Category Archives: Bible Study

Strengthened by Grace

 

In the 13th and final chapter of Hebrews, we’ve already noted the series of exhortations, which upon first glance appeared to be disjointed and isolated.  However, now having dug into them deeper we see that they are integral to the overall scope and purpose of the Author in exhorting the recipients of this letter to persevere in the faith, which was delivered to them through the Word of God by faithful leaders, and to deny the appeal to return to Judaism or to syncretize it with their Christianity.

A critical passage that perhaps gives us additional insight into the temptations they were facing as well as the false teachings they had been exposed to comes in verse 9 of this final chapter.  Note well the passage below

“Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.” Hebrews 13:9

Upon re-reading this passage a awhile ago, I was struck with just how profound and relevant it is for today, and for me personally as I continually seek to refine my understanding of how God desires to be worshiped and more specifically how it is that He orders and regulates His ekklesia.

This verse, in context, flows out of the commands for the struggling Christian community to remember their leaders.  Recall that verse 7 formed the opening bracket of the inclusio that contains our subject passage.  Next came the extraordinary statement on the eternal, preexistent, and immutable Christ.  Here we arrive at what could be a disjointed warning, Do not be lead away by diverse and strange teachings, but a good bible student knows well that this perfectly fits with what has been communicated in Hebrews thus far.

This particular phrase is striking because of the opening commendation of leaders who had taught the gospel faithfully.  It is a clear and present reminder that not all supposed leaders are doctrinally faithful, therefore we must exercise discernment and wisdom, holding fast to the Word of God as our source of truth and Christ as our eternally present, immutable Anchor.  Keep this in mind as you approach verse 17.

Next we see a positive statement juxtaposed with this warning, ” for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods.”  While we aren’t specifically told what the errant teachings were, we may be able to deduce from the overall tenor of the letter and this passage in particular that it had something to do with attaching spiritual significance to ceremonial foods, particularly as they pertained to the Old Covenant.

Commentator George Guthrie offers helpful historical and cultural insight in this regard that’s worth citing at length

“These teachings evidently promised spiritual strengthening through ceremonial foods and apart from God’s grace found in Christ.  In first-century Judaism participants celebrated special cultic meals, particularly the fellowship meal, as a means of communicating the grace of God.  These meals involved the blessing of God, thanks for his grace, and prayers of request.  More broadly, Jewish meals were understood to give spiritual strength-strength for the heart-through the joy experienced at the table (he cites Ps. 104:14-15 here).  Every meal offered faithful Jews the opportunity to reflect on God’s goodness and thus be nourished spiritually.  It reminded them that the ultimate expression of thanks to God for redemption must be made via the thank offering and the fellowship meal at the altar in Jerusalem.  Some Jews of Diaspora Judaism, moreover, celebrated special fellowship meals in an attempt to imitate the cultic meals of the temple.” pg. 439-440

The first century situation was such that some Jews were partaking in ceremonial meals and assigning spiritual significance, essentially a practice referred to as sacramentalism.  There’s no Old Testament command or indication that these practices were from God, but of course we know that by-in-large first century Judaism was corrupted and syncretized with paganism.  This puts the warning into context and prepares us for the argument that follows in Hebrews 13:10-16.

This warning is not limited to first century Jews.  It’s likewise certainly a profound warning for us today.  Sacramentalism became a formal dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in 1439, though its early seeds are certainly present in the first couple of centuries after Christ.  The parallels between first century Judaism and Roman Catholicism are striking, not the least of which is the participation in ceremonial “meals” with the expectation of spiritual strengthening or the impartation of grace through them, i.e. the Eucharist, Mass, or Lord’s Supper.

When baptists use the language of sacrament, they need to understand this historical baggage that gets carried over from Roman Catholicism by their use of the term.  Additionally, the language of sacrament and oft-accompanying phrase “means of grace” can misleading as well, if not clearly defined.  Perhaps more on this in a future post.

