Sunday, March 8, 2009 (PM)
The Imperatives of Hebrews, 2
The Book of Hebrews
[These sermons are also available for download at my box.net account.–jerry]
Last week [here], we began some preliminary explorations of the book of Hebrews, in preparation for the 90 Days with Jesus which will start in May. Our preparation for the 90 Days comes in the form of exploring what I have dubbed the ‘imperatives’ of Hebrews. They are imperatives I think only to the extent that we are willing and ready to listen to the God who spoke. (1:1-2) These imperatives come at fairly regularly placed intervals in the book of Hebrews as if to remind us constantly to be looking back, opening our ears, softening our hearts. “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
So these imperatives are God’s word to us. They are his promises. They are his voice speaking to us and we have to learn how to quiet ourselves and listen. We must pay attention to what he is saying. William Willimon notes:
Contrary to [the] contemporary stress on spiritual practices, [we] are reminded that the church is created and sustained through the proclamation of the Word, not through practices or the formation of allegedly Christian character. The church must rise anew, in each generation, among those who have head, not simply among those who have been inculcated and indoctrinated. The Word is forever tearing down and rebuilding the church, disrupting, confusing, killing in order to raise us from the dead. (Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 230)
So we listen. And the Word does its work inside of us. We don’t know exactly how it works just as we don’t know exactly where the seed will land once it is scattered. Yet we continue to listen for God’s voice. Sometimes it is clear, audible and majestic. Other times we have to discern it. But there it is, speaking to us in Christ.
So last week, we tuned into the first of these several imperative gestures. The first being that we need to ‘pay close attention to what we have heard so that we don’t drift away.’ I note, not in mere passing, that these imperatives are always spoken out of and to a community. ‘We’ and ‘us’ dominate these sentences. I also note that they are given to us with an intention. That is, we do not just ‘pay attention’ for the sake of paying attention. Nor, I might add, do we pay attention to just old thing we like. On the contrary, we ‘pay attention’ in order that we will not drift away. Paying attention serves a purpose in our lives. And we pay attention in this case to ‘what we heard’. What have we heard? We have heard the God who spoke to us and speaks to us in Jesus. It is probably also not insignificant that he says ‘what you heard.’ There is an emphasis on the importance of the proclaimed, spoken, audible word.
Second, we were concerned with ‘keeping our thoughts fixed on Jesus our apostle and high priest.’ What we hear is the Christ speaking to us and instructing us, praying for us, leading us and directing us. What we fix our thoughts on corresponds to what we have heard with our ears and with our eyes. We fix our thoughts on the one sent to us, the sacrifice, and the High priest, the one who offers the sacrifice. When we fix our thoughts on Christ our mind clears and is refreshed. And his person is so dominant and attractive that we can scarcely find room within for competing lords and gods. In other words, if your thoughts are fixed on Christ, how can there be room for any other thinking?
So, let’s examine a couple more of these ‘imperatives’ this evening. The first is found at the head of chapter 4, verse 1:
3. The third marker along this journey is found in 4:1: “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.”
This is explained thus:
“The author argues that the purposes of God are not frustrated because Israel of old disobeyed him and failed to enter the rest he had promised his people. The promise remains. If the ancient Israel did not enter God’s rest, then someone else will, namely the Christians. But this should not lead to complacency. If the Israelites of an earlier day, with all their advantages, failed to enter the rest, Christians ought not to think there will be automatic acceptance for them. They must take care lest they, too, fail to enter the blessing.” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, online source)
The promise still stands. That is, it is hasn’t been fulfilled completely yet. This means we have to press on. The Promise itself still holds, which suggests that its fulfillment might be a time off yet: There is still room for entry by those outside, and there is still room for failure for those inside.
But what does the author here mean by ‘rest’? Does the author here mean long lazy days of relaxation and peace and tranquility by the lake? Or perhaps does he have something a bit more expansive in mind? Three specific ideas come to mind as we reflect on the Old Testament promises of Rest. There is certainly the idea of Sabbath rest which we learned about early on in the history of Israel. God himself took Sabbath and commanded his people to do so as well. Sabbath is a powerful idea and practice in Scripture. There might also be the idea of ‘rest from enemies’ that God promised to Israel. But the author in Hebrews is building on Psalm 95 and the idea of rest found there. The Psalm reads:
1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.
3 For the LORD is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
6 Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,
9 where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.
10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.”
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
“They shall never enter my rest.”
Now the author of Hebrews brings this into a new generation. First it was spoken to Joshua and Caleb’s generation as Israel wandered in the desert. Then the author of Psalm 95 recites it for his own generation. The author of Hebrews quotes it for his own generation. And now you and I are hearing it in our time: If you, the flock under his care, today, hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. And it was their hardness of heart that prevented them from entering into the rest of God: “They shall never enter my rest.” The rest he is speaking of his rest. These are people who did not know God’s ways, whose hearts went astray, who tested God, who hardened their hearts and quarreled, who tried God-even though they had seen what he did-these are the ones prevented from entering his rest. The author of Hebrews brings this into his own situation. What we wonder is this: Will our generation be the generation who will finally enter his rest? Will we listen to his voice or will we harden our hearts?
