still people of faith. So it turned out that many also were disobedient believers who had to face the consequences of their disobedience and yet were not excluded from God’s final mercy.
11.30 ‘By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been encompassed about for seven days.’
The same faith was revealed at the end of the journey by a new generation, led by a new leader Joshua, when they trusted God’s promises and daily walked round the walls of Jericho for seven days in silence, following it with a great shout of victory. What a faith was that! And the result was that the walls of Jericho fell down. So also will all difficulties finally collapse for those who steadfastly believe God.
This example was significant for it indicated the faith of Israel in entering in to take possession of ‘the land of promise’. In a sense it covered all the subsequent faith of those in that generation who truly believed and who went forward at God’s command. Jericho was the initial success which confirmed that God was with them indeed, if only they would continually exercise faith.
It is possibly significant that no mention has been made of the wilderness journey, for that was the writer’s prime example of unbelief (3.7-19). But having commented on the faith of many of the wilderness generation at the Red Sea, he now stresses the faith of the new generation who had not been disobedient. As a group they had faith, even if there were some in the group that did not.
11.31 ‘By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, having received the spies with peace.’
And there was another who had the same faith as Israel that God would deliver Jericho into the hands of Israel, a Gentile who became one with Israel (Joshua 6.25), Rahab the prostitute inn-owner. She listened to what she was told of the promises of God, and by faith received the spies as friends, and refused to join in with the disobedience of her fellows, thus escaping destruction. Both Israel and this God-fearing Gentile believed God at this same time. And through her faith her life was changed. She, and probably her whole family, became one with the people of God because she believed His promises. ‘Received the spies with peace.’ That is as a welcome friend and not an enemy. If the Rahab through whom Boaz the ancestor of David was born was the same Rahab (see Matthew 1.5; the fact of the mention of the unusual mention of a woman’s name confirms that she was a well known woman) she also became the ancestress of Christ.
An adulterous innkeeper who was part of the larger idolatrous and unbelieving mass of people, who by faith turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, would be seen as a perfect example of those Gentiles who in the writer’s time did exactly the same. For that was how the Gentile world appeared to believers; idolatrous, adulterous and unbelieving. Her turning to God and coming within the covenant was a sign of God’s welcome for all Gentiles who would seek Him truly.
So were his readers, both Jew and Gentile, to hear and believe the words of God and be true to the people of God in the face of all opposition.
The Faith of Many Through The Ages (11.32-38).
11.32-34 ‘And what shall I more say? For the time will fail me if I tell concerning Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah; of David also and Samuel and of the prophets, who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens.’
He now lists a panoply of men of faith, who wrought mighty things because they believed the promises of God, selecting them out from a larger number (Joshua has already been included in ‘they’ in verses 30-31), and all in the process of looking for the future hope. The order of the first four may be in terms of esteemed worthiness, with the noble Gideon first, followed by the worthy general, the prankster, and the harlot’s son who in one way or another offered up his daughter (see our commentary on Judges for a discussion on the question); for this general order compare 1 Samuel 12.11. David possibly comes before Samuel because Samuel as both war-leader and prophet connects David with the prophets; although David was also seen as a prophet. So again the order may be of esteemed worthiness and prominence, and of the movement from the particular to the general.
Their accomplishments are grouped in threes; three positive virtues in forwarding God’s purposes, three describing escaping through tribulation, which is thus seen as a necessary part of those purposes, and the final three depicting God’s strengthening of them to victory as they grew in potential. It is saying that God’s purposes go forwards, this necessitates tribulation, but in the end the weak are made strong and are victorious.
Gideon, Barak, Jephthah, David and Samuel all ‘subdued kingdoms’, and Samson played his part against the Philistines; David, Samuel and the prophets especially wrought righteousness; Daniel shut the lions' mouths (Daniel 6.17-22), as did Samson (Judges 14.5-6), David (1 Samuel 17.34-37), and Benaiah (1 Chronicles 11.22). Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego escaped fiery deaths (Daniel 3.23-27). David, Elijah, Elisha, and Jeremiah escaped the edge of the sword, as did Gideon whose elder brothers had been slain, and Samson before the Philistines, and many others. But the writer is drawing on their overall experiences, not seeking to particularise.
‘Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises.’ This first trilogy describes the growth of God’s purposes. First the establishment of God’s kingdom by subduing the enemy (e.g. 2 Samuel 7.9; 8.11-12), then establishing justice in that kingdom (e.g. 2 Samuel 8.15), and finally obtaining thereby many of the promises of God (e.g. Joshua 23.14; 1 Kings 4.21 compare Exodus 23.31; Joshua 1.4). This could be seen as very much the pattern of David’s activities, and also to a lesser extent those of the judges including Samuel.
‘Stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword.’ This second trilogy emphasises the strength revealed by individuals when facing persecution and tribulation. This especially occurred during the period of Israel’s weakness.
‘From weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens.’ This third trilogy might be seen as indicating growth in potential; made strong from weakness, resulting in waxing mighty in war, resulting in putting the enemy to flight. Gideon, Barak, Samson, David and Samuel may have been especially in mind, but the general idea applies to all. Gideon and Barak felt so weak that they sought to avoid their calling, and led comparatively weak armies, compared with their foes, to victory; Samson was a strange enigma, standing alone but finally triumphing; David and Samuel first came to notice as but lads, but grew to be victorious leaders. But all were mighty examples of faith in God’s promises and of God’s ability to strengthen His people until they finally triumphed. They all triumphed by faith over enemies who were outwardly far stronger than themselves.
Thus this ninefold description of the results of faith, divided into three threes to signify total completeness, covers both the advance of God’s kingdom, and the resulting need to be strong when the kingdom deteriorated spiritually.
Some see in these nine a picture of the advancement of salvation history. The first establishing of the kingdom, and of justice, and of confidence in God’s promises; the following deterioration and defeat of the kingdom with its resulting persecutions for God’s people; and the final re-establishment of the kingdom through the activities of the Maccabees and others. However, the parts of the salvation history to which these descriptions could apply can be multiplied, as we have seen above. We must therefore beware of simply trying to fit them into one situation, for the writer may have seen things very differently from the way we do, and what mattered to him was the triumph of those who believed not a resume of history.
11.35 ‘Women received their dead by a resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.’
It is noteworthy that he deliberately keeps on including women (note Sarah (verse 11), Moses’ mother (verse 23) and Rahab (verse 31) and now here). They are represented in each section. Both men and women equally exercised faith in God’s promises, although in different ways.
Women received their dead back because they believed God could and would do what He had promised (compare 1 Kings 17.17-24; 2 Kings 4.17-37). Other believers accepted death through torture (literally by being ‘placed on a rack and beaten to death’. See 2 Maccabees 6. 19, 28, 30 where this happened to Eleazar) because they were confident of a better resurrection (see 2 Maccabees 7.9, 14, 29). Whether in life or death their faith was in God and His promises.
11.36-38 ‘And others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were tested, they were slain with the sword, they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves, and the holes of the earth.’
The whole of the faithful in past history are summed up here. Every conceivable insult was poured on them, every conceivable violence was shown to them, they regularly endured the loss of all their possessions and of their homes, and had to survive in hiding, but they held firm in faith because they believed the promises of God. See for examples Judges 6.2; 8.18-19; 16.25; 1 Samuel 13.6; 1 Kings 18.4, 13; 19.14; 21.10, 13; 22.27; 2 Kings 1.8; 2.23; 2 Chronicles 16.10; 24.21; 30.10; 36.16; Jeremiah 20.2, 7; 32.2; 36.5; 37.15-21; 38.6, 13; etc). But examples from tradition might well also be in mind, probably including the time of the Maccabees. However, cruel treatment was a regular feature of life for those who displeased monarchs and their representatives. Compare 2 Samuel 12.31 for such an example.
According to Rabbinic sources Isaiah suffered death at the hands of King Manasseh by being sawn in two, because he was enraged when Isaiah prophesied the destruction of the Temple. He may thus have been in mind. But not necessarily so for the use of saws, among other things, for killing people appears to have been regular practise in the time of David (2 Samuel 12.31). Yet if this was a sudden switching back to Isaiah’s fate it demonstrates that chronology was not of prime importance to the writer, except when greater issues were in question. It reminds us that the incidents cover a wide range of centuries and cannot in the main be dated. Most occurred again and again throughout a number of centuries.
‘Of whom the world was not worthy.’ Thus does he summarise his view of these gallant men and women of faith. They were citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3.20) and the world was not worthy of such people as they revealed themselves to be, as men and women of faith. In these seven words is summed up God’s verdict on these people of faith. Of those who are born of women there were no greater than these.
The Conclusion (11.39-40).
11.39-40 ‘And these all, having had witness borne to them through their faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided (literally ‘foreseen’) some better thing concerning us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.’
This summary brings together what has been the emphasis of the chapter. It describes men and women of faith, and it emphasises that they were looking for the fulfilment of the promises, for it was those on which their faith was centred. For it was not faith in just a general sense that they revealed, it was faith in the fact that God is, and that His promises are totally reliable.
Yet none of these heroes of faith, although they had witness borne to them through their faith (for God Himself bore witness to them and they were entered in the records of God’s people by the Holy Spirit), received the fulfilment of the promise of the Messiah. They had believed, and they had persevered against all odds on the basis of a future expectation, confident that God would not fail in His promise. Yet they had not received the very best. They did die in hope, for they are to be made perfect along with us. But this great privilege of entering into the promise had been reserved for the time when the writer was writing, and for those to whom he was writing, and for their fellow-Christians, and for us who follow on who enjoy the ‘better thing’ which God has foreseen and provided for us. In the words of Jesus, ‘Blessed are the eyes which see the things that you see, for I say to you that many prophets and kings desired to see the things that you see, and saw them not, and to hear the things which you hear, and heard them not’ (Luke 10.23-24). How responsive they and we should therefore be. How ready to face up to the persecution and opposition of the world.
But now, says the writer, all that was pre-purposed in the purposes of God has come about. Thus are we privileged to be one with them in making up the complete number of those who are truly God’s as we await the final fulfilment of the coming of the Messiah.
‘God having provided (literally ‘foreseen’) some better thing concerning us.’ For we have received a better thing. We have received what was contained in the promise of the Messiah, for which they could only continually look in faith. We now have Jesus Christ Himself. So if they persevered then, without seeing the fulfilment, how then can we who have entered into that fulfilment, fail to also persevere in faith? For we have received the something better. For, as we have seen throughout the letter, ‘better’ is the description regularly used for what Christ has brought.
‘That apart from us they should not be made perfect.’ Here is the cap on all that he has said. They with us, though not without us, will be made perfect. For while the spirits of righteous men made perfect (12.23) are now in Heaven, they are not ‘complete’ in full perfection until we join them, and none of us are complete until the bodily resurrection has taken place and we are all finally united with Christ in His glory, and God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15.20-58 compare Revelation 6.9-11; 7.9-17; 21.22-22.5).
Chapter 12 But We See Jesus
But now, says the writer, we who are now alive have seen the coming of Jesus, the One in Whom has come the fulfilment of the promises of God. We have therefore entered on a great long-distance race with Jesus as our front-runner and sustainer, and these witnesses crowd the sidelines giving us their witness as to the necessity and value of faith, and yelling their encouragement.
If we then look back on these great men and women as witnesses, how much more should we look to Him in faith and press on faithfully, choosing not to be impeded by anything that would hinder us. And when we do suffer persecution and tribulation, we should recognise that that is not surprising. It is because God loves us and is treating us like a father does his son, by chastening us for our good so that we might produce the fruit of righteousness. Thus will we become, through faith, more and more God’s righteous ones in reality as well as by imputation. Let us therefore take note of this and consider our ways so that we may be sure to inherit God’s blessing.
For we do not face God under the old way of management (dispensation) as at Sinai, where all was awesome and remote, where men were kept far off, and were filled with fear, but we have come under the new way of management where all is glorious and heavenly, and where we have the new covenant under the mediation of Jesus, with its better promises.
Let us then beware lest we refuse the One Who now speaks to us. For He no longer speaks from a mountain on earth with a voice that shook the earth, but from Heaven itself, with glorious things that cannot be shaken. Let us therefore respond to His grace that we may be well-pleasing to God (compare 10.38; 11.5, 6), serving Him in awe and reverence. For in it all and beyond it all we too must remember that our God is still a consuming fire.
Let Us Look To Those Who Have Gone Before, Who Are Now Our Witnesses, and To Jesus Our Perfect Coach, Front-Runner And Trainer (12.1-4)
12.1 ‘Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud (nephos) of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which does so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.’
At first sight this verse, (the ‘therefore’ referring back to the previous chapter’s list of witnesses and heroes of faith), appears simply to refer to them as watching our manner of life and our life’s venture. It may appear to be telling us that we have to make our preparations for running, and then run on tirelessly to the end, having in mind that they are watching and cheering us on. And there is some truth in that. But that is not all. For we must not lose sight of the fact that they cheer us on as witnesses, as those who can bear testimony to the fact that they themselves having partaken in the race, and have won through. They are not just spectators, but are there to encourage, as those who have gone before, declaring the certainty and the worthwhileness of the race, and its certain victory.
The word used for cloud (nephos - used only here in the New Testament) is used extra-Biblically to refer to a compact numberless crowd, which fits well here, (although it never does so in LXX). We should note that it is not used of the cloud at the Exodus in LXX, which would appear to exclude that as a possible interpretation. Thus the thought here would seem to be of a large number of the witnesses as described in chapter 11, acting as a part of the crowd at the games, cheering on the contestants yelling their encouragement because of what they too have experienced and endured. But they are not just by-standers, they are those who have endured as we now should, a proof that we can succeed.
The word ‘witnesses’ never elsewhere refers to a crowd of spectators. It does not mean those who look on. Rather it always means someone who bears witness, someone who bears testimony. The thought behind the reference therefore is that of the contestants being aware of this specialist crowd of experts in the field who have already proved themselves, in order that they might receive strength from their example and guidance as they prepare for and run their race.
They see those heroes and heroines of the faith in chapter 11, those great witnesses to the living God, in the way that is described in Scripture, and they learn from them how they should behave.
The lesson to be learned from their advice as witnesses is clear. They must follow their example. Like them they must lay aside every weight, and anything that would cling to them and prevent them running well, (besets them), anything that would be a hindrance to them. And they must then run with patient endurance the race set before them. The race being a long-distance race this patient endurance will be very necessary, and will especially apply in the latter part of the race when special determination and grit will be required, as it once was for those heroes and heroines themselves.
Thus they must throw aside anything that would affect their performance, whether the pull of the world with its offer of fame and glory, or of the flesh with its offer of ever growing sinful pleasures, or of the Devil with his intent to deceive the mind, or whether simply the laziness and carelessness which can prevent them achieving their best. And they must especially cast off ‘the sin’, sin seen as a whole, that is, sin of all kinds, sin in its many forms (compare 9.26), which is the constant enemy of the faithful, which besets them, and clings to them and slows them down. And they must run well the race of life with patient endurance, running with all their might so as to obtain the prize (1 Corinthians 9.24-25). ‘The sin’ probably summarises the idea of all sin, sin as a mass seeking to hinder them and prevent them from running satisfactorily (compare 1 John 1.8 with 10), rather than signifying one particular sin, although some see it as the sin of apostasy which they should specifically lay aside.
So in the presence of those experienced witnesses, who bear witness to what they should be, nothing is to be allowed to remain that hinders, or which would cause the witnesses to be ashamed of them. No encumbrance must be allowed to burden them. In all their ways and in all their choices their one question must be, ‘what will enable me to be the very best that I can be for the Lord? What will enable me to achieve heavenly success’ And their encouragement and help is to be seen as lying in the word of God, and its testimony as witnessed to by the men and women of faith of the past, for that is what these witnesses testify to.
