Contentment in Christ (Hebrews 13:5-6)
Apostasy comes in many different flavors. One flavor is the flavor of doctrinal apostasy: the embrace of wicked and false ideas about God and his ways. Another flavor is the flavor of ethical apostasy: the embrace of wicked and false ideas about the good life and what it looks like. One way this ethical apostasy is lived out is in terms of verse 4, through sexual immorality. But another way this is lived out is in terms of verse 5, through covetousness. It has been observed that there is often in Scripture a connection between these two things, and that where you see the love of the flesh you will also see the love of money. The seventh and eighth commandments live next to each other. So, for example, the apostle Paul writes, “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5). Or, as he puts it to the Colossians, “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). The apostle, in fact, warns Timothy of the danger inherent in covetousness, and it is the danger of apostasy: “But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:9-10).
So we must not divorce this text from the larger context of the book of Hebrews. This is still about warning these believers of the danger of apostasy. At the same time, I also want to be faithful to the balance of this epistle. The overwhelming emphasis of this letter is not on this or that particular sin or sins but upon the person, worth, and work of Jesus Christ the Son of God our High Priest. And the reason for this is that if you just focus on particular sins, you are cutting yourself off from the life that makes Christianity what it is. Christianity is not primarily about getting your life cleaned up. It is primarily about getting right with God and walking with him in worship and fellowship. Now this doesn’t mean that dealing with specific sins is not important – it is. But the reality is that you will never properly deal with the sin in your life apart from Christ. Unless your sins have been washed in his blood, unless you have been given his Spirit, you will never be able to deal with sins in a way that pleases God. And you will not protect yourself from the danger of apostasy primarily by focusing on keeping commandments but by embracing and believing the gospel, which is the good news that for all who repent of their sins and turn in faith to Jesus Christ his righteousness is credited to them, and their sins are washed in his blood.
On the other hand, we also have to be careful that we don’t water down the gospel so that it becomes just about believing right things about Jesus without having any practical effect upon the life. Jesus is Lord and you cannot come to him as Savior unless you are also willing to bow before his scepter and obey his commands. And to do that, we do at some point have to get concrete with sins. It’s not enough to say we are sinners. For if you cannot point to specific sins that you need to repent of, then the fact of the matter is that you don’t really at the end of the day believe that you are a sinner. Well, that is why we should thank God for the specificity of Scripture. It doesn’t just wax eloquent about sin in general; it points us to specific sins and calls us to repent of them.
And the specific sin that we are called to repent of in our text is the sin of covetousness. It is the sin of the love of money, this root of every kind of evil. However, I am thankful that our text doesn’t just tell us what we are to repent of, but it also tells us how and why, and then what this should look like in our lives. To see this, I invite you to look with me at Heb. 13:5-6 and to consider the following three things. First, we see a blessed resolve: “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have.” Then we see a Biblical reason: “For he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” Finally, we see a bold response: “So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.”
A Blessed Resolve
The resolve is this: to fight against covetousness and to fight for contentment. These are opposite states of mind. If you are covetous, you are not content. On the other hand, if you are content, you will not be covetous. Now in our version it says, “Let your conversation be without covetousness.” But the word conversation there is used in an archaic sense of the word. It doesn’t have reference so much to our manner of speech; it means conduct or way of life. The writer is telling his audience to make it their resolve to let their life be free from the love of money.
You can therefore see what covetousness is by considering what is its opposite, which is contentment. I call this a “blessed resolve” because to be content is to be blessed. To be content means to be satisfied with what God has given us, to really believe that you have enough. It’s what Paul is getting at when he tells Timothy, “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (1 Tim. 6:6-8).
But contentment for the Christian doesn’t just mean that we have enough when we think we have enough. It doesn’t mean setting a goal for the way you think your standard of living should look and only being satisfied once you get there. It means believing that God is good no matter what your external circumstances are. This is certainly what contentment looked like to Paul. He writes to the Philippians, “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:11-13). To be content like Paul means that we are able to enjoy plenty when we have it in such a way that we aren’t desperately grasping on to abundance with a death grip so that it can’t slip away. It means that we are able to enjoy with an open hand all that God in his generosity gives to us. But it also means that we are able to trust God when the pantry is bare and when we are in want. It means that when we are abased, we aren’t questioning God’s goodness to us.
Jeremiah Burroughs, a seventeenth century English Puritan, wrote a whole book on this entitled The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, which I commend to you. Here is how he defines contentment: “Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in Gods’ wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” But as he also points out, this doesn’t mean that we can’t try to better our condition. Poverty is not a necessary condition for it. Contentment is not an excuse either for laziness or for being a spendthrift. It doesn’t mean that we don’t work hard at our jobs or that we fail to try to improve our skills and our knowledge and our effectiveness. It doesn’t mean that we don’t try to be good stewards with what God has given to us.
