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.