RPM, Volume 11, Number 5, February 1 to February 7 2009

Hebrews 13:1-6

A Sermon

By Scott Lindsay

In the almost 25 years we have been married, Lisa and I have moved house about 13 or 14 times, so far. A lot more than either one of us wanted or planned.. But because we have moved a number of times, I have found myself developing a sort of system for doing some of it, especially the whole packing up things in boxes part of it. Admittedly, I have not always implemented my system with equal amounts of diligence. But what I have found is that, for me at least, the whole task is less daunting if I start to gradually pack things up well in advance of the move.

So, on those occasions when I am being more diligent about the whole thing, boxes will begin to appear in different rooms, and things will begin to get put away, things we don't need right away. One box will be filled and labeled on Monday. On Tuesday, maybe 2 boxes will be filled in another room. Maybe none on Wednesday, but then 3 will get done on Thursday. That sort of thing. So slowly, methodically, things get packed, and stacked and labeled. Heavier things on the bottom, lighter things on top.

So there is this plan, sort of. It's not all that scientific or complicated. But it's manageable and helps me to keep my sanity during the whole process.

However, no matter how much advance preparation I engage in, no matter how diligent I am to try and methodically pack things up, room by room, it never fails that when we get to the end, when it comes down to the last day before we move, there are always things left over. Bits and pieces are strewn here and there. Sometimes they were left out because they were an odd shape or size. Sometimes because we could not decide whether we were keeping it or not. Sometimes because we were thinking that we would pack it up together with other things similar to it - but then didn't find that many other things that were similar. Sometimes they were left out because they were things we used on a daily basis. Sometimes they were left out because we just couldn't get to them yet.

Whatever the case, we always got to the last day and had all these bits and pieces left over. So what happened at that point, typically, is that we would find the biggest boxes we could and just sort of pile a lot of these not-yet-packed, and not-that-well-related sorts of things together into the same box and write on the side "miscellaneous." It was not that these things did not matter to us. Nor was it the case that they were not valuable or significant or relevant or any of those things. They all were. We just were not able to fit them in yet. But we definitely wanted them to make the trip.

That, in a crude sort of way, is what, I would suggest, is going on in this concluding chapter of the letter to the Hebrews. The writer has been working through very methodically, making his case, pursuing his purpose, building his argument. And all the while he has had these other things that he wanted to say and include, but which have not yet found a place until right at the very end where he has assembled them all together in the "box" we call "Chapter 13." To be sure, they are all important, and all relevant to his readers and they are certainly not un-related to the things he has been saying throughout the letter.

At the same time, they are not necessarily all that integrated with one another. That is sort of how it feels as you read through chapter 13. So, for example, the first six verses, at first glance, are not all that related to one another. But when viewed from another perspective, a common theme can be found. Verse 7 seems to shift into another gear quite suddenly, and the magnificent verse 8 leaves you wondering whether it is related more to what preceded - or to what follows. Verses 9-16 appear to be going off in another direction and yet they do seem to have some internal coherence, but then verse 17 returns us to the thought introduced in verse 7 and makes you wonder if maybe the whole section does work together in a way that has not yet become apparent.

At any rate, that is the sort of thing going on in these verses and, as a result, it presents something of challenge in considering how to present it all. However, the fact that this is going on really is not all that unusual since, after all, this is what happens in letter writing - at least with old-fashioned letter writing. You have to remember that the biblical writers did not have word processors. They did not write drafts and then come back and edit and shift things around. They just wrote. If stuff occurred to them later on, they did not cut and paste or try to insert it in the middle. Instead, they would either integrate it into wherever they were at the moment or they would include it at the end, in a sort of "catch-all" manner.

To use another illustration, it is like what used to happen when our kids were younger and Lisa and I would go on a date and we had a babysitter. What would typically happen is that the babysitter would arrive and Lisa would carefully explain everything that needed explaining - where we were going, what we were doing, how to get in touch with us, how long we would be, what each child needed, etc. So it would go until I had looked at my watch for about the 10th time, and then Lisa would wrap things up and we would head for the door.

But no matter how organized and detailed the instructions had been, I don't think there was ever a time when, as we were walking out the door, about 5-10 additional comments weren't thrown in - "parting shots" - you could call them. You know what I mean, "Don't forget to turn off the oven. If the dog starts barking it means he is thirsty. Ignore the phone, let the answering machine get it. Ice cream is in the fridge.......Vote." — stuff like that. They were all important things, mostly in the form of reminders, and all - with the exception of the voting comment - related to the overall task of the evening, even if they did not necessarily follow one from the other.

