Sunday, November 13, 2022

A Prayerful Close to a Powerful Epistle (Hebrews 13:18-25)

 

What is the epistle to the Hebrews? What was the author trying to do? Well, he tells us in verse 22, when he writes, “And I beseech you, brethren, suffer the word of exhortation: for I have written a letter unto you in a few words.” It is fundamentally a word of exhortation. That is, it is not something just to read and move on; this is meant to move the audience to action. It is very much like a written sermon with the same ends that a sermon has. A sermon doesn’t just attempt to inform, though it should do that. Nor does it just attempt to move a person emotionally, though it ought to do that. A sermon is a word of exhortation, a message whose content is intended to change the life.

And as we have moved through this letter, I hope you have seen that the main thing the author has tried to exhort his readers to do is to persevere in their hope in Christ, despite all the discouragements they are facing. And to do that, he has argued for the supremacy of Christ. To do that, he has argued that Christ is the eternal and unchangeable Son of God, and that he is also the Son of Man who has become our High Priest before God. As such he is better than the angels (chapter 1-2), better than Moses (chapter 3), better than Joshua (chapter 4), and better than the priests and the sacrificial system they served (chapters 5-10). In calling them to persevere in their hope, he reminds them that they are not alone in the arduous journey to heaven, that there are generations of faithful and believing saints that join him in encouraging them to endure to the end (chapters 11-12).

And so we come to the end of this great letter in chapter 13. As we come to the end, I want you to notice that it essentially ends in prayer. In verses 18-19, the author asks his audience to pray for him. Then in verses 20-21, he prays for them. Though it is true that verses 22-25 deal with some final bits of information for the audience (such as the release of Timothy from prison), the real conclusion of this epistle comes with verses 18-21, which are all about prayer. And of course, the formal conclusion of the letter is a prayer in itself: “Grace be with you all. Amen” (25).

This is the right way to end. It is the right way, because God is the only one who can accomplish the ends for which this epistle was written. God is the only one who can open blind eyes to see the glory of Christ and change hearts to receive him as Lord and Savior. And God is the only one who can guarantee our perseverance in the faith to the end. And so as we end our consideration of this epistle, I want us to consider the importance and place that prayer ought to have with us. And then I want to close by considering what kinds of prayer are requested and offered so that we will pray these kinds of prayers too. Or, to put it a bit differently, I want to consider why we pray, and then for what we pray.

Why we pray

Because God commands us to pray.

The fundamental reason why we pray is because God commands us to pray. There is no better reason than this! “Call upon me in the day of trouble,” says the Lord, “I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me” (Ps. 50:15). Our Lord talks about “when ye pray,” not “if ye pray” and teaches us how to pray in Matthew 6:6-15. One of his parables in Luke 18, the parable of the unjust judge, was told “to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (1).

The apostle Paul writes that prayer is the way we wear the Christian armor: “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints” (Eph. 6:18). He exhorts the Thessalonians, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), and to Timothy he

writes, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all [meaning: of first importance], supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men” (1 Tim. 2:1), and goes on to say, “I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting” (8).

On the other hand, a lack of prayer is a sign of godlessness. The prophet Isaiah lamented over the apostasy of his day, and this is the way he lamented: “And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities” (Isa. 64:7).

Because God promises to bless those who pray.

So we pray because we are commanded to pray. But that is not the only reason to pray. God gives us many encouragements to call upon his name. There are great and breathtaking promises attached to the call to prayer. In fact, you see it there in Psalm 50 – God promises to deliver those who call upon his name. But this is not in one or two places; it’s all over the Bible. For example, our Lord put it this way to his disciples: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye ask anything in my name, I will do it" (Jn. 14:12-14). A few verses later, he essentially repeats this promise: “If ye abide in me,” he says, “and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (Jn. 15:7).

Or there are several promises in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, in Mt. 6:6, our Lord tells us, “but thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Or this: “Ask, and it shall be given unto you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Mt. 7:7-11).

The apostle James reminds us of the promise for wisdom to those who ask (King Solomon is an example of this!): “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (Jam. 1:5). At the end of his epistle, he gives this advice: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.” (5:14-18).

The God who cannot lie has given us these promises. Let us therefore bank on them!

