|A Final 'Word of Exhortation' (Hebrews 13:1-25)
A Final “Word of Exhortation”
Minister’s Summary: A series of practical guidelines is given here for those who intend to take this teacher’s message seriously. Faith is not separate from the real world of everyday experience.
There is some debate about the relationship between Hebrews 12 and Hebrews 13. Some think it is an epistolary addendum to the sermon, but others think it is the conclusion to the sermon. Whatever its literary function, the theological point is relatively simple to discern.
Hebrews 10:19-12:29 has emphasized perseverance. As a motive and ground for that perseverance, the preacher called his hearers to experience the present with a view toward the future. Indeed, the present experience of faith is the experience of the future. Nevertheless, the future has not yet arrived. We are pilgrims on a journey of faith. Even though we even now enter the throne room of God and experience the kingdom of God through faith, we have not yet fully reached the goal of the journey or enjoyed the “better possession” that yet awaits us.
Hebrews 13 is probably best construed as “instructions to pilgrims on the journey.” The particular instructions are occasioned by the situation in which these specific pilgrims find themselves. If the occasion of the letter described in lesson one is correct, then these are instructions for pilgrims in the hostile environment of the city of Rome as they are about to experience severe persecution. His instructions for these pilgrims are connected to their particular situation.
What do you tell a group of people about life and community when their life is under hostile inspection and their community will soon encounter a brutal persecution? What do pilgrims in that situation need to hear? How can the preacher encourage them and call them to faithful perseverance?
I have divided Hebrews 13 into three sections. The first section is advice for practical living (Hebrews 13:1-6). The second section encourages the communal life of the church (Hebrews 13:7-17). The third section is a collection of exhortations, prayers and requests. This final section makes the whole document look like a letter though it had proceeded as a sermon.
1. Instructions for Pilgrim Living (Hebrews 13:1-6).
More than likely, Hebrews 13:1 is a heading for this section. “Keep on loving each other as brothers” (as family). The term here is philadelphia, brotherly or familial love. The word points toward a family bonding more than simply a congenial attitude toward each other. That bonding is the root idea for the specific instructions that follow.
The ground or basis for the practical instructions is found in Hebrews 13:5b-6. Ethical living—living out our pilgrim faith—is grounded in God’s presence. We are assured that he will never leave or forsake us (13:5b, quoting Deuteronomy 31:6 which is part of Moses’ exhortation to Israel as they enter the land of promise), and we are assured that God will help us on our journey (13:6, quoting Psalm 118:6-7 which is something the Psalmist realized after he had been through a distressing time where he even despaired of his life in Psalm 118:10-18). Pilgrims need confidence and our confidence is rooted in God’s presence and help.
The preacher offers four specific practical instructions for living as pilgrims in the hostile environment in which they find themselves. First, they should show hospitality (13:2), that is, they should “love strangers” (philoxenia from two Greek words meaning “love” [philo] and “strangers” [xeno]). Part of the motive is that sometimes God sends angels among his people to experience that hospitality, as Abraham (Genesis 18), Gideon (Judges 6) and Manoah (Judges 13) did. Does God sometimes test our love of strangers? Or, are these occasions simply moments of revelation and encounter that the preacher uses to link his exhortation with redemptive history? In either case, whether angel or human, God’s people are called to “love strangers.” Given the context of persecution and traveling Christians in the first century (there were few “inns” on the roads and usually people depended on strangers for lodging), there would have been ample opportunity to show this virtue.
Second, “remembering” prisoners means, of course, to take of them. And the principle that the preacher applies is that they should treat them as if they were the prisoners. In other words, “lover your neighbor as yourself.” Prison was a reality for these believers and many would endure it for their faith.
Third, sexual morality was important in the context of living in the ancient pagan world. It was a constant problem and temptation as they lived in a culture that was overtly sexual through art, statutes, temples, etc. Loving the family (brothers) means faithfulness to family, particularly one’s spouse.
Fourth, wealth and greed were a problem in the ancient world as well. The faithful will probably lose some of that wealth through persecution as they had earlier (Hebrews 10:32-34). Will they love “money” or will the love the brothers (family of God)? Will they remember the reward at the end of the journey (the “better possession” in Hebrews 10:34) through faithfulness or will they hang on to their present wealth through faithlessness?
The beginning sentence of this section calls for family bonding (13:1; brotherly love), and then the preacher articulates four practical applications of that call (13:2-5a). But the call is meaningless and the prospect of endurance is hopeless without the presence and help of God (13:5b-6).