‘Lay aside every weight.’ Some have seen the ‘weight’ as signifying unnecessary, surplus fat that can only prevent us achieving our best. Others have referred to weights which athletes used in training, or even carried so as to give them impetus at the start of the race by flinging them backwards, as we would use starting blocks. But the essential point is that we should not be carrying excess baggage when we run. Nothing must be allowed to hinder our full fitness and ability to run. Once the race has begun all that could hinder must have been left behind.
‘And the sin which does so easily beset us (or ‘cling to us’).’ The thought here is probably of sin clinging like loose clothing and slowing us down. Running in robes was especially difficult (that was why men had to ‘gird their loins’, that is, lift up their robes and tie them round the waist). So anything which would make us less efficient must be cast off. Indeed the ancient Greek athletes cast off everything. The race was all. And so should we cast off everything that could possibly hinder us. We must cast off excessive nationalism, and racism (two of the sins in this case), unbelief, sloth, covetousness, greed, pride, envy, overmuch ambition for anything other than God’s will, lack of self-control, the deceitfulness of riches, and all lustful desires. We must retain only that which will enable us to be successful in the race.
‘And let us run with patience the race that is set before us.’ This is no sprint they are engaged in. It is an endurance race in which fitness and perseverance, and willingness to suffer, are all part of the event. As we look at the faces of the long-distance runners in the second part of any race we get some idea of the effort God requires of us, as they patiently and enduringly press on because they have the final tape in mind. So too must we press on, even when the going is difficult and we feel exhausted, and that we just cannot run any more, because our eyes are on the final prize.
12.2 ‘Looking off to Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy which was set before him endured the cross, despising shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’
But although we may heed the crowd and learn from their witness, we must remember that there is One especially to Whom we should look off in the course of the race, both as our great example and as the One Who can actively aid us in the race, which none of the others can do (compare 2.3, 9; 3.1). For He has not only already run the race, but also runs along with us now. We must consider the One Who is the Greatest of all, Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith in all who truly believe, as He brings us to glory and triumph (2.10-11; 5.9). For He is our perfect pacemaker from start to finish, our perfect coach, our perfect encourager, our perfect companion, the One who runs alongside us and within us, Who having called us through faith, and led us off in faith, will now perfect that faith, and present us perfect in faith before God (Ephesians 4.12-13; Philippians 3.12; 1 Peter 5.10).
‘The author and perfecter of faith.’ In the context of the race He is the One Who brought us to the starting line and implanted faith within us, and Who runs with us in order constantly to maintain our faith until it reaches full perfection. The whole context demands that ‘faith’ is referred back to the faith of the men and women of faith in chapter 11 and to the faith of all who follow Him. He was then its source and its sustainer, and He is still. But it also includes within it the thought that He revealed faith in all its perfection. As the One Who was the source and exemplar of a perfect faith, He is able to establish that faith in others.
And let us consider His qualifications. He too set His eye on the prize, on the joy and triumph that was set before Him, and He thus endured as no other had endured, enduring the cross (see 2.9), with its burdens beyond the understanding of mortal men, and despising the shame that was heaped on Him as a result, in order to finally receive that joy to the full, and having taken the victor’s crown He took His place and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God, having accomplished all that He had been sent to do. He had run well and received the prize.
‘Endured the cross, despising shame.’ All who heard these words knew and had witnessed the awfulness and tearing pain of the cross, for it was a regularly used instrument of death, and they had watched the slow, agonising death of those who had undergone it, with death as a sweet relief. And to add to it all, to a Jew, one who hung on a cross was cursed by God. So it was not only a most distressing form of execution but it bore a stigma all its own that tore its way to a man’s heart and made him bow his head in deepest shame. Outwardly it meant that He was on display as rejected by God. But this was in terms of what men could understand. And while that was terrible enough, what none could see was the dreadful burden of the sin of the world and of the ages, the horror of the divine in being made sin for us, and the darkness and blackness that engulfed His soul which came on Him as its result. None could see the awesome and terrible battle with the forces of darkness as He fought them inch by inch through that terrible day until their ultimate defeat when He finally bowed His head and cried, ‘It is finished’. Thus did Jesus take suffering and shame to the full in order to fulfil His work of salvation. He endured the cross once for all (Aorist tense). And he won, and gained the prize.
So having such a One, with such qualifications and such abilities, One Who has endured so much for us, and Who through it has achieved such a victory, we should look constantly off to Him, so that He might provide us with all that we need so as to successfully complete the race. We must allow Him to work in us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2.13), and to sustain us along the way (2.10-11), and heed His constant urgings and comfort (Luke 22.31-32). And if we do that we will never fail or be afraid.
‘For the joy that was set before Him.’ Some see this as referring to the glory and authority that He was to receive on His exaltation as glorified Man, as Messiah and as King (Acts 2.36; Philippians 2.9-11; Ephesians 1.20-23; Colossians 3.1), and as High Priest (4.14; 6.20; 7.24, 28; 10.12-13), as He was restored to His former glory (1.3; John 17.5). Others consider that it refers to His joy in being able to save sinners, to save those whom He had chosen as His own. Both are surely included, for both are part of the same whole. As He ‘ran the race’ He joyed in the thought of being able to fulfil all that the Godhead required of Him, in being the restorer of lost Manhood, and in the glory that had been His and would be so again. He joyed in His own restoration and glorification (John 17.5) and in being able to be the Restorer for all Who are His, their Kinsman Redeemer.
‘Has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.’ He has taken His seat and is there to this day (perfect tense). His work accomplished He shares His Father’s throne. And from there He acts on our behalf on the basis of His perfect work.
12.3-4 ‘For consider him who has endured such gainsaying of sinners against themselves (or ‘against himself’ - see note below), that you wax not weary, fainting in your souls. You have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.’
Indeed we must firstly constantly fix our minds on Him both as He was in His manhood, and as He now is as our great High Priest Who makes intercession for us (2.17-18; 4.14-16; 5.9; 7.25, 27; 9.14, 24; 10.13-14). We must remember how He suffered. We must follow in His steps.
We must consider how He was constantly beset around, how He was constantly attacked and criticised, how He was constantly accused of inconstancy, of how He was constantly faulted for not being religious enough, of how He was charged with failing in His duty, with blaspheming God, with failing to accept the latest findings of modern thought, even though, unlike Him, those who spoke against Him were sinners themselves. For this last fact did not cause them to withhold anything from the attack. Indeed the more they gained the uneasy feeling that they might be wrong, the more fierce their attacks on Him became.
And we must consider His perseverance and constancy even in the face of His last days when all Hell was thrown at Him, when His suffering and humiliation was such as no man had ever known or could know (for we must remember to Whom it happened). And we must remember all this lest we become weary and faint in our inner hearts because of the pressures that will come upon us too, lest we begin to grow faint within the depths of our very being. Remembering what He suffered and was willing to suffer, yes, voluntarily came to suffer, will help us to remain constant there too.
For we must recognise that most of us have as yet, unlike many of those heroes of the past, and unlike Jesus Himself, not had to face the ultimate sacrifice. We have not yet had to ‘resist unto blood’, facing torture and severe beatings and death, in our striving against the sinfulness of the world, and against our own sin. We have still not had to pay the ultimate price. We have therefore, in view of our light afflictions (2 Corinthians 4.17), no real excuse for not going on.
Some, however, see ‘resisted unto blood’ as simply meaning ‘resisted hard’, and see it as a rebuke for half-heartedness. There may here be a reference to boxing at the games, where boxers wore studded leather on arms and hands which resulted in plenty of blood and gore and where to carry on fighting required extremes of effort and courage. But whichever way it is they are being reminded how much more others have suffered than they have.
‘Against Himself.’ This rendering fits the context, and firmly plants the ‘contra-speaking of sinners’ as being against Him. However, in spite of this, ‘against themselves’ is almost certainly the correct reading. The idea then is that in opposing Jesus and speaking against Him they were acting in all their folly against themselves and unconsciously doing themselves great harm (see Mark 3.22-30). Compare where the idea is used at a critical time in Israel’s history in Numbers 16.38 LXX (in LXX see 17.3) where those who sinned against themselves by their own actions are spoken of. Thus by their very opposition to Christ they were destroying themselves.
Note On ‘Against Himself (or ‘themselves’).’
The strongest manuscript evidence is in fact undoubtedly for ‘against themselves’. This is supported by p13, p46, Aleph, D2, Alephc, and 33, with B being a non-witness as not containing this section of Hebrews. These are both widespread and ancient witnesses, coming mainly from around 3rd and 4th century AD. Indeed of the most ancient and valued manuscripts only A (5th century AD) and D2c support ‘against Himself’, the latter a correction.
Admittedly the readings are slightly varied, either eautous (Aleph, D2) or autous (p13, p46, Alephc, 33). But this must be seen as strong evidence and it is certainly the more difficult reading (and therefore more likely to be original). And the variations are slight and may simply reflect style. ‘Against Himself’ (eauton/auton) is found in A D2c P K L. Apart from A (fifth century AD) and possibly D2correction these are lesser manuscripts. They just do not compare. And it is interesting that they follow both the variations in the earlier manuscripts, with them having become singular. Furthermore it is hard to see how at least two scribes could have altered ‘Himself’ to ‘themselves’, producing the more difficult reading, whereas it is easy to see why two such scribes should have removed a difficulty, and honoured Jesus at the same time, by altering from ‘themselves’ to ‘Himself’. On those two criteria, therefore, ‘themselves’ wins hands down.
RV, consistently with the principles of textual criticism, translates ‘themselves’, with ‘Himself’ in the margin, but ASV and RSV (which surprisingly in my copy shows no alternative rendering in spite of the powerful evidence) opt for ‘Himself’, undoubtedly because it fits the context so much better, even though there is no manuscript evidence for it before 5th century AD.
End of Note.
They Are Not To Forget That Chastening Is Good When It Is At The Hand Of A Loving Father (12.5-11).
And in as far as they are called on to suffer affliction and tribulation, to experience discomfort, hardships and deprivation, they are to consider what God’s purpose is in such things. They are to recognise that they are actually for their benefit. For tribulation produces patient endurance, and patient endurance produces experience, and experience produces hope, and all this results in our being unashamed because we have the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who is given to us (Romans 5.2-5). Thus when they are chastened they should give thanks to our Father for the love and concern that He shows towards them.
Both James and Peter also stress the same lesson. James says, "You know that the testing of your faith develops patient endurance. And let patient endurance complete its work so that you may be mature and perfect, not lacking in anything" (James 1.3-4). While Peter adds, "These [trials] have come so that your faith -- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire -- may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1 Peter 1.7).
The chastening described here is probably to be seen as that arising because they serve Christ. Everyone in the world at times face afflictions and distress. That is the common lot of men. They are more often seen as God’s judgments rather than His chastening, although those too often have the purpose of awakening men to their sins. But when we suffer for Christ’s sake, then we can see it as chastening, for it is special to His people.
12.5-6 ‘And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons, “My son, regard not lightly the chastening (moral training, discipline) of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by him, for whom the Lord loves he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives.” ’
He points out that they might have overlooked or forgotten the Biblical teaching on chastening and firm discipline as something by which God speaks to His children as to sons. They have clearly, in their concern to escape persecution, forgotten the exhortations of Scripture which had aided the past heroes and heroines of the faith to persevere. For example let them consider Proverbs 3.11-12, ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, or faint when you are reproved by Him, for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and beats every son whom He receives’. This is almost word for word with LXX which merely excludes the ‘My’.
The warning here is against treating God’s discipline and chastening as though it did not matter, or on the other hand, allowing it to affect them too much. Some shrug it off, others are devastated by it. But rather they must take it as an act of love from their Father, and learn from it the lesson that He wishes to teach them. Above all they must recognise that it is a sign of His love for them, demonstrating that He does care about what they are and what they become. It is a proof of His true Fatherhood.
12.7 ‘It is for chastening that you endure; God deals with you as with sons. For what son is there whom his father does not chasten?’
For the truth is that their having to endure arises from God’s purpose to discipline and chasten them. They have to endure because God is dealing with them as sons, and that should be a comfort and encouragement to them. For, after all, what son is not chastened by a good father? And they should recognise that a good father does it because he only has his son’s best interests at heart. So let them realise that God’s present chastening comes to them because He is a good Father.
12.8 ‘But if you are without chastening, of which all have been made partakers, then are you bastards, and not sons.’
Indeed God’s disciplining and chastening is a sign of high favour. It is the true born son who is disciplined and chastened because the father is concerned to train him properly with a view to his future responsibilities. He is an heir and therefore proper concern must be shown for his upbringing. He bears the family name. What he becomes is important. It is the illegitimate children, who will have no rights to inherit, who have no name to uphold, who can be left with no proper training, so that they can behave as they like. So it is if they find themselves without chastening that they need to be concerned, not when they are chastened, for not to be chastened will simply demonstrate that they are not true believers, true born sons at all.
(This is not to be taken as God’s views on illegitimate children. The writer is using an illustration from how things were at the time, not passing a judgment on whether it was right or not).
12.9 ‘Furthermore, we had the fathers of our flesh to chasten us, and we gave them reverence. Shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of spirits, and live?’
Additionally he is sure that they can all remember how they themselves were chastened by their fathers when they were young, and how this made them respectfully obedient. They honoured their fathers because they recognised the love that lay behind the chastening, and they submitted to them.
In the same way is it not right and good that they should be chastened by God and submit to Him as ‘the Father of spirits’, for this will result in true spiritual life. ‘Father of spirits’ is in contrast with ‘fathers of our flesh’. The ‘fathers of our flesh’ (our earthly fathers) are responsible for our fleshly upbringing, the Father of spirits (the Father Who deals with all things spiritual and especially the spirits of His own - 12.23) is responsible for our spiritual upbringing. It is He Who is the One Who has overall responsibility and expertise in things of the spirit for His own (compare the use in ‘the spirits of righteous men made perfect’ (12.23) and 1 Corinthians 5.5). He is the Father both of them and of us, if we are truly His. The God Who has called His elect will surely do what is right for them as regards their spirits.
And even if, as some think, the term is to be seen as including all spirits, indicating ‘over everything spiritual’, the emphasis is still on the spirits of men (as again in 12.23), for that is the point of the contrast.
Note the contrast between ‘having fathers who chastened us’ and the strong ‘be in subjection to the Father of spirits’. The fathers did what they could in an uncertain world, often with sons who were sometimes unruly, but the ‘Father of spirits’ is Lord over all and is the Father of their spirits so that they are to be in true subjection to Him as sons, and know that they have a right to His protection and that what He does of His own good pleasure must be for their good, for all is under His will.
No similar title is found anywhere else in the New Testament. It would therefore clearly seem to be one conjured up by the writer as a description of God’s unique Fatherhood of His own elect. Indeed this is the only reference to God’s Fatherhood, outside of quotations, in the whole letter, although chapter 1 infers that He is Father to ‘the Son’. Now He is seen as Father to ‘the spirits’ of all truly righteous men, and as such the Disciplinarian of our spirits.
‘And live.’ The Spirit gives life, for He is the Spirit of life (Romans 8.2; Galatians 5.25; Revelation 11.11 compare Ezekiel 47), thus too does the Father of spirits foster spiritual life in His own (compare John 5.26; 6.57; 14.19; 1 Peter 1.3). When God is truly the Father of our spirits we have true life, abundant life, eternal life. We are new creatures in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 5.17).
