May 12, 2019
The fifth century church father, St. Augustine, once described all humanity, throughout time, in four different states – kind of going through time, from the original Garden of Eden, to the new garden in the New Jerusalem:
- At creation, in the Garden of Eden, humanity was created perfect, with both the ability to not sin, or to sin. And sin they did.
- And so, after the Fall, since Adam and Eve, we are all born sinners, with the ability to sin, but not the ability to not sin. In other words, sin we will.
- But good news, having been redeemed, we still have the ability to sin, but also the ability to not sin. Not to live perfectly, but to pursue holiness. By the power of the Holy Spirit, you can choose to not sin.
- And in heaven, we will once again be perfect, this time, without the ability to sin.
And so, every Christian who has died and gone to be with the Lord, is in the fourth state – perfect, without the ability to sin. But, everyone still alive, everyone on the planet, everyone in this room, right now is either in the second or third states. You see – no one is perfect – we all know that by experience – the Garden of Eden is long gone. But everyone is either an unredeemed, or redeemed sinner. I know some people don’t like to be called sinners – they’d rather be called saints. I understand that. All I mean is that everyone alive today has the ability to sin – in that sense, we can be called sinners – but not everyone has the ability to not sin. That’s the difference between the second and third states.
Maybe you’re here today, unredeemed, that is, not saved, and you find yourself still living in your dreadful, destructive sin. In fact, you know well by now, you do not have the ability to say no to sin. Oh, you may have tried, but sin swallows you up as sure the setting of the sun swallows light and brings inevitable darkness. Sin you do.
Maybe you’re tired of that. Tired of trying and failing. Tired of sinning, ruining your life, and the lives of those around you. The darkness comes, and you wait for light with the next revolution of the planet – but darkness descends again in its never-ending, unbreakable grip. I have good news for you – you can surrender your life to Jesus, and allow Him to start transforming your life. All your troubles won’t go away, you won’t be perfect – but you can be a new creation, a new person in Christ. If that’s you today, my prayer is those words will resound in your mind all morning – your life is a mess, and I can’t fix it, and neither can you. But there is One who can.
But I want to talk to the majority of people in this room. You see, most of us are supposed to be, by confession, in the third state. We are redeemed followers of Jesus. We still have the ability to sin, and sometimes do. But we also have the ability to not sin. Further, we are supposed to say no to sin as a way of life. And maybe, if you were honest, you’d say, I fail far more than I want. I give into sin far too often. I don’t want to – but I often fail. If that is your experience, as it at times has been mine, I have a word of encouragement for us today. Read the text with me – Hebrews 13:20-25.
Obviously, this is our last sermon in the book of Hebrews. I must say I had looked forward for years to teach the book, and it did not disappoint. We began this study in January of last year – over 16 months ago. Now, to be fair, this is only our 54thsermon in the book – we’ve covered others things along the way (Krueger). But just over a year of sermons in Hebrews. Which is something, when you consider the author just wrote in verse 22, “But I urge you, brothers, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.” Briefly?
Several thoughts. First, he calls this letter a word of exhortation. That exact phrase is used in Acts 13 of a sermon Paul gave in the synagogue in Antioch. A word of exhortation is a sermon – and most see this author, whoever he is, as a former leader, pastor in the church to which he now writes. And he writes what he calls a brief sermon. Which is the second thing to notice. Most agree it would take about an hour to read this sermon, Hebrews, aloud. So under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Scripture considers a brief sermon about an hour long – just saying. So, it’s been quite the task to preach 54 sermons from one brief sermon. Kind of proud of that.
But that leads to the third thing to notice about this verse – I urge you, brothers, bear withthis word of exhortation. What does that mean, bear with? Quite simply, it means to listen to it and do what it says. James said, don’t just listen to the Word, do what it says. You see, the word exhortationliterally means to call one alongside. It could be to call someone alongside to give them a word of encouragement, or a word of exhortation – to admonish them to action. And as we’ve seen, our author has done both – he has both encouraged and warned or admonished his readers.
The encouragement is Jesus is better. He’s better because He’s supposed to be. He is the fulfillment of all to which the OT pointed. In fact, He did what the Old Covenant could never do – was never intended to do. He brought the New Covenant through His sacrificial death. He brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, something the blood of bulls and goats could never do. He fulfilled all those OT types, all those OT promises, just as planned.
And therefore, the warning, the exhortation has been, don’t leave. Don’t turn your back on Jesus and return to the Old Covenant. There remains no sacrifice for sins there – and therefore, no forgiveness there. So, I urge you – I plead with you to bear with this word of exhortation. It’s in your eternal best interest.