2. Instructions for Communal Living (Hebrews 13:7-17).
This section begins and ends by talking about “leaders” (13:7, 17; also in 13:24). Jesus is the great shepherd (13:20) who will lead us, but he also leads us through “leaders” within the community of faith. They should “remember” their past leaders (13:7) and “obey” their present leaders (13:17). The former are witnesses to the endurance of faith and models for the present community. They function as a stabilizing influence in the community, just as Jesus himself is a stabilizing influence since he is always the same (Hebrews 13:8). The latter are present for the good of the community and accountable for the community. No doubt the hostile environment and loss of faith that some exhibited in the community created some tension between the leaders and the community. The preacher reminds them (and perhaps includes himself among the leaders; cf. Hebrews 13:18) that leaders are present for the advantage of the community. For a discussion of these leaders in more detail, see my leadership material on Hebrews 13.
Hebrews 13:9-16 is sandwiched between the two appeals to leaders. This material probably reflects some problem within the community itself, though it may be a general appeal that is based on the argument in the sermon.
The text may indicate that there was some problem surrounding “foods” or ceremonial meals. Some think that part of the community or perhaps even outsiders have attached too much significance to Jewish meals. We know that Jews even outside the Palestine attached sacrificial/theological significance to their meals. More than likely, the preacher is simply reminding his hearers that old covenant meals—with their links to old covenant sacrifices—have been surpassed by the “altar” of the Christian faith, that is, the altar is the cross of Jesus or his sacrificial work. “We have an altar” is a confessional statement much like “we have a great high priest” (4:14). Those who participate in tabernacle meals based on tabernacle sacrifices do not benefit from the altar of Jesus. They are at the wrong altar; we now have a better high priest with better sacrifices.
Hebrews 13:11-14 is encourages pilgrims to continue their journey to the “city that is to come” (13:14; cf. 11:10,14,16), even though it means bearing disgrace, humiliation and persecution. Jesus bore the same disgrace through his altar as he was sacrificed. He bore the shame of the cross (cf. 12:2) and so now Christian pilgrims who follow Jesus must bear the disgrace their faith brings in a hostile environment.
But because Jesus has made us holy through his blood, we are priests who offer sacrifices. The sacrifices we offer to God through Jesus include the confession of our lips and the sharing of our lives (“share” is the Greek word koinonia which often described financial and material sharing among believers; cf. Romans 15:26-27; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:13; Acts 2:42-45) through benevolence toward others (“to do good” is a Jewish expression for benevolence; cf. Galatians 6:10; James 4:17; Acts 10:38). Here is a succinct description of worship or our priestly service. This is the Christian liturgy—to confess/praise the name of God with our lips and to share our lives with others. Worship is more than Sunday morning; it is a sacrifice of our life just as Jesus sacrificed his life for us. We worship God through Jesus with our whole being—lips and ministry. The coming persecution, of course, would test whether these believers will “confess” and “share” in the midst of that hostility. Will they endure and continue their priestly ministry before God?
3. Closing Prayers and Requests (Hebrews 13:18-25).
This final section connects the community that received this “letter” with the larger Christian community throughout the Mediterranean basin. It requests prayers for the author and his companions (“us” in 13:18), gives them news about Timothy who is a mutual acquaintance (13:23), and exchanges greetings between friends (13:24). The latter two appear rather incidental (a piece of information about Timothy and the hope that he too would visit the community) and expected (greetings). But the appeal for prayers is more intriguing.
There is some discussion about who are the “us” and “we” of 13:18 because the preacher returns to the first person (“I”) in 13:19. Some believe that it is a further comment about the “leaders” in 13:17, while others think it refers to the preacher’s companions wherever he is. It depends on how close a connection one places between 13:17 and 13:18, that is, is the preacher continuing his topic of leaders or moving to another topic? I tend to think the latter, but the apparent “apologetic” or defensive comment in 13:18 (“we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way”) may indeed that there were some problematic rumors surrounding the preacher (including the leaders if we take the “we” in that fashion). Whatever the situation, the preacher wants them to keep praying for him and specifically to pray that he might return to their community soon.
The preacher characterizes his document as a “word of exhortation” which was common language for a sermon in the first century (Acts 13:15; but also 1 Timothy 4:13 where Timothy is to devote himself to reading Scripture, teaching and “exhortation”). But exhortation is an extremely appropriate word as his letter has contained many exhortations (Hebrews 4:1,14; 6:1; 10:22-24; 12:1 are just a few).