But there is an implicit warning in the above promises that we must not miss. If God promises to bless those who pray, if he promises to give to those who ask, seek, and knock, what about those who never ask, seek, or knock? What about those who do not pray? What about those who take God’s blessings for granted? These promises don’t mean anything if it doesn’t matter whether we pray or not. God

commands us to pray, he expects us to pray. And that means we can expect to not expect more blessings when we don’t pray.

Now God is a good Father. He will not let his children down, even if they are too stupid to pray. But those who refuse to pray are keeping themselves from wonderful blessings that they might have had otherwise.

But what about unanswered prayer?

One of the arguments that Richard Dawkins gives in his book The God Delusion against the existence of God is the fact of unanswered prayer. In his book, he cites a study that was done in which some folks were tasked to pray for selected sick people in a hospital, and notes that prayer really did not give any statistical advantage to those who were prayed for. But even apart from arguments from guys like Dawkins, I think a lot of us know by experience the reality of unanswered prayer. In fact, it’s in the Bible. Every time a Biblical writer cries out, “How long, O Lord?” he is giving witness to the painful reality of unanswered prayer (cf. Ps. 13:1-6; Hab. 1:2). God just doesn’t say yes to every prayer. In fact, the apostle Paul himself gives witness to this as well: “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). God said no to Paul’s prayer; he didn’t relieve him of the thorn but gave him grace to bear it.

Now some will say that prayer is unanswered because of little or no faith. There is some truth to that: our Lord could not do many might miracles in “his own country” “because of their unbelief” (Mt. 13:58). The Lord will not honor unbelief (cf. Jam. 1:6-7). However, that doesn’t quite explain it, for surely we cannot say that Paul’s thorn didn’t get removed because of his unbelief! No, the fact of the matter is that God doesn’t always say yes to our prayers, no matter how much faith we have.

On the other hand, God seems to often give great blessings to those who are ungodly, who may in fact never pray! Our Lord himself said that God gives rain on the just and the unjust (Mt. 5:45). The psalmist noted: “For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment. Their eyes stand out with fatness: they have more than heart could wish. They are corrupt, and speak wickedly concerning oppression: they speak loftily. They set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue walketh through the earth. Therefore his people return hither: and waters of a full cup are wrung out to them. And they say, How doth God know? and is there knowledge in the most High? Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches” (Ps. 73:3-12). These are not praying people, for they don’t think God notices or cares about humanity, even if he does exist. These are prayerless people who nevertheless get on quite well without prayer, thank you very much!

What are we to say to that, especially in light of the promises we’ve considered? The problem of unanswered prayer is really only an apparent problem which you get when you get the purpose and method of prayer wrong. The following principles need to be regarded.

First, the promise of answered prayer is always associated with asking in the Lord’s name, with abiding in him and in his word. And we should not think of asking in the name of the Lord in terms of a mere formula. This is praying so “that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn. 14:13). In other words, there is a type of prayer to which the promise is attached: it is the kind of prayer that brings glory to the Father in the Son. Not every prayer we pray does that, and we should thank God he does not answer those types of prayers. God would neither be wise nor loving to do so. The apostle John puts it this way: “And this is the confidence that we have in him [Christ], that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us” (1 Jn. 5:14). Not every prayer is a prayer according to his will even when it is prayed by someone with a lot of faith.

Second, the purpose of prayer is not so that we can make our lives as comfortable on this earth as we can possibly be. If that were the case, then perhaps the problem of unanswered prayer and the prosperity of the wicked might be a problem. But that is not the only or even the main reason we pray. We pray because God is our Father through Jesus Christ our Lord. We pray because it is natural for children to bring their burdens to their father. We pray because it is right for us to express our dependence upon Christ in every way and at all times. We pray because it is in prayer that we experience fellowship with God. In other words, the main purpose of prayer is to express through praise, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication our relationship with God as our Father through the Son by the Spirit. This is the point that the apostle makes in his letter to the Romans: “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16).

But there is another roadblock to praying. This doesn’t come from a lack of belief in God but from a very robust view of God. It comes from the conviction that God is sovereign and that whatever he ordains comes to pass. The question is then asked: if God is sovereign, why pray? Won’t his will get done anyway?

So what about the sovereignty of God?