Which brings me back to the introduction. As most of us are redeemed followers of Jesus, we should be living lives of consistent – not perfect – but consistent spiritual victory. But through this study, perhaps you haven’t felt very victorious – very strong. As I said, perhaps you have been one who’s life has been characterized by regular failure. Perhaps, if you were honest, there have been times you felt like scrapping the whole thing and walking away. Perhaps you’re considering that right now. Perhaps you have walked away, and you just happen to be here this morning. I mean, it’s Mother’s Day, and you’re just making Mom happy. And here’s your question – I’ve tried, and failed more times than I can count. Why can’t I walk faithfully? Why can’t I walk the Christian life? I don’t think it works. I have good news for you – you can. But you must understand both how, and who is living the life in and through you.
The Christian faith does not give you some personal, profound ability to be good person. It gives you the Spirit of Christ, by whom He transforms your life into His character and image – so that you can live a holy and good life. But our focus must be in the right place.
Our author he has been encouraging and warning us all the way through this book. And now, as he closes his letter, he offers a prayer for his readers – for us. And in so doing, he tells us how we can stay faithful. Stay strong. Follow Christ. The outline looks like this, but know we’ll spend most of our time in the first point, which is:
- The Benediction (20-21)
- Final Comments (22-25)
Now, many NT letters end with a benediction. By the way, benediction literally means good words – and a benediction is a pronouncement or prayer of blessing on the readers. Here’s some of them:
25Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past,
26but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leadingto obedience of faith;
27to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.
Please notice, these are not just empty, flowery Christians words. These are powerful, good words of blessing to the readers and praise to our great God. And don’t miss the first phrase, because it’s much like our author says – Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ…. Do you see it? Do you see the who and the how?
1 Corinthians 16:23-24
23The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you.
24My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Now, why do so many of these NT letters end with a benediction or prayer, asking that grace – the unmerited, unearned favor of Jesus – be with us? Again, we are getting a glimpse into how we successfully, victoriously, faithfully live the Christians life. It is by His empowering, ever-present grace.
I love the last verse 2 Corinthians 13:
14The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.
Do you see, the entire Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit are involved in our spiritual growth – the grace of Jesus, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Spirit. God is intimately concerned about our Christian faith and is personally involved in its success.
I could keep going – Galatians, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit; Ephesians, grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ; Philippians, and my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
The point is, God is so committed to us as His children that He is with us, by His Spirit and His grace to ensure our faithfulness. That’s the point. Paul gets to the end of all his letters and says, God’s grace be with you to do His will – to live the Christian life. Meaning God ensures our success. Look at our verses in Hebrews. Now the God of peace – stop right there. Remember to whom he is writing – a group of believers who were facing great persecution. And he says, the God of peace – he’s reminding us that despite the challenges of opposition living the Christian life, the God of peace – which is wholeness and peace within – body, soul and spirit. He is with us, this God of peace, regardless of what is happening out here.
Some of you may wonder about that address – the God of peace. You look around at His world and say, what? There is nothing but chaos and pain and fighting and evil – there’s no peace. And you would be right. But remember the four states of humanity. God created us in the first state – perfect, good. He walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden. But with the ability to not sin, or sin, they chose sin. They rebelled against their Creator. And since then, everyone has been born in the second state – with a sin nature, and not only the ability to sin, but the desire to sin. We are the ones who, in our rebellion, plunged this world into chaos and pain and evil. We are responsible. And God would have been most just to leave us to our just reward. But He loved us and did something about our rebellion. He took the steps to make peace with us.
So, in the benediction, our author takes a moment to remind us how God brought us peace – how He acted to reconcile us to Himself. The God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord.
I could preach on that verse for the rest of my life – but I suppose 54 Hebrews sermons is enough. But look at it – it is most glorious. God the Father is the one who brought up Jesus from the dead. This is the only clear reference to the resurrection in the entire book – but it is implied all over – not the least of which is when he speaks of Jesus being seated at the right hand of God. God raised His own Son and seated Him at His right hand, the place of highest honor. And the resurrection is proof that the death of Christ for sinners was accepted – was sufficient –indeed was pleasing to God. Paul said in Romans 1, Jesus proved Himself with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead.
But notice what Jesus is called in this verse – the great Shepherd of the sheep. How can you, a mere aimless, wandering sheep, be assured of faithfully following Christ? Because you have none other than the Great Shepherd to lead you, to feed you, to protect you. Remember, the word shepherdis also the word pastor. It’s only translated pastor one time in the NT – all the other times it is shepherd. But the pastor’s primary role is to shepherd the sheep – Peter calls pastors under-shepherds. Because, you see, there is one Great Shepherd – Peter calls Him the Chief Shepherd – the one who laid down His life for the sheep.