Anyway, I think you get the point, right? That is the sort of thing that I believe is going on here. That is the nature of what we are dealing with. So, this morning, I want us to just take a little bit of time to focus in on the first 6 verses of chapter 13, as the writer of Hebrews leaves us with a few "parting shots" at the end of this terrific letter. Before we look at those verses, however, let us pray together.

Let us read the passage:

Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for hereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." So we can confidently say,"The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?"
After bringing the main argument and movement of the letter to a close at the end of chapter 12, the writer of Hebrews, as we have seen, still has some concluding comments, applications, reminders, and encouragements for his readers. In these first six verses the writer says at least four (4) things that, in some ways, could stand alone, but which also have at least some relationship to one another in that they can also be seen as the outward expression of the very first thing he says here: "Let brotherly love continue...."

Now, as those of you who have been with us for part or most of this series will know, this is not a new idea in this letter. The writer of Hebrews has consistently been concerned to encourage his readers in their love and support for one another as a body of believers. His reasons for doing so stem not only from the fact that they truly are related to one another as brothers and sisters because of the finished work of Jesus, but also because he knows that it is only by being committed to caring for one another that they will be able to do what this letter has been encouraging all along - i.e., remain faithful to Jesus, in the midst of, and even in spite of hardship and persecution.

So the writer has already said a number of things that could easily fall under this general instruction to continue to love one another as brothers (and sisters) in the Lord, including:

Hebrews 3:12-13 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called "today," that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Hebrews 6:10 For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.

Hebrews 10:23-25 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Hebrews 10:32-34 But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

Hebrews 12:1-2 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:14-16 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.

Through verses like these, as well as others, the writer has consistently been encouraging his readers to see their faithful, persevering pursuit of Christ as very much a team effort, as a community exercise, not an individualistic one. So it is not surprising, given that mindset, to discover that the writer has a few more comments about some fairly specific ways in which they need to be concerned to encourage and love one another in this enterprise.

First, he says, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." Now, as many commentators have pointed out, hospitality toward people in general was an important Christian virtue and exercise - especially in those days since the availability and especially the condition of temporary accommodation could be quite atrocious. So, it is very likely that the writer has this sort of general hospitality in view.

However, in terms of the context of this letter - especially those places where the writer of Hebrews talks about how some of his readers have suffered the plundering of their possessions - in light of those sorts of realities it would appear more likely that the primary situation that he has in mind here is precisely those Christians who have suffered that very fate - i.e., who have had their properties plundered, seized, or destroyed and who are now homeless, with nowhere to go and nowhere to live.

Now, for you and me, this sort of thing - having our possessions plundered because of our faith - is just not an issue - not yet at least. But for the original readers of this letter, and indeed for many Christians today in other parts of the world - places more hostile to Christianity - this sort of thing is very much an issue. The writer of Hebrews here reminds his readers of their responsibility in these things. It is not a take it or leave it kind of thing. It's not just an option or opportunity he's hoping they will seriously consider. It's a generosity and sacrifice made absolutely essential, both by virtue of who they are, as well as by virtue of the circumstances in which they found themselves. In other words, in this writer's view, they could not respond otherwise - at least they could not and expect anyone to take seriously their claim to be Christians.

Now, it is worth noting here the phrase at the end of verse 2 talking about how some, in exercising this sort of hospitality, have entertained angels unawares - recalling figures like Abraham and Lot from the Old Testament. While that was and still may sometimes be the case and, as such, is a legitimate thing to keep in mind, it ought not be our sole motivation in taking these things to heart. We may well entertain angels unawares. But even if we don't, we will certainly be entertaining men and women who are made in the image of God at the very least and who, additionally, like the displaced Christians in Hebrews, may be our own brothers and sisters in the Lord.

The second thing the writer throws into the mix is found in verse 3, "Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body."

Along the same lines as verse 2, this may well be a kind of general exhortation to be kind to and remember prisoners in their plight. That is certainly a biblical virtue that is highlighted in other places in the New Testament. However again, in light of the context of this letter, it would seem that the primary "prisoners" in view here are those very same Christians spoken of before, who had suffered hardship, some of them losing their property, and some of them being thrown into prison.

The writer of Hebrews wants his readers to continue to show brotherly love to their fellow believers - even if they have been imprisoned. He wants them to respond to them as if they too had been incarcerated. He wants them to care for these mistreated ones as they would care for a wound that they had received on their own arm or leg - because that is exactly what has happened. That is what he means when he says, "since you also are in the body." He is reminding them that their connection to these imprisoned people is not merely symbolic. It is spiritual and it is real. What has happened to their brothers and sisters is happening to them - just as surely as if someone had cut their arm with a knife, or broken one of their own legs. You should no more ignore your brothers and sisters in this situation than you would ignore a wound to your own flesh.

