Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 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.”
So, we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Hebrews 13:1-6)
Here, some of the main themes of the letter of Hebrews are summed up. The issue is not the superiority of the Christian faith, but the love Christ leads us to share with others. The superiority is love, forgiveness and service of others, rather than retribution. It’s as Paul said, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” These are the two ways we can read the letter of Hebrews, to show us the love of Christ to serve, or our assumed superiority to divide.
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers.” Breaking down the hostility in the society by reaching out to help others, especially those who are strangers, to break down the walls of division, alienation and aggression in our communities. These are elementary keys of our true Christian life, and to the wellbeing of our nations.
We have often misread the end of New Testament letters, as if they are general comments on behaviour, not necessarily tired to the main message of the letter. That is not the case. They are rather showing us the main thrust of what the letter was about, so there will be no doubt in our mind. This section in Hebrews 13 confirms to us the way we have been reading the whole letter.
“Remember those in prison,” or others who are mistreated or who are suffering in different ways. Don’t treat them as accursed and push them away or forget them. Suffer with them. This could be Christians who were being persecuted, or any others, as in “the man on the road to Jericho.” The text doesn’t limit us to only serve a certain group who are suffering. It’s showing Christian love to all who suffer, just as Christ did to us. This is foundational “Christian orthodoxy.” Again, this is vital for restoring neighbourliness and restoring society. Christians are to take the lead in this, whether in a brutal Roman world, or in our brutal divided world today.
Next, the author speaks of morality in marriage, another part of the Christian revolution in the Roman world. The two prongs of community: love for the stranger, and morality in our personal desires. Both issues curtail individualism and greed, which destroy our community. They both subject us under the lordship of love. In neither case is love easy, but is self-denying, self-emptying and self-giving, especially to the enemy and the “sick.” Immorality produces a sense of injustice and hurt in the world, just like other forms of injustice.
“Keep yourselves free from the love of money.” One of the main issues in making us deny fellowship with those in need, and retreat to a hostile faith against others, especially against the marginalised and rejected. Our desire for money or self-preservation will bring us back to a legal and retributive faith, whereby we can justify our treatment of others. We may not recognise this in our lives, because it is hidden in our community’s isolation from others. Denial of self-love dispels our fear and brings us into compassionate relationships with those rejected by the society. Those who do this are the redeemers and rebuilders of society, even though they are not honoured for it.
“The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid.” The purpose of this isn’t self-gloating, but it frees us to love our neighbour and enemy. Being free of fear, we can build relationships in hostile environments and reach out to them as though they were our brothers and sisters. This is the purpose of seeing God as our helper, not for the purpose of our private blessings.
“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
The early apostles of Christ, who refused enemy hatred and violence. Consider the outcome of their faith. Though they were martyred, they left behind the seed of peace. They weren’t overcome by the world. They weren’t destroyed in selfishness and hatred.
“Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.” This is the sense in which this statement about Jesus was used. He hasn’t changed from the peacefulness he exhibited on the cross and which his early apostles exhibited, when they never retaliated, but ate with foreigners and strangers, even when they were being persecuted severally for doing so. Jesus hasn’t changed to a new way of treating strangers and the enemy, to rejecting them and casting them out, to dominate by force in the world. Jesus is the same. I have heard this text used many times, but I don’t remember it being used in this sense in which it was written.
“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 (as the measure of fellowship, instead of love.)”
Our togetherness is the issue here, but often this isn’t the way we are accustomed to reading scripture. This text isn’t only for the purpose of our private comfort in faith, our private struggle in what we are allowed to eat. This is for the purpose of community, as in Romans 14, where people were urged to accept others, with their convictions in such matters. Receive each other. Don’t allow hostile, rejectionist cultures to grow in our relationships, due to different opinions on religious issues, but nurture grace. If people have wrong ideas, restore them in a spirit of meekness, thinking of our own propensity to be at fault.
This shows again the purpose of the author in Hebrews, in speaking on the way of Christ being superior to the old covenant law. It wasn’t a rejection of people who still honoured Old Testament ceremonies. Even Paul still honoured his cultural ceremonies as a Jew. The apostles were not asking us to separate from those people who worship in ceremonial ways different to ourselves, whether Jews, or even Muslims today. Many Jews in those days denied Christ, yet the Jews who believed on Christ sill worshipped with them, for the sake of love and evangelism. There was no exclusion by the early Christians.
The issue the author was addressing was the using of the ceremonies to bring a dividing wall between us. This is what he denounced, by speaking to the superiority of Christ. Christ pulled down the walls of division, he eradicated the sabbath, circumcision, even baptism, as a way of establishing “brotherhood” in fellowship, and instead brought in love as the glue that holds us together. The former, are dividing principalities that rule over our hostilities. The latter brings healing to our lives.
“We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” This was the High Priest and those who served with him in the temple. Their general approach to the ministry was with enmity towards others, racial distinctions and rejection of the weak and sick. In that position of heart, they were unable to receive and eat with the church at their new table, termed “their altar of worship,” meaning their love for each other. In the verses that followed, the author outlined true sacrifice at the new altar of Christ. It was the “sacrifice of praise,” which meant, “not neglecting to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”
Sacrifice had been redefined by the cross of Christ. The punitive nature of it had been done away, and the real nature of the cross, love, had taken its place in our hearts, and therefore in our relationships with each other. Those who continue in the punitive nature of sacrifice, cannot understand and partake of this new table. Their hearts haven’t yet been washed by the purity of Christ’s love. If their ceremonies celebrated the love of God, and not their hostility towards their neighbour in punitive acts, then the ceremonies would be acceptable to God. It isn’t the ceremonies God condemns, but the heart by which they are offered. We aren’t called to condemn the ceremonies of others, but to renew our hearts together.
This sacrifice is offered “outside the camp,” meaning where the rejected people are. The sacrifice we offer is our love and acceptance of one another, who are rejected by those in the camp, meaning in their closed group of separation from caring for others. When we love and accept others, whom those in the camp reject, we will carry their shame, bear it for them, as we reach out our hand to them. Let’s do this gladly, because Christ bore it for us when he called us his family. He bore the shame, being cast out of Jerusalem and killed, so he could speak to us of his love and acceptance through the midst of the shame, coming to where we were.
“Obey your leaders and submit to them…” In the sense of keeping the unity and love of the body, not schisms and self-centred ambitions within the community, so each of us can do our part, carry our own responsibility and contribute to all. The leaders are trying to fulfil their responsibility to God. It’s better to help them in doing this, which will be good for everyone in the communities. This isn’t referring to an overbearing leadership, that intrudes into areas none of the leader’s business, because the leaders are desiring to serve with a “clear conscience, honourably,” and need our prayers for that purpose. Love again is the answer, not self-seeking at either end of the relationship.
“The eternal covenant of peace.” God has proven by the cross he is not angry with us, that he does not remember our sin, and he will never revoke this promise. It is a covenant of peace, which we are to keep, lest his peace be removed from our own hearts, where we bring harm to ourselves. The Lord shepherds us into receiving this peace, to become confident in his love and to share this peace with all our neighbours and enemies. These are the Lord’s two major concerns for us as believers: receive peace, sharing peace. This was his purpose in coming to us in Christ, to establish this peace in our hearts and in the world.
There are possible evidences here that the author was Paul, being in prison, possibly in Rome, and a brother to Timothy. But the evidence isn’t conclusive, and the point isn’t worth arguing, especially not worth dividing over! The message of the letter of Hebrews speaks for itself.