Hebrews 12:18-24 contrasts Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion to compare the Judaism from which the readers had come with faith in Christ. Mt. Sinai had been characterized by terror and the spectacular manifestations of God's presence on the mountain. Mt. Zion was characterized by a sense of community, a sense of grace, and by Jesus as the model of faith and holiness. The point of the contrast was to make clear to the original readers exactly what was at stake if they gave up their faith in Christ and returned to Judaism.
Hear the Voice of God - Hebrews 12:25-29
Verse 25 begins with a dramatic command: Watch that you do not refuse the one who speaks. The warning command, watch, is the same word used in Hebrews 3:12. It is a frequent word in the New Testament letters to express concern that the readers beware of imminent danger (the same word appears three times in Philippians 3:2).
The danger here is that the readers of Hebrews refuse the one who speaks. The one who speaks refers to God. He had spoken with terror from Mt. Sinai. He was speaking with grace from the heaven throne via Mt. Zion. The verb speaks is in the present tense showing that the author of Hebrews believed God was still speaking. The word refuse was often used with strong connotations of spurning, turning aside from, rejection, and repudiation.
The author of Hebrews was making the choice of faithfulness to Christ or a return to Judaism very clear. The decision could not be a gradual matter in which the readers were unaware of the issues at stake and the consequences. We often shield ourselves from the truth about sin until we are able to think that sinful choices are inevitable. Life just seems to lead in the direction that makes the wrong choice the next logical step and we want to avoid any responsibility because "it just worked out this way." The author of Hebrews will have none of that dishonesty. Disobedience is rejection and repudiation of the entreating, pleading voice of God.
After warning his readers the author proceeds to describe the real danger they faced in the last part of verse 25. If those did not escape who refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we turn away from the one who warns from heaven. From our modern perspective it would be easy to think our author was inconsistent at this point. In verses 18-24 he had urged his readers to stay true to Christ by arguing that they had come to the gentle voice of Christ rather than the terrifying voice of God as it spoke from Mt. Sinai. Now he seems to threaten them with consequences more terrifying than those of Mt. Sinai.
We often err by contrasting the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament. In Hebrews (and in the whole New Testament) there is one God of both Testaments and both his love and wrath are consistent throughout both Testaments. If rejection of the love of God expressed through the Law and the Prophets had caused terrible consequences, how much more terrible would be the consequences of rejecting the message of love spoken through God's Son.
When God had spoken at Mt. Sinai his voice shook the earth according to verse 26. Exodus 19:18 (Hebrew text, not Greek) states that the whole mountain quaked when the Lord descended on Mt. Sinai. In contrast to the shaking at Mt. Sinai (then), God has now promised that he would shake not only the earth but also the heaven. This expression is almost a direct quotation from Haggai 2:6. Isaiah 2:19, 21 and 13:13 also speak of a future shaking of the heaven and the earth by the wrath of God. The author of Hebrews uses this Old Testament language but he has a more specific line of thought in mind.
Verse 27 makes it clear that the author envisions a time when God would discard the present heaven and earth and replace them with a new heaven and earth. Thus he states that the shaking of heaven and earth indicates the removal of what is shaken. That which cannot be shaken will remain. The author has in mind the heavenly realities that have been revealed by Christ as the things which cannot be shaken and which will abide.
Another way of describing the Christian faith, Mt. Zion, and the Christ is a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The exact meaning of "kingdom" in verse 28 is of great interest. There were numerous passages in the Old Testament that spoke of God as King or of God's reign over the earth and especially over Israel. The verb we are receiving is a present tense continuous action form in the Greek text. We are in the process of receiving an unshakable kingdom, which means that to some degree we are experiencing the reality of it. Yet we are not finished receiving that kingdom which means there is a future hope for even more of the righteous rule of God being exercised in our midst.
The author of Hebrews is confident that the kingdom cannot be shaken. Thus we have in the kingdom a relationship with God that will abide forever. The only appropriate response is to give thanks. The life of thanks is acceptable worship with reverence and awe. If we live such thankful, worshipful lives of confidence in the kingdom there is no way we could refuse to stay true to Christ. Thus the author's final exhortation again appeals his readers to remain faithful; to endure hardships for Christ, and to never give up their commitment to the Lordship of Jesus.
Basic Christian Expectations - Hebrews 13
The relationship of Hebrews 13 to the rest of the book is debated. Some scholars believe that it was not originally a part of the book and was an add-on to the book sometime after it was written. Others see it as an appendix of general advice that the author tacked on at the end, but that it is not conceptually related to the rest of the book. Others believe that it was simply part of the flow of thought right out of chapter 12.