I believe that God’s decree is sovereign and all-encompassing. I believe this because this is what the Bible teaches: “in whom [Christ] also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things [not some or most but all] after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11). I also believe that prayer is effective and necessary, and that it is right to say that certain blessings depend upon our praying for them. But how do we put both these things together?

Well, let me put it to you in the words of C. H. Spurgeon. He put it this way, and I don’t think I can improve upon it, so I’ll give it to you in his own words:

Why should the Church continue in prayer? For several reasons, and the first is, God will answer her. It is not possible that God should refuse to hear prayer. It is possible for him to bid the sun stand still, and the moon to stay her monthly march; it is possible for him to bid the waves freeze in the sea, possible for him to quench the light of the stars in eternal darkness, but it is not possible for him to refuse to hear prayer which is based upon his promise and offered in faith. He can reverse nature, but he cannot reverse his own nature, and he must do this before he can forbear to hear and answer prayer. The prayers of God’s Church are God’s intentions—you will not misunderstand me—what God writes in the book of his decree, which no eye can see, that he in process of time writes in the book of Christian hearts where all can see and read. The book of the believer’s desire, if those desires be inspired of the Holy Spirit, is just an exact copy of the book ofthe divine decree. And if the Church be determined today to lift up her heart in prayer for the conversion of men, it is because God determined from before all worlds that men should be converted; your feeble prayer today, believer, can fly to heaven, and awake the echoes of the slumbering decrees of God... Prayer is a decree escaped out of the prison of obscurity, and come to life and liberty among men. Pray, brother, pray, for when God inspires you, your prayer is as potent as the decrees of God.1

Do you hear what he is saying? If God has ordained that something should happen, he will put it in the hearts of his people to pray. You see, it is precisely the sovereignty of God that makes our prayers both effective and necessary. We pray, not in spite of the fact that God is sovereign, but because he is sovereign!

What we pray for

Well, let’s look now more particularly at the content of the prayers here at the end of Hebrews 13. I want you to notice that he requests prayers from them (Heb. 13:18-19) and then prays a prayer for them (20- 21). Let me just notice in passing that these are prayers from the saints for the saints. We need to pray with each other, and we need to pray for each other. Let’s beware of becoming entirely self-focused in our praying. It’s not for no reason that our Lord teaches us to pray with plural pronouns: Our Father, give us this day our daily bread, and so on.

The prayer from them

“Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly. But I beseech you the rather to do this, that I may be restored to you the sooner” (18-19). You might think that since each believer has God for his or her Father, it makes no difference whether we pray for them or not. After all, won’t God take care of them? Yes, of course he will. But again, this mistakes the meaning and purpose of prayer. We don’t pray to inform the Father of our needs or the needs of others, for he already knows our needs before we ask (cf. Mt. 6:8). Instead, we should see prayer for each other as an important way our mutual dependence upon God is expressed and as an important way that our hearts are united together. And for that reason, God is pleased to hear the prayers that the saints pray for each other. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life: But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us; Ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf” (2 Cor. 1:8-11). Thus, the apostle asks the Roman Christians to pray for him: “Now I beseech you, brethren, for the Lord Jesus Christ's sake, and for the love of the Spirit, that ye strive together with me in your prayers to God for me; That I may be delivered from them that do not believe in Judaea; and that my service which I have for Jerusalem may be accepted of the saints” (Rom. 15:30-31).

The fact that he encourages them to pray for him because (for) “we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly [well, good]” probably indicates that he wishes them to continue to pray that these things would be true of him. He is asking them to pray for him so that he will be able to continue to have a good conscience and in all things to live well before God (cf. Acts 24:16). He wants to be holy, and he is asking the saints to pray for him to that end. This is how we ought to pray for each other. Let’s pray that God’s kingdom come more and more in our lives, that his will be done more and more in our homes and in our church. That’s not to say we can’t pray for other things (like physical healing or a better job, etc.), but this ought to be the main thing we pray for each other (think about how Paul prays for other believers in his letters and let this also be a pattern for us).

His prayer for them

Verses 20-21 is one of the great doxologies of the New Testament. But it is also a prayer: “Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (20- 21).

What is he praying for? He is praying that they would do God’s will more and more, indeed, that God would equip them with everything they need to do this. He is praying that they would do what pleases God. Just as he desires to be more holy himself, he prays for them that they too would be holy.

