Sunday, March 1, 2009 (PM)
The Imperatives of Hebrews
The Book of Hebrews
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.”
“The book of Hebrews offers us, quite simply, Jesus. It offers us the Jesus who is there to help because he’s one of us, and has trodden the path before us. It offers us the Jesus who has inaugurated the new covenant, bringing to its fulfillment the age-old plan of God. And it offers us, above all, Jesus the final sacrifice; the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, who has lived our life and died our death, and now ever lives to make intercession for us.” (NT Wright, Following Jesus, 10)
The book of Hebrews begins by reminding us that God spoke, both in the past in various ways and with various means, and in the present in Christ Jesus. This is not an odd way to begin a book that has so many things to say about the finality of God’s voice in Jesus. In these last days, God has spoken to us. He has raised his voice above the din and clutter of noise that is all the other voices so easily heard, and clamoring to be hear, and He spoke. To us.
I am here stuck in the same awe that renowned theologian Karl Barth was stuck in: God spoke to us. Us! He desired that we hear his voice. He desired, and desires, that we engage him in active listening and active speaking. God’s word to us is not mere monologue: we pray, and sing, and worship in any variety of ways. William Willimon notes, “Who is the human being? Someone who is ‘summoned by this Word.’ Our great, God-given dignity is that God wants to talk to us. God speaks to us and what God says is, ‘I will be your God and you will be my people.’” (166) The essence of our existence is that God took initiative and spoke to us!
But Willimon makes another point too, and perhaps an even more important point about what we hear, what our task is as hearers, and our role as speakers:
“Knowledge of God is always in Barth linked to the call of God, communication and disclosure are always linked to commission and call, and revelation divinely given is linked to obedient human response. Our challenge, as preachers, is not to master God’s word but rather to develop the skills to listen to God without despising God for speaking to us. The God of the Bible who speaks is the God who commands and one wonders if many of our hermeneutical and homiletical strategies are designed to manage that command. For Barth, every single verse of scripture is a potential act of vocation. The question to be put to any of God’s three forms of proclamation is never simply, ‘Do I understand?’ or certainly not, ‘Do I agree?’ but rather, ‘How am I being called to change and commit through this word?’” (165)
So the book of Hebrews, as we call it, begins here with “God spoke.” This is the most radical thing God can do and did. He spoke to us in Jesus, his Son. Everything else flows from here and everything else said in the book only makes sense when we accept that God has spoken, in these last days, through his son. We have to get into our heads first who spoke and and how (in the Son) then we can get into our heads what he spoke and then we can try to understand why he spoke it. I think at some level, though, we hear his commands (‘what he spoke’) merely for what they are. They are words with a certain emphasis placed on them, perhaps an imperative, but as a command we are to act out under his watch they are perhaps nonsensical.
Radical Christianity, radical Scripture, Radical God is not for anyone and everyone. It is for those called together by this Son who is the exact character of God in the flesh. And Hebrews offers no apologies for taking such a radical approach to lived out faith. I’m not suggesting that only a few are invited. I think the invitation is wide open to any and all who hear and obey. What I am suggesting is that as we read through the book of Hebrews we hear the voice of God saying to us: Buckle up. It’s not going to be an easy go of things. You will be challenged at every step to turn back and quit. That is where I would like to break into this letter tonight and show you several major stops along the path that is Hebrews.
This book is filled with some of the most profound theology and Old Testament biblical exegesis in the entire canon. However, along the way, the author periodically stops and looks back in order that he might point forward. The call is radical: radical indeed. He speaks for a moment or two on some important issue, and that issue is always the superiority of Jesus or the better nature of the Jesus work, and then he challenges the reader. He marks off these challenges with the word ‘therefore’. There are eleven of these markers found in Hebrews. Let’s begin.
1. The first marker is found in chapter 2:1: “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”
What must we pay attention to? God spoke. We have to pay attention to what we hear from Christ who now speaks to us in these last days. He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Fact is, we cannot afford to not pay attention. There are many, many voices clamoring for our attention. The basis of our listening and paying attention is that Jesus is ‘superior angels’ and has ‘inherited a name that is superior.’ Therefore, we must pay attention. He warns us here that if we do not pay attention we will ‘drift away.’ We will be like a boat that has lost its tether and floats off out into the ocean where it can be tossed about by every wind and wave and storm that comes up.
Key here, though, is that I believe it is the Lord Jesus we must be paying attention to. “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” Evidently, speaking plays an important role in the faith walk, and paying attention even more. Jesus would not have assigned so many speaking roles if paying attention were not a major function for all. We must pay attention.
In other words, it is not just those who ‘act out in opposition’ to the gospel who are at risk. Inattention to ‘what we have heard’ is equally dangerous. Inattention is equally discouraged. Inattention is, perhaps, even worse than hearing and acting against. We are not called to merely hear and be content. We are called to pay close attention, to listen, to drink in deeply what has been taught to us. If we pay attention, and do not give way to passivity concerning the Gospel, then we will find ourselves anchored tightly to what matters. I have great fear for those who have heard the gospel and not paid any attention to it. We see the roots of their inattentiveness: they wander away, they drift away, they walk away, they run away. Why? They have nothing to hold to. If unbelievers are warned about the consequences of disbelief, than what are the consequences of disregard? What sort of loss do those who taste once and drift away incur? Surely it is nothing less, and perhaps even more, than those who hear and simply act against.
