Sunday, September 25, 2022

Three Steps to Staying Faithful (Hebrews 12:25-29)

When I taught at the university, one of the challenges I had to deal with (and I think this is common to most, if not all, teachers) was the failure on the part of some students to actually learn what I had taught them. This was true even sometimes of students who came to class every time. They would sit there and take notes and nod their heads in agreement, but when it came to applying that knowledge to specific problems on an exam, they just couldn’t do it.

What was the problem? Well, one of the problems is that some students think that seeing something is the same thing as truly knowing and understanding it. They’ve seen a particular problem worked on the board and were able to follow the steps and so on, and they think that’s all there is to it. But it isn’t. And what I had to keep reminding my students is that if you really want to learn the material, you have to do the homework. This is true in most subjects; it certainly is true in mathematics. It is not a spectator sport; if you want to learn it, you have to be able to do it on your own. This is true also in the sports arena. You don’t learn tennis by watching tennis but by playing tennis. You don’t become a Lebron James by just watching every basketball game that James has played in. You have to play the game. You have to take knowledge and apply it.

As we get to the close of the book of Hebrews, we have to admit that we’ve been taught a lot. There is a lot of information here. There is a lot about the glory of the person and work of Jesus Christ. There is a lot about the promises of God to the believer. There is a lot about the privileges that God’s children have. There is also a lot about the dangers that await those who abandon the faith. But all this was not simply information to take in. It was all meant to be applied. Doctrine is supposed to lead to duty, exhortation to application. And the application was meant to be perseverance in the faith as opposed to abandoning the faith. The duty was steadfast love and loyalty to Jesus their Prophet, Priest, and King.

However, sometimes it can seem difficult to know how specifically to apply truth to our lives. It can therefore be very helpful when we are given concrete steps that show us the way. I think that this is sort of what is happening here in the verses before us. The point is about application. How do I go from halting between two opinions to being determined to follow Jesus, no matter what the cost? What practical, concrete steps can I take to apply God’s word to my life?

Well, in these verses, we have what I’m calling three steps to service. The first step is to hear God’s word. You see this in verses 25-27 and 29. The second step is the response of gratitude. You see that in verse 28. And then what follows from that is service and worship. You see that in verse 28 also. I think these steps are not only important in and of themselves, but also their order is important. Let’s consider these three things together and in their proper order.

We must hear God’s word (25-27)

You might remember that one of the points I made in our very first message on this epistle is that it is bookended with emphases on the fact that Jesus the Son of God is speaking to us and we need to hear him. In 1:2, we are told that “in these last days” God has “spoken unto us by his Son.” Now in verse 25 of chapter 12, we are told, “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh.” In that verse, the one who is speaking is also Jesus, for it is his blood that “speaketh better things than that of Abel” (24). So he has spoken, he is speaking, and he will speak (26-27). The problem with the Hebrew Christians appears to be that they had stopping hearing him as they should, and the author of this epistle is trying to awaken them to their need to listen to him. They have been listening to all the wrong things; they need to turn to eyes and ears to Jesus.

The same thing is often true of us. Too often we just end up listening to the world, a world that is alienated from God. This is a world that tells you that making money and keeping money is more important than laying up treasure in heaven. We listen to a world that tells us momentary comfort is more important than eternal life. It tells you that self-care is more important that loving your neighbor as yourself, and it has absolutely no category for the love of God. This is a world that tells you in fact not to listen to anything else or to give anyone or anything ultimate authority over your own heart. Of course, hopefully you see the irony in this. We end up thinking we are self-determining our own destiny and identity, but what we are really doing is just doing what the wider culture approves that we do. We are slaves, but only slaves to a society in rebellion against God, and that is not going to turn out well.

We need to listen to the Lord. So how do we do that? Well, first of all we need to know where to find the word of the Lord. The point of our text is that it is found in the words of Jesus. And that in turn tells us that we ought to value the authority of the Holy Scriptures because our Lord himself accepted the Old Testament as the authoritative word of God and his gave his authority to his apostles who in turn gave us the New Testament. We can have confidence in the Scriptures because we have confidence in Jesus. And we have confidence in Jesus because he rose from the dead and vindicated his claim to be the Son of God and Savior of the world. If you are a Christian, you have experienced his power already in raising you from spiritual death to newness of life in Christ. So what I am saying is that if you have a high view of Jesus, you must have a correspondingly high view of the written word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. They go together; you really cannot have one without the other. You should in fact look with skepticism upon anyone who claims to honor Jesus but who then downplays the teaching of the Bible. Would you hear the Lord? Go to the Bible!