In other words, he is praying that they persevere in holiness. Not just that they barely make it over the finish line, but that they flourish in their walk with the Lord and bear much fruit for his glory. This final prayer really is therefore connected to the overall burden of this epistle. For at the end of the day, perseverance in the faith to the end is not just a matter of focusing on the end; it’s also a matter of daily life. It’s a matter of daily dying to sin and self and living to God. It’s a matter of daily refusing to be conformed to the world in the little things as well as the big things. It’s a matter of daily being transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom. 12:1-2). Thus, it’s a matter of daily holiness and of growing in holiness. So the prayer that they are made perfect in every good work to do God’s will really is a prayer that they would persevere in faith and holiness to the end.

Now prayers like this are very instructive, theologically. The object of the prayer is that they would do something, namely, God’s will. He is hardly imagining them passive in this. This is something they are very active in doing. They are the ones doing God’s will. But the one making them, equipping them, is God. The one working in them so that they work, is God. What they are praying for is a reminder that we are active and responsible to live holy lives. Who they are praying to is a reminder that God is ultimately decisive in enabling us to do his will. It is the prayerful expression of Phil. 2:12-13, “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”

Hence, we notice the basis of our confidence in prayer. It is not confidence in man but in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is confidence in the grace of God over our sin (for the blood of Christ was shed as a sacrifice for sin), in the victory of God over our death (for Jesus who died was raised from the dead), and in the faithfulness of God over our broken promises (for the blood is the blood of the eternal covenant). It is the benevolence and love that our Lord Jesus has for us, for he is the good shepherd of the sheep. He gives his life for them so that they might have eternal life. This reminds us that God desires to and in fact will save and sanctify his people. This is therefore no idle prayer.

Over it all stands the God of peace. For the Christian, God is the God of peace, for he has through Jesus his Son brought those who believe in him into fellowship and friendship with him.

And it is ultimately a prayer for the glory of God, which is why it is also a doxology. God is glorified in us when the good in us is the result of his work for us and in us. God gets the glory for the good works of his people because we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10). God gets the glory because he doesn’t just put us in a position where we can on our own please him – he actually recreates our hearts so that we willingly please him and do his will. We don’t therefore praise ourselves but the Lord from whom all our good comes.

Brothers and sisters, this is why, despite the opposition of Satan and a hostile world, and despite our own weakness and frailty, we can have confidence that we will glorify God through lives that please him. We can have confidence because God is the one who enables us to do so. And the end of God-pleasing lives is the glory of God which is the end for which God has created everything. You can be sure then that God will do it. The book of Hebrews ends on prayer because prayer centers the heart and mind on God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Prayer takes the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world and makes it personal. In prayer, we call upon the name of the Lord and are saved. We are saved because the God to whom we pray is the sovereign God, the gracious God, the promise-keeping God, the eternal God, the unchanging God.

Metropolitan Tabernacle, vol. 7. Sermon No. 354, “A Sermon for the Week of Prayer”

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Sunday, November 6, 2022

The Exclusive and Superior Priesthood of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 13:8-16)

As we come to the end of this letter, what we find is that the author is summarizing the argument of the whole in these final verses. And what we find here are several of the great themes of the epistle in the compass of a few short verses. We see the priesthood of our Lord underlined once again in verse 12, where we are reminded that he is the one who sanctifies his people by his own blood. Indeed, he is the altar of verse 10. We also see the superiority of Jesus, especially over against the claims of a Christless Judaism. In fact, as we shall see, this is the burden and heart of this paragraph. Finally, we see the exclusivity of Jesus, for we are told, “We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle” (10). “Those who serve the tabernacle” is shorthand for those who reject Jesus and his New Covenant in favor of the Old Covenant. The author of Hebrews is arguing that those who do so have no right to our Lord’s altar and sacrifice. In other words, the benefits of the atonement of our Lord are exclusive in the sense that those who reject it have no rights to it. There is no other way to the Father apart from Christ (cf. John 14:6).

Now we live in a world which frankly rejects this. It rejects the exclusivity of the claims of Christ and argues that any kind of vague spirituality will do when it comes to relating to God. It also rejects the superiority of Christ and argues that the Christian religion in particular is a relic that needs to be discarded into the wastebin of history. Of course, the world in which we live generally does not see any need for an atonement for sins before God, for it has no categories for a Biblical understanding of who God is and what man is, what sin is, and the need for cosmic justice.