Note on ‘Father of spirits’.
The writer here describes God as "the Father of spirits" (patêr tôn pneumatôn). Some see it simply as signifying that God is the Father of the spirits of men. Others see the reference as signifying His Lordship over all spirits, including the heavenly realm.
We can first compare how the phrase "God of the spirits, even of (or ‘and of’) all flesh" [theos tôn pneumatôn kai pasês sarkos] occurs in LXX in Numbers 16.22; 27.16. But in the Hebrew text it reads as ‘the God of the spirits to/for all flesh’. So while it might in LXX (but not necessarily) have been seen as referring to Him as the One Who is over both angels and men, the Hebrew appears to clarify the situation and say that it means ‘God of the spirits for all flesh’ and that it therefore rather signifies fleshly men as they are in their deepest inner being, the spirits put within men, or ‘the God of all life’ including all living creation to which He has given ‘spirits’, the spirit of life. The idea would seem to be either that God knows the very depths of a man’s soul, or that He is the Lord of all earthly life who are therefore subject to His sentence, whatever it be.
This is in stark contrast with the use in the Similitudes of Enoch [1 Enoch 37-71] where God is regularly called ‘Lord of the spirits’ [37.2-4; 38.4; 39.2, 7], where the main reference is to hosts of angelic beings under His command. The same is true in 2 Maccabees 3.24 where He is called "the sovereign of spirits and all authority" [ho tôn pneumatôn kai pasês exousias dunastês] when an apparition of a dreadful horseman appears. In each of these cases ‘spirits’ primarily indicates angelic beings, as in Psalm 104.4. In 1QH 10.8 God is called "prince of elohim" again meaning angels. The idea is in total contrast to Numbers.
It is doubtful, however, whether we are to see this latter emphasis here in Hebrews. The idea of ‘Lord’, and ‘Sovereign’, and ‘Prince’ is very different from that of ‘Father’, especially when the latter is used in a Christian context, and although angels are sometimes called ‘bene elohim’ (sons of God), it is never with the thought of God as their Father. Here in Hebrews the thought is of loving relationship.
So here in Hebrews the main reference is surely to God as ‘the Father of the spirits’ of His own people, as their spiritual Father (of the spirits of just men made perfect), in contrast with those who are ‘the fathers of their flesh’, who are the earthly fathers to their own sons. For he then goes on to show that our Father’s purpose for His sons is that we might be made partakers of His holiness.
There are many, however, who do take it to be a general title indicating His sway over all spirits, over the whole world of the spirits, whether heavenly or earthly. But either way the emphasis is undoubtedly that He is ‘Father’ of the spiritual realm, and therefore especially of men’s spirits.
End of note.
12.10 ‘For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed good to them; but he for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness.’
This contrast confirms the contrast in verse 9. If we remember back to the earthly chastening of our parents we will remember that it was only temporary, ‘for a few days’. And while they chastened us in the way that they thought best, they may well sometimes have been wrong. But with our heavenly Father we can be sure that any chastening is solely for our benefit, is appropriate, will strengthen our spirits and will last no longer than is necessary. He is never wrong. And His watch over us is total for He is the Father of our spirits, and of all the spirits of those who are righteous through faith.
And His purpose in it is that we might become holy in our spirits as He is. For He longs for us, and determines for us, that we may partake in His holiness, receiving it, enjoying it and being filled with it deep within, that we may be strengthened with power by His Spirit in the inner man, resulting in the indwelling of Christ, and our being rooted and grounded in love, so that we may know the love of Christ which passes all knowledge and be filled ‘unto all the fullness of God’ (Ephesians 3.16-19). That then is why He chastens us, to make us like Himself in His perfect holiness.
And what is the holiness of God? It is that which sets God apart from men, that which distinguishes Him as ‘different’. He is set apart in His perfect purity and truth, in His absolute righteousness and true goodness. So are we to be transformed into His likeness.
‘For a few days.’ This may mean that chastening never lasted long, but was only temporary, or it may refer to the period of childhood as being relatively only ‘for a few days’. Either way the stress is on the temporary nature of chastisement, both men and God’s. It will not last for ever.
Of course this is not the only explanation for having to endure ‘chastisement’. The Book of Job gives another, and the sufferings of Jesus were not because of any lack in Him, although He learned from them and through them was made perfect for the task He had to do (2.10), while the blood of the Martyrs became the seed of the church, they were a divine advertisement. But these were the exceptions rather than the rule. But all benefited by it in one way or another and in general the principle applies. God’s chastisement is with our holiness in view.
12.11 ‘All chastening seems for the present to be not joyous but grievous; yet afterward it yields peaceable fruit to those who have been exercised by it, even the fruit of righteousness.’
He recognises that chastening is never pleasant. Indeed when it is in process it seems grievous. It can hurt dreadfully. But it is the result that we should consider, not the process. To those who respond to God’s chastening rightly, and are rightly affected by it, it yields ‘peaceable fruit’, the peaceable fruit ‘of righteousness’ (compare James 3.17-18). Just as earthly chastening should result in the restoration of our relationship with our parents, restoring peace between us, so does our Father’s chastening result in the restoration of our present ongoing relationship with Him when it is in danger of breaking down. The fruit of His discipline is that we are found at peace with Him, and receive peace from Him. And this will result in our continuing to be truly righteous inasmuch as we respond to it. So God’s purpose in chastening us is in order that we might be at peace with Him, and so that we might become ever more holy and righteous. We have been perfected in holiness (10.14) that we might be made holy, (totally separated to a holy God). For without the latter, first imputed and then imparted, the fullness of the former is impossible.
‘Exercised thereby.’ The word is taken from training for the games and stresses the great effort to be put in. God’s chastisement should result in our getting fit in our hearts in order to be righteous, with its resulting fruit.
So Let Them Now Be Responsive To Their Father’s Chastening Instead of Rebelling Against It (12.12-17).
In the light of the fact that they now see their tribulations as in fact being their Father’s chastening, let them now fully respond to it and get their attitudes and response right, for then all will turn out well.
12.12-13 ‘Wherefore lift up the hands that hang down, and the palsied knees, and make straight paths for your feet, that that which is lame be not turned out of the way (or ‘put out of joint’), but rather be healed.’
He likens his readers to people who have given up because they are in despair. Because they have been frozen into inactivity. Their hands are hanging down so that they are doing nothing, their knees are like palsied knees which will not support them. They are like athletes who are wilting in the long distance race, their hands hanging down, their knees paralysed with overstrain, wandering all over the course into the rough ground, unable properly to run the race (12.1). They are like those wandering in a maze and are finding their ways difficult because of their doubts. But let them now wake up. Let them stir themselves (because God the Father of their spirits is stirring them). Let them see the way before them in the light of the Scriptures so that they run in the true way along straight paths. Let them get their understanding of its teaching straightened out in accordance with what he has written to them. Let them respond to God and thus be made whole, and be fully restored. Then the weak also will not go astray. And the lame, whose limbs are liable to be put out of joint as a result of leaving the main path and going into the less trodden and therefore rough ways, will rather be healed. They will be bound up by God. Compare Isaiah 35.3-8; Proverbs 4.26; Matthew 3.3; Jeremiah 17.14; Ezekiel 47.9.
12.14 ‘Follow after (‘pursue’) peace with all, and the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord.’
Some see this as meaning ‘all men’ as in Romans 12.18, but the context rather suggests it means all their fellow Christians with whom at present they are not perhaps fully at peace because of their Judaistic tendencies. They should seek to be aligned with them in their beliefs and hopes. But whichever way it is, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for the they will be called the children of God’ (Matthew 5.9). Those who are His seek peace with all, and peace between all, for that is how God’s children should be. And this should be accompanied by following ardently after ‘sanctification’, that sanctifying process whereby they are being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8.29), for in this they will have peace with God. It is peace to be achieved within sanctification. We must never seek a false peace which is not accompanied by sanctification. Oneness is important, but never at the cost of holiness or truth.
‘Without which no man shall see the Lord.’ ‘The Lord’ here probably means ‘Jesus Christ’ rather than ‘God’, for outside of quotations this is how the writer usually uses the title (2.3; 7.14). Thus ‘seeing the Lord’ here probably refers primarily to His second coming (9.28; 1 John 3.2-3). It is a reminder that if we are to see Him we will at present be experiencing His sanctifying work (2.10-11).
However, as Jesus Himself said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God’ (Matthew 5.5) and there He was surely including the experience of this ‘seeing God’ as being available at the present time, in the new age of the Kingly Rule of God which had come in Him. He is saying that it is only if our hearts true that we will see Him. For it is only if we are at peace with one another, and experiencing constant sanctification, if we are genuinely pure in heart, that we can see Him (compare verse 2). Then we can experience the vision of God now in our hearts and spirits. Yet glorious though such a thought is, it is a but foretaste of what will be ours in fullness when we see Him face to face. We may see Him now in our hearts, and His beauty may shine on us, a beauty of which we can only have a relatively minimal idea, but then we shall see Him in His fullness, we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3.2). We shall see the King in His beauty (Isaiah 33.17). We may be being conformed to His image now, but then the process will be complete. Then we will be made like Him, for we will see Him in all that He is (1 John 3.2-3).
12.15 ‘Looking carefully lest there be any man who falls short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby the many be defiled.’
And this seeking of peace and sanctification should be carried through with greatest care as they keep their eyes open to ensure that none of them ‘fall short of the grace of God’. For those who are in the grace of God (God’s action towards us in unmerited love and favour) it is impossible to fall short of it, for it is God’s gift whereby we are His workmanship and whereby He will make us truly righteous in deed as well as in standing (Ephesians 2.9-10). The idea here is rather of someone who falls short of God’s grace that has been offered to them, by a refusing to believe in Him truly in genuine response, by a holding out on His calling. They will be revealing that they have not yet truly become His, and such persons should be the concern of all God’s people.
‘Lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby the many be defiled.’ For he is concerned lest there be those among them who have within them a bitterness at what they are facing which like a root will spring up and spread and begin to produce a more mature fruit of bitterness, causing many to be led astray (compare for the language Deuteronomy 29.19 where the idea is used of turning from God to false religion). They may feel that they had followed the Messiah expecting him to lead them into pleasant paths, and that He had clearly failed because of their present situation. And once such ideas begin to be mooted they can soon spread, and he is fearful lest it weaken the church in its faith and in its resolve.
‘Thereby the many be defiled.’ Being defiled is the opposite of being made holy. They cease from their separation to God and become worldly minded because their faith has dwindled. This may then manifest itself either in sexual misbehaviour, or in being taken up with the world so that heavenly things cease to be important and their ‘holiness’, their outward separation to God, is marred.
12.16-17 ‘Lest there be any fornication, or profane person, as Esau, who for one portion of food sold his own birthright. For you know that even when he afterward desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected; for he found no place for a change of mind, though he sought it diligently with tears.’
This root of bitterness is now defined in terms of Esau who ‘sold his birthright’ because it meant so little to him. He was a worldly person. He despised what was spiritual. He looked at present benefit not at future ‘pie in the sky’. Note the implication. What he lost had never been his in any genuine way, for he had always despised it in his heart. It meant nothing to him, and he had casually exchanged it for a dish of soup. He did not have a faith that dwindled, it was a faith that had never existed.
But later when he suddenly realised that it did matter it was too late. He had chosen his path and could not turn back. No amount of tears could change the situation. He had made an irrevocable decision and was now stuck with it. Compare 10.26.
This does not mean that Esau was lost for ever. The writer is not talking about his eternal state. He is making a comparison between the loss of his birthright through folly, with the greater danger of others of losing everything through folly, and stressing how such a situation can become irrevocable. Esau could still repent of his sin and find forgiveness before God, but there was no way in which he could bring about a change of mind concerning his birthright. He had lost it permanently. The danger, however, for those who ‘despise’ Christ is that they may truly reach a stage where they themselves are lost for ever.
‘Lest there be any fornication, or profane person.’ Esau was never described as factually a fornicator, but he did marry a number of foreign wives, wives outside the covenant, which grieved his father and mother deeply (Genesis 26.34-35; 27.46; 28.8-9). He was unequally yoked together with unbelievers. That may be partly the idea here. That too demonstrated that, unlike Jacob, he had little concern for ‘the way of promise’. God’s purposes were not important to Him. And that eventually was why he was able to dismiss his birthright so easily and with such disinterest. First he went wrong with his choice of women, and then he demonstrated his contempt for the promises of God. As it turned out he was concerned what his father thought about him, but he was not concerned with what God thought about him.
But moving from the example to the people he was writing to the writer probably has literal fornication in mind for them (compare 13.4). Relationships with women have always been vitally important for the Christian, and fornication and sexual misbehaviour, is always a present danger. Wrong attitudes lead to wrong relationships. Thus they are to avoid fornication, the idolatry of the flesh; and they are also to avoid being profane and worldly minded, the idolatry of the spirit, that is, looking only at what is seen and putting such things before God.
For Let Them Consider What They Are Dealing With. They Are Not Dealing With Earthly Experiences But With Heavenly Realities.
Once again we are brought back to the comparison between the old and new ways, the old and new covenant, the old and new Law (chapters 7-10). His readers have less excuse for failure than Israel of former days, and more to be afraid of. For they have not come to something earthly, fearsome and awesome though it may be, and something which makes men tremble, and made even Moses fear and quake. As well as being a time of great import to Israel it was also a time of exclusion. God was there but they were not to approach Him hidden in the darkness. Only Moses could enter the cloud and even he trembled.
But rather they have come to the glory of heavenly realities, and the wonder of the new Mediator Who mediates the new covenant in Heaven. It is no longer the terror of Mount Sinai, but the glory of the heavenly Mount Zion, with all that goes with it. It is an entrance with joy. But it is still the dwellingplace of the Consuming Fire for those who have turned their backs on Him.
12.18-19a ‘For you are not come to what might be touched, and which burned with fire, and to blackness, and darkness, and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words.’
The situation of those of old is first dealt with vividly. He is trying to establish for his readers, by negatives, a sense of the holiness and awesomeness of God. For the new covenant and the new realities have not changed the nature of God. Let them not forget that. He is still a consuming fire (verse 29). What they have changed is the situation for those who are truly responsive to Christ, and His approachability.
When the first covenant was given it was on an earthly mountain, one that was tangible and of this world. And yet it had with His presence become so holy that it could not be touched, because God was there. It was a mountain which burned with awesome fire. It was a mountain of blackness and pitch darkness (gnopho and zopho) and tempest. See for this general picture Deuteronomy 4.11 LXX, ‘the mountain burned with fire up to heaven, with darkness, cloud and the great sound of a tempest’. Note the repetitions in order to bring out its dark and mysterious nature and the reference to tempest which indicates the thunder and savagery of nature that accompanied it. It was a mountain from which came a blaring sound as of a trumpet and the voice of words. There was no closeness of relationship here, no sense of ease and calm, no easy approach, but a sense of fear, and terror before the glory of the Lord that shook the very being, and an awareness that God was revealed and yet hidden, local and yet could not be approached. (See Exodus 19.16; 20.18-19; Deuteronomy 4.11-12).
‘What might be touched.’ This stresses that Mount Sinai could in fact normally be touched because it was of the earth and therefore attainable by man when God was not there. It was of this world. For with all its manifestations at that time it was in the end but an earthly mountain, in total contrast with the heavenly Mount Zion. However, because God was there it could not be touched at that time, for even an animal straying onto it would immediately become ‘holy’ and had to be slaughtered by stone or arrow (it could not itself now be touched) - verse 20. Thus it was both earthly and heavenly at the same time.