But we not only need to understand where to find the word of the Lord; we also need to understand the seriousness of what the Lord is saying to us. This is something that the author of Hebrews has labored to get across throughout the pages of this epistle. It is a fact that just because something is serious doesn’t mean people will take it seriously. If that were the case, there would probably be a lot fewer wars. Parents spend a lot of their time trying to convince their children that certain things are more serious than their kids think they are. Even so, the reality is that sometimes we don’t take God’s word seriously because we don’t understand just how serious the issues are that it speaks to.

The seriousness of God’s word to us in Christ is underlined in verses 25-27. There we are brought again before Sinai. When we read, “him that spake on earth” (25) and “whose voice then shook the earth” (26), we are meant to imagine Sinai. At Sinai, God’s words literally shook the earth. That should have gotten the attention of everyone present. But it didn’t and the reason why we know it didn’t is that many of those same folks went on to rebel against God’s word. They refused to obey. They turned back from Canaan in unbelief. And, as we have already been reminded in chapters 3-4, they came under the wrath of God. They rejected God’s word, but that didn’t mean they escaped God’s judgment. They most certainly didn’t. Their carcasses fell in the wilderness as a warning that those who turn their backs on God’s command will face his unremitting judgment.

But note how the argument turns here. It is again an argument from the lesser to the greater. We saw this back in 2:3; we see it again here: “much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven” (12:25). What is the point being made here? The point is that the one who is speaking to us now is Jesus the Lord, enthroned at the right hand of the Father. He is risen and to him all power in heaven and earth has been granted. Jesus is speaking to us, but he is no longer speaking to us, as God did at Sinai, on the earth, but from heaven. He is speaking to us as such, as the risen Lord, in the gospel. He is speaking to us as such in the pages of the Scriptures. That’s why the apostle Paul could tell the Ephesians who had never personally met Jesus, “But ye have no so learned Christ; if so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:20-21). When we hear the gospel being preached in Spirit and in truth, we are hearing Christ. But when we do so, we should not imagine him in his weakness. No, he is the King; he is your King and mine. The words of Christ are words from heaven: “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

And there is a difference between God speaking on the earth at Sinai and God speaking from heaven in Christ. Sinai promised the children of Israel good harvests and healthy children and secure borders if they obeyed. The gospel promises real forgiveness of sins and joy in the presence of God forevermore. The blessings of the gospel are not material; they are spiritual. In other words, the difference between God speaking on earth (Sinai) and God speaking from heaven (in Christ) is the difference between the temporal and the eternal. Jesus did not rise from the dead and ascend into heaven in order to grant you a better life now. He did it so that those who believe in him will have eternal life. What the gospel promises is not health, wealth, and prosperity in this sad world, but life in the world to come. It doesn’t promise worldly success; it promises restoration into God’s fellowship. It means being justified before God and accepted with God on the basis of the grace of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

You see this also in verses 26-27: “Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. 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.” This is a quotation from Hag. 2:6, but the point is that at Sinai only the earth shook. Sinai only shook up the present order of things, so to speak. But what the gospel points us to is something more permanent and more stable and more enduring. It points us to the eternal order, and order that will still remain when God rolls up this sin-sick earth and brings about the new heavens and new earth (cf. Heb 1:10-12). God’s voice will one day not only shake mountains but the very earth itself and remove anything that is not eternal, and only those who are in Christ will survive that.

And that means to turn away from the gospel is to turn your back on the eternal, the most valuable. It is to turn your back on God’s Son himself. And that merits an even greater punishment than what happened to those who turned their backs on the God of Sinai. That is the point here. When you reject the gospel, you are not rejecting someone else’s recipe for a better you or for a better career or better earthly prospects. You are rejecting him who speaks from heaven, whose blessings are spiritual and eternal and whose authority is that of the risen and enthroned King of kings and Lord of lords.

Now please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that any of God’s elect will be lost or that God ultimately depends upon our response. God’s elect will not be lost, and God’s purpose of grace will stand. But what I’m saying is that Christ is Lord, and that he is the Lord of every single person on this planet, past, present, and future. It doesn’t matter who you are; he is your King, and because of that it is wicked to refuse to hear him. On the other hand, it is eternal life to hear him. So what should be our response to this? It should be to do what verse 25 says to do: “See that you refuse not him that speaketh”!

Just to underscore this, the author comes back to this in verse 29: “For our God is a consuming fire.” God will shake loose all that is not eternal. And he is a consuming fire to destroy all who are not in Christ, “when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power” (2 Thess. 1:7-9). If that doesn’t show you how serious this is, I don’t know what can.

So if you are convinced of the seriousness of the word of Christ, the gospel, how should you hear it? Well, you should receive Christ as Lord and Savior – that’s the language of Scripture (Jn. 1:12; Col. 2:6) – which is really just to recognize him for who he really is in fact. Trust in him as your Lord to rule you, and your Savior to redeem you. Stop living as if you called the shots; submit to him. Stop thinking that you are good enough or can become good enough; rest in the finished work of Christ. If you trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior, to see him as the one who has the right to rule over you and as the only one in whom you can find the forgiveness of sins, I can promise you on the basis of Scripture that you are saved, forgiven, and justified before God in Christ.

