June 10, 2018
It’s great to be back with you this morning. Last week, I was privileged to be with Operation Christmas Child in Uganda. I go occasionally as a devotional speaker, but I also get to participate. There were four distributions of the gift shoeboxes, as well a lesson of The Greatest Journey last Sunday morning. I’m a huge fan of OCC, and even more each time I have the opportunity to see the end results of our giving and labor. I can tell you, the program works – those shoeboxes are gospel opportunities which open the door for a clear, child-friendly, consistent, compelling presentation of the gospel. After which, the children are invited to a twelve- week discipleship class, where many of them are affirmed in their new faith, or truly saved and enfolded into a local church. The program is seeing children saved, and churches built. It is an incredible outreach, and well worth our time and resources.
I’m also thankful for Stephen Broome filling the pulpit last Sunday, challenging us to pursue a heart of a steward, rather than that of an owner. He reminded us from the time we are born, we want to grab everything for ourselves. But as redeemed followers of Jesus, we come to understand we own nothing. He owns it all, we are but stewards, by which we bring Him glory.
As I was traveling back on that 32-hour trip from hotel to home, the first flight of the journey took me from Entebbe, Uganda to Amsterdam.
Thankfully, I got some sleep, because the next leg, from Amsterdam to Detroit, there would be no sleep. In addition to being on the last row before the bathrooms which opened and shut the whole way, there was a family with four small children sitting directly in front of me.
Now, to be clear, I like children. But I had to keep reminding myself – I just travelled to Uganda because I love children. I’ve travelled with children, so I understand the challenge. But they were a handful. And as I observed, the mother was on one end of the parental spectrum, the father on the other.
What do I mean? The mother was quick to coddle and soothe her children, offering words of encouragement and distraction for oft-crying children. The father, on the other hand, was much more stern. He was constantly correcting and disciplining, with some success. I’m sure buried in there somewhere was a father’s heart of love, it just wasn’t readily discernible.
I think we would all agree – children need both. Both loving care and encouragement, as well as loving correction and discipline – even warning. This is what we have seen from the author of Hebrews. He is writing a pastoral letter to Jewish believers he obviously loves – and for whom he is deeply concerned. You see, these believers were facing severe persecution. As a result, at least three things happened. First, some, perhaps for fear of reprisal had removed themselves from fellowshipping with other believers. Second, as a result, the church – these believers – had become stagnant in their growth. By this time, they should have grown to a level of spiritual maturity where they could teach. But, they had remained immature, and had to be taught again the elementary principles of the faith. Third, some were considering quitting and returning to Judaism. All of this went together
– to leave the fellowship of the church results in immaturity which leads to the possibility of apostasy. This was the problem. And so the letter contains both loving encouragement, and stern, loving warning. There are five warning passages in the book. We’ve looked at the first two, and will complete the third today.
In the first one, found in chapter 2, he challenges his readers to pay attention to what they had heard so they would not drift. You see, if those under the Old Covenant in the OT drifted and received a just penalty for their disobedience, how will we, under the New Covenant, escape if we neglect so great a salvation? We won’t.
In the second warning, found in chapters 3 and 4, he doesn’t want to be found in any one of them an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. Instead, he said, encourage one another day after day so that none will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For, we have become partakers of Christ if we hold fast to the end. So don’t harden your hearts.
The third warning in which we find ourselves is found in chapters 5 and 6, and is the most severe of the book – in fact, some suggest the most severe warning in the NT. First, he scolds them for having remained spiritually immature. By this time, they ought to be feasting on meat, but continued in the milk of the word. By this time they ought to be teachers, but instead, they needed someone to teach them the basic principles of the Christian faith. And to remain in spiritual immaturity, to not grow, is to put yourself as risk.
