Category Archives: Hebrews

On Guard

 

In the opening chapters of the book of Numbers, we find Israel in the wilderness of Sinai.  The LORD is speaking to Moses instructing him to take a census of Israel and to subsequently divide and arrange the 12 tribes.  While these arrangements concerned both the camping and the marching of Israel, it may be properly said that God was forming battalions for war (Numbers 1:3).

As the census of chapter 1 is undertaken, we find the people of Joseph, “namely, of the people of Ephraim,” constituting one tribe, while, “the people of Manassah” constitute another tribe.  On the surface, this would create a problem numbering the tribes- creating an additional tribe – recalling the blessing of Jacob from Genesis 48, unless one of the original twelve were not counted.  This is precisely the case as God commands Moses not to count the tribe of Levi.

“For the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel.” Numbers 1:48

Following this, we see the role that the Levites were to have in the camp of Israel, namely their oversight of the “tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it.  They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and shall camp around the tabernacle.  When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up.  And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” Numbers 1:49-51

The Levites were the only tribe to whom this responsibility of caring for the tabernacle and all of its appurtenances were given.  In addition to the tasks of oversight of the tabernacle and its furnishings, care and camping around it, and set up and tear down, the Levites were also the guardians of the tabernacle.

52 The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, each man in his own camp and each man by his own standard. 53 But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” Numbers 1:52-53

The Levites were exempt from day to day military campaigns, but were explicitly charged with guarding the tabernacle.  On the one hand, they guarded the tabernacle from outsiders.  In other words, the access to God was restricted by the Levites, lest those who encroached were to be put to death.  In this light, there is also guardianship to protect the people from the wrath of God.  In this respect, the Levites function as two-way guardians to prevent the common from coming into contact with the holy and also providing protection from the holy, namely God, from coming into contact with the common via His wrath.

As to the particularity of their guardianship, this is the same word used in reference to Adam in Garden.  Recall that in Adam’s Rest, we looked at Genesis 2:15 and determined that Adam was “rested” in the Garden in order to “tend and keep” it.  There we saw that this particularly phrase was priestly and is elsewhere translated in priestly contexts as guard and minister or serve.  Our passage under consideration from Numbers is one such example of this priestly context of guardianship.  This reinforces our conclusions regarding Adam’s role and function as a priest in the garden-temple of God. For the combination of both terms, see Numbers 3:7-8, where the Levitical guardianship and service are further defined.

Flowing out of a passage that discusses the mediation of God’s holiness by a Levitical Priest, one cannot help but see the parallels with the priestly ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, the One Mediator between God and Man 1 Tim. 2:5).  However, as Hebrews tells us, His priesthood is after the order of Melchizedek (Heb. 5:10; 6:20; 7:17).  Access to God comes only through Christ (John 14:6).  It is through Him that we, the common, have access to the holy, namely the Father (Eph. 2:18).  But also it is through Christ that God’s wrath has been placated, or propitiated, towards us who have repented and placed our God-given faith in Christ (1 John 2:2; Heb. 2:17).  The typological picture painted for us in this Old Testament priestly passage is a picture of Christ.

With this in mind, the imagery of guardianship over God’s dwelling place can be used as an illustration for personal, individual duty of believers to guard God’s dwelling place, though not of a tabernacle made with hands, but the very temple of believer’s bodies in which God’s Spirit indwells (1 Cor. 6:19-20).  Our guardianship is likewise against the common, or profane, to keep it from coming into contact with where the holy dwells.

We are to guard against corruptions, those external and internal that would defile the tabernacle of God.  We are to guard against the placement of idols, high places if you will, that would attempt to subvert the worship of God in our hearts.  We are to guard with a recognition of the fear of God, knowing that the discipline of God is meted out against all unrighteousness.

Through this passage, perhaps somewhat obscure in its details of the Levitical guardianship of the tabernacle, we have opened up for us a gateway into meditation on the High Priestly ministry of Christ.  It should draw our hearts and minds unto Christ who stands on guard daily at the right hand of the Father to make intercession for us.  This is the direction that the passage points us.  But we also have a picture drawn for us, one that shows a priestly duty is still required by God’s priests (1 Peter 2:5-9; Heb. 4:16, 10:19), a duty unto holiness in guarding the temple of God from being profaned by the common and unholy.

 

 

Obey or Be Persuaded, that is the Question

 

“Obey your leaders….” Hebrews 13:17a

Following up on the post, Follow the Leader, where we looked at Hebrews 13:7, we now arrive at Hebrews 13:17 to examine the closing passage of the inclusio in chapter 13.

In our first passage we saw the commands for the recipients of the letter to remember, consider, and imitate their leaders, defined as those who spoke the word of God to them.  Here in this passage it would appear the response has advanced from emulation to subordination.  That apparent shift should give us pause to consider our interpretation carefully.  The difficulty hinges on the word “obey”.

All major English translations use this same word, but because of the difficulty squaring this with the context that we’ve seen so far, a wise suggestion is to look at the semantic range, or glosses, of the Greek word, peitho, and consider if obey fits the context best.

According to Strong’s concordance, we find the following outline for the range of possible meanings

  1. persuade
    1. to persuade, i.e. to induce one by words to believe
    2. to make friends of, to win one’s favor, gain one’s good will, or to seek to win one, strive to please one
    3. to tranquilize
    4. to persuade unto i.e. move or induce one to persuasion to do something
  2. be persuaded
    1. to be persuaded, to suffer one’s self to be persuaded; to be induced to believe: to have faith: in a thing
      1. to believe
      2. to be persuaded of a thing concerning a person
    2. to listen to, obey, yield to, comply with
  3. to trust, have confidence, be confident

As seen above, obey is certainly an option, though perhaps less frequently used.  In fact, of the 55 occurences of this word in the New Testament (KJV Concordance), only 8 times it is translated as obey.  By the way, 22 times it is translated as persuade, 8 times as trust, 8 times related to confidence (this is according to the KJV count, as per blueletterbible.org).  For comparison, the word (or those related) occurs in the NASB 64 times in 55 verses, translated as obey four times, Romans 2:8, Galatians 5:7, Hebrews 13:17, and James 3:3.