And he will say to us, again and again, ‘today, if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts.’ Even now, even today, our ears must be attuned to his voice.
2. The second marker is found in chapter 3:1: “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.”
Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help; therefore. In marker one, we are paying attention to what we hear with our ears. In marker two, we are paying attention with what we think. We are taking captive every thought and making it obedient.
But fixing our thoughts on Jesus is more than just thinking happy thoughts, if it is ever thinking happy thoughts. Who is the Jesus we fix our thoughts on? The Jesus who suffered, that’s who. It is this Jesus—not one who makes us feel guilty because he suffered, not even one who makes us feel sorry for his suffering—but one Jesus whose suffering has freed us from the captivity. In other words, we will not be controlled by our thoughts. We are in control of our thoughts or at least we should be. We dedicate our thoughts to the one who suffered, the one who is the faithful high priest, the one who helps Abraham’s descendants, the One who became like us in every way, the one who made atonement for us. We fix our thoughts on the one who is the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation, the one who and for whom the universe was made. We fix our thoughts on the one who is greater than angels, who sits at God’s right hand in the heavenlies. We fix our thoughts on this Apostle and High Priest, this one who is greater than Moses, and Angels, who tasted death for everyone. We are not fixing our thoughts on some mere super-achiever, or trendy guy. We are fixing our thoughts on God who overcame for us. I think perhaps he might be saying something like this: How can you think of anyone else? And I could go on in these verses.
But it seems to me that many settle in our culture for a lesser Jesus or a lesser god. These are the gods we do not have to think about. These are the gods who are not worthy of our attention except when, perhaps, we need their attention. And these lesser gods are myriad. But we are ‘holy brothers’ who share in the heavenly calling so what has Christ to do with Belial? We become too easily double-minded when we allow our thoughts to drift off into the realm of idolatry which is what it really is. We are not fixing our minds here, our thoughts, on some run of the mill joe. He is telling us to fix our thoughts on one who is supreme in all ways. We fix our thoughts on one to whom no one can compare. We are too easily caught up in sin precisely because we don’t think this Jesus is strong enough or has suffered enough to help or to know how to help us.
But here is Jesus! Here is our King! Here is our God who has come to bring us back to him. He is the One. He is Jesus. And upon him we shall fix our thoughts. We shall allow him to cleanse and purify and redeem even the very words and images that form in our minds. He is our dreamer of dreams and the haunter of the deep recesses of our hearts. He is the one altogether lovely and majestic. We must not settle for fixing our thoughts upon a lesser god. We fix our thoughts on Jesus who is our apostle and our high priest (and we shall learn just how mighty this high priest is later!) whom we confess. If we confess him with our mouth, our minds must be fixed upon him.
It is upon such a person that we fix our thoughts. We fix our thoughts upon our Apostle, that is, the one sent to us. We fix our thoughts upon our High Priest, the one who always lives to make intercession for us. We allow him to transform our mind.
Much of the problem that we face in the church is the prevalence of carnality and worldliness. The two markers we have noted tonight are written expressly for the purpose of re-creating in us, you will notice that nearly all of the markers are governed by the words ‘we’ or ‘us’ so these things are never spoken in isolation and never practiced in seclusion and never commanded to individuals but are spoken as words of encouragement to the body, a place where sin has no foothold.
Thus, we remember the words spoken to us in order that we will not drift away. I believe this means we have to be very careful about words we listen to. God has spoken words to us, in His Son, that he knows we need to hear and heed. We ignore these words to our great peril. We can listen to these words because God has come near to us and spoken to us in Jesus. He has come down to our level. He has come among us. He has spoken language that ‘no longer confuses us.’ He has uttered mysteries of the ages in the language that even infants can comprehend. And it is this Jesus, this exact representation of God, who has ‘tasted death for everyone’ and who ‘was made perfect through what he suffered’ and who ‘suffered when he was tempted’ that is able to ‘help us who are being tempted.’ So we listen because he knows the words that will prevent driftage.
And so also our minds are being renewed in knowledge. We are being renewed from the inside out and this means first that we are taught to think in an entirely new way. We fix our thoughts on Christ. I think there is something to be said about the idea that we must get rid of our old way of thinking. Here’s what Paul wrote to Ephesus:
“So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more. 20You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. 21Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:17-23)
Hearing. Thinking. And at the front of all this God Spoke. He spoke with the intent that we should hear. So today if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts. In other words, we are called to obedience. Hebrews is a book about Jesus authoring and perfecting our faith. Hear what he says. If you struggle with sin, and you wonder why you can’t overcome here is his word to you: Listen to what you have heard, fix your thoughts on Jesus.