How many times have you heard people say, well, I’m saved, that’s all I really need. I’m going to heaven – I’ve got my fire insurance, but I’m not really into church or growing in the deep truths of the Bible – don’t bother me with doctrine. One of my seatmates on the way to Uganda – a young ex-marine, now an engineer – told me just that. Yes, he said, I know Christ
– but I’m not really into church – I do it my own way. And his own way did not include other believers. Can we do that? Well, to him and us, the author offers his severest warning in chapter 6. Read it with me again – one sentence, verses4-6.
That is severe, and troubling. The last time we were in Hebrews, I suggested there are three basic interpretations of this text, depending on your system of theology:
The first says these are true believers who apostatize – that is, having once been saved, they willfully turn from or reject Christ and His gospel, thus losing their salvation. If that is the case, the author says it is impossible for them to repent again. While this position is held by some, I frankly reject it because of the many passages which clearly say a believer cannot lose his or her salvation.
Which leads to the second position which says these are not true believers – they are almost believers. That is, they had been exposed to Christ and the gospel message through the covenant community, the church – maybe even made a profession of faith at some point. But after a time, they had faltered walked away – thus proving they were not truly Christians. John says, they went out from us because they were not of us – if they were of us, they would have remained with us. This is the most common understanding within the Reformed camp, of which I am a part. Last time, I didn’t elaborate on this position, but let me share some:
The idea is the author is continuing his warning using the example again of the disobedient Israelites of the wilderness wanderings. They, too, had been recipients of God’s great grace – having witnessed His miraculous power through the plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. They had seen these things. Further, they had personally experienced God’s rich provision in water from the rock, manna from heaven, quail from the desert. And yet, even though God had miraculously delivered them, cared for them, they did not trust Him and they did not enter the land of promise. As a result, they died in the wilderness in unbelief. In other words, having experienced all the things this author just listed in chapter 6, having been brought to the very border of the promised land, they did not enter – because they were unbelievers.
Again I want you to know, this is a commonly held position within my camp – and one I understand and could embrace. It actually squares with some other passages. It’s possible they could be like the middle two soils of the parable of the sower. Remember them? They could have been like soil that received the gospel in the rocks. They sprung up quickly, but when persecution came, there was no lasting life – no perseverance, no fruit- producing change of life. They could have been like the thorny soil that received the seed, and again, sprung up with signs of life. But when the worries of this world or the deceitfulness of wealth distracted them, they were choked out. I get that. My only problem with this position is the language in Hebrews 6 is awfully strong and seems to make these people believers. Position 1, believers who apostatize – lose it. Position 2, almost believers who walk away. In both cases – impossible to renew them to repentance.Sobering.
By the way, in Matthew 13, which contains Jesus’ teaching in parables, this parable of the sower is followed, I think intentionally, with the parable of the wheat and tares. You may remember that. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sows good seed in a field. But later at night, while he was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares or weeds in the field. They both grew up, and the servants asked the master – do you want us to go androot out the weeds? How did the master respond? No, wait. Because while you’re rooting out the weeds, you might accidentally root out the good wheat. Wait until the end, and we’ll separate the wheat from the tares – and burn the tares. The point? The wheat are the children of God, the tares are the children of the evil one. Sometimes you can’t tell which is which.
Sometimes, you may think a wheat is a tare, or a tare is a wheat. At the end of the age, God will send forth His angels, and ultimately, judgment belongs to our righteous judge. That doesn’t mean we don’t judge and confront sin. That doesn’t mean we don’t practice church discipline. But the judgment of their eternal souls belongs to Him.
Well, back to Hebrews 6. Again, the language seems to point to true believers. So, what do we do with that? Do true believers here lose their salvation? Which leads to the third interpretation of the passage toward which I lean. Yes, these are true believers. Yes, this is an actual, real warning – don’t apostatize – if you do, it will be impossible to renew you to repentance. But, just as God’s call to salvation is always effective, so also is this warning always effective. Meaning, those who are true believers will hear and heed the warning. God has not only ordained the ends of our salvation – but also the means. And the means include faithful perseverance to include, at times, father to child, severe warning. Encouragement? Sure. But also warning.
