Sunday, January 16, 2022

A New Priesthood (Hebrews 7:11-19)

There are two things happening in the verses of our text. First, in verses 11-17, we are given three pieces of evidence that the Levitical priesthood (and thus the law of Moses) has been exchanged for a new priesthood. The reasons are, because of (1) the time in which the order of Melchizedek is reestablished (ver. 11-12), (2) the tribe from which the order of Melchizedek comes (ver. 12-14), and (3) the type of priest which describes the order of Melchizedek (ver. 15-17).

The second thing that is given here is the reason why the priesthood is being changed (ver. 18-19). The fundamental reason, as we shall see, is that the law made nothing perfect. This argument actually bookends the text in verses 11 and 19 and so constitutes the main and fundamental idea in this paragraph.

But then we need to step back and ask ourselves why this is relevant for the twenty-first century person. Why should anyone care about some arcane argument about orders of priesthood and why one is passing away and giving place to another? Why should we care about the passing away of the Mosaic institution of the Aaronic priesthood? It doesn’t seem to be important or relevant – maybe what is more important are issues like social justice and poverty and drug abuse and so on. Why don’t we deal with that instead? Aren’t we wasting time here? Well, obviously, I don’t think we are wasting time in considering the argument of this text, and I want to show you why it is not only of interest to theologians but vitally important for everyone in this room.

Evidence the priesthood is being changed.

First of all, let’s consider the argument of the text. What is the author saying here? He has just been telling us what sort of person Melchizedek was, and how he differed from the Levitical priesthood (1-10). He is now going to work out the implications of the Biblical text, especially that of Psalm 110:4. The main, overarching theme here is that the priesthood of Aaron is being replaced by the order of Melchizedek. We have statements like that in verse 12, “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.” Or that in verse 18, “For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof.” In both of these passages, the point is that the Levitical priesthood and the laws in the Mosaic covenant that established it are being changed and replaced by a different priestly order, namely, the order of Melchizedek.

That is a huge thing. For the Law of Moses was sacrosanct to the Jew. This was the word of God spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai. There was no doubt about that to these folks. So if the law of Moses is being changed in any sense, you better have some good pieces of evidence for this. Our author has some, three in fact.

Evidence 1: the time in which the order of Melchizedek is reestablished (11-12)

The first piece of evidence is that, according to Psalm 110:4, which was written hundreds of years after the establishment of the Levitical priesthood, there would arise a new priest, a Messianic priest, after the order of Melchizedek: “If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law,) what further need was therefore that another priest should rise after the order of Melchizedek, and not be called after the order of Aaron?” (11). The fact that a different order of priest is predicted to come indicates that the Levitical priesthood was not perfect. For if it were, why would there be any need for a priest from a different order? Why fix something if it isn’t broken?

In verse 12, we note in passing that you cannot change the priesthood without changing the law which establishes it – in this case, the Mosaic Law. This argument is going to be further developed in the next chapter, that the Christian does not relate to God through the Mosaic (or Old) Covenant but through the New Covenant established through the redemption accomplished by Christ.

Evidence 2: the tribe from which the order of Melchizedek comes (13-14).

The next line of evidence that something is changing is that the priest after the order of Melchizedek does not come from the line of Aaron. This is something that has already been said (6), but it is reiterated here: “For he of whom these things are spoken pertaineth to another tribe, of which no man gave attendance at the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah: of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood” (13-14). Now the point is basically that the order of Melchizedek is just that: it is the order of Melchizedek and not the order of Aaron. The Levitical priesthood depended on one being related to the Levi, and in particular to Aaron. The order of Melchizedek is not related to Aaron in any way. Moreover, the author points out that the Messiah comes from Judah. He is not only referring in verse 14 to prophesies which foretold this fact, but to the historical fact itself. The Messiah, the Lord, had come, and he had arisen from the tribe of Judah. He is the son of David, not the son of Aaron. So his priesthood is a different priesthood and necessitates a change in the law.

Evidence 3: the type of priest which defines the order of Melchizedek (15-17).

The whole Levitical institution was an institution based on “the law of a carnal commandment” (16). The word “carnal” means “made of flesh or human.” In other words, it was a merely human institution in terms of who served as priests, and as such it was defined by the one thing that all humans experience, namely, death. That death is in view here in the word “carnal” [so that it carries with it the idea of mortality] is seen in what it is contrasted with: “the power of an endless life” (16).

In contrast with the Levitical priests who die, the Melchizedekian priest is a priest who is made so “after the power of an endless life.” The reference is to Psalm 110: “For he testfieth, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (17).

When you look at it this way, the contrast between priests who die and a priest who lives forever, it is obvious, “yet far more evident” (15), that the Levitical priesthood must make way for the order of Melchizedek and the ministry of Christ. That which is subjected to death must inevitably be replaced by that which is characterized by an indestructible life.

Very well, so the Levitical priesthood is going to be replaced and changed. There is ample Biblical and historical evidence for that. But now the questions is, why? Why would God replace something he put in place to begin with? And that brings us to our next point.

Why the priesthood is being changed.

As we’ve noted before, the reason for this is stated at the beginning and at the end of this paragraph. In verse 11, the author implies that perfection is not by the Levitical priesthood. In verse 19, he states it outright: “for the law made nothing perfect.”

In verse 18, we see what is meant by this lack of perfection: “For there is verily a disannulling of the commandment going before for the weakness and unprofitableness thereof.” The law – and the priesthood defined by the law – could make nothing perfect because it was weak and unprofitable (“useless or harmful”).

But why was an institution as divine as the priesthood under the Mosaic Covenant weak and useless? This seems to be a problem – God doesn’t create worthless institutions; it would be blasphemous to say so. So the fact of the matter is that we must never think that the Levitical institution as such was weak or worthless and that it needed replacement like our current tax code with its many problems needs to be replaced. No, the problem is not with the priesthood itself.

The weakness of the law comes from its being used in ways it was not meant to be used. The Levitical priesthood is weak when it is looked to for that which it cannot deliver. A butter knife is good if you use it to cut butter. But try using it to cut down a Redwood and it is weak and unprofitable. The law in terms of the priesthood and the sacrificial system was only meant to be temporary and to point ahead to the coming of Christ who would do what the law could only prefigure. For that it was perfect. But it was never meant to be something which by itself could deliver a person from their sin and guilt. People were not saved under the Old Covenant by keeping the law; they were saved when they looked through the law to the One foretold who would come and take away their sins.

This is a point made throughout the book of Hebrews: the law cannot bring perfection in the sense of our conscience before God. So, in 9:9, we read that in the tabernacle “were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience.” In 10:1-2, “For the law having a shadow of things to come, and not the very image of those things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? Because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins” (see also 10:14-18). The law and the priesthood cannot truly take away the guilt of our sins and therefore cannot provide any real and lasting relief for consciences burdened by sin.

But on the other hand, Christ has decisively dealt with our sin and guilt by taking our guilt and bearing it and purging it by his sacrificial death upon the cross for us. The Son of God who has become for us sinners a priest after the order of Melchizedek brings in for us “a better hope . . . by the which we draw nigh unto God” (19). The priesthood is being changed, not only because the Levitical order is weak but because Christ is a priest according to the power of an indestructible life who can do what the law cannot do (cf. Rom. 8:3).

Now why is this relevant?

Now why should you be interested in this? You should be interested in this because the passing away of the Levitical priesthood means that the reality to which it pointed has come. That reality is Jesus Christ. And he is of ultimate and supreme importance because he is the only one who can bring in this “better hope . . . by the which we draw nigh unto God.”

This is relevant for those of you who feel that any type of spirituality is all a person needs in order to live a life that is pleasing to God. Or that any type of spirituality is evidence of belonging to God and being saved. What the author of Hebrews is saying is that this is just not so. Here were people who were thinking about abandoning the Christian faith – which is the fulfilment of the OT faith – for Judaism without Jesus. Maybe one of things they were thinking is that at least that religion was divinely sanctioned and if they went back to that it must not be all that bad.

But here’s the thing: now that Christ has come, to forsake the reality and go back to the shadows is an act of unbelief and even of rebellion against God. Even abiding by the terms of the Mosaic religion apart from faith in Christ is now an act of disobedience to God because he has abrogated it and annulled because his Son has fulfilled its types. To honor God we must honor his Son and you cannot do that in a Christless Judaism. As the apostle John puts it: “Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: [but] he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:23).