It is true that the style and content of Hebrews 13 are different from the rest of the book. It is similar to closing sections in the letters of Paul. In fact, the chief arguments for Pauline authorship have been drawn from chapter 13. The chief arguments that Hebrews was originally a letter at all come from chapter 13.
Though this chapter is different from the rest of the book, it is not unrelated. The concern shifts from the one predominate issue of staying true to Christ which was the subject of the first twelve chapters to other problems. Hebrews 13 is pastoral advice to a community about how to stay together and pull together in the face of very difficult issues.
Ethical Advice from the Pastor - Hebrews 13:1-6
The shift of thought from Hebrews 12:29, "our God is a consuming fire," to Hebrews 13:1, "Brotherly love must continue," is almost mind-boggling. It should be noted that the Greek form of the verb in verse is imperative. The author is commanding his readers to see to it that mutual love continue. The early church understood that they stood against the world and the popular culture of the day. They needed the love and support of each other to survive emotionally with the confidence to make a significant witness to their world. The author knew that his readers could not sustain their faith under pressure unless they were supported by mutual love and encouragement.
Verse 2 urges that hospitality not be forgotten. The Greek roots of the word hospitality literally mean "love of stranger." New Testament hospitality functioned on several levels. In a world in which being a Christian led to persecution the church knew that it had to provide for those thrown out of their homes for becoming Christians. The ancient world had very few lodging places for travelers. Usually travelers of any kind stayed with whomever would open their homes to the stranger (see Travelers and Strangers).
Early Christians knew that they would have an opportunity to witness to many people and to transplant the gospel to new places by opening their homes to travelers. Perhaps most important was that the fact that some of the travelers were Christians themselves. Hospitality to traveling Christians provided information and encouragement from other centers of Christian faith. The opportunity of hosting an apostle or someone who had actually seen and heard Jesus was a real possibility in the early days of the church. As a result hospitality was a significant part of how early Christians practiced their faith in daily life.
Verse 3 commands the readers to remember those who are in prison and those who are tortured. Possibly those in prison and being tortured belonged to the community of faith to which Hebrews was written. In effect the author would be telling his readers not to forget their fellow-church members who were already in prison and undergoing torture. However, it is more likely that he is speaking in general terms urging empathy for anyone suffering in such ways. Obviously it was quite possible that his readers would soon suffer the same fate. In essence the author tells them to do unto others what they would like to have done for them should the circumstances continue to deteriorate.
Verse 4 is a call for sexual purity while affirming God's design for healthy sexuality. Sexual purity is a specific application of the brotherly love mentioned in verse 1. Nothing disrupts a community of believers anymore than illicit sexual behavior in the midst of community. The author upholds marriage as honorable in every way. Later Christians, under the influence of Greek philosophy would argue against marriage, but this author knows that it is the plan of God.
The word translated "honor" or "honored" or "honorable" could also be translated "value" or "valuable." Marriage is valuable because God values it as part of his plan for most people. More specifically, the marriage bed must be undefiled. The book of Hebrews was written in a sexually immoral world. The city of Rome had skyrocketing rates of adultery, homosexuality, and divorce during the first Christian century.
The earliest church defined itself over against the world by its insistence of sexual purity that was to be expressed in the haven of marriage. Even the Roman poet, Horace, in the years just before Christ recognized the devastation of sexuality impurity. In his work entitled Odes he wrote, "Full of sin, our age has defiled first the marriage bed, then our children and our homes; springing from such a source, the stream of disaster has overflowed both people and nation." (Quoted in Lane, WBC, p. 516.) It is hard to believe how perfectly a sentence written at the end of the first century B.C. could describe the end of the twentieth century A.D.
The early church often warned against the insatiable desire to have more. Whether sexual pleasure, drug-induced ecstasy, or money, humanity has found it easy to become addicted. Verse 5 appropriately warns against entrapment by the love for money. Similar to the thought of 1Timothy 6:10, it is not money that is evil, but the love of money that leads to trouble. The opposite side of the matter is to be content with what you have. The author of Hebrews knows that some of his readers have suffered the loss of property in past days because of their faith in Christ (Hebrews 10:34). But he is convinced that the presence of God with them is more valuable than any material or human possession. As they faced persecution they had to know that the Lord was their helper, what could anyone do to them? The pressures we face may be different; the resource of the presence of God is the same for us.
