Living by Faith in Jesus (sermon resource for 8/28/22)

This post exegetes Hebrews 13:1-21, drawing on multiple sources including commentary from Warren Wiersbe (Bible Expository Commentary), F.F. Bruce (Epistle to the Hebrews) and D.A. Carson (New Bible Commentary).

“Jesus and the Canaanite Woman,” by Pieter Lastman (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)  

Introduction

Hebrews chapter 11 gives us examples of faithful people. Chapter 12 then exhorts us to persevere in the faith. And now in chapter 13 we are given ‘real-world’ examples of living by faith in Jesus. 

Here we find the life-style of a follower of Jesus. Of course, Christians are not ‘yellow pencils’, nor are they perfect; but in their lives you will find certain defining characteristics. This chapter gives four: 1) they love others, 2) they are responsive to church leaders, 3) they are given to worship, and 4) they are yielded to Jesus. Let's explore each one.

1. Love for others (13:1–6)

Love for others is a preeminent Christian virtue. We see this clearly in Jesus' own life, and now we are given several examples of what that love looks like in the lives of Jesus' followers:

a. Love for the brethren  (vv. 1-2)

1 Keep on loving each other as brothers. 2 Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.

Believers love fellow Christian “brothers” (brothers and sisters in Christ). The Jewish Christians who originally received this letter no doubt had been rejected by friends and families for their faith in Jesus. But the deepest fellowship transcends these physical boundaries and is found in the love and life of the Spirit which we share with other believers. Love for our spiritual family is expressed in hospitality (Heb. 13:2a)—in this case a willingness to “entertain strangers.” This was vital in the early church where persecution drove many believers from their homes. Many could not afford to stay in an inn; and since churches met in homes it was natural for a visitor to just stay with the host family. By entertaining strangers some unknowingly entertained angels (Heb. 13:2b). Abraham, the father of the faithful, did so (Gen. 18). You and I may not entertain angels in a literal sense, but any stranger could turn out to be a messenger of blessing from God (“angel” literally means “messenger”). 

b. Support for those in desperate need (v. 3)

3 Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Believers express concern for those in great need. It was not unusual for Christians to be arrested and imprisoned for their faith. To identify with them might be dangerous; yet Christ’s love compels us to do so. To minister to a prisoner or others in desperate circumstance is to minister to Christ himself (Matt. 25:36, 40).  

c. Honoring the marriage union (v. 4) 

4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.

Believers are careful to protect marital love by being sexually pure. Sex within the protective bonds of marriage brings joy and glorifies God. But sex outside marriage and all other forms of sexual perversion are sinful and destructive; and thus unloving. God judges all such immorality—and even if the sin is forgiven, sexual sins often leave lingering effects in this life, including the weakening of the marriage bond.  

d. Avoiding covetousness (vv. 5-6)

5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." 6 So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?"

Believers love people more than material things. Of course times of hardship challenge this commitment—when our goods are stripped away we can become covetous of those who have more.  The “love of money” is a primary form of covetousness that is rooted in greed for more. But people who live by faith in Jesus are content with what he provides. 

“Watch out!” said Jesus; “be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). In Jesus we have all we need. Material things can decay or be stolen, but Jesus will never leave or forsake us (Matt. 28:20). The quote in Hebrews 13:6 comes from Psalm 118:6, which is fulfilled in Jesus. It was a source of great peace to the early Christians to know that through faith in Jesus they were safe from the fear of man, for no man could do anything to them apart from God’s will. Men might take their goods, but God would meet their need.  

2. Responsive to church leaders (13:7–9, 17, 24)

The reference to leaders here has to do with the spiritual leaders within the church assemblies. Wherever local churches formed, appropriately qualified believers were appointed to lead. Here the author of Hebrews notes that each Christian has three responsibilities toward these duly appointed church leaders:

a. Remember them (vv. 7–9) 

7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. 9 Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them.

The word “remember” may suggest that the leaders referred to here had been martyred. But dead or alive, it is appropriate to give honor to our spiritual leaders for their faithful work (1 Thess. 5:12–13).  These leaders probably had led the readers to Christ because they had given them the gospel ("the word of God"), and had lived before them an exemplary life of faith which they are encouraged to “imitate” because it points to Jesus who is the unchanging, faithful one who is always present to help them (Heb 13:8).  