The nature of the exhortation and the whole theology of the sermon is summarized wonderfully in the doxology of Hebrews 13:20-21. It is a “wish-prayer” or blessing. The wish is that God would “equip” (furnish, complete) his hearers with “everything good for doing” God’s “will.” This is the fundamental request. It acknowledges a dependence upon God as the equipper, supplier or power for holiness, maturation and growth. We “do” God’s will through the equipping ministry of God’s grace in our lives. It is God’s work in our lives that generates what is pleasing to him (e.g., “pleasing sacrifices” in Hebrews 13:15-16). This is the grace-centered focus of sanctification. Our holiness depends upon God’s work in us.
The wish is surrounded by theological allusions to the exhortation in Hebrews. The God of peace made peace through the blood of Jesus by an eternal covenant that is grounded in the eternal life of the Son. The reference to the resurrection connects us with the eternal life of our high priest who is exalted at the right hand of God. Even though he shed blood, yet he is no longer dead. God “led out” (literal meaning) Jesus from the dead, so he could lead us as Shepherd. God “leads out”—this is the language of Exodus, of redemption. God through Jesus leads his people to the promised land (cf. the allusion to Isaiah 63:11-14). Jesus is a “great” shepherd just as he is a “great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14; cf. 10:21).
This is the most practical section in the whole of the letter, but the theological context of the sermon is not far from the preacher’s mind. Theologically, Jesus is still at the heart of what the preacher does in Hebrews 13.
Jesus is the eternal constant (Hebrews 13:8). Jesus bore disgrace for his people (Hebrews 13:11-14). Through Jesus we approach God as holy priests (Hebrews 13:15-16). Jesus is our great shepherd who redeemed us through his blood (Hebrews 13:22-23). We worship the Father through Jesus and God equips us and works in us through Jesus. God in Jesus will never leave/forsake us and he is always present to help. Jesus will always be there for us at the right hand of God because he has been led out of (redeemed from) death.
In the context of this strong theological content, the preacher offers some practical applications for pilgrim journey: love strangers, love each other through ministry to each other in prison, love your family, don’t love money and remember your leaders, both past and present. It is important to relate all of these practical admonitions to both the circumstance of the sermon (persecution and external hostility) and the theological ground of the sermon’s argument. This practical theology in the context of external pressure and theological grounding will give stability to the community of faith as it pilgrims through the wilderness of suffering. It draws the community together; the family bonds through the suffering in the light of what God has done in Jesus.
The preacher also wants to build on the bond he already has with them. He wants to return to them and bring Timothy along with him. He requests their prayers and exchanges greetings from friends. He subtly conveys to his hearers that they are part of a larger community—the community that surrounds the throne of God in worship as part of an eschatological assembly (Hebrews 12:22-24). They are not alone—they have a community beyond the borders of their own house churches that is spread across the Mediterranean basin.
Most of all, however, they are not alone because through Jesus—the great Shepherd—they approach God himself in his throne room. And Jesus is there, ever alive and ever the same. After modeling faith through suffering, he eternally sits at the right hand of God interceding for them and helping them through their difficult pilgrimage. That same theological truth is for us as well. It is our confidence too!
The text outlines its own approach, it appears to me. We move from practical living strategies (Hebrews 13:1-6) to communal life (Hebrews 13:7-17) and conclude the letter on a personal note between the author and his readers (Hebrews 13:19-25).
In teaching Hebrews 13:1-6, I would concentrate on the correlation between 13:1-5a and 13:5b-6. The latter grounds the former. We can pursue the former because of the latter. That is, we pursue love (ethical living) because God is ever present and our helper. Draw out the meaning and significance of each of the ethical injunctions. Why does he say this to them, and how is it significant for us? What would the author say to us in our circumstances? Would it be couched differently because of our different situation? How does this same ethic apply to us?
Hebrews 13:7-17 is too much material for any detailed discussion, especially if you spend much time on the first six verses. You might want to concentrate on the nature and function of leadership (Hebrews 13:7, 17), or you might want to concentrate on the call for pilgrim sacrifice (bearing the disgrace) as a life of worship (praise through lips and life) in Hebrews 13:11-16. It would be difficult to do both, though we should not totally ignore either. You might assess the needs of your class as to which emphasis is needed.
With so much material you might not have time for any real discussion of Hebrews 13:19ff. However, I would call attention to the significance of prayer—both in the request for prayer and in the “wish-prayer” that is offered. Indeed, the “wish-prayer” is a fitting summary of the point of Hebrews. You might reflect on that text as an ending-point to the whole Hebrews series. It is a prayer you might pray together—ask the class to read it in unison as a prayer for each other and for our community of faith.
Grace to all of you!
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