Hence, we must not think that God accepts just any type of spirituality. This is so easily believable here in the West because our culture has programmed us to believe that we get to decide “our truth.” We’ve come to believe that it is impolite to say that another person’s religion is wrong or false. But here’s the thing: even the claim that “because truth is relative therefore all religions are relative and are different ways of relating to God” is itself a claim that poses as absolute truth.

It’s like the problem of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. In the parable, one blind man holds the elephant by the trunk and says that elephants are like snakes. Another blind man holds the elephant by the ear and says that elephants are like leaves. Another holds it by the leg and says that they are like trees. And so on. The lesson is that all the blind men are saying true things about the elephant and that different religions relate to God the way these blind men relate to the elephant. The problem with this parable is that it requires the person telling it to see the whole elephant. In other words, the parable only makes sense if one knows what an elephant looks like to begin with. In the same way, to say that all religious beliefs have a claim on the truth about God supposes that you know the whole truth about God. If you claim that no one can know what God is really like and that all religions approach God like blind men to an elephant – how do you know this? For you are claiming to know something about God, not in a relative way but in an absolute way. You may argue that any religion which claims to be true to the exclusion of other religions is being arrogant, but how can you escape this arrogance as well? For you too are making a claim that poses as an absolute and exclusive truth claim.

No one can escape making truth claims that are in some measure exclusive. So it does not follow that the exclusive claim that Christ is the only way to God must be false because it is so offensively exclusive. What we should really ask is not whether the Christian religion is making exclusive truth claims, but whether or not there is evidence that they are true.

This is what we ought to be seeking. Not whether a religion – or the lack of one – makes us feel comfortable, but whether or not this religion is true. We shouldn’t therefore judge the quality of a person’s spirituality by their zeal (cf. Rom. 10:1-2) or even by their good works (cf. Galatians). We should judge the quality of a person’s spirituality by whether or not that spirituality actually brings them into a relationship with the true God.

The Christian faith is a faith which is based upon the historical reality that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. When the author of Hebrews says that “it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah” (14) he is referring to historical realities. In other words, the Christian faith is not something that is unfalsifiable. It’s not based on a vision some guy had in secret. It is not based on theories that can’t be tested or proven. If it could be proved that Jesus never rose from the dead then, as the apostle Paul himself put it, our faith would be in vain (1 Cor. 15:13-19). But when you consider the evidence for it – if you don’t assume a worldview (like philosophical materialism) that automatically rules it out – then I believe the evidence for it is overpowering. There is no better explanation than the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead for the facts surrounding the death of Jesus and the empty tomb and the post-mortem appearances of Jesus to the disciples and the courageous boldness of the early church beginning in first-century Judea.

If Jesus rose from the dead – and he did! – then there is no alternative to the Christian religion if you truly want to have a relationship with God. As he himself put it, he is the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through him (Jn. 14:6). And as the text of Hebrews puts it, Jesus brings a “better hope” that enables us to draw near to God.

This is also relevant for those of you who feel that a merely formal Christian faith is enough. What do I mean by “a merely formal Christian faith”? I mean a person whose faith which is nothing more than an intellectual adherence to certain truths of the Bible but whose heart knows nothing of real love to Christ and devotion to him. The apostle Paul speaks of those who have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof (2 Tim. 3:5). This is a person who is all about being orthodox but who doesn’t understand the necessity of a prayer life, who knows how to hate false teachers but who doesn’t know how to love God’s people let alone God himself.

There is a picture of this kind of person in 3 John. There the apostle John writes about a man named Diotrephes. This is what John says of him: “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church. Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God” (3 Jn. 9-11). Here was a man who was “evil” and had “not seen God,” and yet who held a prominent position in the church – just where he liked to be! Here was a man who apparently knew how to be orthodox in doctrine but whose life did not reflect that doctrine. That is what we mean by a merely formal Christian faith. It is not a saving faith, but it is a look-alike in the sense that a person can say all the right things without those things ever really getting into the heart and changing the affections of that person.

What does this have to do with our text? Well, the fundamental thing that Jesus Christ does as our high priest is that he brings us near to God (19). Now it is not that no one in under the Old Covenant could draw near to God. But those who did, did so because they were able to see the grace of God in a coming Messiah, the one pointed to in the law and the priesthood. But the law itself reminded people of their distance from God. The very fact that there was a priesthood that had to interpose between people and God and the division of the tabernacle and Temple which kept even the priest out of the immediate presence of God except once a year – all this was there to remind people of the sin that separated them from God and kept them at a distance from him. But all that has been changed in Christ. He tore the curtain between the holiest place and the rest of the Temple and he makes his people a kingdom of priests unto God.

And that is not just a positional reality but a reality that every child of God experiences in some way. So ask yourself: do you draw near to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Do you walk with him and before him? Can you say, with the psalmist, “But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord GOD, that I may declare all thy works” (Ps. 73:28)? Is it good for you? Or is it a chore for you?

Now I’m not saying that this all comes down to prayer or that this means that a true Christian always finds prayer to be easy. I think it was Martyn Lloyd-Jones who said that prayer is one of the most difficult things a Christian can do. I have found that to be true. But the difficulty should not lie in a lack of desire to do it. If you’re a child of God you should want to be near your Father. There is in fact some inevitability to prayer in the life of a true Christian; John Gill said that prayer is the breath of a regenerate man. Does that ring true with you? Or can you go through your whole day, day after day, with never a thought about God or a desire to please him and to be in his presence? If so, you need to examine yourself, to see whether you are in the faith. For a mere intellectual faith is neither pleasing to God nor saving.

This is also relevant for those of you who feel that your sin and your weakness overwhelm you and that you cannot find your refuge in a holy God. Jesus is the one by whom we can draw near to God. He does not just make it possible; he doesn’t just put us in a position where we can try to make it up to God on our own – no, he himself brings us into the presence of God, not to be our judge but to be our Father. He gives us hope, a better hope. This is not describing just a feeling that a person experiences, or even a powerful spiritual experience. All sorts of people can have those sorts of things and be completely lost. No, my friend, quite apart from your own feelings, whether you feel yourself to be spiritually whole or spiritually inept, Jesus Christ brings those who put their trust in him into the presence of God.

We draw nigh, not by a reliance upon our goodness but by a reliance upon his goodness. In the Bible, coming to God through Christ is a coming by faith in Christ (Jn. 6:35; Heb. 11:6), and this is a faith which does not look to ourselves but which looks away from ourselves. This is a faith which is the hand of the beggar opened toward the grace and mercy of God in Christ. This is a faith which recognizes that God does not justify the godly but the ungodly because there is a righteousness outside of ourselves which satisfies the just claims of God upon us (Rom. 4:5). So let us be like Paul, who said of himself – and may we join him! – that he wanted to “be found in him [that is, in Christ], not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness of God by faith” (Phil. 3:9).

So how should we respond to this text? Let us not respond by saying that this is of no relevance, for it is eternally relevant! Neither let us respond by thinking that we can approach God on our own terms and in our own strength and goodness. No! Let us rather respond with faith in Christ, in his merit and in his mediatorship, in his priesthood and in his promise. For it is through him that we have the inexpressible privilege of drawing near to God as our Father and friend.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Mysterious Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-10)

A few weeks ago, I watched part of a video by a guy who claimed that Jesus was nowhere to be seen in the Old Testament, and that Christians are simply mistaken to think that their religion has any real connection to the faith of Abraham. And there are many who would say that what Christians consider to be prophecies which Jesus fulfilled during his earthly life and ministry all admit of other interpretations, and that Jesus is not in fact pointed to by any OT Scripture.

However, there is a problem with this kind of approach to the connection between our Lord and the Hebrew Scriptures. The problem is that such claims start off by assuming that Jesus is not the Messiah, and if you assume that, of course you are going to be able to come up with alternate ways of reading OT passages that Christians say point to Jesus. An alternative is to look at Jesus himself, his life, and his claims, and especially his death and resurrection. We believe that Jesus rose from the dead and therefore vindicated his claims. What were his claims? He claimed to be the Son of God, the I AM from Exodus 3, the way, the truth, and the life. These are not claims of a mere ordinary man. Moreover, his life as well as his death matched such claims. Someone who gives sight to the blind and raises the dead is no mere ordinary man. This is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

If you start there, and then look back into the Old Testament, you are going to find many, many pointers to our Lord. It is clear that this is the way the apostles worked with their Bibles. They didn’t arrive at the conclusion that Jesus is the Christ by simply reading their Old Testaments and then figuring out that Jesus matched the description of the Messiah. It was mostly the other way round: they first realized they were face to face with the Messiah, and then read the OT in light of that reality.