What it means is that we aren’t grumbling against God at the state we are in. We aren’t murmuring against him. Instead, we are freely submitting to and delighting in God’s wise and fatherly disposal of us in every condition in which we find ourselves. It means that we aren’t anxious and fretful and so vexed by our circumstances that we are neglectful of our duty to God and to others.
I’ll tell you what contentment looks like. It looks like Jesus in John 13. Here is how the apostle John sets up the scene for us: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him; Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded” (Jn. 13:1-5). Here was a man who knew that he was about to be betrayed by Judas, abandoned by his other disciples, and handed over to the Romans for crucifixion. But here was a man so content – a contentment that was not determined by his external circumstances, which couldn’t have gotten much worse, but one that was grounded in the love that his Father had for him – that he was not wrapped up in his own desperate situation but had the presence of mind and heart to meet a need created by dirty feet.
That’s convicting, isn’t it? Because often we beg off helping others and living sacrificial lives because we think our trials and problems are bigger than other people’s dirty-feet-sort-of-problems. You know how you learn to love people like Jesus? You learn to love them in part by being content in God. This was the secret of Jesus: “Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God.” This is what Paul had learned: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
So let’s be clear: this is contentment in God. We are able to be content with such things as we have because we know that our lives don’t consist in the things we possess (cf. Lk. 12:15). This is what we are to resolve. For, as our Lord put it, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt. 6:24). Therefore, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (6:19-21). So let us be content and “take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (6:31-33). This is the blessed resolve.
A Biblical Reason
The Lord generally doesn’t just tell us to do things; he gives us reasons in his word and explains why we are to do them. Here we have a reason to pursue contentment in God, and once again it is a Biblical reason. This is a quote from multiple places in the Old Testament: “For he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (cf. Josh. 1:5, along with Gen. 28:15; Dt. 31:6; 1 Chron. 28:20). We can add to this the testimony of our Lord to his church: “and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Mt. 28:20).
The author piles up negatives here to make his point, sometimes with double and even triple negatives, so that we have here an “emphatic future negative” (William Lane). This is about as strong a negation as you can get in Greek, and what the author is reminding us is that God will never leave or forsake his people or abandon them in trouble. It is utterly impossible that this should happen. It will not happen because it cannot happen. It cannot happen because God has given his word on it, and as we have already read in this letter, God is a God who cannot lie (Heb. 6:18).
Now think about both the meaning and the magnitude of this promise. We are not promised piles of money, nor are we promised the finest of health. We aren’t promised fame. We aren’t promised success in our business. We aren’t promised that our families will always give us reasons to smile. No, we are promised something infinitely better: we are promised God himself.
And of course, as Paul put it, if God is for us, who can be against us? If God is for us and with us, then we can be certain that whatever happens, it will happen for our good and his glory (Rom. 8:28-31). This is why our contentment must rest in God, for that is in fact the basis given here for it.
This is a superior blessing. There is no greater blessing than this. Take, for instance, the blessing of answered prayer. As great a blessing as answered prayer is, God is better. When we pray, the greatest thing is not that God gives us what we want every time and when we want it. Sometimes we pray for stupid things, not realizing that if he gave those things to us, it would hurt us in the long run. So God doesn’t always give us what we pray for, and that is a good thing. We shouldn’t therefore judge the benefits of prayer or the usefulness of prayer on the basis of whether or not God always says yes to us when we pray. Thank God that in prayer we don’t come to a cosmic Coke machine! No, the greatest blessing is that when we pray, God hears us. This is part of what it means that God is with us. There is no prayer, no matter how feeble, no matter how meager, offered by one of his people, that he does not hear. This is what the psalmist rejoices in: “I love the LORD,” he says, “because he hath heard my voice, and my supplications. Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live” (Ps. 116:1-2).
Now it is true that God very often does say yes to our prayers. He delights to do so. He does so for the same reason he says no: because he loves us and is with us. He will never leave us or forsake us. He hears our cries when we cry to him and we can be sure that he will always act for us with love and wisdom and grace.
Not only is this a superior blessing; it is also a strengthening blessing. When you look at the Old and New Testament passages that give us this promise, what you also see is that God will always enable his children to do what he has asked them to do. He doesn’t give us a task and then leave us to fend for ourselves. So when God addresses himself to Jacob who was fleeing out of the land of promise in order to avoid being killed by his brother Esau, God promises that he will be with him and part of that meant bringing Jacob back to the land of promise. This is exactly what happened. When Joshua was about to enter Canaan, he was entering into a land where he was vastly outnumbered and outgunned (so to speak), but God promises to be with him, and that meant giving the armies of Israel victory over their enemies. That is exactly what happened. When David gave Solomon the task of building the temple, one of the ways he encouraged his son was that God would be with him. And God was with him and enabled him to build that incredibly beautiful temple.
So when our Lord gives the Great Commission to his church in Matthew 28:18-20 and tells us to make disciples of all the nations, he immediately follows this by saying that he will be with us to the end of the age, meaning that he will always be present in the church enabling and empowering us to do what he has asked us to do.