Now, does that mean there have never been true believers who have walked away? Yes. But have there been those who were almost believers – who were within the church community – who have walked away? Yes. Is it possible to renew them to repentance? Not if yours is position number 2. If they were almost believers, and walked away, it is impossible to renew them to repentance. But, you say, they never actually repented. Exactly. Which leads to my position. Almost believers can repent, because they never really have. But if true believers were to walk away – if this warning were not effective, it would indeed be impossible to renew them to repentance. But in the end, God knows the wheat from the tares. Here’s my position…
So that was the severe warning from two weeks ago. And the warning to us is don’t walk away. If you do, there will be no returning to repentance. But if you truly know Christ, you will hear and heed. God will give you everything you need to persevere. Which finally brings us to the text this morning. Having warned us, the author turns to encouragement in verses 9-12.
The warning passage began back in chapter 5, verse 11 with the words, “Concerning him [or this, that is the priesthood of Melchizedek] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.” Since you’ve become sluggish, slow, lazy. In our text this morning, he repeats that word in verse 12, I give you this warning and encouragement “so that you will not be sluggish”, slow, lazy, dull of hearing. Same word. These words form bookends to the warning, which brings to the end of the warning today.
But notice, he ends with encouragement. Yes, he has warned them with the most severe words in the book. But he wants to encourage them, and us.
He doesn’t want you discouraged. He doesn’t want you to live in doubt. And in the encouragement, I think, we see the truth that true believers will persevere, and thereby, inherit the promises of the gospel of salvation.
Meaning, do I want you to nervous, fearful, overly concerned with these warnings? Yes, and no. I am firmly convinced of better things concerning you. The outline of our text goes like this:
- Confidence in the Readers(9)
- (The) Basis of the Confidence(10)
- Encouragement in the Confidence (11-12)
Having just warned them severely, he says, “But, beloved [this is the only time in the letter he uses that term – it means dearly loved friends], we are convinced [actually the word means firmly convinced or sure of] better things concerning you, and the things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way.”
Yes, in the case of those who are either almost Christians or are Christians and walk away, there is no hope of renewing them to repentance. But notice the first and second persons at the beginning of the chapter and here in verses 9 and following. But in the severe warning, he uses the third person. Concerning those, but those aren’t you. Concerning you, we are convinced of better things.
That’s a favorite word for the author – better. In fact, you could summarize the entire letter with the word, better. Largely, Jesus is better. He’s better than the angels. He’s better than Moses or Joshua. He’s better than Aaron and the entire sacrificial system. As such, He has brought a better salvation. And so, the author can say, because you are followers of Jesus and have a better, more lasting salvation, I’m convinced of better things concerning you. The things that accompany salvation. What things accompany salvation? He’s been talking about it – but the primary context of Hebrews is this – with this salvation comes the assurance of hope through perseverance. I’m convinced that you have this salvation, and as a result, you will persevere.
Listen, maybe you’ve been here during these warning passages in Hebrews, and you’ve been alarmed. I want you to be. Concerned that you persevere. Concerned that you remain faithful till the end. All that, but not worried that you will somehow lose your salvation, never to be renewed to repentance.
Because if you know Jesus, beloved, I’m convinced of better things concerning you and the eternal salvation you have. God will give – in fact, He has given you everything you need, by His Spirit, to remain faithful till the end. So persevere.
How can I be so sure? Point 2 – the basis of my confidence in you. Look at verse 10, “For God” – stop right there. My confidence in me, and in you, is not so much in you, but in God who is faithful. Salvation is of all of Him anyway, and He who began the good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ.
For God is not unjust – what a statement. Of course He’s not unjust. He’s not unjust to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints. There are two sources of the author’s confidence for his readers – and two sources of confidence I have in you.
First, I already said it, is God. He is a just God and will keep those He has saved. He will, by His Spirit, cause those who know Him to persevere.
Second, my confidence in you is in your faithful work – proving the reality of your love. Now, don’t miss it. He doesn’t say, proving the reality of your love for others – but proving the reality of your love for His name. The name of a person represented all that he was. To say that God will remember your work and your love for His name is saying He will remember your love for Him. That’s what motivates you to serve.