And it makes sense to look at it this way. For if we suppose that salvation history is being gradually unfolded over time, from less clear to more clear, then it makes sense to read the OT in light of the NT. As it has often been said, “The New (Testament) is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” It is a sound principle of interpretation to read the less clear in light of what is clearer.

At the same, that doesn’t mean that the OT doesn’t help to illuminate the NT in any way. It’s not that the OT is opaque and the NT is transparent. In fact, the OT is crucial in understanding the NT, especially the work of Christ. The entire sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant gives us a vocabulary with which to understand what happened on the cross when Jesus died. In the same way, the person of Melchizedek helps us to understand who Jesus is and why the Levitical priesthood was always meant to be a temporary institution. This is what our author is doing with the mysterious person.

These verses are basically an exposition of Gen. 14:18-20 and Ps. 110:4. Christ is the one being spoken of in Psalm 110, a Psalm that at least in our Lord’s day was generally acknowledged to be about the Messiah (cf. Mt. 22:41-46). In that psalm, which is repeatedly referred to in the epistle to the Hebrews (cf. 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:17), we are told that the Messiah is to be a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4). This helps the argument of the epistle in the following way: it shows that the priesthood of the Messiah is not a Levitical priesthood and therefore the coming of the Messiah means the abrogation of the Mosaic Covenant. Furthermore, it shows that Jesus is superior to the Levitical priesthood because his priesthood, like that of Melchizedek, is eternal, whereas theirs was ended by death. To abandon the gospel is therefore to abandon Christ and to revert to an inferior state of affairs.

So what we have here in our text is this back-and-forth mutual illumination of the OT and NT. Since Jesus is the Christ, we now know who is being spoken of in Psalm 110: a case of the NT illuminating the OT. At the same time, the person of Melchizedek helps us to understand some things about the priesthood of Christ, especially as it relates to the priesthood under the Mosaic covenant and the superiority of the priesthood of our Lord in terms of its eternality: a case of the OT illuminating the NT.

However, to see how this works in this passage, we need to understand what is and is not being said about this strange fellow Melchizedek. In other words, we need to understand the first 10 verses of chapter 7. In particular, what we want to do in this message is to answer the following two questions: who is Melchizedek and what is his purpose in the OT Scriptures?

Who is Melchizedek?

There are only four verses in the entire Old Testament written about Melchizedek. There are three verses in Genesis 14 (ver. 18-20), and then there is Psalm 110:4. That’s it. Here are the verses in Genesis, which, as Heb. 7:1 indicates, are telling us about an incident that took place immediately after the slaughter of the kings by Abraham and his makeshift army. These were the kings who had previously defeated the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and had taken Abraham’s nephew Lot captive: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: and blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he [Abraham] gave him [Melchizedek] tithes of all.”

Then there is Psalm 110:4, which reads, “The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” The context of the psalm is telling of the one who is David’s Lord as well as David’s Son, to whom God will say, “Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool” (1).

And that’s it.

However, these few verses still tell us something and in the first three verses of Hebrews 7, our author explains what these OT texts reveal to us about this man. The big picture is that this man is one of the few individuals in the OT who was both a priest and a king. This comes out immediately in verse 1, where he is introduced to us as “Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the most high God.” In sum, he was a monarch, he was a minister, and he was mysterious.

He was a monarch.

First of all, he was a king. To be specific, he was the King of Salem. There has been some dispute about the location of this place, but the fact that in Psalm 76:2 Salem seems to be synonymous with Jerusalem tilts the scales in favor of the city which would later become the seat of the Davidic kingdom. In verse 2, the author goes on to explicate the significance of his role as king: “first being by interpretation King of righteousness, and after that also King of Salem, which is, King of Peace.” The name Melchizedek itself means “king of righteousness.” Then we are told that “Salem” means peace.

He doesn’t spell it out for us, perhaps because he knows that his audience is well acquainted with the OT identification of the Messiah in these terms. But these are terms that clarify the mission of the Messiah. So the prophet Isaiah writes, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it, with judgment and with justice from henceforth ever forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this” (Isa. 9:6-7). In the same way, the prophet Jeremiah writes also about the Messiah: “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell in safety: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Jer. 23:5-6). What is especially significant about these prophesies is that they tell us that the Messiah would not simply be a king himself characterized by righteousness and peace (though that is true), but the one through whom righteousness and peace would be brought into the world. By bearing these titles, Melchizedek was pointing not so much to himself as to the person and work of Jesus Christ who is King of Kings and Lord of lords.

He was a minister.

He was not only a king, but he was also a minister, not in the sense in which we often use that term today, but in the sense of a priest of the “most high God.” And he was not a pagan priest, but a priest of the true God. It was in this capacity that he gave a blessing to Abraham (1, 6, 7). It was also in this capacity that he received from Abraham the tithe of the spoils of war (2, 4, 6, 8, 9). The author is intent on pointing out that the giving of the blessing and the receiving of the tithe prove that, as great as the patriarch Abraham was, Melchizedek was greater (4, 7). Indeed, we are told to “consider how great this man was, unto whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils” (4).

He was mysterious.

So far so good! But there are other things predicated about this man that are a little more puzzling. The fact of the matter is that this guy is just plain mysterious. But our author is going to build on that and make an important point about him. It comes in verse 3: Melchizedek, we are told, was “without mother, without father, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually.” At first, this looks like our author is saying that Melchizedek was never born and never died. In fact, in verse 8, we are told “And here men that die receive tithes; but there he receiveth them, of whom it is witnessed that he liveth.” When you add to that the witness of Psalm 110:4, where the point of contact between the Messiah and Melchizedek is in an eternal priesthood, it sure sounds like Melchizedek was never born and never died. In other words, that he was not just a man.

Now the truth of the matter is that throughout history some Biblical interpreters have said just that. Some have identified him with an angelic figure. However, though Melchizedek was in several important ways greater than Abraham, he was just a man. Which means that he had a father and a mother, a beginning and an end on this earth. There is no indication in the text that this was some angelic figure. No, he was a man like Abraham.

Others have tried to say that this was an example of the preincarnate Christ, which is tempting, given the numerous points of contact between the two. However, the problem with this theory is that our author precludes its possibility in verse 3, when he explicitly says that Melchizedek was “make like unto the Son of God.” “Like unto” is very different from “equal to” or “identical with,” which is what we would have to say if he was the preincarnate Christ. But if he wasn’t an angel and he wasn’t a preincarnate Christ, then what is meant by all this language about having no parentage and no end of days and so on?

The key is that the phrase “without descent” really denotes “without priestly genealogy.” There is also evidence in ancient Greek literature that “without father” can mean “father unknown,” and so “without mother” would then mean something similar.1

In other words, the point being made here is not that he literally had no father and mother, but that his father and mother were not recorded in any known genealogical record. Thus, his priesthood did not depend upon some genealogical succession. Now it is noteworthy that in Genesis where genealogical succession is so important (we can trace Abraham’s back to Adam!), nothing is said about Melchizedek. There must have been a reason for this, especially given the fact that we are told that he was a priest of the most high God. In other words, our author is not stretching the canons of Biblical interpretation by putting so much importance on the silence of the text about Melchizedek’s origins. This was a point meant to be made by the text itself.

We should then interpret the statements about his apparent deathlessness in the same way. It is not that Melchizedek never died; it is just that the text never reports that. The only time he appears in the text, he appears as a living man and that is the only way we meet with him in the history of Abraham. In other words, the way he is presented in the text of Scripture, where nothing is said about his parentage and nothing is said about his origin and nothing is said about his demise, all this is meant to make a point. And the point that it is making is that this man was meant to be a type of Christ, who really does have an eternal priesthood.