Over against the culture’s rejection of Christ and his claims, I want to hold up through the lens of Hebrews 13:8-16 our Lord’s exclusivity and his superiority in light of his role as our priest before God. And I hope that you will see this and be so convinced of the greatness and goodness of Jesus that you will not be tempted by desires and hopes for other saviors and salvations. My desire is that you will see Christ today and hear him today through his word and that in seeing and hearing you will love him and trust him and obey him as your priest before God.

The Exclusivity of Jesus

To see this emphasis in these verses, I think it will be important for us to consider the background to the text before us. What is meant by the reference to foods in verse 9? And what is the reference behind verse 11, and how is Jesus being compared to that in verse 12? Well, to understand this we need to understand the Day of Atonement and what happened to the sacrifices on that day. This feast is one of the most holy days in the Mosaic calendar and it is chronicled for us at length in Leviticus 16.

As you might know, it was on this day, and on this day only, that the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies, that inner chamber of the tabernacle or temple where the Ark of the Covenant lay. On that day, he would take the blood of a bullock and the blood of a goat and sprinkle their blood on the Mercy Seat as a sin offering. In this way, the sins of Israel were ceremonially cleansed, and the Israelites were granted the favor of God’s continuing presence in their midst.

Now usually, the priests ate a part of the sin offering (cf. Lev. 6:26, 29; 10:17). But not so on the Day of Atonement; on that day, the entire sacrifice was burned up. Not only was it burned up, but it was burned outside the camp. The key text is Lev. 16:27 – “And the bullock for the sin offering, and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall one carry forth without the camp; and they shall burn in the fire their skins, and their flesh and their dung.” Of course, the way this would have worked in the days when the Jerusalem temple had replaced the tabernacle, the offerings would have been burned outside the city.

This is the background to our text. It illuminates the reference to foods in verse 9 as well as the following verses. All this is a reference, in other words, to the rituals surrounding the Day of Atonement in particular and to the Law of Moses in general. In other words, those folks who “have been occupied” with “meats” are folks who are concerned with keeping the food laws of the Old Covenant. They are concerned with what was clean and unclean, as set down by Moses. In other words, these are people who are trying to relate to God, not through Jesus Christ, but through their keeping of the Law of Moses. It is for this reason that we read in verse 9, “For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats, which have not profited them that have been occupied therein.” The Law came by Moses; grace and truth by Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:17). Those who reject Jesus but keep the Law are left with nothing more than various food laws and other religious regulations than cannot give heart-establishing grace.

Moreover, those who do so have no right to Jesus (10). He is the altar at which every believer in Christ worship and approaches God. Those who “serve the tabernacle” in this context are those who keep the Law while rejecting Jesus. Thus “they have no right to eat” at this altar. They have their own meat and food, but it is not the food that gives life. Do you remember what our Lord said? “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51). The altar is Jesus, and his flesh is the food that gives life, the very thing that those who served the tabernacle rejected.

Now in verses 11-12, the point is that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement. He is the one to whom the entire holy day pointed. It is his blood and his sacrifice that it pointed to. But more than that: it pointed to the fact that he would suffer outside the city walls of Jerusalem, just as the bodies of the sacrifices were burned outside the camp.

So with all that in mind, there seems to be two big points that the author is making. First, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses and in particular of the Day of Atonement. Second, it is in light of this fulfillment that he can say that it is at the altar of Jesus that God’s people find food that gives eternal life, whereas those who reject Jesus for the Law are left without. They have “meats,” but this is not the food that gives life, for that can only be found in Jesus. Just as the priests on the Day of Atonement couldn’t eat those sacrifices, even so those who clung to the Old Covenant while rejecting Jesus couldn’t eat of his sacrifice.

In other words, our author is establishing through the language of OT figure and type the exclusivity of Jesus. Those who reject Jesus have no right to eat at the altar of his sacrifice (10). But who then has this right? The apostle John answers the question, doesn’t he? “He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the power [authority or right – same word as in Heb. 13:10] to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (Jn. 1:11-12). Our Lord had explained it this way in John 6: those who eat his flesh and drink his blood – in other words, those who partake in the benefits of his sacrifice – are those who believe in him. As he puts it in John 6:35, “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me will never hunger; and he that believeth in me shall never thirst.”