Notice, He is the great Shepherd through the blood of the eternal covenant. And we remember the inauguration of a covenant required the shedding of blood. The Old Covenant was inaugurated through the shedding of animal blood. The New Covenant was inaugurated through the blood of Jesus Himself. Now, this author has referred to the Old and New Covenants many times. But here, he refers to the New Covenant as the eternal covenant. Why that title? Several reasons, but at least because it is the covenant which gives its followers eternal life. It is eternal because it will last forever, as will those who participate in it. It is eternal because there is no other to come. While the Old Covenant was a type, awaiting fulfillment in the New, the New Covenant has come and is eternal. For all time, every covenant finds its ultimate fulfillment in the New.
So, the God of peace brought up from the dead the Great Shepherd of the sheep – He is the great Shepherd through the shedding of blood inaugurating the New and Eternal Covenant. And who is this great Shepherd who shed His blood, who died and was raised again? Just to be clear, so there is no confusion, even Jesus our Lord. Don’t miss the title. We like to see Jesus as our Savior, and that He is. But that term, as I recall, is used of Jesus 17 times in the NT. He is referred to as Lord over 400 times. Lord is Master, Ruler, Sovereign. And by the way – that is key to successfully living the Christian life.
Now, having identified this God of peace and His work through Jesus on our behalf, the author gets to the blessing or the prayer for his readers in verse 21 – look at it. Now the God of peace equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
I want to be perfectly clear – success for living the Christian life faithfully does not come from a new you – it comes from a new you empowered by the Spirit of God. It comes from a new you, made alive, because God will equip you in every good – in every way and in every circumstance, to do His will. It is God Himself working in us to do all things that are pleasing in His sight.
Paul said the same thing in Philippians 2:
12So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;
13for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
14Do all things without grumbling or disputing;
15so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world,
16holding fast the word of life….
How do we do it? It is God who works in us, new creations that we are, to equip us to do His will in every way, that is pleasing to Him. And notice, He does that through Jesus Christ, who therefore deserves all the glory forever and ever. I love that – first, God worked in Jesus to raise Him from the dead, and now He works in us through Jesus. So, we don’t deserve the glory – if left to ourselves, we would still be in the second state – miserable sinners unable to not sin. But by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, we can live for Him.
And all that sound like words to you. How do we do that? Listen carefully. I don’t want you leaving today, bucking up, trying harder, deciding that tomorrow, Monday, you will be good. No. I want you to understand living for Christ, following Christ, is a day by day, moment by moment surrender to the Lordship of Jesus and the filling of the Holy Spirit. That’s why Paul said to keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit. It is a surrender of your agenda, to His. It is getting off the throne of your heart and recognizing it is Jesus’ rightful place. It is praying, God, equip me, by Your Spirit, do to Your will today – so that in all things, I will be pleasing to You.
Are these just mental gymnastics? Saying the right words? No. It is a conscious and willful surrender to the God of the universe, who has our best in mind. And again, as He works His will in us, that which is pleasing to Him, all glory redounds to the Son forever and ever.
I want to be clear. This is not a matter of letting go and letting God, whatever that is. There are some things you do – starting with acknowledging your personal inability and recognizing His total ability and His desire to work things in and through you. Then, acknowledging our inability, we surrender to His control and filling – and as Paul said, work out your salvation. Understanding you need Him to do it – you surrender to God and work with Him as He works out His glorious purposes in you. Do you see what I’m saying? You’re not passive – but nor are you dependent on yourself. You are dependent on Him.
Which brings us quickly to the closing remarks of the letter. I’ve already covered verse 22 where he urges his readers to bear with his exhortation. A few final thoughts. In verse 23 he mentions our brother Timothy, who has been released. Further, if I can connect with him, we’ll come together soon.
Now most agree this is likely the Timothy we know in the NT as one of the traveling companions of Paul – and the Timothy to whom 1 and 2 Timothy were written. Which is interesting. Paul had written Timothy during Paul’s last imprisonment, encouraging Timothy to not be timid. If Hebrews was written in the mid-60’s as supposed, this would have been about the time Paul was imprisoned, wrote 2 Timothy, and was eventually martyred for his faith. Apparently Timothy listened to the encouragement and spend some time in prison himself.
Which is encouraging. Through this letter, the author has been encouraging his readers – don’t quit. I know opposition has been severe, and is increasing. And just like Paul encouraged Timothy to be courageous, to stay faithful, so our author does the same thing. Apparently, Timothy listened. And he serves as encouragement to anyone who is tempted to shrink in the face of opposition.
Verse 24 – greet all your leaders – this is the third time he uses that word in this chapter. But don’t just greet them – greet all the saints. And that’s what you are as you follow Jesus – a saint – literally, a holy one. Everyone plays an important part – so greet everyone. And those from Italy greet you. If our supposition is correct the author was writing to Jewish believers in Rome, then he is saying – those believers from Italy, whom you know, greet you.
Finally, verse 25, grace be with you all. As noted, this is a common closing in NT letters. But never see it as just a formal, sincerely yoursclosing. It carries great truth – the truth that we need God’s grace – not only to save us, but empower us to live out the Christian life day by day.