You see, ultimately the Christian faith is about God, for God, and to God. It is because of our love for Him thatwe work. Our desire is to bring glory to His name. Are you struggling in your Christian faith? Then grow in your love for Him. Love God – it’s the first and greatest commandment, from which all the others flow. Love God, and you will remain firm. And by so doing, we prove through our work because of our love for Him that we know Him – and He knows us.
But don’t miss the last part of the verse. How did they demonstrate their love for God? By ministering and continuing to minister to the saints. We prove our love for God by loving and serving each other. How had they done that? In the early days of their faith, before they started struggling as they were now, we read these words in10:32-34, 32But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings,33partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. [so you not only experienced suffering yourself, but you also shared with those who also suffered. How?]
34For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. [One they cannot touch.]
We’ll talk about that passage when we get to it, but clearly, they was a time when they served their brothers and sisters. When they suffered with them. This is how we evidence our love for God. I mean, it’s one thing to show up at church on Sundays, sing some worship songs that talk about how much we love Jesus – it’s an altogether different thing to prove our love by caring for one another. You cannot say you love God, and not love His people.
Remember that young former marine who was my seatmate on the way to Amsterdam? He was doing it his way. Oh, he said he knew the gospel, he just didn’t have time for or interest in the church. You can’t do that. We prove our genuine faith by our loving actions toward one another.
Which brings us to our last point. Given his confidence in his readers – and us – and given that God will faithfully and justly remember the proof of our salvation, he encourages us to continue. And we desire – this was his purpose in writing this pastoral letter – we desire that each one of you – without exception, all of you – show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end.
This is such an encouraging verse. His reason for writing was a strong desire that every reader, to include us, show the same diligence – that is, the diligence they and we showed at the first – and thereby experience the full assurance of our hope until the end. Our perseverance in the faith gives us assurance that we are indeed in the faith.
Listen carefully. The Christian faith is not a sprint – it’s a marathon. Many come to faith in Christ and are at the first, as they say, on fire. For awhile. But then the challenges or routine of the Christian faith set in – and if we’re not careful, we can become cold, indifferent, aloof. It requires diligence – faithful work as we showed at the first – to continue.
Here’s the truth, some of you have been cold for a long time. Oh, you haven’t walked away – you’re still here. But your love for God evidenced in your love for the saints – for each other – has become hardened, lifeless, cold. Is it time to wake up? When is it time to reengage? When is it time to recommit, to pursue spiritual vitality? I would suggest the time is now. Hasn’t it been long enough? Aren’t you weary of going through the motions? Punching a time clock on Sundays? This is the purpose of the letter – to encourage us with confidence that we know Christ. That it’s time. The Christian life is a marathon. Let’s run it together.
Further – do you know what will make us attractive, as a church, to the community around us? It will be our sacrificial love and service to one another. I want this community to look at Alliance and say, my, how they love each other. Which, by the way, simply demonstrates our love for God. And that will make us attractive. They’ll want to be a part.
Finally, look at verse 12 – the bookend to the warning. I want you to be diligent, so that you will not be sluggish – lazy – lethargic. But instead, imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Pastorally, he says, don’t be lazy, sluggish. Instead, imitate, follow those around you who are models of faith. Yes, we fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of the faith. But as he will say in chapter 11, the hall of faith, he suggests we can find encouragement by looking at those around us who have run or are running well. And through faith, they patiently wait.
Don’t miss that. It is not their patience that merits the fulfillment of the promise. Oh no, it’s their faith. But their faith produces patient endurance – perseverance to the end, proving the reality of faith, by which they receive the promises. What promises? Those throughout this book – a city whose architect and builder is God. Most of all, an eternal salvation – eternal life in the presence of God. Are you struggling? Asleep? Sluggish? Wake up and look around – there are those worth imitating.
We must endure. We must persevere. And we have what it takes through faith by the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God, and the gift of life together.
Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.