But why is the exclusivity of Jesus so important? You might say, “So what? I don’t care whether or not I have the right to eat at his altar.” Well, let’s consider what you can only get through Jesus, and in no other way. It is here that we now meet with the superiority of Jesus.

The Superiority of Jesus Christ

What I next want to point out from these verses is that Jesus gives us three things that no one else can give. But each of these three things depends fundamentally upon an even more basic and wonderful attribute of our Lord: his unchanging character. This is highlighted in verse 8, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever.” In an ever-changing world, these are sweet, sweet words. As the hymn- writer put it:

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day; 
earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away. 
Change and decay in all around I see.
O thou who changest not, abide with me.

This reality is especially sweet when we see what they are connected to. We see from these verses that our Lord is unchanging in the grace he gives, in the atonement he provides, and in the city he builds.

Jesus is unchanging in the grace he gives.

Recall verse 9: “Be not carried about with divers [varied] and strange doctrines. For it is a good thing that the heart be established with grace; not with meats, which have not profited them that have been occupied therein.” The different and strange teaching to which the author alludes is the effort of some to draw these believers away from Christ and his saving work and to rely instead upon their identity as Jews and their keeping of the Law of Moses. But the Law does not give grace. It can provide a witness to Jesus, but if you don’t acknowledge him, it’s not even good for that. On the other hand, Jesus gives grace. In fact, all grace from God comes through Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:17). The “exceeding riches of [God’s] grace in his kindness toward us” are “through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7).

The thing is that you don’t have to be a first-century Jew to feel the pull towards the Law as the basis of your relationship towards God. Ask most people why they think God will let them into heaven, and the most common answer will be something along the lines of, “I’ve been a pretty good person. God knows my heart. He knows that I’ve always tried to be kind to others.” In other words, they are not really banking on grace; they are trusting in their own righteousness. They believe that their good works will get them into heaven.

The problem with this is that when we trust in our good works, we aren’t thinking of our responsibility before God on the terms that God demands. We are only thinking of how we treated people, and we are only doing so in comparison to other people. We treat escaping God’s holy and just wrath the way we might treat escaping the claws of a bear: as long as we can outrun other people, we’ll be okay. And so we think that as long as we are as good as, or maybe a little better than, most people, we won’t have to worry about the judgment of God.

This is tragically wrong on a number of levels. First of all, our main problem is not how we treated other people; our main problem is how we’ve failed to love God with all our hearts. We haven’t been thankful for God’s gifts. We don’t care about God’s law; we have been a law unto ourselves. We may profess with our lips that God exists and even call ourselves “spiritual,” but unless we have been changed by a miracle of the heart-renovating work of the Holy Spirit, unless we have been born again, we will live as if God doesn’t even exist. Second, there’s a problem with our standard. The standard is not how we compare with other people. The standard is the perfection of the holy law of God. Being better than others won’t get anyone into heaven; only perfect obedience will. God is holy; why should he let a sinner into heaven?

You might reply, “Because God is loving.” Yes, God is loving. But God’s love is a holy love. It is also a sovereign love, and he is under no obligation to love a corrupt and wicked worm. We cannot get away from the fact that God is holy and that our sins bring us under his just and holy wrath.

This is what the Bible says about those who try to relate to God on the basis of their own goodness: “as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10). This verse is just saying that God only accepts perfect obedience and that anything else brings you under his just curse. But who can say that they are perfect before God? No one can! For as the Scriptures teach, and as our own consciences testify, “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

So if you’re hoping that “being good enough” is all you need to guarantee eternal life, you are grievously mistaken. No one can be justified before God on the basis of good works. No one.

How then are people rescued from the eternal consequences of their sins? The apostle Paul tells us: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one 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” (Gal. 3:13-14). What this verse is saying is that Christ suffered the curse of the law in the place of his people, “the just for the unjust that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). He is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement; he is the sin offering whose blood is sprinkled before God for the forgiveness of sins. He is the sacrifice on whose head the sins of his people are laid, enduring the punishment for their sins, so that they might be released from the penalty of their sins. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). As our text puts it, he sanctifies the people with his own blood (Heb. 13:12).