Sadly, there is the ever-present danger of being “carried away by all kinds of strange teachings” (Heb. 13:9) that would lead people away from Jesus. Some of the Jewish Christian readers were succumbing to teachings that encouraged them to return to the old covenant, which included food regulations. The writer warned them that these external regulations were of no lasting value—they were now null and void because of what Jesus had done. Only Jesus, through grace, transforms the human heart.

b. Obey them (v. 17) 

17 Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

When church leaders are true servants of God who teach the word of God, believers should submit to their leadership. This does not mean that church leaders are authorized to be dictators (remember the earlier instruction about love for the brethren), but some believers have a flippant attitude toward church authority, and this is dangerous. One day every church leader will have to give an account of their ministry to the Lord—so their responsibility is a weighty one and believers should do all they can to make it one that is joy-filled rather than burdensome.   

c. Greet them (v. 24a) 

24 Greet all your leaders…

Here the author asks his readers to greet their leaders. This implies that they will be on speaking terms with them—and this is vital. A “root of bitterness” must not be allowed to divide one believer from another (Heb. 12:15) –-it only hurts the whole church.   

3. Given to worship (13:10–16, 18–19)

10 We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat. 11 The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. 12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. 13 Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. 14 For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. 15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise-- the fruit of lips that confess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Here the author contrasts worship under the old covenant for the Jews, with worship under the new covenant for Christians. Jews looked to a physical temple, but Christians have a heavenly one. Jews looked to an earthly city, Jerusalem; but Christians have an eternal city, the New Jerusalem. For each of an old covenant believer’s temporary earthly items, a new covenant believer has a heavenly and eternal counterpart. The new covenant ‘altar” (Heb. 13:10) is spiritual, not physical. In the sanctuary of the old covenant, the brazen altar was the place for offering blood sacrifices, and the golden altar before the veil was the place for burning incense, a picture of prayer ascending to God (Psa. 141:2). Under the new covenant, a Christian’s altar is Jesus Christ; for it is through him that we offer “spiritual sacrifices” to God (Heb. 13:15).  

The exhortation in this section is that believers should separate themselves from the old covenant religion and identify in their worship fully and only with Jesus Christ under the new covenant. The imagery described comes from the Day of Atonement where the sin offering was taken outside the camp and burned completely (Lev. 16:27). Jesus Christ, our perfect sin offering, suffered and died not in Jerusalem, but “outside the city gate”—outside of the confines of the old covenant. True Christians must go out with him. “Why stay in Jerusalem when it is not your city?” asked the writer. “Why identify with the old covenant worship and law when it has been done away in Jesus?” 

The original readers of this epistle were looking for a way to continue as Christians while escaping the persecution that would come from unbelieving Jews. “It cannot be done,” the writer states in so many words. “Jerusalem is doomed. Get out of the Jewish religious system and identify with the Savior who died for you.” You can’t have it both ways. 

The writer named two “sacrifices” offered by Christians. The first is continual praise to God (Heb. 13:15). The words of praise from our lips, coming from our hearts, is like beautiful fruit laid on the altar. How easy it is for suffering saints to complain, but how important it is for them to give thanks to God. The second is good works of sharing (Heb. 13:16). This would certainly include the hospitality mentioned in Heb. 13:2, as well as the ministry to prisoners in Heb. 13:3. “Doing good” can cover a multitude of ministries: sharing food with the needy; transporting people to and from church or other places; sharing money; perhaps just being a helpful neighbor.  

18 Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way. 19 I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon.

Here the writer emphasizes the importance of intercessory prayer. Unable to visit the readers personally, the writer wants the readers prayer help. It is possible that some of his enemies had lied about him, so he affirms his honesty and integrity. We do not know for certain who the writer was. 

4. Yielded to Jesus (13:20–21)

20 May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, 21 equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

This benediction summarizes the major themes of the book of Hebrews: peace, Jesus’ resurrection, the blood, the covenant, spiritual maturity, and God’s work in the believer. Concerning this work, the phrase “equip you” (Heb. 13:21) translates the Greek word katartidzo. First century doctors used the word to refer to setting a broken bone. Fishermen used it to refer to mending a net. Sailors used it to refer to outfitting a ship. Soldiers used it to refer to equipping an army. It is used here to speak of the work of the great Shepherd of the sheep, Jesus, who equips us so that he can work in us and through us that which pleases him and accomplishes his will. 

How does Jesus equip us? By tracing the word katartidzo in the New Testament we discover several ways: he uses the word of God (2 Tim. 3:16–17), prayer (1 Thess. 3:10), the fellowship of the local church (Eph. 4:11–12), the influence of individual believers (Gal. 6:1) and the crucible of suffering (1 Peter 5:10, and see Hebrews chapter 12). The basis for Jesus’ marvelous work in us is his “blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20). This is the new covenant, which is God’s eternal plan for us in and through Jesus. 

There are no better hands to be in than those of Jesus and believers seek to yield to his good work in them. To him alone be glory for ever and ever. Amen!