(As a side note: in Greek mythology, which predates the New Testament writing, Peitho was the Greek Goddess of Persuasion.  This of course is not authoritative, only provides some cultural context towards a possible meaning)

Given the list of possibilities, why choose obey?

Typically in translation, the context determines which gloss best fits. When we hear or use obey in the English language we immediately think of authority and subordination as in, “Children obey your parents” “Servants obey your masters”, these however use a different Greek word.  Interestingly, peitho  was used earlier in Hebrews 6:9 and again in verse 18.  Below are the ESV translations

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation.

18 Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.

Of all the possible meanings for the word in our verse, peitho – obey – seems to be the weakest in that it carries an idea of subordination that is not supported by the context.   Instead, a better fit would be, “be persuaded or believe” your leaders, as it clearly relates to their speaking of the word of God.  The authority is God’s Word, not the leader.  Even here, the persuasion is not towards the leader, but towards the leader’s speaking of God’s Word.

Obey or be persuaded, that is the interpretive question in this passage.  If one assumes ecclesiastical authority and the reads the meaning of the English word obey into the passage, then it is not difficult to arrive at most translations and commentaries.  However, if we allow the context and the meaning of the actual words to interpret the passage, we arrive at a different conclusion.

In the next post, we’ll examine the second command from this verse, ‘submit’.  For more, see the recent video on Pastoral Authority by John MacArthur

 

The Tragedy of Sluggishness

 

The third, and arguably most significant warning of the Book of Hebrews, is framed by two exhortations against the malady of sluggishness.  The same Greek word, translated as “dull” [of hearing] in Hebrews 5:11 ESV and as “sluggish” in Hebrews 6:12 ESV, forms an inclusio  or brackets for this  central warning against apostasy.

Prior to this passage, the previous two warnings guard against neglect (Hebrews 2:3) and falling away due to an unbelieving or hardened heart (Hebrews 3:12-13), but the chief concern of the author’s warnings does not become fully expressed until now.  Here, within this inclusio, the danger is clear: sluggishness in the Christian life is not only inconsistent with a true profession of faith, but it is spiritually deadly.

Contextually, the first bracket use of sluggish – translated dull [of hearing] – concerns the author’s desire to introduce the concept of Christ as High Priest, after the order of Melchizedek.  Because of their sluggish ears, with which the preacher is intimately familiar, they are unable to bear with, or we might say properly digest, this grand topic of Christ’s priesthood.  As the introduction to this warning unfolds, we find that a person’s ability to grasp and  comprehend the truth’s of God’s Word is intimately related to holiness in a their life, a point drawn out in verses 5:13-14

13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Making such a strong conclusion that one’s doctrinal capacity is closely related, or even dependent upon, godliness, might sound strange.  But looking closely at the passage above, this is precisely what is being conveyed.  Central to this conclusion are the phrases unskilled in the word of righteousness and powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.  In the former phrase, we see the exhortation that these believers were inexperienced in the gospel as well as its moral or ethical implications.  With the latter phrase, we find this point expanded upon by further defining this inexperience as a failure to habitually exercise the senses (of discernment) to distinguish good from evil.  More pointedly, their error can be boiled down to a lack of wisdom, which we might define as the spiritual ability to derive ethical living from the truths of  God’s Word.  Primarily it was a failure to allow orthodoxy to lead to orthopraxy.

How common is this in our own generation!!

With this in mind, it seems reasonable to conclude that the first use of sluggishness is a reproof against doctrinal apathy leading to moral laxity which in turn leads to further doctrinal deficiency.  There is a symbiotic relationship, a dependency, of doctrine and practice.

The closing bracket of our inclusio of sluggishness takes on a different tone.  After warning his readers on the danger of apostasy and the impossibility of return, the author switches gears to matters of salvation that pertain more closely to his audience.  Below is the closing exhortation of this critically important third warning in Hebrews

Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. 10 For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. 11 And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.

It’s important in this conclusion to recognize the commendation that the author gives to his hearers.  Some key observations are noted below:

  1. Work
  2. Love for God’s Name
  3. Serving the saints
  4. Earnestness

Despite the exhortation from earlier to reinvigorate their theological ears and pursue holiness in their individual lives, collectively they are praised for their work in earnestly expressing love for the name of God through their service to other believers.

In summary, this second use of sluggishness is a warning against falling into practical laziness as it relates to the service of other believers, an error into which they had not yet entered, but one that appears to be the logical conclusion of the theological deficiency and moral laxity that they had slipped into.

This warning on the tragedy of sluggishness: laziness in our doctrine, holiness, and love for others, should be taken with the utmost seriousness.  It’s no coincidence that the book’s strongest warning against apostasy is encapsulated by this inclusio of sluggishness.  Therefore, it is imperative for us to be daily reminded of the gospel and its practical implications.  It is not enough to be able to provide a theologically precise definition of justification without being able to see the practicality of that same justification.

The entire book of 1 John presents a similar exhortation: Know God. Grow Holy. Show Love.  That is the summation of the Christian life.  Neglect in any aspect is a recipe for spiritual shipwreck.