Again, while this is not a live issue in this city or this country - not yet - it is going on all around us, all the time. Christians are being tortured, killed, imprisoned, orphaned, widowed, deported, abused and marginalized all over this planet, every hour of every day. Right now it is happening - while we are sitting here. While we sing our songs. While we eat our donuts and sip our coffee. And the question is: What are we doing in response to this? What is this church doing in response to this? What is our denomination doing in response to this? What is our allegedly Christian nation doing in response to this? What would happen if, for example, we tried to make contact with the Church in the Sudan, or in Syria, or China? What would happen if we made use of the amazing communications technology now available to us and actually made a connection with Christians in these places and asked the simple question - "What can we do? How can we help?". How are WE remembering those who are in prison?

Third, the writer, in keeping with the nature of this whole section, shifts gears a little bit, introducing a new topic, in some ways, and yet still keeping very much with the theme of continuing to show love to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. He writes, in verse 4, "Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous."

With these words the writer of Hebrews expands his already expressed concern that they care for and protect the community of faith to include their respecting and upholding the institution of marriage - in general - as well as respecting and protecting the sanctity of each others' marriages.

As you look at this verse, it seems to me that there are two parts to this instruction. In the first half of the verse, the writer says two things: let marriage be held in honor and let the marriage bed be undefiled or unpolluted. He then follows that up with two reasons why - which also serve as two warnings - namely, because God is going to judge both those who are sexually immoral and those who are adulterers.

In other words, God is going to judge sexual immorality that occurs outside the bonds of marriage and which is, as such, a tacit rejection of marriage as God designed it AND God is going to judge those who are sexually immoral within the bonds of marriage. In short, with these remarks he is basically covering all the bases with regard to the various forms that sexual sin can take, for those who are married, as well as for those who are not.

Again, while this particular instruction does not follow immediately from the instruction given in verse 3, it still, nevertheless, serves the overall theme of continuing to show brotherly love to one another since sexual sin - in whatever form it appears - has an invasive and corrupting influence, not only on those directly involved, but also and particularly on the church as a whole - if left unaddressed. As long as it remains, and continues un-addressed, it will prove to be a strong hindrance and can seriously affect not only individual believers but whole communities of faith in their endeavors to faithfully persevere in the pursuit of Christ.

Of course, the whole key is this matter of its being un-addressed. As long as it is UN-addressed, the damage and influence will continue and spread. But if and when it IS addressed, then the opposite can also be true - healing and restoration and life can return. The cancer that was there, and which was working away un-detected, doing un-told damage, can, when exposed, be thoroughly irradiated and through the surgical work of God's Holy Spirit - by repentance and faith - be powerfully neutralized in terms of its effects.

This too is an area that the writer of Hebrews wants his readers to take seriously and in which he expects them to serve one another - working individually to guard our hearts and minds and then, when someone stumbles, working together to confront one another and then, in the spirit of Galatians 6:1, to come alongside one's brother or sister to see him/her address these things head on, to see him/her delivered from the snare in which they have been caught, and then to see him/her restored in a spirit of gentleness, when there is true repentance. Further we are to - as Galatians says - always keep a watch on our own hearts as we work with others on these matters to see to it that we are not caught up in the very same things ourselves.

Fourth and finally, the writer of Hebrews makes what, at first seems to be a move into yet another, entirely different direction. However, when you take a closer look you see that it does have something in common, not only with what has just been said in verse 4, but also with the theme of this whole section. Verses 5 and 6 read, "Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." 6 So we can confidently say, "The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?"

Similar to his previous instruction/warning that they, among other things, are not to covet each other's spouses, the writer also addresses the matter of their coveting one another's possessions. Once again, it is instructive to keep considering the context in which these things were originally written. Here you have a community of believers under hardship and persecution. Perhaps all have suffered in some ways, but not everyone has suffered in the same ways.

In particular, some have clearly had to endure the plundering of their possessions. Some have been turned out of their homes. Hopefully, if they were doing what the writer of this letter wants them to continue doing, these outcast believers were finding refuge amongst their brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Clearly, then, not all had suffered in the same way in terms of material losses. Some Christians may have been relatively unaffected in that particular area. Even so, and quite apart from the reality of persecution, it would certainly have been the case that there were differences among them with regard to their economic and social status. And it is that difference - however it has come about - that, it seems to me, has given rise to the writer's emphasis here. He does not want those differences to become issues. He does not want any believer - either those with or those without - to be overtaken with the love of money. He wants them all to learn the meaning of being content with what you have - even and especially if what you have is not the same as what other believers have.