The mystery of this man thus sets up an important contrast between Melchizedek – and thus the Christ – and the Levitical priesthood. The Levitical priesthood depended upon genealogical succession (cf. Ezra 7:1-6). It also ended upon the death of the priest. The Levitical priests don’t carry their office into eternity. So the fact that the Messiah would be like Melchizedek means that his priesthood could never be merely an extension of the Levitical priesthood. It was radically different – different especially in terms of its origin and different in terms of its continuance.

So all this is meant to make two big points. The first big point is that Melchizedek was like Jesus in his priesthood, and the second big point is that he was different from the Levitical priesthood. Putting those two things together, our author will be able to make his main point in the following verses: that the Levitical priesthood is inferior to the priesthood of Jesus. Melchizedek was like Jesus in that his priesthood was a type of Christ’s eternal priesthood. And he is different from the Levitical priesthood in that he does not have a succession-dependent priesthood. He is also like Jesus in that he is greater than Abraham – although of course Jesus is ultimately greater than Melchizedek himself! Which also makes him different than the Levitical priests since being greater than Abraham makes him also greater than Abraham’s descendants.

Now all of this will be unpacked further in the following verses. We simply want to point these things out as we explore what our author has to say about this mysterious person. But this leads us to our next main point.

Melchizedek tells us something very important about the purpose of the Old Testament.

It is sometimes easy to see the OT as a series of disconnected stories about interesting and sometimes very colorful people. But the reality is that all the OT is meant to tell one story. And that story is the story of the redemption of sinful humanity fallen in Adam. It is the story of how God is working out his plan of redemption in history through the family of Abraham in accordance with the promises God made to him. Two things are therefore happening in the OT: first, God is working in history to bring about a Savior, a Savior who will be a descendent of Abraham. Second, God is progressively unfolding his plan of redemption, beginning with the books of Moses and then through the Prophets and the Psalms.

This being the case, the OT is really essentially unified around God’s plan of redemption, which comes to us in its pages in God’s words and works. The purpose of the history it relates and the purpose of its ethical teaching and doctrinal instruction is all meant to bring about faith in the God of Abraham who saves. This history and teaching will continue in the NT in the person and work of Jesus the Son of God, the son of Abraham, and in the teaching of his apostles. This is what the book of Hebrews teaches: the NT is the continuation of the message of the OT (Heb. 1:1). Which means that ultimately the whole Bible, OT and NT, is about the person and work of Christ.

We see this illustrated in the man Melchizedek. His brief appearance in the pages of Scripture is not to satisfy morbid curiosity but to point us to Jesus Christ. His being a king points us to the righteousness- imputing and peace-bringing Savior. His being a priest points us to our Lord’s atoning work on the cross to purge the guilt of our sins and to intercede for us in heaven. Even the mystery behind his origins and his future are meant to point us to the never-ending and eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ.

Now this doesn’t mean that we read the OT allegorically, as if every detail was meant to convey a specific spiritual truth. For example, I’m not meant to read the story of David and Goliath and interpret the five smooth stones in terms of the Five Points of Calvinism! This would be to turn the OT into a nose of wax. But it does mean that we should read the OT in light of its overall purpose – to read it and to interpret it in light of God’s overarching purpose of redemption in Christ. Thus the history of the OT shows us the faithfulness of God in keeping his promises, promises which all ultimately find their yes and amen in Christ. The teaching of the OT is meant to point us to the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man so that we will see our need of a Savior.

So the story of Melchizedek shows us how we should read our OT. It shows us that we should read it with a gospel focus. Which means two things: we read the OT in light of NT realities, and then as we read the OT, we are seeking to understand how a particular text connects to the bigger story of redemption in Christ.

Of course, we can’t do this if we don’t read the OT! I often hear people say that the book of Hebrews is hard. Perhaps one of the reasons we find it difficult is because we spend so little time in Genesis – Malachi. We need to read the stuff before Matthew: remember that this is primarily what the Scriptures were for the early church. When Paul tells Timothy that all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable, he was primarily referring to the OT (2 Tim. 3:16-17). What was profitable for Paul should be profitable for you and me!

But it also shows us something else: that even the details of the OT are important! Four verses in the OT provide important and critical information about the person and work of our Lord. Even the silence about Melchizedek’s origins is important! No space is wasted in the OT, indeed, in all the Bible. Beware of scanning over verses that may not seem important. Rather, pray for insight and ask the Lord to help you see the meaning and importance even of those obscure passages in the Bible. For there are no vestigial passages in the Bible.

So what’s the bottom line here? The bottom line is that God is speaking in the Scriptures. That’s what makes all this important. That’s why we are seeking to understand the intricacies of the interpretation of this passage. It’s why we’re interested in the person of Melchizedek; it’s because he is in the Bible and everything in the Bible is important. On the other hand, if God is not speaking in the Bible, then we’re just wasting our time here. Who cares what this author thought about some mysterious character who barely shows up in the OT if it is not the word of God? The whole reason why you should be interested is because whatever God says, it’s important, whether I see it at first or not, whether I see the relevance of it or not, whether I feel the reality of it upon me or not.

There are so many people talking today, so many blogs, so many podcasts, so many messages on social media. And most of it has very little, if any, real value or substance. But the claim of the Bible is that in its words God speaks. He is speaking from the first words of Genesis to the last word of Revelation. He not only spoke it into existence in the past, but the Holy Spirit continues to speak through it today. Which means that this word is worthy of your most serious attention. I fear for those who yawn their way through the Bible, who think it is not important for them. Does that describe you? How much thought have you given to the claims of the Bible upon your life?

When you hear the Bible, you are hearing the word of God to you. You need to understand that. And you need to do something with that (cf. Mt. 7:24-27). Most importantly, you need to understand this word is not here to make you a self-righteous religious person who is a Bible expert; it is meant to tell you about the Son of God, Jesus Christ, so that you will trust in him as your Lord and as the only one who is able to wash away your sins, so that when you stand before God most high on the Day of Judgment you won’t be trying to find a hole to crawl into or a mountain to fall on you, but find him to be for you the Rock of Ages. As the hymn puts it,

While I draw this fleeting breath 
When mine eyes shall close in death 
When I soar to worlds unknown 
See Thee on Thy judgment throne 
Rock of Ages cleft for me
Let me hide myself in Thee.

God is speaking in all of Scripture the sweet and satisfying story of the gospel. It’s in the Garden of Eden when man fell, in the promise of the serpent-crushing seed of the woman. We see it in Noah’s ark. We see it in Melchizedek. We see it in the lamb slain on Passover night. We see it in the reign of David. We see it in the predictions of the prophets and the longings of the psalmists. All the music of the Bible is there for you to hear, and it is gospel music, inviting you to see and savor Jesus Christ. Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed are they that put their trust in him (Ps. 34:8).

William Lane, Hebrews 1-8 [WBC, vol. 47A], (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1991), p. 158.

Monday, January 3, 2022

The Full Assurance of Hope (Heb. 6:11-20)

The goal of this letter of exhortation is not only to motivate people by the fear of apostasy, dangerous though this is, and vital though it is that we pay attention to these warnings. But more importantly, he wants his audience to come “to the full assurance of hope unto the end” (11). It is not the fear of negative consequences that will get us to the end victoriously so much as the joy and confidence that comes from the full assurance of hope.

It is this “full assurance of hope” that will create people who are “not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (12). The fact that we must “through faith and patience” inherit the promises is just another way of saying that those who are saved will persevere. We don’t inherit the promises this side of eternity. Our inheritance (cf. Eph. 1:11) is yet to come and it is entered into through a life of faith and patience (endurance). But this also indicates that the path to the inheritance is not an easy path. It is one which involves a life of faith, believing God’s promises even when external circumstances make them look impossible (cf. Rom. 4:17-24). If you want to know what a life of faith looks like, peak ahead to chapter 11! We walk by faith, not by sight (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7), and sometimes that is hard. Now this doesn’t mean that we walk in blind faith, as if there is no basis for it. We will come to this in a moment. But that does not mean that faith is not faith – we are required to look outside of ourselves and our resources and our circumstances for the confidence that we will finally inherit God’s promises and that can undoubtedly be sometimes very difficult.

And also there is that word “patience.” It is translated “long-suffering” in Eph. 4:2, and it is used in Jam. 5:10 in the context of enduring affliction. It means that we have to take the long view as we follow Christ. In the short term we have to deny ourselves, and that this can sometimes feel unbearably long. We must be patient, however, for at the end is the inheritance.