‘And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words.’ The sound of a trumpet is regularly the indication that God is approaching to act, and here He acted with the voice of words in giving the covenant in terms of being their sovereign Lord in a way that would never be forgotten. And yet even so it failed because of the sinfulness of their hearts. The background may have been powerful thunder, or it may have been some unearthly noise which gave the impression of the blaring tones of a trumpet, but it alerted them to the seriousness of what God was about to say.
12.19b-20 ‘Which voice they who heard it entreated that no word more should be spoken to them; for they could not endure that which was enjoined. If even a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned.’
There were the fiery flames, the blackness and darkness (gnopho and zopho), the sound of a roaring tempest, the notes of an unearthly trumpet, all swirling round the top of the mountain in awesome power. And then there came the words. And the words themselves came over so fearsomely that the people who heard them pleaded that they might not hear them again. They could not endure what was said or how it was said. It was all too much for them. They could bear neither His presence nor His words. Why, His presence was so real that even a dumb beast that touched the mountain had to be stoned or shot with an arrow, because it had by that become sacred and was thus untouchable, lest it return and bring God’s holiness directly among the people. They were fearfully afraid. Compare here Deuteronomy 5.23-27.
The old covenant was in fact good news for them. It was the gracious acceptance of them into His covenant. But what they retreated from was not the covenant but this personal and vivid experience of a holy God. They could not face Him as He was, because of what they were. They preferred to leave that sort of thing to Moses. And it would continue to be so when later Moses’ face shone with the glory of God, and they pleaded that that might be covered up as well. Many of us are like that. We like to come close to God, but not too close.
12.21 ‘And so fearful was the appearance, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake.’
But the experience was so dramatic that even Moses found it hard to bear. We tend to forget that Moses was human too, and that he was dealing with something that was beyond his understanding. Compare Deuteronomy 9.19 LXX ‘and I was greatly terrified because of the wrath and the anger’ in respect of the golden calf experience and Exodus 3.6, ‘he was afraid to gaze on God’, in respect of the burning bush experience. Moses trembled there before God, and here too he trembled along with all the people (Exodus 19.16). The writer puts words into Moses’ mouth, based on what is revealed about his experience so as to make it more vivid (note that he does not represent it as from Scripture), probably based on some well known Jewish tradition. Such tradition often mentions Moses’ terror.
But what his readers have come to is not like that. Rather it is glorious and wonderful and heavenly. It is both a place of welcome and a place of awe. Because a way has been provided for them through Christ, by which they could enter boldly, they have come into the very presence of God and the glory of the heavenlies, but they must never forget that He is a consuming fire for all but what is acceptable to His nature.
We present the verses in couplets, not in order to present it as poetry but in order to bring out the pairings and contrasts. It is noteworthy that in each pairing the first part of the pairing is a straight statement and represents that which is permanently of Heaven, and the second part represents the people of God who have become a part of Heaven, and in each of the second items in the pairings a further explanation is added on. Thus the first phrases present basic, enduring, heavenly facts, the second refer to their connection with mankind and require expansion. They are interwoven to emphasise the closeness with which they are now combined. Heaven and earth has met together.
The first parts of the pairings are, ‘To Mount Zion -- to innumerable hosts of angels in festal gathering -- to the God of all as Judge -- to Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant.’
In these we have that which is heavenly and permanent, the heavenly source of earthly blessing and protection and sustenance. We might almost see it as the sights that meet us as we approach into His presence. First we come to His dwellingplace, to the heavenly Mount Zion. Then we come to the festal gathering of angels. Then we approach the throne itself where the Governor of the Universe is seated, but which can approach without fear because our mediator sits at His right hand.
‘Mount Zion’ represents the original and permanent dwellingplace of God (Psalm 20.2; 48.2; 87.1-2; 99.2; 125.1; 135.21; Jeremiah 8.19; Revelation 14.1), the very throne room of God in which is the heavenly tabernacle (8.2; 9.11 compare Isaiah 16.5; Psalm 20.2; 76.2) to which we are privileged to come to seek help in time of need (4.16). On that heavenly Mount Zion we see the ‘innumerable hosts of angels’, gathered as one whole in festal joy, both rejoicing in God and also rejoicing in every sinner who repents (Luke 15.7, 10), who are the servants of God who have always awaited His heavenly bidding, and who minister to us as the heirs of salvation (1.14 compare Deuteronomy 33.2; Psalm 68.17; Daniel 7.10). They are gathered here for the worship of God (Revelation 5.11-12).
Here too is ‘the God of all as Judge’. He represents the One Who is over all, ruling over all and responsible for all. This is not a scene of judgment, He is there as the ‘Judge’ in the wider sense as the One Who exercises authority over all and governs all, Who is in a way like the judges in the Book of Judges (compare Acts 13.20), responsible for maintaining and dispensing justice, and giving guidance and help to the people. He is the One Who will one day call all to account, but as yet acts as Moral Governor and Guide and awaits the petitioner who seeks His aid and mercy.
And there too on Mount Zion is ‘Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant’. Without Him we would have no approach. He is the One Who as Eternal God (‘the Son’) and Representative Man acts in Heaven to make His plea on behalf of those who are within the new covenant on behalf of those who approach through Him.
So all the participants are there to welcome God’s people. The way has been made open. The man or woman in Christ may approach God continually in Heaven, looking to worship Him and seek His aid in living their lives for Him under His care. There is no more fear, nothing to keep man away. For Jesus Christ has through His offering of Himself removed the veil that kept men and women from God. Through Him therefore we have access, and there is thus only peace and love in His presence.
‘New.’ The word used (neos) means new because recently established for each one who becomes a Christian. This is in contrast with kainos (8.8, 13) which means new as contrasted with the old, new of a different kind.
The second parts of the pairings are:
It will be noted that the first of the first pairings, and the last of the second pairings differ from the other three in each case in that they refer to what are non-personal descriptions. Thus Mount Zion is followed by three references to heavenly personages, and the blood of sprinkling is preceded by three references to the people of God. The pattern is clear.
It should further be noted that these second parts of the pairings do not just refer to those who have died and are in Heaven. They refer to all who become His from the moment that they do so. They include the whole true people of God on earth and in Heaven. ‘You have come.’ Once we become His, we come to this heavenly sphere as we seek to worship God. We, along with those who have gone before, are thus spiritually part of the city of the living God, citizens of Heaven even though we travel as ‘strangers’ on the earth. And here we can come in Christ to worship.
We are also therefore part of the assembly of the firstborn ones, whose names have been written in Heaven, which indicates that we are enrolled in Heaven, that we are citizens of Heaven. And we are those who have been called and set apart by and for Him Who is the Firstborn, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8.17). And we are also included among the spirits of just men made perfect, for God is the Father of spirits including our spirits (12.9), and we have been perfected in Christ (10.14). And we are also united with Him and with all God’s people in the covenant by the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus.
‘You are come.’ That is, ‘you have come and are now here’ (perfect tense). For the meaning of proserchomai in the letter see 4.16, 7.25, 11.6. It means to come to God, to draw near to God. And to where have we come to draw near to God? To the new Jerusalem, and to the church of the firstborn ones, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to the blood of sprinkling. We can approach in worship here (4.16; 10.19) precisely because in Christ we are present in the spiritual realm, in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2.6), because we have been raised with Him, because we are even now a part of this great assembly and gathering, are even now citizens of this heavenly Jerusalem.
We are not on earth cowering before Mount Sinai in fear, standing in a barren wilderness and petrified at the sound of His voice, rather, together with all those who have passed on before us, we rejoice in this heavenly Mount Zion, in the glory of God’s presence, and we glory in Him, being brought near and having access through the blood of Jesus (10.19). For the work of Christ on the cross and His establishment as High Priest on our behalf (the resurrection being assumed) has all been in order to make this possible.
‘To the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’. This is paralleled with Mount Zion, the dwellingplace of God. And its second part in the parallel demonstrates that it refers to man’s part in the heavenly realm, where those who have gone before can worship God, and those still on earth can worship Him too (10.19). At Sinai the people stood afar off and could not approach the mountain because of their fear, for God temporarily abode there (Exodus 24.16) and they were afraid, for they were kept from Him by their sinfulness and by His awful holiness. But the people of the new Jerusalem gather on Mount Zion, the very permanent dwellingplace of God, and are not afraid (compare Revelation 14.1).
This city of the living God represents the whole of the people of God whether in Heaven or on earth, all who are founded on the Apostles (Revelation 12.14), for in Christ all who are His dwell in the heavenlies, in the spiritual realm (Ephesians 2.6), and dwell in the new Jerusalem (‘you have come and are now there’) and will one day dwell in the new creation (compare Revelation 3.12; 21 all). This is the city which has foundations (11.10), the foundations being the Apostles and Prophets with Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2.20), or seen in another light the twelve Apostles (Revelation 21.14), with the twelve tribes of Israel as the gates. The latter stresses that our access is thus through being of His true people, through our being the true Israel. For in the New Testament the church, the ekklesia, the congregation, is seen as in essence the true twelve tribes of Israel (Romans 11.13-29; Ephesians 2.11-22; Galatians 6.16; 1 Peter 1.1; James 1.1; Matthew 16.18-19; Revelation 7.1-8) continuing the congregation of Israel of old).
It is the city for which Abraham looked, whose builder and maker is God (11.10), which we can even now enjoy. Abraham could only look out for it in hope. We can experience it. It is God’s replacement for rejected earthly Jerusalem. It is the heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4.25-26), the whole people of God, established in the heavenly Mount Zion, in God’s permanent dwellingplace, through the work of Christ. Its coming and final triumph was vividly portrayed in pictorial fashion in Isaiah 66.10-24, with the wicked evermore excluded (verse 24). See also Isaiah 4.3, 5-6. Mount Zion is the dwellingplace of God. The heavenly Jerusalem is that wherein God’s people dwell with Him.
We should note that like Zion and Jerusalem in the Old Testament (e.g. Zephaniah 3.16; Zechariah 2.7; Psalm 147.12; Joel 3.1; Isaiah 40.2; 49.14; Jeremiah 4.14; 6.8; 7.29; Lamentations 1.8) Jerusalem can represent both the place, and its people when the latter are spoken of in large numbers. In Matthew 3.5 Jerusalem is mentioned as going out to hear John. In Matthew 23.37 and parallels Jerusalem killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent to her. Compare the same idea in Matthew 8.34. And this fact is made full use of in Revelation 21. The new Jerusalem is the bride (Revelation 21.2 compare 19.7-8), and the twelve Apostles her foundation (compare Ephesians 2.20). It was thus the ideal way to connect God and Mount Zion with His people. It is both heavenly city and heavenly people.
The ‘church of the firstborn ones.’ This is paralleled with ‘the innumerable host of angels in festal array (in general assembly)’, indicating their uniting with them in the worship of Heaven. All the angels worship the One Who is the Firstborn Who came into the world (1.6), and worship before the throne. Here His people also worship with them, and they too come as a festal gathering, for in Isaiah 66.10 LXX it is they who are called on to call a general assembly or feast as the new Jerusalem. ‘Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and all you who love her, hold in her a general assembly (a festal gathering)’).
But Christ’s people are clearly also contrasted with the angels, for they come not as attendants but as His fellow-heirs, sharers in the privileges of the Firstborn, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8.17). They are ‘firstborn’ ones, co-heirs of Christ’s privileges (compare Romans 8.29 where Jesus is described as ‘the firstborn among many brothers and sisters’). They are one with Him as the angels can never be. For He is their Elder Brother (2.10-16), and they will share His throne, the one given to Him as glorified Man (Revelation 3.21). And part of angelic service is to minister to them (1.14). In the same way in Revelation 4 & 5 the church is represented by the twenty four elders who are seated on thrones and are near the throne of God and have received their crowns, which they cast at His feet.
‘Firstborn ones.’ In Hebrews 1.2 the Son was called ‘the heir of all things’, for Whom all things are destined. He is the Firstborn, the rightful Heir, because of His Oneness with the Father (1.6). In Romans 8.29 He is ‘the firstborn among many brothers and sisters’, the heir Who shares all with those who are have been called by God and have been conformed to His image. And in Colossians 1.18 He is ‘the firstborn of the dead’, the One through Whom the redeemed have received life as firstborn ones, given life by the Firstborn from the dead. Thus by being the ‘church of firstborn ones’, that is, those gathered and given life by the Firstborn (and therefore also heirs), His people are associated with Him in His destiny and in His resurrection
They are the gathering of the redeemed people of God, those who have been united with the One Who is the Firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1.15), Who is the source of its existence and its life, the One Who is the Giver of being, and Who is the Firstborn from the dead (Colossians 1.18), the One Who has power over all life and had power to take back His life again (John 10.18; 5.21) and is the Giver of New Life, Eternal Life, the One Who came into the world and as Heir of all things (1.2) is worthy of the worship of angels (1.6). And to this gathering of firstborn ones (of heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ) belong all Who are His people in Heaven or on earth to whom He has given being and eternal life (Colossians 1.15, 18; John 5.24; 1 John 5.12-13 and also Hebrews 1.6). They are the ‘firstborn’ ones (prototokon), those who will receive their birthright (prototokia) through Him, in contrast with those who have rejected and forfeited it (verse 16). As heirs they are the inheritors of God’s inheritance (Acts 26.18; Colossians 1.12).
‘Which are enrolled in Heaven.’ This restricts the description to genuine believers. They are those whose names are written in Heaven, enrolled in the New Jerusalem as men on earth were enrolled in their cities and were their cities (Luke 10.20; Philippians 4.3 compare Malachi 3.16; Psalm 69.28). It is God Who has enrolled them and they are thus citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3.20 compare Isaiah 4.3). It was a normal process in great cities that those who were citizens had their names enrolled in the city records, and expunged if they were seen as guilty of some great crime, and all were aware that a select number could be described and enrolled as ‘Roman citizens’ even though they had never lived in Rome. They represented Rome.
‘The spirits of just (righteous) men -- made perfect.’ This is paralleled with ‘to the God of all as Judge’. These spirits of righteous men do not fear the God of all, the One who rules and governs as Judge, (in the same way as the Judges of the Old Testament), but love and worship Him, for they come to Him looking for His righteous governance and guidance, for they are righteous, having been perfected by the blood of Christ. They are the spirits of all who have been made righteous by faith (see 12.9), and having been made perfect through Christ’s offering of Himself (10.14), are even now spiritually present in the spiritual realm (Ephesians 2.6), perfected by Him with a view to their ultimate sanctification, which is at present in process.
This represents we who are on earth, whose hearts and minds and citizenship are in Heaven (Colossians 3.1; Philippians 3.20), as much as those who are in Heaven. (‘They without us shall not be made perfect’ - 11.40). The use of ‘spirits’ may well be in order to confirm that the resurrection is seen as having not yet taken place. Such have not yet been ‘clothed upon’ (2 Corinthians 5.2-4; 1 Corinthians 15.20-57). They still ‘sleep’ in Christ (because their ‘sleeping’ bodies lie in the grave) or walk on earth. But God is the Father of all such ‘spirits’ (12.9) and watches over them all.
So the three descriptions reveal God’s people, firstly in connection with God’s dwellingplace, secondly in conjunction with and in contrast to the angels, and thirdly in the relationship that they have with God even prior to the resurrection.
‘To the blood of sprinkling -- which speaks better than that of Abel.’ This is paralleled with ‘And to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.’ This is the blood of Jesus as sacrificed for His own (9.14) that it might successfully call down mercy from God on those to whom it has been applied. Rather than crying for judgment, as Abel’s did (Genesis 4.10-11), its successful plea is for mercy and oneness in the covenant. And its Source is now in Heaven.
