Category Archives: Hebrews

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.

Every Advantage

 

In thinking through the circumstances surrounding both Adam and Noah that we’ve seen in recent posts, there is at least one commonality between them that is shared with believers in Christ today, primarily the advantages that they had, and those that we have, which lend themselves towards aiding in our obedience to God.  Yet like them, even with every advantage, we still sin.

Pre-fall Man

Reviewing the case with Adam, we know that God rested him in the garden, which He had ordained to bring forth lush vegetation and food, apart from the efforts of the first man.  His primary duty was obedience and service before the Lord, as a priest, but also as a protector of the garden and all that was in it.  As it is sometimes explained, Adam had the ability to sin and the ability to not sin  (Latin = posse peccare, posse non peccare).  Though he was created sinless, his nature was mutable, or changeable.  He had the moral free agency to choose to sin or choose to not sin.  He was given dominion over creation, abundant food to eat as he pleased, and a wife who came alongside him as a help-mate.  By all accounts Adam was living in perfection.  If anyone could claim to be living their best life now, it was Adam, pre-fall.

Yet despite all of these blessings from God; despite all of the advantages, Adam still succumbed to temptation, that conceived with his inmost desires of discontentment and brought forth sin.  Despite literally having it all, including most importantly, direct communion with God, Adam was dissatisfied and chose to sin.

After Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, man now had the ability to sin, but lost the ability to not sin, thus inheriting the corruption of Adam’s original sin by means of a sinful nature which carried with it the inability to not sin (non posse non peccare).  This is simply referred to as man’s inability.  Instead of retaining the moral free agency that Adam had briefly enjoyed, his offspring -namely all mankind, as was evident with Cain- became enslaved to sin, their wills now held captive to sin.

Post-Fall Man

It was with this sinful nature that Noah entered upon the scene of God’s creation, now with a cursed ground and living among a rebellious people.  However, Noah found favor in God’s sight (even with the presence of a sinful nature, which should be an encouragement to us).  With Noah, God decided to set-apart a new people for Himself and chose Noah and his family out of all the peoples of the earth.  God then rained down judgment upon the earth, because of the sinfulness of man, through a world-wide flood, preserving Noah, his wife, and their sons and wives along with a selection of animals to repopulate the earth.

It was into this new creation, this new garden, that God opened the doors of the ark to complete the rescue of his people.  Noah, as a new priest in a new temple (Genesis 8:20), had, like his great grandfather Adam, every advantage at his fingertips.  No longer was he faced with the ridicule and mockery of a people who doubted the words of his preaching, but it was him alone with his family with a renewed commandment of “be fruitful and multiply” and a new charge to have dominion over creation.  To show His steadfast love and faithfulness, God enters into a covenant with Noah.  This time there is no prohibition of eating from a particular tree, instead there is a prohibition to “not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen. 9:4) again carrying with it the consequences of death for its violation.  As God reveals this commandment, we see it specifically applied to the murder of man, who God reminds us, was made in His own image.

Again, despite all of the advantages presented to Noah, just like Adam he too fell, quickly (Genesis 9:21-29).  Despite the flood cleansing the world from its external wickedness, the seed of sin was allowed to germinate in the hearts of the eight who were saved through the waters of judgment.  The ability to sin and the inability to not sin remained.

Until Christ.

Sinless Man

These principles of the sinful nature, inherent in man after the fall, highlight the supreme importance of the sinlessness of Christ, more specifically that He was born sinless and remained sinless.  Because of the uniqueness of Christ’s birth, the unbroken line of the sinful nature was broken, in Him.  The generational succession of the ability to sin and the inability to not sin was not transmitted to Him.  We say then that Christ was impeccable, or that He was unable to sin (non posse peccare – note the distinction between this an Adam’s original state).  While a minority position has often claimed that Christ did have the ability to sin, all must conclude that He did not actually sin, as Scripture so adamantly asserts (1 Peter 2:22; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 John 3:5).  Christ alone was sinless.

Our Lord, we may be reminded, was not afforded all the advantages of His grandfathers Adam and Noah.  He entered into this world with nothing, literally being born nowhere, coming from nowhere, and then having all of this nothing stripped further away during His own wilderness garden experience.  Here, Christ was not surrounded by lush vegetation bringing forth an abundance of food effortlessly, but He fasted, for 40 days, surrounded by thorns and thistles of a cursed land and subjected to the wild beasts (Mark 1:13).  He then, throughout His ministry, was subjected to every temptation, yet unlike us, did not sin (Hebrews 4:15).  In His next garden experience, this one more lush than His last, He was given the sentence of death. Whereas His grandfather’s were given prohibitions that carried the sentence of death for their violations, Christ was given the sentence of death despite not having a violation of His own.

Renewed Man

The death of the sinless Christ for sinful man and His subseuqent resurrection, attesting to His sinlessness, now made it possible for those who have repented, and been united to Him by faith, to not sin.  Because of Christ, those in Him, given a new nature and a regenerate heart, have returned to the state of the original Adam having now both the ability to sin and the ability to not sin (posse peccare, posse non peccare).  No longer then are our wills enslaved to sin.  No longer do we possess a moral inabiltiy wherein all we do is sin continually.  No, the redeem actually do have the ability to not sin!

Like our forefathers, Adam and Noah, we have even greater advantages.  We are able to live on this side of the cross, this side of our Lord’s resurrection, we know and can see the power of sin, but the greater power of grace.

We are co-heirs with Christ, seated with Him in the heavenly places. We now have access to the Father through the Son and can come freely into His presence at anytime. Not only this but we have been united to Christ, clothed with His righteous, bought by His blood, redeemed from the power of sin, and have had the wrath of God removed from us, by Christ’s propitiation.  Not only this but we have Christ as our Mediator, our High Priest, and the Captain of our salvation.  Not only this, but we have been given His Word as a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths.  Literally the Word of the living God has been made accessible to us, to have, read, and meditate upon at any time.

As if those advantages were not numerous and weighty enough, we have been given a Helper, the Comforter, the Paraclete, God’s Holy Spirit who resides not among us on the outside, but internally in our now regenerate hearts.  All of these advantages working for our good to bring us into conformity with Christ and fulfilling His promise to complete this work until our day of salvation.  Regenerate man reclaimed the ability to not sin while simultaneously retaining the ability to sin.

But herein lies the problem.  Given far more advantages than both Adam and Noah, we still sin.  That ability to sin is still within and is an active, vital force within us until the day we die.  The Apostle Paul laments this very fact as he surveys the duality within his own heart, two laws at is were, warring against one another (Romans 7:21-23).  The flesh vs. the spirit, the former lusting against the latter while the latter wars against the former (Galatians 5:17). If Christ had simply died to return us to the former state of Adam, we would still be damned because of the continual presence of the ability to sin in our natures.

Glorified Man

But thanks be to God He did more than that.  Christ was not content to simply leave us in a pre-fall Adamic state.  No, more than this He was intent to bring us into glory.  The glorified state of man where we will one day have the ability to not sin and likewise the inability to sin, as our Lord did.  Praise be to God as we long for this day when sin is no longer crouching at our door step.  When the war within us has ceased and the spirit is alone without carrying along the rotten carcass of the flesh.  Then in the New Garden, when we return to the restful state intended by God for man, we Will serve God night and day as priests with every advantage at our fingertips, including the renewed communion with God forever to be enjoyed because sin, the devil, and the flesh have been eradicated.

Praise be to God, come quickly Lord Jesus for we long for the day!