Why go through all this? Well, for one thing; it’s the good news of the gospel. But you need to understand this if you really want to understand what grace from God really is. Biblical grace is gospel grace; there is no other kind (cf. Acts 20:24). What grace means is not just that God goes easy on you. It’s not just that you don’t get what you deserve. It’s much, much more than that. To have God’s grace, you must belong to God’s Son, to Jesus Christ. And if you belong to him, it means that he took all your sin, and it means that you get his perfect righteousness credited to your account. How do you know you belong to him? The answer to that question is the answer to this one: do you believe in the Son? Do you trust in him? Have you received him as Lord and Savior? That is the test.

Now if this is true of you, it means that there is nothing for you to do to merit God’s favor. Did you hear that? Nothing! It means that there is no sin that threatens your acceptance with the Father, and that there is no good work that you need to do to keep that relationship with the Father. The child of God doesn’t work for God’s favor; he or she works from God’s favor. We only fight forgiven sins:

He breaks the power of cancelled sin.

This is what it means to be a recipient of God’s grace. Grace doesn’t mean that Christ did most of the work of salvation and now the rest is up to you; no, it means that all the righteousness needed for the everlasting favor of God is found in Christ, not in us. So you see that grace is not just God looking the other way; nor does it mean that God just goes easy on us. It is that all the demands and requirements of justice have been fully satisfied in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Moreover, this is grace from him who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The grace of our Lord doesn’t wear out or grow old. He doesn’t change, which means that he is always gracious towards his people. It is the backdrop of passages like Heb. 4:14-16, “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”

These verses also show that grace doesn’t just mean that God is favorably disposed towards us; it also means that he moves to our help. That is the sense in our text: God’s grace establishes our hearts. He cleanses and purifies them; he unites our hearts to fear his name. But the fact that God calls the help he gives us grace is a reminder that the help we ask for is not help we get because we deserve it but help we get because we are in Christ.

So go to Christ for grace. And go and go and go, because his grace is an unchangeable grace, it is a never- ending grace.

Look, there is no one and no place you can go for this kind of grace. You won’t find it in people; you won’t find it in any religion apart from Christ. He is superior to every competitor, for his grace is greater than all our sin.

Jesus is unchanging in the atonement he provides

Our Lord sanctifies his people by his blood. He is the altar at which we find peace with God. He is the one by whom we find redemption. By him we can be released from the penalty and power of sin. By him the guilt of our sin is fully dealt with. By him we can be reconciled to God, so that we who were once enemies can now be friends. By him we can be released from the holy wrath of God against our sin.

And this atonement our Lord provided is not something that has to be achieved over and over again. Remember the words of this epistle in chapter 10: “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: but this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (10-14).

In other words, the atonement is unchanging in its effectiveness. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever in terms of his ability to save all who come to him. There is no need to add to his work; no need to contribute to our own redemption.

Jesus is unchanging in the city he builds.

I love verse 14: “For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” It is the city that Abraham sought: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (11:8- 10). And, “But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (16).

We may be strangers and pilgrims in this world, but we have an eternal home. It is an inheritance which is both imperishable and unchanging, reserved in heaven for those who belong to Jesus (1 Pet. 1:4). The greatest inheritance in this earth will be taken away. Death allows us to take nothing with us. As the apostle Paul put it, we came into this world with nothing, and we will go out with nothing (1 Tim. 6:7). But for the Christian, death is only the door to glory. It is the entrance into our eternal home.

But I think it’s important for us to also remember the first part of this verse: “For here have we no continuing city.” He has not promised that if we have enough faith and keep our noses clean that we will have a nice life or achieve the American Dream. Our Lord’s life was not like that; the apostles’ lives were not like that. So we shouldn’t get upset with God if our dreams for this life aren’t coming true. He hasn’t promised you a nice ride this side of heaven. What he has promised is an eternal city in the presence of God forever. There is no bait and switch. He hasn’t promised earthly health, wealth, fame, and comfort, so if we don’t have that it’s not because God is unfaithful. He is faithful. If you belong to Jesus, you have a city, a home in heaven, a place prepared for you.

In these three ways, our Lord demonstrates his superiority over his competitors. No one gives grace like Jesus, provides an atonement like him, or prepares a city for his people like he does.