This comparison with Abel should make us aware of exactly what the blood of Jesus represents. It represents blood shed through death. It represents the blood of one slain by those who hated Him. But unlike Abel’s it also represents blood which cries out for mercy for His enemies. That is why it speaks better than the blood of Abel.
And ‘the blood of sprinkling’, being here related to the Mediator of a new covenant, is a specific reminder of and contrast with the blood of sprinkling on the people when they were brought into the old covenant (Exodus 24.8). Through it He brings His own into the new covenant. Through it all His people are sprinkled and made one, for the sprinkling is on them all..
It may also have in mind the Passover, although there, while the blood was applied with hyssop, it was not said to be sprinkled (Exodus 12.22). But see 2 Chronicles 35.11. The blood of sprinkling also hallowed the priests when the priesthood was first set up (Exodus 29.21; Leviticus 8.30) and was continually applied by sprinkling to the altar as an indication of atonement (Leviticus 1.11 and often). It was also sprinkled in the water of purification for the removal of the taint of death. And it was to be sprinkled by the Servant of Yahweh on ‘many nations’ when He had become the One who bore our sin and was our offering for sin (Isaiah 52.15; 53.4-5, 10-11). Thus we find in this blood of sprinkling participation in the new covenant (compare Mark 14.24 and parallels) and the means of full atonement and purification.
This spiritual blood of sprinkling is applied on earth when we respond to Christ, but it is carried into Heaven on those who have been sprinkled, just as the Lamb is seen in Heaven as the One Who has been slain (Revelation 5.6), even though He was slain on earth. The thought is of the fact that all men and women who are in Heaven are there by virtue of the sprinkling of the blood of the Lamb Who was slain. It has to be introduced in order to make this very fact clear. And in that sprinkling we are all made one. And He acts as our Mediator in Heaven because His blood has brought us within the new covenant.
The whole emphasis then of this passage is that in Christ we have broken through into Heaven itself, and into the very presence of God through the blood of Christ (4.16; 10.19) and join with the people of God in Heaven in worship and praise as one people. Not for us Mount Sinai, but the heavenly Mount Zion. That is why He became our High Priest. Not for us visits to the earthly Jerusalem. That has been replaced. For the earthly Jerusalem is no longer the centre for God’s people. We have come to, and are a part of, the heavenly Jerusalem. Nor for us the gathering in Jerusalem for the great feasts and especially the Passover and Atonement, we join the festal array of the angels and gather in the heavenly Mount Zion with all who call on His name, while our Passover and Atonement, already accomplished in Him, are seen in Heaven as having been applied to us as His people. The earthly copies and shadows are no more. They have been replaced by the heavenly realities. Let men not therefore look back with nostalgia to the old things. They are gone for ever. When that which is perfect has come then that which is in part is done away.
12.25 ‘See that you do not refuse him who speaks. For if they escaped not when they refused him who warned them on earth, much more shall not we escape who turn away from him who warns from heaven:’
But let them not be misled. It is true that this glory is now theirs if they truly belong to Christ. Yet they must beware. For if they refuse Him Who speaks, Him Who calls them to this glory, they will find Him far more fearsome than the God of Sinai. He spoke to men from Sinai and they did not escape when they refused Him by their behaviour and their lives, outwardly entering into covenant but inwardly rejecting it. How much more then shall men not escape if they refuse the One Who speaks from Heaven itself, also outwardly accepting His new covenant but inwardly rejecting it. Laying their claim to the right to Heaven and then spurning it. For, for those who refuse Him Who speaks, Mount Zion will be more terrifying than Mount Sinai (just as Jesus will one day be more terrifying for unbelievers than Moses when his face shone). They will find His judgment to be even more severe.
‘Him Who speaks.’ Primarily in context He speaks through the blood of sprinkling especially (verse 24). Jesus speaks through His death and through the offer of His blood to cleanse all Who will come to Him, and through its application to those who become His people in order to bring them within the new covenant. It speaks better than that of Abel for it speaks of pardon, mercy and restoration. But woe to those who despise that blood, for then its voice will be more fearful than they could ever know.
However we may see here also all the ways in which God speaks from Heaven through His Holy Spirit, for the voice is still the voice from Heaven, and is also to be paralleled with the voice in which He spoke from the Mountain (verses 19-20). He speaks from Heaven on may ways.
‘Him who warned on earth.’ There is disagreement as to whether this refers to God or to Moses. Verses 19 and 26 would suggest that it refers to God. But the question is not of primary importance, for the message was God’s whoever spoke it. Certainly in the next verse it is God’s voice directly that speaks.
‘Him Who warns from Heaven’ or ‘Him Who is from Heaven’ (literally ‘He Who from Heaven’, the verb has to be read in). This may be seen as referring to the fact that Jesus described Himself as the One Who had come from Heaven bringing God’s word to men, yes more, bringing Himself (John 5.37; 6.33, 38, 50-51; 7.16, 29; 8.18; 12.49 compare 3.13). Or it may refer to the coming of the Holy Spirit and His testimony through His Apostles and those who followed them (Acts 2), and Who still speaks through the ministry of His word. It may also include the voice of God that spoke directly from Heaven during the ministry of Jesus (Mark 1.11; 9.7; John 12.28), and especially the blood of sprinkling which ‘speaks’ from Him in verse 24. Or indeed all are probably included, for His warning was continual and even now reaching his readers (Him ‘Who is warning’).
Note the change again from ‘you’ to ‘we’. This message is for all. The thought is certainly theoretical and conditional. He did not see himself as one who had turned away from God and from Christ. But he was aware that it was the responsibility of all men not to turn from Him.
12.26 ‘Whose voice then shook the earth. But now he has promised, saying, “Yet once more will I make to tremble, not the earth only, but also the heaven.” ’
God has spoken and will yet speak again even more terribly. For at Sinai His voice shook the earth (Exodus 19.18), and it trembled before Him. That was terrible for those who experienced it. But now His promise is that He will once again shake the earth, and not only the earth but the heaven also will tremble before Him (see Haggai 2.6). One day God was to reveal Himself as He never has before.
The ‘shaking’ was to some extent already present in Jesus and the Kingly Rule of God. All was shaken when Jesus came to earth proclaiming that the Kingly Rule of God was present in Him (Matthew 10.34); and in His ministry against evil spirits and in His victory over them at the cross the heavens were shaken too (Luke 10.18). And this shaking continued in the ministry of the early church (Acts 4.31; 16.26), and in the destruction of Jerusalem. More was going on than we will ever know (compare Daniel 10.11-21). It will be made even more apparent when God brings things to their final consummation (Matthew 24.29; Luke 21.26).
‘Heaven’ here probably refers to the heaven made at creation, and to the sphere in which operate the spirits of evil, not to the Heaven of heavens. That has just been seen in peace and harmony as being untouchable. It is the present creation that is to be devastatingly removed (2 Peter 3.10-12). In the light of these pending events they should take the more earnest heed.
12.27 ‘And this word, “Yet once more”, signifies the removing of those things which are shaken, as of things that have been made, that those things which are not shaken may remain.’
For this ‘yet once more’ (speaking from the time of the prophet) signifies that God was again to finally shake creation once and for all. It was shaken by the coming of Christ and of the Holy Spirit bringing His Kingly Rule among men, for it was through His coming that the house of David would triumph and be made God’s sign (Haggai 3.23). But it will be shaken even more in its final destruction, which is to be the result of His coming, for the words ‘yet once more’ signify the once-for-all final removal of the things that have been made. All that is shaky and of this creation will be removed because they are things that are made. But what will not be shaken, and cannot be shaken, are the things which have not been made, that which is spiritual and connected with Jesus Christ and God’s Kingly Rule, and they will remain. The things that are seen are temporal, they will come to an end, the things that are not seen are eternal, they will endure (2 Corinthians 4.18).
In the next verse he specifically includes among the things that cannot be shaken the Kingly Rule of God. It is that which is among us now for those who will respond to it, ruled from Heaven, and we should ensure that we enter into it. For one day the new heavens and the new earth will replace the old, but the Kingly Rule of God will go on, under the God of all Who is Judge, and under His royal King Messiah. It will go on for ever ( 2 Peter 1.11 compare Ezekiel 37.24-28).
This prophesy from Haggai 2.6-7 had a twofold application. It referred first to the success of Zerubbabel, David’s ‘son’. But in the final analysis it related to the coming success of the house of David which Zerubbabel represented, and thus to great David’s greater Son, the Messiah, Who would finally bring about all that was promised. The Rabbis also saw the words as Messianic.
12.28-29 ‘Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, may we have grace, whereby we may offer service well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.’
At Sinai Israel received a kingdom that could be shaken (Exodus 19.6). It was a kingdom of priests, and it was earthly. But Israel failed in its destiny to be priests to the nations, and as we have seen their priesthood has been superseded. It has passed away as far as God is concerned. And it would soon be gone. But we are even now continually receiving and accepting a Kingly Rule that cannot be shaken, a spiritual Kingly Rule, the Kingly Rule of God which Jesus declared was present in Him and is to be ours for ever, which we enter into when we put our trust in Jesus Christ. We thus need to ensure that we have continual grace, God’s gracious love and favour revealed in action in a way which we can never deserve, received through faith (Ephesians 2.8-9), so that by it we may offer service which is well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe.
And we are under His Kingly Rule as priests. We have become the ‘kingdom of priests’ (Revelation 1.6; 1 Peter 2.5, 9), replacing the old (Exodus 19.6). The idea here is of priestly service, acceptable to God because we come through our great High Priest, Jesus Christ. It is a priestly service of the offering of spiritual sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving (13.15; 1 Peter 2.5, 9; Psalm 50.14; 107.22; 116.17; Philippians 4.6; Colossians 4.2) and of the offering of ourselves to total obedience (Romans 12.1 compare Philippians 4.18). A sacrifice of doing good and helping and encouraging one another (see especially 13.15-16). And these sacrifices are to be brought ‘with reverence and awe’. Though we come boldly we must not approach God lightly. For we must ever remember Sinai (Deuteronomy 4.14). ‘Our God is a consuming fire.’ He is a God Who destroys all that is unworthy.
The words ‘may we have grace’ (the literal rendering) could also be translated ‘let us be thankful’. But grace, God’s gracious activity in sustaining and keeping us, is surely what is needed for such a ministry.
This final chapter begins with further exhortations to the people to whom the letter is addressed. The exhortation is to the love of fellow-Christians, followed by how that love can practically be revealed. They are especially to,
Together with the original urge to reveal brotherly love these instructions make up seven in total, the number of divine perfection, and each relates in some way to brotherly love. The first two are examples of outgoing love, both at home and outside; the second two are examples of the major moral dangers facing Christians which could affect their love for one another; and the third two warn of the need to respond to godly leaders and beware of heresy in order that their love may be maintained.
They can also be summed up as showing true love for fellow-Christians, especially those in need, controlling and rightly using needs and urges, both sexual and wealth related, and the importance of obtaining true teaching and avoiding false. We must revel in love, self control and truth.
The Call To Love Our Brothers and Sisters in Christ (13.1-9).
13.1 ‘Let love of the brothers and sisters (phil-adelphia) continue.’
This is the third mention of Christian love in the letter, although here with a different Greek word. Compare 6.10; 10.24 (both ‘agape’). As the first exhortation after the climax of the letter it demonstrates that it is central to his thinking. For without love everything else is irrelevant. The word used emphasises love among Christians. He possibly especially had in mind to address those who forsook the assembling of themselves together (10.25). But the idea applies to all Christians.
This love has little to do with deep affection or romantic love, but is a love which is true and reveals itself in action, and while sometimes emotional is not dependent on emotion. It is a pure love. Such Christian love was urged by Christ as an essential element of being a Christian (John 13.34-35; 15.12, 17; 17.26. Compare also Romans 12.9-10; 13.8; Galatians 5.13-14, 22; Ephesians 4.2, 15-16; 5.2; Philippians 1.9; 2.2; Colossians 1.4; 2.2; 1 Thessalonians 3.12; 5.8; 2 Timothy 1.7; Titus 1.8; 1 Peter 2.17; 3.8; 1 John 2.11; 3.11, 14, 19, 23; 4.7-12, 16-21; 5.2). It is defined in 1 Corinthians 13. And this is now considered in more detail
13.2 ‘Do not forget to show loving hospitality to strangers, for as a result of that some have entertained angels unawares.’
The first exhortation reveals that Christians should be always receptive of others. The second will show that they must be willing to go out to put themselves out for others. Our love is to be both receptive and outgoing.
In days when inns were few and of doubtful repute, finding hospitality was always a problem for travellers, especially for Christian travellers. These Christians therefore are to ensure that they offer loving hospitality to visitors, especially to those unknown to them personally, and the example is given of Abraham and Lot, both of whom did so without realising that they were entertaining angels (Genesis chapters 18; 19). We can never know who the strangers to whom we offer hospitality might be. Although in a sense we can, for we can be sure that they are Jesus, for when we welcome them in His name we welcome Jesus (Matthew 25.36, 38, 40). But this is not intended to be the motive, only an added spur. The thought is that such hospitality earns its own reward, and we can never know who or what those whom we benefit might be for God, and perform in His service. And by our hospitality we will be a part of that service. To give a cup of cold water to a disciple, or as a disciple, in the name of Christ, is to be deserving of reward (Matthew 10.42). Compare here Romans 12.13; 1 Timothy 3.2; 5.10; Titus 1.8; 1 Peter 4.9.
The second practical example of Christian love is that of caring for, and watching out for, those who are in bonds for Christ’s sake (compare again Matthew 25.26, 40). See 10.33 which suggests that they had already done so. They are to remember such people as though it were themselves who were bound. This was especially important in that prisoners were expected to find their own means of sustenance at the hands of friends and relatives, and such Christian prisoners would need encouragement in facing the consequences of persecution. It was, of course, always a risky business giving such help, for it might also brand the helper as being a Christian.
Onesiphorus was a living example of this principle. In 2 Timothy 1.16 Paul says of him, ‘He often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain. But when he was in Rome he sought me diligently, and found me.’ Not only did he provide Paul with food and sustenance, but he gave him company in his imprisonment and went to great trouble to find out where he was being held so that he could do so, and could continue to do so.
And just as they were to imagine themselves as bound with them, so were they also to remember that they are in a body like that of those prisoners who are being ill-treated; they are thus to empathise with them in their sufferings and seek to help them in any way possible, just as they would wish for the same if they were in that situation. Being human as they are, we should feel along with them.
It is doubtful if this is a reference to the body of Christ. The context gives no hint of such an idea, and the lack of article is almost conclusive against it (‘a body’ not ‘the body’).
13.4 ‘Let marriage be had in honour among all, and let the bed be undefiled: for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.’
Thirdly they were all to honour marriage, such marriages being between couples who themselves were pure and had not previously indulged in sex. And even more importantly, marriage was to be honoured by continually restraining from fornication and adultery. They were to be perfect examples of true love. Sexual relations were to be retained for enjoyment within marriage, for God would severely judge those who failed in this respect. This mention of God’s intervention stresses how serious a matter this was seen to be (compare 1 Corinthians 6.9-10; Ephesians 5.5; Revelation 21.8; 22.15). Here the love of the brethren has pinpointed the love between a Christian husband and wife.