Models for the Christian Life - Hebrews 13:7-9
At first glance Hebrew 13:7-9 contains three unrelated verses. However, closer examination reveals that all three deal with the question of the models that the readers of Hebrews will follow. The author commands his readers in verse 7 to remember your leaders. He will refer to leaders three times in chapter 13, here, verse 17, and verse 24. Verses 17 and 24 make clear references to the leaders of the church who were alive and functioning in their leadership role. The readers are told to obey them and to greet them.
However, in verse 7 the author appears to be referring to those who had been leaders in the past. It is not clear whether these former leaders are now dead or simply no longer functioning in leadership roles. The purpose for remembering these past leaders is to consider the outcome of their manner of life and imitate their faith. These people were not the great heroes of the faith described in chapter 11, but Christians whose names we will never know on this earth. Our author is convinced that thinking about how they lived will be instructive for his readers.
Contemporary American Christianity often elevates new Christians as models when their past life or skills offer the possibility of dramatic worship services. We frequently use the youngest adults of the church as the primary and often only leadership for the teens. The early church would never have functioned in our way. Before people became models the outcome of their lives had to be considered. Our young people need to be put in contact with people whose Christian lives have proven true and successful over the long haul. It is those whose outcomes are proven that the author commands be imitated in their faith. The leaders then - whether they were still alive at the writing of Hebrews or not - provided good models for faith.
Some people do not like the term imitate because they feel it does not show originality or personal authenticity. However, everyone learns by imitation. Our culture vastly over rates individual differences and has forgotten that the commonalties we all share must come first. Truly imitating the faith of a spiritual giant does not need to be artificial. The genius of imitating faith is the struggle to make it your own.
Verse 8 is often interpreted without regard to the context of the whole book of Hebrews. Jesus Christ the same, yesterday, today, and forever is not a philosophical statement about the nature of deity. It was a reminder to the Hebrews of the faithfulness of Jesus. The verse does not describe stony, static sameness, but a living, dynamic constancy. Bruce (p. 375) has caught the idea very well when he writes, "Yesterday Jesus 'offered up entreaties and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death' (Heb. 5:7); today he represents his people in the presence of God, a high priest who has a fellow-feeling with them in their weakness, because he 'endured trial in all respects like' themselves, 'while remaining free from sin' (4:15); for ever he lives, this same Jesus, 'to intercede for them' (7:25). His help, his grace, his power, his guidance are permanently at his people's disposal; why then should they lose heart?" Thus the author is encouraging us that Jesus never abandons his role of pioneer-priest.
Verse 9 warns against being carried away by all kinds of strange teachings, specifically mentioning regulations about food. The early church apparently attracted some offbeat and fanatically legalistic Jews in the early days that constantly pushed food regulations on the church. Romans 14:2-4, 17; 1 Corinthians 8:8; Colossians 2:16. 21-23; and 1 Timothy 4:3-5 all illustrate problems caused in different early churches by people pushing dietary restriction rules on believers. The author of Hebrews notes that such rules have never brought any advantage to those who follow them. Legalism does not lead to spiritual growth and maturity.
Instead of rules, it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace. One of the results of legalism is that it exalts the rule-makers. When that happens the focus on Jesus, the constant pioneer-priest is diminished. Human leaders will always be necessary and important for Christianity, but genuine leaders will focus their people's attention on Christ and his grace rather than on human rules and practices.
Genuine Christian Sacrifices - Hebrews 13:10-16
Hebrews 13:10-16 is built around the theme of sacrifice. The author begins in verse 10 by noting that believers have an altar from which those who officiate in the tent have no right to eat. He is alluding to the fact that Jewish priests were allowed to eat parts of certain sacrifices. The word altar is used here to refer to sacrifice as Bruce (p. 379) points out, "The Christian altar was the sacrifice of Christ, the benefits of which were eternally accessible to them."
The following verses move in a stream of consciousness flowing back and forth between Christ and Jewish priestly practice. In Judaism the undesirable parts of the sacrificial animal were burned outside the community boundaries. Jesus accomplished his sacrifice outside the city wall of Jerusalem. Therefore, in some way he resembles the undesirable parts of the Jewish sacrifices. The author then exhorts his readers to share with Christ the low esteem that comes from being outside the walls.
This section concludes by calling on the readers to offer the sacrifice of praise to God. Verse 15 defines this as the fruit of lips which acknowledge his name. However, verse 16 points out that deeds of kindness and sharing are also part of the sacrifice pleasing to God. New Testament religion is never satisfied with what we say about and to God. It always asks how we treat our neighbors. Authentic worship will offer to God our best confessions of who he is and what he has done. Authentic worship will also demand that we come to the sanctuary with integrity in our relationships with others and that we leave the sanctuary to serve our fellow human beings. The continual aspect of the sacrifice of praise is not continually saying or singing praise songs, but daily living lives that honor God.