Now how does this relate to contentment? It means that if, by believing the promise that he will be with us, we find our treasure in Christ and don’t go off, like Demas and Balaam and a thousand others, looking for it in human praise or earthly wealth or temporal comforts, then we are going to be truly content. We ought to find our contentment in Christ. As St. Augustine put it, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. And since he never leaves us or forsakes us, our contentment does not need to depend upon our external circumstances. This again connects to the overall theme of perseverance because few things will undo our commitment to Christ faster than the love of the world and the love of money (cf. 1 Jn. 2:15-17; Jam. 4:1-4). Those who are content in Christ will not quickly walk away from Christ.
Now, what does this look like? What we are exhorted here to do is to be content with what we have. And the reason why we are to do this is that God promises to give himself to us and never to leave us. This also gives us the how: we find contentment by finding it in God. But we now come to the question: how do we know that we have found this contentment? What kind of person does it make us? And that brings us to our last point.
A Bold Response
The result of believing the truth of verse 5 is verse 6: “So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.” The outcome is courage and boldness and fearlessness. Because God is with us, he will help us. We will find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). Those who know they have God for their help cannot help but be confident. It is not in ourselves but in the Lord that we are strong and in the power of his might (Eph. 6:10).
Now you would think that the author would go on to say, since this is about fighting covetousness and inculcating contentment, that the effect of believing that God is our treasure is that we are not afraid of losing our earthly possessions. In other words, you might expect him to say, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what material things I can lose.” But that is not what he says. Instead, he says that we will not fear what man can do to us. Now why would he say it that way?
Well, one reason might be that he is quoting from Ps. 118:6, “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear; what can man do unto me?” The first part of this quote connects quite well with verse 5: because God is with us, he is on our side and we need not fear. So maybe he just completes the quote and that is the reason this thing about not fearing man is there.
But I think there is another reason. I think it is this: the things that produce covetousness in us are things that men can take away. What do we covet? It is more wealth? Well, men can take that away from us. Is it a better job? They can take that. Is it more fame, being better liked by others? You can get canceled. Is it more earthly security and comfort? People can take that from you, too. In fact, men can take your life: “For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (Rom. 8:36). Those who are covetous are those who are at the mercy of men. But when our hope is in God, when our contentment is in Christ, that is something that no one can take away. It is why our Lord said, “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both body and soul in hell” (Mt. 10:28). He goes on to say, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (29-31).
We often fear because we seek in men what we can only find in God. However, when we find our contentment in God, when we find sufficiency and strength and stability and sweetness in Christ, we obtain what no man can take away. And that is the kind of thing that makes for courageous Christians. These are the kinds of people who are willing to sacrifice for the Lord because they already have their most precious possession and it can never be taken away, not even by death.
What does a content person look like? Well, we’ve already considered the example of our Lord. Let us also then consider the apostle Paul, this man who had learned the secret of contentment. He put it this way to the elders of the Ephesian church: “Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons, serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with many tears, and temptations, which befell me by the lying in wait of the Jews: and how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house, testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there: save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:18-24). I want to be like that, and I want you to be like that: men and women who do not count their lives dear to themselves in order to serve Christ and be his witness in a fallen world.
And at the end of the day, that is the test of whether or not we have truly attained this contentment and whether or not we have truly avoided the perils of covetousness. It is proved in a life of courageous faith for Jesus.
Now I wonder if there are some here for whom this is hardly appealing. I wonder if there is someone here who has no desire to seek this kind of contentment, at least not the kind commended in this text. You have no desire to seek contentment in Christ. You have no desire to say with Paul, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). You might think that loving money is just fine. In fact, you prefer money to God. Well, I have just one word to say to you: you are not saved. You are yet in your sins and if you die in that condition, all the money in the world will not alleviate the just punishment you will receive in the age to come. To turn your back on God, to yawn at his glory so that you can pursue the trinkets of this world is an evil of infinite proportions. Yes, there is a hell, and it is not only a hell for those who refuse to repent of their sexual immorality, it is also a hell for those who refuse to repent of their greed and love of the world: “But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition” (1 Tim. 6:9). Do you know to whom our Lord told the parable of the rich man who “in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments” (Lk. 16:23)? It was to the Pharisees “who were covetous” (16:14). May the Lord open your eyes to see your danger and above all to see the value of God and that in comparison to him everything else is dirt.
And if you are convicted this morning that you have not sought first the kingdom of heaven and that instead you have preferred the things of earth to the things of God, then praise the God of sovereign grace for that, and repent of your sins and turn to Christ in faith. For it is only his blood that can cleanse us from our sins and his righteousness that can put us right with God and only his Spirit who can give us holy desires and enable us to order our affections so that we will know true joy and blessing and contentment.
And that is what we should all do. Paul, having spoken about being content, said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” We should all look to Jesus our Lord and find grace to help in every
time of need, to find the resolve to be content, to believe the reasons in Scripture given to motivate us to do so, and to find the holy boldness to live out a sacrificial life of joy and service in the name of Christ for others.