This evening’s study in Hebrews is our 26th and last in this great sermon on the necessity of a persevering faith in Christ.
v.17 When you think about the argument of the letter and work back to the spiritual situation that is addressed in it, knowing what we know about human nature, it is not hard to believe that the spiritual drift of these Jewish Christians back toward the Judaism whence they came, had caused estrangement from many others in the Christian community and tension with the leadership. The author of this sermon seems to take it for granted that the present leadership of the church would, if able to exercise their leadership, steer these folk in the right direction. That is not, alas, always the case; but it seems to have been here.
We have discovered here over the years that it is very easy for Christians to pledge obedience to their elders but harder to offer it when the elders require an obedience that is not to their liking. Then we hear of other things, such as the liberty of conscience and the biblical requirement of elders not lording it over the people, etc. But obedience that is offered only when one is happy to comply is not obedience to elders but obedience to oneself, not the same thing. Surely, it puts elders on their mettle to be sure that they are, in fact, representing the will of God to their people, but the people should expect that from time to time it will happen, it must happen, that elders will require obedience that people do not wish to give. Loyalties are always being tested in God’s world.
Of course, this is a text for elders as well as for the people. It reminds them that they must do their work, in Milton’s phrase, “as in my great taskmaster’s eye.” There is a greater sin offering required of the priest in Lev. 4:3 than of the layman. The layman is required to bring a female goat (v. 27), the priest a young bull. The spiritual welfare of the people of God is best served when elders and ministers fulfill their stewardship in the fear of the Lord and the people submit to them as unto the Lord.
v.18 We are unused to people speaking of having a clear conscience. It sounds proud to us. But the Bible shows us God’s people speaking this way many, many times. It is not, of course, a claim to sinlessness. It is rather an appeal to the integrity of one’s fundamental commitments and desires as a Christian and to the fact that one has lived his life – even as a sinner in many ways – in keeping with those commitments and desires. “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have lived a blameless life,” is a statement made by a man whose very great sins are known to us. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,” is a statement made by a man who had said a few years before that through his life as a Christian he was a bondslave of sin. In other words, real sin and failure in our lives does not mean that we do not live real and authentic Christian lives or that we do not accomplish real things for Christ and his kingdom.
Our preacher here also, like Paul, recognizes that he needs God’s grace and help fully as much as his hearers do.
v.19 No doubt he hopes to assess their situation in person and be sure that they are back on track in faithful Christian living.
v.21 The final benediction is a beautiful summing up, reminding the readers as it does that Jesus Christ and his saving work – the blood shed, the resurrection – is the basis, the foundation of God’s work in saving sinners and bringing them to a holy life. First century Judaism thought God interested in saving sinners and in their living a holy life, they did not think that Jesus Christ was crucial to the fulfillment of those interests. That is what separates Christianity from all other faiths and philosophies: the conviction that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.
You may have seen a letter to “Dear Abby” in the paper ten days or so ago now in which a Hindu woman was complaining about Christians she knew always trying to convert her. She obviously did not care whether Christians became Hindus, but she was offended at the thought that Christians thought Hindus needed to become Christians. Well so much the worse for Hinduism if its followers have so little regard for it that they care not if others embrace their view of life or so little regard for others that they care not if they embrace the true faith. But Christians make no bones about the logic of their position. If Jesus Christ be God and died for men, then every man on the face of the earth needs to believe in Christ and no one and nothing else.
v.22 “word of exhortation” that is, a sermon.
v.24 These little historical notes confirm the historical nature of the witness of the New Testament: real people, real times and places. But at this distance, they do little more than tantalize. We know nothing from the rest of the NT about Timothy’s imprisonment. “Those from Italy” could suggest that the author is writing in Italy or that he is writing to Italy from some other place and naturally includes the greetings of expatriate Italian believers who are with him.
v.25 The simple salutation expresses both the author’s desire for and his confident expectation of his readers’ restoration to their once sturdy faith in Jesus Christ.
Now it happens that we come to the end of Hebrews at the same time we come to the end of the year of our Lord 2002. We are all thinking, if we have Christian blood in our veins, we are all thinking about this coming year and about how we wish to live for the Lord in and through it, in ways more faithful, more devout, more holy, more fruitful than have marked our lives this past year. Every Christian wants to change, to grow, to become more and more what he or she knows a Christian ought to be. So we want to know, as the new year beckons, what particular aspirations, goals, and commitments we ought to make.
It is a wonderful demonstration of the perfection of the Bible and of its unity, its wholeness, its perfect connectedness – every part leading inexorably to every other part – that we can find our marching orders for life in a few simple verses that conclude a great letter such as Hebrews.
So let me outline a course of action for you in the coming year from these obiter dicta, these relatively incidental remarks of the preacher of Hebrews as he winds up his letter.
- First, make it a matter of specific commitment before the Lord that you will obey the Word of God in the coming year.