Final Exhortations and Doxology - Hebrews 13:17-21
Hebrews 13:17 stands between the section the sacrifice of praise in verses 11-16 and author's request for prayer for himself in verses 18-19. The command to obey your leaders calls for allegiance to the present leaders of the congregation. This is in contrast to Hebrews 13:7 where past leaders were to be remembered and imitated. The author had high regard for the leaders who had spiritual responsibility for the readers of this book. Part of the burden of leadership included keeping watch over the members of the congregation.
The verb keep watch over in Greek was composed of roots meaning "to lose sleep over." The use of this verb reflects the heavy burden of pastoral care felt by leaders of a church whose members were being persecuted. The leaders must give an account to Christ for their stewardship of his church. The author was concerned that his readers live in such a way that the role of leadership would be a joy not a burden.
The request of verse 18, pray for us, is similar to requests for prayer near the end of Paul's letters. The use of the plural us shows that the author considered himself one of the leaders of the church also. He is apparently at some distance from them and so he had urged them to obey the other leaders in verse 17 and to pray for all of them. Nothing dissolves mistrust between people and their leaders like prayer.
Verse 19 turns from the plural "we" in which the author requests prayer for both himself and the leaders of the church to the singular. He requests special prayer for himself to be restored to you soon. The verb to be restored could refer to healing from illness or to release from prison or simply to the end of an absence. The presumption of the final verses of chapter 13 is that the author is at some distance from the readers. That and the fact that verse 19 comes in the location of a letter where travel plans are often mentioned suggest that he is praying to make a return journey to them soon.
Having asked the readers to pray for him in verse 19 the author delivers a prayer for them in verses 20-21. The literary form of these verses is often described as a benediction or a doxology. Recent New Testament studies call it a prayer-wish. It can be seen as a prayer directed to God or as a statement to the readers of the prayer the author wishes to pray for them.
The author addresses God as The God of peace. He means that God is the source of peace. The readers were under pressure to abandon their faith. Persecution was just around the corner. It is easy in times like that to become uptight and tense. It is easy in times like that to forget the peace that comes from God and enables you to trust him.
The author describes God with several important phrases in verse 20. He is the God who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus. If God was able to bring Jesus back from the dead then no problem the readers were facing was too big. The worst their persecution could do was crucifixion and God had already conquered that. The way that author says God accomplished the resurrection was through the blood of the eternal covenant. The death of Christ on the cross in eternal covenant obedience to God released God to bring about the resurrection. Had Christ refused to die on the cross the divine dilemma between God's love and God's justice would not have been resolved. Christ's death meant that God's justice was satisfied. That gave God's love free hand to raise Christ and unleash his resurrection power.
The prayer is that the God of peace equip you with everything good for doing his will. The word equip translates a Greek word that had been used to describe the healing of bones, the mending of clothing (and nets), and the preparation of people for a life of Christian service. Part of its meaning was that God would repair the readers of Hebrews from the damage done to their faith by the pressure of persecution.
The Bible is quite straight forward that the circumstances of life (whether beyond our control or not) can damage us. We need healing; we need repair, and the New Testament prays for that kind of restoration. But the purpose of such restoration is not our comfort or advantage. The purpose is for us to be able to fully do the will of God.
There is no question but that the will of God for the readers was to stay true to Christ. Evangelicals have become uptight about the will of God. Too many of our young people view the will of God as a mystery that may never be figured out. They assume God's will is unknown and may be unknowable. The New Testament, on the other hand, assumes that the will of God is clearly known and always knowable. The will of God is faithfulness, obedience, love of God, and love of neighbor.
Specific applications of the will of God for ministry in a certain place or a certain way by certain people may occur but it is always an extension of that clear well-known will of God. In a similar fashion God's working in us what is pleasing to him also refers to faithfulness in the face of persecution and pressure. There is nothing more pleasing to God than obedience and there is nothing more important to the author than to pray for his readers' faithfulness. If that happens he is convinced there will be glory for Christ forever and ever.
Final Notes - Hebrews 13:22-25
The author urges his readers to bear with his word of exhortation. He then states that he has only written a brief letter. This is the characteristic language of Greco-Roman letters to humbly beg for the readers to patiently hear the message of the letter.
Verse 23 conveys information about Timothy. It is most likely that this is the Timothy that we know from his association with the Apostle Paul, but that cannot be proved. The most probable interpretation of this information is that Timothy had been imprisoned. We do not know where except that it was neither where the author was nor where the readers were. The author was expecting Timothy to join him soon. Once that happened they would both come to visit the readers.