Now, as I have suggested, those differences may well have been exaggerated by the situation facing his readers, but even under more "normal" circumstances, it would remain true that God's people need to be very careful in this area because this too has the potential for being the source of great harm within the body of Christ and thus become a great hindrance that gets in the way of the ability of God's people to faithfully persevere in their pursuit of Christ. All coveting, whatever its object and whatever its source, has no place within the community of faith.

If those who HAVE are covetous, then giving and sacrifice and generosity within the community will cease as they close ranks to protect themselves. If those who do NOT HAVE are covetous, then even when they are benefitting from the kindness of God's people, it will only serve to feed their sin and envy and idolatry and discontent. Instead of growing in gratitude, they will grow in bitterness. Whenever one or the other - or both of these things are occurring - the damage can be terrible. The Gospel will not be served and God's glory will not be upheld, and God's Kingdom will not advance.

The writer still has more to say, by way of parting shots, to his readers, and we will, Lord willing, take a closer look at those things next week. However, let me just draw this study to a close and, as I do, encourage you to do two things in response to these challenging and sobering words.

First, hear them. Hear them and respond to the challenge that is presented here. Think about what is being said here, think about how it might have impacted on the first readers. Think about how it might impact on you and me today.

Think about the challenge and responsibility that these things are for us as a church and how we might respond to them in real, concrete, get-off-your-couch-and-do-something sorts of ways.

This leads to the second thing. Because as you do hear these words and wrestle with them, you will no doubt be convicted in various ways. If you're paying attention at all here it will likely be the case - at least if you heart is anything like mine it will be the case - that these words will be the cause of real conviction and even discouragement as they show you up for the covetous, inhospitable, not-terribly-concerned-for-the-plight-of-other-believers sort of person that you are. If you feel like those things might be true it is most likely because they ARE true - and worse. But if that is the case, and I suspect that it is, then don't let the opportunity of that go to waste. Do not just shrug it off and walk away or try and drown out these feelings with other things until they finally subside. Instead, let them do what these sorts of things should always do. Let them drive you back to the cross.

When I was growing up my father, who was and is a dentist, took his job very seriously. One of the things he would do as a dentist, as our father, is that he would have me and my sisters chew these little red tablets that were not very enjoyable and that left a strong, unpleasant taste in your mouth. But that wasn't all they did. The reason he had us do this was because - by some means unknown to me - the chemicals in these tablets would interact with the enamel of our teeth and, more precisely, with what was on the enamel of our teeth and leave a tell-tale mark on all those places where our teeth were not clean and needed a lot of work.

Now whenever we did that sort of thing and it became evident that there was an awful lot of stuff there, we would not just shrug our shoulders, acknowledge the reality of it all, and then walk off. Instead, we were sent off to the bathroom to brush our teeth again, sometimes more than once, and then come back for another inspection. In short, we would chew these tablets, and then respond to what they revealed in practical ways.

The reason we did that was not so that, by doing so, we would be brought into a relationship with our father. The relationship was already there. We did not do it so that our father would love us better. He had already made it abundantly clear, in all sorts of ways, that he couldn't possibly love us more than he already did. We did it because our father told us to and we loved him, and because we believed him when he said that if we didn't do it, then we would have problems, and we did it because our father loved us way too much to let us get away with NOT doing it.

In many ways, that process is a lot like what happens when we come face to face with God's truth - like the truths we see here in Hebrews 13. Whenever that happens, one of the results is that, just as when we were kids and chewed these little tablets that revealed the true condition of our teeth, so does God's truth reveal the true condition of our hearts. It's not good. Now it is not all bad. If we are his, there will be reasons to be encouraged too as God's truth also reveals those places where we things are changing, where God's Spirit has been working.

So, God's truth doesn't just show us up for where we fall short. But when it does, As it invariably does, then we need to respond to these things in ways that are in line with the Gospel. When these sorts of things are revealed in our hearts, we need to respond in real and practical ways. Not to make ourselves "clean," of course. We cannot do that in our own strength and besides, Jesus has already done it, and there is nothing left to do -- as Hebrews has made very clear. So, that is one place where the analogy just given certainly breaks down.

Nevertheless, we do need to respond - but with a right understanding and for the right reasons. We need to respond with repentance - acknowledging where we have fallen short, and with faith that Christ's death is sufficient for even this sin, and gratitude for a God that loves us so well. Then we need to determine in our hearts to make a change, to live differently. Not so that we might earn or deserve God's love, but in response to God's love. Not to improve our standing with him, but to demonstrate our standing with him. We respond because we are learning to trust that his way is always the best possible way to go and because we are learning - usually the hard way - that trusting ourselves invariably leads to disaster. We respond because we are more and more captivated with who He is and so want to be just like him.

For those and so many other reasons like them, let me encourage you this morning to not only hear what the writer of Hebrews has to say, but to determine in your own heart to respond in real and practical ways.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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