All in all, we are exhorted to be diligent in pursuing this full assurance. It takes effort to acquire the “full assurance of hope” – it does not just happen by accident. You just won’t wake up one morning to discover you are holy. You won’t just become the kind of person who endures. If we want to be that kind of person, we must apply God’s word to our lives. We must be men and women who live by the truths that we claim to believe.

But what is this hope we are encouraged to pursue? Hope in the book of Hebrews is never something merely subjective. It is especially not to be thought of in the sense of wishful thinking. Rather, Biblical hope is the joyful and confident expectation that God will keep his promises. Hope therefore is fixed on something outside of us, not on something inside of us. This is why the author of Hebrews describes it as “the hope set before us” (18). Hope is not grounded by anything within us or about us; it is grounded in something outside us. And in this passage we have ground after ground for the hope to which we are called. God does not ask you to hope in nothing. He doesn’t ask you to rest your confidence upon the vacuum of positive thinking. Instead, what we are shown here is that the Christian has the very best reasons to be hopeful. In this text, we have the foundation and the fruit of the full assurance of hope. We will look at both of these things, but before we do so, let’s consider the setting.

The Setting of God’s promise to Abraham

In these verses, we are reminded of the reaffirmation of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 22 after he had shown himself willing to offer Isaac upon the altar. I find this fascinating that the oath appears for the first time here, after Abraham’s radical obedience. Abraham received God’s promise in Genesis 12 and 15, but God did not attach the oath to the promise until this point. This is the record of the event in Gen. 22:15-18: “And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the haven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.” This is the Scripture referred to in our text: “For when God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee. And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise” (13-15). The point of verse 15 is not that Abraham obtained the fulfillment of the promise, but that he obtained the promise itself – not indeed that God had not promised these things to him already, but that he had not given him the promise in this particular form, namely, a promise with an oath.

There is such a lesson for us here. God had given Abraham many reasons to believe that he was going to come through, including the symbolism involved in the covenant ceremony in Genesis 15, where God by walking through the pieces of the animals (which had been part of the sacrificial offering attached to that ceremony) was basically saying that he was willing to subject himself to their end if he did not hold up his end of the covenant. But the fact that God gives him an even greater reason (the oath) to believe after his remarkable example of obedience shows us that God often seals our obedience with even greater assurance. Which means that if you are struggling with assurance of God’s favor in the present, the problem is not God, but the problem may be a lack of obedience in your life.

I think this is one of the reasons why Paul will write, “And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulations worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom. 5:3-5). You see the progression here? Tribulation produces endurance which in turn produces experience [approved character], and experience produces hope. There it is again. Hope doesn’t just turn up out of nowhere – most often it is produced by the faithful endurance of fiery trials. But the progression doesn’t stop there – the Holy Spirit blesses those who have gone through the fire and come out on the other side with new and fresh inundations of the love of God in the heart. And that is the ultimate experience of hope, when we become utterly and deeply convinced that God’s loves us. We need Christians like that; we need that ourselves, for this is the surest way to produce bold and courageous men and women for Christ. For if the history of the church has shown us anything, it has shown us over and over again that the boldest believers have always been those who are absolutely confident of Christ’s love for them.

The Foundation: Four Reasons to Hope in God’s Promises

God’s Word (13-15)

The main point of the text is that Abraham’s hope was not based on his own wishes but on God’s word, a word which came to him in the form of a promise sealed with an oath (13, 17). But this is not only true for Abraham, it is true for us as well. The point I want to make at this juncture is that our hope ought to be based on God’s word to us. It is not something we come up with. It is not based on our wishful thinking. It is based upon God’s objective and sure and steadfast word.

And this was not just a promise to Abraham: it is promise to you and me as well. Those who belong to Jesus by faith in every age are among those who are “the heirs of promise” (17): “which hope we have” (19). Which leads to the question: how can a promise which is recorded in an ancient text (in the case of Genesis, 3500 years; and in the case of Hebrews, 2000 years) give me confidence that I am actually hearing the word of God? Do we really know that we have God’s promise today in the Bible? How do we know that Moses was actually relaying factual information about God and Abraham and these promises?

To which I would remind you that we have two reasons to be confident: the witness of Christ and the witness of the Holy Spirit. We have the witness of Christ to the authority and dependability of the OT, vindicated by his miracles and ultimately by his resurrection from the dead. And we have the witness of the Holy Spirit to the authority and dependability of the OT to all who have been born again. He is a witness to this word (cf. Heb. 3:7).

And because of the witness of the Holy Spirit, this is not just a word which God spoke to Abraham thousands of years ago, but it is a word which he continues to speak for those who have ears to hear. Let us not be “dull of hearing” (5:11). Let us eagerly hear the promises which God has made to those who believe in his word.

What is the promise? It is this: “Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee” (14). Now strictly speaking, that was a promise to Abraham. But all who belong to Christ are heirs of this promise in the sense that they inherit the blessing which ultimately comes through Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham. This was the apostle Paul’s point in his letter to the Galatians. He writes, “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all the nations be blessed” (3:7-8). He then goes on to say, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (3:13-14). In other words, this is the promise of salvation from sins through Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

Surely there is no greater blessing than this. In fact, all mankind’s hopes are empty buckets compared to this.

But the first point I want to make here is that the content of our hope, if it is to be Christian, must be based on and determined by God’s word. It is to the Bible that we must look if we would have solid and lasting and true and courage-building and joy-sustaining hope. But this is not the only foundation we have for hope in this text.

God’s heart (16-17)

We noted that God’s word which creates our hope comes in the form of a promised sealed with an oath. God did not have to give the oath; his mere promise would have been sufficient. But God gave Abraham – and us – multiple places on which to rest our hope in him. In other words, the foundation for our hope is not only God’s word but also God’s heart. We see here a willingness on God’s part, his desire, for those who follow his Son to have hope. Which tells me that if you are a believer in Christ, God does not want you to go around wondering if he loves you and will keep you or not. He wants you to be secure in him.

You see this in the next couple of verses: “For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath is to them an end of all strife” (16). Why do we have to raise our hands and swear to tell the whole truth? And why do men (at least, in days past) swear by God that their word is true? The whole reason for this lies in the necessity of giving people a reason to believe that what you are about to say is in fact the truth. We attach penalties to lying under oath – we want people to understand that this is a serious thing. And why? Because we want words spoken in the context of the oath to be “an end of all strife” – “final for confirmation” (ESV). The purpose of the oath is to encourage people to speak the truth and to encourage people to believe what is spoken.

Now God does not need to be encouraged to speak the truth. He always does that; it is impossible for him to lie (18). So why append the oath? Our author tells us why: “Wherein [that is, in giving the promise] God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath” (17). God doesn’t do it for himself; he does it for our sakes. The promise is there and the oath is there because God is more abundantly willing (not barely willing, not doing this because he has been cajoled to do so) for the heirs of promise to see how trustworthy his promise is. He doesn’t just want us to be aware of his promise, but he wants us to bank our lives on it, and he wants us to do so in a way that glorifies and honors the reliability of his word.

In other words, God’s heart is not for you to be dangling at the end of despair, barely hanging on to a thread of hope. Rather, his heart for you, believer, is to have a robust and steadying hope as you endure through faith in the promise. Beware of judging God in the wrong way: beware of thinking that he doesn’t care about you and your joy, or that he somehow gets some kind of delight over the depths of sorrow that you have had to navigate. He does not: he wants the heirs of promise to delight in the surety of their hope in his word.

But even this is not all that we are pointed to for the basis of our hope. Not only are we called to hope in God’s word, not only by God’s heart, but also by God’s truth or faithfulness.

God’s truth (17-18)

As we’ve already noted, God’s word alone is enough. The promise guarantees that it will be performed. God never goes back on his word. However, he wants to give us many proofs of his faithfulness. He wants to give us more than one reason to believe that he will keep his word. He wants us to rest completely in his faithfulness to his promise. And so we have “the immutability of his counsel” (17) which is then confirmed by an oath, “that by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (18).