And then, don’t stop there. Preach the word of Christ to yourself on a daily basis. Meditate upon them. Apply them to your life. Pray God’s word. Take the language of Scripture and make it your own. Take the epistles and ask the Lord to make the commands a reality in your life. Ask him to help you to appropriate his promises for yourself. See that you refuse not the one who speaks from heaven. That’s the first step.

We must be grateful for God’s gifts (28)

The second step is gratitude: “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace” (28). Now this word “grace” here should be taken in the same sense as when we “say grace” at the table. We all recognize that to “say grace” is the same thing as to “give thanks.” This is sometimes how the word grace is used in the New Testament. For example, in 1 Tim. 1:12, we read that Paul writes, “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord,” but the Greek literally says, “I have grace with Christ Jesus our Lord.” The translation “I thank Christ” is of course the correct one. To have grace in this sense is to be thankful. And so when our author says, “let us have grace” he means, “let us be grateful” (ESV).

Now this must follow, for to hear God’s word correctly, by the Spirit working in our hearts, means that we will receive it with hearts of gratitude to God. Those who hear God’s word and reject it and suppress it do the opposite. They become hardened in ingratitude. This is what the apostle says, for example, in Romans 1: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [down] the truth in unrighteousness . . . because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were they thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish hearts were darkened. . . . who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen” (Rom. 1:18, 21, 25). Here we see the opposite trajectory than we see in our text. In our text we see hearing God’s word leading to thankfulness leading to service and worship. In the Romans text, we see suppressing God’s word leading to unthankfulness leading to idolatry.

How does this work? Well, if you understand the seriousness of the danger we are in through our own sin and rebellion against God, and if you understand the grace of God which comes to us freely through the redemptive work of Christ on the behalf of sinners, and which is not received by works of righteousness but simply by faith, then you cannot but be grateful and thankful. You cannot help but say with the apostle Paul, “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15). (Incidentally, the Greek here also reads, “Grace [charis] to God for his inexpressible gift!”). The grace of God towards us must inevitably lead to the giving of grace back to God in expressions of gratitude and thankfulness. The relief that one feels when they understand the twin truths that (1) they deserve God’s judgment and (2) that God has freely by grace averted his judgment by placing it on Christ instead, must lead to the love to God and joy in God.

We see this in the very terms of the text before us. First, if we belong to Christ through faith, we should be thankful to be in God’s kingdom, the kingdom of his dear Son. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “...giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet [worthy] to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:12-14). If you are not in the kingdom of Christ, then you are under the power of darkness, ruled over by Satan and his emissaries, walking “according to the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), “taken captive by [the devil] at his will” (2 Tim. 2:26). To be translated into God’s kingdom is to be delivered once and for all from the malign presidency of Satan over the soul. Thank God for that!

It also means that we are not living under the rule of God, that we are citizens in his kingdom. When Paul says to the Philippians in Phil. 3:20, “For our conversation is in heaven,” that word conversation means citizenship. He is saying that the believer’s ultimate citizenship is not in some earthly state or kingdom or empire but in heaven. And as citizens of heaven, we are privileged with all the rights and responsibilities and the benefits that belong to such. It means that we have the Spirit of Christ. It means that we have access to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and help in time of need. It means that we are under the protection of the King of heaven and earth. What blessings we have! Not because we made ourselves worthy but because Christ made us worthy by his righteousness and blood. How thankful therefore we should be.

Second, if we belong to Christ through faith, we should be thankful for an unshakable kingdom. We have not only received a kingdom, but a “kingdom which cannot be moved.” This world and all that is in it will one day be moved. That is the point of the previous verses (26-27). God’s word which once shook Sinai will shake the universe to its very foundations and remove everything sinful and corrupt. As the apostle Peter put it, “For . . . by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: but the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men” (2 Pet. 3:5-7). What this word of God will do, the apostle goes on to tell us: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (10). We are those who are “looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat” so that “we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (12-13).

For think about it: why are we so often sad? Where does much of our grief come from? It often comes from the losing (or perhaps failure to attain) a good and valued gift. The kingdom of God, on the other hand, is a kingdom that, when it comes in its fulness and when we experience the new heavens and new earth that replaces this current order, will come with pleasures forevermore and joys undimmed by the passage of time. This is a kingdom where we really will live happily forever after. Why do you think we like stories like that? We like them because we were made for them. That’s what God gives us freely in Christ Jesus. We don’t have to be afraid of death or ignore the fact that we are going to die because for the Christian this is a door to be with Christ which is far better than any other alternative.