If participation in the Lord’s Supper was an opportunity to be strengthened by the grace that it conveys, the Author of Hebrews had the perfect opportunity to assert as much in this chapter, especially given the context.  However, His contrast is between the false intentions of ceremonial meals with the sacrifice of Christ, not the celebration of His sacrifice, but His actual sacrifice.  That is the source of Christian grace.

 

The Eternal, Preexistent, Immutable Christ

 

Several years ago, I was advised that anytime I stepped into a pulpit or in front of people to preach or teach I should avoid using “theological” language.  I pushed back at the time, realizing that American Christianity (Christendom) suffers from theological anemia, therefore instead of efforts to keep people in an ignorant state, a preacher/teacher should effort to raise them up to a level of theological understanding and engagement.  If we, as a people, can remember last nights box scores, follow through meandering plot lines in the latest t.v. show, or engage with endless amounts of media and data on a daily basis, then a failure to understand theological words is not due to inability, rather it’s more likely due to indifference.

In the 13th chapter of Hebrews, the Author is rounding out his epistle to the Jewish Christians of the first century (probably 65-66 A.D.) by summarizing what has been said thus far and offering a series of moral exhortations.  One key summary verse comes in Hebrews 13:8

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

At first glance, the short, pithy verses of chapter 13 seem disconnected, perhaps especially this verse.  We saw recently in an earlier post regarding the commands for these believers to remember their leaders, who had likely died.  Here we see the that despite the passing of their leaders, despite their faithful preaching of the gospel, and now despite the influx of false teaching, the one constant is Christ.  He is the stable Anchor.  He is the unchanging Shepherd who continually guides His sheep regardless of the changing circumstances.  He ordains.  He sustains.

Three key theological terms percolate from this profound verse: Christ is Prexistent.  Christ is Eternal.  Christ is Immutable.  These concepts, all related, are not mentioned here for the first time, rather they are the culmination of the letter and bring it full circle with statements made in chapter 1.  There we see the following:

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
    the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.

And,

“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
    like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
    and your years will have no end.”

Here in chapter 13, and in chapter 1 cited above, we see these attributes of Christ acting as bookends to the letter as His supremacy unfolds in between establishing the focus of the Christian life.

Christ’s preexistence flows out of His eternality.  The former says that He has always been, the latter says that He will always be.  In between these two great truths stands the immutability of Christ, which says that He is unchanging.  What He was in His nature before time is what He is today and what He will be in the future.  Therefore He is perfectly consistent.  Though Christ became a man, His essence or character or attributes we might say, were unchanged.  His incarnation was an addition, not implying that He was incomplete, but an addition to His completeness.

The Preexistence of Christ

When it is said that Christ is preexistent, it affirms that He has no beginning, i.e. that He’s always been.  In the third century, one of the more influential heresies originated, out of Gnosticism, and came to be known as Arianism.  This belief asserted that the Son of God was created by the Father.  The debate hinged on John 3:16 (and others) and the meaning  of monogenes, commonly translated as begotten.  The opposition to Arianism crafted the phrase, “begotten, not made” (The Nicene Creed) which led to Arianism’s eventual banishment as a departure from scripture (though it was also made the official position of the empire at one point).  However, we see Arianism alive and well today, propagated by such cults as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness.

Christ, as the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, did not come into being at His incarnation.  He stepped out of eternity and into humanity.  The Author entered His story; the Creator His creation.  John 3:13, John 8:58, John 17:5, Hebrews 1:2; John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:15-17; Philippians 2:5-7

The Eternality of Christ

Related, and implicit in declaring Christ’s preexistence, is His eternality.  Yesterday, today, and forever speaks to the fact that Christ has and will always exist.  That His existence is a past, present, and future reality.  Not only was He not created, unlike angels as established in chapter 1 and 2, and not only did He exist prior to His incarnation, but in His divine essence (and certainly now in His resurrected humanity), Christ will always exist.