“Two immutable things.” How many things do you know that are unchangeable? In this world, everything is characterized by mutability. But there is one thing we can bank on remaining unchanged and that is God’s word. His word is true and remains true. “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4). There is nothing that can happen which can unravel God’s plans. There is no power than can force him to take back his word. There is no wisdom that can outmaneuver God. God himself is unchanging (Mal. 3:6). Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8). There is nothing within God that will cause him to change. He will never change in his affections toward his people or in his faithfulness or in doing good to them.

God’s Son (19-20)

All of this would not be possible apart from the work of Christ. Our hope is a gospel hope. There is no hope apart from hope in Christ. This is why the apostle Paul will write that those who are “without Christ” also have “no hope” and are “without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

And so we actually stand in a better position than Abraham. The promise and oath pointed forward to Christ. Abraham could only look ahead and long for the coming Christ. But we can look back and see that promise fulfilled: “which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest forever after the order of Melchisedec” (19-20). Jesus has come in fulfillment of the promise and on the cross he purchased the blessing promised to Abraham: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). He has come and finished his work, and has entered into the inner sanctum, into the very presence of the Majesty on high, there to intercede for us and to present the eternal efficacy of his work before the Father for us.

Abraham has great reason for confidence in God’s promise to him. He obtained the promise itself; we have the fulfillment of it in the person of Christ. We have even greater reason to hope.

Why is Christ our hope? Why does Paul describe Jesus to Timothy as “our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1)? He is our hope because all the promises of God are yes and amen in him; in other words, all the promises of God for our good find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). God cannot be good to wicked and evil men and women; our sins must be atoned for. He cannot stand to be defiled by our sin; our sins must be removed and their power over us crushed. We need to be forgiven and to be justified and we need to be made holy. And we need this, not merely to assuage a guilty conscience and to free us from bondage inducing sins, but so that we might have the freedom of access into the favor and fellowship of God forever. Only Jesus Christ our Lord can make that happen. And he not only can make that happen but he has made that happen by becoming the perfect priest and the perfect propitiation. That is why our hope is in him. That is why your hope should be in him. It is why the Heidelberg Catechism opens this way:

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer. That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who, with his precious blood, hath fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation: and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready henceforth to live unto him.1

Now what can of fruit does this kind of hope produce? Well, the point of Hebrews 6 is that we need to navigate the dangers of apostasy and apathy and spiritual dullness. How do we do that so that we through faith and patience inherit the promises? What kind of people do we need to be? What kind of fruit of hope produces the kind of person that perseveres? Let me put it to you in two words: solace and stability.

The Fruit of our hope

Solace. “That we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us” (18). Not just consolation but strong consolation! Not just assurance but full assurance! If we really believe that God has promised eternal salvation in Christ, and that all who believe on him are heirs of the promise, not because of anything good in them but because of the sheer mercy and grace of God in Jesus, then we don’t just need to be getting by. If we know that God will surely keep his word and keep his people, then we don’t need to be living in fear of men or devils.

There is this great picture here in the text. It is the picture of someone fleeing to one of the cities of refuge. Do you remember what he is talking about? Under the Law of Moses, there were six cities total that were cities of refuge: three on one side of the Jordan and three on the other side. They were spaced out so that you could get to at least one of them in a day’s journey. They were for those who killed someone unintentionally – the example given in Exodus is two men chopping wood and the axe head accidentally flies off the handle of one of the axes and kills the other man. Such people were allowed to flee to a city of refuge and remain there; as long as they remained there, the “avenger of blood” was not allowed to take their life. They were safe as long as they stayed there.

In the same way the Christian is one who has fled for refuge. And even though it is true that “here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (Heb. 13:14), and that in the strictest sense the believer is still “looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet. 3:12), and so in that sense we are still fleeing for refuge, yet in another sense, we have already obtained it, and I think that is the sense of the text here in Hebrews 6. Our refuge is in the hope that we have in Christ. Having laid hold of that, we have found refuge. We are like that manslayer who would have had to live in perpetual fear outside the walls of the city of refuge. But having found his place in it, he finds solace and comfort and peace and joy. That is what we find when we repose ourselves and our hopes in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

And even though this hope is not in this world (for it “entereth into that within the veil” – a reference to the Holy of holies which was an earthly representation of God’s heavenly abode), yet this hope securely links us to that heavenly abode. And why? Because Jesus has gone before us and for us – he is the “forerunner” who has gone to prepare a place for us and to take us to himself (Jn. 14:1-3).

Our solace lies in the fact that our eternal future is not only secure, but that it is supremely satisfying. And in the fact that between here and there, between now and then, God is working all things for our good and his glory. God is for us; who can be against us? What greater solace could there be in that? He is our only hope in life and death – not our circumstances, not our accomplishments, not our earthly comforts and pleasures, not other people – but Christ, and Christ alone.

We need this because a person who is characterized by such consolation and peace will be exactly the kind of person who perseveres when he is surrounded by the threatening clouds of trials and tribulation which so often pressure us to jettison our faith and hope in Christ for something else.

Stability. Our hope in Christ not only gives us solace but stability. It gives us moral courage, and firmness when everything around us is giving way to fear and unbelief and sin. For this hope is “as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil” (19). We don’t fix our hopes to changing things, which is what inevitably happens when you put your hopes in this world or in any aspect of this world. Rather, our hope is in Christ who changes not. Our hope is in heaven which is “an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:4). No matter what changes here, no matter how many of our plans are thwarted, no matter how many times we are disappointed by the people around us, God remains the same for us.

And because of the stability that our hope in Christ brings, let us endure. This is the argument in Hebrews 12: “And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (27-29).

It is exactly why Martin Luther prevailed through all the obstacles to his faithfulness. As he put it in his hymn,

“Let goods and kindred go/ this mortal life also” – why would you do that? Well, here is the reason:

“The body they may kill/ God’s truth abideth still/ his kingdom is forever.”

May the Lord make us more and more this kind of person: a person whose hope is an anchor for the soul, a hope which is grounded in the sure realities of God’s word, God’s heart, God’s truth, and God’s Son. And may it produce in us that solace and stability so that we become the kind of person who through faith and patience inherits the great and wonderful promises of God.

Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. by G. W. Williard (P&R, reprint, 1852), p. 17.

Monday, December 13, 2021

How to think about apostasy (Hebrews 6:4-12)

John Murray notes that, “Experience, observation, biblical history, and certain Scripture passages would appear to provide very strong arguments against the doctrine which has been called ‘The Perseverance of the Saints.’”i How do you argue with that? There is no doubt that people walk away from a commitment to Jesus, and that sometimes the people who do so are the last ones you would have thought would have done so. But what are we to think about that?

We’ve already encountered this question in this epistle, but it bears reconsidering. It bears reconsidering because the author of Hebrews does so. This was a letter written to folks who apparently were – many of them, anyway – on the verge of apostasy. And so this is a theme the author will return to again and again. Here we are in chapter 6, and we are again faced with one of those warnings, a warning about the consequences of falling away from the faith.

What about people who fall away from the faith? As we begin to consider this topic, it’s important that we understand exactly what we are talking about. We’re not talking about Christians with doubts. Nor are we talking about believers who sin even egregious sins but who repent. Rather, we’re talking about people who consciously turn their backs on faith in Christ as he is presented to us in the pages of the New Testament. We’re talking about people who knowingly and with eyes wide open reject the message of the gospel after having seemingly embraced it.

One option is to say that these people were saved, but then lost their salvation. The thing that this position gets right is that those who reject Christ cannot be saved in any NT sense. For the apostle John (or possibly John the Baptist) puts it this way: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (Jn. 3:36). It’s not enough that you once appeared to believe, but that you continue to believe (these are present tense participles).

However, what this position gets wrong is the insistence that a person can lose their salvation. This is something the NT just does not teach. In fact, it teaches the opposite. Here is how our Lord puts it, speaking to some people who refused to believe in him, no matter what kind of miracles they saw: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them [to] me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:26-29). The first thing to note about this passage is that our Lord doesn’t say that they were not of his sheep because they didn’t believe – they didn’t believe because they were not of his sheep. In other words, our Lord is reminding us that being chosen by God before the foundation of the earth to be saved doesn’t depend ultimately upon our faith, but that our faith depends upon God’s choice of us (cf. Acts 13:48). So our perseverance in the faith is rooted, not ultimately in ourselves, but in God (cf. 1 Pet. 1:5), and this means that it is not possible for faith which is the fruit of the power of God in the heart to completely shrivel up and disappear.