Third, we should be thankful for receiving this kingdom. Don’t miss this. “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom.” This is not something that we buy or merit or get on our own. It is not something that we work for. It is not something that we conquer or achieve, it is something we receive; it is a gift. This is grace.

Why? Because of the person and work of Jesus. That is the only reason anyone gets into this kingdom. “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

Now suppose you are someone who is just realizing the danger to which your sins expose you. Suppose you want to flee from the wrath to come, but you don’t know where to run. What do you do? Do you set out reforming your life so that God will receive you? Do you work on cleaning yourself up first? Do you make yourself acceptable to God? Do you try to make yourself righteous?

No. For that is just the same as saying that it is your works that bring you into the kingdom. But that is not how we get in. We get in through grace. We get in not because of what we do or have done but solely on the basis of the righteousness of God in Christ. The apostle Paul explains, “But after that the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:4-7).

This is why the Bible says over and over and over and over again that we receive God’s gift through faith. Faith is the hand of the beggar. It doesn’t bring anything to God to give; it only opens to receive. As Toplady put it so well:

Nothing in my hands I bring, 

Simply to thy cross I cling. 

Naked come to thee for dress, 

Helpless look to thee for grace; 

Foul I to the fountain fly: 

Wash me, Savior, or I die.

If you see yourself to be a wretched sinner in need of salvation, if you ask me, as the Philippian jailor asked Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” Then I can only answer as Paul did: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:30-31).

Now don’t misunderstand me. The call to Christ is also a call to repentance. It is a message of repentance and faith (cf. Acts 20:21). You don’t come to Christ to keep your sins, but to turn from them. You don’t only receive him as Savior but also as Lord. So you must turn from your sins. But you need to understand that repentance is not the ground of your salvation. Only Christ is. You don’t trust in your repenting. You don’t even trust in your faith, but solely in the person and work of Christ. Don’t look to yourself but look to Christ. “Look unto me, and be ye saved all the ends of the earth: for I am God and there is none else” (Isa. 45:22).

Thank God this is not a kingdom achieved, but a kingdom received. Do you believe that? Then cultivate the attitude of gratitude.

We must serve the Lord with reverence and godly fear.

If we are truly thankful for the grace of God toward us in Christ Jesus, this will lead to a heart that wants to serve and worship him. Hence it is that we read, “let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (28). The word serve here is synonymous with worship. To serve God is to worship him. Those who will not hear God’s word and be grateful for his gospel will end up serving and worshiping the creature rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). On the other hand, those who hear his word and are thankful will turn from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:10).

So we must not think of this only in terms of doing stuff for God. This is more than just deeds and duty. This is primarily about a heart of devotion to God. You see this in the way our service to God is described: it is “with reverence and godly fear.” So this is not just doing stuff for God, it is a lifestyle of walking with God and before God. In particular, it is living out the realities that we say we believe. We believe we have received a kingdom. Very well, that means God is our King, and we are his servants: let us therefore serve him. Let us seek his kingdom first, even before seeing to the needs of our food and clothing (Mt. 6:33). Above all, what this means is that we cultivate a sense of the presence of God in our lives.

Now this is what the author wants to encourage in the members of this little house church in Rome. It is the opposite of apostasy. They must not to turn back to a Christless Judaism. Nor should they to turn to idols. Rather, they should be steadfast in serving the true and living God.

But what about the words: “with reverence and godly fear”? Doesn’t this seem to point to a joyless, “why- so-serious” kind of religion? How is that attractive? Especially when it is motivated by verses like 29: “For our God is a consuming fire.” How is that consistent with a heart of thankfulness? How do we put these two things together? How do you have a person whose heart is brimming with gratitude to the Lord for his grace and at the same time filled with godly fear because God is a consuming fire?

Well, you really need to have both godly fear and gratitude. In reality, you can’t have one without the other. Take away the “our God is a consuming fire,” and you take away the breathtaking wonder that is salvation from sin. In other words, you take away any real grounds for gratitude. People who never take God’s justice and holiness and justice and power seriously, who never want to think about hell and the eternal punishment of the wicked, cannot have the kind of deep thankfulness that is commended in our text. They may smile but theirs is a thin smile pasted on a face that will not withstand the winds and waves of trouble and trials. Their joy is a thin joy, and their love is a thin love. But those who really stand before a holy God, who like Isaiah and Moses know what it means to tremble before the living God, they will never reach the bottom of the wonder of the grace and mercy and love of God. They will be forever grateful and thankful. As a result, their worship will not be something they have to do but a spontaneous and willing response of a joyful heart to the grace of God in Christ. Their joy will be “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Pet. 1:8).

So let us hear the word of God. Let us take it seriously. And let its truth cultivate the deep gratitude of faith in Christ, so that we worship and serve him, so that we serve the Creator rather than the creature, so that we serve him with our lips and lives, with our words and works, with reverence and godly fear.

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