This was not only giving marriage the Lord’s approval and blessing, but probably had in mind some who thought that abstinence from marriage made them spiritually superior. It should not be so. All were to honour marriage. The honouring of marriage also meant that divorce would be unthinkable, except on the grounds of unfaithfulness. It would be to dishonour God. It may be that some were following the teaching of the Rabbi Hillel which allowed easy divorce. This idea is here rejected. Under God he clearly saw stable marriages as vital in upholding the witness of the church.
13.5 ‘Let your way be free from the love of money, content with such things as you have, for he himself has said, “In no way will I fail you, nor will I in any way forsake you.” ’
Fourthly they were to beware of covetousness, especially the love of money. Nothing can destroy a man or woman, or a church, like money. It subtly by degrees takes men’s thoughts away from God. So they should not be concerned about whether they were rich or not. They should beware of craving after money (1 Timothy 6.10) and the deceitfulness of riches (Mark 4.19). For such soon takes hold on men and becomes their idol. Rather they should be content with what they have (compare Philippians 4.11), because godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Timothy 6.6), and can be sure that the Lord will never fail them or forsake them in whatever needs they might have (compare Matthew 6.8, 19-34). With Him as our banker we can never finally run short. For as Jesus emphasised, ‘you cannot love both God and Mammon (wealth)’ (Matthew 6.24), and whichever one we choose will always take precedence over the other. Either our love for God will result in money becoming unimportant except as a tool for doing good and showing love to our brothers and sisters, or the love of money will become idolatry and take away our thoughts from Christ and His ways and will destroy Christian love both for God and for men. Money is spiritually poisonous.
It may well be that he knew that some of them had lost their wealth for Christ’s sake and were deeply affected by their situation, and so is seeking to ensure that they recognise how important it really is. Loss of wealth was a common problem in those days for some who became Christians.
‘In no way will I fail you, nor not at all will I in any way forsake you.’ The word for fail means to let go of, to lose the grip on. It tells us that God will never lose His grip on us (John 10.29). The word for forsake means to abandon, to desert. We who are his can be sure that we will never find ourselves abandoned and deserted. Note the strong emphasis on the negatives which is there in the Greek. It is saying that for God to fail or forsake us is absolutely impossible.
The statement word for word is not found in the Old Testament, but it is almost word for word, after the altering into the first person, of a phrase in Deuteronomy 31.6 LXX in the third person, where Moses is addressing Israel prior to their entry into the promised land. For similar ideas see Joshua 1.5; and compare Genesis 28.15; Isaiah 41.17. Thus God’s faithfulness has continued throughout history. It is probable that the writer is citing a standard form recognised in the churches, who might well have seen themselves as, like Israel (and Joshua), on the verge of entering the promised land and personalised the promise.
‘He Himself has said.’ Thus it is certain. We note again that Scripture is quoted as what God has said.
13.6 ‘So that with good courage we say, The Lord is my helper, I will not fear. What will man do to me?’
And as a result of the certainty that we have that we know that He will not fail us or forsake us, we can say with good courage and confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not fear. What will man do to me?’ (Psalm 118.6)
‘The Lord is my helper, I will not fear.’ The One Who is sovereign over all is my sustenance and my provision. He is there to help me in all my ways. Having that certainty how can we be afraid of anything? Outside of quotations, ‘Lord’ in Hebrews always refers to Jesus Christ. Compare here Psalm 118.6 LXX from where it is cited.
While the Greek word for Helper is different we may remind ourselves here of Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit as our Helper, Encourager and Comforter in John 14.16-17, 26; 15.26; 16.7), and of His words to His disciples at the end, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in Me (John 14.1-2).’
13.7-8 ‘Remember those who had the rule over you, men who spoke to you the word of God; and considering the issue (or ‘end’) of their life, follow (or ‘imitate’) the faith, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and for ever”.’
Fifthly they are to show their brotherly love by honouring their godly leaders who spoke to them the true word of God, keeping them before them as an example, and looking to them for guidance, both through the word of God and through their manner of life. The importance that the writer places on the leadership is brought out by his constant references (see verses 17 & 24). In the days before the New Testament these leaders were the local deposit of the truth.
They are to ‘follow the faith’, the faith that they taught and teach, or possibly ‘imitate the faith (i.e. their faith)’, that is, imitate their faith as revealed in faithfulness to God and the result of their faith as revealed in their lives. Compare 6.12; 1 Thessalonians 5.12.
‘Remember those who had the rule over you, men who spoke to you the word of God.’ The word remember means ‘call to mind, consider, think upon’, in the same way as we are told to ‘remember your Creator in the days of your youth.’ In the same way these readers are to remember those who had the rule over them, especially as it was they who had brought to them the word of God. This may have in mind especially those who, having heard the Lord’s words, confirmed them to them (2.3). But those who were appointed by them would also have brought to them the word of God. Thus the thought probably includes all godly men who had watched over them and had been faithful to the Scriptures and the Testimony of Jesus
‘Considering the issue (or end) of their life’ may signify that some have been martyred, or may simply mean ‘consider the manner and result of their life’. If the former this would indicate that his readers are also to be ready for persecution and possible martyrdom. Either way they are to ‘consider them carefully’ and follow their example.
‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today and for ever.’ It may be that we are to see this as defining, ‘follow the faith’, and as being a well known credal statement of the early church. (This latter would explain why it is not conformed grammatically to ‘the faith’). Thus they are to ‘follow the faith, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today and for ever” ’ This makes most sense of its introduction here.
And they can do this with confidence knowing that Jesus Christ does not change. The One ‘yesterday’ (in the past) revealed to them through the word, Jesus the Messiah, is the same today and for ever (compare James 1.17). If anyone therefore come with some new doctrine that portrays Christ differently they should be rejected, for He continues always the same, unchanging for ever. And it is He Whom their godly teachers hear and follow. That is why they too are to follow them.
The statement is absolute. “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today and for ever” He remains unchanged. He is the same as the living One, sent from God, Who brought God’s word to men, as found in the Testimony of Jesus (the living tradition about Jesus passed on in the churches). He is the same as the crucified One. He is the same as the One Who watches over His people in their sufferings (Acts 9.4-5). He is the same for ever.
The thought includes the fact that ‘Jesus Christ’, is the Jesus of chapter 2, the Christ of chapter 3, the Jesus of chapter 4, the Christ of chapter 5 and so on. In both other mentions in the letter (compare 10.10; 13.21, see also 3.1) the combination ‘Jesus Christ’ has in mind His being offered as a sacrifice and the effect that that has on His people. The point here is that He has not changed since they were first converted and learned the fundamental truths about Him; is the same today in their present situation and as He has been revealed in the letter; and will continue the same for ever. Thus their lives are based on Someone permanent and enduring. Leaders come and go, but He goes on for ever.
13.9 ‘Do not be not carried away by divers and strange teachings: for it is good that the heart be established by grace, not by foods, wherein those who occupied themselves (literally ‘those who walked’) were not profited.’
Sixthly, especially therefore are they to beware of ‘many-coloured’ and unusual teachings not established by God’s word, teachings which are foreign to the Gospel. For Jesus Christ does not change and has come as God’s final revelation (1.1-3). Any further ‘new revelation’, or revelation contrary to the Scriptures, is therefore not to be countenanced.
And this especially applies to regulations concerning food. In the days of the early church false teachers of all kinds abounded, wandering from city to city and bringing strange ideas on religious matters. Many of these related to the eating of foods which connected with religious rituals of various kinds, and to various food regulations. Such teachings were prevalent in those days, as they are among some today. Paul had to combat them constantly (Romans 14.16-17; 1 Corinthians 8.8). Such regulations accomplish nothing spiritually, the writer assured his readers, they are of no profit to the spirit.
Let them therefore recognise that the heart and spirit are fed by what comes to them through the gracious activity of God, through His Holy Spirit working within them. Let them feed on such things as he has taught them (5.14).
And he now goes on to apply this to their own circumstances. For their danger clearly lay in their desiring to receive meat from the ritual sacrificial meals which were connected with the levitical priesthood, when the peace or thankoffering having been made, the meat would be made available to the worshippers. There was the danger of them looking to this rather than to receiving the gracious provision of God through the Spirit as previously described in the letter. They are to remember that those who look to such sacrificial meals are not ultimately profited by them spiritually. Eating such food cannot ‘establish’ them and make them impregnable, wherever the meat comes from. Food can strengthen the body but it cannot strengthen the heart and spirit. However, the grace of God, God’s freely given mercies, revealed in Jesus Christ, can do exactly that, "for the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men" (Titus 2.11). It is the grace of God revealed in salvation that can affect the whole man. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.
It would appear from the mention of these as ‘strange teachings’ that some who had come to them had come with their own particular views concerning the importance and significance of partaking of sacrifices. There was not just one view in Judaism about such things. Many differing views were in fact being canvassed among the Jews at this time, e.g. among the Essenes and the Qumran Community to name but two, and among the Apocalyptists, as well as among the Rabbis and the leading Sadducees.
So there may well be that these words are an indication that certain types of Jews had come among them decrying their stance and pointing out that as Christians they now had no altar on which sacrifices could be offered, that they had no sacred meal resulting from those sacrifices, by which they could directly participate of their sacrifice and thus enjoy a physical contact with the numinous, and that they were even losing out in not participating in the Passover at Jerusalem. It would seem that this had deeply impressed them. His reply will now be that they can easily dismiss such suggestions because they have something better, for their ‘meat’ is found in being established in the grace of God, in other words in partaking of what is provided by God’s gracious action through His Spirit, spiritual participation in Christ and Him crucified. And that is something that is not dependent on Jerusalem. It is ‘outside the camp’ of Israel. It is universally available.
These words would strike a chord with many. Offering sacrifices and partaking of sacred meat was widely known both among Jews and Gentiles (compare 1 Corinthians 10.18-21). And many who had come to Christ might well have looked back in wistful longing for those physical ritual acts which had meant so much to them. But the writer’s answer is clear. As he has been pointing out all along they are to look to the heavenly and not to the earthly, and he now expands on the point.
Our Altar Is a Spiritual One Were Jesus Christ Was Crucified And Is Outside The Camp and Outside The City Where The Levitical Priests Hold Sway and Our Sacrifices Are Of A Different Nature To Theirs (13.10-16).
His reference to sacrificial meals leads on into a reconsideration of the contrast between Jesus Christ and the old ways. It is time, he says, that they finally chose between participating in the ritual of Jerusalem and the levitical priesthood ‘within the camp’, or participating in Christ and His sacrifice and going to Him ‘outside the camp’. For as he has already demonstrated from Scripture, the old has passed and the new has come, and the new is not found by looking to Jerusalem.
13.10 ‘We have an altar, of which they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle.’
His reply is that we actually have an altar which provides us with spiritual food of which they know nothing and of which they cannot partake. For Jesus Christ was offered up as a sacrifice (9.12-14; 10.10) which must mean that He was offered up on an spiritual altar provided by God. We must not see this as just an answer it is a proud boast. It is a declaration of triumph. It is now time for them to recognise that they (and we) have a better altar, of which they who serve the earthly tabernacle and what it represents have no right to eat while they are in their unbelief.
Those who serve in the tabernacle with all its ritual are provided with meat from the sacrifices which have been offered on the altar in Jerusalem, (speaking loosely, they can ‘eat meat from the altar’), but we should recognise that we have a better altar, a spiritual altar, on which has been offered a better Sacrifice once for all, one which, supplies us with better spiritual food than their altar ever could.
For what is an altar? It is a place where a sacrifice is offered to God. And as they should well know, when Jesus died He was being offered up as a sacrifice, which indicates that God had arranged for such ‘an altar’ outside Jerusalem at Golgotha, where this could occur. And that being so, through His being offered up there on that altar, a superior altar to that in Jerusalem, we can participate in Christ’s sacrifice for us. We can participate of God’s Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5.7; John 1.29). We can feed on the Bread of Life (John 6.35). We can partake of Jesus Christ (John 6.48-58, 63).
And how do we thus feed and drink of Christ? Jesus puts the answer in clear terms in John 6.35, ‘He who comes to Me will never hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst’. In other words we feed and drink by coming and believing. We come in personal faith responding in our spirits to Jesus as revealed to us through His word, looking to Him in our hearts, and we exercise constant trust, faith and response day by day as we continue looking to Him (compare 12.2). So do we eat and drink of Him, and participate in Him. And this is especially so as we meet together to look to Him and honour Him and worship Him.
(This is not referring directly to the Lord’s Table, even though the Lord’s Table does symbolise it. He is not comparing religious rituals and saying our religious ceremony is better than theirs. As he has done all through his letter, he is contrasting the earthly with the heavenly. He is saying, ‘they participate in an earthly altar and what it offers, we participate in a heavenly altar and what it offers’).
For, as he will now point out, this altar on which His sacrifice was made is ‘outside the camp’ (verse 11). It is not tied to religious Jerusalem. It is a spiritual altar. It is not even visible. It is God’s invisible altar (like the invisible temple of Ezekiel, descending to earth and present in Israel but invisible to all but him - see Ezekiel 40 onwards) on which Jesus Christ offered Himself up even as He was being crucified, seen as an altar of sacrifice. It is the altar on which our Great High Priest offered Himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
The important thing that will be stressed here is not specifically where the altar was as seen on a map. That was not what mattered. What mattered was where it was not. What mattered was that it was situated ‘outside the camp’, and therefore outside the scope of the levitical priesthood and the polluted city. And those who serve the Jerusalem altar have therefore no right there for they have not come to Him to receive life and forgiveness. They have rejected Him.
Note on the Altar.
Many and varied have been the interpretations of this altar, mainly ignoring the context in which it is found. Some would refer it to the altars in their own churches, but that is to totally ignore the context in the letter. We cannot just erect our own altar and say, ‘this is what the writer was talking about’. Nor can we say that our altars represent that altar, as though we could represent our Great High Priest. For earlier he has stressed that there cannot be a sacrificing priest on earth (8.4). That is why the early church did not erect altars.
Others see it as referring to the Lord’s Table at which we partake of bread and wine, but there is nothing in the context to suggest this. What is contrasted to the meats is not the bread and the wine but the grace of God in a far wider sense, which is then expanded on in terms of Christ’s offering of Himself. There is nothing in Scripture which justifies seeing the Lord’s Table as in any way being a sacrifice, whether non-bloody or otherwise, or as being connected with an earthly altar. It is always seen as pointing back to one sacrifice for all time, and as taken along with a meal. Nor does participation in it require a priest (except in the sense that all Christians are priests and that they come to the Lord’s Table to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and the sacrifice of their own lives to His service). It is a celebration and participation in Christ through faith not a sacrifice.
Still others, with more justification, see it as Christ Himself. (They then usually also see Christ as the heavenly tabernacle as well). But it overloads the picture when we see Christ as altar, High Priest and sacrifice all together, and more importantly it is not justified in the context. The altar is the place where the sacrifice is offered and where the High Priest officiates. But while the sacrifice and the officiating of the High Priest are both shown earlier to be ‘types’ of Christ, there has been no suggestion in Hebrews that the altar is such a type.
Yet it is true in that in that altar He is visualising precisely what was accomplished there. By ‘we have an altar’ he is really meaning, we have a sufficient sacrifice that has been offered, and we have a great High Priest Who offered it on our behalf and has gone into the Heavens with its benefits in order to mediate on our behalf. In that sense the altar is Christ.
Some therefore refer to the cross as the altar. But that is to be too literal in our thinking. It was not Jesus Who hung Himself on the cross, it was the Roman soldiers. They placed Him on the cross. In contrast Jesus was offering Himself on an altar, on a spiritual altar of God’s making, an altar not made with hands. Thus to suggest the cross as the altar is being too literalistic. But we may certainly see the place where the cross was erected as the temporary site of God’s spiritual altar. It is just that the cross was what Rome used, whereas His offering of Himself was a spiritual and invisible action accomplished on a spiritual and invisible altar provided by God using symbolic language.