But that is not all our Lord says. He goes on to say that his sheep will never perish and no one will be able to pluck them out of his or his Father’s hand. There is a double security here – Christ keeping his sheep and God the Father keeping his sheep, and with one purpose (Jn. 10:30). But this is a keeping that shows itself in perseverance. It is a keeping that is always manifested in persevering in the faith, for he says that his sheep will hear his voice and follow him. How do you know someone is one of his sheep? Well, it’s easy, isn’t it? Do they hear his voice and follow him? Do they believe on him and obey him?

This also answers another wrong approach to apostasy, which is that though those who are genuinely saved can never lose their salvation, nevertheless they can lose their faith in Christ. Or they can remain saved even as they bear no fruit for obedience in their lives. This is an extremely dangerous and unbiblical position. Again, our Lord does not allow that, because he says that his sheep will hear his voice and follow him.

What the Scriptures teach is that God’s people will come to faith and be saved, and remain saved, not irrespective of obedience but in a life of obedience, however imperfect this side of heaven (cf. 2 Thess. 2:13-14). And they will persevere in this.

Now let’s come to the text of Hebrews 6. This passage is often brought up as evidence against the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. For it talks about those who have every appearance of being saved but apostatize and yet are never renewed to repentance. In fact, we are told that it is impossible to renew them to repentance. What is this talking about? Is it talking (as I once heard a preacher argue) about God’s people who remain saved but who backslide so severely that they can never recover this side of heaven? Or is it talking about people who were once saved but then lost their salvation? I believe both of these takes on the passage are wide of the mark. So let’s consider carefully what is being said here.

What we want to do today are two things. First, let’s understand what this passage is saying – what is the message we are meant to hear? And then, second, how do we hear this in a way that we are meant to hear it? How do we hear it so that we don’t end up denying other doctrines, but at the same time hear it without watering down the impact it is meant to have? Finally, since we are in Advent Season – I haven’t forgotten that! – I want to show you the real connection passages like this have to what we celebrate in the coming of Christ into this world.

What we are meant to hear from this passageii

First of all, I don’t doubt that the people described in verses 4-6 are people who had been a part of the church and who had every appearance of being saved. They are people who have, at least outwardly, begun well. However, I think some folks make a mistake when they look at the descriptions given in these verses and conclude that they necessarily describe saved people. I don’t think so; these are necessary but not sufficient evidences of salvation, and I think the context bears this out.

One take that you sometimes hear from those who do embrace the doctrine of perseverance in its entirety is that the impossibility here is merely hypothetical. In other words, they say that the argument is basically this: if people who enjoyed such blessings were to fall away, then it would be impossible to renew them to repentance, but (so the argument goes) this can never happen. However, the problem with this is that it just doesn’t comport with the message being delivered here. These folks are being warned of the genuine consequences of apostasy. They are not being warned about something that can’t really happen!iii

The metaphor of the fields (7-8)

What does the context tell us? Before we look carefully at verses 4-6, go down to verses 7-8. In these two verses you have a metaphor of two fields. What they have in common is the rain that falls upon them; where they differ is in how they respond to this rain (one also thinks here of the Parable of the Sower in Mt. 13). One field produces good fruit and receives “blessing from God” (7), but the other field bears “thorns and briers” and so “is rejected and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned” (8).

It is important to remember that in the NT a tree that bears good fruit is always representative of a genuine believer, whereas a tree that consistently bears bad fruit is always representative of being lost and unsaved (cf. Mt. 7:15-20). How does this relate to the previous verses? Well, clearly apostasy – deconstructing the faith and abandoning Christ for something else – is bad fruit. It corresponds to the thorns and briers of verse 8. And it receives judgment from God, which corresponds to the impossibility to be renewed to repentance in verse 6. They will die in their sins. But again, the point is that the metaphor is a sure indication that the people being described in the previous verses are not saved. Did they receive blessings from God? Yes, many! And they are listed for us in verses 4-6. Just like the field in verse 8 received rain from heaven. But these folks are like that field also in another way; they didn’t end up bearing good fruit but bad fruit and as a result fall under the curse of God (not a place where God’s elect will end up, cf. Rom. 8:1!).

Better things that belong to salvation (9)

Then there is verse 9: “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.” Here the author speaks of things which he is hopeful characterize his audience. These “things” have two qualities: first, they are better things, and second, they are things that accompany [or “belong to”] salvation. The question is, what are these things?

And better than what? It is often said that the comparison here is between salvation which is hoped for and the judgment which is threatened in verse 8.  But in Hebrews "better" is most often a comparison not between something bad and something good, but between two good things, but one of which is better than the other (see, for example, 7:19, 22; 8:6; 9:27; 10:34; 11:16, 35).iv So this indicates that we should be looking for good things in the context that these “things” are better than. And what things would that be, other than the blessings mentioned in verses 4-6? Whatever else we can say, it is a good thing to be enlightened and to taste of the Holy Spirit and the good word of God and the powers of the age to come.

However, they are not saving things in and of themselves, good though they are. For they are contrasted to “things that accompany salvation” in verse 9. This comparison indicates that you can possess all of the things listed in the context and yet not be saved. But what would the better things be? The context (esp. ver. 10-12) indicates that perseverance in the faith is the key identifier: “And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience [the word there is “endurance” or “perseverance”] inherit the promises” (11-12).

The Judas Christians (4-6)

With the context before us, let’s now come back to look at the individual descriptors in verses 4-6. Here we have people who “were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come.” In verse 6, since it says that it is impossible to renew them to repentance, it follows that they had also experienced repentance on some level. It sure sounds like this is a description of the genuinely saved!

However, on closer inspection, no, it doesn’t. This is a description of people who were indeed professing Christians and who seemed to belong to the church. But we all know that professing to be a Christian and being a Christian is not always (unfortunately) the same thing. Here are people who were enlightened, who had received the knowledge of the gospel, who have come to understand and know the way of righteousness and then turn away from it (2 Pet. 2:20-22). They had tasted of the heavenly gift, and the good word of God, who had come, on some level at least, to a temporary appreciation of the gospel. Like Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8, who is said to have believed and was baptized (13), and yet the apostle Peter later warned him that he was in danger of perishing, and that he had “neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God” (20-21). Herod loved to hear the word of God preached by John the Baptist – right up until he had him beheaded in prison (Mk. 6:20).

These are also people who were made partakers of the Holy Ghost and who experienced the powers of the world to come – regenerated, right? Not necessarily. Remember, that miracles were performed in the power of the Spirit (cf. Heb. 2:4), and yet we know that not everyone who performs miracles in the name of Christ is saved (Mt. 7:21-23). Balaam prophesied in the Spirit, and yet there is absolutely no indication that this false prophet should be considered in the category of the saved (cf. Num. 24:2; 2 Pet. 2:15-16).

But what about the fact that these people had repented? To this we must say that there is such a thing as a repentance which is not the fruit of the new birth. Esau was said to repent (Heb. 12:17), but he was not a recipient of God’s saving grace. And here is where I think we must remind ourselves of the example of Judas Iscariot. Here was a man of whom it was said, “it had been good for that man if he had never been born” (Mt. 26:24). Now you can’t say that about a single person in heaven. And yet he is said to have repented (cf. Mt. 27:3). He was clearly enlightened, and tasted the good word of God, for he preached the gospel. He also was a partaker of the Holy Spirit and the powers of the age to come for he performed miracles and cast out demons. And yet he turned from Christ and betrayed him and gave his heart to the devil.

In other words, the people here described are Judas Christians. It is important to remember that Judas looked every bit like one of the other apostles. He didn’t have horns in his head and he didn’t cackle and ride on a broom like a witch. In fact, he looked so much like the other apostles that when our Lord basically told everyone that Judas was the one who would betray him, the others still didn’t see it! Even so, the people described in Hebrews 6 looked like Christians. They had every appearance of belonging to Christ. But when they walked away, when they rejected Christ and his gospel and crucified to themselves afresh the Son of God and put him to an open shame (Heb. 6:6), there was no more possibility that they could recover and be saved.