Verse 24 contains a typical greeting request. Similar requests are found in the final chapter of most of Paul's letters. The unusual and tantalizing part of verse 24 is the statement that those from Italy send you their greetings. It is possible to interpret the phrase to mean, "those here in Italy send greetings to you." If that were the meaning the book of Hebrews would have been written from Rome to a destination unknown. It is also possible to interpret the phrase to mean "those Italians who are here with me send greetings to you back home in Rome." This has been the more usual interpretation and is the traditional way the book has been understood.
The final word of Hebrews is a prayer for the grace of God to be with the readers. This is an appropriate ending to the book. The author has argued strongly and well that Christ is better than any of the heroes and institutions of Judaism. But Christ is not better because he tried harder and gave a greater effort. Christ is better simply because God has graciously spoken by his son in these last days. It is not that Christians are better than Jews or that Judaism was a failure. The readers of Hebrews had a better option because "in the fullness of time God sent forth his son." That was not because of the merit of believers, but because of the grace of God. The final prayer of this book is that that grace continue and abound.
It is also especially appropriate to end the book of Hebrews with a prayer that the God's grace be with its readers. This book was written to people under pressure. The author expected the pressure to continue and to increase. He also prayed that the readers would experience the grace of God as they lived under that pressure. There is no better news any of us who live under pressure can receive than the news that the grace of God will be with us in those difficult moments. If God is graciously with us, we can persevere. We can be faithful and we will.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are for reflection on the entire Bible Study.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord would speak to you through his Holy Spirit as you open yourself to his word.
First Day: Read the notes on Hebrews 12:25-13:16. Look up the Scripture references that were given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. What is significant about them?
2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application in your own life. Describe how it applies to you.
3. Write a brief "sacrifice of praise" that you would like to offer the Lord today.
Second Day: Read Hebrews 13:1-25. Now focus in on Hebrews 13:17-25.
1. What kind of relationship did the author want between the readers and their leaders (including himself)? What kind of relationship do you want between your church and your church leaders?
2. Summarize the prayer of verses 20-21 by paraphrasing it into your own words. What is the most important part of the prayer to you?
3. What do you think the author was feeling and meaning as he wrote verse 22? If you had been the author what would you have been feeling as you came to the end of this book?
Third Day: Read Hebrews 1-4
1. What is the main idea that you get from reading chapter1? How does that idea relate to what you now know about the book of Hebrews?
2. What teachings in chapter 2 especially apply to the Christian life? Which of those teachings is most important for your life right now? Why?
3. What characteristics of Jesus does the author of Hebrews paint for you in chapters 3 and 4? Which of those characteristics speaks most powerfully to you?
4. What is the author's point about "rest" in chapters 3 and 4: Write a brief prayer telling God your desires to enter that rest.
Fourth Day: Read Hebrews 5-7.
1. What insights into Christ as high priest does chapter 5 present? Explain in your own words what it means to you to have Jesus as your high priest.
2. What does Hebrews 5:11-6:8 teach about the importance of spiritual growth and development? Write a brief prayer expressing your desire to "go on to perfection" in the light of these verses.
3. Hebrews 6:19 describes Jesus as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul. Has the study of Hebrews helped the anchor hold more firmly in your life? Describe God's work in your life through this study.
4. Summarize the argument of Hebrews 7 in your own words. What is the most important meaning for you of Jesus being a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek? How does that apply in your life?
Fifth Day: Read Hebrews 8-10.
1. What characteristics of the new covenant are described in Hebrews 8? In all of Hebrews? What characteristics of the new covenant are you aware of that are not mentioned in Hebrews? Summarize the meaning of the new covenant in your own words in one sentence.
2. What truths about Christ are especially taught in Hebrews 9? Why are these truths important to you?
3. What ideas appear in Hebrews 10:1-19 that are not found in chapter 9? How important is the idea of sanctification to the author of Hebrews? How important is it to you? What would you give to be one of "those who are sanctified?"
4. What real life applications of his teaching does the author make in Hebrews 10:18-39? What real life applications can you make of his teachings?
Sixth Day: Read Hebrews 11-13.
1. Who is your favorite faith hero in Hebrews 11? Why? Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to form such faithfulness in your life.
2. From your perspective what is the most important verse in Hebrews 12? Describe why that verse is more important to you than any of the other verses in chapter 12.
3. Hebrews 13 commands respect for Christian leaders and offering a sacrifice of praise. Describe how those two commands can be related to each other and how both can be fulfilled in your life.