But certainly, whether we see the altar as Christ, or as the cross, or as a spiritual altar seen as provided by God, he depicts it as physically ‘outside the gate’ (verse 12) where Jesus suffered, which specific reference, in contrast to ‘outside the camp’, can only mean that he has in mind one of the gates of Jerusalem (which would simply not apply in the case of the first two suggestions above). Thus we are clearly to see it as a spiritual altar parallel with the spiritual tabernacle mentioned earlier, ‘the true tabernacle’ (8.2; 9.11, 24) not made with hands. It has no physical form. It is an altar fashioned by God and connected with the heavenly temple, and is purely spiritual like the temple of Ezekiel, which descended on a mountain outside Jerusalem, seen only by the prophet himself. And it was by officiating at that spiritual altar by offering Himself as a sacrifice, that the Great High Priest, having offered Himself on it, passed through the heavens to enter the Holy Place in Heaven (4.14).
Furthermore this altar was only required for use once, and once used would be required no more. That is why, in context, it has come rather to symbolise the benefits to be received from His offering of Himself once for all upon it. Men did not literally eat from the altar but from the meat which was sacrificed on it, which was then carried away to be cooked and eaten. In the same way this new altar has provided the sacrifice which is satisfactory to all for all time, and therefore is no longer needed as an altar of sacrifice, nor is it ever to be so used again. We eat of that altar because we eat of the eternal sacrifice offered on it once for all. So the use of the altar and the offering were both once for all. Its importance lies in what it was once used for, and in the benefit we receive from the Sacrifice offered once for all upon it.
So unlike the Great High Priest, and Christ’s sacrificial blood once for ever obtained through His sacrifice of Himself on that altar, the efficacy of which go on day by day, the altar itself is no longer required. What we ‘partake of’ is what it has provided through the one sacrifice offered on it.
Thus when the writer says, ‘we have an altar’ he means simply that they are to recognise that the charge laid against them, that they have no altar, is untrue. They do have an altar. But not one that is in use now, nor one that can be seen. It is the spiritual altar on which Jesus was offered once for all, and from that offering come continually its benefits whereby we ‘partake of the altar’. That is we partake of the benefits of what was once offered upon it. In that sense Christ can be said to be the altar.
End of note.
13.11-12 ‘For the bodies of those beasts whose blood is brought into the holy place through (dia) the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. For which reason Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside the gate.’
He now likens Jesus to the special sacrifices whose blood is brought into the Holy Place. If by the Holy Place he means the Holy of Holies then these are the Day of Atonement sacrifices. Otherwise they also include the sin offerings for the priests and for the people as a whole. In all cases the bodies of such beasts had to be burned outside the camp because they were especially holy.
‘Those beasts (zo-on.’ This is not the usual word for beasts, especially sacrificial beasts, in LXX . In 2 Peter 2.12; Jude 1.10 it refers to natural brute beasts. It is used in Revelation 4 of the ‘living creatures’ around the throne. But the writer is probably trying to make a comparison with Jesus and therefore uses this more startling contrast signifying natural brute beasts in comparison with the heavenly Christ.
For let them recognise the significance of Christ being offered outside the gates of Jerusalem. As all his readers knew intimately, under the Jerusalemite ritual what is dealt with outside the camp belongs wholly to God. Man cannot partake of it. It is sacred. They can only participate of sin offerings offered on the altar in Jerusalem, the blood of which is not taken within the Holy Place, and the carcases of which were not burned outside the camp. We could call them the lesser sin offerings. Those alone may be retained within the camp, and be partaken of. And the consequence is that if Jesus was offered outside the camp, as He was, it is clear that He is inaccessible to them unless they are willing to leave the camp and put their trust in Him, and leave behind their faith in the Jerusalemite ritual once and for all. Otherwise He is forbidden to them by their own laws.
In order to understand this we must be aware of the niceties and significance of Old Tetament ritual. All sin offerings were offered on the altar, but these were basically divided into two groups. In one group are the sin offerings which were for the whole people, and those which were for the priests as the anointed of God. In these cases the blood was offered within the sanctuary and the carcases could not be eaten, and apart from the fat which was burned on the altar, had to be burned in their totality outside the camp in a clean place. These included the great sacrifices on the Day of Atonement, the blood of which alone was presented in the Holy of Holies (in the other cases it was before the veil at the altar of incense). See Leviticus 16.27, and compare Leviticus 4.12, 21. Any sin offering whose blood was presented in the Holy Place was to be treated in the same way (Leviticus 6.30). And finally the ashes which were taken from the altar each day, while restoking the fire which had to burn continually, were also taken outside the camp to a clean place for they might contain elements of the above offerings (Leviticus 6.9-11).
Then there were the sin offerings for individuals. These were offered on the altar and the blood of the sacrifice presented to God by means of that altar, and the fat was offered on the altar. The blood was not taken within the Holy Place. The edible meat from these sacrifices was then partaken of by the priests, while the remainder would be burned up on the altar.
What must be noted about all these offerings is that even the lesser sin offerings were all ‘most holy’ to the Lord (Leviticus 6.25; 6.30-7.1. See also Exodus 29.34). That is why all that could be eaten was to be eaten within the precincts of the tabernacle, and only by the anointed priests who because of what they were, were thereby also holy, while the other remains were burned on the altar in the court of the tabernacle. This being so these other sin offerings of which none could partake, and which were carried out of the camp and burned there in a clean place, being thereby given to God, must be even more holy. The fact that they had to be burned in a clean place demonstrated that they were certainly holy. Indeed they were so holy that apart from the fat which was burned on the altar because it was God’s they were burned outside the camp of Israel in their totality. The same occurred to burnt offerings which were for the totality of the people. This suggests that these sacrifices were seen as exceptionally holy, so holy that they belonged only to God.
So when we learn that ‘Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people through his own blood, suffered outside the gate’ we are made to recognise that His offering of Himself was also to be seen as exceptionally holy. Not only were the remains dealt with outside the camp, but the whole sacrifice and offering was made there. Even the tabernacle/temple itself was not holy enough for this offering. How holy then must be the holiness with which He sanctified His own. And God did this that it might be clear that no one who partook of the Jerusalemite ritual could have part in this sacrifice.
For the reason that ‘they’ could not partake of that altar was because what was sacrificed on it was a sin offering for the whole world, the type of offering of which none in the camp or even in the sanctuary could eat, but which had to burned outside the camp (thereby being given to God) because of its great holiness.
And now that the ‘camp’ had in the eyes of the Jews, religiously speaking, become Jerusalem the remains of these sacrifices were now in fact specifically burned outside Jerusalem. Thus Jesus sacrifice was seen as taking place outside the camp because it took place outside the city gates.
Burning outside the camp was the regular way of dealing with anything that had been ‘devoted’ to God, or that belonged wholly to God, or that was so excessively holy that man could have no part in it, and religiously Jerusalem was seen as the equivalent of the camp, and Jesus as being offered outside the camp.
Note on The Camp.
The concept of the camp was an interesting one. It was to be kept as holy by the people, in that nothing unclean must be allowed in it, including human excrement (Deuteronomy 23.14 see also Leviticus 26.11-12), because the Lord walked there ‘The Lord walked there’ probably means that He was present in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle for the verse also refers to His warlike activities which were connected with the Ark (Numbers 10.35-36). So the very presence of the Tabernacle ‘in the midst of the camp’ meant that the camp must be kept free from anything unclean, because God was there. That is why anything ‘unclean’ had to be removed from, or disposed of, outside the camp and anyone who had sinned presumptuously had to be put out of the camp, in order to be stoned, and thereby not touched (Leviticus 13.46; 24.23; Numbers 5.2-3; 12.14-15; 15.32-36; 31.19, 24; Deuteronomy 23.10-11, 13-14). This did not include temporary uncleanness which could be coped with by staying in their tents. But the camp had to be kept ritually ‘clean’. This was, however, a lower level of holiness.
But in contrast, anything more positively holy had to be dealt with in the Tabernacle precincts (e.g. Leviticus 6.16, 26), while it would seem that anything excessively holy had to be dealt with outside the camp in a clean place. This last is why the total remains of sin offerings for the whole community and for the priests had to be burned outside the camp in a clean place, in contrast with the remains of the lesser sin offerings which were dealt with in the tabernacle area. Because they represented the whole of Israel or God’s anointed priests the former were seen as excessively holy (Leviticus 16.27; 4.12, 21; 8.17; 9.11; Exodus 29.34). The remains of other sin offerings could be burned within the tabernacle.
The red heifer also was slain outside the camp and the ashes of the heifer, which were to be used for preparing the water of purification, must be kept in ‘a clean place’ outside the camp (Numbers 19.9). We must presume that its presence in the camp would defile the ashes, or alternately that the presence of these holy ashes in the camp would make it dangerous for men and women to walk there lest they approach too close to the ashes. How the clean place was made clean we are not told. A further possibility is that the ashes were not allowed within the tabernacle and the camp because they were for dealing with the taint of death. Whichever it was, the fact that they were to be stored in ‘a clean place’ emphasises their holiness.
Furthermore anything that was ‘devoted’ to the Lord had to be burned outside the camp, and thereby God received it (Joshua 7.24-25).
The Tent of Meeting where Moses met with God prior to the erecting of the tabernacle was also sited outside the camp ‘afar off’ (Exodus 33.7-11). There he met with God ‘face to face’. It must not be contaminated by the camp. This was, however, followed by the tabernacle which was ‘in the midst of the camp, once they had been received as His people (although it took time to make). But then it was surrounded by the sub-camps of the twelve tribes, with a special enclave within the camp which was especially holy, in which the tabernacle stood, surrounded by the Levite camp (Numbers 2.17).
When God gave the covenant which included the ten commandments the people were called from the camp to hear it and God gave it from Mount Sinai (Exodus 19.17).
So we may conclude that the camp was modestly holy, the precincts of the tabernacle were truly holy, and outside the camp was divided into clean places for what was excessively holy, and other places which could swallow up what was unclean. And it was there that the One Who was excessively holy was met with.
End of note.
Thus in the same way as the sin offerings for the priests and for the community were seen as excessively holy, and had to be dealt with outside the camp, so the One of Whom we partake is also seen as so excessively holy in that He also had to be offered outside the camp, with His sacrificed body also being dealt with ‘outside the camp’, that is outside ‘the gate’ of Jerusalem (this description is clearly of the site where He was crucified for that was where He ‘suffered’). In His case the offering also took place there, and that could be allowed because it was not to be tied to tabernacle/temple ritual, but was offered by Himself as of a different priesthood and was uniquely holy. His offering of Himself was thus both uniquely holy, and offered by a unique High Priest. This demonstrated that according to the Jerusalemite ritual the worshippers under that ritual were unable to partake of it. Unless they came ‘outside the camp’ they could have no part in it. And this was because it was of a type which was of such holiness that it was forbidden.
For, as we have already noted, ‘the camp’ (now Jerusalem) could never retain what was exceptionally holy. The camp was too secular. It was not therefore a fit place for God’s supreme holiness, and for the Holy One of God. And as we have seen this was evidenced by their own ritual. So when they sent Him out to be cursed, although they did not realise it they were paradoxically revealing His exceptional holiness, and even more drawing attention to the fact that the way to God could not be fully open for the people who still looked to Jerusalem, because their sacrifices could not make them perfect (9.9-10; 10.1-3). Their sacrifices were not effective to fully cleanse and make fully holy. Thus they could not cope with God’s holiness. That is why, says the writer, Jesus suffered outside the camp, outside physical Jerusalem, because He was so holy, too holy for a ‘camp’ where the offerings were not sufficiently effective.
Of course the Jews stated that it was because He was accursed. They had sent Him to die outside Jerusalem as a judgment on Him. What they had failed to realise was that it was a judgment on themselves. For the real reason that it had happened in God’s eyes was that it was Jerusalem that was accursed, and that He was too holy for Jerusalem and what it represented. That was why He died outside the camp. It was another sign of Jerusalem’s rejection.
And it is because of this unique holiness that He is able to offer His full holiness to His people, that He is able to sanctify them, making them holy in God’s eyes, and making them fitted to meet God through His blood (10.10, 14). And it is also the reason why they are able actually to spiritually partake of Him in spite of the fact that He is the sin offering for the sins of the world. Such an offering was, under the Law, something so holy that it was beyond being partaken of even by the levitical priesthood itself, but those who have come to Him have through Him a superior holiness and can actually know Him and touch Him and participate in Him spiritually as He now is in Heaven. Such is the efficacy of His sin offering that because of its effectiveness those who receive atonement by it can also eat of it because they have been made sufficiently holy. They, through Christ, are thus of an equal level of holiness to His offering of Himself and unlike the levitical priests can freely partake of Him.
13.13 ‘Let us therefore go forth to him outside the camp, bearing his reproach.’
Here then we are faced with the grand paradox. He was sent out of Jerusalem by the Jews as a reproach, just as the reproach of Israel was to fall on the great Servant of Yahweh (Isaiah 53). He was sent out to be cursed for being a blasphemer and irreligious. And yet by being thus sent out He was revealed to all but the prejudiced as truly and exceptionally holy. In the same way those who would follow Him must be willing to bear the same reproach, that they too might partake in His holiness. They too must be willing to suffer at the hands of His rejecters. For that is what will demonstrate their holiness.
As with the Servant and as with Jesus they will then find the tables turned. The Servant’s reproach resulted in His triumph after dying for sin so that he could sprinkle many nations and make many to be accounted righteous (Isaiah 52.13-15; 53.3-5, 10-12). And in the same way the reproach on Jesus has revealed his exceptional holiness, has brought about His sacrifice for the sins of the whole world outside the camp, has raised Him in triumph, and has made possible man’s acceptability to God on that basis, if they will but trust in Him. He will thus ‘make many to be accounted righteous’ having borne their transgressions (Isaiah 53.11). He will make them exceptionally holy in God’s eyes.
This being so, if we would be holy as He is holy, we too must go outside the camp, we must go forth boldly to Him, sharing the reproach that He suffered. We must turn our backs on the camp. We must willingly turn our back to the smiters and hide not our face from shame and spitting (Isaiah 50.6). And this will be a divine necessity, for the truth is that if we are made holy by Him we will be too holy for ‘the camp’, and those in the camp, and they will not be able to bear such a thought and will persecute us.
So while those of Jerusalem sent Him outside the camp because they thought that He was unfit, yes, even accursed, and continued to pour reproach and even persecution on His followers, they did so because they had failed to recognise Him as the sacrifice and sin offering which was for the sins of the world (in spite of Isaiah 53.10 and John 1.29). But God sent Him outside the camp so that His perfect holiness and adequacy as a perfect sin offering might be revealed, and that He was so holy that the camp could not contain Him, and to demonstrate the unworthiness of Jerusalem.
What is more in their hearts, had they been willing to admit it, even the Judaisers knew that that was the real reason that they had turned Him out, for, as the tradition (the Gospels) reveals, they had hated Him for being too good. It was precisely because they could not bear His purity and His closeness to God that they had done it. In the same way as they had, long before, remained in the camp of Israel and had let Moses deal with God outside the camp on the Mount, because God was too holy and they could not bear it, so now they had remained in the camp of Israel, in Jerusalem, and had left Jesus to deal with God ‘outside the camp’, because they could not bear His holiness. This time they had not outwardly fully known what they were doing, but God knew, and they knew underneath as the very ferocity of their persecution revealed. The truth is that His rejection was because He was too holy and they were not holy enough. Yet had they only but been willing to see it, they would have recognised that everything of ultimate value had to happen ‘outside the camp’, as it always had, because they and the camp were unfit.