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. Now, to be sure, most of you will not encounter the authority of the ruling elders of this congregation in any direct way in the coming year. Few of you will have elders come to you to tell you to stop doing something that you are doing or that you must begin to do something that you are not doing. Some of you will be addressed in that direct, personal way, no doubt, and I hope you will obey as the Lord says here you should and as he reminds you that you must if you care for your spiritual health. But you will all be addressed by your leaders, speaking the Word of God to you from this pulpit, 52 Sundays in a row this coming year, every Lord’s Day morning and every evening. That is in the author’s mind as well, as we gather from v. 22, where he explicitly asks them to bear with – which is to say, to heed – the sermon or the exhortation he has sent them by letter.
Now, I daresay that a number of you are conscious every Sunday, as you come to church, that you will hear the Lord’s Word and be obliged to obey it. And you leave the Lord’s house, having heard his Word, determined to make something of that Word in your life in the coming week. But even you are not always so clear-headed about having heard the Word of God and being now obliged to shape your life – your thoughts, words, and deeds – according to the Word you heard. But others of you, if you will be honest with yourselves, are usually not nearly so intentional when you hear the Word of God. You are not thinking to yourselves that this is what God wants me to know, to believe, and to do. This word that I am hearing must be, in a real practical way, a transcript of my living in coming days. This is what I must take to heart and practice in my life.
Someone has defined preaching as “The event of God bringing to an audience a Bible-based, Christ-related, life-impacting message of instruction and direction from himself through the words of a spokes[man].” [J.I. Packer in McGrath, 256] The Word of God is giant-sized and it ought to produce week by week giant-sized thoughts and giant-sized aspirations, and giant-sized changes in us who are hearing that Word and taking it to heart.
Listen to this from a sermon of Robert Murray McCheyne’s.
“I believe [God] could sanctify us without the Word, as he created angels and Adam holy, and as he sanctifies infants whose ear was never opened; but I believe in grown men he never will, but through the Word. When Jesus makes holy, it is by writing the Word in the heart: ‘Sanctify them through thy truth.’ When a mother nurses her child, she not only bears it in her arms, but holds it to her breast, and feeds it with the milk of her own breast; so does the Lord. He not only holds the soul, but feeds it with the milk of the Word. The words of the Bible are just the breathings of God’s heart. He fills the heart with these, to make us like God.”
Well, so it is when the believer comes to the Word of God with the serious intention to believe and to obey the Word that he hears.
What is key, said Richard Baxter, is that the congregation have a sense that in hearing the Word of God they are dealing directly with the Holy Spirit and concerning matters of the utmost personal and practical importance to them. It is not enough to complain that the sermon was not very good. We must be as ready to complain that our hearing of the sermon was not very good.
“Come not to hear with a careless heart, as if you were to hear a matter that little concerned you, but with a sense of the unspeakable weight, necessity, and consequence of the holy word which you are to hear; and when you understand how much you are concerned in it, it will greatly help your understanding of every particular truth.
Make it your work with diligence to apply the word as you are hearing it…. You have work to do as well as the preacher, and should all the time be as busy as he…you must open your mouths, and digest it, for another cannot digest it for you….” [Cited in Packer, Quest for Godliness, 254]
And if that does not yet sufficiently encourage you to commit yourself to hearing the Word of God from this pulpit in a highly intentional and focused way in the coming year, then, remember what George Herbert, the great English poet said about sermons. “…sermons are dangerous things…none goes out of church as he came in, but either better or worse.” [Country Parson, 62-63] Or, still more solemnly, this from Matthew Henry’s father, Philip. He would recommend to people taking notes on the sermons they heard as a help to concentration and memory, but he would also remind them that with the hearing of the Word came obligation. Of those notes he said, “the day is coming, when you will either thank God for them, or heartily wish you had never written them.” [Matthew Henry, Collected Works, ii, 609] And, if you need still more solemnizing than that, try this from Alexander Whyte:
“The truth is, my brethren, you might have Paul in this pulpit in the morning and Apollos in the evening, but if you did not pray all the way up to your pew and all the way down, the chiefest of the apostles, nay, the very Master of the Apostles himself, would be but a savour of death to you and your household: as he actually was to many…churchgoers in Jerusalem.” [James Fraser of Brea, 53]
Thomas Shepard once said of himself that far too much of the time his mind was a bucket without a bottom. [Whyte, Thomas Shepard, 196-197] As often as you drop a bucket without a bottom down into a well or place the hose inside it, so often will you pick up the bucket and carry no water at all away in it. Well, you make it your pledge to the Lord that you will not bring your heart and soul into church this coming year as a bucket without a bottom. You will come to hear, to believe, and to obey and that you will see your life changed by the Word of God as you hear it and obey it Sunday after Sunday. Do that, you do all.