“For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed.” The author of Hebrews is saying to us: Don’t fall short of it. Don’t fall short of the rest of God because you have all the advantages, everything is in your favor, all the cards are stacked for you and there is no reason why you should fall short. Whatever this ‘rest’ is, it is God’s rest, and I don’t happen to believe that God desires to say to this generation, ‘you shall never enter my rest.’ He’s talking about obedience as if there is a sort of disobedience that will prevent us from partaking of his rest. This rest is not from Moses, David, or Joshua-it is a far more comprehensive and less mundane promise of Rest that still stands. And he concludes with what would be a fourth marker: “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (v 11). He thus comes full circle. The promise of rest is somewhat contingent upon our perseverance in towards it. Stopping short because of disobedience will not nullify the Promise, but it will prevent our participation.
He says three times: Don’t harden your hearts if you hear his voice. He also says three times, “they shall never enter my rest” (11, 4:3, 5). Again, listen and obey so that you can enter.
4. The fourth marker is found in 4:14: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”
I think a new section was started in verse 12 of the previous chapter. There, after a short exposition of the rest we hope to inherit, the author of Hebrews breaks out with this even shorter doxological type of statement concerning the Word of God and God’s judgment:
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to diving soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Therefore, he writes, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. What is the connection between the ‘there’ and the ‘fore’ in this marker? Andrew Murray chose to emphasize the word ‘have’. We ‘have’ a great high priest. He notes, we ‘have a great high priest. You own Him; He is yours, your very own, wholly yours. You may use Him with all He is and has. You can trust Him for all you need, know and claim Him as indeed your great High Priest, to bring you to God.” (184) Well, I don’t like the word ‘you’ and ‘yours’ because the author of Hebrews uses the word ‘we.’ But Murray’s point is taken. We are not so much in possession of Christ as he is in possession of us and we have access to Him.
Twice previously the author has also used the words ‘hold firmly.’ In 3:6 he wrote, “But Christ is faithful as the Son of God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed, we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.” And in 3:14 he has also written, “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold firmly till the end our original conviction.” Now, “Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” It’s no longer a matter of ‘if’ we hold firmly, but a command: Hold Firmly.
The short and long of it is this: He has gone through the heavens, he has finished the work, nothing escapes his eye of judgment, everything is laid bare-why give up? No one can take away from what Christ has already accomplished. He knows the struggles, he knows the weaknesses, he knows those who cause trouble-why give up? Why turn your back on what you know to be a finished work? And here again we are confronted by this living Word of God-this God who speaks. He has spoken his word into our lives, into our community, into our world. It cuts deep and rips us in two. It causes a schism within ourselves. There’s part of us that wars against his judgment and there’s part of us that struggles onward. We are quite divided beings.
And he says: Press on! Don’t be so quick to let go of what you know inside is true.
So what is the confession we made? Back in 3:1 he uses the same word, “…fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we confess as our apostle and high priest.” Now here, “…hold firmly to the faith we confess.” What we are confessing is a high priest who has finished the work that needed to be finished. We confess Jesus who gives us the promised rest that Joshua could not. He softens hearts that Moses could not. We confess Jesus who is God’s Word to us. We confess Jesus, our high priest, who is able to understand our weaknesses. So again, we are not confessing some wimp. We have confessed this Jesus, this Son of God who is faithful over God’s house (3:5).
This is a call, if you will, to consider deeply who it is who calls us into being. This is a call to consider wisely if we will follow and consider carefully before bailing out on such a confession. The confession we make is no small thing in light of who we are confessing. Frankly, I don’t think we make enough emphasis on this confession. Our confessions are cheaply constructed and probably not carefully thought out. Perhaps if we put a little more thought into whom we have confessed we would not be so quick to jump ship or to fail when we struggle or when things get rough. We have confessed one who is ‘able to help those who are being tempted.’ Since he can, perhaps we should.
It seems to me that these markers we have focused on this evening are about persevering in the right way. Much of the effort that we make when it comes to persevering is silly because it has as its focus or goal something elusive and primitive. But we in Christ are not called to something primitive and elusive, nor something mundane and trivial. We are called to faith in the living Son of God who understands us too well because he has been made like us.
So there is a right kind of perseverance that will not fall short and there is a kind of perseverance that will miserably fail. I think if we are persevering for merely earthly objectives then we are certainly bound over to failure. Earthly objectives can be met, often without much struggle at all. But the true objective, who is living, is Christ Jesus. He is our goal. Indeed, the writer says, “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold firmly to the end our original convictions.”
Before us will be all sorts of stumbling blocks and hazards and chicanes. But these things I have said to you tonight are book-ended. In 2:18: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” And again in 4:16: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Here we see the great objective. Persevere! Cling to the faith confessed! Cling to Jesus! He is not about to fail you because he has already succeeded and won where the world has already and continually fails. Don’t give up. Stay the course!
If we are being torn down, ripped apart, it is only that He might put us back together, that He might Resurrect us according to his own will. This is God’s word to us.