And the final lesson that sprang from this was that if his readers wanted to enjoy true holiness it would not be by returning to Jerusalem as a religious centre, (let Jerusalem lovers take note), but by turning their backs finally on Jerusalem as a religious centre and coming to Him, outside the camp, sharing His glorious reproach (compare 11.26).
And paradoxically the very cause that turned the Judaisers against Him is the very reason that we can be redeemed through Him. It is because He was made a curse for us that He can save us. And by our becoming one with Him our curse is taken by Him, and we participate in His awful holiness. That is why Jerusalem as a religious centre now holds nothing for those who participate in Jesus Christ, and never can do so again. Eternal redemption has been accomplished outside the camp, and there alone.
13.14 ‘For we do not have here an abiding city, but we seek after the coming city.’
So our eyes are not to be on the earthly Jerusalem. It had become a rejected and defiled city, a corrupt city (Revelation 11.8), a city which would not abide and would indeed shortly to be destroyed. For Christian’s do not have here an abiding city. Jerusalem as a religious centre is now not for God’s people. Indeed we do not want a city bound to earth at all. We have left that city and rather seek that city which is to come, the Jerusalem above (12.22; Galatians 4.26), that city that we can ‘come to’ even now (12.22), which represents all the true people of God, the city which is at present unseen to naked eye (although visible to the spiritual eye), but whose full glory will be revealed in the future, the new heavenly Jerusalem which has no part in this world except as in Christ it has as some of its citizens true believers who are still temporarily lodging here, but as citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem (Philippians 3.20). There is now no future for earthly cities in the final purposes of God.
13.15 ‘Through him then let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of lips which make confession to his name.’
Therefore now when we wish to offer up a sacrifice to God we must do it through Him. For it is there, outside the camp that we can fulfil our priestly service, being as it is outside the old order priesthood and having no connection with it. There we can offer up a sacrifice to God continually, a sacrifice of praise, through Him. We are not earthly priests, offering earthly sacrifices. Legally we could not do that. But what we offer is a heavenly sacrifice, the fruit of our lips, ‘making confession to His name’, declaring ourselves to be His, and proclaiming Him to men. This is a sweet savour to God.
13.16 ‘But to do good and to fellowship together forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.’
And along with this we are not to forget to ‘offer our sacrifices’ by continually doing good, and by having fellowship one with another continually, communicating with each other, sharing with each other, encouraging one another and exhorting one another. These are to be our offerings to God, knowing that with such sacrifices God is well pleased.
Final Exhortation and A Prayer For His Readers (13.17-22).
So having finally made the great divide between Jerusalem and all that it had come to stand for, and Christianity with its whole concern centred on Christ, the writer closes his letter with personal exhortations and assurance. Rather than looking to Jerusalem they are to obey those who are true servants of Jesus Christ who are appointed to watch over their spiritual welfare. And he requests in true Pauline fashion that they pray for him and his fellow-workers, especially so that he might be restored to them. For he is confident that God on His part will make them perfect in every good thing to do His will, working in them that which is well pleasing in His sight.
13.17 ‘Obey those who have the rule over you, and submit to them, for they watch in behalf of your souls, as they who will give account; that they may do this with joy, and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.’
He stresses firstly that they, like all those who are in churches with godly oversight, as he knew his readers were, should be careful to obey those who have the rule over them and to submit to them and to their teaching and guidance. For he knows personally that they are such as are aware that they will have to give account, and are therefore trustworthy. And his yearning is that those leaders may be able to give account with joy because of the success of their efforts, and this not just for their own sakes, but because not to have cause to rejoice would be to the detriment of those for whom they were responsible.
These words, he assures them, arise not because of his concern for the leaders, but because he knows that for this not to happen will be unprofitable to them. It would mean that the leaders had failed in their responsibility, and that their flock had suffered, which would be profitable neither for them or for the flock.
However we must remember, especially in these days, that the leaders themselves have to be tested by their own behaviour. Jesus had said, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you: but whoever would be great among you must be your servant" (Mark 10.42-43). He was thus pointing out that such leaders can be tested out, and should be so. He was pointing out that the test of the truly great man of God is found in his humility as expressed at all times towards all (not just in an acted out scenario to some) and especially towards the lowliest. Once a minister becomes too conscious of his own authority he loses the right to that authority. It is only to those who clearly live showing that they know they must give account, and who live in true humility, that submission can be expected. It is God-given only to them.
13.18-19 ‘Pray for us: for we are persuaded that we have a good conscience, desiring to live honourably in all things. And I exhort you the more exceedingly to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner.’
He then asks prayer for himself and his fellow-workers. He does so on the grounds that their conscience is right towards God in all that they do, and that their aim in life is truly to live honourably before God in everything. They are living as they require of others. Thus they are worthy to be prayed for, that their ministry may be successful.
And one reason why he asks this with a greater urgency is so that he might be restored to them the sooner. This may suggest that he is under some restraint such as prison, which he expects to be of limited duration, possibly affected by their prayers, or it may suggest that he has a work to do for God which he cannot leave until it is firmly established. Either way he wants them to know that he desires to come to them, and would do so were it not for circumstances and the will of God. They are clearly very dear to him, and he wants them to know of his eagerness to see them.
13.20-21 ‘Now the God of peace, who brought again from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep with the blood of an eternal covenant, even our Lord Jesus, make you perfect in every good thing to do his will, working in us that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.’
He then reciprocates by praying for them. His prayer summarises briefly all that he has been saying as he prays that it will be fully effective in them. By this he reveals that in the end, the responsibility for their perseverance lies, if they are truly His, with God.
He prays to ‘the God of peace’. This is the God Who has made it possible for them to find peace with Him (Romans 5.1; 1 Thessalonians 5.23; 2 Corinthians 5.19-20), and Who Himself can bring peace to their hearts in their present period of doubting (12.11; Philippians 4.7; 2 Thessalonians 3.16; Galatians 5.22; Ephesians 6.23; Philippians 4.9). He is the One Who has made peace between Jew and Gentile through the cross of Jesus making them both one as His people (Ephesians 2.11-22), and He is the One Who makes life in this world one that is surrounded by peace for His own, as they dwell within God’s heavenly camp which has replaced for them the earthly camp (Revelation 20.9). They live in the spiritual realm, in heavenly places even while they walk on earth (Ephesians 2.6; Philippians 3.20), for their hearts and minds are in Heaven (Colossians 3.1-3).
The writer then describes what the God of peace has done for us. He has ‘brought again from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep with the blood of an eternal covenant, even our Lord Jesus’. Remarkably this is the first specific reference to the resurrection in the letter, although it is everywhere else assumed, for otherwise He could not have sat down at God’s right hand (1.3; 8.1; 10.12), nor could He have passed through the heavens as our great High Priest into the presence of God (4.14; 9.12, 24). The description is splendid. The Great Shepherd is brought forth from the dead bearing the blood of an eternal covenant. And those who look to Him enter within that covenant, and are sealed by His blood.
‘The Great Shepherd of the sheep.’ This is the One Who had been promised and had now come. He is the shepherd of the house of David (Ezekiel 37.24) Who will bring about the everlasting kingdom (Ezekiel 37.25-28). This picture is a common one for describing God’s deliverance in the Old Testament. It is used of Moses who is described in an almost similar way as ‘the shepherd of the sheep’ in Isaiah 63.11 LXX where the question is asked, ‘Where is He who brought up from the sea the shepherd of the sheep? Where is He who put his Holy Spirit in them?’. There too the shepherd was ‘brought up’ and delivered from death, in his case from the sea, and as a result God’s people were delivered through the power and working of His Holy Spirit. Now the greater than Moses has been brought again from the dead, to work an even greater deliverance
Moses himself also recognised from the beginning that once he had gone the people would require another Spirit inspired shepherd, and, when he called on God, the shepherd whom God gave was Joshua (Numbers 27.16-18). So the Shepherd was associated with the deliverance of the Exodus.
But later the future Israel would wander from God and be described as being like sheep without a shepherd (1 Kings 22.17), and yet each true Israelite would still be able to say, ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ (Psalm 23.1), because God would always be faithful to the few who believed in Him truly. Then in Psalm 80.1 the Psalmist pleaded with God ‘Who dwells between the Cherubim’ to be the shepherd of His people in their distress and need, and in Isaiah we learn that God heard his prayer and, with His coming deliverance in view, declared that He would indeed feed his flock like a shepherd, He would gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and would gently lead those who were with young (Isaiah 40.11). This thought was continued and expanded in Ezekiel 34.23 where He promised, ‘And I will set up one shepherd over them, and he will feed them, even my servant David. He will feed them, and He will be their shepherd,’ and again in Ezekiel 37.24 where He promised, ‘And David my servant will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd, and they will also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them.’ The coming one of the house of David would come and put all to rights, causing His people to walk in God’s ways.
So the idea of the Messiah as the Great Shepherd empowering men and women, and working within them His will, is based firmly on Old Testament promises about the Shepherd. Here is a greater than Moses and Joshua, yes, He is like God Himself. For He is the coming David Who will be their King under the Kingly Rule of God. Here is the grand fulfilment of all God’s shepherd promises. And they are fulfilled in Jesus (‘even our Lord Jesus’). It is also based on His own revelation of what He had come to do as the Good Shepherd Who would lay down His life for the sheep, and had power to take it again (John 10.11, 15, 17-18), a picture also added to by Peter who describes Him as the Chief Shepherd Who will one day appear and will bring for those who are His, those who are faithful under-shepherds, an unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5.4).
But the Shepherd of Whom the writer speaks has been dead. He had been rejected and put to death. As we have learned earlier He ‘tasted death for every man’ (2.9) and offered Himself for our sins (9.12-14; 10.12). This draws attention to another strand of Old Testament prophecy about the Shepherd. While Isaiah 53 does not speak of a shepherd, it does speak of the people as sheep (verse 6), and of the One Who will rescue the sheep by suffering and dying on their behalf. And this is brought more into the open by the words of Zechariah where ‘My Shepherd’, the shepherd who is ‘God’s associate’ (‘My fellow’), is mentioned as being smitten (Zechariah 13.7). Before God’s final ends are achieved, His Shepherd had to be be smitten and His sheep scattered. Furthermore Zechariah also speaks of the ‘blood of the covenant’ which is associated with deliverance and is found in Zechariah 9.11 LXX, ‘And you by the blood of your covenant have sent forth your prisoners out of the pit that has no water,’ associated with the coming of the Messianic King Who will obtain worldwide dominion (Zechariah 9.9- 10). So here we have the scenario that the One Who would come as a King to Zion bringing deliverance and obtaining worldwide dominion (Zechariah 9.9-10), and would deliver prisoners from hopelessness through the blood of the covenant (Zechariah 9.11), is also connected with the Shepherd who will be smitten, God’s fellow (Zechariah 13.7).
The two aspects of the shepherd are brought together here in Hebrews 13. Here is the great Shepherd of the sheep, but He has clearly been smitten for He has to be raised again. But now has God triumphantly raised Him from the dead. And this bringing again from the dead of the great Shepherd of the sheep will result in the Shepherd being able to perform His great work of making them perfect within and transforming their hearts to do the will of God (compare 2.10-11), as had been promised in the new covenant (8.10-11). He will carry them in His arms and tenderly lead those who are with young.
‘Brought again from the dead.’ In this Great Shepherd, slain and brought again from the dead, the power of death has been defeated, and so for the first time everyone who dies in Christ, all who are His sheep, can expect to be raised from the grave with Him in all the fullness of what He is and of what He can be, in order for them to live eternally. Here was full release from death, first to Him Who was perfect and representative Man, and secondly as a foretaste of what would one day be true for all who are His. Through Him the power of death was broken for ever (2.14-15). Death was swallowed up in victory (Isaiah 25.8).
‘Even our Lord Jesus.’ He clearly identifies Who the Great Shepherd is. He is ‘our Lord, Jesus’. As ‘our Lord’ He is the One to Whom we look for deliverance and protection, Whom we follow and obey. He is seen as identified with Yahweh, ‘the Lord’ of the Old Testament. Though others may turn from Him He is ‘our Lord’. And this Lord is Jesus, the One Who suffered for us, and rose again, and is even now at God’s right hand making intercession for us.
‘With the blood of an eternal covenant.’ The raising of ‘our Lord Jesus’ from the dead, having borne our sin, was brought about through the blood shed by Him in sacrifice, by which the eternal covenant was sealed. It is through His blood that the covenant is made sure for His elect (see 8.10; 9.15-20; 10.16-18; 12.24), and through that covenant He Himself is raised and offers the forgiveness of sins. He comes forth bearing the covenant sealed in His blood and will deliver His people from the prison pit that has no water (Zechariah 9.11 LXX). Thus He could Himself refer to ‘My blood of the covenant which is shed for many for the remission of sins’ at the Last Supper (Matthew 26.28).
‘Make you perfect in every good thing to do his will, working in us that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ.’ And this is the work of the Great Shepherd as appointed by the Father, to safely lead and guide His flock, making them perfect in doing the will of God (Philippians 2.13), and working within them to make them well-pleasing in the sight of God. Note the perfection of His handywork. He will not cease His work until perfection has been achieved in everything. He is the potter and we are the clay, and He will fashion us with His hands. If we break in the making He will make us again (Jeremiah 18.4). Thus will He confirm us to the end. He is faithful that promised (1 Corinthians 1.8-9).
Last Thoughts (13.22-25).
13.22 ‘But I exhort you, brethren, bear with the word of exhortation, for I have written to you in few words.
In these last thoughts he asks his readers, his ‘brothers and sisters’, to bear with his words. He knows that he has spoken strongly, but he insists that he could have written a lot more. ‘The word of exhortation’ aptly describes the main purpose of the letter which has been a mixture of theology and practical application and warning. Now he wants to ensure with this personal word that they will not take it amiss. As all the way through, he wants them to be aware of the confidence he has in them. The mention of ‘few words’ may simply be a device for trying to make them feel that his letter was not so long as it had appeared after all.
13.23 ‘Know that our brother Timothy has been set at liberty; with whom, if he come shortly, I will see you.’
This may indicate a personal note added at the end of the letter, commencing here in true Pauline fashion as though he had taken up his pen himself. It is clear that Timothy had recently been in prison but has now been released, and that he expects to meet up with him, and then come to see them. This might be seen as supporting Pauline authorship, but it could equally refer to one of his band of fellow-workers who along with Timothy and others is carrying on Paul’s work. It could, for example, be seen as supporting Lucan authorship.
13.24 ‘Salute all those who have the rule over you, and all the saints. They of Italy salute you.’
He then calls on them to pass his greetings on to the leadership of their church, and all the other Christians who are there. This would seem to confirm that he is writing to a group within that church, possibly a house group or a special interest group, for he wants his greeting passed on to ‘all the saints’, all God’s people in that area.
‘They of Italy salute you.’ Paul regularly passed on greetings from those whom he was with, and no doubt his fellow-workers, especially those who worked as his emanuenses (personal secretaries), had also learned the habit from him. This might suggest that he was writing from Italy. But it may equally signify ‘those who come from Italy’, that is, possibly, those who have brought him news of this group of people and their troubles, having arrived from Italy to where the writer was to be found.
13.25 ‘Grace be with you all. Amen.’
With a final flourish he prays that God’s gracious and unmerited activity will be with them all. The words could again easily be Paul’s or those of his trusted companions. Thus can he say his ‘Amen’.
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