That is the first thing, then. Make the new year a year of submitting yourself, willingly, intentionally, enthusiastically, to the authority of the Word of God as it comes to you from your leaders. Do it on purpose to obey this command you have received and with the expectation that God will bless you for it because it is his Word you are taking to heart.
- Second, make this next year a year of prayer, especially prayer for others.
The author of Hebrews, whoever he was, asks these believers to pray for him. In that he is setting them an example. And though the benediction of vv. 20-21 is not precisely a prayer, it breathes a spirit of prayer that we do not doubt was found to a high degree in the man who wrote this letter. He prayed for those to whom he sent his sermon and asked them to pray for him.
And if we make such prayer our commitment in the coming year we will be blessed in two very important ways, two ways in which we very much need the blessing of God and two blessings that carry many other blessings with them.
First, we will live other-centered lives. If you pray often and sincerely for others, it cannot help but make you live not so much for yourself and your pleasure as our sin always inclines us to live. By making a point of praying for others we stand against the self-centeredness that otherwise so weakens, if not cripples, our Christian lives. The Lord has summoned us to love others as he loved others and to live our life to bless others as he did. When we love others, when we make it a point to spend ourselves for others, we do his will and feel his pleasure. And nothing is more likely to lead us to live for others than to take that first important step of praying for others. Nothing makes you readier to act for others than already to have prayed for them.
Some of you, as the new year approaches, are thinking primarily of some of your sins that you wish to put to death in the coming year. But true obedience, true godliness is never accomplished piecemeal. If you wish to gain mastery over your sins, you must practice a universal obedience. You cannot get holy in one spot in your life while leaving the rest to your flesh and the devil. Holiness comes out of the heart and goes everywhere in your life at once. If you have sins of the flesh that need battering and breaking, by all means stand against them, but first put on that basic and fundamental obedience to which you are called as a Christian. Live for others. Pray for others. Follow Christ in an other-centered life and you will find that you have, quite without knowing it, laid the ax to the root of many of your sins. The best way to rid your life of evil is to crowd it out with good. Then there is little room for it to return.
Second, if we commit ourselves to prayer for others, we will also strengthen the principle of dependence upon the Lord that lies at the foundation of every good thing in our lives. Without the Lord we can do nothing. With him we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. If we have been Christians any length of time we know that. But it is so contrary to our pride and our self-centeredness that nothing is so easily forgotten by us. We are always, every day, and day after day, truth be told, found trying to live the Christian life in our own strength. No wonder we do so poorly so much of the time. Putting more time and effort in any sort of prayer turns our hearts to God and keeps fresh in our conviction that we depend upon him for everything. No one will ever fail to live a holy life who keeps always looking to the Lord for grace and help. No one. So you promise that “looking” to the Lord as the new year begins.
- Third, and finally, make this new year not only a year of obedience to the Word of God, not only a year of prayer for others, but a year of keeping a clear conscience.
Notice how our preacher speaks of his clear conscience. That is something wonderful to be able to say, especially when one is a sinner, as this man certainly was. That which he knew he should do and wanted to do, he did not do. That which he knew he should not do and did not want to do, not really, not ultimately, he did. And least far too much of the time. But, there was still a clear conscience.
He was living the life a real Christian lives in this world: serious, devout, obedient. And when he stumbled as he often did, he confessed and repented of his sins and received the forgiveness of them and went on, inspired to do better. But here he says his conscience was clear.
He knew that in a number of respects, touching his behavior toward this congregation and these people, he had done what he should have done, he had acted lovingly and responsibly – not perfectly, but really. And his conscience was clear.
Well, there is a way to think about your life through the next year. Live so as to keep your conscience clear. You can. Many in Scripture days did so and many have since. When you are thinking about what to do, when you are being tempted to do something else than what you know is pleasing to God, when you are inclined to satisfy yourself with much less than Christ deserves and desires of you, then put it to yourself: shall I muddy my conscience or keep it clear.
It is a wonderful thing to live with a clear conscience! It is a heavy thing always to live with an increasing weight of regret because over and over again you did and now must recollect doing what was wrong instead of what was right.
Christians never regret doing the right thing, however difficult it was to do. But they always regret doing the wrong thing sooner or later!
Say to the Lord that in this coming year you will let your conscience, as it is informed by the Word of God, and as it is kept sharp and sensitive by prayer, especially for others, you will let your conscience be your guide and you will live so as to keep your conscience clear. Your conscience, so far as it is rightly informed by the Word of God and not seared by sin, is God’s witness, his own voice in your soul. The Puritans called it God’s spy in our hearts, or God’s sergeant or deputy. The more you listen to your conscience, which is a way of listening to God himself, the more doing what is right becomes the pattern and habit of your life. And the more you do what is right, the more you are happy and the more you make others happy also. Plan to pay careful attention to your conscience and obey it at every turn. If you do you will finish 2003 very satisfied for having lived such a year! Won’t it be a great thing to say next December, as the year comes to an end, “My conscience is clear.”