How we should respond to these truths

On the one hand, we should not think that we relate to God and gain his favor through sacrifices that we make. But on the other hand, there is a kind of sacrifice that pleases God. They are not sacrifices to gain his favor, but rather sacrifices in response to his grace. Three are mentioned in verses 13-16.

The first is the sacrifice of the self, the taking of the cross to follow Jesus. You see this in verse 13: “Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach.” The language here carries the exact same meaning of our Lord’s words to his disciples that to follow him they must take their cross. Jesus took a cross; so must we. Jesus endured the reproach of sinners outside the city gates; so must we. We must be willing to be considered outsiders because we are. We have no continuing city here, but we seek the one that is to come.

But it is only when we are convinced of the exclusivity and superiority of Jesus to everyone and everything else that we will take our crosses and follow him like this. Why would you otherwise? If there are other options out there, why would you follow Jesus? If it doesn’t matter if you follow him or not, why would you? But the exclusivity of Jesus as the only way to the Father shows us that this is not optional. On the other hand, if there are better options out there, why would you follow Jesus? If something else can give you something better, why not go for that? But no one can give you gospel grace. No one can give you salvation from sin that you didn’t merit. Only our Lord can do that. No one else can truly and fully atone for your sins in your place. No one else can give you an inheritance in heaven; only Jesus Christ can do that. He is the exclusive and the superior way to the Father.

Then there is the sacrifice of praise. You see that in verse 15: “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.” Of course, the language of sacrifice here is not to indicate that praising God is a hard thing! Rather, the language of sacrifice is used in the sense of something offered to God. And it’s praise, not propitiation. Again, we don’t offer to God to get his favor or to merit his love. We offer praise to God in response to his grace towards us in and through Jesus Christ. In fact, the only appropriate response to the gift of God to us in Christ is to receive it with faith and thanksgiving.

Note that word, continually. Paul wrote the Corinthians and warned them, in light of the example of the Israelites in the wilderness, “Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer” (1 Cor. 10:10). Murmuring is never good because it betrays a lack of contentment in God. It shows that we do not believe the Lord is taking care of us. It is the evidence of a lack of faith and joy in God. Hence, what should characterize us is therefore continual praise, an ongoing recognition that God is good and that God is faithful. It means that our praises should not be determined solely by our emotions, but that our heart should be calibrated by the doctrines we believe. Do you believe that by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourself; do you believe that salvation is from beginning to end a gift of God? Then praise him!

Finally, there is the sacrifice of good works. Note the order, this is so important. We don’t do good works to atone for our sins. We do good works because we have been atoned for our sins. Hence, we go on to read, “But to do good and to communicate [share, the word here is 𝑘𝑜𝑖𝑛𝑜̅𝑛𝑖𝑎] forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13:16).

Good works should be the outflow of grace in the life. It will be, in fact. Where there are no good works, you can be sure that there is no grace. And in particular, one good work that is mentioned is that of sharing what you have. If you are a recipient of God’s free and sovereign grace, and knowing that you have received salvation this way, how can you not want to share freely what you have with others? Is it not incongruous for a person to say that they believe in salvation by grace and yet be selfish and stingy? Sharing is the natural outflow of God’s grace in the life.

This is in fact how the apostle Paul sought to motivate the Corinthians to contribute for the poor saints in Jerusalem. In fact, he calls it a grace. He speaks to them “of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia” and goes on to describe how “that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality” (2 Cor. 8:1-2). “Therefore,” he writes, “as ye abound in everything, in faith, and in utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence, and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace also” (7). But he not only motivates them by the example of the Macedonians; above all, he points them to the grace of Christ: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (9). We show grace in concrete and specific ways because we have been given grace in Christ.

So, brothers and sisters, let’s not just get by. Let’s abound in grace and in the showing of grace. Let the praises of God be often on our lips and always in our hearts. Let us be willing to lay down our life for our. Lord and his kingdom. Why? Not to earn salvation, but because in Jesus it is the gift of free and sovereign grace.

A Prayerful Close to a Powerful Epistle (Hebrews 13:18-25)

  What is the epistle to the Hebrews? What was the author trying to do? Well, he tells us in verse 22, when he writes, “And I beseech you, b...