Now that doesn’t mean that genuine Christians can’t lapse or doubt or sin. Peter denied Christ at the same time that Judas betrayed him. But there was a great difference. Judas was a son of perdition whereas Jesus interceded for Peter. Judas’ apostacy was not given in a moment of weakness like Peter; he had been, after all, pilfering the money bag for some time. John says that he was a thief. Judas then sinned after much deliberation and with his eyes wide open, whereas Peter fell in a moment of weakness. And the repentance of the two was different. Judas had a worldly sorrow that produced death; Peter had a godly sorrow that produced a “repentance to salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10).

So this passage is not about genuine Christians who lose their salvation (or some temporal blessing). It is about Judas Christians who look like genuine Christians for a while until they fall away and permanently reject the gospel. Such people will share in the end of Judas. And that is the danger of which we are warned in this text.

How we are meant to hear the message of this text.

So far I have tried to establish a couple of things. First, that this passage is a genuine warning against apostasy. Second, that this passage is fully consistent with a conviction that God’s elect can never lose their salvation. However, that leads to the following question. How are people who call themselves Christian, and who have every hope that they really belong to Christ and are elect, how are we to hear this text in the way it was meant to be heard? How is this supposed to land on us, how is it meant to motivate us and to what is it meant to motivate us?

The problem is this: how is someone who is elect meant to apply a warning against apostasy? How does that work, especially since the elect cannot lose their salvation? Now we know that the author believed that at least most his audience were genuinely saved even as he gave them this severe warning, for in verse 9 he calls them “beloved” and says that he was persuaded that they were in fact saved. Nevertheless, that didn’t keep him from warning them about the dreadful consequences of turning away from Christ. But should a genuine believer ever be motivated to persevere by the danger (which is an eternal danger) of falling finally away? I think so, and I think this is precisely the intension of this text. So how does this work?

First of all, let me just say that we are not to be motivated by believing something that is not true. In other words, the motivation here is not that the elect might lose their salvation if they don’t persevere. That’s not at all the thought process the reality of apostasy is meant to provoke. I am not to think, “If I don’t endure in the faith, I might lose my salvation; therefore, I should continue in the faith!” No, we are never encouraged to think that way or to be motivated that way. God never encourages his saints to persevere by believing a lie!

Rather, the thought process should be something like this: “How do I know that I am elect? How do I make my calling and election sure? I can’t look into the Book of Life and I don’t have a special revelation from God that I am elect. The only way I can know I am elect is through the witness of the Holy Spirit to his fruits in my life, and one of the main fruits of the Spirit’s work in my life is perseverance in the faith. Therefore, I must persevere, because if I don’t – if I apostatize and walk away from the faith after coming to a knowledge of the gospel as I have – then the Bible says there is no place of repentance for me and I will prove that I was never saved. And that is indeed a terrible and terrifying place to be. It is not a place I want to be. Let me therefore take courage and stand against the wiles of the devil. Let me with faith and patience inherit the promises. For there are no promises for those who do not persevere!”

In other words, the motivation is not that the elect might lose their salvation. The motivation stems from the necessity of perseverance, being as it is the evidence and fruit of the Spirit in the life.

What about assurance?

Now someone might respond to that and say, if this is really the case, then no one can have assurance at all, because if only those who persevere to the end are saved, then we can’t really know we are saved until we die and have persevered unto the end. Now that obviously can’t be true. For the NT clearly teaches that assurance is possible.

The problem with this thinking is that it fails to appreciate the fact that perseverance is not the only fruit of salvation; it is one, but it is only one. There are other fruits as well. The Bible talks about the witness of the Spirit in our hearts (Rom. 8:14-18), about the earnest of our inheritance (Eph. 1:14). As we are walking with the Lord in obedience to his word and in faith upon his promises, the Spirit witnesses with our spirits that we are the children of God. Assurance is something you can have now; and this is partly because it is not just a function of final perseverance.

No, it’s not as if we can’t have assurance until we come to the very end of our life and are still faithful. There are many things (love to God and his people, obedience to his commandments, and so on) that help us to make our calling and election sure (see a list of such things in 2 Pet. 1). The doctrine of perseverance doesn’t work as an exclusive test of our election, but as one of many tests. What this does mean, though, is that those who do abandon the faith prove they were never saved to begin with. This is what the apostle John was saying when he wrote, “They [the antichrists, the false teachers] went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (1 Jn. 2:19). And the doctrine of perseverance tells us that if we don’t remain a believer in Christ, the supposed evidences we thought we had were subterfuges after all.

But all this perhaps misses what ought to be the true confidence of the believer. At the end of the day, my main confidence ought not to be in myself but in God. The requirement of perseverance is only a problem for assurance if the decisive basis of perseverance is your own fickle will and weak heart. But it is not. The decisive basis of perseverance is not my will but God’s power: “who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5). I am reminded of something that John Piper has said. He writes,

I often ask people, How do you know you will wake up a Christian tomorrow morning? The bottom-line answer is that God will cause you to wake up a Christian, or you won’t. God will be faithful. God will keep you. Everything hangs on the faithfulness of God to his promise: “Those whom he called . . . he also glorified.”v

What is our confidence? It is that God will remember his people, he will never lose sight of them, he will never let go of them. I think this is partly what the author is getting at in verse 10: “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.” God will not abandon his people, and because of that reality, they won’t abandon him either. I love the modern hymn, “He will hold me fast:”vi

When I fear my faith will fail 

Christ will hold me fast 

When the tempter would prevail 

He will hold me fast

I could never keep my hold 

Through life's fearful path 

For my love is often cold 

He must hold me fast

So how are we meant to hear this warning? We are meant to hear it as a full-throttled warning that those who deconstruct their faith after having come to the knowledge of the gospel and embraced it, cannot come back and will die in their sins. We are meant to be shaken by this reality and awakened to the necessity of perseverance. But most of all, it is meant to make us fly into the arms of Jesus Christ our Savior who holds his people fast and will not let them go.

What has this to do with Advent?

Now, has this anything to do with Advent? I think so: it is meant to remind us again that there is no hope outside of Jesus Christ and that is exactly what Advent tells us. Those who crucify him afresh and put him to an open shame, who reject Christ as Lord and Savior after professing faith in him, reject any hope of salvation. They will die in their sins because they have rejected the only one in whom salvation can be found. So when we walk away from Jesus, we walk away from hope, the very hope proffered in the advent of our Lord.

The perfect foil for apostates who came to profess the gospel and then rejected it is the apostle Paul. He says that he “was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13). Now Paul’s persecution of Christians was sinful; he is not denying that. But he was ignorant; he really did believe he was doing God a service. In contrast, the apostates of Hebrews 6 knew what they were rejecting. That is why Paul received mercy and these apostates have no hope of mercy. It is impossible to renew them to repentance because their unbelief wasn’t an unbelief of ignorance.

But what was the cause of Paul’s mercy? It wasn’t anything in himself; rather, it was the grace of God in the coming of Jesus Christ to do for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves: “And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (14-15). Advent reminds us that God has come into this world, not to make good people better but to give hell-bound people grace, grace that brings with it the forgiveness and freedom from sin and fellowship with God forever. This grace only comes through Christ, and in no other way: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17).

And the good news is that it was not just grace for Paul but for all who trust in Christ as Lord and Savior: “Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (16). Let Paul be your pattern, and then let us say with him: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (17).


i John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied. This is the opening sentence in his chapter entitled, “Perseverance.”
ii In my exposition of the text, I am following the exposition of this passage given by Wayne Grudem in Systematic Theology, 2nd edition (Zondervan, 2020), p. 979-984.

iii Philip Edgcombe Hughes makes this trenchant observation in his commentary, speaking of those who argue that this is merely hypothetical: “This is then taken as an indication that his warning about the impossibility of restoration for the apostate does not answer to reality and is little better than the invention of a bogey for the purpose of frightening them into being better Christians. But the end does not justify the means, and to resort to subterfuge and deception, and that too within so solemn a context, would be subchristian and incompatible with the whole tenor of the epistle. What, in any case, would be the point of warning them of the danger of apostasy and then assuring them that, after all, they are in no danger of falling into apostasy? Any such procedure would be self- defeating.” P. E. Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Eerdmans, 1977), p. 212.

iv Heb. 12:24 might be an example where something good, the gospel, is compared to something bad, the word of Abel, because it called out for blood and judgment.



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