In His own words, He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.  Surprisingly, much debate has raged on recently within orthodox circles over whether Christ has eternally been the Son, a position sometimes called eternal Sonship, see also this post from Hebrews 1.  This debate hinges on whether He became a Son at His incarnation, or whether He has always existed as the Son of God, a difficulty often attributed to interpretations on Hebrews 1:5 and again the use of monogenes or begotten.  However, as we have seen this passage is unlikely to be a reference to the incarnation, rather the enthronement of Christ (see also the use of Psalm 2 in Hebrews 5:5 and Acts 13:33).  Christ has always existed as the eternal Son of God, the same in essence and distinct in person.

The Immutability of Christ

The immutability of Christ speaks to His unchangeable being and character.  It would not be enough for us to have a Savior who is prexistent, nor is it enough that He is eternal, but that He is immutable makes all the difference.  This never-changing, unending constancy makes Him reliable and faithful.  It is the nature of this consistency that makes Him trustworthy.  If he were changeable, then He would be an all-powerful, eternal, yet unpredictable.  There would be no guarantee that He would forgive sins, extend grace, or raise the righteous from the dead.  He could simply change His mind on the whole thing.  Instead, He upholds His promises.  Therefore, the immutability of Christ is an essential quality and a comforting characteristic.

While these theological concepts may be difficult and may require a bit of mental exercise and effort, nevertheless it is clear that they are extremely important, far more than for mere doctrinal precision but for the practical reality that they are certainties that need to be affirmed in our ever-changing world.  The more we come to know and understand about Christ, the more we are brought to the feet of Him who is worthy of worship.

 

Follow the Leader

 

A few weeks ago, I had the delight of revisiting one of my favorite books of the Bible, The Epistle to the Hebrews, for the third time in four years.  It’s caused me to reflect back on fond memories of having either participated in or led an in-depth study through this wonderfully challenging book, but also to look back through my notes for gaps or areas where I hadn’t yet fully fleshed out my interpretations (see the Scriptural Index).

Apparently this was the case in the last few chapters, but the last chapter more specifically.  In that chapter, which is full of practical and ethical exhortations, we have mention of the term “leader” three times, so clearly it is at the forefront of the Author’s mind.  The first two uses form brackets around a particular series of exhortations, while the last use is part of the Author’s salutation. Though it has a variety of uses, including references to specific people such as David or Joseph, the word for leader here means leaders in general.

The first use occurs in Hebrews 13:7 forming the opening bracket

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

Several observations need to be made on this use of leaders.

Remember your Leaders

First is the command to remember them.  These leaders are identified as “those who spoke to you the word of God.”  While it doesn’t clarify whether this speaking was by way of preaching, teaching, discipleship, individual exhortation, etc., nevertheless these leaders communicated the word of God to the people, and subsequently the Author has exhorted the readers to remember them.  It’s quite possible that the leaders being referenced here had died and their life is to be called to mind.

Consider their Life

Second, we see the command to consider the outcome of the leaders way of life.  As stated, its likely that these leaders had died, therefore having completed the race that was set before them, their life should now be viewed as a model of faithfulness.  The call then is to consider, literally to hold up and look at repeatedly, the body of their life’s work.

Imitate their Faith

Finally we have the third command to imitate the faith of these leaders.  Not only were they to be remembered, specifically their teaching of God’s word and their lives to be considered as an example, but also their faith was to be emulated.

To this pattern of following and emulating godly leadership in doctrine and practice, the Scriptures express the exact same sentiment elsewhere, including a prior use in Hebrews

“so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Hebrews 6:12

Similarly we have the following passages throughout the New Testament:

14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me.“1 Cor. 4:14-16

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” 1 Cor. 11:1

“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Philippians 3:17

“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:9

“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” 1 Thessalonians 1:6

“It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.” 2 Thessalonians 3:9

The pattern for follow-the-leader is a clear Scriptural principle.  Never in any of these passages do we see an example of a leader “lording” over or demanding blind allegiance.  Instead we see a pattern of humility in following the Lord , submitting to His word, and a call for other believers to imitate these qualities in the lives of those who lead them in the Word of God.  This is the mark of a leader and the definition of discipleship.  It represents what biblical leadership among the gathering of God’s people should look like.